With billions of neurons and pathways, the human brain is an incredibly complex structure.
Science can provide us with an understanding of the brain and how it functions. However, because of its complexity, there is so much that is not yet fully understood.
The cerebral cortex is the structure in the brain that is responsible for consciousness, perception, awareness, attention, thought, and memory.
The human brain appears to be different from other mammals in that it has a larger cerebral cortex. This gives us a more complex cognitive capacity than other mammals.
For centuries, we have sought to enhance these mental abilities and allow us to perform better.
In recent times, substances known as nootropics have become vastly popular for their brain-enhancing abilities.
This article will review nootropics and the effects that they can have on our brain and cognitive abilities.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics refer to dietary supplements that are taken to enhance mental function.
A Romanian psychologist and scientist by the name of Dr. Corneliu Giurgea is seen as the father of nootropics. He is attributed with coining the term “nootropics” back in the 1970s.
The term originates from two Greek words – “nous” and “tropein”. Nous refers to the mind, while tropein means to bend or turn. Therefore, nootropic literally means “to bend the mind”.
In 1964, Dr. Giurgea developed a substance known as piracetam, which he classified as a nootropic. This meant that the substance fit the following criteria:
- Enhanced memory
- Improved behavior under adverse conditions
- Protected the brain through physical and chemical means
- Improved tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms
- Demonstrated low toxicity and side-effect profile
Originally, nootropics only referred to only specific substances that fit this criterion. However, the term has now come to encompass all types of cognitive-boosting substances.
There are two different types of nootropics to be aware of – synthetic and natural. Synthetic nootropics have been manufactured, whereas natural nootropics come from plants and herbs (1).
It appears that both types of nootropics are effective for boosting cognition. However, it is not entirely clear how exactly these substances actually work.
It is theorized that nootropics improve cognition through:
- Increasing the blood flow to the brain
- Improving brain energy
- Optimizing neurotransmitter release
- Enhancing brain waves
- Promoting brain health and regeneration
In addition to enhancing mental function, a number of synthetic nootropic drugs have been developed to treat medical issues.
This includes Alzheimer’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, and schizophrenia, amongst others.
What Do Nootropics Do?
Nootropics have been linked with a number of short-term and long-term benefits. In this section, we will cover all of the proposed benefits associated with these substances.
Short-Term Benefits of Nootropics
- Improved Memory
Nootropics have been used for many decades as a method for enhancing memory. Recall, short-term and long-term memory all appear to improve through the use of nootropics.
- Enhanced Mood
For those who struggle with their mental health, nootropics can be used to boost their mood. It has been suggested that they can counteract symptoms of mental health illnesses.
- Greater Energy
Nootropics are also proposed to boost energy levels. They do so by enhancing blood flow to the brain and optimizing the neurons (neural cells) ability to produce energy.
- Sharper Focus
Focus refers to being capable of concentrating the mind on a specific task while blocking out other stimuli. Nootropics may enhance this state and consequently improve productivity.
- Better Sleep
A number of people use nootropics as a method of facilitating better sleep. There are specific nootropics that may help to calm the mind and onset of deep sleep.
- Reduced Stress
It is clear that stress can detrimentally impact how we perform. Nootropics can be used to effectively reduce stress and strengthen resistance to stress.
Long-Term Benefits of Nootropics
- Anti-Aging Properties
There appear to be a number of benefits associated with brain health. Nootropics may help delay the brain aging process by preventing free radicals from causing cellular damage.
As well as reducing the impact of free radicals, nootropics may also prevent degradation and damage to nerve cells.
- Brain Regeneration
The cells of the body are in a constant state of regeneration and remodeling. Taking nootropics can ensure that this regeneration process is optimized.
Who Should Use Nootropics?
Nootropics can really be used by any individual looking to improve their cognitive abilities.
They are commonly taken by individuals who are looking for a mental edge. Boosting energy levels, and focusing more intently on tasks will allow them to perform better.
As a result, nootropics tend to be popular with students and professionals in high-pressure roles.
Nootropics are often prescribed to treat the symptoms of specific medical conditions (2).
Adderall and Ritalin are two nootropic drugs that are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) effectively.
Ritalin and Provigil can be prescribed to those with narcolepsy. These drugs have been found to prevent drowsiness and effectively manage narcolepsy symptoms.
For those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, studies have found Axura to be an effective treatment.
Finally, nootropics have been used to treat those with psychological conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety.
While nootropics can be beneficial for treating specific medical issues and improving cognition, there are populations that should avoid nootropics:
Do not take nootropics if you are:
- Pregnant, attempting to get pregnant, or nursing
- Under the age of 18
- Undergoing surgery in the near future
- Suffering from a serious medical issue
- Taking other medications (especially if brain-related)
What Are The Most Common Nootropic Ingredients?
As mentioned, the definition of nootropics has changed over the years.
Previously nootropics referred to substances that fit specific criteria. The term is now used to cover a range of substances that support cognitive function to one degree or another.
Substances that are commonly referred to as nootropics include:
- Bacopa monnieri
- Ginkgo biloba
- Panax ginseng
- Rhodiola rosea
Prescription drugs and unregulated substances
Are Nootropics Safe?
If we follow Dr. Giurgea’s definition of nootropics, then yes, nootropics are safe. As to truly be a nootropic, the substance must have very few side effects and low toxicity levels. However, as reflected on, this true definition has been lost to a degree.
Therefore, there may well be certain “nootropics” that do have side-effects or higher toxicities.
Although branded nootropics, drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, go through clinical trials, some nootropics don’t. This is because most nootropics are classified as nutritional supplements rather than pharmaceutical drugs.
Furthermore, there are concerns in regards to megadosing, harsh nootropic mixes, and low-grade manufacturing. A nootropic is only as safe as the manufacturing process.
Therefore, when selecting an off-the-shelf nootropic, ensure that a high-quality product is chosen.
Four Tips For Taking Nootropics
1. Talk to a medical professional
It is recommended to speak to a medical professional before taking any nootropic. It would be wise to bring the nutritional information of the nootropic to the appointment.
2. Follow the instructions
Read the instructions carefully, paying particular attention to the recommended dosage. Overconsumption of certain nootropics can cause severe side effects.
3. Avoid combining products
Unless given the go-ahead from a medical professional, avoid combining multiple nootropics. This may not be safe and has the potential to adversely impact health.
4. Utilize cycling
Cycling simply refers to consistently taking a product for a designated period before ceasing for a short while. After giving the brain a healthy break, it can then be resumed.
Do Nootropics Actually Work?
There are a vast number of products and supplements available that claim to have an array of effects on cognition.
Nootropic supplements are sometimes labeled as “smart drugs” that promise to enhance creativity, focus, and bring clarity of thinking.
Are these claims really true and do these products really work?
Over the years, nootropics have been well researched. Unfortunately, as with much scientific research, the results are unclear.
While certain studies advocate the use of nootropics for improving cognitive functions, others have found no significant impact.
Some studies have found natural nootropics to improve brain function by facilitating blood flow to the brain.
Enhancing circulation will allow vital nutrients to be delivered while also increasing oxygen flow to the brain (3). This may lead to a substantial improvement in brain health and function.
“Smart drugs” are synthetically made nootropics that have become increasingly popular over the past few years.
While certain synthetic nootropics may indeed be useful for achieving this outcome, some products lack concrete evidence.
For example, a recent study investigated a brand of smart drugs that claimed to improve focus, attention, and cognitive function.
However, results showed that the smart drug was ineffectual and did not improve the focus, mood, or performance of marksmen (4).
In addition to this, some smart drugs may come with a range of side effects.
While some nootropics may enhance cognitive abilities, there is simply not enough evidence to decisively confirm this. More research is required.
When should I take nootropics?
The best advice is to check the guidelines for dosage and instructions on when to take it.
If there are no guidelines, it really comes down to our personal preference and schedule. Ideally, we want to consume the nootropic in time to allow us to perform best.
Typically, it takes one or two hours for the nootropic to take full effect. Therefore, we should take a nootropic a minimum of an hour before beginning a cognitive task.
Do nootropics show up on drug tests?
Most drug tests test for PCP, THC, cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates. Therefore, it is unlikely that natural nootropics will show up on drug tests.
With that being said, drug tests are not perfect and occasionally false positives are created.
Drug tests look at metabolites that are commonly present with drug use. Occasionally, these metabolites are found despite the individual not using banned substances.
While nootropics don’t appear to cause false positives, there is always a small chance.
Can nootropics cause anxiety?
Nootropics do not appear to cause anxiety; rather they may help to reduce it.
With that being said, using low-quality supplements, stimulants, and exceeding dosage recommendations can have an adverse impact on anxiety.
For effective results, it is vital that a high-quality product is used and the correct dosage is adhered to.
Is coffee a nootropic?
This really depends on how we define the word nootropic.
Nowadays coffee is often referred to as a nootropic due to the positive impact that caffeine has on cognition.
However, by following Dr. Giurgea’s definition, coffee would not be considered a nootropic. This is because coffee is a stimulant and consuming a high amount causes side-effects.
What is the most effective nootropic?
There are a range of nootropics that can be taken to effectively improve cognitive function.
As highlighted earlier, always select a high-grade nootropic that has been made with quality ingredients.
Some key ingredients to be on the lookout for include bacopa monnieri, ginkgo biloba, L-theanine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and creatine.
Will nootropics keep you awake?
Not necessarily. In fact, there are certain nootropics that are designed to calm the mind and facilitate deep sleep.
With that being said, there are some nootropics that will energize the body and potentially impact sleep.
Avoid ingredients such as caffeine and tyrosine, which have been shown to stimulate the body and mind (5).
The effectiveness of the nootropics will be heavily debated and thoroughly researched for years to come.
It does appear that some specific substances and smart drugs may have a positive impact on cognitive abilities. However, more research is required to confirm these findings.
In addition, it’s important to recognize that there some products may be ineffective or even unsafe. It is crucial to consult a doctor before taking any nootropic.