The use of nootropics, also called “smart drugs” or “brain boosters”, is surging in popularity. They have become popular in Silicon Valley, on Ivy League campuses, and have even been the inspiration for a big-budget Hollywood movie. But what exactly is a nootropic? Do they work? Are nootropics safe? Let’s dig into the latest science to find out.
It seems as if the desire to enhance our mental faculties and push the human limits is programmed in our DNA. People have used supplements to improve their mental abilities since the beginning of recorded history. The ancient systems of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda both include brain-boosting herbs among their practices.
In Western medicine, the use of psychoactive compounds—compounds that affect the brain—was previously reserved for the treatment of specific conditions like ADHD and depression. More recently, completely healthy individuals are finding themselves including brain enhancers in their supplement regimens.
Nootropics refer to a class of chemicals that improve the function of the brain. These can be naturally occurring compounds or man-made chemicals. If a compound can improve memory, focus, arousal, alertness, mood, creativity, or information processing speed, it qualifies as a nootropic. Furthermore, nootropics must be non-toxic and the term only applies to compounds that can be ingested. Activities like exercise, while certainly beneficial to your health and mental clarity, are not nootropics.
There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that carry messages between these neurons. Nootropics increase the brain’s performance by stimulating specific neural pathways, and improving the interactions of corresponding neurotransmitters. When the brain’s signalling along specific pathways is improved, this can provide benefits ranging from improved memory to relaxation.
For example, studies show that the neurotransmitter serotonin regulates mood, along with many other functions. Disruptions in serotonin production or signalling can negatively impact mood, and may contribute to depression. Scientists are researching treatments that alleviate symptoms by correcting the underlying imbalance in neurotransmitter activity. This type of research has revealed much of the knowledge we have about the benefits of nootropics.
But, it’s important to remember that everyone’s brain chemistry is unique. What works for one person may not work for another. Let’s take a look at some of the science behind the different nootropics that are gaining popularity.
If you’re new to nootropics, you might prefer to start with plant-based compounds. Here are three that have made waves in the wellness world in recent years. These compounds have a long history of safe and reliable cognitive enhancement in addition to the support of modern science.
Bacopa monnieri is a perennial herb with proven brain-boosting benefits. It’s been a part of Ayurvedic medicine for centuries and is known for its ability to enhance learning, boost memory, sharpen focus, lower stress, and improve mood.
Modern research has centered on Bacopa’s remarkable ability to relieve stress, support multitasking, and improve memory. Bacopa works by stimulating the production of dopamine and serotonin. In a 2011 study using animals as subjects, Bacopa was actually shown to increase the length of the brain's nerves, which may result in speeding up communication between nerves.
Like Bacopa, Ashwagandha is an herb with a storied history in Ayurveda. The entire plant, from roots to leaves to seeds, has beneficial properties.
The benefits of Ashwagandha are wide-ranging. It can improve stress levels, strength, and endurance. It was also shown to significantly reduce food cravings, possibly by reducing the levels of cortisol, the potent stress hormone. One encouraging study showed a 44% reduction in stress levels after taking Ashwagandha, as opposed to a 5.5% decrease in the control group who were taking placebo.
Rhodiola is a plant native to the arctic regions of Asia and Europe. It has a rich history of medical usage dating all the way back to 77 C.E. Also known as “golden root,” this plant is used for stress relief, energy enhancement, and to improve mood.
The property for which Rhodiola is most studied is it’s ability to help people deal with fatigue. Rhodiola was found to provide profound benefits to people fatigued by performing complex mental tasks. In a study conducted with doctors working night shifts, participants performed more efficiently after supplementing with Rhodiola.
Similarly, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed a significant improvement in mental fatigue for students taking a low-dose regimen of Rhodiola during a stressful exam period.
Coffee and tea are two of the most popular beverages in the world. While not commonly thought of as nootropics, the active compounds in these beverages can pack serious brain-boosting potential.
Caffeine is found in coffee, as well as some teas, soft drinks, and nuts. It’s the most widely used nootropic, with some 80% of US adults consuming caffeine every day, according to the FDA.
Caffeine promotes alertness and wakefulness by stimulating the central nervous system. It produces a stimulating effect by blocking a compound called adenosine from attaching to receptors in the brain.
Adenosine regulates the stimulation of nerve cells, providing feedback that guards against overexcitement. When adenosine cannot reach its receptors due to the presence of caffeine, a feeling of mental energy results.
Extensive studies on caffeine have revealed a multitude of other health benefits. It's been shown to reduce inflammation, boost memory, improve reaction time, and improve logical reasoning.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea leaves. Studies have shown that L-theanine is effective at reducing the psychological and physiological stress responses. It also has the remarkable ability to relax the mind without inducing drowsiness. Some credit this unique effect for green tea’s popularity among yogis and meditation enthusiasts.
In general, it is recommended that you only begin use of one nootropic at a time. This will prevent unwanted side effects, and also allow you to observe how a particular nootropic affects you.
Experienced nootropic users often pair L-theanine with caffeine, due to their synergistic effects. It can smooth out a caffeine buzz without hampering its energy producing effects.
Not all nootropics are plant-based or herbal. Some pharmaceutical compounds are gaining popularity as “smart drugs,” though this was not their original purpose. Some examples of synthetic nootropics include the racetam family of compounds (e.g. aniracetam, piracetam), and modafinil.
While many of these compounds remain unregulated by the FDA, this does mean that they can be legally sold as dietary supplements. Products that are being marketed in this way should be approached with extreme caution, especially when they affect your brain chemistry. The same warning applies to prescription drugs that are not prescribed by a medical professional familiar with your health and health history.
Dr. Jeff Gladd, an integrative physician, cautions: “The market is becoming flooded with new products claiming ‘brain boosting’ abilities. Be very careful what you choose to take, relying on pharmaceutical grade products and companies with a history of high quality and independent testing only.”
Before you begin taking any nootropic, thoroughly research how it interacts with any medications that you take. Consulting with your doctor is also highly recommended.
Take a close look at the research behind the nootropics you are interested in considering. Some are backed by dozens of studies and have a long history of use; others have been studied only more recently. The research available may help guide you towards certain nootropics.
The nootropics discussed in this article are safe at proper dosages. However, that doesn't mean there won’t be side effects if you consume them in excess or even at recommended doses. Even coffee, the world's most popular drink after water, poses risks. The key to staying safe is to stay within the recommended dosage range at all times.
Also, keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to any particular substance. Start slowly, closely monitor how different compounds make you feel, and discontinue any supplement causing unwanted effects. There are plenty of nootropics to consider, and with some persistence you can find something that works for you.
Always keep in mind that nootropics are supplements. They can add to a healthy lifestyle, but won't replace it! No amount of “brain pills” will make you feel good if you eat poorly, fail to sleep adequately, or rarely exercise.