Cognitive enhancement and the nootropic industry have grown significantly over the last few years. Today, millions of people around the world take cognitive enhancing supplements on a regular basis. Before someone can understand what cognitive enhancement refers to, they have to be familiar with the types of functions and activities that are considered cognitive in nature.
Cognitive function and cognition generally refer to mental abilities such as memory, attention, perception, reasoning, evaluation, comprehension, production of language and decision making. The desire to enhance these important abilities has led to testing and the discovery of compounds (commonly referred to as “nootropics”), both synthetic and natural, that tends to enhance certain functions. The discovery of such substances, necessarily comes with many questions.
What are nootropics? Are nootropic supplements safe? And should I really be taking nootropics? Here, we attempt to answer these questions about cognitive enhancing supplements.
What are nootropics?
“Nootropics” is a broad term for various cognitive enhancing drugs, foods, and supplements. In the past, nootropics have been nicknamed memory enhancers, intelligence enhancers, or smart drugs. Today, “nootropics” is the most widely-used term for drugs which enhance your psychological, mental, or cognitive performance.
The word “nootropics” by the way, can be pronounced like “NO oh trope pics” or like “No trope pics”.
What are the benefits of cognitive enhancing supplements?
The use of supplements to increase cognitive function has been around for thousands of years (see our article on the history of nootropics for more information). More recently, nootropic supplements have been used to treat a diverse range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ADHD, for example.
The term “nootropics” was coined in the middle of the last century by Dr. Corneliu E. Giugea, the person who discovered what is considered to be the first nootropic compound, piracetam, one of the most well researched nootropics. Scientists seeking to increase memory began to study these compounds throughout the second half of the 20th century for their powerful psychological effects. Medical researchers realized that these drugs could change the lives of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s sufferers around the world.
However, in more recent years, nootropics have become popular among those who are not afflicted by psychological conditions. The idea is that instead of healing diseased parts of the brain, the nootropic supplement enhances existing areas; for some the results can be astonishing.
Many who have attended some form of higher education has heard about the benefits of Ritalin, Adderall, and other ADHD medications. These prescription medications are relatively easy to obtain on any college campus. And if you talk to certain individuals, they will tell you that these drugs can allow you to “study for like 8 hours straight and learn a whole semester’s worth of stuff without getting bored or falling asleep”.
From college exams, selling stocks, and even practicing medicine or law, many students and professionals alike use cognitive enhancers to enhance brain activity in a number of different activities. Some people are affected more than others, and some people have been able to completely turn their lives around after taking nootropics.
Should I be worried about nootropic side effects?
Should you be concerned about the side effects of nootropics? Absolutely. But no more so than you would be with any pharmaceuticals. Anytime you put food, drugs, or pharmaceuticals into your body, you should be concerned about side effects. When it comes to nootropics, there are a lot of question marks.
One of the biggest question marks involves the long-term effects of nootropics. Are there any long-term effects? Do nootropics permanently re-wire your brain? Am I at a higher risk of degenerative brain conditions?
You could ask those questions about any modern foods and pharmaceuticals. Replace “nootropics” with “Diet Coke” in the above paragraph and it would be equally as valid. Many nootropics, like piracetam and choline are less toxic than table salt.
The best advice we can give you is to consult with your doctor prior to taking any cognitive enhancing supplements. At the same time, you should avoid any shoddy, cheap knockoff nootropic supplement brands. There are plenty of reliable brands out there.
What are the most popular nootropic supplements?
What if I told you that you already took a nootropic supplement this morning? I would probably be right.
Caffeine is the world’s most popular nootropic supplement. Caffeine, like many other cognitive enhancers, affects key parts of your brain. Thus, unless you drink decaf coffee, you probably already rely on a nootropic supplement to wake up in the morning.
Nicotine is another popular nootropic. Nicotine can have a significant positive effect on everything from fine motor abilities to working memories. That’s right – smoking does have cognitive benefit, but obviously we don’t recommend smoking for cognitive enhancement.
Aside from caffeine and nicotine, there are a wide range of other popular nootropic supplements. We’ve listed a few of the most popular ones below (in no particular order) – along with their some of their benefits.
We talked about caffeine above. It’s the most popular nootropic supplement in the world today. Found in coffee, chocolate, and tea, caffeine is consumed by billions of people every day.
After consuming caffeine every day for years, your body gets accustomed to it. Before long, you can hardly get going without having your caffeine fix.
The benefits of that morning coffee aren’t just in your head: caffeine has profound effects on the human body. Benefits of caffeine include:
- Increased memory absorption and retention
- Liver detoxification
- Hair growth stimulation on balding men and women
- May help reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s or at least delay the onset of the disease
- Increased stamina during exercise
- Lower risk of erectile dysfunction among men and significantly less sperm DNA fragmentation
All of these benefits are from reputable studies performed by major universities like Johns Hopkins and Rutgers. Many modern day nootropic blends contain caffeine for this reason. Next time you wake up feeling cranky in the morning until you get your morning coffee, just think of all the benefits that come with your first cup.
Bacopa Monnieri (Water Hyssop)
An important component of traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine for nearly 2000 years, bacopa monnieri has been used throughout that time as a treatment for asthma and epilepsy, as a anxiety reducer – and to help improve brain function. This herb was supposedly used by Indian scholars to aid in their memorization of long tracts of scripture, and continues to be utilized as a nootropic today.
One of the most commonly-cited benefits of bacopa monnieri is memory enhancement; the bacosides contained in the herb work to promote the health of nerves in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory. It has also been used in Ayurvedic medicine to prevent the cognitive decline normally associated with aging, and modern-day studies have shown that long-term use by elderly patients does improve both their brain function and memory. Research is currently underway to study the effectiveness of bacopa in the treatment of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy, all of which involve brain dysfunction. So far, the results have been encouraging.
Water hyssop is not commonly available in most parts of the world, but bacopa monnieri extract is sold as a natural supplement and growing in popularity. We offer BaCognize brand of bacopa monnieri extract in both powder and capsule format.
Piracetam is a type of racetam. Racetams are among the most powerful over-the-counter nootropics available today. They’re also among the most poorly-understood.
Popular racetams include pramiracetam, oxiracetam, and piracetam. Piracetam has the unique benefit of acting as a “positive allosteric modulator of AMPA receptors”, which improves the functioning of your ACh transmitters and receptors.
What does all that scientific jargon mean? It means racetams improve your memory, cognition, and focus. Your mileage may vary, but piracetam is one of the most popular nootropics available today.
If you plan on taking piracetam, it’s recommended you “stack” it with choline. Choline is simply a water-soluble essential nutrient. The function of choline isn’t totally clear; for more information about choline, see our beginners guide to Choline. However, user of piracetam will tell you that choline helps ward off the headache which often accompanies piracetam. Furthermore, studies suggest that using choline with piracetam increases cognitive enhancing benefits more than using piracetam alone.
The main benefits of choline include increased mental clarity and improved spatial memory. Overall, it simply improves the functioning of your brain in a number of different ways.
Other benefits of piracetam include lucid dreaming. If you want to control yourself in your dreams, then Piracetam may be the thing that helps. Otherwise, it’s a popular study/work drug.
If you do plan on giving piracetam a try, we recommend that you use it with some source of choline (either through a supplement, like the optimal choline complex, or through diet). Take that stack three times per day – or every four hours – to enjoy sharpened mental activity throughout the day; some anecdotal reports suggest avoiding piracetam in the evening as it causes some people to have trouble falling asleep.
“Choline” (Alpha GPC/Citicholine)
Choline is characterized by the National Academy of Sciences as an “essential micronutrient,” meaning that the body needs it to function yet cannot produce adequate amounts of it naturally. It’s critical for liver function, and is a key component of nervous system tissues while the brain is developing.
It is also required for the development of a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine, which directly affects the brain’s ability to learn and remember things. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that with increased consumption of choline, research subjects performed better on tests measuring cognitive performance and memory. Conversely, subjects who ingested less choline showed more signs of brain decline.
Acceptable amounts of choline (the government hasn’t yet set “recommended levels”) can be obtained by eating foods like liver and eggs. However, it can also be taken via natural supplement products, and a large demand for choline supplements has developed in the nootropic market. Users have said they experience sharper focus and improved memory after beginning use of the supplements. Our optimal choline complex is a blend of Citicholine (also known as CDP Choline) and L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine (more commonly known as Alpha GPC), widely considered as the two of the best acetylcholine precursors.
A “smart drug” which is more and more in demand, particularly in the United States, is L-tyrosine. It works to prevent memory problems and enhance brain function. L-tyrosine is an amino acid which the body converts into L-dopa, and L-dopa is then further converted into dopamine and norepinephrine. Both help increase focus and alertness, particularly in stressful situations. That’s why L-tyrosine assists the part of the brain which controls memory, preventing people from forgetting things and letting them function better when they’re under severe stress (especially when caused by physical threats). It is also said to replete cognitive resources that aide in tasks where more cognitive control is needed.
The United States military is extensively studying the efficacy of l-tyrosine for its potential use in combat situations, at high-altitude, in sleep-deprived conditions, in extreme temperatures, and even in space. L-tyrosine is often included in combination with other essential amino acids in many different supplements sold over the counter. It is also used at times to counter the “crash” that occurs after taking Adderall, because Adderall “uses up” the body’s levels of noepinephrine and L-tyrosine can replenish them quickly.
L-Theanine is commonly stacked with caffeine. In fact, many nootropic fans argue that caffeine by itself is too weak to provide any real mental benefit. That’s why they stack L-Theanine and caffeine together.
L-Theanine is a naturally-occurring amino acid which is commonly found in green tea. By itself, it boosts memory, enhances visual information processes, and improves your focus.
There’s a good reason why L-Theanine is stacked with caffeine: the two components work opposite to one another. L-Theanine is the “downer” to caffeine’s “upper” effects, so to speak.
How does that work? Well, caffeine is a powerful stimulant which also has some negative effects on the body. It increases your blood pressure, for example, and can cause anxiety. When you take L-Theanine and caffeine at the same time, L-Theanine counteracts these effects.
These counteracting effects eliminate many of the downsides of both components while concentrating the benefits. Awesome, right?
If you want to maximize the effects of caffeine and L-Theanine, it’s recommended you take a 1:2 ratio of caffeine to L-Theanine at the same time.
Just for some perspective, green tea typically contains 5mg to 8mg of L-Theanine, so you’ll likely need to take an L-theanine supplement as it is very difficult to get the amount needed through diet.
Sold a number of different brand names, and said to be the inspiration for the “brain pills” taken by Bradley Cooper’s character in the movie “Limitless,” Modafinil is most often used as a productivity and energy enhancer. It was originally used in the 1990s as a treatment for narcolepsy (which causes people to sleep uncontrollably at random times during the day), and has since been approved by the FDA for the treatment of sleep issues, including obstructive sleep apnea and shift work sleep disorders in addition to narcolepsy. Armed forces around the world have either experimented or used modafinil as an alternative to the traditional use of amphetamines; the US military reportedly issued the drug to troops during both Gulf Wars and Air Force pilots have taken it to maintain their alertness during long missions, the French Foreign Legion uses modafinil when conducting covert operations, and it’s even used by astronauts on the International Space Station.
Recently, modafinil has been shown to not only help increase brain function during periods of sleep deprivation, but in more ordinary situations as well. There’s evidence that it improves cognitive abilities such as pattern recognition and digit manipulation (both of which involve “working memory”), and studies continue to determine what other benefits the drug may have.
Modafinil apparently works (researchers are still not completely sure of the mechanism) by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain, by preventing it from “leaking” into the nervous system. Other theories include the possibility that modafinil increases levels of histamine in the central nervous system, and of noradrenaline and serotonin in the brain.
Whatever the mechanism, Modafinil is one of the commonly-available nootropics that’s already accepted as a cognitive enhancement method by the medical community and governments alike.
Up above, I told you that Piracetam was one of the most popular “racetam” nootropics.
Like Piracetam, Noopept is one of the most popular “dipeptide” nootropics.
Dipeptides are derived from racetams and have similar effects – including enhanced mental clarity, sharpness, and focus. Noopept in particular has some powerful effects.
What’s the secret power behind Noopept? Well, it’s transported almost directly to your brain, which means more powerful effects and more immediate results.
In fact, some people claim those results are 1000x as powerful as piracetam and similar nootropic compounds. If you’ve ever taken Adderall or Ritalin, then you may find that the focus benefits of Noopept are similar.
In any case, Noopept is an extremely effective way to enhance the health of your brain and improve your focus for any task.
Outside of “recreational” usage, Noopept has also shown lots of promise as an Alzheimer’s treatment or stroke recovery supplement.
Typical Noopept dosages are between 10mg and 40mg.
Phenylpiracetam is simply another type of racetam supplement. It’s one of the newest racetams on the market and it has shown great promise with a number of cognitive enhancing benefits.
The main benefit of phenylpiracetam is the fact that it’s approximately 60 times stronger than piracetam. Users also claim that it provides a greater range of benefits.
While piracetam provides a diverse range of mental benefits, phenylpiracetam provides all of those benefits along with physical benefits.
For example, those who take phenylpiracetam often claim that they not only have sharper cognition, but they also have faster cognition. Additionally, users claim to have faster reflex times and greater stamina.
The only real downside of phenylpiracetam is its price. It tends to be significantly more expensive than the more popular piracetam. Nevertheless, those who are accustomed to weaker nootropics may find the benefits of phenylpiracetam to be worth it.
Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALCAR)
ALCAR is quite similar to the supplement L-carnitine which is regularly taken by athletes to increase their energy, metabolism and flexibility. But the “acetyl” part of Acetyl L-carnatine is what makes ALCAR more effective as a brain-boosting supplement. It combines with other substances in the body (including coenzyme A) to form acetyl-COA, which works to improve cognitive functions. Specifically, it improves both temporal and spatial memory and limits damage to the hippocampus caused by oxidation. There are additional central nervous system effects which apparently benefit the brain as well, but those are still under investigation. The supplement has been used with some success as a treatment for cognitive issues caused by other medical problems as well, including alcoholism and Lyme disease.
Studies have been done with ALCAR on Alzheimer’s disease patients, showing that it was effective in helping to prevent mental decline in early-onset subjects. Anecdotally, those who have used it say they’ve realized an improvement in their attention span and clarity of thought, as well as how fast they can recall facts. ALCAR is also believed to be a neuro-protector and antioxidant, which can contribute to increased brain health.
Many people know about creatine for its bodybuilding benefits. Specifically, creatine increases the energy absorption of your cells and boosts muscle power/mass. However, that’s not all creatine does! Creatine has been linked to a number of cognitive benefits in university studies around the world. It’s been shown to improve memory and focus, for example.
How does creatine work? The specific methodology is still being researched. However, creatine is thought to act as a buffer for the cytosolic and mitochondrial pools of cellular energy – an effect which ultimately improves the homeostatic state of your brain energy, leading to improved mental performance.
Flavanols (found mostly in dark chocolate)
Just like caffeine and nicotine, flavanols are ingested by millions of people every day. Flavanols are essential phytochemicals found heavily in cocoa. Dark chocolate has high levels of cocoa, which makes many chocolate bars an excellent source of flavanols.
Flavanols, unlike many of the nootropic supplements listed here, have been linked to mood improvements. So you can get smarter and feel happier at the same time. Other benefits of flavanols include improved cardiovascular health – something that always positively effects the performance of your brain.
The secret power of flavanols lies in the antioxidant properties, which stimulate perfusion in the brain. Amazingly, studies have also shown that the same antioxidants “light up” other areas of the brain involving learning and memory.
Although the effects are relatively weak compared to other nootropics listed here, flavanols have some surprisingly wide-ranging mental benefits.
Before you polish off sixteen Caramilk bars and start to study, remember that these benefits only apply to dark chocolate. The sugars in milk chocolate and other sugary chocolate-based sweets will often counteract the benefits of the flavanols.
Still, if you’re looking for an easy beginner nootropic to try, then dark chocolate may be the most accessible option on this list.
There are mixed reports about the cognitive benefits of nicotine. Some scientists have called nicotine one of the most powerful cognitive enhancers available today, while others claim its effects are merely average.
There’s no question, however, that the cognitive effects of nicotine are unique. Nicotine primarily affects the neurotransmitter dopamine, which promotes calmness and focus.
If you do try taking nicotine as a nootropic supplement, it’s recommended you use a nicotine patch or nicotine gum. That way, you get the benefits of nicotine without the cancer and lung-harming effects of smoking.
A drug which is widely prescribed in Eastern Europe for the treatment of memory problems due to aging and vascular problems in the brain, vinpocetine is only available in most other countries as a dietary supplement. It has found acceptance in Western markets as, among other things, a vasodilator to help body builders increase the flow of blood to their muscles. Vinpocetine also has been shown to be an anti-inflammatory, leading researchers to investigate it as a possible treatment for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Vinpocetine has been shown to reduce reaction time and increase memory.
Vinpocetine is also used by many as a supplement to enhance their memory because it doesn’t just increase blood flow in the lower body, it also does the same thing in upper regions. That allows for increased metabolism and oxygenation in the brain, allowing it to function more efficiently. Vinpocetine is also said to increase energy available to the brain by producing ATP, a powerful coenzyme which allows for the transfer energy between cells in the body.
Another popular brain boosting supplement which has gained enormous popularity is Huperzine A. This chemical is an alkaloid (like caffeine and cocaine) and it is extracted from a type of moss native to China (but purified in a laboratory). While it doesn’t provide the same type of stimulation as its sister alkaloids, it has been shown to have a positive effect on mental function. In short, Huperzine A stops one particular enzyme from breaking down acetylcholine – which plays an important role in the workings of the brain. Increased amounts of acetylcholine lead to better memory and mental performance, and that has been the result in tests of Huperzine A on Alzheimer’s patients in China. Tests continue on this promising supplement, to determine how great its cognitive enhancement possibilities really are.
DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol) is, as its name would suggest, an alcohol compound. It is naturally produced by the body, and also can be obtained by eating foods with natural fish oils such as salmon, anchovies and sardines. Since DMAE is apparently converted by the body into choline, it has become associated with the same types of cognitive benefits choline provides, including improvements in learning ability and memory.
There have been conflicting reports on the effectiveness of DMAE as a nootropic; some users have reported major improvements in function, while others haven’t experienced a noticeable difference after taking the supplement. Some believe this could be due to the fact that DMAE has trouble crossing the brain-blood barrier, meaning its effects wouldn’t be felt as strongly as some other choline supplements. The variation in performance could be due to the differences in the neurochemistry of users. There have also been conflicting research studies on the effect the substance has on hyperactive children’s ability to concentrate, with an early study showing promise, but later studies casting doubt on the findings.
Nevertheless, there have been many DMAE users who have found that the product elevates their mood, gives them more energy, and helps with depression as well as improving their memory and brain function.
One thing that most experts can agree on is that at least some B vitamins are definitely good for the brain. The most convincing research to date on the subject was done in a two-year study at Oxford published in 2013. Aging patients with cognitive impairment took a combination of three B vitamins – B6, B12 and folic acid – and the results were startling. Normally, the brains in these types of patients begin shrinking at a rapid rate, often leading to Alzheimer’s disease. But those who took the B cocktail had 90 percent less brain shrinkage (measured by cognitive and memory tests) over two years than those who only took a placebo. Not only does this study have widespread implications for the treatment of Alzeheimer’s, but it enhances the reputation of B vitamins as a nootropic solution.
Scientists believe there may be several reasons for the effectiveness of these vitamins. In healthy adults, the amino acid homocystine is regularly converted into the brain chemical acetylcholine which is important for memory and brain function. However, as people age, their levels of homocystine increase and their acetylcholine levels fall. So it’s believed that B vitamins may enhance the transformation, increasing the amount of acetylcholine – and therefore, brain function as well. Some also think that homocystine in itself may lead to brain shrinkage, so lowering its levels would increase cognitive function.
One other observation which lends credence to the “B vitamins as nootropic” theory is that people with medical issues like anemia and alcoholism usually exhibit poorer-than-normal brain function, and those diseases are known to prevent the proper functioning of B vitamins in the body. So, the thinking goes: less B = poorer cognitive function.
All of this work certainly bodes well for the use of B vitamins to prevent age-related cognitive decline, but also argues for their potential efficacy as brain boosters in general.
For centuries, lemon balm has been used as an herbal treatment for stress, insomnia and indigestion. It even has been utilized to treat wounds, bee stings and herpes. It was also used during the Middle Ages as an effective memory enhancer. Today, those latter properties have been rediscovered and lemon balm is being taken by many, usually in conjunction with other supplements, to help with thinking and memory. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my experience with lemon balm.
It’s theorized that lemon balm is an antioxidant and also helps the brain better utilize the acetylcholine it needs to function well. A recent study done in Switzerland showed that the herb definitely improved attention span in the test subjects until the dosages were increased to the point where they became so calm that their attention span declined. Other cognitive functions were not shown to be affected; even so, it was the first proof that lemon balm does indeed have an effect on the brain.
Conclusion – Are nootropics right for you?
Nootropics aren’t right for everybody. Some people are affected more than others, and some people avoid them because of a perceived danger.
The truth is: you should consult with your doctor before taking any supplements – whether nootropics or anything else. The industry is still in its early stages of development and regulation is lax.
If you’re looking for a good nootropic supplement for beginners, then most people recommend racetams like piracetam. The effects aren’t nearly as powerful as something like Noopept, but they’re still noticeable enough to provide excellent cognitive benefits. Then, if you decide you want more powerful effects, you can bump up your dosage or move to a more powerful nootropic like Noopept.
Final Thought: After running Pure Nootropics, we’ve come to realize that nootropics are a very individual and subjective experience. Each individual will react different to different compounds. Only through testing of various supplements and tracking of efficacy, can an individual determine what nootropics are best for them.