The word nootropic is derived from the greek words noos, meaning mind, and trope, meaning turning. In essence, nootropic perform one function: they “turn” your mind to boost your cognitive abilities and make your mental state better in some way, shape, or form.
Different groups classify different drugs, chemicals, or supplements as nootropics, but for the most part, everyone agrees that nootropics have two defining characteristics:
- 1. They improve your cognitive abilities; and
- 2. They have very few or no side effects when used in the recommended dosages.
Keep in mind that nootropics are not vitamins or minerals. Usually, they’re synthetic chemicals produced in laboratories. They’re not essential to your body’s functions. They’re “add-ons” in that you use them and you feel better, but if you don’t, it’s not like your body is lacking anything otherwise required. We do advocate getting the proper amount of essential nutrients, and minerals as a starting point to improved cognitive health. We'll talk about generally optimizing brain health (your cognitive baseline) through sleep, diet, and exercise a later post.
After understanding what a nootropic is, the next question that begs to be asked is, "How do they work?"
How do nootropics work?
Every nootropic affects your body in a different way. It’s important to note the distinction between "results" and commonly referred to as "working mechanisms." One thing that we also want to note is that nootropics are a very subjective experience, and although one person may have great results with a particular nootropic, another person may have no result when using that same nootropic.
If the working mechanism for a enhancers is known, we know exactly how it affects your body. As in, if you ingest enhancer A, it affects receptors X, Y, and Z. This modification to receptors X, Y, and Z produces effects B, C, and D.
If the working mechanism for a enhancer isn’t known, then we only know A, B, C, and D in the above example. For most nootropics, there is speculation behind the working mechanisms, but there has not been any conclusive evidence of these claims. As such, the working mechanisms being discussed are theories, not fact.
What should I expect from nootropics?
The cool (and sometimes off-putting) thing about nootropics is that everyone reacts differently to each one. This is pretty standard with enhancers.
In general, the effects of nootropics are fairly mild. They aim to take your “base level” of cognitive performance and bring it up. Go from being able to give 100% when not taking nootropics, to being able to give 105% or 110% when you are. If you focus in on how the nootropic is affecting you, you’ll be able to tell, but with the vast majority of nootropics, you won’t feel over-stimulated or anything of that nature, sometime the effects are rather subtle. One thing that we suggest is tracking the efficacy of the nootropics you take to really determine the value you are getting from nootropics; this is covered later.
Also, you should expect no comedown and no come up. Nootropics work in the background. When you dose, you won’t feel a rush (although some do report a “tingly feeling”), and when the nootropic starts to wear off, you won’t feel like you’re crashing. Instead, you’ll slowly climb to where your cognitive abilities are enhanced, and then gradually ease off of that as the chemical is depleted until you’re at your normal baseline mental state.
The Different Types / Categories of Nootropics
Every nootropic out there can be categorized into a certain subset of nootropics. Here are the main ones below - all popular nootropics will fall into one of these categories. We'll talk about some more specific nootropics later. If you'd like to skip ahead to the best nootropics for beginners, click here
The Natural Ones
Natural nootropics are no different from what you’d referred to as “natural herbs” or “natural remedies”; they are naturally-occurring elements (from plants) that when ingested, provide cognitive enhancing effects.
The effects of natural nootropics vary greatly, and by and large, users have vastly different experiences with each and every one. Some claim they’re straight placebo, whereas others think that they can be even more potent than their human-made counterparts. However, the general consensus is that they’re less potent than synthetic nootropics are.
This shouldn’t turn you off to them as a whole. Although less potent, some natural nootropics provide benefits in some way, shape, or form that synthetic ones can’t match. Generally speaking, because natural nootropics are (by definition) from nature, they are often available at a cheaper price than synthetic nootropics are. No laboratories, purity tests, etc. are needed.
Bacopi Monneri is one of the most prevalent natural nootropics. It can take 6-8 weeks to kick in - this is a great example of natural nootropics being less potent than a synthetic memory aid that might take effect within just a couple of days, or even immediately.
Other popular natural nootropics are Huperzine-A, and Gingko Biloba. If you’re interested in nootropics but aren’t a fan of the ones produced in laboratories, these three are great jumping-off points.
Many companies have jumped on the nootropic bandwagon and created nootropic blends. These blends are just a bunch of nootropics combined into a single pill, which is similar to stacking nootropics all on your own - just easier.
It’s important to take a look at the ingredients of each blend that you’re considering. Sometimes, there will be ingredients that aren’t nootropics, and other times, there will be a blend of ingredients that you could easily concoct yourself for a fraction of the price. Often times they don't contain proper dosages of the ingredients to make them worthwhile.
The most popular nootropic blend is Alpha Brain from Onnit; you can check out our Alpha Brain full review and analysis here. By and large, people see success with this blend, but a lot of marketing is put into it - it’s hard to get unbiased information when you look online. We’d recommend starting with pure nootropics first, and if you find one that you like, possibly getting a blend that has your choice nootropic as the #1 ingredient. If there's something we missed, please let us know so that we can bring our customers the most relevant information possible.
In a follow up blog post we will introduce you to the best nootropics for beginners, and from there we will cover some popular combinations of the individual nootropics in our post on the best nootropic stacks.