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 as nootropics, but for the most part, everyone agrees that nootropics have two defining characteristics:
- They improve your cognitive abilities; and
- 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.
We’re being relatively vague here because there is a wide spectrum of nootropics available today. And they all claim to do different things for you. It’s up to you to pick the right nootropic for what you want to accomplish. Later posts will cover the different types of nootropics, as well as specific nootropics to use in certain scenarios – for studying, for sharpness, for recovery after partying, etc.
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.
Don’t let this turn you off of nootropics as a safe way to improve your mental function. The human body is incredibly complex, and we haven’t even begun to understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. We don’t even know the working mechanisms for some of the most popular enhancers sold worldwide.
Take acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) as an example. There have been tens of thousands of studies conducted with this enhancer, and after studying human reactions to it over, and over, and over again, we’ve come to these three conclusions:
- Acetaminophen helps to relieve minor aches and pains in the body
- Acetaminophen helps to relieve headaches
- Acetaminophen does not help with inflammation
You’d think that after tens of thousands of studies, a working mechanism would have been found, right? Unfortunately not – the working mechanism for acetaminophen isn’t known, and it doesn’t look like we’ll know exactly how it works anytime soon.
Take this example and apply it to nootropics. The working mechanisms usually aren’t known, but after observing empirical evidence over, and over, and over again, we can come to some pretty consistent conclusions about them.
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.
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.
Smart enhancer are where the border between nootropic and enhancer is tested; some consider smart enhancers to be nootropics, whereas others think that they should be heavily regulated just as prescription medications are.
Many people think that smart enhancers aren’t nootropics because of how they affect you. If you take a standard nootropic for a month straight and then abruptly stop, you might notice the nootropic not being present, but you won’t have any real side effects.
We’re not saying that smart enhancers are bad, necessarily. We’re just saying that you shouldn’t expect a subtle effect like other nootropics give you. When you take one, you’ll easily notice the effects, and when you come off of it, you’ll easily notice that you aren’t on it.
Vitamin B & Vitamin B Derivatives
B vitamins are unique in how they affect us. One of the most popular energy drinks, 5 Hour Energy, has vitamin B6 as its main ingredient (albeit 10,000x the RDA) because of the energy boost that it gives to us.
Naturally, with such effects, B vitamins are being explored as nootropics. It’s important to note that vitamin B derivatives aren’t the same thing as B vitamins; they’ve been modified in some way to become something other than the naturally-occurring vitamin. As of 2015, vitamin B derivatives are relatively new. Sulbutiamine is a derivative of vitamin B1 that was originally developed by the Japanese to combat fatigue, and it has the largest user base out of all of them. Picamillion is also a B derived nootropic as it combines niacin (B3) with GABA . More research is needed to conclude anything about B vitamins, but if you’ve had success from taking a B-complex or an energy drink like 5 Hour Energy, they’re worth exploring.
Ampakides are generally seen as interesting, but not researched a whole lot. Actually, out of all of the different types of nootropics, ampakides have the least research done on them.
They appear to work by antagonizing the AMPA and NDMA receptors in your body; this in turn leads to an uptick in glutamate available for your brain to use. Glutamate is said to increase memory span and focus abilities. But again, there hasn’t been a whole lot of research done on ampakides or how they will affect you in the long-term. Only use ampakides if you’re an explorer and willing to ingest something that hasn’t been fully studied.
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.