Thinking about trying nootropics? These natural and man-made substances reportedly target your brain to enhance learning and memory, increase attention, and boost your mood. But do they really work? Read on to find out.
From lion’s mane mushrooms to phosphatidylserine, ALCAR to Bacopa monnieri, nootropic substances are having their moment. Modern nootropics offer a way to up your brain power—without compromising your health.
Whether you’re trying to stave off age-associated cognitive decline, hoping to improve your focus and productivity on the job, or simply want to manage the day-to-day stresses of modern life, nootropics may provide a simple and attractive solution. But do they actually work, or is it all just hype?
In this article, I’ll break down what nootropics are, the different types and how they work, and share some of the evidence behind some of the most common nootropic supplements.
Nootropics have a reputation for boosting your focus, learning, memory, and overall cognition—but do they really work? Check out this article to find out. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser #wellnessTweet This
Nootropics are substances that enhance cognition, increase focus, or boost learning and memory. The word “nootropics” comes from the Greek noos, meaning “mind,” and trepin, meaning “to bend.” The term was coined by Romanian doctor Dr. Corneliu Giurgea in the 1970s when the “mind-bending” drug piracetam was first found to improve memory. (1)
Today, over 80 different substances can be classified as nootropics, including vitamins, herbs, phospholipids, choline sources, amino acids, antioxidants, and psychedelics. Some of these compounds act in the short-term, providing a few hours of temporarily enhanced mental focus, energy, or creativity, while others act to support long-term cognitive health and mental performance if taken consistently over weeks or months.
In a moment, I’ll discuss the various aspects of brain health that nootropics are used for and offer a few evidence-based nootropics in each category. First, though, we’ll take a quick look at how nootropics work.
Researchers have identified several ways that nootropics may work in the body to ultimately impact the brain:
A given nootropic may work by one or several of these mechanisms to produce its effects on the brain. Some nootropics may also work through mechanisms we don’t yet understand.
Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge or modifying existing knowledge, while memory is the ability of the brain to encode, store, and retrieve information when needed. Both learning and memory are vital to enjoying experiences, planning future actions, and maintaining a high quality of life.
Historically, nootropics were primarily taken by older adults experiencing age-associated memory loss. Today, nootropics are also taken to boost day-to-day memory performance for work-related tasks.
Nootropics that have been shown to improve memory include:
Focus and attention are the ability to concentrate one’s mind on a single task while ignoring extraneous environmental stimuli. There are several different aspects of attention, and they underlie many other cognitive functions.
Nootropics that have been shown to improve attention and focus include:
The brain consumes approximately 20 percent of the body’s energy, and brain energy has been associated with overall brain health. (12) Without sufficient energy, all cognitive processing of the brain will be slowed down.
Some nootropics that have been shown to improve brain energy include:
Nootropics that have been shown to improve mood include:
Stress clearly impacts mental performance and overall well-being. While stress management should be a key part of any program to improve cognitive function, some nootropics may also help.
Nootropics that have been shown to improve stress resilience include:
While many people use these substances for an instant brain boost, the long-term neuroprotective benefits of nootropics should not be overlooked. Some research suggests that aspects of age-related cognitive decline can begin in healthy, educated adults even while they’re in their 20s and 30s. (24) In other words, it’s never too early to start taking care of your brain—and nootropics could play a role.
Nootropics that have been shown to have neuroprotective effects include:
By definition, nootropics must be clinically shown to benefit the brain in some way, and they must be safe to use, with low toxicity and few side effects. However, so-called “smart drugs” like Ritalin, modafinil, and piracetam are sometimes thrown into the category of nootropics, even though they have clear side effects.
While nootropic vitamins, herbs, and amino acids are generally safe at the recommended doses and many have been used for thousands of years, it’s important to be wary of cheaply formulated nootropic supplements. Like all supplements, nootropics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or any other agency in the United States. You should also avoid most nootropics during pregnancy and lactation. Most nootropics are legal but be sure to check the laws in your country or state.
It’s also important to recognize that nootropics influence brain chemistry and physiology, and our bodies are constantly working to maintain homeostasis—a neutral set point. This means that regular use of nootropics may cause changes in the brain that compensate for the effect of the supplement, causing tolerance.
Just as some people develop a tolerance for caffeine—meaning that they require ever-increasing amounts for it to have a stimulating effect—your body can become tolerant of nootropics and may require larger and larger doses for them to have the same impact.
This doesn’t happen for all nootropics. Those with vitamin-like activity or antioxidant effects are less likely to lose their effects over time than those that directly influence neurotransmitter balance. However, you can avoid this tolerance effect by using the minimal effective dosage and cycling different nootropics—only taking them on days that you are doing intense work, or taking a week off from a nootropic once every month or two to allow your body and brain to “reset.”
While nootropics clearly have positive effects on the brain, it’s important to remember that a healthy diet and ancestral lifestyle have a much larger effect on your brain health. If you’re constantly sedentary, eating junk food, stressed out, and running on too little sleep, even a perfectly formulated nootropic regimen is unlikely to correct the detrimental effects on your brain function.
Rather than using nootropics as a crutch for a poor diet and lifestyle, I believe we should view nootropics as a way to take things to the next level once we have these other factors dialed in.
That’s all for now! Do you take nootropics? What did you think of this article? Be sure to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.