What is a Nootropic?

The term “nootropics” refers to the wide range of natural and synthetic compounds that improve brain function by boosting memory, mental clarity, motivation and focus. A substance is only considered a nootropic if it’s found to have no serious side effects. There are over 100 nootropics out there, which can be broken down into synthetic nootropics and natural nootropics. While most are available to purchase as dietary supplements, some are prescription-only drugs.

Nootropic Regulations

Most nootropics are considered dietary supplements under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means they aren’t approved for the treatment of medical conditions. Others are prescription-only and created exclusively by patent-holding pharmaceutical firms. For example, Modafinil is prescribed to promote “wakefulness” in the case of narcolepsy and other diseases, but is widely used by college students to prolong concentration.

Natural Nootropics

Natural nootropics are substances that grow naturally, such as tea, coffee, mushrooms and herbs. The effects of these substances on the body and mind have been observed for thousands of years. Although they may have mild side effects and some people may be allergic to certain natural compounds, natural nootropics are generally considered safer than synthetic nootropics for long-term use because they’ve been widely studied for the effects of long-term use.

Some natural nootropics are consumed in their whole form the way they occur naturally, such as ginkgo biloba, lion’s mane and many other herbs. Others are extracted from natural sources to provide isolated and concentrated forms of specific compounds. For example, omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA and DHA, are natural nootropics extracted from fish. Another example is the amino acid 5-HTP, which is extracted from an African seed called Griffonia Simplicifolia.

Many natural nootropics are naturally occurring compounds that are only available after lab processing, as is the case with most vitamin and mineral supplements on the market. One such example is creatine, which is an acid that occurs naturally in many food sources, such as eggs and fish. It’s created in labs in the form of creatine monohydrate to improve mental clarity, memory and concentration.

Synthetic Nootropics

Synthetic nootropics are man-made substances created in labs that are found to enhance the brain with little to no side effects. Most synthetic nootropics have been around for less than 50 years, which means there are insufficient medical studies on the safety of their long-term use. The most popular synthetic nootropics include Aniracetam, Adderall and Modafinil.

It’s important to note the potential side effects or dangers of synthetic nootropics more so than natural ones, because they dent to produce effects of a larger magnitude compared to natural nootropics. For example, Aniracetam is proven to boost brain power, but many people feel it’s too over-stimulating. Many people who have taken Adderall, which is a potent stimulant, found it addicting and experienced withdrawals without it.

Nootropic “Stacks”

A “stack” is a combination of nootropics that work synergistically together better than any single compound on its own. These are often sold as formulas and offer a wide range of benefits. CILTEP is a nootropic stack that contains artichoke extract, forskolin, acetyl-L-Carnitine, L-Phenylalanine and vitamin B6, and is said to be used by CEOS, Wall Street executives and college students alike for improved motivation, mood, mental endurance and focus.

Some stacks work by offsetting the side effects of effective nootropics. For example, any caffeine product is improved when combined with L-theanine, which is an amino acid that is shown to counter the jittery effect of caffeine, reduce anxiety and promote alpha brain waves, which increase concentration and focus.

How Do Nootropics Work?

As a network of neurons that communicate with the help of neurotransmitters, the functioning of your brain is only as good as the strength of its connections. The better your neurotransmitters can send signals, the better your concentration, memory, mood, attention span and cognitive ability will be. Neuroplasticity represents how well your brain can create and recreate these synaptic connections, such as in response to learning. Some nootropics improve neuroplasticity, which are best taken long-term to improve brain health over time and protect cognitive function as you age.

Other nootropics have instant effects by boosting the supply of blood to your brain, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen, nutrients and glucose the brain can utilize. Studies show that the brain requires a great deal of energy to function; although it only represents 2 percent of your bodyweight, it guzzles up 20 percent of your overall energy expenditure. Nootropics that increase blood flow to the brain give it better access to energy, improving its endurance and ability to perform mental tasks. Some examples of these supplements are caffeine, creatine, Acetyl L-Carnitine, ginkgo biloba and vinpocetine.

Nootropics and the Aging Brain

Certain nootropics can preserve and protect the brain as you age by modulating levels of brain chemicals that affect aging. Some stimulate the growth of neurons and inhibit factors that damage them. With long-term supplementation, they protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. A review of nine studies that looked at the effects of a nootropic herb called bacopa monnieri determined that it significantly enhances memory and protects against age-related neurodegeneration. Another herb, called lion’s mane, protects the aging brain by increasing nerve growth factor (NGF), which is responsible for the development, survival and maintenance of neurons.

Many nootropics can be used as adjunctive therapy to treat Alzheimer’s and other age-related brain diseases. Citicoline, Acetyl-L-Carnitine and 1-Huperzine A are some examples of supplements that have been shown to improve symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients by improving circulation to the brain and promoting neuroplasticity.

Final Thoughts

Learning, studying, concentrating and staying alert requires a lot of energy. Sometimes called “smart drugs” or “smart pills,” nootropics help your brain work faster and last longer by boosting its supply of resources like oxygen, glucose and vital nutrients. It’s common to experience a lack of alertness in the morning or an afternoon “slump” that compromises your ability to concentrate on important tasks. When used wisely, nootropics are a great way to boost productivity, as well as your mood.

It’s important to consult with your physician before trying any supplements if you’re taking medications, as there can be interactions between them. As a rule of thumb, avoid taking more than the recommended dose of any supplement on the product label. Due to the potential risk of allergies, and because nootropics can have quite powerful effects, you may want to start with a smaller dose and build up to the recommended daily dose.