Updated: Jan 20
Nootropics are “smart drugs,” “memory enhancers” or substances designed to heighten your mental acuity and sharpness. They are taken to enhance mental function and alertness by students, executives and people from all walks of life. They are also taken to help treat the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Nootropics may come from the racetam family of prescriptives such as piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, and pramiracetam or they may come in the form of supplements such as citicoline.
How Do Nootropics Work?
Although the exact mechanisms of nootropics are often elusive, six pathways have been proposed as possible mechanisms by which nootropics have their effect on the brain.
1) Brain energy
The brain is a needy organ consuming 20% of the body’s requirements for oxygen.
Nootropics help the brains mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, by enhancing their metabolic activity; they help to transport fatty acids into the cell where they are used for energy and finally, they increase cerebral uptake of oxygen and nutrients thus fueling the brain for heightened activity.
2) Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters)
Nootropics optimize brain chemicals by:
*Supplying precursors to the brain chemicals themselves
*Promotion of neurotransmitter synthesis
*Increasing receptor sensitivity so that brain chemicals are more effective
*Inhibiting the breakdown of important brain neurotransmitters
3) Cerebral blood flow
Nootropics often stimulate the flow of blood to the brain having a vasodilation effect:
*Promoting nitric oxide activation and relaxation of blood vessels
*Inhibiting homocysteine and oxidative damage on blood vessels
*Making blood cells less “sticky” and thus less likely to clump
4) Brain waves
Brain waves are the collective electrical activity of your brain. Different brain waves are separated by varying frequencies, of which the lower frequencies entail tired and dreamy mental states whereas the higher frequencies link to quick and alert cognition.
Some nootropics, most notably L-theanine, increase brain waves to a state of heightened alertness and creativity with more focus.
Nootropics are thought to enhance neuroprotection by these following mechanisms:
*Increasing the brain’s antioxidant capacity- a major player
*Helping to fight formation of irregular protein clusters-these clog up brain communication
*Clearing brain tissue of neurotoxins
*Protecting the brain against stress, elevated cortisol and other effects from uncontrolled stress.
6) Brain regeneration
Nootropics are thought to:
*Boost natural brain-boosting growth factors, such as NGF
*Provide raw neuronal building block materials, like choline
*Maintain brain cell membrane flexibility and plasticity
Commonly Used Nootropics
These can be natural or synthetic, come in the form of supplements, teas, rubs or other decoctions. But here are the most commonly used and approved nootropics:
A low to moderate caffeine intake of 40–300 mg increases your alertness and attention and decreases your reaction time.
Caffeine, natural or synthetic, can be used to increase attention, alertness and to decrease reaction time.
An amino acid best taken on an empty stomach without other competing proteins or amino acids, studies have shown it to have a calming without sedation effect while increasing focus and attention. It is a perfect combination to use with caffeine to decrease caffeine jitters due to its calming effect while potentiating the positive cognitive effects.
Taking just 50 mg has been shown to increase alpha waves, the brain frequencies often associated with relaxation and creativity.
Another amino acid best taken on an empty stomach. After consumption it is rapidly phosphorylated providing immediate cellular and brain fuel.
“Creatine is an amino acid that can improve short-term memory, depression and reasoning skills. It’s most effective in vegetarians and people who are stressed. Doses of 5 grams per day have been shown to be safe in the long term.”
Ah, from the dredges of ancient Ayurvedic medicine we have another herb used for cognitive enhancement with a long history of success. Several studies have found that Bacopa monnieri supplements can speed up information processing in your brain, reduce reaction times and improve memory. It needs to be taken for several months to build up in the system and the cumulative effect should be noted after several months of therapy.
Is a promising supplement on the research circuit that has been found to reverse symptoms of AD in Alzheimer patients when used for an extended period at doses of 1 gram per day. It is far more effective than choline supplementation and is one of the most promising nootropic supplements on the market today.
Modafinil is a prescription drug often abused by students for its cognitive enhancing effects. Modafinil significantly reduces fatigue and drowsiness while increasing focus and alertness. It should only be taken for a short period of time and as prescribed.
Again, nootropics offer a way to get a cutting edge on cognitive functioning and in some cases treat a neurodegenerative condition such as mild cognitive impairment. Stacking nootropics is another technique often used but again it is best to consult your physician before trying any new therapeutic regimens that may affect other parameters of your health you may not be aware of. Responsible medicine is good functional care medicine.