Have you ever heard of nootropics? The definition itself is relatively simple. One dictionary references nootropics as substances that enhance cognition and memory and facilitate learning. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might remember that nootropics was one of our top 2023 trends. They were buzz-worthy when we wrote that blog post, and they haven’t gotten less so throughout the year.
Although the word itself might hark back to the 60s when acid trips and psychedelic mushrooms were the purview of hippies and some academics seeking to test the limits of where your brain could take you, the term “nootropic” was actually coined in the early 70s by Corneliu E. Giurgea, a Romanian chemist and psychologist who had very specific conditions for what defined a nootropic.
In current times, however, there are three types of nootropics, bucketed into these categories: prescription drugs, synthetic compounds or dietary supplements. You’ll also find them referred to as “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers,” the latter term is most appropriately used for the dietary supplement category as dietary supplement companies are prohibited by law from marketing their products (at least here in the U.S.) using the term “drug.”
In today’s blog, we’ll take a look at nootropics and how they can enhance or support brain function and improve memory, focus, and mental performance, with a focus specifically on the dietary supplement category.
Benefits of Nootropics
Before we get to dietary supplements, let’s start with the other two types of nootropics. Pharmaceutical nootropics are prescription drugs and as such are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for specific medicinal purposes and require a doctor’s prescription to purchase. For example, there are various nootropic drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., Aricept), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD (e.g., Adderall, Ritalin) or narcolepsy (e.g., Provigil), to name a few.
While nootropics can be beneficial for those patient populations, it’s not recommended to take them unless under the supervision of a physician. Even then, there can be side effects, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, sleep issues (such as insomnia), and even addiction, but the benefits for those in need for treatment may outweigh the risks of what some consider to be uncommon side effects. This is a discussion best had with your doctor.
Further, the American Medical Association (AMA), the professional trade association representing physicians, raised some red flags around off-label use by “students and others seeking to boost memory, learning or other aspects of cognition…” The AMA discourages the non-medical use of prescription nootropics for cognitive enhancement in healthy people.
A second class of synthetic nootropics fall under the synthetic compound category of racetams, which is where the nootropics actually started as Giurgea’s clinical research (in the 60s) identified the potential memory-enhancing properties of one such racetam known as Piracetam. This article explains that racetams are a class of synthetic drugs that share a similar chemical structure and are available over the counter in the U.S., commonly including: Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Phenylpiracetam and Piracetam.
Although in the U.S., Piracetam is sold as an ingredient in dietary supplements, the FDA does not consider it a legal dietary supplement, according to this article, which means it is an adulterated product, or illegal. Some countries in Europe market it as a drug to improve memory and brain function. While some racetams are available in the U.S. for the purposes of conducting research, this article says that in the racetam family of drugs, only Levetiracetam, another racetam, has been approved by FDA for use in the U.S. It was approved in 2000 as a novel antiepileptic drug for certain types of seizures.
Benefits of Nootropics as Dietary Supplements
Who among us wouldn’t want to continue to seek ways to improve our mental performance and enhance our cognitive abilities? But will a dietary supplement in and of itself accomplish that goal? Probably not. And in fairness, it probably shouldn’t be expected to.
Case in point: Chris D’Adamo, PhD, an epidemiologist and director of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, told WebMD with reference to nootropics that “most people seeking to optimize cognitive function would be better off focusing on getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet and managing their stress.”
On the other hand, Dr. D’Adamo expressed that if you’ve got those bases covered, there may be some nootropics that could serve to enhance your brain health by “helping you think more clearly and sharply or reduce your chances of cognitive decline as you age.”
While taking dietary supplements to support brain function and cognition is not a new concept, the scientific research has shown mixed results, with some studies showing benefit for some supplements, and others not showing as much, if any, promise. In recent years, the term nootropics has been attracting renewed attention for supplements in the areas of cognitive function, brain function, and mental performance. One area to watch is the use of nootropics by the esports community, as some emerging research has demonstrated improved reaction times and enhanced short-term memory, reasoning and concentration in e-gamers.
7 Popular Nootropic Supplements
With so many supplements to choose from, let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing (and perhaps surprising) nootropics on the market:
- Caffeine—this stimulant is widely researched and widely consumed and is alternately lauded and criticized for its ability to help keep you awake, alert and thinking more quickly. Back in the 80s, the coffee industry ran an ad campaign with this seemingly conflicting message that claimed coffee can calm you down and pick up. Caffeine is everywhere it seems, and in addition to being found in energy drinks, it—along with its nootropic qualities—is available other supplement forms, too, including pills. Despite nootropic benefits that many swear by, others dislike the “caffeine crash” and “caffeine jitters,” one reason why some supplement companies are seeking alternative energy ingredients or using innovative technology to reduce some of the negative effects of caffeine while still keeping the benefits.
- Omega-3s—along with all its other benefits, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have a strong connection with brain health. In our bodies, DHA basically resides in the brain and research shows that both pregnant mothers and their babies-to-be need DHA, the latter for brain development which starts in the womb and the former, not only for herself, but as a means to ensure the fetus obtains omega-3s via transfer from the pregnant woman to the fetus across the placenta. This observational study connected the importance of maternal DHA status during pregnancy, finding it to be positively associated with infants’ problem-solving skills at 12 months. This published systematic review says that Omega PUFAs have “an essential impact on cognitive performance at all stages of life.” More specifically, the study found that consuming omega-3 fatty acids increased learning, memory, cognitive well-being and blood flow in the brain. What’s more, the omega-3 treatments were well-tolerated.
- B12—yes, vitamin B12 may not only up your energy levels, but may also improve your attention span, concentration, and alertness, although not all the research supports those claims. You can read about some of the back-and-forth here. This study shows results that suggest vitamin B12 affects memory function and regional cerebral blood flow especially in patients with mild cognitive impairment. Further, the study authors suggest that vitamin B12 may affect the progression of dementia and, they add, that early intervention with B12 can be more effective in Alzheimer’s disease treatment strategy.
- L-Theanine—this amino acid can reduce stress and clear the cobwebs from your brain (although not literally), making it a brain fog de-fogger. When used in combination with caffeine, it may help increase the attention and focus, while calming caffeine jitters. This randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study in middle-aged and older subjects who were aware of a decline in their cognitive function concluded that L-theanine may contribute to improving attention, thus enhancing working memory and executive functions. Not all the results of the study were as promising and the authors have specific recommendations for future trials. (On a completely separate note, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, first check with your doctor before taking L-theanine.)
- Ashwagandha—a powerful herb, this adaptogen is part of the tomato family. It’s believed to help reduce mental (and physical) stress, combat brain fatigue, and help with anxiety and even some types of depression. Here’s a prospective, double-blind, multi-dose placebo-controlled study on 20 healthy males, aged 20-35 years old, that looked at specific mental performance objectives. The results showed significantly improved reaction time in 5 of the 6 psychomotor performance tests compared to placebo and to baseline testing. Moreover, the study authors reported no sedative effects were found. The authors further noted that the use of ashwagandha can bring significant changes in neurological baseline functions with the postulation that it can be applied clinically in prevention, and possibly repair, of central nervous system disorders.
- Bacopa monnieri—this ancient herb is thought to enrich brain function, including improved cognition, revved up information processing, and decreased reaction times. Don’t expect results immediately as your body will need time to see improvements, maybe up to three months. This meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on the cognitive effects of Bacopa monnieri extract suggests the nootropic has the potential to improve cognition, particularly speed of attention; however, the study authors opine that a large well-designed ‘head-to-head’ trial against an existing medication is needed before definitively determining its efficacy on healthy or demented patients using a standardized preparation.
- Ginkgo biloba—although the research is inconsistent, there is some evidence that points to this botanical as helping improve memory and mental processing. The reason why? Ginkgo biloba is believed to increase blood flow to the brain which, in turn, helps your brain function more effectively. As an aside, it’s interesting to keep in mind the storied history of herbals and botanicals such as Ashwagandha, Bacopa monnieri and Gingko biloba, having been used for medicinal purposes for centuries (possibly as far back as 3,000 years ago, perhaps longer) in Traditional Indian Medicine (Ayurveda) and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Bottom Line: It’s likely that interest in and scientific research on nootropic dietary supplements will continue to grow, especially since in today’s fast-paced world, we’re all looking for a cognitive edge. Keep in mind, as with all supplements, the results are best achieved when taken in combination with other healthy habits — supplements don’t replace the need for proper nutrition, exercise, managed stress and smart sleep practices.
With that in mind, choose your specific nootropic and brand wisely and follow label directions. Keep your doctors and other healthcare practitioners in the loop about your supplement choices; and be sure that your medications are not contraindicated with your supplement (or food) use.