Nootropics and smart drugs refer to natural and man made substances that boost our brain performance.
Nootropics have really risen to prominence in the last few years, having gained popularity in today’s highly competitive society.
The benefits from nootropics include in cognitive functions such as information processing, concentration, memory, reasoning and creativity.
As well as for improving general mental performance, they are commonly consumed in circumstances when an enhanced cognitive state is useful, such as when studying or gaming, or even exercising and sleeping.
Many of the natural nootropics are available over the counter, commonly in the form of a tablet or supplement.
Some of the synthetic nootropics require a prescription as often they are more potent and faster acting, with potential side effects if not consumed as prescribed.
Below, we explore the top 10 nootropics...
Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant and psychoactive drug on the planet.
The most common source of caffeine is the coffee bean from which coffee is extracted. Other natural sources include cocoa beans and tea plants.
Outside of coffee, people commonly consume caffeine through tea, soft drinks - particularly energy drinks - and chocolate. It can also be taken as a supplement.
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain, which speeds up cellular activity.
Caffeine consumption provides a boost in mental alertness and concentration, and reduces mental as well as physical fatigue, thereby improving athletic performance.
Previous studies have shown that caffeine consumption may also protect against developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in green and black tea and some mushrooms. It is also available as a supplement.
Several studies have shown that L-theanine has a dual effect. It increases alpha-waves in the brain, which are linked to creativity, whilst it simultaneously has a calming effect, without causing drowsiness.
The potency of L-theanine is increased when taken alongside caffeine. For this reason, they are often used together in performance-enhancing supplements.
Creatine is an amino acid which is found naturally in the body, particularly in muscle cells.
Creatine aids the formation of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is broken down to create energy.
The energy release supports muscle growth which is why creatine is a popular bodybuilding supplement. It helps bodybuilders to gain muscle, enhance strength and improve exercise performance.
Creatine is also beneficial for the brain as extra energy in the brain cells is associated with improved short-term memory and reasoning skills.
It's believed that these benefits are greatest in vegetarians and those suffering from stress. However, studies have not yet provided conclusive evidence of cognitive improvement in healthy adults.
Natural sources of creatine including red meats and fish. Creatine is also widely available as a supplement.
4. Bacopa Monnieri
Several of the most popular nootropics derive from plants.
One of these is Bacopa monnieri, a herb native to large parts of the world such as India.
Bacopa monnieri is most often taken in the form of herbal supplement and is available over-the-counter.
It protects the brain from oxidative stress, a chemical imbalance that can lead to damage to brain cells and tissue.
It’s believed that bacopa monnieri can speed up information processing in your brain, improve memory and reduce reaction times.
By reducing oxidative stress in the brain, it’s believed that bacopa monnieri may also treat neurodegenerative disorders associated with cognitive decline and memory loss.
At the moment, it is commonly used to treat Alzheimer's disease and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among many other uses, albeit there is limited scientific research to back up these uses.
Any effects of taking bacopa monnieri are not immediate. The general guidance is that it must be taken for several months to see any effects.
5. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola Rosea is a plant that is native to Europe and the Arctic.
The root of the plant has properties as an adaptogen, helping the body adapt to different types of stress.
More specifically, it’s believed that rhodiola rosea may sustain brain neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine, which are vital for cognitive processing speed, concentration, mood and memory.
Several studies have found that rhodiola rosea appears to be able to alleviate ‘emotional distress’, the fatigue and burnout that comes from stress and anxiety.
For this reason, daily supplements are popular amongst college students during stressful exam periods.
Note that the research to date to support the benefits claimed is limited. More studies are needed to better understand how the herb causes these effects.
6. Panax Ginseng
Panax ginseng is a plant that is native to the Korean peninsular, northeastern China and eastern Siberia.
It is the root that has nootropic properties which is often consumed in the form of a supplement available over-the-counter.
Panax ginseng has been shown to help reduce inflammatory markers and help protect against oxidative stress, a natural phenomenon that causes brain ageing.
In certain studies, panax ginseng has been shown to reduce brain fatigue and improve memory and thinking skills.
However, over the longer term, it’s believed that the body may adapt to it, making it gradually less effective.
Ultimately, more research is needed on its long-term effectiveness.
7. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo Biloba is a tree native to China, Japan, and Korea, and which is now grown worldwide.
The Ginkgo plant has several therapeutic properties such as improving cardiovascular function. It is believed that this has a corresponding effect of improving brain, eye, ear and leg health.
From the perspective of a nootropic, Ginkgo is believed to improve memory loss and mental processing. It can also improve cognitive functioning if taken when stressed.
The cognitive improvement from Ginkgo is not immediate. It generally takes about 6 weeks to see any effects.
As with the other plant-based nootropics, more research is needed to better understand the potential benefits of Ginkgo on the brain.
8. Modafinil (Provigil)
Modafinil is a synthetic nootropic drug that is available on prescription only. It is commonly sold under the brand name Provigil, among others.
Modafinil treats uncontrollable sleepiness and drowsiness, of which the most common causes relate to narcolepsy and shift work sleep disorder. In sleep-deprived adults it reduces feelings of fatigue and improves memory.
It’s not exactly known how modafinil works. It’s believed it may act as a weak dopamine reuptake inhibitor which results in other chemicals being released by the body which support mental arousal.
There may be side effects when taking modafinil. As with all prescription treatment, it’s advised you speak with your doctor and understand the benefits and risks before consuming.
9. Amphetamines (Adderall)
Adderall is a nootropic prescription treatment that contains amphetamines, which belong to a class of drugs known as stimulants.
Adderall works by promoting the release of the brain hormones and neurotransmitters, dopamine and noradrenaline.
The body uses dopamine as a chemical messenger to send messages between nerve cells. It plays a role in how we feel pleasure and is often referred to as a ‘mood booster’.
Noradrenaline normally produces effects such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and widening of air passages in the lungs which enables the body to perform well in stressful situations.
Adderall can therefore help people feel more awake, attentive and optimistic. For this reason Adderall is widely used by students, especially when studying for exams.
Adderall is also commonly prescribed to treat attention ADHD and narcolepsy.
It’s important to note that these drugs are not without side effects. The side effects of Adderall abuse include anxiety, low sex drive and sweating.
10. Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
Ritalin is another prescription drug which acts as a powerful stimulant.
Ritalin as a nootropic improves short-term memory, information-processing speed and attention. It is also used to manage the symptoms of ADHD and narcolepsy.
Ritalin works in a similar way to Adderall, as it increases the concentration of both dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain. However, Ritalin does not contain amphetamines.
In terms of effectiveness, the primary difference is that Ritalin works quickly and reaches peak performance earlier than Adderall, which accordgingly stays in the system for longer.
It’s important to note that there are potential side effects, and these include insomnia, stomach ache, headache and loss of appetite.
Also be aware that over-consumption can have the opposite desired effect and actually impair thinking, as well as result in more severe side effects such as hallucinations.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
Written by Dr. Mike Firth, GP and Medical Director
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