Nootropics are currently the hottest and most talked about topic in the health world. As Men’s Health recently put it, “Brain training is the smart move.”
Despite their rising popularity, many of us are still unaware of what they actually are and the benefits that those taking them seek to derive.
Nootropics is an umbrella term for a class of chemicals that can boost brain performance. They are often referred to as ‘smart drugs’, ‘cognition enhancers’, or ‘memory enhancing substances’.
Nootropics have gained popularity in today’s highly competitive society. They are used for many activities where improved cognitive acuity is beneficial, such as studying, gaming, and exercise, and even have benefits when it comes to sleep and social anxiety.
The cognitive benefits associated with nootropics include improved concentration and focus, motivation, creativity, memory, reasoning, verbal coherence and improved mood.
Nootropics can also help alleviate symptoms of medical conditions associated with brain and cognitive function, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer's disease.
The word ‘nootropic’ was first coined by Romanian chemist Corneliu Giurgea. In 1972 he developed Piracetam, a synthetic nootropic that improves cognitive functions such as verbal fluency and creativity.
At the time, Giurgea stated,
“Man will not wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”
Nootropics work by manipulating how the brain functions to optimise cognitive output.
For example, some nootropics stimulate the release of dopamine, which enhances motivation and improves mood, whilst others restrict the release of stressful chemicals such as cortisol.
There are both natural and synthetic, or man-made, nootropics, which are available either over-the-counter or on prescription.
Some of the common natural nootropics include;
- Caffeine: Caffeine is a brain stimulant found in tea and coffee. It is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world, affecting how the brain and nervous system work.
- L-theanine: This is an amino acid found in black and green teas. It’s believed to increase alpha waves in the brain, leading to a more relaxed, yet alert mental state.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in abundance in oily fish, omega-3 fatty acids are widely known for their health benefits. These include repairing and renewing brain cells, helping to keep the brain healthy and slowing down brain ageing.
- Creatine: This is an amino acid that can improve short-term memory and reasoning skills. It's most effective in people who are stressed.
There are also a wide variety of plants that have nootropic properties.
These include ginkgo biloba, a tree native to East Asia, whose leaves are available as a herbal supplement. It’s believed that ginkgo biloba may help with the symptoms of dementia.
As well as the natural nootropics, there are an increasing number of synthetic nootropics. These include;
- Modafinil: A stimulant that treats acute sleepiness such as that related with narcolepsy or shift work sleep disorder
- Adderall: A stimulant that contains amphetamines, which may treat ADHD by improving concentration and focus, and reducing impulsiveness and hyperactivity
- Racetams: These are a class of drugs including Piracetam, which affect neurotransmitters in the brain, helping with dementia and cognitive impairment.
Ultimately, the cognitive effects of a nootropic will depend on whether it is natural or synthetic and whether it’s consumed by itself, or as an ingredient as part of a supplement that has other ingredients in the blend.
A process called 'stacking' is also popular when taking nootropics. This is when a number of different nootropics are taken at the same time to achieve a greater range of cognitive benefits.
Of note, whilst the most common nootropics are widely consumed, it’s important to remember that some nootropics contain stimulants that can cause adverse side effects, particularly those manufactured as a drug.
Some nootropics will also contain less effective, low-quality ingredients compared to others. You should read the label and check the research on any nootropics before consumption.
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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