Even though The Matrix is almost 20 years old, we all remember when Morpheus asks Neo which pill he’ll choose - red or blue. Selecting the blue pill results in the same old boring, mundane existence, but the red pill would send Neo down the rabbit hole, freeing his mind, and tapping into his true potential.
Since that time, we’ve all wondered at one time or another if the key the limitless brain function can really be found in a pill. And indeed it can.
But the answer to unlocking your neurological prowess isn't found in yet another cup of bitter coffee or sickly sweet energy drink. No, the key to really boosting cognitive function, memory, learning, and focus (i.e. “brain gains”), are in the form of potent little compounds known as nootropics.
These supplements are one of the hottest buzzwords right now in the supplement industry, and if you’re not using them yet, or not even sure what they heck they are, relax. We’ve got a full overview of what these brain-boosting ingredients are all about.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics, a.k.a. “smart drugs,” may seem relatively new, but in reality, these compounds have been used for decades, and some others for centuries. It’s just recently thought that nootropics have really caught on in the dietary supplement and sports nutrition industries.
Nootropics are referred to as “smart drugs” simply for the fact that they’re best known for their ability to enhance all aspects of cognitive function as well as offer some measures of neuroprotection against cognitive decline.
You might be wondering how nootropics are different than stimulants, such as caffeine, which can also enhance mental energy, focus, and alertness. Basically, stimulants provide a short-term boost to your cognitive abilities, but once the stim wears off, your energy dives and you tend to feel sluggish mentally. Nootropics, on the other hand, can be stimulative or not and provide both acute and long-lasting benefits when used daily.
How do they work?
Unfortunately, nootropics won’t automatically raise your IQ by 10 points or instantly boost your SAT. This isn’t the movie Limitless after all. But, nootropics do significantly impact neurological function through a variety of mechanisms including:
- Increase production of important neurotransmitters, hormones, and enzymes
- Improve neural plasticity
- Enhance cerebral blood flow
- Strengthen connection and communication between synapses
- Decrease inflammation and buildup of β-amyloid, which can cause dementia
- Reduce neuro inflammation
These are just a few of the numerous ways nootropics impact, enhance, and preserve cognitive function. As the scientific community invests more time and money into nootropic research, and gain better understanding of the human brain, additional mechanisms and benefits of nootropics will emerge.
Why are nootropics important?
The brain contains over 100 billion neurons, creating a large and complex network linked together by synapses.  The neurons “talk” to each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Certain nootropics increase production of these neurotransmitters (such as acetylcholine, dopamine, epinephrine, etc.), which enhance mental processing speed, reaction time, memory, attention, and alertness, among others.
Used over a prolonged period of time, the “normal” or resting levels of these neurotransmitters shift (in a good way!), leading to long-term benefits and cognitive health.
Some other nootropics enhance cognitive function by causing vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) in the brain, which increases cerebral blood flow. With increased blood flow, comes greater oxygen, nutrient, and glucose delivery which is incredibly beneficial for the brain.
Remember, glucose is the preferred energy source of the brain, no matter what the keto population says!  You’ll also get a boost in focus and memory as a result of the increased blood flow, which pays big dividends come finals week.
Nootropics also serve as a means to protect, preserve, and defend neural tissue against free radicals, B-amyloid, and inflammation. Each of these accelerate aging and increase the likelihood of developing various neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Certain nootropics help remove these free radicals or combat inflammation, which slows down the aging process, and preserves cognitive function well into your golden years.
Benefits of Nootropics
As you might have figured out, nootropics are pretty awesome and impart a wealth of benefits with regular use. Here’s a brief list of their benefits:
- Increased focus
- Reduced mental fatigue
- Improved brain health
- Decreased inflammation
- Heightened mental clarity
- Improved cognition and memory formation
- Increased reaction time
- Elevated mood
- Decreased stress
- Increased motivation
Due to the expansive and diverse list of benefits nootropics offer, it’s easy to understand why they’re a hot topic right now in the supplement industry. With exotic stims, such as DMAA and DMHA, on the outs, nootropics represent the next big thing for pre workouts, productivity supplements, and fat burners to give that them “a little extra something.”
Two other things worth mentioning:
- Daily use of certain nootropics is required to achieve their long-lasting benefits
- Unlike stimulants, which come with rapid tolerance build up, some nootropics actually increase in effectiveness with daily ingestion.
As expansive as the dietary supplement industry is, that’s how much more expansive the realm of nootropics is. Basically, there’s no end to the rabbit hole in how far you can become immersed in the world of nootropics. That being the case, it’s not really possible to go into every single nootropic on the market in this article. This is more of an overview or “Nootropics 101” piece that gives a general idea of what nootropics are and what they do.
Going forward, you’ll be able to find some in-depth guides on certain nootropics on the site.
For the purposes of this overview, here are some of the most common nootropics you’ll find in pre workouts or standalone nootropic formulas:
Alpha GPC - Highly bioavailable form of choline used by the body to increase production of the “learning” neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Alpha GPC improves attention, memory recall, mood, and the “mind-muscle” connection.
Bacopa Monnieri - Ayurvedic herb that enhances synaptic communication leading to better memory and cognition. Bacopa also reduces stress and acts as a neuroprotectant.
Aniracetam - A member of the racetam family of nootropics that boosts cognition and imparts neuroprotective benefits. Racetams are frequently paired with choline-containing compounds, like Alpha GPC, to prevent choline depletion in the body and offset “brain fog.”
L-Theanine - An amino acid found prevalently in tea leaves, theanine is a “calming” ingredient that balances out the stimulant kick from caffeine and synergizes with caffeine to enhance cognitive function. It’s also good for relieving stress and helping to wind down at night.
Tyrosine - Tyrosine is a nonessential amino acid used in the creation of several important neurotransmitters in the brain, in particular dopamine, noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and Adrenaline (epinephrine).
Vinpocetine - Synthetic nootropic that increases cerebral blood flow, thereby improving concentration, mental energy, and motivation.
There are hundreds of nootropics available, this is just a smattering of the most common ones you’ll encounter during your journey down rabbit hole.
Now, much like stimulants and pre-workouts, a person’s response to each nootropic is highly individualistic, meaning that what may work great for you can be utterly useless for another. Finding your own perfect brain-boosting stack will take some personal experimentation and a lot of trial and error.
Nootropics represent the next frontier for supplements. As our understanding of the human brain continues to evolve, so will our exploration and use of nootropics. Know matter how smart, alert, or witty you may be, nootropics can be that “little something extra” to give you a mental edge over the competition.
2) Herculano-Houzel S. The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2009;3:31. doi:10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009.