Can nootropics really improve cognition? There are numerous benefits of nootropics for the brain. Some can boost mood and enhance learning while others increase alertness and exert neuroprotective effects. But what are the underlying mechanisms behind all of these?
Today we’ll cover how entrepreneurs, busy students, and hard-working moms can actually enhance their cognition. We’re not talking about smart drugs, no. You’ll mainly see adaptogens, minerals, amino acids, and mushrooms popping on this list. Grab your cup of coffee and buckle up, it will be an interesting ride!
- What Are Nootropics
- Top 7 Benefits of Nootropics
What Are Nootropics
Nootropics are natural cognitive enhancers that boost brain power. Nootropics can be foods with specific elements, constituents, or bioactive compounds. It can also be a specific supplement or an extract, high in the compounds known to support cognition.
Yes, from the first caffeine punch you’ve got in your morning coffee, that avocado full of omega-3 fatty acids, up to the chamomile tea that helps you relax and sleep. All are nootropics.
Nootropics have been used to improve cognition, support brain health, and protect the brain. Research shows their potential in altering certain neurochemicals like acetylcholine, BDNF, NGF, and even hormones like dopamine and serotonin. These lead to numerous benefits such as improved focus, alertness, improved memory, and enhanced mood. (1) (2) (3)
How Nootropics Work
Behind each benefit nootropics may provide, there is some underlying mechanism. Nootropics can work in an individual or specific way or target multiple mechanisms to improve brain function. Such include:
- Improving blood flow in the brain by increasing (NO) nitric oxide.
- Exerting neuroprotective properties, reducing oxidative stress in the brain.
- Balancing out different neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, boosting our mood.
- Altering levels of acetylcholine and important neurotransmitter that supports learning.
- Increasing the levels of BDNF and NGF, that can enhance neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.
- Optimizing mitochondria function, thus improving the brain’s efficiency to create energy.
- Reducing arousal and increasing levels of GABA, which improves relaxation and calmness.
There are numerous underlying mechanisms behind the action of nootropics. Some affect hormones and neurotransmitters, others enhance blood flow and protect the brain, while some support resilience and adapt our brain to fight stress better.
Short List of Nootropics
There are so many different nootropics out there that the list is endless. Some are well-researched, and others not so much. One thing to not confuse here is that these aren’t your smart drugs. Ritalin, Adderall, Modafinil are pharmaceutical drugs that may cause serious side effects and imbalance with improper use.
We are talking about nootropics, which, by definition, improve and support brain health and have minimal to no side effects. The main difference is nootropics don’t offer such an acute and powerful cognitive punch as smart drugs, but rather work on a more fundamental level to support cognition.
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin B9
- Vitamin D
- Bacopa Monnieri
- Ashwagandha Root
- Rhodiola Rhosea
- Panax Ginseng
- Ginkgo Biloba
- Lions Mane
- Omega 3: DHA, EPA
- Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
- NAC or N-acetylcysteine
- Acetyl L-Carnitine
- Coffee bean: Caffeine
- Kava Kava: kavapyrones
- Vanillic Acid
- Nicotine (not natural)
Excitatory vs. Inhibitory
The nootropics working to enhance focus, alertness, and learning are affecting excitatory pathways. These are your stimulants, such as caffeine, which is one of the most powerful and frequently used ones.
The nootropics that can help you sleep better and get you in a calm and relaxed state are working towards stimulating inhibitory pathways. Such include L-theanine, Magnesium, or chamomile tea, which enhance levels of Gaba in your brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Many nootropics aren’t heavily excitatory or inhibitory. Many work on a fundamental level to improve brain efficiency in producing energy. It is by optimizing mitochondrial function, protecting from oxidative stress, and improving blood flow in the brain that this happens. These include Alpha-GPC, NAC, ALA, Omega 3’s, and B-vitamins.
Nootropics like Mucuna Pruriens, L-tyrosine, or Cacao (5-HTP) can alter the level of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine, which can improve mood, cognition, and focus. Mushrooms like Lions Mane, Reishi, Chaga may enhance immune function, and levels of BDNF, NGF to improve learning and neuroplasticity, plus they exert a neuroprotective effect.
It’s very important to understand the underlying mechanism behind the effect a nootropic has, to properly supplement it. For example, you’d consume caffeine in the morning, to help you work better since it’s excitatory. Gaba at night, which is inhibitory, helps us relax and sleep.
Top 7 Benefits of Nootropics
To better understand nootropics, we’ll distinguish what each nootropic excels at and the underlying mechanism behind that benefit.
We’ll focus on the most interesting parts, like improving memory and focus, balancing mood and reducing stress, enhancing energy, learning, and neuroplasticity, all the way up to neuroprotection and relaxation.
Do nootropics make you smarter?
If smarter means having better memory, sharper focus, and faster processing speed, then yes. Nootropics can definitely improve numerous aspects of cognition, which make the total output of our brain better and processing faster. Some nootropics can also boost creativity levels and improve mood.
Which nootropics actually work?
That’ll depend on the individual response, doses, frequency, etc. Some of the well-researched nootropics include caffeine, l-theanine, ashwagandha, alpha-GPC, bacopa monnieri, and Lion’s Mane mushroom.
Which nootropics increase focus?
Focus is a multifaceted process and individual nootropics can only improve certain aspects of focus, such as attention or alertness, or attention span. The main effective focus boosters we know of include caffeine, L-theanine, and tyrosine.
Improve Memory – Spatial, Short-term, Long-Term
Memory is about acquiring information, storing it, and retrieving it later. It works by strengthening the connection between neurons, which can be reactivated at any time. The amygdala stores fear memories, the hippocampus, and temporal lobe – episodic and recognition memory, the cerebellum stores procedural (step-by-step or how-to) memory.
One of the most potent memory boosters is Bacopa Monnieri. It works by enhancing neural signaling, acts on the calcium channels, and increases serum calcium levels in the brain. At 300 mg or 600 mg daily for 6 or 12 weeks, it improved cognitive processing, working memory, and attention. Pretty sweet huh? (2) (4)
Alpha GPC and Caffeine are also powerful nootropics, working to facilitate learning and memory by increasing acetylcholine levels. (5) Acetylcholine is important for memory, because it improves learning, both are interconnected.
Similar nootropics like:
- Ashwagandha was effective in improving verbal paired memory, logical memory, and general memory in an 8-week trial. (6)
- Ginkgo Biloba may also improve working memory, recognition, and memory recall – especially in older people (7) (8)
- Omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for neural development and brain integrity, have improved recall of object locations in healthy older adults. (9)
- Creatine, a popular muscle-building supplement, may provide a quick-brain fuel that enhances short-term memory and rational reasoning in healthy people. (10)
Many nootropics enhance memory by improving learning. It’s an interconnected process that may be enhanced by increasing acetylcholine and calcium levels. Providing important nutrients for brain health like Omega 3’s can help support memory, while Creatine offers a quick and efficient fuel, making your brain sharper.
Improve Cognition – Focus and Alertness
Focus is probably the most interesting aspect of improving cognition. To concentrate, or to focus means to be able to direct and devote your attention to a single important thing. With higher concentration, we’re way more efficient to learn and memorize things.
The prefrontal and frontal cortex is the part of the brain important for focus. To focus on something on a brain level means to increase neural activity and acetylcholine secretion in that region of the brain. Which nootropics can help us with that?
Caffeine is the most popular and frequently used cognitive booster. It works by blocking the adenosine receptors (AR), which signal fatigue. (11)
Adenosine receptors accept adenosine, which is a side-product of energy production. The more energy you’ve wasted, to more tired you are. Caffeine can mask this even at low to moderate doses of 40-300 mg, thus enhancing alertness, attention, reaction, and vigilance. (1)
L-theanine is an important component in Matcha tea or Green tea, which can significantly improve alertness and mental clarity. How? It does this by allowing the brain to enter the alpha brain wave state. (12)
Alpha brain wave state is the frequency between 8-12 Hz, and no, it’s not the most awake and focused state, but it’s the most alert and calm one. In combination with caffeine, L-theanine works wonders on the brain, improving attention and reducing hyperactivity or jitteriness from a caffeine punch.
Another powerful nucleotide agent is Citicoline. You could probably guess by the name that it plays with acetylcholine levels. Citicoline line has been shown to improve attention, vigilance, arousal, and working memory, plus it reduces attention deficits in humans at doses of 250 to 500 mg. (13) (14)
Caffeine is the most potent cognitive enhancer which works by blocking adenosine receptors. Along with L-theanine, it can work to increase alertness and enter the alpha brain wave state. Citicoline is another powerful attention-booster that can increase acetylcholine levels.
Boost Mood – Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Mood in simple terms – is the way you feel. It is determined by the level of neurotransmitters in your brain. Having excess cortisol leads to stress and anxiety, while having optimal levels of dopamine and serotonin, leads to satisfaction and happiness.
When it comes to mood, there are certain nootropics that can affect these neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, or their precursors. Some of them, like tryptophan, are important precursors for forming these “happy chemicals”. It’s the reason you like cacao, peanuts, and chocolate.
5-HTP is also an important precursor for serotonin, which then turns into melatonin. It can assist your transition from happy to sleepy, thus enhancing how “relaxed” you feel. 5-HTP is used for anxiety and depression, as it may support mood. (16)
Many mood-boosting nootropics work by enhancing the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain since they’re their precursors. Some have an anxiolytic effect, while others improve feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
Boost Energy – Reduce Mental Fatigue
In such a hyperactive world, it’s hard not to run into an overwhelming state. It’s when our brain had so many physiological stressors, that it starts to signal “I want some rest”.
Many adaptogens contain different bioactive compounds that help our brain to adapt and fight stressors. Some of the most powerful include Rhodiola Rhosea and Panax Ginseng.
Rhodiola extract (SHR-5) supplementation led to lower stress and cortisol levels, thus fighting mental fatigue and improving cognitive performance. (22) In another trial, only 20 days of Rhodiola extract heavily improved mental fatigue, enhanced well-being, and neuro-motor tasks. (23)
Panax Ginseng has also been shown to be effective at doses of 200mg and 400 mg (G115 extract) in reducing mental fatigue and improving cognitive performance, especially under stressful situations or sustained mental activity. (24)
One of my favorite adaptogens that helps improve mental endurance and reduce fatigue is Eleuthero. I’ve experimented with an extract, as an addition to my coffee, and it worked great.
Eleuthero can improve attention and tolerance to stressors or exhaustion, thus improving cognitive performance. It works by modulating Nitric Oxide levels and ATP production – in favor of better performance. (25)
Many adaptogens work in different ways to enhance the body’s ability to fight stressors. Whether by reducing cortisol or increasing catecholamines, it can enhance mental energy, resilience, and endurance by preventing over-excitation and hyperactivity
Enhance Learning and Neuroplasticity
Learning is a complex process of creating new neural connections. It happens when we focus, activate neurons, gather information, store it, then repeat. Learning is about adaptation to an experience. Neuroplasticity is how plastic or adaptable your brain is to create new neural connections and organize them.
Compounds like acetylcholine, BDNF, and NGF are very important in learning – enhancing our brain’s ability to adapt. It seems there are some adaptogenic mushrooms lurking around that may enhance this.
Lions Maine also shows a potential to enhance the brain’s plasticity by exerting BDNF-like activity, due to the presence of hericene A’s – at least in vitro and in vivo. This may improve and “smoothen out” cognitive processes like learning and memory. (28)
Cordyceps is another potent brain mushroom, which contains a powerful bioactive compound – Cordycepin. Besides providing neuroprotective effects, it can enhance learning and memory, as shown in a mouse model. (29)
Certain adaptogenic mushrooms can help our brains become more adaptable and plastic. By increasing the levels of NGF and BDNF and modulating acetylcholine, Lions Maine may improve our ability to learn and support the creation of new neural connections.
Neuroprotection and Slowing Down Cognitive Decline
Our brain shrinks with age and so do our cognitive abilities, which are in a decline. This is a rather normal process, which comes due to years of oxidative damage in the brain. Plaque starts accumulating, increasing the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
Neuroprotection is about slowing down cognitive decline. It’s about protecting our brain from excessive oxidative stress and inflammation. It is about improving blood flow in the brain and increasing certain neurotropic factors (BDNF) that keep our brain plastic.
You know how muscles atrophy when not in use? So does our brain, hence why it’s important to learn a new skill, new instrument, or even practice some brain games that enhance memory. But what about nootropics?
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine may improve cognitive performance by improving mitochondrial function, enhancing cholinergic activity, and supporting synaptic function. (30)
- N-Acetylcysteine which acts as a glutathione precursor, exerts neuroprotective effects by acting anti-inflammatory, thus reducing oxidative damage. (31)
- Resveratrol, another powerful component in longevity seems to improve blood flow in the brain and even exert some neuroprotective activity. Such include reduction of inflammatory and increase of anti-inflammatory factors. (32) (33)
Low levels of Omega 3 FA’s are associated with poor memory and emotional imbalances. It’s logical since DHA and EPA provide structural integrity for the nervous system, which help support cognitive function and potentially ward off or slow down age-related cognitive decline. (32)
Neuroprotection is about reducing excessive inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain. Some nootropics that exert potent antioxidant-like effects may help slow down cognitive decline, keep our brain plastic and enhance cholinergic activity
Aid in Relaxation, Sleep, and Calmness
Sleep is the most powerful natural regeneration process. Different neurotransmitters in the brain affect how fast we can fall asleep and how deep and regenerative that sleep will be. Increased stressors, anxiety, and hyperactivation can distract this.
Many sleep-enhancing nootropics like Magnesium, (33) L-theanine (34), and GABA (35) work to enhance GABA levels in the brain, which helps us feel relaxed, calm, and fall asleep. That’s Gamma-aminobutyric acid, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
L-theanine improves sleep by reducing how much glutamate (which is excitatory) binds in the brain. It helps improve calmness, alertness and slows down the brain’s activity. (34)
Magnesium supplementation has proved effective in elderly people, as it increased sleep time and efficiency, serum levels of melatonin, and reduced both cortisol and the time it took to fall asleep. (33) I mean, that’s quite a lot for a mineral, isn’t it? Impressive Mg, keep it up!
Oftentimes, you can find certain teas or extracts of chamomile, chaga or reishi mushroom, passionflower fruit, or valerian root that act on a similar mechanism and improve sleep.
Natural sleep enhancers mainly work to increase the level of GABA in the brain, which helps you get into a relaxed state. Some of them can even increase melatonin, reduce muscle activation and reduce brain activity, thus enhancing sleep.
Memory: Potent memory-enhancers include Bacopa Monnieri which works to improve neural signaling and increases serum calcium levels. Alpha-GPC and Caffeine can also enhance memory, by improving acetylcholine levels and learning. Omega 3 FA’s are important brain nutrients that support memory as well.
Focus: Caffeine is the most potent natural stimulant. It works by blocking the adenosine receptors. L-theanine boosts alertness and helps us shift into an alpha-brain waves state, while Citicoline increases acetylcholine levels, thus improving concentration.
Mood: Nootropics that work to balance dopamine and serotonin in the brain can enhance mood, and potentially reduce anxiety and stress. These include the famous precursor to serotonin – 5-HTP, Mucuna Pruriens rich in L-dopa, and Ginkgo Biloba with its terpenoids.
Energy and Fatigue: Adaptogens that help the body fight physiological stressors include Ginseng, Eleuthero, and Rhodiola. They work by increasing catecholamines, improving ATP production and Nitric Oxide levels in the brain.
Learning and Neuroplasticity. Specific compounds like hericenones and erinacines found in Lion’s Mane may increase levels of BDNF and NGF in the brain, which can improve neurogenesis and learning.
Neuroprotection: Acetyl-L-Carnitine, N-Acetylcysteine, Resveratrol, and Omega 3’s (DHA) may exert potent antioxidant-like effects which may slow down cognitive aging. Brain protection also includes better cholinergic activity and mitochondria function.
Relaxation and Sleep: Magnesium, Rhodiola, L-theanine, and GABA have shown potential in improving sleep latency and quality. By increasing GABA levels, they improve our ability to “relax and wind down”.