Nootropics: What Are They, and Do They Work? | Chris Kresser

Nootropics: What Are They, and Do They Work?

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Thinking about trying nootropics? These natural and man-made substances reportedly target your brain to enhance learning and memory, increase attention, and boost your mood. But do they really work? Read on to find out.

Nootropics may help improve focus.
Nootropics have a reputation for boosting memory, improving mood, and increasing your attention span. iStock/PeopleImages

From lion’s mane mushrooms to phosphatidylserine, ALCAR to Bacopa monnieri, nootropic substances are having their moment. Modern nootropics offer a way to up your brain power—without compromising your health.

Whether you’re trying to stave off age-associated cognitive decline, hoping to improve your focus and productivity on the job, or simply want to manage the day-to-day stresses of modern life, nootropics may provide a simple and attractive solution. But do they actually work, or is it all just hype?

In this article, I’ll break down what nootropics are, the different types and how they work, and share some of the evidence behind some of the most common nootropic supplements.

Nootropics have a reputation for boosting your focus, learning, memory, and overall cognition—but do they really work? Check out this article to find out. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser #wellness

What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that enhance cognition, increase focus, or boost learning and memory. The word “nootropics” comes from the Greek noos, meaning “mind,” and trepin, meaning “to bend.” The term was coined by Romanian doctor Dr. Corneliu Giurgea in the 1970s when the “mind-bending” drug piracetam was first found to improve memory. (1)

Today, over 80 different substances can be classified as nootropics, including vitamins, herbs, phospholipids, choline sources, amino acids, antioxidants, and psychedelics. Some of these compounds act in the short-term, providing a few hours of temporarily enhanced mental focus, energy, or creativity, while others act to support long-term cognitive health and mental performance if taken consistently over weeks or months.

In a moment, I’ll discuss the various aspects of brain health that nootropics are used for and offer a few evidence-based nootropics in each category. First, though, we’ll take a quick look at how nootropics work.

How Do Nootropics Work?

Researchers have identified several ways that nootropics may work in the body to ultimately impact the brain:

  • Improving brain energy: Nootropics may support the production of cellular energy in neurons and other brain cells, either through stimulant effects or improved energy metabolism.
  • Maintaining brain blood flow: Nootropics may dilate small arteries and veins in the brain, improving circulation of adequate oxygen, glucose, or ketones to the brain.
  • Altering neurotransmitter concentrations: Some nootropics work by affecting the levels of serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, or other key chemicals in the brain.
  • Reducing brain inflammation: Nootropics could reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals and helping to eliminate toxins from the brain.
  • Enhancing neural support: Some nootropics can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), helping to maintain neurons and other brain cells and grow new brain connections.

A given nootropic may work by one or several of these mechanisms to produce its effects on the brain. Some nootropics may also work through mechanisms we don’t yet understand.

Six Benefits of Nootropics

1. They Boost Learning and Memory

Learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge or modifying existing knowledge, while memory is the ability of the brain to encode, store, and retrieve information when needed. Both learning and memory are vital to enjoying experiences, planning future actions, and maintaining a high quality of life.

Historically, nootropics were primarily taken by older adults experiencing age-associated memory loss. Today, nootropics are also taken to boost day-to-day memory performance for work-related tasks.

Nootropics that have been shown to improve memory include:

  • Phosphatidylserine (PS): This phospholipid is a component of brain cell membranes and plays an important role in cell signaling. PS has been shown to improve recall memory and cognitive function in the elderly and may reduce the risk of dementia. (2, 3)
  • Bacopa monnieri: Bacopa is an herb that has been used to boost memory and cognitive performance in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Modern scientific studies have shown that bacopa can improve long-term retention of new information in older adults. (4)
  • Panax ginseng: Single doses of this herb, also called Asian ginseng, may provide short-term improvement in the speed of performing memory tasks and the accuracy of attention-based tasks. (5, 6)
  • DHA: While a high dose of fish oil, rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is unlikely to improve your cognitive function over the course of a few hours, ensuring adequate omega-3 intake is crucial for optimizing brain function. One study found that young adults who took fish oil experienced improvements in working memory. (7)
  • Vitamin B6: Poor B6 status has been associated with cognitive decline, but 20 milligrams of vitamin B6 taken daily for three months was shown to modestly but significantly improve information storage in healthy elderly men. (8)

2. They Improve Focus and Attention

Focus and attention are the ability to concentrate one’s mind on a single task while ignoring extraneous environmental stimuli. There are several different aspects of attention, and they underlie many other cognitive functions.

Nootropics that have been shown to improve attention and focus include:

  • L-theanine: An amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine has been shown to improve attention, particularly in individuals who are prone to high levels of anxiety. (11)
  • Citicoline: A naturally occurring compound, citicoline has been shown to improve attention in healthy, middle-aged women and adolescent males. (9, 10)

3. They Improve Your Brain Energy

The brain consumes approximately 20 percent of the body’s energy, and brain energy has been associated with overall brain health. (12) Without sufficient energy, all cognitive processing of the brain will be slowed down.

Some nootropics that have been shown to improve brain energy include:

  • Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR): This nootropic stimulates energy production in brain cells, particularly in the frontal cortex, by helping to shuttle fats into the mitochondria of cells, where they can be burned for energy. ALCAR has been shown to increase brain energy metabolism and enhance the utilization of fats and ketones for energy. (13)
  • Caffeine: Perhaps the most well-known and widely experienced nootropic, caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and increases energy metabolism throughout the brain. (14)
  • Creatine: While most often used by athletes to increase muscle mass and exercise performance, creatine may also boost brain energy. Creatine supplements increase the amount of phosphocreatine, a form of stored energy in cells, and may improve cognitive functioning. (15)

4. They May Lead to a Better Mood

Mood encompasses a wide variety of states of mind, including anxiety and depression. A poor mood has been shown to impact brain energy, stress resistance, and brain circulation.

Nootropics that have been shown to improve mood include:

  • L-theanine: Regular supplementation with this green tea amino acid has been found to have beneficial effects on depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbance in patients with major depressive disorder. (16)
  • Bacopa monnieri: In double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, this herb reduced cortisol levels and improved mood in healthy volunteers. (17) Bacopa has also been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in the elderly. (18)
  • Lion’s mane mushrooms: These medicinal mushrooms have been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, possibly through modulating BDNF and reducing inflammation. (19, 20)

5. They Increase Your Stress Resilience

Stress clearly impacts mental performance and overall well-being. While stress management should be a key part of any program to improve cognitive function, some nootropics may also help.

Nootropics that have been shown to improve stress resilience include:

  • Rhodiola rosea: Rhodiola is an adaptogen that has been shown to reduce mental fatigue in students studied during examination stress. (21) It may also shorten reaction time and increase antioxidant capacity in healthy adults. (22)
  • L-tyrosine: In studies, dosing with tyrosine before a single test session has been shown to counteract the reduction in working memory and information processing induced by demanding situations, such as cold exposure or cognitive overload. (23)

6. They Offer Neuroprotection

While many people use these substances for an instant brain boost, the long-term neuroprotective benefits of nootropics should not be overlooked. Some research suggests that aspects of age-related cognitive decline can begin in healthy, educated adults even while they’re in their 20s and 30s. (24) In other words, it’s never too early to start taking care of your brain—and nootropics could play a role.

Nootropics that have been shown to have neuroprotective effects include:

  • Ginkgo biloba: A 2015 systematic review found that Ginkgo biloba, taken daily, was able to stabilize or slow declines in cognitive impairment and dementia. (25) Studies have found that ginkgo has antioxidant and anti-amyloid properties. (26)
  • Alpha-GPC: A natural choline compound, alpha-GPC delivers choline across the blood–brain barrier, where it acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. A large-scale trial confirmed the therapeutic role of alpha-GPC on the cognitive recovery in patients after a stroke. (27)
  • Huperzine A: A naturally occurring alkaloid compound, huperzine A inhibits the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and has been investigated as a treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Meta-analyses have found that huperzine A is effective for improving cognitive function for patients with schizophrenia, and may have similar effects for those with Alzheimer’s disease. (28, 29)

A Few Things to Keep in Mind Before Taking Nootropics

Be Wary of Cheaply Formulated Products

By definition, nootropics must be clinically shown to benefit the brain in some way, and they must be safe to use, with low toxicity and few side effects. However, so-called “smart drugs” like Ritalin, modafinil, and piracetam are sometimes thrown into the category of nootropics, even though they have clear side effects.

While nootropic vitamins, herbs, and amino acids are generally safe at the recommended doses and many have been used for thousands of years, it’s important to be wary of cheaply formulated nootropic supplements. Like all supplements, nootropics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or any other agency in the United States. You should also avoid most nootropics during pregnancy and lactation. Most nootropics are legal but be sure to check the laws in your country or state.

Using Nootropics Regularly May Reduce the Potency of Their Effect

It’s also important to recognize that nootropics influence brain chemistry and physiology, and our bodies are constantly working to maintain homeostasis—a neutral set point. This means that regular use of nootropics may cause changes in the brain that compensate for the effect of the supplement, causing tolerance.

Just as some people develop a tolerance for caffeine—meaning that they require ever-increasing amounts for it to have a stimulating effect—your body can become tolerant of nootropics and may require larger and larger doses for them to have the same impact.

This doesn’t happen for all nootropics. Those with vitamin-like activity or antioxidant effects are less likely to lose their effects over time than those that directly influence neurotransmitter balance. However, you can avoid this tolerance effect by using the minimal effective dosage and cycling different nootropics—only taking them on days that you are doing intense work, or taking a week off from a nootropic once every month or two to allow your body and brain to “reset.”

Good Old Diet and Lifestyle Still Go a Long Way

While nootropics clearly have positive effects on the brain, it’s important to remember that a healthy diet and ancestral lifestyle have a much larger effect on your brain health. If you’re constantly sedentary, eating junk food, stressed out, and running on too little sleep, even a perfectly formulated nootropic regimen is unlikely to correct the detrimental effects on your brain function.

Rather than using nootropics as a crutch for a poor diet and lifestyle, I believe we should view nootropics as a way to take things to the next level once we have these other factors dialed in.