When we place our minds over our matter, we achieve the impossible. Yet, this doesn’t erase the humbling fact that the mind is contained by the brain, which, yes, is literally “matter.” In fact, the brain is a complex network of matter that our minds frantically struggle to grasp yet will ultimately fail to master.
How’s that for a reality check?
Here’s another reality check: the brain comprises roughly 2% of the body’s weight yet consumes about 20% of the body’s fuel. Thus, it’s in the mind’s best interest to keep the brain well-nourished and neurochemically primed through proper nutrition, exercise, rest, and …nootropic supplements?
Certainly, nootropics may help bolster cognitive performance, but are they truly necessary for brain health? Unfortunately, with the rise of synthetic stimulants and “smart pills,” the question of nootropic brain health enhancement understandably comes with a healthy dose of skepticism, apprehension, and confusion.
So perhaps before we answer whether or not you should take nootropics, let’s first distinguish nootropic cognitive enhancers from non-nootropic brain boosters. Let’s start with the basics: what are nootropics?
Nootropics 101: A Brief Guide on Cognitive Enhancers
Since the 2011 movie Limitless, the idea of nootropic cognitive enhancers has predominantly and wrongfully been attributed to pharmaceutical “smart drug” pills, namely Adderall. While it’s true that Adderall and the like do enhance brain function, at least temporarily, they don’t qualify as true nootropics.
In fact, you could easily make the argument that long-term Adderall usage actually contributes to cognitive impairment, especially as addiction becomes an increasing issue.
Nootropics are inherently non-addictive because, by their original definition, nootropics lack the usual side effects associated with pharmaceutical drugs. Developed in 1964 by Romanian chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea, the concept of “nootropics” involved a list of criteria to determine what constitutes a nootropic substance, including:
- Enhancement of learning acquisition,
- Resistance to impairing agents,
- Facilitation of interhemispheric transfer of information,
- Enhanced resistance to brain “aggressions,”
- Increased tonic, cortico-subcortical “control,”
- Absence of usual pharmacological effects of neuro-psychotropic drugs.
In other words, by Giurgea’s definition, for a substance to qualify as “nootropic,” it must enhance mental performance without compromising brain health. If we’re strictly abiding by Giurgea’s definition, nootropics must actually protect against brain damages.
Initially, the first nootropics included the racetam class of cognitive enhancers, such as piracetam. However, since 1964, this class of supplements has amassed a variety of nootropic “types” ranging from lab-synthesized to all-natural compounds.
The “Types” of Nootropic Supplements
Not all nootropics target the same cognitive pathways, nor does a single nootropic enhance all aspects of cognition. Some nootropics nourish the brain’s nutrient levels while others improve neurochemical pathways.
In the search for the best nootropic, it isn’t merely a matter of finding one really good nootropic. Instead, you want to find several nootropics of different types that work really good together. The different kinds of nootropics generally include:
Lab-synthesized compounds that improve cognitive function without compromising brain health qualify as nootropics. A typical example of synthetic nootropics consists of the racetam class of cognitive enhancers – e.g., piracetam, aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, and so on.
While not necessarily natural, due to their lab origins, this synthetic class of nootropics operates within the natural pathways of cognitive performance. Even so, many health enthusiasts may understandably avoid synthetic nootropics, as many of them don’t seem to possess the same quality assurances as other natural dietary supplements. (More on that later.)
Caffeine perhaps qualifies as a semi-synthetic nootropic – and some would argue that caffeine doesn’t qualify as a nootropic at all, due to the drug’s jittery stimulatory effects.
Natural compounds comprised of synthetic bonds, or that are in any way synthetically activated, qualify as semi-synthetic. For example, sulbutiamine binds two vitamin B1 compounds into a single component, synthetically enhancing the vitamin’s natural effects. As this involves an unnatural degree of otherwise natural bio-activity, it isn’t always obvious what the long-term effects of semi-synthetic nootropics will be.
Depending on your region, these types of nootropics may or may not qualify as legal dietary supplements.
Herbal Powders and Extracts
Rhodiola Rosea, Bacopa monnieri, maritime pine bark – such natural herbal remedies have their roots deeply embedded in human history. Bio-active plants carry an array of brain-healthy constituents that may benefit any number of cognitive measures, not to mention biological pathways as well. When it comes to supplementing herbal nootropics, herbal extracts typically pack a higher potency (and thus more significant effect) than plain powder herbs.
Vitamins and Minerals
Nootropics in elemental forms. Given the general health requirements of vitamins and minerals, it’s a little dubious to suggest that vitamins and minerals outright qualify as cognitive enhancers. Really, it’s under conditions of vitamin- and mineral-deficiencies that cognition tanks, and so if replenishing your vitamin and mineral levels feels like a brain boost …odds are you were malnourished.
Having said that, certain vitamins, such as B vitamins, may provide noticeable mood and focus boosts; even under normal vitamin level conditions.
Required for the cell’s semi-permeable double bilayer membranes, phospholipids are essential fatty acid chains with phosphorus “heads” that line the membrane’s exterior. Off the bat, the two most popular nootropic phospholipids include phosphatidylserine (PS) and phosphatidylcholine (PC); although most nootropic users solely stick with the former (PS). As we age, PS levels naturally decline. Thus PS supplements seem to have garnered a reputation as “anti-aging” memory boosters. Even so, PS may possess ergogenic properties for younger, active users as well.
Sort of a “sub-category” of nootropics, adaptogens include any substance that helps the body adapt to stress. Usually, adaptogens refer to stress-reducing herbs (e.g., Rhodiola); however, other nootropic types may also qualify as adaptogens, such as the amino acid L-tyrosine.
The key word here is “adapt,” meaning that adaptogens don’t work against stress but instead help the body rebalance under conditions of mental and physiological stress. Timed correctly, adaptogens may work as clutch performance enhancers, restoring mental alertness when it matters.
As the building blocks of protein, amino acids play a fundamental role in our growth and development. Bodybuilders and athletes may value amino acids for their muscle-regenerative potential; however, amino acid usage isn’t limited to sports. Certain amino acids – e.g., L-theanine, L-tyrosine – may also possess acute brain-boosting effects on mental performance and cognitive composure.
While caffeine and other stimulants typically work by stimulating “feel good” dopamine activity, many potent nootropics genuinely enhance mental performance by instead targeting the cholinergic pathways – namely, the acetylcholinergic pathway.
Acetylcholine is a hugely important neurotransmitter for memory, learning, and other high-order cognitive processes. Cholinergic nootropics may improve acetylcholine status by supplying raw choline for acetylcholine synthesis, inhibiting acetylcholine breaking, or sharpening acetylcholine receptor sensitivity.
Okay, But Do We Need Nootropics?
This one’s a bit of a toughie, given the wide variety of nootropics these days. Generally speaking, when it comes to supplements, the question of necessity is in the name: supplements are supplementary to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
In other words, supplements are taken in addition to what’s necessary. However, the rising interest in supplements is more complicated than that.
On the one hand, it would seem that through marketing and advertising many supplement companies have done a fantastic job at creating the illusion of a need for their supplements, when in fact it’d be much more ideal for obtaining their nutrients through a healthy, balanced diet.
Yet, food processing has sucked the average diet dry of nutrients, and the organic stuff is expensive. (Plus, people are reasonably skeptical of the “organic” label, as regulatory loopholes have essentially rendered this word meaningless.) Not to mention that heightened exercise activity and muscular demands call for additional sources of nutrients, especially in the competitive arena of athletics and (as far as nootropics are concerned) the workplace.
We live in strange times: food comes easy, yet healthy weight and nutrient levels seem low. We need healthy fatty acids for the brain, but instead, we’re ingesting vegetable oils that have high amounts of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. As a result, free radicals and oxidative stress build up, thereby diminishing our mental health and increasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. From where then does the necessity for cognitive enhancers come? Especially given the key differences between enhancement and nourishment?
Again, the variety of nootropics blurs the line between enhancement and nourishment, especially in the context of our food-rich, nutrient-depleted diets. Is the enhancement simply a return to a healthy baseline? Or is it an extension beyond that baseline?
Either way, the brain pathways targeted by natural nootropics are essential to health and well-being. And if sustaining optimal brain health and mental performance, even while engaged in a healthy lifestyle, is important to you, then it’s you who determines the necessity of nootropics.
Having said that, how are you to know the difference between nootropic supplements that are the real deal vs. complete bunko garbage? In other words:
Who’s Regulating This Stuff?
Depending on where you live, the question of regulation varies – and it varies from nootropic type to nootropic type.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Agency – typically, such governmental food and drug agencies oversee nootropic supplement regulations and marketing protocols.
Having said that, most regulatory agencies do not recognize nootropics as an official class of dietary supplements or drugs, thus leaving a void in nootropic regulation.
This is why online forums dedicated to proper nootropic usage, such as Reddit’s /r/Nootropics subreddit, have become so popular among nootropic enthusiasts. Pharmacists may tell you that mixing certain medications may have negative effects; however, to learn of such negative ingredient interactions, nootropic users turn to the crowdsourced information provided by online forums.
This has its obvious downsides, as this sort of vigilante regulation is far from scientifically legitimate as placebo-controlled studies. Yet, they do abide by a certain code of ethics and standards to minimize the spread of inaccurate information.
So, Are Nootropics Legal?
For the most part, natural nootropics are treated as dietary supplements, and thus they are freely sold and bought without a prescription. Not to say that dietary nootropic supplements don’t have to meet certain quality guidelines and regulatory procedures, but generally, this class of nootropics is legally viewed as “innocent” until proven “guilty” – i.e., unhealthy or toxic for consumption.
Other nootropic compounds that straddle the line between natural and synthesis – the semi-synthetic nootropics may legally vary across the world, whereas synthetic nootropics (e.g., racetams) must be sold as “research compounds” rather than as supplements.
And it goes without saying that heavy stimulants, such as Adderall, require a prescription to obtain and use; even though non-prescribed Adderall usage is statistically a growing trend, especially among academically competitive college students.
Do Nootropics Qualify as Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)?
Legally, no. First of all, natural nootropics don’t even qualify as “drugs,” even if they do enhance cognitive performance. Plus, many nootropics, especially herbal nootropics, provide legitimately healthy nutrition for the brain and body – so, natural nootropics are “performance enhancing” insomuch that optimizing your natural brain and body pathways enhances performance.
While certain ethical considerations are important, especially to the discussion of nootropics in academia, the same idea applies: nootropics that naturally enhance performance fall more under the banner of “health enhancement” than “performance enhancement.”
Although, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) does ban certain synthetic cognitive enhancers for use in sport.
Can Competing Athletes Take Nootropics?
Whether you’re a professional athlete or a recreational fitness nerd, even of the VR fitness caliber, nootropics are generally fair game.
Yet, WADA does prohibit the use of certain popular synthetic brain boosters, such as:
- Amphetamines (e.g., Adderall)
- Methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin)
And several more nootropic drugs that you may find listed here.
Yet, again, for the most part, athletes may supplement most natural and even semi-natural nootropics, in the same way, they would supplement their favorite pre- and post-workout supplements. Aside from phenylpiracetam, even most racetam nootropics are fair game.
What Are the Best Nootropics?
The variety of nootropic types and, thus, the variety of nootropic effects make it difficult to outright pinpoint the best nootropic supplements for everyone. Is it the energy you need? Then the best nootropics for you would be ATP energy boosters. But if it’s too much energy on your mind, then you’ll need the opposite: anxiolytic mental relaxation.
Plus, your cognitive needs shift throughout the day (and night). Ideally, regardless of your particular cognitive needs, you’ll want a synergistic mix of nootropics to cover:
- Daytime Enhancement
- Nighttime Recovery
- Nutrient Nourishment
Opti-Nutra’s Mind Lab Pro and Performance Lab supplement series serve as a model example of nootropic supplements that you may either take individually or stack altogether to cover one or all parts of your daytime, nighttime, and nourishment needs. Whether you want to improve memory or enhance your focus and concentration, these supplements may help.
For each respective category, Opti-Nutra offers:
Nootropic Daytime Enhancement
For most people, “daytime enhancement” usually runs synonymous with “a few cups of coffee in the morning.” And while caffeine does supply a reliable jolt of “feel good” cognitive energy, it’s not for everyone – and even for those who it’s “for,” caffeine intake often veers off into the overstimulated territory.
And overstimulation accomplishes the opposite of mental performance enhancement.
By remaining caffeine-free, Mind Lab Pro delivers morning and afternoon brain boosts that won’t overwhelm the brain with cheap stimulation. Instead, the formula focuses on optimizing the brain’s natural pathways related to cognitive performance, specifically six pathways:
- Brain Energy
- Brain Chemicals
- Blood Flow
Taken daily, the stack delivers acute cognitive benefits, such as N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine’s short-term memory boosts and L-Theanine’s mental relaxation, as well as long-term memory and health improvements on neuron repair and regeneration. Some research even suggests that Bacopa monnieri shows promise in improving the health of Alzheimer’s patients and others experiencing age-related cognitive decline.
Mind Lab Pro’s “Universal Nootropic” formula design is intended to work for all cognitive goals, and its all-natural status limits the risk of negative ingredient interactions – even with other nootropic supplements.
However, for an even simpler nootropic solution, Performance Lab Mind offers four of Mind Lab Pro’s best nootropics – Citicoline, N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine, Phosphatidylserine, and Maritime Pine Bark Extract – that stack well with other Performance Lab brain supplements.
Nootropic Nighttime Repair
Perhaps the most common offender in poor cognitive performance (and, really, in poor performance across the board) is a lack of sleep. College students are all too familiar with sleep deprivation: poor sleep contributes to increased learning difficulties which contribute to increased time studying which contributes to poor sleep, and so on. Thus nootropics for sleep somewhat double as nootropics for energy, or at least next-day energy.
Performance Lab Sleep takes the reliable, well-researched route to better sleep – the melatonin route – except outclasses other melatonin sleep aid stacks with its use of natural melatonin sourced from Montmorency Tart Cherry.
Altogether, this sleep stack’s ingredients include:
- Montmorency Tart Cherry (as CherryPURE®)
- L-Tryptophan (as TryptoPure®)
- Magnesium (as BioGenesis®)
Compared to synthetic melatonin, natural melatonin extract supplies a more stable, standardized concentration of melatonin, limiting the risk of headache and next-morning grog for all-around better mental clarity.
Under desperate measures, I’ve resorted to melatonin supplements in the past to fall asleep, yet I tried to avoid them due to the brain fog that often followed the next morning. Performance Lab Sleep doesn’t seem to come with this issue, as the melatonin is natural and paired with L-tryptophan for added serotonergic mood benefits.
The magnesium is the icing on the cake here, especially for sweaty athletes at risk of poor sleep quality associated with magnesium deficiency. And I’m also happy not to see GABA here, a common ingredient for sleep and anxiety that fails to pass the blood-brain barrier.
Nootropic Daily Nourishment
Nature-identical vitamins and minerals – that’s the standard set by Performance Lab Whole-Food Multi stacks, which split into “For Men” and “For Women” formulas.
I’m slightly bending the rules of nootropic cognitive “enhancement” here: multivitamin supplements don’t exactly enhance cognitive performance, but rather they nourish brain health by ensuring micronutrient levels are up-to-par.
In other words, multivitamin supplements help maintain adequate vitamin and mineral levels required for proper neurotransmissions, brain chemical syntheses, neuronal repair, etc. Take, for example, Vitamin B6 – this vitamin not only assists with circulatory health but plays a key role in catecholamine neurotransmitter syntheses. Or Zinc, which is required for testosterone synthesis.
Through a process called BioGenesis™, Performance Lab supplies nature-identical vitamins and minerals with structures similar to those found in nutrient-rich whole foods. While not exactly an appropriate replacement for a well-balanced diet, this multivitamin stack works to replenish lost micronutrients.
Importing Nootropics Across the Globe
While most big in-store retailers offer your usual general “brain health” supplements, the rise of nootropic “cognitive enhancer” supplements has primarily occurred on the internet. This means that nootropic users typically order their nootropics supplements online.
Because many nootropics, especially synthetic nootropics (e.g., racetams), live in a sort of legal limbo, this raises the question of importing nootropics across international lines: for example, is it legal to ship piracetam into a country where you need a prescription for piracetam use?
Legal or no, many nootropic enthusiasts do exactly that, exposing a loophole in the global nootropic market. For the most part, if you do import nootropics from another country, your shipment must contain no more than a 3-months’ supply.
Although, if you order from a mainstream nootropic supplement company, as opposed to a bulk nootropic supplier, you shouldn’t have to worry about breaking any rules – national or international – by ordering the online store’s available options.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
As previously mentioned, nootropic users double as the unofficial nootropic “regulators” to fill the legal, regulatory void left unaddressed by government regulatory agencies. So, naturally, many who are curious about nootropics may have some fairly basic questions, such as:
Can I stack several nootropic supplements?
For the most part, yes. Especially if you buy different nootropic products from the same company’s supplement line, as supplement manufacturers tend to design their formulas with the intent of stacking them together. Although, this isn’t always the case. So, if you do have multiple nootropic supplements, make sure they don’t share too many of the same ingredients, lest you want to risk overdosing your nootropic servings.
Is it okay to mix nootropics with prescribed medication?
This is a “consult your physician” question. Serotonin medication, in particular, should not be mixed with nootropics that affect serotonin levels. This even includes serotonergic botanicals, such as St. John’s Wort.
Do I need to cycle nootropic supplements?
For the most part, no. In fact, many nootropic ingredients actually increase their cognitive benefits when supplemented daily over time. Bacopa monnieri, for example, famously (or infamously) requires a couple of weeks of supplementation to reach peak effect.
Synthetic nootropics, on the other hand, are a different story, and they may require a few days “on,” few days “off” cycling schedule to sustain their potency and reduce the risk of tolerance build up.
Can I take nootropics while pregnant?
Again, this is a “consult your physician” question. Odds are your OB/GYN will recommend prenatal multivitamins; however, if you have a specific nootropic formula or ingredient in mind, run it by your physician beforehand.
Which are better – capsules, tablets, or powder?
Tablets typically come stuffed with fillers and binders that may decrease the ingredients’ rate of absorption into your body. Between capsules and tablets, capsules are the preferred option, especially Plantcap® vegan capsules with no unnecessary additives and colorants.
Between capsules and powders, there are both pros and cons to each. Primarily, the decision there comes down to dosage control – would you prefer having a standardized ingredient dosage per serving, or do you like the idea of measuring out dosages as necessary?
Capsulated supplements offer on-the-go enhancement with consistent, reliable effects, whereas the powder format allows formula customization.
Can Nootropics Reduce Risks of Mental Diseases?
Beyond improving their cognitive abilities, some people treat supplements as a cure for mental disorders, such as social anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, etc.
One compound that you might have heard about is Huperzine, which contains the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Some studies have found evidence that huperzine A might significantly improve cognitive performance in people with Alzheimer’s disease. However, a recent systematic review found that the quality of the evidence of huperzine A’s effectiveness was low.Mayo Clinic
Most of those diseases are either causes or exacerbated by a poor diet that’s low in healthy fats and high in carbohydrates. So before trying a proprietary blend of performance enhancers, take control over your long-term health by adjusting your dietary habits.
The best nootropics are not “smart drugs” nor do they encompass the generic brands of shady “brain health” supplements. (Although, as nootropics increase in popularity, many brain supplements self-described as “nootropic” do seem increasingly shady.) Rather, a true nootropic supplement is one that improves cognition through enhancing natural brain pathways at no cost to long-term brain health.
Having said that, nootropics are not proper substitutes for pharmaceutical medication nor a well-balanced diet. While part of the appeal to nootropics is their “alternative” status to so-called smart pills, such as Adderall, their real benefits come in the form of long-term neuroprotective enhancement and neurochemical optimization.
Given the complexity of the brain, the value of any nootropic may differ on a person-by-person basis. Yet, the Performance Lab line of nootropics is a smart starting point for those expecting a cognitive enhancement, and improved energy levels beyond the usual caffeine rush. Even nootropic veterans may appreciate the potency and bioavailability of Performance Lab’s natural ingredients.
Michael is a healthy living enthusiast and CrossFit athlete whose goal is to help people achieve optimal health by bridging the gap between ancestral living and the demands of modern society.