Nootropics are compounds that are purported to enhance the brain and cognitive functions. Things such as verbal fluency, memory, focus, energy, mood, and motivation are all areas of mind that are said to benefit from nootropic supplements.
This comprehensive guide teaches you about the most widely researched, best nootropic ingredients, and thoroughly explains their efficacy along with how they actually work.
It also provides detailed answers to popular questions, including:
So if you wish to learn more about how to neuro-hack your brain, or if you want to learn how to stack nootropics for specific outcomes like reducing anxiety, this guide is for you.
Actually, you’re also going to discover how I used nootropics to concertina 7 weeks A-level chemistry revision into just 1 week using the power of nootropics.
Let’s get started.
My very first experience of nootropics was way back in 1995, when I was studying for my A-Level exams. At the time I was studying A-Level psychology, chemistry, sports studies, A/S Level maths & economics.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I was able to achieve a grade B in my final A-level Chemistry exam with only 1 week revision, whereas the rest of the class did between 6-8 weeks revision.
How did I do this?
Although my evidence is purely anecdotal, I believe that nootropics played a significant role in my success. At the time of my A-Levels, I was a national level competitive 100m sprinter and I’d read that Linford Christie was a big advocate of Ginseng.
Today it’s common knowledge that Ginseng has nootropic properties, but back then it was relatively unknown, thus by by way of research, I eventually discovered Bacopa monnieri.
Fast-forward; while experimenting with Bacopa monnieri for competition sprints, I noticed a remarkable difference in my focus, it was laser like and my alertness was simply amazing. Everything that I wanted to do, I could do in an instant, and effortlessly.
Then I had that eureka moment; I wondered if my Bacopa monnieri nootropic supplement could help me with the times when I suffered from brain fog while trying to revise for my exams and just couldn’t seem to focus no matter what I did.
You know the one where you spend hours doing something but inevitably end up doing hardly anything at all because you just couldn’t concentrate and get in the right frame of mind.
Did it work?
Bingo! It just worked a treat, in fact I can honestly say not only was my focus improved, but my memory was on point too. Whatever I read, I surprisingly seemed to remember perfectly. My memory was like a sponge soaking up every ounce of information it received.
This is what I believe helped me concertina my final exam revision into just one week.
Today I use Gamma-Mynd, a pre-made nootropic supplement, but before I tell you all about some of the ingredients in that stack, let me first explain what nootropics are and exactly what they do.
The word nootropic actually has its roots in France and Greece, the French word nootrope is derived from the Greek words (noos ‘mind’ + tropē ‘turning’), literally meaning mind-bending.
If nootropics had a father it would definitely have to be Corneliu, not only did he define the word nootropic, but he was also the creator of the first ever recorded synthetic smart drug; Piracetam.
However, prior to the creation of Piracetam, natural nootropics are known to have been used all over the world in ancient civilations. Including, China, Thailand, India along with the South America’s, and perhaps even in other early civilisations too.
There is evidence to suggest that the use of plants and herbs such as Ginkgo Biloba, Ginseng, and Holy Basil were common place in these times.
It seems like we are only just catching up with our ancient ancestors today.
A nootropic is any substance that has the ability to enhance memory, cognitive function, focus, creativity and general intelligence, but without having any side effects that are usually associated with psychotropic drugs.
Actually, Corneliu specifically stated that a nootropic should have very low toxicity.
This definition has lead to cause for debate regarding the classification of modern racetams and other smart drugs such as Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Phenylpiracetam, Piracetam, Noopept, Phenotropil, Amphetamines (Adderall), Methylphenidate (Ritalin), and Modafinil (Provigil) etc.
Modern synthetic smart drugs are synonymous with nootropics, yet often these synthetic smart drugs have associated negative side effects, and therefore do not technically fit into the natural nootropic category.
Nootropics have several different mechanisms that clinical research has identified as to how they positively affect your brain. They absolutely do not all do the same thing.
Perhaps you’ve read somewhere that creatine is a nootropic, you could ask anyone who has used creatine, if it affected anything other than their physical performance.
Technically, creatine does have a nootropic effect, nevertheless I am more than confident that anyone who’s ever used creatine would not report an improvement in well being, cognition or focus.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate and user of creatine myself. I can genuinely say that it does boost physical performance, but it doesn’t have any effect on your mind per se, rather it has a neuroprotective effect on your brain.
Nootropics work in the following ways:
Inflammation of the brain is caused by oxidative stress and free radical damage (2). Some nootropic compounds have been shown to exhibit antioxidant properties and therefore are able to reduce inflammation of the brain and help protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease (3).
Your brain is a highly metabolically active, advanced bio-machine. It needs a readily available supply of oxygen, glucose, fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and other such nutrients, in order for it to function properly.
The only way that the brain is able to receive these nutrients is through your blood. If blood flow to any area of your brain is inadequate, brain degeneration may occur. Certain nootropics have been shown to increase cerebral blood flow and vasodilation.
Neurotransmitters are what govern our movement, memory, mood, focus and general cognition. An imbalance can lead to anxiety, personality disorders and other problems.
As an example, at night time, levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (which inhibits the action of wake promoting neurotransmitters) increase and you feel sleepy (4).
Nootropics can positively influence levels of specific neurotransmitters. Thus by selective neurotransmitter manipulation, we can for example, program a state of wakefulness and alertness.
It’s a case of matching the right nootropic to the corresponding action it has on your neurotransmitters, along with the correct dose to effectively pass the blood brain barrier and achieve the desired state of consciousness.
Every single one of the 50 trillion or so cells that comprise your body needs energy.
Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP) is the fundamental energy source that powers every cell of every human on the planet. Your brain is no different in terms of its energy source and a boost in cerebral ATP is literally going to amp up your brain power.
BDNF is a special type of protein that is a member of a family of growth factors known as neurotrophins.
Amazingly, BNDF increases neuroplasticity; a dynamic capability of the brain which enables it to transfer synaptic connections from one part of the brain to another. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to continually optimise neural networks and function in the most efficient way.
NGF is another amazing chemical that is classed as a neuropeptide which is primarily responsible for the regulation of growth, maintenance, and proliferation of your neurons (nerve cells).
Before I talk about what the best nootropics are, it is important for you to understand basic neurotransmitter function.
Nootropic substances can have a varied effect upon the different neurotransmitters, and therefore one must know which nootropic to use, or which combination of nootropics to use, in order to achieve your particular desired effect and correctly 'neuro-hack' your brain.
Let’s delve straight in
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that enable neurotransmission, which is the transport of chemical information across your nerves and nervous system.
If you think of your nervous system as being akin to the internet, having vast networks of cable infrastructure that connect every node on the network into one big interconnected machine. You could then say that neurotransmitters were the TCP/IP (Transmission Control /Internet Protocol) of your nervous system.
Every single thought and movement, however big or small, involves some kind of neurotransmission, and without neurotransmitters we simply could not function.
Even a slight imbalance can tip the apple cart so to speak. For example, patients with multiple sclerosis typically have increased levels of noradrenaline, glutamate and aspartate (5).
If you are going to mess with your neurotransmitters, you better know what you are doing.
The blood brain barrier is a system that is designed to protect the brain from pathogens and other neuro-toxic substances, by only allowing certain molecules through it. Essentially it is a semi-permeable barrier that functions as a protective filter, separating specific molecules from circulatory blood by passive diffusion.
It’s like a toll road that only allows passage if you have the right credentials.
Any substance that is purported to have a nootropic effect must be able to pass the blood brain barrier in order to have any effect on your brain and neurological system.
It’s not easy getting a substance through the blood brain barrier. For example, tryptophan is an amino acid precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin and is known to stimulate human growth hormone secretion (6).
Yet if you took tryptophan with a branched chain amino acid supplement, you wouldn’t get enough of it past the blood brain barrier to have any effect on your growth hormone levels.
This is because tryptophan and BCAA’s are all in the large neutral amino acid transporter class and therefore compete with each other for crossing. This “competition“ results in less of each amino acid passing through the blood brain barrier.
If you combine any two amino acids from the same class, the same thing will happen; each will compete for access past the blood brain barrier.
Although there are probably in excess of 100 different nootropic compounds, including plants, herbs, amino-acids and other pharmaceutical so called smart drugs, I am detailing my top 9 pick of natural nootropics.
I believe, for the reasons listed below, that these offer the greatest benefit in terms of neuroprotection and influence of memory, cognition, focus and athletic performance.
Hericium erinaceus, a.k.a. Lion’s Mane is a medicinal mushroom native to Asia, Europe and North America. It is an irregular looking mushroom, in fact it was named according to its unique Lion's mane like appearance.
Looks aside, Lion's Mane is scientifically researched and proven to benefit your brain and neurons. This is because this irregular mushroom is enriched with bio-active compounds that activate Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) pathways (7), and stimulates the synthesis of nerve growth factor (NGF) (8).
Furthermore, Lion’s Mane exhibits a neuroprotective effect which can help protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and even transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Because of its influence on NGF, it may also help with memory and cognitive function.
The power of this mushroom will is geared toward making you a superhero of mind. You should notice a distinct boost in your focus, attention, creativity and overall cognitive performance.
Lions Mane is one of the few nootropics that stimulate NGF, therefore it is possible that it may help with reaction times and your ability to respond to a stimulus.
Start off with 500 mg per day, you can increase it if you feel the need but I’d max out at 1000mg.
Phosphatidyl Serine is a phospholipid, that is, it is comprised of 2 fatty acid tails joined together with a phosphate group head. Essentially it’s a combination of 2 molecules of fats and a phosphorus atom. In lay-terms, phosphatidyl Serine is an essential component of all cells, including your brain cells.
It is particularly important in forming cell membranes. In fact research shows that Phosphatidyl Serine is most concentrated in your brain, where it accounts for 15% of total phospholipids (9).
As your brain ages the cell membranes lose their integrity which eventually leads to degeneration of your brain, its capabilities and function. Phosphatidyl Serine is vital for the regeneration of brain cells which is probably why scientists believe it may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheier's disease (10).
PS is also important in cell signalling (cell-to-cell messaging) because it is a vital component of the cell membrane, it helps keeps the cell fluid and allows for efficient transport of intra (inside the cell) and extracellular (outside the cell) chemical messengers.
The neurotransmitters choline and acetylcholine are also synthesised from PS which is a precursor to both. PS has been shown to help increase levels of both these neurotransmitters (11).
Acetylcholine and choline are both crucial for proper cognitive function and memory recall. Additionally, loss of cholinergic neurons is typically associated with symptoms of memory loss and a decline of cognitive function and Alzheimers disease (12).
Supplementing with PS can have a neuroprotective effect and will more than likely help your memory and cognition perform more efficiently.
To reap any of these benefits you need to take a baseline of 300mg of PS per day. I am not aware of any studies that show benefits from a lesser dose.
Alpha-GPC is a naturally occurring cholinergic compound that provides Choline, as a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetyl-choline (Ach). There are other phospholipids similar to Alpha-GPC, namely; CDP-Choline (cytidine 5′-diphosphocholine) and Choline Bitartrate.
Both CDP-Choline and Choline Bitartrate can in theory help boost levels of Acetyl-Choline. However in practise Alpha-GPC stand head and shoulders above CDP-Choline and Choline Bitartrate for its ability to significantly influence Acetyl-Choline levels.
CDP-Choline contains significantly less choline, gram for gram, than Alpha-GPC does. This of course means that the equivalent dose of CDP-Choline Vs Alpha-GPC, would yield less of the neurotransmitter acetyl-choline.
Choline Bitartrate on the other hand has approximately the same choline content as Alpha-GPC does. Nevertheless, Choline Bitartrate does not readily pass through the blood-brain barrier and as a result is not as efficient at boosting Acetyl-Choline.
But that’s not all
Alpha-GPC is also neuroprotective and supports neural regeneration. One study in particular (13), tested Alpha-GPC on a group of 2044 patients who were recovering from a stroke or a transient ischemic attack. Patients were given Alpha-GPC at a dose of 1000 mg for the first 28 days, and 400 mg thereafter for 5 months.
The results were astonishing, after re-testing, 71% of the subjects had recovered and showed no cognitive decline or forgetfulness. The researchers concluded “The trial confirms the therapeutic role of alpha-GPC on the cognitive recovery of patients with acute stroke or TIA”
Users of Alpha-GPC generally report a significant boost in memory, learning, athletic performance and general well-being. If you are looking for a nootropic that works, make sure that Alpha-GPC is on your list.
Dosage wise, I’d suggest shooting for a minimum of 400 mg per day, anything less and it’s doubtful that you will reap any benefit.
Now you’ve read this far, you’ll already know the importance of boosting Acetyl-Choline, and if you are going to take nootropics to do this, you may well also want to supplement with Huperzine-A.
Huperzine-A is an extract of Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata). Bear in mind if you see plain old Huperzia serrata advertised for sale, this is not the extract Huperzine-A, rather, it’s simply the powdered moss.
Needless to say, once you’ve spiked Acetyl-Choline and are working in the gamma brain wave zone, you’re going to want to prolong this for as long as possible. Here comes your new friend Huperzine-A!
Huperzine-A is a natural cholinesterase inhibitor (AChE) which means that it inhibits the enzyme cholinesterase that prevents the breakdown of Acetyl-Choline. In plain English, Huperzine-A has been shown to improve levels of Acety-Choline and thus improve cognitive dysfunction even when taken on its own.
Research also shows that its permeability through the blood-brain barrier is superior to pharmaceutical drugs such as tacrine, donepezil, and rivastigmine. It also has a neuroprotective effect against oxidative stress (14).
If you want to not only boost, but to also maintain Acetyl-Choline levels, Huperzine-A is an absolute must, and if you combine Alpha-GPC and Hup-A together you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to hero from zero.
In terms of how much you should take, you will need a minimum of 50mcg per day. The only drawback is its unusually long half life, so depending on the dose, you may have to use every other day.
Bacopa is a creeping perennial also known as waterhyssop, due to the fact that it natively grows in wetland and marshland areas (aquarium plant). In India it is also sometimes referred to as brahmi, after the hindu supreme creator-god brahma.
This has to be one of my personal favourite nootropics and you can benefit from this powerful herb in a multitude of ways.
Modern chemical analysis of bacopa monneieri shows that it contains a number of interesting phytochemical substrates that scientists refer to as bacosides. Clinical research shows that these bacosides exhibit antioxidant neuroprotection via a number of different mechanisms (15).
Bacopa monnieri has a nourishing effect upon your neurons and it was allegedly used as an ayurvedic medicine by ancient Vedic scholars to memorise lengthy sacred hymns and scriptures. The incidence of ancient records documenting its use and benefits appear to be far too predominant to be coincidence or hearsay.
I can personally say that you can expect to experience a marked improvement in your cognition, memory and focus. If you supplement with it daily, after a few weeks of its use you can also expect to experience an improvement in your sense of well-being. It really is fantastic.
The first consideration in taking bacopa is to note that the active bacosides are in fact fat soluble. Therefore, in order for you to properly absorb and reap their full benefits, it is important to take them after a meal containing some good fats.
Oily fish is ideal as this helps the absorption of the bacosides and is also great for brain health. You could also take it after a spoonful of organic flaxseed oil. Nevertheless you need to combine it with some fats.
In terms of the dosage, because it is available in different strengths, for example 20% bacosides or 45% bacosides, you will have to calculate your dose accordingly.
I would suggest up to 750 mg per day for 20% strength, and a dose of 200 – 450 mg per day for 45% bacosides.
Always start off with a minimum dose to test its effects; you can always increase your dose this way.
L-Theanine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid analogue of the amino acids, L-Glutamine & L-Glutamate. It is found naturally occurring in tea, especially in green tea, but is also available in supplement form.
Its transport across the blood-brain barrier is very efficient and will usually pass through after 30-45 minutes after ingestion where it is considered to have regulatory and neuroprotective effects in the brain (16).
Clinical research shows that L-theanine has a calming effect and is known to lower blood pressure. It also has a suppressive effect against the excitatory action of caffeine. This evidence suggests that using L-theanine in combination with caffeine could yield added benefits from the synergistic effects of the two.
Another study also showed that a combination of caffeine and l-theanine to have a synergistic effect (17), the researchers concluded that; “These results replicate previous evidence which suggests that L-theanine and caffeine in combination are beneficial for improving performance on cognitively demanding tasks.”
Other research has shown that L-theanine significantly increases alpha brain wave activity (18), which is typically associated with a relaxed, calm and creative state of consciousness. Although further study is needed to achieve a full understanding, scientists believe that L-theanine’s calming effects are due to its modulation of the neurotransmitters dopamine and GABA (19)
Because of L-theanine's effects on alpha brain waves, you can expect to feel an increase in calmness and relaxation while using it. Thus it is the perfect nootropic for stress and anxiety, and can also be used to help improve sleep.
L-theanine can also be used to help learning and memory, due to its influence on neurotransmitters.
Start off with 100mg and see how that works for you. If you feel you would like to up the dose, you can go all the way up to 250 mg.
Alpha lipoic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of your body. It is both fat and water soluble meaning it is able to interact with all cellular areas.
Some foods contain alpha lipoic acid, albeit in miniscule amounts, these include vegetables; broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, carrots, rice bran and beets. It is also contained in animal products like red meat, and in particular organ meats such as liver and kidney.
If you want to increase your intake of alpha lipoic acid, it’s much more efficient to use a supplement.
LA has some amazing properties that may influence many aspects of your health and is becoming increasingly popular in the food supplement world. There are a number of purported health claims associated with ALA, including:
In terms on its nootropic response, due to its acetyl functional group, alpha lipoic acid can easily enter the brain by passing through the blood brain barrier where its effects are typically associated with cognition and memory.
Your brain is the most energy demanding organ of your entire body, adequate amounts of glucose and oxygen is critical to its function. It turns out that alpha lipoic acid boosts glucose uptake in your brain, and as you can imagine this has a significant impact of boosting your cognitive performance.
LA has in fact been clinically proven to exhibit an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effect on patients with Alzheimer's disease (20).
Alpha lipoic acid activates the enzyme choline acetyltransferase which then increases levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh). Furthermore, LA has been found to chelate redox-active transition metals, thus inhibiting the formation of hydroxyl radicals, and is thus neuroprotective.
LA is great for your brain; it has an anti-inflammitory and neuroprotective effect, along with increasing glucose uptake and levels of acetylcholine. Memory and cognition are the key benefitting areas.
It is important to understand that there are 2 types of lipoic acid, R+-LA and A-LA. The two forms are known in chemistry as isomers, meaning they have the same constituent parts (empirical formula) but the molecular structures are mirror images of each other. Thus they are termed L (left) and R (right) isomers.
Typically lipoic acid supplements contain a a 50/50 mix of L and R forms, however it is the R+ form that you should look for as it is far more bio-active.
Dosage wise, opt for 200 mg – 600 mg, preferably taken on an empty stomach.
Ginseng refers to the roots (rhizome) of the panax family of flowering plants, and is literally one of the most widely taken herbal supplements throughout the world today. Interestingly, the word “Panax” is derived from the Greek root word ‘pan’ meaning “all” and “akos”, meaning cure.
Traditionally, ginseng has been used for thousands of years as a natural remedy for ailments such as; circulatory problems, erectile dysfunction, digestive upset, boosting immunity and more.
The genus panax has around 11 different true species, all of which contain a bunch of compounds known as ginosides. It is these ginosides that have provoked numerous clinical studies. Around 100 different ginnosides have been identified so far (21), however the most common ones are few; ginsenosides Rg1, Re, Rf, Rb1, Rg2, Rc, Rh1, Rb2, Rb3, Rd, Rg3, and Rh2.
Ginseng has more recently been understood to manifest an actoprotective effect; that is ginseng has the ability to “increase mental performance and enhance body stability against physical loads without increasing oxygen consumption” (24).
An actoprotector is a relatively new sub-class of adaptagen, yet is distinctly different. An adaptogen helps the body “adapt” to stress by helping stabilise stress-related hormones. However, an actoprotector has an adaptogenic effect, without causing an increase in heat production or oxygen consumption.
An actoprotector also differs from psychostimulants such as modafinil, phenamine, and caffeine. This is because actoprotectors are compounds that exhibit a non-exhaustive action, and in contrast to regular nootropic substances, actoprotectors increase both mental and physical performance.
Ginseng is a potent adaptogen and actoprotector. You can benefit from its calming effects if you suffer from anxiety, but you can also use it to help improve your mental alertness and to help with any type of physical activity or workload.
I would always recommend starting off with a lower dose, opt for a little as 200 mg standardised to at least 20% ginosides. The maximum I would suggest taking would be 500 mg.
Ginkos are huge trees and can grow in excess of 65 meters tall. Although they are native to China, ginkgo trees are widely cultivated and are now grown in various different parts of the world including Asia, Europe and North America.
Ginkgo has been used as a traditional Chinese herbal remedy for thousands of years, and for good reason – it works. Traditionally, ginkgo has been used to treat a whole manner of different ailments ranging from circulatory problems, asthma, and as a general health tonic of rejuvenation.
These bioactive ginkgo substrates have a nootropic effect on your brain via 2 different mechanisms:
Most of the studies on ginko’s effects (namely EGb 761) have been performed on animals, which show that, given the right dose, can act as a mild MAOI inhibitor. However, other human studies (26) also confirm the same.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors can reduce cerebral levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Thus by inhibiting MOAI, facilitates an increase dopamine by way of regulation. The key benefit of this is that dopamine is known to improve cognitive function and suppress symptoms of anxiety (27).
Blood flow to the brain (CBF) is crucial for delivering oxygen, glucose and other nutrients that support brain function. Various studies show that ginkgo does have a mild effect on CBF, causing a slight increase (28).
Needless to say, an improvement in CBF offers a number of associated benefits:
The first thing to look for when buying a ginkgo biloba nootropic supplement, is to make sure that it is a standardised extract of at least 24% flavone glycosides and 6% terpenes. Needless to say, a lesser count will be less effective.
Based on the research quoted in this article, I recommend using between 120mg - 240 mg per day.
It is important to note that ginkgo biloba does have interactions with some prescription medications so it is always best to check with a qualified medical professional if you are prescribed any kind of prescription medicine.
When doctors and scientists measure brain activity, they do so by measuring the frequencies of which your brain is functioning. Alpha, Beta, Delta, Theta are all different frequencies of which the brain operates. Interestingly, it turns out each frequency is associated with its own set of behaviours.
Delta brainwaves for example are associated with deep REM sleep. Higher frequency Beta brain waves on the other hand are typically associated with alertness and engaging behaviour.
You can think of your brain as an information processor, like the central processing unit (CPU) in a computer. The higher the frequency (vibration) of the CPU, the faster and more efficiently it can process information.
Compare two CPU’s, one processing in lower range Mega Hertz (MHz) and the other in higher range Giga Hertz (GHz), the MHz CPU will get left behind.
Nootropics have the ability to change the frequency of your brain and therefore your consciousness, and thus your ability to learn and do stuff. That’s why you can take advantage of these cool supplements to improve your ability to perform both mentally and physically.
But that not all, they can also be used to help prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzhiemers and multiple schlerosis.
Natural nootropics are amazing!
So now it’s your turn, what are your favourite nootropics, and how do they benefit you?
Leave a comment to let me know (I answer every one)[WPSM_AC id=1681]
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