Nootropics, what are they and how do they work?Nootropics is the accepted term for substances that enhance learning and memory function.
Nootropics work in various ways depending on the characteristic of the substance.
Some work by enhancing oxygen transport to the brain, an improved energy turnover in the brain, better neurotransmitter availability, or enhancing the creation of other substances that influence brain activity.
Non-supplemental nootropicsBut let's start with the things that don't involve supplements, but will seriously alter your mental capacity!
ExerciseExercise has countless benefits, not just in getting better cardiovascular fitness. Exercise also helps to cure or at least prevent depression and feel better about yourself, if only because you are looking good in the mirror. Excercise does more, it helps to clear the mind, and enhances memory.
Given the minimal side-effects and proven health benefits, exercise should be considered before everything else.
SleepGetting enough sleep is essential for a well working brain.
For those that have trouble falling asleep, diminish the amount of (blue) light you are exposed to and use a program like f.lux or any blue-light-reducing app on your phone, when you work on your computer device late at night.
Bright lightIn the morning though, do the reverse: roll up your blinds and open the curtains to let in the bright sunlight as it exposes you to blue light. Exposure to blue light in the morning will also improve sleep quality at night.
Bright blue light improves attention, working memory, verbal memory and mood.
If you happen to live in a region with little sunlight in winter, it pays off to install brighter LED-based lights. Artificial blue light already is effective at a mere 40 lux. Blue lights may not look as charming as the dim yellow lights, but it will cure you from feeling depressed in winter. The best bet is to use 2 different light systems, so that the brighter lights won't stop you from falling asleep at night.
Anyone living north (or south) of latitude 40 should add extra vitamin D in winter to not just keep the immune system healthy, but also stop SAD in its' tracks. Reducing sadness will also seriously improve cognitive function.
The reason why blue light will help with the learning process is because it apparently increases the release of noradrenaline, which is associated with alertness and mood.
TheanineThebest known two notropics that are consumed by nearly every single adult are caffein from coffee and theanine from tea.
Theanine is one of the main psychoactive compounds found in tea. Theanine has been shown to mitigate the negative aspects of caffeine, such as anxiety, increased blood pressure and diminished sleep quality, while possibly improving upon the positive aspects.
A combination of theanine and caffein improves attention more than caffeine alone. Theanine alone has been shown to boost alpha brain waves, a pattern of brain activity correlated with relaxed attention. Theanine increases brain concentrations of serotonin, dopamine and GABA.
CaffeinCaffein is the most popular and well known nootropic, commonly found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, soft drinks and even chocolate. One of the main reason for its popularity is its instant (acute) and profound effect on alertness and learning capcacity.
Caffein works by blocking adenosine receptors. This is also why it is believed that caffein becomes less effective with chronic use.
Moderate caffeine consumption seems to be associated with many positive outcomes including a decreased risk of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression, cardiovascular disease and strokes.
Blue light in combination with caffeine increases alertness and mood more than caffeine alone.
Essential nutrients that double as nootropics
CreatineCreatine is the main energy buffer both in the muscles, the heart and the brain. While red meat contains substantial amounts of creatine, few of us eat large amounts of red meat.
While most know creatine as a sport supplement to increase muscle strength and many recognize it to be useful for cardiovascular support, few are aware of its benefits for the brain.
Creatine is converted into phosphocreatine in order to create ATP. During times of activation the brain rapidly drains phosphocreatine to keep ATP levels constant.
Supplementing with creatine increases brain creatine levels, which will enhance performance on demanding tasks.
Supplementation is especially useful for vegetarians, who get precious little or zero creatine from food. It is recommended to take 5 gram daily for improved cognitive function.
Omega-3Both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are important for general health as well as in maintaining cognitive function. DHA is a major component in neuronal membranes accounting for a substantial fraction of the brain's total weight. EPA isn't abundant in the human brain, but both are important anti-inflammatory substances.
While omega-3s don't seem to have direct effect on learning capacity, combining them with choline and uridine will have a synergistic effect.
Vegans are especially encouraged to supplement with vegan-DHA from algae as plant-based omega-3 ALA barely converts to DHA.
CarnitineAs the name already implies, carnitine is another nutrient present in (red) meat. The function of carnitine is to transport fatty acids into the mitochondria where they can be broken down into usable energy. While most youngsters don't need to supplement, aging adults notice a beneficial effect of supplementation with carnitine. Especially acetyl-carnitine which passes the brain-barrier works well.
MagnesiumMagnesium is an essential mineral involved in well over 300 biological prcesses. While present in food (nuts, cashews and cabbages like kale), magnesium deficiency is very common.
Most magnesium doesn't pass the blood-brain barrier easily with the exception of the threonate salt which improved memory in older adults, probably due to improved synapse function.
AshwagandhaThe Indian herb Withania somnifera which is better known as ashwagandha is known to improve mood and may also improve attention span.
Bacopa monnieri is well-known in Ayurvedic medicine and as such one of the best known nootropics with especially beneficial effects in aging adults, where it increases blood flow and enhances memory function.
CurcuminWhile best known for its anti-inflammatory effect, Longvida curcumin which has been shown to be able to pass the blood-brain improved memory function, alertness and mood.
GinkgoGinkgo biloba extract is recommended for supporting memory and reaction time.
RhodiolaThe plant Rhodiola rosea has a long history of use in both Asia and Europe. It is best known to combat fatigue and depression, but doesn't improve learning function per se other than when you are combatting a sleep deficit.
St. John's WortThe plant Hypericum perforatum known as St. John's Wort is best known as a mood enhancer, which inhibits re-uptake of several neurotransmitters. Again, just like rhodiola it doesn't directly improve learning or memory function unless you are feeling depressed. One caveat, it alters the effectiveness of other medicins by speeding up the cytochrome P450 complex, that breaks down substances in the liver.
VinpocetineVinpocetine, derived from Vinca minor improves memory function. It supports cerebral blood flow and brain metabolism by increasing cerebral synthesis of ATP, the universal “currency” of energy.
CholineCDP choline or citicoline is the bio-available form of choline that is broken down into choline and cytidine after absorption and converted into uridine in the brain. CDP choline improves brain glucose metabolism and ATP production. CDP choline improves memory function across the generations.
Alpha-GPC is even better absorbed than CDP choline and the form that is present in colostrum (breast milk). However, contrary to CDP choline, alpha-GPC is most effective in aging adults suffering from dementia.
Thiamine or vitamin B1-analogues like sulbutiamine and benfotiamine can improve alertness and energetic feelings. Taking thiamine had no influence on memory but reaction times were faster following supplementation, even when thiamine levels were considered to be normal.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that is a precursor to dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Under stressful circumstances (e.g. sleep deprivation or deadlines), extra tyrosine can help improve memory functions and enhance creative thinking.
Uridine is a nucleotide that acts as a precursor of brain synapses and membrane phospholipids in conjunction with DHA and choline sources. Uridine supports formation of brain synapses and neuronal membranes.
OTC and prescription drugs
CBD oil is known to improve mood as well as help people in the early stages of Alzheimer's from losing their ability to recognize the faces of people that they know. CBD is well tolerated across a wide dose range.
The best known racetam is piracetam , which is actually the compound for which the term nootropic was coined.
Apparently racetams work by increasing mitochondrial function. Considering how racetams are prescription drugs and the only product with considerable side-effects, racetams is best left alone.
The same holds true for prescription drugs for ADHD-patients with amphetamine-like substances, which are very popular among students. However they arent'truly enhancing learning capacity, yet only raise alertness.