Need a brain booster? Here’s everything you need to know about finding the best nootropics
Table of contents
- What are nootropics?
- How do nootropics work?
- What should you look for in nootropics to determine quality?
- Synthetic nootropics vs. natural nootropics
- What are the best natural nootropics?
- What are the best nootropic foods?
- What are the most popular nootropic stacks?
- Conclusion and next steps
In today’s demanding and ultra-competitive world high performers are expected to multi-task, be creative, learn quickly, and concentrate for long periods. As a response to this products are catching up with the demands of this competitive market; substances called nootropics can help to improve your mental functioning to make the most of each day.
It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. Take a pill and think clearer, have a better memory, and concentrate for longer periods just like Eddie from the movie Limitless.
Nootropics can help to improve your brain function, but just as much as your natural brain capacity allows.
There are dozens of nootropic products – from natural herb extracts to substances made in the lab, to nootropic stacks, and even some foods. Even if you do your research, it can all be a bit confusing. Several websites will claim to have found or developed “the best” nootropics.
In reality, the types of nootropics and how they work in the body are so diverse that there is no “one-size-fits-all” nootropic solution. The type of nootropic that is best for you depends on your goal, whether you are taking any other nootropics or medicines and other factors.
Regardless, there are several individual nootropics and nootropic stacks that can help boost different aspects of your brain power that you should be aware of. This article will help to clear up the confusing information out there about nootropics. We will review the research behind several general nootropics and brand-name options for different aspects of brain functioning.
Medical Disclaimer: Note that this article doesn’t aim to give personalised advice, and the information provided here is not intended to diagnose or treat health conditions. Instead, we aim to provide general information to help you choose nootropics under your own, or your physician ́s, direction. Always seek medical advice before using a new nootropic.
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What are nootropics?
Nootropics are substances that improve human cognitive abilities including:
- Clarity and focus
- Improved intelligence
Nootropics from a category of their own in terms of how they work in our bodies to improve brain health. What sets nootropics apart from other drugs and supplements according to nootropics pioneer Dr Corneliu Giurgea are as follows:
- Enhances the ability to learn
- Improves resistance of the brain to agents that negatively affect brain health
- Facilitates communication between the right and left sides of the brain
- Increases control of higher brain functions
Additionally, they lack the pharmacological effects seen in people who use neuro-psychotropic drugs (like analgesics, anesthetics, antipsychotics, and antidepressants).
The term nootropic was coined in 1973 by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea who identified several substances that had the potential to improve brain functioning. Later, in 1977, Dr. Giurgea, along with his colleague Dr. Maurice Salama, further explored the concept and applications of nootropics.
Originally, the interest in nootropics was for their use treating brain disorders. Today, several nootropics are used as the standard treatment for cognitive disorders like dementia, memory loss, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, among others.
When evidence showed the effectiveness of nootropics to alleviate symptoms of these diseases, there was a growing interest in their application for cognitive enhancement in generally healthy people.
Nootropics aren’t a health “fad” meant to doop you out of your money. In fact, nootropics (although they weren’t originally called that) like Ginkgo Biloba and Ashwagandha have been used for thousands of years in several traditional models of medicine from all over the world, like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Only over the past 50 years or so has western medicine started to catch up. Now we have the scientific research to support the benefits of nootropic herbs and botanicals for our brain, and scientists have developed synthetic nootropics to add to the mix.
Nootropics are often referred to as “smart drugs,” which can be a little misleading. The technical definition of a “drug” is a substance used in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, according to the FDA. Not all nootropics are marketed as drugs, and some cannot even be found in pill form. Other forms of nootropics include nootropic supplements and nootropic foods, which we will also discuss here.
Even though the term nootropics was coined in the 1970s, the use of the term wasn’t popularized until about 2011, as you can see in the graph below. Since then, the use of the word “nootropics” across different platforms has skyrocketed.
How do nootropics work?
Different nootropics work in different ways on the brain, but what they all have in common is that they help improve cognitive function.
It is important to note that there are many nootropics for which the researchers cannot pinpoint how they work in the brain. In fact, even though some of the results of taking nootropics are similar to the results of taking traditional brain-modifying drugs (referred to as neuro-psychotropic drugs), they challenge traditional ideas as to how drugs should work in the brain.
So instead of getting into too many details behind the pharmacology of how different nootropics work on the brain, we’ll refer to a research paper that describes the different general ways in which nootropics improve brain function.
In general, nootropics can help boost brain function by:
- Increasing blood circulation to the brain, and, in turn, increasing oxygen and nutrient delivery
- Providing additional energy to the brain
- Providing additional chemical messengers to the brain
- Improving the function of brain cells, called neurons
- Preventing damage caused to the brain by free radicals
- Modifying the transmission of brain signals
Researchers will continue to examine how nootropics interact with the brain in order to better target their uses and applications for human health and wellbeing.
What should you look for in nootropics to determine quality?
Just like with all supplements and drugs you put into your body, it is important to make sure that you are ingesting the best quality supplement there is.
Quality depends on the ingredients themselves as well as the manufacturing and packaging process of ingredients. Unfortunately, many nootropic manufacturing companies aren’t very transparent with the testing and quality processes, but there are a few ways that you can determine quality.
1. The ingredients are legal in your country
This may seem extreme, but it is important to inform yourself as to whether the active ingredients are legal to sell and purchase in your country, and whether they can be obtained over the counter or only by prescription. For example, many racetams are not approved for sale in the US because they do not meet the definition of a dietary ingredient.
If you get your hands on a racetam not approved for use in your country, it is a sign the manufacturers and distributors may not be following other regulations.
Find more information for your country below:
2. Brand names should be well-known
Better known brand names tend to be better established in the market, and are generally under greater scrutiny than lesser-known brands.
3. They have a certificate of analysis and quality assurance
Look for a section on the website that discusses the products’ quality assurance tests. A certificate of analysis (CoA) on the website, ideally by a third-part lab, lets you know that the claims on the number of active ingredients are true.
4. Scientific evidence supports the effectiveness and safety of ingredients
To save you time and energy, we’ve summarized the scientific research on some of the main nootropics below.
Synthetic nootropics vs. natural nootropics
Synthetic nootropics are those that are made in a laboratory. The group of racetams (including piracetam, the “original” racetam discovered in 1964) is some of the most well-known synthetic nootropics.
Natural nootropics are those that are naturally-occurring. These include herbs, botanicals, and extracts from roots and other parts of the plant. Some examples include Ginkgo Biloba, Lion’s Mane, and Bacopa Monnieri.
Note that because a nootropic is synthetic, it doesn’t mean it is more or less effective than a natural nootropic. Effectiveness is independent of the source. It also doesn’t necessarily make a difference in safety or in price.
What should guide you in choosing between synthetic and natural nootropics should be their effectiveness for the issues you would like to resolve, always having received guidance from your doctor beforehand.
What are the best natural nootropics?
There’s no such thing as one best nootropic, as each has different effects and may affect someone differently to another. Below are five well-known nootropics and some of the recent research that looks into their effectiveness.
Ashwagandha is an herb known mostly for its adaptogenic properties, meaning that it helps the body cope with stress. It was originally used in Ayurvedic medicine, and it has gained popularity for use as a nootropic.
Some of the nootropic properties of ashwagandha include its ability to help reduce anxiety and stress, improve memory, and enhance cognition. It also has properties that help to boost overall health, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-boosting properties.
Panax ginseng, most commonly referred to as simply ginseng, is widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Thanks to the active components called ginsenosides, it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Ginsenosides may also be responsible for Panax ginseng’s nootropic effects, which are mainly its ability to reduce anxiety and boost mental energy.
Bacopa Monnieri has recently gained significant attention because of its nootropic properties, especially because it has demonstrated to be free of toxic effects. While some research challenges the effectiveness of Bacopa monnieri as a nootropic, research that demonstrates its effectiveness points to its ability to reduce anxiety and boost memory, while also holding the potential to be therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s disease and other cognitive disorders like epilepsy.
Lion’s mane is an edible fungus also known as bear’s head tooth fungus, pom pom mushroom, or monkey head. Several studies have demonstrated that lion’s mane helps to improve cognition and potentially even help to synthesize new brain cells.
Ginkgo Biloba is used as a medicine for many ailments in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some studies show that Ginkgo Biloba is effective for improving memory and information processing in the brain. However, it is important to note that more studies need to be carried out to demonstrate its effectiveness.
What are the best nootropic foods?
Not all nootropics are found in pill form. Nootropics can also be found in the fresh food aisles of your grocery store, and if you integrate them into your daily meals, you can experience many beneficial effects on your brain health.
Some of the types of foods to integrate into your diet for their nootropic effects include the following:
- Fruits and vegetables. People with diets rich in fruits and vegetables tend to have a lower chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases. This is likely due to the presence of numerous vitamins and minerals essential to brain health.
- Grass-Fed Meats. These meats contain loads of essential amino acids that build up neurotransmitters, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants that are essential for brain health. Grass-fed and organic meats contain higher quantities of these than conventionally-produced meats.
- Plant proteins. plants can also provide amino acids important for neurotransmitters, but more importantly, diets high in plant protein tend to have components necessary to fight off harmful oxidative stress. Oxidative stress and free radicals are some components responsible for premature brain aging.
- High-quality fats. Our brain is about 60% fat and a diet rich in high-quality fats, like Omega-3 DHA, are associated with proper brain development and a lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. You can get high-quality fats from fish, nuts, seeds, and nut oils.
What are the most popular nootropic stacks?
Due to the rising popularity of nootropics, several companies have developed nootropic stacks (combinations of nootropics) to help provide a complete formula that boosts brain health in several ways. Here we review some of the most popular and most effective nootropic stacks, based on ingredients, quality, and relevant studies.
Alpha Brain by Onnit
Alpha Brain is a nootropic stack that aims to support memory and focus. It contains three proprietary blends with over a dozen ingredients in total. Some of the key ingredients in the blends include:
- L-Tyrosine and L-Theanine: amino acids that can help to relieve stress and promote alertness.
- Oat Straw Extract: helps to dilate veins and arteries to promote the transport of blood through the body, and the good stuff that goes along with it.
- Phosphatidylserine (PS): helps to maintain healthy levels of neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine.
- Alpha GPC: a choline that helps to improve the effectiveness of neurotransmitters.
- Bacopa Monnieri: research shows that it can help to reduce anxiety and boost memory. It may also be therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s disease and other cognitive disorders like epilepsy
- L-Leucine: an amino acid that helps to improve energy availability in the body.
- Huperzia Extract: extracted from Chinese club moss, which helps to limit the depletion of acetylcholine.
Mind Lab Pro by Opti-Nutra LTD
Mind Lab Pro is marketed as a “universal nootropic.” It aims to include a variety of nootropic ingredients so as to provide all of the benefits nootropics are known for: improving memory, focus, mental energy, and more.
Mind Lab Pro is a nootropic stack that contains 11 nootropic ingredients, including amino acids and vitamins known to boost brain health, natural nootropic herbs and botanicals, and synthetic nootropics.
Some ingredient highlights include:
- Citicoline: a component that helps to boost natural levels of choline in the body. Choline is essential for normal and healthy electrical impulses in the brain and neural system.
- Phosphatidylserine (PS): PS has the ability to ensure there are healthy levels of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and dopamine in the brain.
- Bacopa Monnieri: evidence shows that it may lessen anxiety and improve memory. Bacopa may also be useful in reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
- Lion’s Mane Mushroom: Several studies have demonstrated that lion’s mane helps to improve cognition and potentially even help to synthesize new brain cells.
- Maritime Pine Bark Extract: Optimizes the healthy function of the brain-blood barrier and helps to promote the flow of blood (along with the oxygen and nutrients it contains) to the brain.
- L-Theanine: promotes wakefulness and helps to reduce anxiety.
- Rhodiola Rosea: a root extract that helps to boost the presence and effectiveness of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
Qualia Mind by Neurohacker Collective
Similar to Mind Lab Pro, this nootropic is meant to tackle all potential flaws in brain function at once. Qualia Mind contains 28 natural nootropic ingredients. Some of the key ingredients include:
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine: an amino acid that helps improve memory, learning, and mood.
- Bacopa Monnieri: Bacopa monnieri may improve memory and decrease anxiety. It may also help those with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
- Rhodiola Rosea: this may help improve the presence and effectiveness of the brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
- Artichoke Extract: Helps to reduce inflammation and manage blood pressure
- Taurine: an amino acid that is essential to healthy nervous system functioning
- Alpha GPC: a chemical improve the effectiveness of neurotransmitters to improve communication between brain cells.
Noocube by Wolfson Berg Limited
Noocube aims to improve brain function in three key ways: Enhancing your cognitive function, heightening your focus and concentration, and enhancing your learning power and boosting your memory. Noocube includes several nootropic ingredients, including:
- Phenylethylamine: an ingredient that boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine, which can help to improve mood, alertness, and creativity.
- Pyrroloquinoline Quinone: helps to protect the brain from damage.
- L-Theanine: promotes alertness and helps to reduce the feeling of anxiety.
- Ashwagandha (in the patented form KSM-66): This botanical has many nootropic properties. It has the ability to help reduce anxiety and stress, improve memory, and boost overall brain function. It also has properties that help to improve overall health, like antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting properties.
Awaken Gold by Awakened Alchemy
Awaken is manufactured to improve brain health in four core areas: accelerating learning, improving memory, enhancing focus and clarity, and intensifying drive. Awaken includes six main nootropic ingredients:
- Alpha GPC: helps to improve wakefulness by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, which helps to improve overall brain function.
- Huperzine-A: extracted from Chinese club moss, which helps to limit the depletion of acetylcholine.
- Cat’s Claw: Helps to prevent brain cell damage and is shown to be effective in the reduction of symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
- Bacopa Monnieri: may be effective in reducing anxiety and boosting memory. It may also be therapeutic for people with epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
- L-Tyrosine and L-Theanine: building blocks of proteins that help to relieve stress and promote awakeness.
- Oat Straw: helps to dilate veins and arteries to facilitate the transport of nootropic, oxygen, and nutrient-filled blood throughout the body.
Best nootropics: what’s next?
Nootropics have been used to boost brain and overall health for thousands of years in traditional medicine. Over the past fifty years, researchers have looked into the effectiveness of herbs, botanicals, and synthetic nootropics to boost brain health. Several companies, like the ones we mentioned above, have been effective at making them widely available to the general public.
There is ample information about the effectiveness of individual nootropics of different kinds, from synthetic to natural, and even nootropic components of foods. Evidence has shown that they can improve brain health by boosting learning abilities, improving memory, focus, and concentration, and improving overall brain health.
In this article, we have provided you with an overview of the evidence to support the different effectiveness kinds of nootropics so that you can make an informed decision about which nootropics would be the best for you. Before wasting your time and money, check out the research available to support the effectiveness and safety of different nootropics. If you aren’t sure, talk with a medical professional before trying out any nootropics.
Have you had an experience with nootropics? Let us know what you think below!
Sasha is a Nutritional Anthropologist with an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition. She has been a food, nutrition, and health researcher and writer for six years and also works as an international development consultant.