The term ‘nootropics’ was applied in the 60s to a very specific species of drug known as the Racetams. Piracetam was the original nootropic to be synthesized by a Romanian scientist – Corneliu Giurgea, and since then the nootropic label has become an umbrella for a whole subset of compounds, all possessing similar capabilities with respect to the human brain.
While they vary in their mechanisms of activity, every nootropic in some way enhances our cognitive function, whether it’s working memory, focus, motivation, alertness, attention, mood, reaction speed or learning potential. These behaviours earned these compounds several other nicknames, the most common of which is ‘smart drugs’.
Giurgea called Piracetam a nootropic, which translated from Greek is close to Toward the Mind. He also came up with a set of characteristics which a drug must conform to in order to be labelled as a nootropic:
According to him, nootropics should:
- Enhance memory and learning abilities
- Provide protection from physical or chemical injuries
- Improve brain’s resilience to harmful conditions, e.g. low oxygen conditions
- Increase efficacy of the brain’s control mechanisms in sub-cortical and cortical regions
- Not exhibit sedation or motor stimulative effect like other psychotropic drugs or cause many side effects/toxicity
Since then, the characteristics have changed and opened up the field of nootropics to a greater degree. Debate still exists as to whether a xanthine like caffeine can really be classed as a nootropic, considering its physiological effects on the user, the tolerance one can build to it, its relatively short-term efficacy etc.
As a whole, anything described as a stimulant shouldn’t really make it into the original classification of nootropic, but we’re in the 21st century now and things change.
There are now short-term nootropics – which the stimulants probably fall under – as well as prescription and non-prescription types. There’s even natural and herbal categories, and why not? There is for every other product, ever. The growing market for these substances is largely responsible for loosening the reins, because if the word ‘nootropic’ can be slapped on a bottle’s label then there’s another hook.
How Do Nootropics Work?
That’s a good question, because with the expansion of the nootropic ‘rule book’, there are many different types of supplement or drug, and they all exert different effects on the brain. As mentioned earlier, pretty much anything that gives us a mental edge: learning absorption, focus, drive, concentration, mood enhancement, and so on, are probably going to be called nootropics, whether the hard-liners and purists like it or not.
We’ll take a look at some of the main categories of nootropic supplement and touch on the mechanisms by which these compounds operate:
The Racetam Supplements
As already stated, Piracetam was the first substance to be coined a nootropic. Since those days, a whole family of similar compounds – called Racetam supplements – have been synthesized. These include Piracetam, Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Pramiracetam and Phenylpiracetam.
Piracetam is in fact a prescription-only drug in many countries now, and surprisingly, its mode of action is still not fully understood. Research leads scientists to believe it interacts with AMPA receptors in our brains, which mediates fast synaptic transmission in the central nervous system. Piracetam and aniracetam in particular seem to modulate cholinergic systems, which may lead to higher turnover of acetylcholine.
The Racetams that followed are all derivatives of its parent structure. They may however act slightly differently, meaning some of them are not controlled substances and readily available for purchase.
Russian scientists developed a derivative of Piracetam, which has since been branded Noopept. It is usually purchased in powder form, though extreme care must be taken as Noopept is purportedly 1000 times stronger than Piracetam, gram for gram.
Cholinergics – Acetylcholine Precursors
Acetylcholine is a principal neurotransmitter in the brain, which is heavily involved in memory formation. It is widely accepted that elevated levels of acetylcholine results in enhanced cognitive function.
Cholinergics are the group of compounds which increase the amount of acetylcholine in the brain. They include supplements such as Alpha-GPC, CDP-Choline and Huperzine-A.
Interestingly, supplementing Uridine (a nerve growth stimulator) with Alpha-GPC will have a synergistic effect, and adding Bacopa Monnieri (improves working memory) may improve the results even further.
Cholinergics may be a necessary addition if Piracetam and/or Aniracetam are used as they may increase the rate at which acetylcholine is used.
Nerve Growth Stimulators
CDP-Choline, mentioned in the Cholinergic section, eventually converts to Uridine, which is a nerve growth stimulator. Increasing nerve growth in the central nervous system and brain increases the pathways via which signals can be sent and received.
Using nerve growth stimulators in conjunction with cholinergics is a viable synergistic supplement stack. as increased nerve growth needs increased neurotransmitter activity.
Vasodilation in the brain is the same as anywhere in the body: enlarge the blood passageways and more oxygen, glucose and other nutrients can get to the point of action quicker. Vasodilation in your muscles leads to a bigger pump and higher output. When your noggin is involved, the higher output applies to your cognitive abilities.
Vinpocetine and the natural Ginkgo Biloba are commonly used cerebral vasodilators. Like all vasodilation though; if you bore out the cylinders of the engine, you’re going to get through gasoline quicker. If you take a vasodilator, you need the nutrition to match.
Xanthines and Stimulants
Stimulants in general are being called nootropics these days, even though they have more of a short term effect than many of the other types. Xanthines are the group of stimulants that include caffeine, and by that definition, many adults are chucking down nootropics by the gallon on a daily basis. Well, it certainly helps to get the brain solenoid turning over.
A quick and easy supplement stack is taking L-Theanine with Caffeine. It smoothes out its stimulatory effect while improving the mental alertness factor.
Other stimulants might do much more than that, and they include amphetamine, nicotine and eugeroics, but needless to say – most of these can come with some pretty strong side effects, because of which they can’t really be recommended.
Stimulants are a tough one to call. They may have their place in a combination of other nootropics, but poor old Corneliu would probably turn in his grave.
Mother Nature has thrown up some interesting concoctions, not the least of which is Bacopa Monnieri, one of the most reliable cognition and working memory enhancers out there. Not bad for a swamp plant, you’ll probably agree.
Of course, the Indians have known this for countless generations, but since it’s a memory drug, it’s understandable they never forgot.
Huperzine-A, Vinpocetine, L-Theanine, Caffeine, Ginkgo Biloba and Lion’s Mane are all examples of natural nootropic supplements.
So, Where Do I Start?
Yes, it all looks a bit confusing if you’re wondering where to start supplementing with nootropics. And we’ve only really scratched the surface.
Much of it depends on what your requirements are. Do you need to study for an exam next week? Or, do you write computer code on a daily basis and need something long term?
For short-term needs, something fast and stimulating might do the trick. The basic caffeine + L-theanine stack helps with alertness and concentration, without the jitteriness that too much coffee can induce. L-theanine smooths out the stimulant feeling while boosting the cognitive aspect. That said, if you drink coffee habitually, the effect is going to be lessened due to your tolerance level being high already.
In the case where you are a caffeine junkie, then perhaps the cholinergic mixture of Uridine and Alpha-GPC will get your neurons firing.
For the long haul, Bacopa Monnieri is a proven working-memory enhancer. That said, you need to have a month long relationship with Bacopa before she’ll give up the goods, so to speak. After that initial period though, users’ reports are excellent.
Combining Different Nootropics
The practice of stacking supplements has already been discussed briefly throughout this article, but it really is where nootropics – and supplements as a whole, for that matter – come into their own.
There’s no doubt that some people want to go the cheap and cheerful direction, which is totally fine, but you can’t expect to get as beneficial results from single ingredient supplements. The much more effective route is to combine them and send yourself into the synergistic stratosphere.
The key is to synergy is understanding the way components support one another. For example, if you use a natural nerve growth stimulator like Lion’s Mane, you would also benefit from a cholinergic like Alpha-GPC…and then you could bolt on Bacopa Monnieri for good measure.
If, on the other hand, you decide to go the way of Racetams, like Aniracetam (legal in most parts), then your acetylcholine turnover will increase, requiring the addition of a cholinergic. Add CDP-Choline and it will convert to Uridine, which is synergistic with Bacopa anyway, and neural growth stimulating blueberries, of all things!!
If you’ve read this all the way through then you are most likely at the beginning of your interest in supplementing with nootropics. You can click any of the links below to read more specifics on the subject, and they will lead to some product articles.