Do you remember what it was like to be 22? Did you also pull an occasional all-nighter in your college dorm to finish the term paper you waited too long to start? Even the most disciplined students battle distraction and wade through overwhelming schedules from time to time. And just about everyone knows what it’s like to reach for a strong cup of coffee as a hail mary to power through a few more hours of work.
Or maybe 22 feels like a long time ago and the last thing you need is bug-eyed jitters as you wind down for the night. Instead, you’re worried that you’ve started to forget the simplest things. Like your keys – you swear you left them on the key hook – and the meeting you scheduled for lunch. You’ve started Googling “how to improve my memory” and that eventually lands you on a page about a drug called Memantine. It’s supposed to help with memory, so you make a note to ask your doctor about it.
Whether you’re the 22-year-old college student running on caffeinated fumes or the Boomer asking Google what types of drugs will help your memory, there’s a growing demand for help for nootropics, or smart drugs.
A Quick Overview of Nootropics
Nootropics are substances that boost cognitive performance. They are sometimes called smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, or memory enhancers.
The term nootropic is derived from the Greek words “noos” (mind) and “tropein” (towards), generally meaning “towards the mind” or “shaping the mind.” When used correctly, nootropics can positively impact your attention, memory, creativity, intelligence, and/or mood.
Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea was a Roman psychologist and chemist who first coined the term nootropic in 1972 after developing a compound called piracetam. Piracetam has been shown to improve brain function and reduce inflammation.
Giurgea identified 5 key principles of nootropics. Nootropics should–
- Improve learning and memory
- Enhance the brain’s resistance to harmful or disruptive conditions
- Protect the brain from chemical or physical damage
- Improve focus and attention
- Be safe (few side effects, extremely low toxicity)
Types of Nootropics
Nootropics can be naturally occurring substances or synthetically-produced prescription drugs. Some nootropics are available over the counter at your local pharmacy or in the coffee/tea aisle at the grocery store. Others can be ordered from companies that create dietary supplements, and others still must be prescribed by a medical doctor.
The 22-year-old in our example is drinking coffee for the effect of its caffeine. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain. This makes you feel less tired and increases your attention and alertness. Caffeine is an example of a naturally occurring nootropic.
The aging Boomer worried about his memory is wondering about a drug called Memantine. Memantine is a drug used to treat dementia in people with Alzheimer’s Disease and it works to improve memory. Memantine is an example of a prescription nootropic.
Natural nootropics include substances that are naturally occurring as well as natural substances that can be compounded as a powder or supplement. They do not require a prescription. Many natural nootropics are plant-based and their medicinal value can be traced back hundreds or thousands of years.
4 Examples of Natural Nootropics
Ginseng is a natural herb originally used in traditional Chinese medicine. The light brown root and green leaves have a bitter taste – it can be consumed raw, steamed, or ingested in tea form. Ginseng is known to have a positive effect on the immune system.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a mushroom that can be consumed raw, cooked, or dried. It is also served in tea form. Lion’s Mane Mushroom has been shown in animal studies to decrease symptoms of dementia by preventing amyloid-beta plaques in the brain. It may also decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression and reduce inflammation.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea. L-theanine has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve memory and attention, and positively influence brain function.
Sophrosyne Brain is a natural nootropic. It is composed of four plant-based ingredients that work together to improve memory and cognition. These ingredients are:
- Withania somnifera (also called ashwagandha) is an Ayurvedic herb that has anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-stress, antioxidant and rejuvenating properties.
- Curcumin is found in the turmeric spice. It has powerful anti-inflammatory powers and it is a strong antioxidant.
- Bacopa monnieri is also an Ayurvedic herb. It is known to increase information processing time (e.g., you can think more quickly!) and decrease reaction time.
- Hericeum erinaceus (also called Lion’s Mane Mushroom) is a mushroom that improves memory and reduces inflammation.
Most prescription nootropics are types of stimulants that work to improve executive functioning skills like attention and working memory.
Like any prescription drug, prescription nootropics can have side effects and should only be taken under the care of your doctor. And you should not take them at all without a prescription. Some common side effects of prescription nootropics include faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping.3 Examples of Prescription Nootropics
- Modafinil is a prescription stimulant typically used to treat narcolepsy. When used properly, it has been shown to improve memory, attention, organization, and initiation in sleep-deprived adults.
- Adderall is a stimulant used to treat Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It contains powerful amphetamines that work to increase the dopamine and noradrenaline in your brain. This helps increase attention and focus, working memory, and behavior. It is important to note that Adderall and other amphetamines can be addictive and have negative side effects if abused or not taken under the care of a doctor.
- Memantine is a medication that treats symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease by blocking glutamate, a substance found in the brain that is linked to several symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Where to Start
So you’re interested in giving a nootropic a try. Where do you begin?
The first step is to identify what kind of cognitive boost you are looking for. If you need help powering through hundreds of pages of grad school text after a full day at work, something like green tea, which includes both caffeine and calming L-theanine, might be a good choice.
After you understand your goal, be sure to spend time researching the ingredients to understand exactly what is going into your body. Be aware of any possible side effects.
Start small with whichever nootropic you choose, and don’t try several all at once.
Once you begin taking your nootropic, whether it’s a simple cup of coffee or new prescription drug, pay attention to your body. Notice how you’re feeling mentally and physically, and make adjustments accordingly.
And finally, remember that no smart drug can replace the immeasurable value of a nutrient-rich balanced diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise.
We’d love to hear from you. Would a cognitive boost be helpful to you in your daily life? What questions do you have about nootropics? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below.