Nootropic is an all-encompassing term used to refer to compounds that have the capacity to increase an individual's brain performance. These substances can either be man-made or naturally-occurring. Often, a nootropic is also referred to as "smart drug" because of its desired brain-power-enhancing effects. The term “nootropics” was first coined by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, and he set forth five defining features that allowed for a substance to be classified as a nootropic.1 Four of these relate to the fact that the substance must enhance the brain's capacity, including allowing for enhanced learning ability and memory. The last criteria are that the substance should not be toxic to the body and have little or no negative side effects. The above explanation is a strict definition of nootropics and is not exactly what is used by mainstream media. Loosely, the term nootropics can refer to supplements that enhance focus and concentration. Smart drugs span everything from naturally-occurring substances like caffeine to synthetic substances like Adderall.
The History of NootropicsThe very first nootropic drug was discovered in the 1960s and initially used to relieve motion sickness. Afterward, the memory-enhancing properties of this drug were examined. In 1971, the first studies were conducted about piracetam and how it could be used to improve memory. After that, researchers conducted an increasing number of studies about piracetam and other racetams in order to examine their potential memory-enhancing and neuroprotective benefits.2 Even before this, however, certain substances had been used specifically because of their effects on the mind throughout the history of human civilization. For example, Pacific ceremonies used kava kava to enhance mood and increase socializing, while Native Americans consumed peyote for its spiritual (hallucinogenic) properties.3 Most of these herbs were initially either chewed or brewed. In the modern, some of these same herbs, like green tea and ashwagandha, are still commonly used in the same way they have been used by civilizations throughout history. Going back to the 1960s, although it was a Romanian chemist who is credited with discovering nootropics, a substantial amount of research on racetams was conducted in the Soviet Union. This resulted in the birth of another category of substances entirely: adaptogens, which, in addition to benefiting cognitive function were thought to allow the body to better adapt to stress. After the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the information about adaptogens and nootropics that had been classified became public knowledge around the world, right around the time when the United States established more clear regulations about drugs and supplements. When it comes to nootropics, this resulted in two classifications: nootropic drugs, which require government regulation in order to be sold legally, and dietary nootropic substances, which are technically a category of food that is not as strictly regulated.
The Brain and NeurogenesisNowadays, many people are getting more into living a healthy lifestyle. They eat healthy foods, exercise, and even practice stress-relieving techniques. However, many of these individuals tend to neglect taking care of and maintaining a healthy brain. Wait, is this even possible? Yes! The brain is hands-down the most important organ in the body. Without the brain, the command center, you are nothing but a comatose individual requiring machines to help you breathe and keep your heart beating. You won't be able to feel anything, think, move, speak—nothing at all. Of course, this is the worst-case scenario that can occur upon brain-death. However, in less extreme cases, the brain can and does sustain injuries. And more often than not, age-related brain issues will affect a majority of individuals. Unfortunately, not a lot of individuals are doing anything to slow down this process. Neurogenesis, in general, is the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain. This is not only an important part of embryonic development but continues to be important in certain parts of the brain during early development and sometimes all through life. Previous research stated that the brain's plasticity and neurogenesis had an age limit.4 However, this has been proven untrue. In fact, scientific research has shown that even adult minds can still grow with the right brain-targeting mechanisms. Neurogenesis is another way of rebuilding the mind and a way in which adult brains can regrow brain cells.5 This is where nootropics come in because they can promote neurogenesis.
How Nootropics Work to Improve Brain FunctionThe key to the ability of nootropics to improve brain function lies in their power to increase the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a naturally-occurring protein in the brain that provides protection to neurons. This protein is also crucial in synaptogenesis, the process of creating pathways between neurons, as well as neurogenesis.6 Additionally, this protein also controls the life and death of brain cells, which aids in enhancing synaptic adaptability. Synapses are important for creating new memories, forming new connections, or combining existing connections. All of these components are important for mood regulation, maintenance of mental clarity, and learning new life skills. All of these components are important for mood regulation, maintenance of crystal clear clarity, laser focus, and learning new life skills. Ongoing studies are looking into the possible pathways by which nootropic substances function, and they have postulated that the mental health advantages derived from such substances can be attributed to their effects on the cholinergic and dopaminergic systems of the brain.
Benefits of Nootropics UseNootropics offer both short and long-term benefits. The immediate edge you gain can be increased productivity, better stress resistance, enhanced short-term memory, and improved focus. In the long-term, nootropics have been shown to promote mental clarity, better moods, and improved memory.7
Increased MotivationThe drive to achieve things is spurred by motivation and is considered a part of a cognitive function. For some people, igniting this inner drive seems to be just out of reach. Luckily, nootropics have been shown to boost motivation through the regulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine.8 Essentially, one of dopamine’s primary roles is triggering pleasure and motivation. So, by inducing feelings of rewards, the individual is then driven to become motivated to work towards goals to achieve those feelings of pleasure. Here are some key nootropics that have been shown to be helpful for boosting motivation:
Rhodiola RoseaAlso known as arctic root because only the root of this plant is used in this preparation, Rhodiola rosea is found in the arctic regions of Alaska, Asia, and Europe. Aside from optimizing dopamine, it also energizes, stimulates, and clarifies the mind, all helpful elements for increasing motivation.
Vitamin B9Also known as folate, vitamin B9 is found in oranges, sweet corn, mangoes, avocado, spinach, asparagus, and beans. It can also be found in supplements and multivitamin capsules. Since Vitamin B9 is necessary for dopamine synthesis, it goes without saying that it is an important component for improving motivation.
L-TyrosineThis amino acid is a building block for proteins, and even though the body can produce tyrosine, it can also be found in foods like wheat, oats, beans, nuts, eggs, fish, meats, and dairy products. L-Tyrosine is specifically known to support dopamine levels and balance brain chemicals that are linked to healthy mental drive.
Enhanced CreativityNatural nootropics are considered to have the capacity to steer the mid in a more free-flowing and relaxed direction. Since validating and measuring creativity is so arbitrary, there's not much clinical research to back these claims. However, theoretically speaking, it does makes sense given that brain functions like focus, relaxation, and mood are connected to creativity. A good nootropic that enhances creativity is L-theanine, another amino acid precursor for making proteins. Found in green and black tea, L-theanine regulates brain waves to the alpha-frequency. This is a brain state that is alert but relaxed and linked to cognitive exploration and mind-expanding creativity.
Improved Learning AbilityWith so many things to cram into your brain, whether as a student, parent, business owner, or employee, it’s no wonder many people look for ways to enhance their learning abilities. But, for now, individuals can rejoice in the capability of nootropics to enhance learning, which combines several cognitive demands like memory retrieval, memory storage, attention, focus, and mental energy. Aside from that, nootropics are also calming, enabling you to think clearly even under stressful conditions. Below are some great nootropics for supporting memory for better learning:
Rhodiola RoseaBased on animal studies, this medicinal root has shown promising results when it came to improving learning ability and memory.
Bacopa MonnieriUsed in traditional Indian medicine, this herb is also known as Brahmi and is known as the “learner’s nootropic.” It works by stimulating the brain chemicals related to enhancing memory, learning, and thinking. Additionally, it has been shown to slow down the rate at which individuals forget newly-acquired information.
Reduced StressWhen stressed out, most individuals tend to exhibit lower cognitive performance. Ongoing stress leads to progressive mental fatigue and an eventual breakdown. Luckily, there are several ways that nootropics can help relieve stress. One is through the natural promotion of feelings of relaxation and the other is by replenishing the brain chemicals drained by stress. Here are the scientifically studied nootropics studied to combat stress:
L-TheanineBecause of its ability to modulate alpha brain waves, L-theanine also has the capacity to reduce stress levels.
Bacopa MonnieriThis is an example of an adaptogen, a substance sourced from plants with the supposed properties of enabling the body to adapt to and combat stress.
Rhodiola RoseaA known adaptogen that enhances mind’s performance while strengthening stress resistance.
L-TyrosineStress depletes certain brain chemicals, and L-tyrosine aids in mental recovery by helping promote their replenishment.
Better Sleep QualityIt has been widely-studied that there is a correlation between optimal brain performance and healthy sleep patterns, and there are nootropics available that not only boost brain function but also promote sleep. One nootropic that stands out when it comes to sleep-boosting and mind-enhancing capacity is L-theanine. Human studies show that this smart drug provides better sleep quality and increased self-perceived measures of recovery, mood, energy upon waking, and dream quality.
Increased Attention SpanFocus and attention are the deliberate skills to concentrate on a single task for a certain amount of time while being able to disregard disturbances in the environment.9 When it comes to attention, there are several ways that nootropics can help: Divided Attention – The ability to complete multiple mental tasks or multi-tasking. Alternating Attention – The capability to shift from one task to another, or cognitive flexibility. Selective Attention – The ability to focus on a stimulus despite environmental disruptions. Focused Attention – The simple ability to focus on the task at hand. Although there are a large number of nootropics for increasing attention, notable ones include:
Rhodiola RoseaGeared towards enhancing a wide variety of attentional performance.
CiticolineA naturally-occurring brain chemical in the body that can be found in supplements or as an IV drug. In two different research studies, it was shown to enhance attention in both sexes.
Boosted Brain EnergyWhat adds to the appeal of nootropics aside from their ability to enhance brain function is their ability to boost energy without the negative effects related to the use of stimulants. There are four known ways that nootropics increase energy:
- Modulation of the alpha brain waves that invigorate wakeful relaxation.
- Strengthening of the brain's ability to resist stress despite multi-tasking.
- Optimization of efficient energy production within the mitochondria of each brain cell.
- Assisting healthy blood flow to the brain.
Better MoodNootropics are also sought out by consumers because of their ability to enhance mood and relieve stress and anxiety. Nootropics like bacopa monnieri and L-theanine are backed by research as stress-relieving options. Lion's mane mushroom is also well-studied for its ability to boost the nerve growth factor, thereby leading to a balanced and bright mood.10
Improved MemoryNootropics are most sought after because of their long history of improving memory. With smart drugs, various memory functions have been shown to be enhanced, including free recall, short-term memory, and long-term memory. When it comes to memory retrieval and formation, acetylcholine is the invaluable brain chemical behind these functions. Thus, nootropics containing this substance have been shown to enhance memory:
Vitamin B6Also known as pyridoxine, vitamin B6 it is found in bananas, chickpeas, potatoes, fish, and poultry. A crucial vitamin for the normal development of the brain, this vitamin has been founded to enhance memory in older adults.
CiticolinePossibly related to brain regenerative and energizing nootropic properties, citicoline has seen to increase memory performance in older adults.
Phosphatidylserine (PS)This is considered the most evidenced-backed memory smart drug with the capacity to aid in information recall, as well as long and short-term memory.
Ginkgo BilobaGinkgo biloba is considered one of the oldest living trees still around and is well-documented for its ability to improve cognitive performance.
Brain RegenerationRegeneration pertains to remodeling, repairing brain cell membranes, and growing new brain cells in response to new experiences and learning. Though the brain is in a constant regenerative state, with the help of smart drugs, this process can be fully optimized. In part, nootropics help boost the regeneration process of the brain by becoming growth promoters or building block raw materials of the brain. Some nootropics shown to promote long-term brain regeneration include:
Lion's Mane MushroomSince this nootropic increases the nerve growth factor (NGF), it has been shown to support the remodeling and brain adaptability that is part of the brain regeneration process.
Maritime Pine Bark ExtractThese pine trees grow near the Mediterranean Sea, and only the bark is used for medicinal purposes. The extract contains flavonoids, which have been shown to improve neural connections and likewise enhances BDNF levels.
CiticolineAccording to one study, citicoline has been shown to boost brain regeneration in humans by as much as 26 percent.
NeuroprotectionNeuroprotection means providing protection for brain cells. Nootropics act similarly to antioxidants by providing protection to the brain against age-accelerating effects of free radicals. Other ways that these smart drugs help is by providing protection to brain cells from degradation and damage linked to cognitive decline and brain fog.
Phosphatidylserine (PS)Protects brain cells from toxic collateral damage through cleanup and disposal of dying brain cells.
CiticolineAccelerates brain regeneration and optimizes brain cell structure.
Anti-Aging PropertiesIt is a known fact that cognitive decline is often linked to aging. It may not be as visible as skin aging, but the brain does in fact age. Often, cognitive decline is not noticeable because it could be as mild as forgetting names of people. However, research has shown that even in healthy adults, cognitive decline can start as early as in the late twenties or early thirties. Studies show that one of the most common cause for brain aging is the buildup of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that cause damage to the brain's cell membranes. Through the use of nootropics, these free radicals can be stabilized, arresting the damage they cause.
Bacopa MonnieriProvides brain anti-aging properties through antioxidant compounds known as bacosides.
Pine Bark ExtractContains a complex antioxidant known as proanthocyanidin which has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, stabilizing free radicals in the brain.
Nootropics and Essential OilsLet's cut to the chase, are essential oils nootropics? We already know the definition of nootropics, so let's take a closer look at essential oils to see if they fit with the definition. Essential oils are plant-based extracts. They are concentrated aromatic compounds derived from specific plant’s roots, flowers, seeds, leaves or branches, and even the rind of citrus fruits. There is a wide variety of essential oils, and each one provides a range of health benefits when used topically or aromatically. There are many available studies involving essential oils exhibiting nootropic effects. First, there's lemongrass, or Cymbopogon Citratus, which has been shown to be a promising memory-restoring agent in mice.11 Another study on the olfactory impact of essential oils like lavender and rosemary revealed that they produced positive effects on cognitive performance and mood.12 And in another study on the inhalation of essential oils like grapefruit, fennel, Estragon, and black pepper essential oil, inhalation of the oils resulted in modulation of sympathetic activity in adults.13,14 With all these studies pointing to the nootropic benefits of some essential oils, it can logically be concluded then that some essential oils can be considered “smart drugs.” However, since essential oils have so much variety and only a small fraction of this wide range has been studied, it cannot be definitively concluded that absolutely all essential oils have brain-boosting benefits. The connection between the two is strong, however.
The Nootropic Effects of Essential OilsIf you’re looking to enjoy the aromatic benefits of essential oils, highlighted below is a quick list of essential oils that have been shown to have brain-boosting effects.
- Sandalwood – Increases attention span and mental stamina.
- Rosemary – Improves the ability to retain information.
- Chamomile – Calms the nerves and reduces stress, allowing for better focus.
- Basil – Boosts mental clarity and health while eradicating mental fatigue.
- Clary Sage – Boasts a sedative effect that reduces stress and improves