What are nootropics
Did you watch the Limitless movie? If you did, you know what are nootropics as the great mind boosting pill NZT-48 is a nootropic.
In their essence nootropics are any substances which give you an increase in mental performance. Caffeine is one such substance known to virtually everyone, ginseng is another relatively recent fad, however strictly speaking they are not nootropics.
What are nootropics is a very complex topic which has two polar-opposite camps. One camp advocates that only laboratory designed drugs with specifically measurable effects are nootropics, and the other camp says that any substance – or mixture of them – which gives you a feeling of improved mental capacity is a nootropic.
In general both camps are looking to boost a wide list of mental functions:
- Executive functions
- Inhibitory control
- Working memory
- Reasoning/problem solving
- Cognitive flexibility
- Planning (usually very short to medium term)
- Short term
- Medium term
- Long term
- Monitoring (perception)
- Sight (improved vision with increased attention for details)
- Sound (otherwise faint and blended sounds become more distinct)
- Tactile feeling
To achieve these effects the ‘laboratory designed’ camp relies strictly on science and prefers pure and isolated active ingredients in pill or powder form. These active compounds might be traced back to herbal beginnings in their most basic form but nowadays they are augmented and completely man made. The second camp often sees these as poisonous drugs and most of them would prefer to have such nootropics banned. These people prefer milder (yet still potent) natural nootropics. Origins of natural smart drugs can be traced back to when coffee beans and coca leafs have been used by bronze age warriors for a physical and cognitive boost in battles. 1000 years later natural nootropics are carefully prepared from many herbs and packed into a stable form (pill, powder or tincture). While there is a considerable scientific effort involved in designing the formulas and producing natural nootropics their effects can vary from person to person. This variation in effect and the fact that some formulas rely on stimulants like B vitamins (yes, some vitamins are stimulants) for boosting mental performance led the most hardcore proponents of synthetic cognitive boosters to claim all natural nootropics are pixie dust.
Are nootropics safe?
While potency difference between synthetic nootropics and natural nootropics is causing the main disagreement between the two camps, their differences are far more profound. The main issue stems from the belief that synthetic brain boosters are damaging to your health. While this was very true many decades ago when militaries all over the world tried to create a drug which would turn you into a super soldier, today the story is much different.
In the last decade nootropics became a big industry as college students, scientists and CEOs are using them on daily basis. In that customer profile brain aneurysms and heart attacks are usually not among acceptable side effects hence companies do their best to make their products safe. Even one bad health concern linked to nootropics could bring the industry crashing and for this reason manufacturers tend to err on the safe side which gives less potent boosting effects. The result of this is that some synthetic nootropics have weaker effect than best natural nootropics. In fact some have such weak effect they can be compared to low level stimulants like vitamin B complex. Such mixtures are usually referred to as pixie dust because they do nothing else for you than look fancy.
This does not mean though that some nootropics are not still possibly dangerous for health. In fact some of the best formulas were developed as cures for conditions like narcolepsy and ADHD. These formulas function as a cure for those who have the medical condition for which they were designed, however they function as nootropics in otherwise healthy individuals. As any prescription drug these come with a long list of very worrying side effects. But this is no surprise as such drugs are practically still in beta (testing) stage.
How do nootropics work?
You can search Google for the phrase ‘how do nootropics work’ and you will get a bunch of articles all stating the same things in 5, 7 or even 10 similarly titled subheadings. The reason for this shameless content copying is that all of those websites are trying to covertly sell you the same product. But the bigger issue is that their content is not correct. Much of it is just bogus marketing hype.
Let us take a look at some of those claims:
1 – Nootropics multiply brain cells
To know if this is true you would need a large, very strict, long and carefully conducted study which is at present unfeasible. Why? Because the study would begin by removing subjects brains and physically examining them, then putting them back in and feeding the subject nootropics for several months, after that brains would be removed and physically examined again. Obviously removing the brain without killing the subject is impossible at the moment, which means the ‘Nootropics multiply brain cells’ claim is not scientifically founded. The claim is based on lab rat trials and computer models, which means obtained results are far from valid and conclusive for living humans.
However some nootropics may increase the number of functional brain cells through the processes of cell decalcification and cell regeneration. Potentially a subset of the latter process might trigger new brain cell growth as well but this is only speculated at the moment.
2 – Nootropics fine-tune brain waves
The presumptuousness and stupidity of this claim is just shocking beyond description…
Brainwaves are not the cause of cognitive functioning but its consequence. ‘’Tuning’’ them for performance is like expecting the car to go faster if you change the color of headlamps.
Ok, now let us take a look at some mechanisms which can really explain how do nootropics work. But keep in mind that not every nootropic (if any) works through all of these mechanisms, rather they often focus on just 1 or 2 of them.
1 – Increasing hormone output
The most effective way to increase your cognitive function is to increase the amount of certain hormones in your bloodstream leading to your brain.
One example of this are hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Some of them directly affect your alertness, responsiveness, stress handling and even how sharp your vision is. Caffeine in part owes its effects to stimulating the adrenal glands. However the same adrenal hormones which affect the brain also favorably affect muscles. Thus caffeine and other substances which boost adrenal output cannot be strictly classified as nootropics. Rather they fall into the broader category of stimulants.
2 – Increasing and decreasing receptor sensitivity
Our brains have many different receptors through which their functioning is regulated. Nootropics leverage this by blocking or inhibiting receptors which transmit pain or fatigue signals (caffeine has the letter effect). Another example is that by decreasing noise level sensitivity you feel as if the noise clutter surrounding you was drowned out.
Nootropics can also increase receptor sensitivity and thus enhance certain functions. Examples of this would be some nootropics (like Piracetam) which stimulate acetylcholine receptors. This results in greater attention and higher motivation.
3 – Increasing blood flow to the brain
Brains need increased oxygen and energy supply in order to display higher mental performance. The only safe way of achieving this is by dilating the blood vessels leading to the brain. Many common substances like alcohol, L-arginine and even capsaicin (the compound which makes hot peppers hot) have this effect and so do many nootropics. However the effect of nootropics is, of course, far more pronounced.
4 – Increase ATP production and glucose uptake
ATP is the prime energy source for brain cells and is produced within the cells themselves by organelles called mitochondria. Certain nootropics can increase the productivity of mitochondria and thus give brain cells higher energy supply which is imperative for higher brain cell productivity.
Glucose can also break down into ATP to fuel the brain cells however 2 mechanisms must be boosted first before energy levels can be increased above the average level. The first mechanism is to increase the glucose uptake (into the brain cells) and the second is to expedite glucose breakdown into a more useful energy carrier (ATP).
Many nootropics can join this with point 3 above which makes them especially effective.
Choosing and buying nootropics
There is a huge number of nootropic products around the world and it can be very difficult to decide which to go with. Unfortunately a large part of those products are pixie dust which has virtually no effect and no side effects. And there are a few products which truly have a fantastic effect, but are difficult to get or are even banned from being shipped to some countries.
Majority of the products fall between the 2 extremes with mediocre effect, no serious side effects and easy shipping anywhere. The letter is because their composition is suitable to classify them as supplements which are not regulated by governments.
Whenever you intend to buy nootropics from outside the country/state you live in you should check that you will not get into any trouble with the customs authorities. While most suppliers will inform you if their product is potentially conflicting with legislation where you live, some (often more shady) suppliers will simply ship the product. While the letter practice is good when you absolutely want to have that product, it is otherwise best to avoid it.
Purity of nootropics can also be a major issue as some distributors can ship you nothing but placebo. For this reason buying from a brand and distributor with a good reputation is very important.