What is a Nootropic?
A nootropic, also called a ‘smart drug’, is any form of medication or supplementation that can make you objectively smarter in some capacity. This might mean that you improve your memory, your focus, your creativity or something else. Either way, nootropics are to the brain what supplements and steroids are to the body.
But are they safe? And do they work?
That all depends on what kind of nootropic you intend on using!
Right now, reports tell us that somewhere around 90% of executives and CEOs across America are using nootropics of various descriptions in order to get an edge on their competition. These help them stay up later, be more confident during presentations and generally perform their very best.
One of the most popular forms of nootropic to this end is modafinil.
Modafinil is a nootropic that works by increasing the amount of a neurotransmitter called ‘orexin’ in the brain. This neurotransmitter is at least partly responsible for regulating the brain’s sleep and wake cycle, along with various other bodily functions (like appetite and bowel movements).
Modafinil was originally designed as a way to treat narcolepsy – a condition that causes people to fall asleep for no reason and without warning – but it was found that it could also improve various other functions like memory, attention and reflexes. This is because it can also increase dopamine, along with various other important neurotransmitters. There are no known side effects and the pill has a half-life of ten hours. So in theory, a CEO can pop one in the morning and then be more alert, more focussed and less sleepy for a whole 10-hour day.
Another example is Piracetam.
Piracetam is nootropic that increases acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a generic excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, meaning it generally increases the firing rates of neurons. This results in the brain becoming more alive and subjectively this might make you feel more awake, more alert and more vividly aware of your senses. Piracetam takes longer to take effect and needs to build up in your system over time – but a lot of people find the effects very pleasant without any notable downsides.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have things like 5-HTP. 5-HTP is 5 hydroxy tryptophan, which is a precursor to tryptophan, which is itself a precursor to serotonin. Precursor means ‘building block’ by the way – meaning that the brain uses these chemicals to make other chemicals.
Serotonin is the feel-good neurotransmitter and is also somewhat inhibitory. All this means that serotonin can help to make you feel relaxed and happy at the same time and thereby combat stress. Serotonin also converts into melatonin (the sleep neurotransmitter), which makes 5-HTP a useful sleep-aid when used just before bed. A CEO might use something like 5-HTP to ‘come down’ after a stressful day then, to perform better during a presentation by calming nerves, or just to sleep more deeply leading to a more productive day the next day.
Should You Use These Kinds of Nootropics?
So now the big question: should you use these kinds of nootropics?
Of course this is up to you but as general advice, the answer would have to be no. There are no known side effects for something like modafinil or Piracetam but that is not to say that there are definitely zero issues. These substances have not been tested for the long term, so no one knows what would happen were you to use them over a 10 year period. Not only that but it’s also a little concerning that we don’t know precisely how many of these nootropics work. 5-HTP we understand – but it’s not known precisely how modafinil impacts on orexin, only that it does. It’s completely uncertain how modafinil achieves its other benefits meanwhile.
And while there are no ‘official’ side effects, I can personally tell you that this isn’t entirely the case. For starters, it’s well known that modafinil will make you need to go to the toilet a lot, while also suppressing your appetite. This is of course a result of it altering the regulation of various bodily rhythms. I also found that modafinil made me bite the insides of my lips a lot, as well as grind my teeth – likely simply a result of having lots of stimulatory neurotransmitters running around my brain.
Piracetam will give you a headache unless you stack it with choline and many people find that even then, they can end up with both headaches and ‘brain fog’. Some people have reported feeling permanent brain fog as a result of using Piracetam.
Modafinil also makes me so focussed that it isn’t always a good thing. When I use it, I become ‘glued’ to whatever it is I’m doing. If that’s work… great! I will then be completely transfixed on work until I finish. But if I have a quick go on a computer game before I start working, then there’s a good chance I’m not going to be able to stop – I’m going to complete that computer game before I get any work done!
Likewise, crossing the road can become dangerous as I find myself so engaged in what I’m thinking that I can’t properly pay attention to the road or to noises/movement in my environment.
I also find it harder to be creative and this follows seeing as an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine is actually associated with a decrease in creativity. We are at our most creative when we are relaxed because this allows our mind to ‘wander’. The neuroscience behind this is that our brain is forming new connections between disparate neurons that would normally never be associated – which is how invention happens. But when you’re highly focussed, you become too fixated on one thing and this stymies creativity.
The point of all this?
The brain operates the way it does for a purpose. Optimum brain function is not about being able to focus on one thing for a long time. Optimum brain function is about being able to switch from one brain state to another as necessary. You need to be highly focussed while you’re working and then relaxed when you’re not. You need to let your mind wander when you’re trying to come up with new ideas and then focus up when you’re asked a difficult question.
When you artificially increase too much of a certain neurotransmitter, you make it very hard to do this and you get ‘stuck’ in one state. It feels optimum but in fact it’s just an artificial ‘high’.
Another problem with these types of neurotransmitters is that they can actually be addictive because of something called ‘tolerance and dependence’. What happens here is that the brain adapts to that increased or decreased neurochemical. For example, if you have artificially increased the amount of dopamine in your brain on a regular occurrence, then your brain might respond by removing dopamine receptors to make the brain less responsive to it. Alternatively, it might reduce the amount of dopamine you naturally produce.
In short, you now need a bigger dose of the same substance in order to get the same feeling as before. And eventually, your ‘baseline’ can become so low that you feel bad until you get it! While modafinil and Piracetam aren’t officially supposed to be addictive, 5-HTP actually can be and is better avoided for this reason. That and essentially making your brain sleepy is not the solution to heightened social skills and confidence! (No surprise there, really!)
Neurotransmitters Do Not Exist in a Vacuum
As though all that wasn’t enough reason, it’s also important to recognize that neurotransmitters do not exist in a vacuum. That is to say that any one neurotransmitter you alter, will automatically impact on many others and have other effects on the body. We’ve already seen for instance that serotonin converts to melatonin and that orexin affects our hunger and bowel movements. Then there’s the fact that serotonin links to appetite and that cortisol (also linked with dopamine) affects our testosterone levels.
There are undoubtedly countless neurotransmitters that we have yet to even discover. And what this means is that when you take a nootropic that effects one neurotransmitter, you’re really make all kinds of untold changes in your brain without really knowing what the consequences of that action might be. For this reason, it’s highly advisable to focus on other ways to get your mental upgrade!
But there is a nootropic that most of us already use on a regular basis. That nootropic is of course caffeine, which is the secret ingredient in tea and coffee that makes us wake up in the morning and feel more alert. This is just like any other nootropic, the only difference being that it has been around longer and is therefore a little more ‘commonplace’.
So how does caffeine works? Basically, caffeine is able to mimic a neurotransmitter in the brain called Adenosine. Adenosine is a by-product of the ‘energy process’ in the brain. When your mitochondria utilize glucose for energy, they do this by converting it first to ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and then breaking that ATP apart into its constituent parts… including adenosine!
Adenosine builds up throughout the day then as we use our brain cells for thinking, moving and powering our bodies. But this substance is inhibitory and over time makes us become tireder and sleepier. Eventually we become so sluggish that we’re forced to go to bed and a good night’s sleep is then able to flush our brain of the excess adenosine ready for morning.
What caffeine does is to block the adenosine receptors. Because caffeine is a similar shape to adenosine, it can plug the holes where adenosine is supposed to go and that then prevents adenosine from working its magic. This makes us feel more awake and alert and causes a spike in brain activity. This spike in brain activity then results in a flood of other excitatory neurotransmitters being released, which include dopamine, norepinephrine and more.
So is it safe to use? Will caffeine give you a healthy kick?
Yes and no. On the one hand, caffeine has actually been shown in studies to reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s and in that sense it is neuroprotective. It does enhance wakefulness and memory and it’s relatively very safe. At the same time though, caffeine is also essentially ‘stress in a cup’. It works by increasing many of our stress hormones and this can decrease creativity (as we’ve seen), while also causing numerous other problems. More worryingly, caffeine is addictive owing to the mechanisms we described earlier. If you become dependent on caffeine, you’ll find you can get raging headaches whenever you go long periods without it.
What’s more, it has actually been suggested that what many of us think of as ‘morning grogginess’, is actually just a withdrawal symptom from caffeine! In other words, we wake up and feel sluggish because we’ve gone for so long without caffeine!
It’s really up to you if you take it or not but this is an excellent demonstration of the risks associated with nootropics versus the benefits.
You Can Also “Go Natural” With Cognitive Enhancement
One option is to fuel your brain with the right nutrients and supplements, many of which can cause a significant upgrade in terms of mental performance. Use this resource list to help plan your ultimate nootropic stack and brain-boosting diet… Likewise, when creating a regular diet, you can check back on this sheet as a way to know which choices are likely to help enhance your brain health and which are likely to negatively impact on it…
Carbs are a large and unavoidable part of many diets but despite popular opinion, they are not ‘bad’ for you. In fact, some studies suggest that those eating low carb diets might actually see a decrease in their brainpower and IQ. The reason for this is that carbohydrates provide the brain with immediately available energy in the form of glucose. When you deny the brain of this glucose, you prevent it from getting its primary energy source, which in turn can leave it tired and listless – resulting in brain fog.
The best type of carbohydrates though are those that don’t release energy too quickly, potentially resulting in a sudden increase in energy, followed by an immediate drop off afterward. Complex carbs are your friends – carbs that are combined with fats and fibers to make them slower to digest. A great example of a complex carb is oats and having these for breakfast can set the brain up for top performance.
Neurotransmitter Precursors: Amino Acids, Minerals and Vitamins
There are countless roles of different amino acids and vitamins in the diet that can do wonders for your brain power. Essentially, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and their importance comes from their use in creating a large number of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that can trigger and increase various brain states – such as alertness or relaxation. They help regulate our mood, improve our memory and more. Various vitamins and minerals are also responsible for a number of these roles.
Some key amino acids and vitamins/minerals that help to enhance the production of neurotransmitters include:
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin C
Generally, getting any good source of protein in your diet – such as eggs – along with a morning smoothie or multivitamin/mineral, will be enough to ensure that your body has an ample supply of all the raw materials it needs.
Eggs are also great due to their high choline content. Choline is a substance that provides the building block for another neurotransmitter called acetylcholine – which happens to be one of the most important excitatory neurotransmitters out there. Eggs are also high in vitamin D, magnesium, B6 and B12… so eat them!
Vasodilators are elements of the diet that dilate the blood vessels (veins and arteries). This means that they get wider, thereby allowing for increase bloodflow and circulation. In turn, this means that more oxygen and more nutrients make it to the brain, where they are able to enhance brain function considerably.
A great natural form of vasodilator is garlic. Another good one is beetroot juice – and in fact some athletes are known to use beetroot juice for this very reason! Vitamin B12 is also a vasodilator – one more reason to eat eggs!
Cognitive Metabolic Enhancers
This is a very fancy term for any nutrient that helps to increase cell function. Good examples include resveratrol, lutein and l-carnitine – all available from the diet.
All these nutrients help the cells to increase the function of mitochondria – which are the small ‘energy factories’ that help us to get useable energy from ATP and from glucose. This in turn gives you more energy for thinking and helps make you more alert and more attentive.
What to Avoid: Processed Foods
What you should absolutely avoid though is processed food. This will cause inflammation in the brain due to the high omega 6 content, it will give you sudden spikes and troughs in sugar and it will fill you up without providing any of the useful nutrients that your body needs in order to thrive (these are ‘empty calories’). Avoid sugary snacks like cakes, chocolates and crisps and certainly avoid ready meals!
Vinpocetine is a vasodilator, meaning that it works very similarly to the beetroot and the garlic that we mentioned earlier. By widening blood vessels, this enhances bloodflow. But the key difference with vinpocetine is that it acts primarily on the frontal cortex, meaning that the effects are mainly felt in the most useful parts of the brain!
Omega 3 Fatty Acid
Omega 3 fatty acid enhances ‘cell membrane permeability’. This means that the cell walls become slightly more flexible, which not only helps to avoid damage from free radicals and other agents but also improves the ability for nutrients and electrical signals to pass through. This ultimately enhances the health of your brain cells and also improves the speed that signals can move through the brain while you’re thinking!
Creatine allows the cells to recycle ATP. ATP is the most basic form of energy that the cells create from glucose and thus, by being able to use it more than once, you are improving your body’s energy efficiency. The long and short of it is that you can concentrate a little harder, a little longer; and studies show that it can actually increase IQ scores.
Caffeine is the nootropic that most people already use every day to become more alert and to enhance their memory. Caffeine works by undoing the effects of tiredness (caused by adenosine) and can cause an instant improvement in mental faculties. It is a little addictive but studies also show that it can be neuroprotective – protecting against Alzheimer’s – when used in the long term.
If you find that caffeine makes you too jittery, then l-theanine is the perfect combination to help calm the nerves. It’s naturally occurring alongside caffeine in many green teas!