One tablet a day, and I was limitless.
You may remember this line by Bradley Cooper in the movie “Limitless.” In the movie he was taking some sort of magic pill that enhanced his cognitive abilities to achieve whatever he wanted. Of course, in real life such a magic pill does not exist. But what is supposed to come closest to such a pill supported by mainstream media are the so called nootropics.
In this article I am answering all the important questions about nootropics in the context of health and fitness:
- What are nootropics?
- Do nootropics work? What are the benefits?
- What are the best nootropics?
- How to take them and how not to take them?
- The most important take-aways in conclusion
What are nootropics?
Nootropics is a term used to summarize dietary supplements or prescription drugs that enhance cognitive function.
The term is a combination of two Greek words. The Greek word “noo” stands for mind or mentality and “tropí” means turn or change. In combination nootropics means something like “mind changing.” That is probably a slight exaggeration. Research studies conclude that nootropics are no miracle drugs but they can provide the edge.
The term was created by Romania neurophysiology Professor Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972. In one of his most important articles he described the main features of nootropics. You can read the original kinda science-nerdy definition in the article. My interpretation and simplification is that substances must fulfill the following requirements in order to be deemed nootropics. They must promote:
- focus and concentration to operate more effectively
- brain health and protection
- processing capability
- safe usage on a daily basis
In other words Nootropics are supposed to improve energy levels and to sharpen your focus and mental alertness. Concentration levels can be higher, making you more productive in your work, study or training. You generate more output.
I want to stress however, again that they are not magic. In order to be productive and achieve our goals we always first and foremost need to get the basics right for optimal performance: train right, eat well, recover and sleep sufficiently. These are the basic principles of the 4 Legs of Fitness model. If you have covered these bases then indeed, nootropics can add just this little extra.
Nootropics come either as dietary supplements or as prescription drugs. The ingredients for each can be either synthetically produced or natural. I’d recommend staying away from any synthetics and from any prescription drugs. These drugs are still not well enough researched and side effects like headache, anxiety, trouble sleeping, nausea or worse are not entirely clear. Nature has some exceptional ingredients for us offering the nootropic effect. As an example Modafinil is one of those drugs. A study compared it with two natural substances Ginseng and Bacopa. Both seemed to be more effective than the synthetically produced drug. Another and one of the most popular natural nootropic is coffee. To be more precise it is its ingredient caffeine, which is very effective and still harmless for most of us. I am describing more of the top natural nootropics later in this article.
Let’s take a look if and how they work and what the benefits are.
Do nootropics work? What are the benefits?
You know how they say that we can only access twenty percent of our brain? Well, what this [pill] does, it lets you access all of it.
This is another quote (by the character Vernon Gant) from the Limitless movie. This conception that we only use part of our brains is often the justification why wonder medicine that increases cognitive ability is supposed to work. Unfortunately, this conception is wrong and has been debunked in many places like in this article of the Scientific American. In fact, what’s curious is that our brains make up only about 3% of our body weight but use 20% of the body's energy. Brain scans also prove that we use pretty much all parts of our brain. Only research does not yet fully understand how all the parts work together to create that magic that our brain really is.
The fact that this conception is a misconception takes away the basis for all these brain wonder drugs and brings us back to reality. There is now wonder drug. What we have is our body and we have the basics of health and well-being. This is where we need to start. As mentioned above, there are no shortcuts. First, get the basics right with a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Move and train a lot. Eat right. Sleep and recover sufficiently. This is the most important thing for optimal body and brain performance.
Then only on top of all of this we can add in nootropics to leverage a bit of an extra edge, which is possible as shown in various studies. I discuss some of the most effective nootropics in the next section of this article but here are a couple of proven benefits that they all have in common.
Nootropics can help to gain more mental clarity, increase concentration, think faster, fight fatigue, increase energy levels and recover quicker. You can leverage this at work, study or training to squeeze out this tiny little extra that can make a difference. Sometimes this may be attributed to the Placebo effect. This hasn’t been excluded yet in many studies investigating the effect of nootropics. But in the end a beneficial effect is a beneficial effect. The exact cause of the effect is secondary, although of course we want to understand that too at some point.
Moreover, some of the nootropics are more effective if they are combined in certain ways. This is also referred to as a “stack.” Finally, as it is the same with training or nutrition, different people react differently to a certain stimulus. So what works for one may not work for others. I am sharing my own experience with nootropics in the conclusion.
What are the best nootropics?
I am not a doctor, so do not take this as advice. I did experiment with all of the below and I personally did not experience any issues. For a healthy adult these natural nootropics should not cause unwanted side effects if taken reasonably and in moderation. But to be on the safe side, consult with your doctor first.
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and officially classified as a nootropic. Coffee -- the third most popular drink on earth after water and tea -- typically has the largest concentration of caffeine. It is general and accepted knowledge that caffeine helps improve alertness and reduce symptoms of fatigue.
L-Theanine is an amino acid commonly found in especially green tea. It is known to promote relaxation and helps reduce anxiety and stress. L-Theanine is pretty safe to use, especially if you consume it in the form of tea.
Bacopa Monnieri is a traditional Indian herb -- also referred to as brahmi -- that is used in Ayurvedic medicine. A 2013 meta analysis showed that Bacopa Monnieri improves memory function. It is also suggested that it may take 4-6 weeks until Bacopa Monnieri shows some effects.
Rhodiola Rosea is a herb, whose effects are very well researched. It appears to be capable of reducing fatigue and the burnout sensation due to too much stress and anxiety. Exercising is a form of stress for the body. There is evidence that suggests that supplementation with Rhodiola Rosea before exercise can reduce fatigue.
L-Tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid. It is found in high-protein foods such as poultry, fish, dairy, cheese, nuts, avocados or even bananas. The most interesting aspect of L-Tyrosine is that it is related to the production of dopamine and adrenaline in our bodies. Dopamine is one of the chemicals that promote mood and motivation; adrenaline promotes focus and drive. We may not get enough L-Tyrosine from our diets so supplementing it makes absolute sense.
Alpha GPC (=glycerophosphocholine) as a nootropic is mainly believed to support power output of athletes and cognitive-enhancing properties. It may also aid in preventing cognitive decline. Although Alpha GPC seems very promising there is currently only one valuable study available. More research needs to be done.
Piperine -- most of the time it’s referred to as its trademark Bioperine -- is a natural and active ingredient in black pepper. Its main features are that it can help decrease anxiety, improve mood and boost memory. Piperine itself is not considered a nootropic. But the main benefit of it lies in combination with nootropics because it increases the level of absorption of them within your body. This is pretty critical as it improves the effectiveness of nootropics.
Ashwagandha is an herb from India with a history of use of over 3000 years in Ayurvedic medicine. Hence, it is fairly well known and researched. Several studies show that it can be used to combat stress and anxiety, and may increase testosterone levels and strength performance.
Creatine is a very popular and well known supplement and mostly used to increase potential energy in muscle cells and speeds up muscle growth especially during high intensity exercises. It is very well researched and it is safe to use. One area that’s less researched but very promising too is that Creatine may also support improved brain function because of the higher energy supply (in the form of ATP).
Vitamin B2 and B12
The function of B Vitamins in general and among others is to transform food into energy. There are eight BTW (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12). B12 is less relevant as a nootropic, only if someone is deficient. The key function in our context here is that B12 (Riboflavin) reduces migraine.
Korean Ginseng has a lot of health benefits, some of which have been proven by science, some are still only hypotheses. Two of those benefits are that Ginseng increases energy levels and it's anti-inflammatory. Less proven are its benefits related to erections, testosterone, and exercise performance.
Ginkgo is another very popular ingredient for medicine and supplements. It is said to support brain function and blood circulation mainly rooted in its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Its benefits include improved sleep quality, calmness, good mood, or subjective well-being. Research based evidence is mostly lacking.
The top and most well known benefit of fish oil or Omega 3 is that it reduces inflammation and accelerates recovery. It may also support healthy brain function but that is not yet fully conclusive in research. Examine.com has an excellent article about the benefits of Omega 3. I take it myself everyday and I am convinced everybody who has an active lifestyle should supplement with it.
Blue light is the main regulator of our circadian rhythm and hence responsible for our wakefulness. Exposure to blue light has significant cognitive effects, increases our metabolic rate and alertness. Although you can buy blue light emitting devices, thankfully the sun is the strongest, most effective blue light emitter. Just make sure you get enough sunlight, like going for a walk early morning which is a recommended morning routine anyway.
Music is not officially classified as a nootropic. However, it is proven that music can amplify or even change the physiological state that we are in. This is referred to as brainwave entrainment or brainwave synchronization. The theory goes that different states of alertness, concentration or fatigue have different patterns of neural firing in our brains. External stimuli with certain frequencies can influence that. You can, for example, use music to support your current state within the Circadian or Ultradian rhythm. I use various free resources like mubert.com or endel.io and it works very effectively.
How to take them and how not to take them?
As with pretty much everything in fitness, exercise and nutrition this is highly individual. A lot depends on your goals, genetics, preferences and beliefs. If you think it works, it probably does. Generally stay away from the chemical stuff but choose natural supplements like the ones I described in this article. Make sure you consult a doctor.
In this context the Yerkes–Dodson law is useful. This law is a bell-shaped curve describing that there is a certain level of arousal for optimal performance. Too much or too little arousal can inhibit optimal performance. In addition the curve looks different for different types of activities, like intellectually vs physically demanding tasks. This is also highly individual and I recommend experimenting how your body reacts to different stimuli until you find out for yourself what works well.
I’d also recommend not to just take anything blindly. Dietary supplements are not strongly regulated. Do a bit of research before you try anything new. Also do not overdo it. On the one hand there is higher risk if you take too much of something and on the other hand your body will simply learn to adapt to the stimulus reducing the effect of it over time. I do not take nootropics every day but I do take them when I either feel a lack of energy or if I need this extra bit of concentration or power for a certain task. This for me translates on average into about one nootropic pill on two or three days a week.
It has been shown that nootropics work especially well in combinations or so called “stacks.” One of these combinations is L-Theanine with Caffeine to promote cognition and attention. L-Theanine can help to counteract the jitteriness from Caffeine. Another very effective combination is Piperine with almost any other nootropic. This is because Piperine improves the absorption of the ingredients by our body and makes the whole stack a lot more effective.
My final advice is to not take nootropics too late in the day as you may have a harder time falling asleep if you are a light sleeper like I am.
The most important take-aways in conclusion
There is no magic pill. And that is a good thing. If everybody could just throw in a magic pill, then everybody would be special. And then no one is.
But we can still achieve outstanding performance. Just it still requires hard work. Nothing valuable comes easy. And with hard work, discipline and the right means at the right time we can all achieve great things.
There is sufficient evidence that nootropics have a beneficial effect on improving performance, memory, learning, focus, mood, concentration, motivation, and attention. My personal experience confirms that too. I recommend to not take them too often but when you need them and definitely stay away from the chemically produced stuff -- except when you really need them and a doctor prescribed them to you. Go natural. And then in particular use effective combinations of nootropics -- especially, they should include Piperine. I tried many nootropics. The cleanest with the best value for money I know as of now, are from GoPrimal. This is also why I decided to start a collaboration with them.
Nootropics can provide the edge but only if you first got the basics right. You wouldn’t be able to put a roof on top of your house if you wouldn’t first have built a solid foundation and some strong walls. The basics are what I promote with the 4 Legs of Fitness model or our program QuarantineFit.Life that is based on it: find a training program that works for you. Work on your strength. Work on your endurance. Eat well in line with your objectives and cut out the shit. Do not underestimate recovery and make high quality sleep a priority. Finally work on your emotional well-being. Happiness and being surrounded by good people are such strong drivers. Only then on top, nootropics can give you this little extra for superior performance.
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