“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 improved his mental performance to achieve whatever he wanted.
Of course, in real life such a magic pill does not exist. But nootropics are the closest thing that is widely supported by mainstream media.
So, what are 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?
- Do’s and don’ts for taking nootropics
- The most important takeaways
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics is a term used for dietary supplements or prescription drugs that enhance cognitive function. They are also often referred to as smart drugs as they can improve brain function. Some of the most well-known foods that are considered nootropics are coffee, tea, creatine, and ginseng.
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 an edge and can serve as cognitive enhancers.
The term “nootropics” was created by Romanian 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 of nootropics in the article. My interpretation and simplification is that substances must fulfill certain 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, sharpen your focus, and improve cognitive performance and mental alertness. Nootropics can heighten your concentration levels, making you more productive in your work, study, or training. You generate more output.
I want to stress that they are not magic. In order to be productive and achieve our goals we 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. Healthy individuals who have covered these bases will indeed benefit from nootropic supplements to add just this little extra boost.
Nootropics come either as dietary supplements or as prescription drugs. The ingredients 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 researched enough and side effects like headache, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and nausea (or worse) are not entirely clear.
Modafinil and Adderall are two examples of synthetically produced prescription drugs. A study compared them with two natural substances that are said to have nootropic effects: ginseng and bacopa. The natural substances seemed to be more effective than the synthetically produced drugs.
One of the most popular natural nootropics is coffee, or to be more precise, caffeine. This ingredient is very effective and harmless for most of us.
I’ll share more of the top natural and over-the-counter nootropics later in this article.
Let’s take a look at how they work (if they work at all) and what the benefits are.
Do Nootropics Work? What Are the Benefits?
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% 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 “Limitless.” The idea that we only use part of our brains is used as justification for the supposed effectiveness of wonder medicine that increases cognitive ability.
Unfortunately, this theory has been debunked in many places. 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. It is true, though, that researchers do not yet fully understand how all the parts work together to create the magic that our brain really is.
All of these facts can bring us back to reality. There is no wonder drug that delivers a magical cognitive enhancement. What we have is our body and the basics of health and well-being. This is where we need to start.
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. These are the most important practices for optimal body and brain performance.
Only then can we add in nootropics to leverage a bit of an extra edge, which is possible as shown in various studies, like this one on ashwagandha and strength training, and this one on the same topic.
Nootropics can help you gain more mental clarity, increase concentration, think faster, fight fatigue, increase energy levels, and recover quicker. You can leverage this at work, school, or during training to squeeze out this tiny little extra that can make a difference.
There are also studies that claim that nootropics seem to be useful for those with Alzheimer’s disease. This may be attributed to the placebo effect, which hasn’t yet been excluded 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.
And as with training or nutrition, different people react differently to a certain stimulus. So what works for one may not work for others.
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 out of any substance. Caffeine helps improve short-term alertness and reduce symptoms of fatigue.
L-theanine is an amino acid commonly found in 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 an herb with very well-researched effects. It appears to be capable of reducing fatigue and the burnout sensation due to too much stress and anxiety. There is evidence that suggests that supplementation with Rhodiola rosea before exercise can cut down on fatigue.
L-tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid. It is found in high-protein foods such as poultry, fish, dairy, cheese, nuts, avocados, and bananas. L-tyrosine is related to the production of dopamine and adrenaline in your body. Dopamine is one of the chemicals that promote mood and motivation while adrenaline promotes focus and drive. We may not get enough L-tyrosine from our diets so supplementing it makes sense.
Researchers believe that alpha GPC (glycerophosphocholine) supports the power output of athletes and has 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 is a natural and active ingredient in black pepper. It’s often referred to by its trademark, Bioperine. Its main features are that it can help decrease anxiety, improve mood, and boost memory. Piperine itself is not considered a nootropic, but it increases the level of nootropic absorption within your body. This improves the effectiveness of nootropics.
Ashwagandha is an herb from India that has been used for over 3,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s well known and well researched. Several studies show that it can be used to combat stress and anxiety. It may increase testosterone levels and improve strength performance.
Creatine is a very popular and well known supplement. It’s mostly used to increase potential energy in muscle cells and speed up muscle growth, especially during high-intensity exercises. It’s very well researched and safe to use. One area that’s less researched but very promising 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 the eight B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12) is to transform food into energy. B12 is less relevant as a nootropic — it may be considered one if someone is B12-deficient. The key function in our context is that B12 (riboflavin) reduces migraines.
Korean ginseng has a lot of health benefits, some of which have been proven by science. Two of those benefits are that ginseng increases energy levels and it's anti-inflammatory. It’s also purported to have benefits related to erections, testosterone, and exercise performance, but those are not well-supported by research.
Ginkgo is another very popular ingredient for medicine and supplements. It is said to support brain function and blood flow, which is 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 most well-known benefit of fish oil (or omega-3 fatty acids) is that it reduces inflammation and accelerates recovery. It may also support healthy brain function but that is not yet fully proven in research. Examine.com has an excellent article about the benefits of omega-3. I take it everyday and I am convinced that 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, and it increases your 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. You can try going for a walk in the early morning, which is a recommended part of a healthy morning routine.
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 brain wave entrainment or brain wave synchronization.
The theory goes that different states of alertness, such as concentration or fatigue, have different patterns of neural firing in your brain. External stimuli (like listening to music) with certain frequencies can influence that state.
You can use music to support your current state within the circadian rhythm. For example, if you are concentrated, listening to the right music can help you concentrate better or longer. I use various free resources like mubert.com or endel.io for different situations like at night to fall asleep easier. I also use it for periods of time where I need to focus to complete a mental task, like finishing an article.
Do’s and Don’ts for Taking Nootropics
As with pretty much everything in fitness, exercise, and nutrition, how you incorporate nootropics is highly individual. It depends on your goals, genetics, preferences, and beliefs.
If you think nootropics work for you, they probably do. 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 that shows that there is an ideal level of arousal for optimal performance. Too much or too little arousal can inhibit optimal performance. The curve looks different for different types of activities, like intellectually demanding tasks vs. physically demanding tasks.
I recommend experimenting with how your body reacts to different stimuli until you find out for yourself what works well.
I’d also recommend not to take anything blindly. Dietary supplements are not strongly regulated. Do a bit of research before you try anything new.
Do not take too high of doses. There is a higher risk if you take too much of something, or your body will simply 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 need an extra bit of concentration or power for a certain task. This translates on average into about one nootropic pill two or three days a week.
It has been shown that nootropics work especially well when combined or taken in “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 your body and makes the whole stack a lot more effective.
My final piece of advice is to avoid taking nootropics too late in the day as you may have a harder time falling asleep if you are a light sleeper like I am.
What Are Nootropics? The Key Takeaways
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.
There is sufficient evidence, however, that nootropics have a beneficial effect on improving mental and athletic performance, mood, and motivation. But stay away from the chemically produced stuff, except when prescribed by your doctor. Go natural. And use effective combinations of nootropics — they should especially include piperine.
I have tried many nootropics. The cleanest option with the best value for money is from GoPrimal. This is why I decided to start a collaboration with them.
Nootropics have a lot of positive effects for healthy people and can provide the edge but only if you get the basics right. You wouldn’t be able to put a roof on top of your house if you didn’t have a solid foundation and some strong walls. The basics are what I promote with the 4 Legs of Fitness model or my most popular program, Build Bullet-Proof Health.
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 can nootropics can give you a little extra for superior performance and brain power.
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