What Are Nootropics and Cognitive Enhancing Supplements?

Written by Angie Arriesgado
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It’s been 10 long years since the world of nootropics and smart drugs left an imprint in people’s minds, thanks in no small part to Bradley Cooper’s Limitless movie. Since then, there have been countless coverage on brain-boosting smart drugs that are supposed to help unlock the brain’s full potential, ala the movie’s NZT-48 pill. But does such a thing really exist?

Well, no, not even close. But the next best thing is just right around the corner — nootropics! You can buy them online or over the counter at your favorite health shop. Today, I’ll give you the rundown on all things nootropics. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to answer the million-dollar question, “what are nootropics”!

So, what are nootropics anyway?

You’ve probably seen TV ads, print ads, newspaper articles, and blog posts about smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, memory supplements, brain vitamins, and intelligence boosters. These are terms most commonly used to refer to nootropics, whether it be natural or synthetic nootropics.

Nootropics can refer to natural food products like caffeine, panax ginseng, and ginkgo biloba. It can also refer to food supplements or drugs that enhance cognitive ability.

Different nootropics affect your brain health in a variety of ways. Some products may help with memory and mental clarity. Others may give you an energy and productivity boost. Still, others may offer mood enhancement and relaxation.

When did nootropics start?

Nootropics have been around for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until 1972 when Romanian psychologist, Corneliu Giurgea, coined the term “nootropics” from the Greek “noos” (meaning mind) and “tropein” (meaning to bend). Thus, nootropics literally mean to bend the mind. He also synthesized piracetam, the first ever synthetic cognitive enhancer and smart drug.

According to Giurgea, these are the 5 characteristics of a nootropic (1):

  • Nootropics enhance memory and learning
  • Nootropics improve natural cognitive functions
  • Nootropics are safe, non-toxic and possess very few side effects
  • Nootropics protect the brain from various physical or chemical injuries
  • Nootropics enhance the resistance of learned behaviors or memories to disruptive conditions
The different types of nootropics

What are the different types of nootropics?

There are 2 types of nootropics – natural and synthetic.

Natural nootropics

As the name suggests, natural nootropics come from natural ingredients. They can be a single-ingredient nootropic or it can be a multiple-ingredient nootropic, a.k.a. nootropic stack.

Nootropic supplements belong to this category and can be bought without a prescription. It’s important to note that nootropic supplements are treated as food by the FDA and do not undergo rigorous testing like synthetic drugs.

Here are examples of natural nootropics:

  • Panax ginseng – may help prevent Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases
  • Rhodiola – may help with neurodegenerative diseases
  • Ginkgo biloba – potentially helps with brain function
  • L-theanine – a “calming” amino acid found in green tea
  • Caffeine – found in that cuppa Joe you drink in the morning!
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – a well-known mental enhancer abundant in fatty fish
  • B-vitamins – useful cognitive enhancers found in plenty of whole foods

Synthetic nootropics

These are nootropic substances that aren’t found in nature and are made in a laboratory. Prescription nootropics usually fall in this category.

Here are examples of synthetic nootropics:

  • Racetams like piracetam and phenylpiracetam – said to have neuroprotective effects
  • Modafinil – may help with narcolepsy
  • Adderall – used to treat ADHD
  • Ritalin – helps with ADHD and narcolepsy
Smart-looking girl posing for camera

How do nootropics work?

Nootropics work to improve cognitive function and unlock the brain’s true potential, though not to the extent of NZT-48! You won’t gain superpowers overnight, but depending on the nootropic you take, you may experience a boost in cognitive function, decision making, problem solving, creativity, focus, memory and recall, and feel more emotionally positive.

Additionally, some nootropics can improve your mental drive and motivation, so if you find yourself lacking the mental fortitude to accomplish tasks, consider taking a nootropic.

With that being said, nootropics are not created equally. Some nootropics may benefit only healthy individuals. Some compounds, like caffeine, only has a short-term effect. Others, like the natural nootropic Bacopa monnieri, will need to be taken daily for a few weeks or months to experience any effects.

What are nootropic stacks?

Nootropic stacks are a combination of nootropics. You can have two or more nootropics in a single stack. You can create your own nootropic stack, though we don’t recommend this unless you know what you’re doing.

Many nootropic supplements come in pre-made stacks, that is, the manufacturers mix and match various nootropic ingredients to achieve their desired effect.

For beginners, we recommend taking either a single nootropic compound or a pre-made stack. For obvious reasons, leave the DIY stacking to the experts as you may do more harm than good.

What nootropics aren’t…

Don’t mistake nootropics for psychedelics and hallucinogens. True nootropics will give you a mental boost, yes, but they’re not going to give you hallucinations and you’re definitely not going to be trippin’! You won’t be able to feel colors or taste sounds or see stationary objects around you come to life. So, don’t expect to get a ‘high’ by taking nootropics.

who should take nootropics

Who should take nootropics?

There’s a wide range of people who take nootropics for a variety of reasons. Anyone who can use more brainpower to reach their goals can benefit from taking nootropics. This includes:

  • Students preparing for an exam.
  • People in competitive jobs who need to focus on their workflow.
  • The elderly struggling to remember a lot of stuff.
  • Athletes who need to boost mental energy and physical performance (if you’re wondering, most natural nootropics aren’t on the banned list in sports organizations).
  • Tradespeople who are suffering from a decrease in productivity and are keen to get back on track.
  • People who are searching the web for the best memory supplements.

In short, those who want to experience better brain health and better mental performance should consider taking a nootropic.

When did nootropics become popular?

Even if the word ‘nootropics’ was only coined a few decades ago, nootropic substances have been in use for thousands of years. Psychoactive substances, or those that affect the mind, have been in use for millennia for religious, medicinal, and recreational reasons (2).

In ancient Ayurveda, there are medicinal herbs called Medhya Rasayanas that are used to improve memory, intellect, immunity, nutrition, and overall health (3). One of these herbs is Bacopa monnieri, a nootropic whose popularity has continued until modern times.

With that said, nootropics have been steadily gaining popularity in the past few decades. Just do a quick Amazon search for ‘nootropic’ and you’ll be presented with over 1,000 products to choose from.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when nootropics became popular, movies like Limitless and Lucy undoubtedly helped propel them to mass consciousness. And without a doubt, media coverage and social media also helped introduce more people to the world of nootropics.

Nootropics in popular culture

Limitless (2011) is probably the biggest film that introduced the masses to the powers of a drug that can supposedly unlock 100% of the brain. Due to the movie’s popularity, a Limitless TV series was also released, albeit a single-season one.

The 2014 movie, Lucy, came next. Basically, Lucy transformed into a warrior with extraordinary mental and physical powers after taking a performance-enhancing drug.

Documentaries have also been made on nootropics. Smart Drugs and Take Your Pills are but two examples.

For bookworms out there, Limitless is based on the 2001 novel, The Dark Fields, written by Alan Glynn. Ten years later, the book was re-titled Limitless to match the film adaptation title.

Lion’s mane mushroom is a natural nootropic

What are the best natural nootropics out there?

In no particular order, these are some of the best natural nootropics you can take today:

1) Lion’s mane mushroom 

Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) look like their namesake – the mane of a lion! This culinary-medicinal ‘shroom is not only delicious (they say it tastes like crab or lobster), but its nootropic properties are very promising too. It’s said to help improve concentration and reduce anxiety and depression, according to a 4-week study on female subjects (10).

Another study reported that the mushroom helped improve mild cognitive impairment in older Japanese adults. The elderly subjects took lion’s mane for 16 weeks and during this period, their cognitive scores increased significantly. However, a month after they stopped taking the mushroom, the scores went down significantly. This suggests that lion’s mane does have cognitive effects but will need to be taken consistently. Fortunately, the study showed no adverse effects throughout the study duration (11).

2) Caffeine

Who doesn’t love their cuppa Joe first thing in the morning, eh? Drinking coffee helps shake the mental cobwebs off to prepare you for the day ahead. Not surprisingly, coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, with over 2 billion cups being consumed every day (4)!

When taken in low to moderate doses (40mg to 300mg), this psychoactive compound can help improve alertness, attention, and reaction time. People who work in demanding jobs that require optimal physical and cognitive function can certainly benefit from caffeine (5).

3) Bacopa monnieri

As mentioned earlier, this non-aromatic herb has been used since ancient times to enhance cognitive abilities and improve brain function (3). These healing properties were confirmed in a 2014 meta-analysis which reported that this herb helped improve cognition and reduce reaction time in 437 subjects who took the nootropic for at least 12 weeks (6).

Bacopa monnieri, which also goes by the names Indian pennywort, water hyssop, and herb of grace, contain active compounds called bacosides. Bacosides act as antioxidants and protect the brain from free radical damage (7).

Ginkgo biloba leaves

4) Ginkgo biloba

The ginkgo biloba tree is native to China and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Leaf extracts reveal that this tree contains powerful antioxidants. Some studies show promising results in terms of improving cognitive function in healthy older adults.

One such study found that after 8 months of daily ginkgo biloba intake, the subjects (all male) experienced a reduction in blood viscosity, improved blood flow to the brain, and a boost in global cognitive function (8).

Another study (this time on healthy older males and females) followed the subjects for 6 weeks. The subjects self-reported enhanced speed in their processing abilities and ability to recall certain information (9).

5) Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is another herb used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine (3). Research suggests that ashwagandha may help reduce anxiety and improve mental health in individuals suffering from moderate to severe anxiety. The longer the subjects took ashwagandha, the more significant the reduction in anxiety (12).

As for safety and efficacy, a randomized double-blind study reported that subjects who took ashwagandha twice a day for 8 weeks experienced no adverse effects as a result of the trial (13).

6) L-Theanine

Do you find yourself feeling calm and relaxed after a cup of tea? Well, that’s because of L-Theanine, a calming amino acid that’s found naturally in tea.

One study found that people who took 200mg of L-theanine felt more relaxed, but didn’t feel drowsy or sleepy (14). This was replicated in another study which showed that this phytochemical increased alpha brainwave activity. This signals that the mind is in a relaxed but non-drowsy state (15).

Also, it’s important to mention here that L-theanine passes through the blood-brain barrier and possesses neuroprotective effects. Elderly subjects given 47.5mg of theanine daily showed a much slower decline in cognitive function than the group who didn’t (16).

Tea is a rich source of natural nootropic, L-Theanine

7) Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a cell membrane phospholipid. It’s found in every single cell in the human body, but the highest concentrations are found in the brain’s cell walls (17).

There are a number of studies that support the nootropic effects of phosphatidylserine. For instance, elderly people with mild cognitive impairment experienced better memory recall after taking soy lecithin PS for six months (18).

Phosphatidylserine also helps lower cortisol levels in healthy individuals (cortisol is a major stress hormone) and enjoyed better moods than those who took the placebo. A dose of 100mg taken 3 times daily is enough to lower stress and anxiety and enjoy better sleep at night (19).

8) Uridine monophosphate

Uridine monophosphate (UMP) is the bioavailable form of uridine, a nucleoside found in RNA (ribonucleic acid). There are limited human studies, but the initial results are promising. In one such study, uridine was shown to increase brain membrane phospholipid precursors, specifically phosphomonoesters (PME) and phosphoethanolamine (PEtn). Altered metabolism of PME and PEtn is an indicator of bipolar disorder (20).

9) B-complex vitamins

All vitamins are important when it comes to optimal health and wellbeing. But B-complex vitamins, especially B6, B9, and B12 are considered major players when it comes to brain health. This is because these 3 B vitamins contribute to normal homocysteine metabolism (21).

High homocysteine levels are linked to depression, cerebral vascular disease, and neurotransmitter deficiency (22). It has also been identified as an early marker for cognitive impairment in the elderly (23).

However, it’s still important to get the full range of B-complex vitamins in your diet or via supplements. A deficiency in one or more B vitamins may lead to health issues, including less than optimal brain function and a possible decline in cognitive function. One study suggests that taking the full range of B complex vitamins at doses that exceed current government recommendations would aid in preserving brain health (24).

what's the best nootropic stack that can help unlock your brain

What’s the best nootropic stack supplement for overall cognitive enhancement?

The best nootropic supplement is a mix of brain vitamins, e.g. B-complex vitamins, and proven herbal nootropics. While there are a number of brands out there, we firmly believe that our Intelligent Labs Seneca Nootropic Complex is currently the best one in the market!

Seneca Nootropic Complex combines 18 research-backed nootropics in one capsule. This includes 6 cognitive-enhancing B vitamins in their body-ready forms. The other 12 ingredients in the Seneca stack are non-stimulant botanical extract, amino acids, and antioxidants.

Here’s a table summarizing all Seneca ingredients and their nootropic properties:

PART 1: B-COMPLEX VITAMINS IN SENECAPROVEN HEALTH BENEFITS
Thiamine (B1) as Thiamine HClContributes to normal psychological function, and boosts attention, energy, and motivation (21)
Riboflavin (B2) as Riboflavin-5-PhosphateAids in the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, also used to treat migraines (21)
Niacin (B3) as Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (PANMOL®NADH)Helps with important psychological functions, reduces tiredness and fatigue, stimulates production of dopamine and serotonin (21)
Pyridoxine (B6) as Pyridoxal-5-PhosphateRegulates hormonal activity, such as synthesis of dopamine, epinephrine, GABA, and more (21)
Folate (B9) as L-MethylfolateHelps with amino acid and DNA synthesis, gene expression, immune function, and various brain functions (21)
Cobalamin (B12) as MethylcobalaminContributes to neurological and psychological functions, also helps synthesize neurotransmitters, affects cognition, memory and mood (21)
PART 2: OTHER SENECA INGREDIENTS (BOTANICAL EXTRACTS, AMINO ACIDS, ANTIOXIDANTS)RESEARCH HAS SUGGESTED THE FOLLOWING POTENTIAL HEALTH BENEFITS
Lion’s mane (fruiting bodies) mushroom extract (Hericium erinaceus)May help with concentration, anxiety and depression (10), may also help improve mild cognitive impairment in the elderly (11)
Ashwagandha root powderMay help reduce anxiety and improve mental health (12)
Bacopa monnieri leaf extract (standardized to 50% bacosides)May protect the brain from oxidative stress (7), possibly help improve cognition and reduce reaction time (6)
CiticolineMay help improve memory performance in elderly (24) and enhance cognitive ability in healthy individuals (25)
N-acetyl L-TyrosineMay help maintain alertness and cognitive performance during sustained work periods and sleep loss (26, 27)
L-Theanine HCLMay possess neuroprotective effects and slow down cognitive decline in elderly (16), puts brain in relaxed but non-drowsy state (15)
Uridine monophosphateMay have calming effects and help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder (20)
Ginkgo biloba (whole plant) (from 6000mg 50:1 extract)May help boost global cognitive function by improving blood flow to brain (8), may also help with information processing and memory recall (9)
Phosphatidylserine (from sunflower lecithin)May help with memory recall (18), improve mood and lower anxiety levels (19)
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)May help fuel brain cells and protect it against oxidative stress (28, 29)
Maritime pine bark extract (std. to 95% proanthocyanidins)May have neuroprotective properties and may benefit cognition by improving synaptic plasticity in brain (30, 31)
Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ)May help improve mood and sleep quality, and reduce stress levels (32)

Seneca is a synergistic formula made of 100% natural ingredients to help your brain fire on all cylinders. Unlike many other nootropic stacks, we refrained from using caffeine and other stimulants because these can give you an artificial high.

Now that you know the answer to the question, “what are nootropics”, don’t forget to supplement your nootropic intake with a healthy lifestyle!

References

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(4) Wikipedia contributors. “Economics of Coffee.” Wikipedia, 17 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics_of_coffee.

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(20) Agarwal, Nivedita et al. “Short-term administration of uridine increases brain membrane phospholipid precursors in healthy adults: a 31-phosphorus magnetic resonance spectroscopy study at 4T.” Bipolar disorders vol. 12,8 (2010): 825-33. doi:10.1111/j.1399-5618.2010.00884.x

(21) “EU Register of Nutrition and Health Claims Made on Foods (v.3.5).” European Commission, 2021, ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/claims/register/public/?event=search.

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(32) Nakano, Masahiko, et al. “Effects of Oral Supplementation with Pyrroloquinoline Quinone on Stress, Fatigue, and Sleep.” Functional Foods in Health and Disease, vol. 2, no. 8, 2012, p. 307. Crossref, doi:10.31989/ffhd.v2i8.81.