What are Nootropic Supplements and Their Benefits?

Nootropics offer the promise of increasing your brainpower. Having access to a substance that gives us a cognitive advantage over others sounds too good to be true. Even more so when that substance can be found at your local grocery store or online at an affordable price. The promises of nootropic supplements are enticing in our increasingly competitive world.

Smart Drugs with Tim Ferriss

Even before we officially enter adulthood, our lives seem to be structured around competition. The ultimate goal is to do well enough and eventually land a great job. Once we get that job, the goal shifts to chasing that promotion or higher salary. However, there are only 24 hours in a day. Therefore maximizing the time we have by increasing our productivity is necessary. 

We are expected to constantly be at peak performance. All while juggling demanding jobs, relationships, financial obligations, and other stressors. Anything that gives us an edge and aims to improve cognitive function is always welcome. Given all of this, it is no surprise that the market for nootropics is expected to grow by $11.6 billion by 2024

Such a vast market presents problems for us as consumers. The abundance of brain supplements is unfortunately not matched by a similar level of detailed information about them. Additionally, regulations on supplements, in general, are more relaxed compared to ones on our food or prescription drugs. We are often left wondering how they function, which ones work best and if they are safe to take Read on to find out more about the details on this unique kind of supplement.

What are Nootropics?

The meaning of the word “nootropic” has evolved over time. It was first coined by scientist Cornelius Giurgea. He used the term to describe piracetam, a compound he synthesized. This drug is credited with being the first synthetic nootropic drug. This designation is an important historical marker with regards to the modern concept of nootropics. However, it should not obscure the fact that natural nootropics have been around and used for much longer.

Modern businessman in casualwear networking after taking nootropic supplements.
Nootropic Simply Refers To Any Substance That Enhances Cognitive Function (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Take for example Ginkgo Biloba, a tree that has been around for millions of years. This tree has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. Similarly, caffeine has been used for its nootropic effects very early in human history.

The cognitive-enhancing effects of compounds are sometimes discovered in a haphazard way. Piracetam was first used to treat motion sickness. The brain-boosting effects of the drug were not discovered until later. 

Giurgea came up with a highly specific definition to describe these nootropic effects and classify similar compounds. The criteria part of the definition alluded to things like brain function under low oxygen conditions and toxicity. Nowadays, the term simply refers to any substance that enhances cognitive function. 

Some nootropics are sold as individual compounds like caffeine pills or grape seed extract. Others, like Alpha BRAIN by ONNIT, contain multiple nootropics.

Cognitive function can mean memory, focus, or reasoning skills. These are just some components of the things that make what is known as intellectual wellness. The precise mechanisms underlying these cognitive enhancers can vary widely depending on the individual compound. Some work by acting on neurotransmitters or as vasodilators to boost brain function, others help form the components of the membranes of brain cells. 

The Different Types of Nootropics

It is helpful to further categorize these smart drugs into groups. Natural nootropics are derived from things like plants, minerals, or vitamins. Synthetic ones are created in a controlled lab environment. This distinction becomes especially important when discussing prescription vs OTC supplements. The most well-known prescription nootropics are Ritalin and Adderall. Both drugs act as stimulants. They are helpful in treating conditions like ADHD, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea. 

Herbal medicine pills and mortar over bright background.
Natural Nootropics Are Derived From Things Like Plants, Minerals, or Vitamins (Image Source: Shutterstock)

The vast majority of nootropic compounds can be obtained over the counter. As discussed above, this easy access has downsides. Choosing the best nootropics out of the numerous ones on the shelves is no easy task. It helps to look at supplements that are backed by randomized, double-blind studies that use a placebo. 

In several well-designed studies, the herb Bacopa Monnieri has been shown to improve the memory skill of free recall. The herb is thought to work through several mechanisms that include increasing levels of acetylcholine in the brain and increasing blood flow to it. Despite this evidence in favor of its cognitive enhancing claims, more research is needed. The same review found no benefits in other areas of cognitive performance like attention and executive function.

Regulations: What is a Dietary Supplement Anyway?

Most of the substances we put into our bodies are regulated by some overarching governmental organization. Whether it’s the FDA or USDA, we feel secure knowing that there is a standard set of rules that must be followed that are designed to protect us. Things get more complicated with regards to supplements. Supplements are defined as products that contain a dietary ingredient. Mineral, vitamins, amino acids, herbs, and other botanicals are included in this definition. Although the FDA has jurisdiction over supplement safety, they only step in when there’s already a public health issue or affected customer. 

Woman shows vitamin pill and water glass at the office.
Supplements Are Defined As Products That Contain A Dietary Ingredient (Image Source: Shutterstock)

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education act leave it up to manufacturers to ensure product safety and adequate labeling. Thankfully for us, independent organizations like ConsumerLab.com (CL), Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG), and NSF provide third-party certification. This certification involves making sure the product is as safe, pure, and potent as the manufacturer claims. These organizations aren’t affiliated with the manufacturer at all. In fact, they don’t even buy the product from them. CL and BSCG provide consumers with information on products that do not meet their strict standards. Consumers can use these resources to ensure the safety and efficacy of whatever supplement they are thinking of purchasing.

Nootropics: Generally Safe but Perhaps Not a Panacea

We all would like to find something that maximizes our brainpower to improve our productivity in our daily lives. Nootropics claim to provide us a solution in pill, tablet, powder, or other forms that are easy to take. The reality is a lot more complicated.

Nutritious, healthy, roasted veggie, vegan homemade salad for lunch.
Nutritious Diet, Exercising Regularly, And Getting Enough Sleep Are Proven To Enhance Cognition (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Some of these brain-enhancing supplements may help people affected by strokes or age-related mental decline. However, evidence that would support the use of cognitive enhancers in healthy people is mixed. Instead of supplements, simple things like having a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep are proven to enhance cognition.

The lack of clear knowledge about what many of these compounds can do is a point of concern. I recommend you learn all you can before taking a quick-fix and focus on solutions that have strong scientific evidence.