Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years for evolution to give him a better brain.
Corneliu E Giurgea
The above quote is from the Romanian scientist dubbed “the father of nootropics.” Noo-what, you ask? Nootropic [pronounced “new-trop-ik] derived from the Greek words noos (mind) and tropē (turning), is the loose term given to substances that enhance cognition. At the outset, it is important to distinguish nootropics from “smart drugs” – which are pharmaceutical drugs used to enhance cognitive function. The reason for the importance in the distinction is in concerns over the use of pharmaceutical agents by otherwise healthy people for the purpose of cognitive enhancement, where they have no medical reason for using the drug. That’s an ethical/medical debate I’m not getting into here.
Nootropics, on the other hand, were defined by their pioneers as having very low toxicity levels, neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing properties. Let’s get one thing straight. Nootropics aren’t going to make you motivated. Or give you overnight intelligence you don’t have. Or give you work ethic. And their effects can be very subtle. They are not a panacea. They can, however, confer some definite cognitive enhancing properties, which if you have all of your other ducks in a row: you sleep well, you eat well, you’re motivated, you put in the hours and are committed to learning/being more productive/improving self – then nootropics can be an awesome addition to your already ass-kicking regimen.
With that, let’s take a look at some nootropics you might find useful.
This “stack” is often considered the initiating foray into nootropics. It is simple, and effective. We know that caffeine is the most widely used and popular drug in the world, for good reason: it works. However, because it’s so widely used, I’m going to assume you know what that caffeine jolt feels like in the morning, and I’m not going to waste space talking about caffeine or coffee in this post.
Rather, I’m going to talk about how you can make it better.
Most of us enjoy a cup o’ Joe in the morning for that kick, we use it liberally studying, working early or late, and for that extra edge. The downside can sometimes be overstimulation. You’re a little jittery, a bit wired, and even though you feel like you could run through a wall, your focus just isn’t there.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea, known for giving green tea it’s relaxing properties by promoting alpha-brain waves, which are the brain waves associated with relaxed awareness and improved attention. This is why it is synergistic with caffeine: while caffeine reduces fatigue and increases reaction time and visual processing, adding theanine further improves attention, accuracy and alertness.
Most studies use a 2:1 ratio of theanine to caffeine, however, that may depend on your tolerance to caffeine and a 1:1 ratio may be more beneficial for you. So you could start with 200mg theanine + 100mg caffeine, but if you are a habitual coffee drinker I would go with 200mg of each.
The way it is believed to work is really cool; bacopa may increase the speed at which brain cells can communicate and stimulate brain cell growth. This is believed to be the mechanism through which bacopa reduces the time it takes to encode (i.e. remember) information. It also acts as an antioxidant in the brain, conferring a neuroprotective effect.
To supplement bacopa, the dose is 300mg in capsules, but make sure that the supplement you are taking expressely states that the content of the main bioactive compound, bacoside, is 55% of the extract by weight. Memory improvements are a long-term effect, so you should bacopa for a minimum of 8-weeks before attempting to judge how its worked out for you.
Because it is fat soluble, it should be taken with breakfast in the morning; if you don’t eat usually eat breakfast, add some double cream to your morning coffee.
ALCAR sounds like the name of a Formula 1 team, and it could very well be your new turbocharge. Short for acetyl-l-carnitine, it is a compound that supports the production of energy in all body cells. It has particularly beneficial effects on the brain; it increases memory, attention and protects brain cells from oxidative damage.
The issue? Most of the studies have been in elderly adults with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s [AD], and studies showing improved attention in children with ADHD. There is an unfortunate lack of studies on the effects of ALCAR in otherwise healthy subjects. That said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and ALCAR is a beloved favourite of many nootropic aficionados, including yours truly.
My personal anecdote is that the focus and attention from ALCAR is really something to feel if you’ve never taken it before. But remember, there is a big inter-individual difference in response to nootropics, so it may not have the same effect in you. I think it’s worth trying, however.
Dosage range is 500mg-2,500mg per day. I would start at 500mg, twice a day: once in the morning and once again in the early afternoon.
Brain protection and brain enhancement, all in one.
From the Huperzia serrata plant, huperzine-a inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter with a primary role in learning and memory. By implication of this effect, there is greater circulating levels of acetylcholine, potentially enhancing memory formation and cognition.
It currently is in clinical trials as a therapeutic agent for the treatment of AD, but there is a lack of studies in otherwise healthy humans. Mechanistically, it makes sense due to its interaction with acetylcholine. Anecdotally, huperzine-a is a game-changer. Imagine studying for an exam, reading over the notes before bed and then walking up with the notes in a picture in your mind. That is huperzine-a (in my experience).
Take 100-200mcg – that is micrograms, not milligrams – before bed (there may be an interaction between sleep and REM, but it hasn’t been fully investigated, and again, the sleep quality increase in anecdotal).
CDP-choline, or citicholine, is broken down in the body into choline, which is the building block for the learning/memory neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and also into cytidine. Cytidine is in turn converted into a compound called uridine, which has important neurological benefits of its own in promoting cell membrane function.
CDP-choline may improve attention, processing speed and memory function. The supplemental dosage range is 250mg-1,000mg, taken twice per day. As with all other nootropics, start small – benefits have been shown with CDP-choline at 250-500mg/d, so that would be your starting dose.
I was reluctant to put this in here, because it seems like a plug for a product made by Onnit. Not that I have anything against their product or products, but it is an expensive over-the-counter supplement so for the record – this isn’t a plug. I included it because, despite being a patented formula, it does have a randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled trial recently published which showed increased verbal learning and executive function.
In an industry where it’s all too easy to talk up a product that lacks any evidence or merit, you have to take your hat off to the transparency of Onnit putting Alpha Brain to the test in a controlled clinical trial setting. The results are the results, although it would be nice to see them repeated.
In terms of the results, the product contains many of the compounds we’ve looked at here – theanine, bacopa, huperzine-a, choline and a few other compounds – like l-tyrosine – that have nootropic properties. My personal anecdote is that it promotes a subtle, clear focus with positive effects on attention.
I’ve written extensively about omega-3 fish oils and the importance of the marine omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA to neurological health. I haven’t included them as nootropics per se, because to me they are such an essential building block of brain health that you should have them as a foundation element of your diet. To reiterate, either eat oily fish – mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies – 3 times per week, or supplement with an average of 1,000mg combined EPA and DHA per day.
If you’re someone who experiences a lot of mental stress with their job/life, and find yourself fatigued during the day, then the herb rhodiola rosea may be effective at reducing stress-related mental fatigue. Take 250mg in the morning again in the afternoon.
Always start at the low-end of any recommended dose.
This graph, known as the Hebbian version of the Yerkes-Dodson Arousal curve, illustrates the level of arousal at which optimal cognitive performance is attained. If you’re prone to anxiety, perhaps you don’t need too much caffeine and something like theanine would be of great benefit to you. Likewise, if you need focus/stimulation, you might find that ALCAR works very well for you.
The point is that you’ll naturally be at one place in that graph, and the purpose of using a nootropic is to get you to the apex of the curve, depending on your unique needs.
I’ll also reiterate a point I made at the start of the article, because I think it is worth hammering home – nootropics will not compensate for lack of sleep, a lack of nutrients in your diet, a lack of motivation or lack of drive, or lack of exercise (a well-established nootropic in its own right). Get these baseline fundamental first principles in place before you try any nootropics. In fact, before adding nootropics to your repertoire, I suggest the following checklist:
1: Do you sleep 8-hours per night? If yes, go to question 2;
2: Do you exercise min.3 times per week? If yes, go to question 3;
3: Do you meditate (the ultimate nootropic) 5-10min per day? If yes, go to question 4;
4: Does your diet have enough fish, dark green leafy veg, dark-skinned berries, nuts and some seeds (i.e. EPA/DHA, vitamin E, B-vitamins, and flavonoids – the nutrient building blocks for brain health)? If yes, go to question 5;
5: Are you intrinsically motivated to [insert whatever it is you do]?
If you answer ‘Yes’ to all of the above, then by all means add some nootropics into the mix and become a more ass-kicking version of your already badass self.
Assuming, dear reader, that because you read this blog you are already working on those core principles, then feel free to enhance your brain power and health. Start small – pick one or two nootropics and experiment for a while.
I would love to hear your own experiences, or any questions, so feel free to fire away in the comments or on the FB page.