Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs”, are compounds that enhance brain function and are becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost.
Attention to brain health and function is clearly one of the leading trends in health awareness. Undoubtedly fueled by social factors as different as the growing spotlight on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, to our mental capacities that may seem to be shifting due to our growing reliance on technology, brain health is on our minds. At the same time, the perpetual drive of our culture continues to fuel our interest in the competitive edge and optimization of our functions.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics have emerged as a category of agents used typically with the intention to either preserve or enhance brain function. In general, the focus is often on enhancing executive cognitive functions such as attention, memory, organizational skills and planning. Creativity and motivation are often motivations as well. The list of potential nootropics is extensive and continually growing. Noticeably, nootropics are becoming a booming industry with products and advertising galore all promising to give you focused mental energy while decreasing stress. There’s a lot of controversy on this emerging topic, so it’s important for us to examine the science and safety of these agents carefully.
Nootropics have been around and used in popular culture in many forms and in many sources for years. Most of us have gained a boost at one time or another if not on a daily basis with the caffeine in our coffee or tea. And we’ve heard the benefits of such supplements as ginkgo biloba, fish oils, blueberries (anthocyanins), 5-HTP, SAMe and GABA for years as well.
Here are some other lesser-known, nonpharmacologic or non synthetic agents that are also gaining attention and traction.
Top 5 Science-Backed Nutrients/Adaptogens for Your Brain
Huperzine-A is an herbal extract that functions in the brain as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor and is thus effective as a cognitive stimulator and neuroprotective agent. (1,2,3)
Acetylcholinesterase breaks down acetylcholine in the brain. Inhibiting this breakdown increases the amount of available acetylcholine which is the essential neurotransmitter in cognitive function and learning. Increasing acetylcholine or decreasing it’s breakdown is a prime target of pharmacologic agents utilized in the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Huperzine-A is being used in brain-blends due to it’s enhancing potential and absence of known side effects in studies thus far. (4)
Huperzine-A dose: Typical doses are 50 to 200 mcg daily. (5)
2. Alpha-GPC (glycerophosphocholine)
Along the lines of further promoting cholinergic activity (brain activity stimulated by acetylcholine), in addition to reducing the breakdown of acetylcholine, we can also increase the amount of choline in the brain via alpha-GPC (glycerophosphocholine).
Alpha-GPC is found in a variety of choline-rich foods but can be supplemented in higher doses for it’s known cognitive enhancing effects. An additional benefit is that it increased power output in athletes. (6)
Alpha- GPC dose: The typical minimal dose studied that demonstrates cognitive benefits is 1200 mg daily divided into 400 mg 3 times daily. (7)
3. Choline bitartrate
Choline bitartrate is another way to increase your choline levels improving your cognitive performance and memory. In addition, one should note that choline has the additional advantages of being a potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. (8)
Choline bitartrate dose: General health benefits start registering at lower doses such as 250-500 mg, but nootropic boosts may require higher doses such as 1-2 grams daily. (9)
4. Bacopa monnieri
Bacopa monnieri is an herb commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine that promotes longevity in addition to cognitive improvement. Although the effects tend to build with time rather than being observable more immediately, an additional benefit is that it tends to more immediately reduce anxiety and lift depression while you wait. (10)
The only adverse effect noted to date is that it can cause an upset stomach and nausea which can be diminished by taking with food. It appears to work by enhancing the proliferation of dendrites on neurons, which are the branches from the brain cells that transmit the signals from neurotransmitters such as serotonin and acetylcholine.
Bacopa monnieri dose: The standard dose of the extract is 300 mg (with bacoside content 55%). (10)
5. Yamabushitake (Lion’s Mane)
Yamabushitake, otherwise known as Lion’s Mane mushroom, appears to be an promising cognitive aid in addition to its known ability to modulate and support the immune system. Yamabushitake appears to work in a number of ways including increasing expression of nerve growth factor (NGF), enhancing myelination (the protective and conductive coating of nerve cells) and protection from nerve cell death.
Yamabushitake/ Lion’s Mane dose: The only studied dose seems to be 1000 mg (96% purity extract) three times daily. Anxiety and depression have been noted to decline on even lower doses (2 g daily).
Benefits of Nootropics
These nootropics above, as well as many others, are potential ways to benefit brain health, improve cognitive functions, enhance intellectual performance while promoting other areas such as immune health, mood stabilization and even athleticism.
Precautions Before Using Nootropics
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with cleaning up your diet and lifestyle habits to remove things that are known to reduce cognitive performance. If you are still inclined to experiment with these or any other brain boosting supplements, start with a low dose to assure tolerance and increase slowly. A process called titration, should always be employed with supplements to find the best dose for you as an individual.
At Parsley Health, we suggest that any supplementation be part of a well designed, personalized program executed in coordination with a physician to assure appropriateness, efficacy and, above all, safety.
While many of these agents currently appear to be safe, this is still an emerging science. Much of the data available is based on animal rather than human studies or the amount of data available is often scarce. Work with your physician to use the best and most reliable resources to stay on top of the latest information available.
Final Thoughts on Nootropics
- The exciting and growing field of nootropics provides a wide range of benefits from improvements in mental health, to enhancements in mental and athletic performance.
- There are no shortcuts to mental sharpness and rather than giving you mental strength, nootropics can enhance the mental strength that you have already built.
- While most nootropics currently appear to be safe, this is still an emerging science. Work with your physician to guide you when it comes to dosage for your specific needs.
1. Ved HS, et al. Huperzine A, a potential therapeutic agent for dementia, reduces neuronal cell death caused by glutamate. Neuroreport. (1997)
2. Huperzine A regulates amyloid precursor protein processing via protein kinase C and mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways in neuroblastoma SK-N-SH cells over-expressing wild type human amyloid precursor protein 695.
3. Progress in studies of huperzine A, a natural cholinesterase inhibitor from Chinese herbal medicine.
4. Development of huperzine A and B for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
6. Alpha-GPC and power output; growth hormone.
8. Zeisel SH, da Costa KA, Choline: an essential nutrient for public health, Nutr Rev. 2009 Nov;67(11):615-23. doi: 10.1111available from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19906248
11. Neurotropic and Trophic Action of Lion’s Mane Mushroom Hericium erinaceus (Bull.: Fr.) Pers. (Aphyllophoromycetideae) Extracts on Nerve Cells in Vitro
12. Mori K, et al. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on
mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. (2009)
13. Nagano M, et al. Reduction of depression and anxiety by 4 weeks Hericium erinaceus intake. Biomed Res. (2010)