The idea of nootropics is something of a holy grail for some, and a Pandora's box for others. A drug that can improve cognitive function could be of great benefit to many, but the term has been widely used for all manner of different substances, from snake oil to organic foods to untested chemicals. So what are nootropics, and are there any alternatives to scary-sounding chemicals with who knows what side effects?
What, Exactly are Nootropics?
The word "nootropic" is a compound word in Greek. It's made of the word noos, meaning mind, and tropein, meaning "towards". Nootropics, then, are ingredients that have a benefit towards the mind.
In other words, nootropics are drugs, chemicals, supplements, and ingredients that have some benefit to cognitive ability. Maybe the help with memory, or with quick thinking, or with rational thought. Some of them are aimed at helping with motivation and executive function, some with creativity, and some with memory. Since the term nootropic can refer to any of a dozen different effects, a wide variety of substances can be labeled nootropics.
On a governmental and regulatory level, the term nootropic does not have a defined meaning. In fact, some of the most common nootropic are simply stimulants, such as caffeine. Since there's no regulation for the term or the category, a ton of different organizations have started pushing a wide variety of different drugs and compounds as nootropics. Some of these are synthetic, and others are natural supplements.
There is some danger associated with nootropics because of this wide lack of regulation. Many businesses offering nootropics are making claims their drugs cannot back up, and as such are making illegal marketing claims.
Do nootropics work? The jury is still out. Some nutrients that are labeled nootropics are good for the body, such as a selection of vitamins, but there is no concrete evidence to suggest that they help cognitive function specifically. Meanwhile, other drugs that may have more tangible effects on cognition have not been studied enough to reveal long-term side effects or dangers associated with them.
As always, exercise caution when considering taking any kind of supplement, nootropics included. Make sure you get your nootropics from a reputable source, and make sure your medical professionals are aware of the supplements you're taking. Occasionally, nootropics might have an adverse effect on other medications you're taking. Additionally, if you experience adverse side effects while taking a nootropic, discontinue it and talk to your doctor.
Foods that Work as Nootropics
Now, again, the umbrella for what is a nootropic is large. A wide variety of different vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, and herbal chemicals can have a varying level of benefit on the body. A healthy body in general does not have to dedicate as much energy to fighting stress, and can thus dedicate more effort to cognitive function. Thus, virtually anything that can improve your health can also improve your brain function.
That said, some ingredients may be better than others. Once science proves some specific nutrients are valuable nootropics, we'll put them at the top of this list. For now, though, this is mostly just a list of beneficial nutrients that may have some nootropic properties. Also, please note that this is a list of natural ingredients, primarily found in foods, not chemicals or extracts with questionable sources. If you don't know where it comes from, be skeptical of its value.
We all know caffeine. Other than sugar, it's one of the most popular and widely-consumed drugs in the world. Caffeine is present naturally in a wide variety of substances, from chocolate to coffee to some teas.
Caffeine is a stimulant, and stimulants are by definition nootropics. They enhance energy, focus, and cognitive ability.
Of course, we all know just how dangerous caffeine can be. At low levels, caffeine is an addictive substance. If you regularly consume caffeine, you can grow resistant to it, decreasing its effects over time. Quitting it entirely can lead to withdrawal symptoms that include headaches. On top of all of that, very high levels of caffeine can be outright dangerous to consume. A little bit of caffeine can be beneficial, but too much for too long should be avoided.
While they may not fit what you would consider the definition of a nootropic, eggs may be very beneficial to the function of the brain. Eggs are high in choline, which is a nutrient your body converts into acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that helps your brain cells communicate and helps with memory formation and retention. Eggs are also high in other beneficial nutrients, including vitamins and omega-3s.
Are eggs a nootropic? Signs may point to yes. A long-term study of men in Finland found that regular consumption of eggs helped minimize the risk of brain issues such as dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. Those men also performed on average better on cognitive tests than men who didn't consistently eat eggs.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a common ingredient in a lot of diets, but many people don't get as much as our bodies like to have. If our diets were balanced, this wouldn't be considered a nootropic, but since it's more often taken as a supplement than as a natural part of one's diet, it earns this classification.
Omega-3s are most prominently found in fish adapted to cold water, such as tuna and salmon. Simply eating fish regularly is a healthy option, but it might not get you enough of the nutrients you want, and carries some risks with it depending on how the fish was farmed. Instead, taking an Omega-3 supplement can be a good way to get more of those nutrients in your diet.
There's more to mushrooms than just the selection of button, portabella, and other standard edible mushrooms you find in your average grocery store. In fact, there are thousands of different mushroom varieties out there. Some of them are very, very deadly, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that a few varieties may have valuable pharmacological properties, including nootropic benefits.
Mushrooms are a tricky substance, because some of them can have mildly neurotoxic components. Moreover, they are a semi-common allergy. Anyone allergic to mushrooms should avoid taking any mushroom-based supplements.
The lion's mane mushroom is a shaggy mushroom that looks like a white lion's mane and has been used in both food and medicine throughout Asia for centuries. It can be eaten raw, or cooked in foods, or even dried as tea.
This particular mushroom includes a wide variety of beneficial compounds that can help with all manner of different health issues. It has been seen to help with cognitive function, it may relieve some anxiety symptoms, and it may have some neuroregenerative properties – that is, benefits for healing the nervous system.
Antioxidants are generally good for the body, but some in particular – like Resveratrol – can have some beneficial nootropic effects. Supplements of this antioxidant have been shown to help prevent the deterioration of the brain.
This chemical in particular is present in dark-colored fruits such as grapes, raspberries, and blueberries, but can also be found in lower quantities in chocolate, peanuts, and even red wine.
Some spices we use in regular, every-day cooking might have more benefit than we initially imagined. Used in larger quantities, or with more regularity, some spices might have a nootropic benefit.
Turmeric is a flowering plant and a relative of ginger. For culinary use, we use the root, typically ground as a powder with its characteristic orange-brown coloration. Turmeric itself is not necessarily a nootropic, but it contains high levels of curcumin. A study from a couple years ago found that one particular form of curcumin proved beneficial to cognitive function and memory in comparison to a placebo.
Note that this was a specific, bioavailable form of curcumin, which is not the only form in turmeric. As such, significant doses of turmeric may be required to achieve the benefits found in the study.
Sage is the common name for Salvia Officinalis, a very common herb used in both cooking and as a natural remedy. Sage has been used for centuries for a wide variety of different purposes.
There have been some studies that indicate Sage may be beneficial to human brain function, though no fully methodological studies with long-term results have yet been presented. Sage also contains thujone, a chemical which may be neurotoxic in large doses. As such, you should avoid taking large doses of sage or sage-related extracts. Thujone, by the way, is a prominent chemical in absinthe.
There's a strangely blurred line between what constitutes an herbal remedy, a spice, or a tea. Some spices like turmeric, and some herbs like sage, are commonly used in some tea blends. However, the core of tea – for our nootropic purposes – is green tea. Green tea, and to a lesser extent black tea, is packed with L-theanine.
L-theanine is one of those compounds that sounds like a synthetic compound at first glance, but is actually a natural chemical present in a lot of different plants. Tea leaves, specifically, are a great source.
So what does this chemical do? Well, it's an amino acid that helps with brain function primarily. Studies have shown that it helps relax the mind without drowsiness symptoms, which can reduce stress and promote cognitive function. Tea, then, can help with focus, relaxation, and cognitive function, all of which are nootropic benefits.
Some herbal remedies have a long history, while others are more recent discoveries. Not all herbal remedies work as nootropics, but some might.
Ginseng, or rather panax ginseng, is the Asian or Korean Ginseng perennial. This form of Ginseng is a common herbal remedy and is present throughout Chinese and Korean folklore as well as modern herbal medicine. It's possible that it may have some nootropic properties, though if it does, the exact component that causes them has not been isolated and identified.
Ginkgo Biloba is one of the older and more frequently cited Chinese herbal remedies and is a tree that is currently threatened with extinction. It is widely cultivated, and yet still threatened. It is used both as an herbal medicine and as a food source in some areas of China. Again, much like other herbal supplements, while there may be nootropic properties associated with the ingredient, the precise compound responsible has not been studied extensively.
Be cautious when taking Ginkgo Biloba with other drugs. It has similar NSAID properties as aspirin and ibuprofen, and can act as a blood thinner.
Bacopa Monnieri is a relatively recent addition to the herbal remedy pantheon. It's also known as the Indian Pennywort or Herb of Grace. It's a creeping herb native to the wetlands of India, but is present on many continents.
This is one of those herbs that has potential side effects, typically nausea, and is best used with caution. It has also recently been cracked down on as the center of a lot of bogus claims. While it may have nootropic properties, it's not a miracle plant and it can't cure cancer, fix your blood pressure, or cure anxiety. Beware any supplement that makes claims it can't back up.
Nootropics to Avoid
There are any number of different chemicals out there labeled nootropics, some of which can have drastically negative side effects. Perhaps the biggest among these is Kratom, a relative of coffee that is found as a powder or as a supplement. Kratom in small, controlled doses can be a nootropic, but it's also a stimulant with almost opioid effects. This means in larger doses it can be very addictive and can cause a lot of problems with the body.
In general, if you don't know where a nootropic is coming from, it's probably a good idea to avoid it. At the very least, do enough research to figure out what the chemicals you're taking are and where they come from.