What are Nootropics?
Though it’s been a buzzword of the last five years, the word nootropic was coined as early as the 60’s and is derived from the Greek words ‘nous’ meaning mind, and ‘tropein’ meaning to bend or turn. This roughly translates to the definition to bend or shape the mind. In 2021, nootropic generally refers to any substance that can positively influence the brain. This encompasses both natural ingredients (plants found in nature) and synthetic ingredients (compounds made artificially by chemical reactions) which have demonstrated the power to influence mood, memory, focus, stress levels and alertness.
Many of the natural compounds commonly found in nootropics are plants that have been used to enhance cognition for many thousands of years. In fact, there is evidence of our ancestors recognising the power of plants to influence mood and brain function as far back as 10,000 years ago. Ancient Indian literature refers to herbs such as Bacopa monnieri (Brahmi) and Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) to sharpen the mind and aid ancient scholars in memorising long scriptures. In these times, nootropics were usually chewed or brewed into a tea. Today, nootropics mostly come in capsule, pressed pill or powder form. They can be made out of either natural or synthetic ingredients (or a combination of both).
Evidence suggests there are both short and long term benefits to taking nootropics.
These effects can be almost immediately noticeable (once absorbed into the system) and can be felt in many areas of cognitive performance such as:
Short-term memory recall
Reduction of mental fatigue
Some of the most convincing evidence to take nootropics is to reap the rewards of their long-term effects. Many products reportedly work especially well when supplemented for longer periods of time, and in fact advocate for long term use to reach optimised levels of effect. Benefits can include:
Improved long term memory
Enhanced brain repair and maintenance
Decreased free-radical damage
Mood stability and emotional balance
Better resistance to stress
How do Nootropics work?
Though the brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body, much of how it works and why remains a mystery. This is also the case for many of the hormones, chemicals and substances that can interact with the brain and influence its neural pathways. In these instances, science can only theorise about the ways in which substances like nootropics can work to make the brain work more efficiently.
So far, science has deduced that nootropics work by:
Optimising neurotransmission by improving synthesis and signalling in the brain
Supplying biochemical precursors which trigger protection, repair and regeneration of the brain
Increasing blood flow to the brain, transporting vital nutrients and energy
Providing neural protection against oxidative stress and neurodegeneration caused by free radical tissue damage
Affecting the frequency of neural oscillations (brain waves) which can influence state of mindAccording to Suliman et al. 2016, ‘nootropics act as a vasodilator against the small arteries and veins in the brain. [This will] increase the blood circulation to the brain and at the same time provide important nutrients and increase energy and oxygen flow to the brain.’
How Nootropics can be used
Nootropics are popular for their ability to assist peoples brain performance in all sorts of settings and situations. As they encompass anything that influences the brain, and the brain is responsible for endless reactions in the mind and body, there are a vast range of nootropics that can be used for varying purposes.
Most nootropics will work in one of two ways: as a mild stimulant, or as a relaxant. Stimulating nootropics will likely contain ingredients such as caffeine, bacopa monnieri (brahmi) and B vitamins – all of which are known for their proven capacity to influence mental clarity, focus and energy levels. These can be useful for busy workdays, when studying for exams, days where you’re in need of an energy boost, or even extra focus for a particularly tough workout.
Relaxant nootropics harness the power of ingredients known for their calming or sedating properties. These substances work by inhibiting the neurotransmission of signals which cause symptoms of stress and anxiety. Relaxant nootropics are useful for helping you cope through periods of prolonged stress, calming you during a busy workday, assisting you to wind down in the evenings and even to fall into a restful sleep more easily.
The Nootropic range includes two naturally-derived formulas for both stress relief and brain performance. True Spark is a great option to use for those days where you need an extra boost, as it works to reduce mental fatigue, increase your alertness and support your cognitive function.
True Zenn, on the other hand, is designed to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety as well as calm the mind and nerves. It’s ideal for added support when facing a stressful day, or winding down in the afternoon or evening.
*Always read the label, follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. This medicine may not be right for you. Read the warnings before purchase.
Natural vs Synthetic Nootropics
Synthetic nootropics are available via prescription and used by doctors to treat energy, sleep, mood and attention disorders in patients. Often times these may have a more noticeable and immediate effect, however questions remain around long-term side effects of drugs such as Modafinal, Adderall and Pramiracetam.
Unlike their synthetic counterparts, naturally derived nootropics have been taken as part of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. They are widely hailed for their low toxicity and ability to enhance adaptation to stress while also providing cognitive benefits. Generally speaking, the immediate effects of natural nootropics are more subtle, however there is evidence to support their long-term benefits on overall health. They are also more easily accessible as you usually don’t need a prescription to obtain them.
Nootropic stacking is growing in popularity as ‘bio-hackers’ experiment in concocting combinations of nootropics to yield the best results. Stacking substances together is not recommended without extensive research and guidance as you cannot be certain how each compound will react to one another.
Though a nootropic is technically an individual substance, many of the products you will find available are combined formulas with measured dosages of multiple ingredients.
Starting with a pre-formulated supplement is the most reliable option as the dosages are present in amounts supported by evidence and strictly manufactured.
Are Nootropics Safe?
Laws and regulations surrounding therapeutic goods vary from place to place. Within Australia, commercial medicines are governed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which is responsible for the regulation of prescription products, vaccines, sunscreens, vitamins, minerals , herbal medicines and medical devices.
A nootropic that has been listed with the TGA and will have a visible AUST L number on the packaging indicating its registration. If you are still unsure about whether a product is safe for you to use or how it may work for your individual needs, always consult your healthcare professional.
How to take Nootropics safely
It’s important to consider that nootropics are not a cure-all product and will never counter the effects of poor lifestyle choices. In order to get the most out of nootropics, it is beneficial to first have:
A balanced diet
A healthy sleep pattern
Being in a relatively healthy state of homeostasis and the consistent use of your chosen nootropic will give you the greatest chance of reaping the full spectrum of benefits.
Some health care practitioners and schools of thought also recommend ‘cycling’ (on and off; taking a break) your nootropics in order to give your brain the chance to have a healthy break before resuming consumption.
Always read the label and do your research before purchase. Follow the directions for use as stated and speak to your healthcare professional if you are already taking any supplements or medications.
From improving memory, enhancing mental clarity & function, easing stress and sleeping better, nootropics can offer a broad variety of benefits. When used appropriately and in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, the right nootropics can prove to be a great addition to your routine.
Remember to take your individual circumstances into consideration when selecting a product and always speak to your healthcare professional if you have further concerns.
- Chauhan, N. and Mehla, J., 2015. Ameliorative Effects of Nutraceuticals in Neurological Disorders. Bioactive Nutraceuticals and Dietary Supplements in Neurological and Brain Disease, pp.245-260
- Joshi Pranav, C., 2013. A review on natural memory enhancers (Nootropics). Unique Journal of Engineering and Advanced Sciences, 1(01), pp.8-18.
- Kennedy, D.O., 2016. B vitamins and the brain: mechanisms, dose and efficacy—a review. Nutrients, 8(2), p.68. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/
- Lanni, C., Lenzken, S., Pascale, A., Del Vecchio, I., Racchi, M., Pistoia, F. and Govoni, S., 2008. Cognition enhancers between treating and doping the mind. Pharmacological Research, 57(3), pp.196-213.
- Srivastava, A., Srivastava, P., Pandey, A., Khanna, V. and Pant, A., 2019. Phytomedicine. New Look to Phytomedicine, pp.625-655.
- Suliman, N., Mat Taib, C., Mohd Moklas, M., Adenan, M., Hidayat Baharuldin, M. and Basir, R., 2016. Establishing Natural Nootropics: Recent Molecular Enhancement Influenced by Natural Nootropic. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2016, pp.1-12.