Nootropics are often nicknamed “smart drugs” because they enhance cognitive abilities. They increase your attention span, improve your memory, boost creativity, or speed up thinking. They may even help reverse aging in the brain. Find out more about nootropics and the must-have brain-enhancing ingredients to include in your wellness routine.
What Are Nootropics?
As we learn more about the brain, we look for ways to improve its health and function. And in the 1960s, a Romanian chemist and psychologist set out to do just that. His name was Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea.
Dr. Giurgea had his sights on GABA, a newly discovered inhibitory neurotransmitter. He hoped to develop a derivative of GABA that would pass the blood-brain barrier, to promote sleep and relaxation.
In April 1964, Dr. Giurgea successfully synthesized UCB-6215, known as piracetam today. Although a derivative of GABA, piracetam didn’t quite provide that sleep-enhancing effect that Dr. Giurgea had hoped for. It does, however, help the brain function in other ways, like preventing seizures from epilepsy or dizziness from vertigo. It also inspired Dr. Giurgea to pursue a new movement in medicine: nootropics.
Dr. Giurgea came up with the term nootropic from Greek: “noos,” meaning “mind,” and “tropein,” meaning “to bend or turn”—nootropics “bend” the chemistry of the brain toward better health and function. He defined a nootropic as something that:
- Enhances learning and memory
- Balances mood and reaction under stress
- Protects the brain against physical or chemical damage Improves subcortical mechanisms, meaning that nootropics act like a tonic to help the brain and its neurons function at optimal conditions
- Doesn’t cause major side effects, like some performance-enhancing drugs, therefore does not include habit-forming or toxic substances
- Facilitates the interhemispheric transfer of information between one side of the brain to the other
Nootropics are a class of substances that boost brain performance. They are sometimes called “smart drugs,” cognition enhancers, or memory-enhancing substances.
Nootropics can include herbs, dietary supplements, or even prescription drugs, some natural and some synthetic, designed to improve cognitive function with limited side effects. Nootropics can enhance cognitive performance for healthy people who want to stay on top of their game, in school, at work, or just in general.
11 Best Nootropic Supplements
So which nootropic supplements should you add to your medicine cabinet? Find the latest trends in cognitive enhancement with the best nootropics on the market.
Ginkgo biloba, often in the form of ginkgo leaf extract, comes from the leaf of the ginkgo tree, a plant native to East Asia. Chinese traditional medicine has used ginkgo leaf extract as a treatment for centuries. Today, scientists have found the plant to be a powerful nootropic for improving memory and concentration. It also promotes blood flow to the brain, fueling it with essential nutrients to function at its best.
Think of omega-3 fatty acids as the building blocks for a healthy brain. They can even help repair the brain after severe injury! In an interview with CNN, Dr. Michael Lewis explained that the human brain is a fatty mass composed of about 30% omega-3 fatty acids. If you think of the brain as a brick wall, omega-3 fatty acids provide the bricks to rebuild the brain when it gets damaged and facilitate the natural healing process.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in black and green teas as well as certain kinds of mushrooms. You can also get it from supplements. Stanford neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, recommends taking L-theanine before bed to promote a good night’s rest, as it enhances alpha brain waves present during REM sleep. It boosts calming brain chemicals, like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. It also helps protect brain cells against stress and age-related damage.
Your brain needs the fatty substance phosphatidylserine because it forms a protective layer that covers the brain cells. Known scientifically as a phospholipid, phosphatidylserine is produced naturally in the body. It fortifies the cells in your brain and carries messages between them. Taking this nootropic supplement protects overall brain health and improves brain plasticity, memory, and mood.
Withania somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha or winter cherry, is an evergreen shrub in the nightshade family that grows in Asia and Africa. It is nicknamed the “Queen of Ayurveda” because practitioners of this Indian traditional medicine use it as an adaptogen to naturally alleviate stress. Science today supports this claim: a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress found that taking Ashwagandha root extract showed a significant reduction in scores on stress-assessment scales.
It seems that a lot of alternative medicines figured out the medicinal uses of herbs long before they could test them in a lab. Huperzine A extract comes from an herb used in Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. Taking Huperzine A supplements daily helps support long-term brain health and mental performance. It generates an important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which helps your brain cells send and receive messages.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines have used gotu kola for centuries to help support the body’s inflammation response and detoxify. It turns out, they were on to something! Nicknamed the “herb of longevity,” gotu kola maintains long-lasting brain health by helping the body remove toxins, soothing inflammation, and increasing the flow of nutrients.
In February 2022, Tony Robbins published his book Life Force: How New Breakthroughs in Precision Medicine Can Transform the Quality of Your Life & Those You Love. The bestselling author and productivity coach speaks about breakthroughs in medicine to slow aging, including NMN. A stable version of this nootropic supplement increases NAD—an important “anti-aging” molecule in our cells that protects and repairs DNA and the epigenome.
Of course, we can’t list nootropics without mentioning one of the originals, discovered by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea himself. Racetams are a group of synthetic compounds that affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Dr. Giurgia’s piracetam falls under this category, as do pramiracetam, phenylpiracetam, and aniracetam. In many countries, doctors prescribe racetams as prescriptions to help treat dementia, stroke, ADHD, epilepsy, cognitive decline, and other neurocognitive disorders.
The body stores creatine as phosphocreatine. When neurons use Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) as an energy source, it loses a phosphate molecule and becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Then creatine gives a phosphate molecule back to ADP, turning it into ATP. In other words, creatine re-charges the fuel for your brain cells. That makes it a great nootropic for mental energy. It also facilitates faster thinking, improves memory, and balances mood.
If you plan to study for a big exam, consider taking some bacopa (Bacopa monnieri). A study of older adults aged between 40 and 65 years showed that bacopa helps retain new information. It’s an herb that’s been used in Ayurveda for centuries to improve memory, reduce anxiety, and support a healthy nervous system.