The term “nootropics” refers to drugs or supplements that enhance cognition and brain function through a range of effects including mood, motivation, focus, memory, and creativity.
Since the synthesis of the first nootropic in 1964, many claims have been made as to just what nootropics can achieve. Unfortunately,4 there is some false and deceptive information out there. Understanding all the misconceptions, truths, and myths surrounding nootropics will help you more effectively use nootropics to better your overall cognitive performance.
Myths Around Nootropics
With so many positive claims being made about nootropics, it’s easy to understand how information could be misconstrued. As such, there are quite a few myths around the effects of nootropics that need to be better understood.
Myth: Nootropics Can Make You Smarter
With all the research supporting the effect of nootropics on cognitive function, many people seem to think that nootropics can, therefore, improve intelligence. However, there is a difference between cognitive functioning and IQ and there seems to be no evidence that nootropics have a positive effect on IQ.
Myth: Nootropics Are A Replacement For A Healthy Lifestyle
With the benefits possible from various nootropics, it may come as no surprise that some people think that the positive effects of nootropics extend to cover all lifestyle choices. While nootropics can potentially improve mood, focus, alertness, creativity, memory, and performance, they are not a cure-all. The negative effects of bad sleep and food habits and a lack of exercise cannot be simply erased by taking a nootropic.
This myth likely started as patients saw an increase in energy after a sleepless night from taking a nootropic like modafinil, or increased mental clarity from taking bacopa monnieri even after a lethargic day. However, continuous unhealthy behaviors will not be remedied simply by nootropic use.
While nootropics may be able to provide a cognitive boost to fight a lack of healthy choices every once in a while, it is not sustainable and you should see the most effective cognitive benefits alongside positive lifestyle choices like healthy nutrition, exercise, and sleep levels.
Myth: Nootropics Don’t Actually Work
A typical expectation for patients taking nootropics may be that they think the nootropic will provide an immediate result. This is perhaps not surprising when thinking about therapies like prescription painkillers, which provide immediate results and might be a prime example of how most people think all medications work.
While certain nootropics like caffeine may provide instant results for some, every person reacts differently to nootropics and you shouldn’t expect immediate results from every nootropic you try. Some people may find they have to take a nootropic for a period of time before seeing results, or that one nootropic works better for them than another. Patience and experimentation are key when it comes to nootropics and finding the perfect one or combination to create the cognitive result that you’re after.
So if a nootropic doesn’t immediately provide the results you are after, it doesn’t necessarily mean that nootropics don’t work. Keep persevering with nootropic experimentation, as you may find that you need to take that specific nootropic for a lengthier period of time to see results, or you may need to try a different nootropic.
Myth: Nootropics Are Alternative Treatments That Aren’t Proven
As with any form of treatment outside of traditional prescriptions, nootropics are thought of by some as “hippy” medicine, with little to no scientific backing. A lot of this skepticism may also come down to the fact that a lot of nootropics like ashwagandha or bacopa monnieri are naturally occurring plants. Modern medicine tends to focus on lab-created treatments, but many of these naturally occurring nootropics have been used successfully in traditional medicines (e.g. Chinese) that have been around for centuries.
There is also substantial evidence proving the efficacy of many nootropics. For example, research tells us that caffeine is a nootropic that effectively increases alertness and energy levels by acting as an antagonist, or blocking, adenosine receptors. Adenosine plays a crucial role in inducing sleep and tiredness, so by blocking their receptors caffeine is able to induce a more active and alert cognitive state (1).
Other naturally occurring nootropics like ashwagandha have also been extensively researched. One possible cognitive enhancement from using ashwagandha is improved mental health, and there is research to back this claim. One study testing the effect of ashwagandha on the rat brain demonstrated that it acted as a significant agonist (or activator) of GABA𝗉1 receptors and was able to activate GABBA channels (2). This is significant as many neurological disorders, such as anxiety, are linked to a disturbance in GABAergic signaling. One clinical study demonstrated that ashwagandha root extract was able to significantly reduce stress and cortisol (an important stress hormone) levels in patients given the nootropic twice a day for 60 days (3).
It is important to do your research around nootropics, as all claims should be backed up by scientific studies and ideally, clinical trials on patients.
While there is substantial research surrounding nootropics, many doctors aren’t quick to prescribe them, and perhaps may not even recognize the word nootropics. This may contribute to nootropics being known by some as an alternative, “hippy” treatment. But ironically, many nootropics are actually prescribed by doctors, even if they don’t refer to them as such.
Prescription nootropics include modafinil (brand name Provigil), Adderall, and Ritalin (methylphenidate). Modafinil is prescribed to treat narcolepsy and has been shown to reduce tiredness (4) and increase cognitive performance (5). The nootropic Adderall is typically prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and has been shown to improve memory and alertness (6). Ritalin, another prescription nootropic, is also used to treat ADHD patients and is known to improve memory and cognitive processing (7).
There are a lot of claims made about nootropics and many can be backed up with evidence from scientific studies. Let’s take a look at the truth behind nootropics as they relate to cognitive function.
Nootropics Can Improve Memory
There are many nootropics that offer possible improvements to memory, and it seems that the research supports the claims of a lot of them.
Bacopa monnieri is one such nootropic providing a boost to memory. Bacopa monnieri is a wetland herb that is often associated with Ayurveda, traditional medicine that developed in India thousands of years ago. One study tested the memory-enhancing abilities of bacopa monnieri on cognitively healthy humans. Different dosages were given to patients over 12 weeks, after which memory was tested. The results showed that bacopa monnieri improved memory free recall, with patients showing improvement in 9 out of the 17 memory tests. One of the ways that bacopa monnieri may improve memory is through bacosides (8). Bacosides are an active chemical compound found in bacopa monnieri that has been shown to improve the recollection of new memories (anterograde memory) and also possibly reduce anterograde amnesia (9).
Ginkgo biloba is another nootropic that has been shown to have a positive effect on memory function. Ginkgo biloba is an extract from the leaves of the tree with the same name and comes in a supplement form. One study tested the effect of ginkgo biloba in 188 healthy patients. After 240mg of ginkgo biloba extract once a day for 6 months, the study participants were then given demanding recall tests. The study then showed that ginkgo biloba significantly improved the recall ability of patients when compared to the placebo group. These recall tests required demanding “self-initiated retrieval of learned material”, the ability of which is thought to be sensitive to aging. This research shows that ginkgo biloba may be able to positively improve memory function, even in aging (10).
But it’s not just naturally occurring nootropics than can have an effect on memory. Noopept is a synthetic nootropic that is reported to act very quickly and has been found to positively influence memory and memory recall (11). Noopept is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant and has been shown in one study to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels in the hippocampus of the rats’ brains. The hippocampus is an area of the brain associated with memory and BDNF can increase brain cell growth, and the study concluded that the combination of the two may lead to improved memory consolidation and retrieval. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment have been associated with a lack of neurotrophic factor in the hippocampus and as such, Noopept may be able to play a role in slowing Alzheimer’s development (12).
Nootropics Can Reduce Drowsiness
A variety of nootropics have been shown through research to fight drowsiness and fatigue by increasing alertness, focus, and energy levels.
One obvious medication that might come to mind when you think of increased alertness is Adderall. Adderall is an amphetamine prescription medication that works as a nootropic because it increases cognitive alertness and makes you feel more awake. Adderall works by increasing catecholamine levels in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which activates norepinephrine and dopamine receptors. These receptors can increase blood flow and breathing/heart rates. They are located in the prefrontal cortex which means they fire in an area of the brain associated with attention and focus. The amphetamines present in Adderall have also been shown to increase attention and focus, however amphetamines including Adderall can have serious side effects and have been widely abused (13).
One less regulated nootropic that can reduce drowsiness is caffeine. Caffeine, most commonly found in coffee, is consumed by over 80% of adults in the United States and it can have a significant effect on energy levels. Low to moderate doses of caffeine have been shown to increase attention and alertness levels, as well as increasing the time it takes you to become tired while physically exerting energy (14). As previously stated, caffeine may be able to induce this energy increase by blocking the adenosine receptors that can induce sleep and tiredness (1).
Mucuna pruriens is a naturally occurring nootropic that may also be able to increase alertness and energy levels to fight drowsiness. Mucuna pruriens is a bean native to African and Asia that is possibly best known as an L-dopa source (15). L-dopa is an amino acid that may be able to modulate energy levels through its ability to increase dopamine. Research tells us that increased dopamine levels can lead to increased energy levels and expenditure (16).
Nootropics Can Improve Mood And Stress Levels
Nootropics have long been touted for their ability to improve overall mood. Stress and low mood can drastically affect cognitive function and there are many nootropics with research behind them that may be able to positively impact mood and stress.
One nootropic claiming to help manage stress is rhodiola rosea. Rhodiola rosea is a supplement from the root of the rhodiola rosea plant, a flowering mountainous herb. One scientific trial investigated the effects of rhodiola rosea extract in patients with stress symptoms. 101 patients were given a 200mg dose of the extract daily for 4 weeks and were then questioned as to their stress levels. The results showed that rhodiola rosea extract managed to improve stress symptoms across all tests and that these improvements started as early as 3 days into the rhodiola rosea treatment. Importantly, the extract was also shown to be safe and showed only mild side effects (17).
Curcumin is another nootropic that may be able to improve mood. An herbal extract, curcumin is an active ingredient of turmeric that has been shown to improve the symptoms of mood disorders. One study showed that after 4 weeks of treatment, curcumin was able to significantly improve mood by increasing calm and contentedness levels in the study participants who were all aged above 60 years old (18).
Depression is a serious mood disorder that can negatively impact cognitive function. St John’s wort is one nootropic that has been shown to improve some symptoms of depression. St John’s wort is a flowering plant that has long been used for medicinal purposes and is taken as an extract derived from the plant’s flowers. One review of scientific literature found that St John’s wort acted on depression at a higher rate than the control, and was able to improve mild and moderate depression symptoms at levels not too different from traditional antidepressant medication (19). One clinical study also found that St John’s wort (at 500 mg per day, 3 times a day for 6 weeks) was able to reduce depression scores in adult patients with acute major depression by 56.6%. While patients taking the antidepressant paroxetine only saw a 44.8% reduction in their depression scores (20). One reason for the mood-boosting effects of St John’s wort might be its bioactive components. These active compounds are thought to activate serotonin receptors in the frontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in depression. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter involved in improving mood (21).
Nootropics Can Increase Creativity
Improved cognitive functioning can include increased creativity and many nootropics have been thought to do just that. When we say creativity we mean the cognitive ability to think of new ideas.
L-theanine is an amino acid that has been shown to act as a nootropic and improve creativity. L-theanine occurs naturally in green and black tea and can also be taken as a supplement. L-theanine is thought to increase creativity by modulating certain brain functions, more specifically by increasing the activity of alpha frequency band waves. This increase may be able to provide a relaxing feeling that does not include drowsiness, which is a great cognitive state for increasing creativity levels (22).
Tyrosine is another amino acid that is thought to have a nootropic effect on cognitive health and creativity levels. Tyrosine can be found in certain cheeses and high-protein foods but is often just taken as an extract supplement. One study looked into the effect of tyrosine on creative tasks. The study showed that tyrosine did have an impact on “deep-thinking” tasks and conclude that it may be able to facilitate creativity. Tyrosine is a precursor to many chemicals including dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is thought to play an important role in creativity and cognitive control (23).
There are many preconceptions people hold about nootropics that affect the myths and truths about nootropics that are out there. Most myths come down to not understanding the research supporting the effects of nootropics, especially the idea that nootropics don’t work and are only used by people interested in unproven “alternative” medicine. On the other hand, myths like nootropics can make you smart or that nootropics can undo unhealthy lifestyle choices seem to occur from individuals taking a broad look at nootropic benefits and not understanding the nuances of how they work. Further exposure to research proves that all of these myths are in fact, myths.
But while there is some misinformation out there about how nootropics work, there are some benefits that people believe about nootropics that are actually true. Nootropics can improve memory, drowsiness, mood, and creativity levels, but again it’s important to understand nootropic research and that different nootropics can induce very different effects.