Nootropics, once reserved for biohackers, high level businesspeople and students, are now a fast-growing category in the sports nutrition realm. But what exactly are they?
Nootropics have been nicknamed ‘smart drugs’, however they can enhance cognitive function in more ways than just this. A nootropic is a supplement purported to improve how our brain works, whether that be increasing focus, motivation, creativity, relaxation, sleep or relieving anxiety.
In pre-workouts you may find nootropics such as huperzine and alpha-GPC, whereas sleep supplements might include ashwagandha or lion’s mane. Sometimes, nootropics can have dual properties. Take l-theanine for example, l-theanine can be taken before bed to relax the mind, or it can be taken with your morning coffee to give a caffeine a ‘smoother’ stimulatory effect, reducing negative side effects such as jitters.
The most ‘advanced’ nootropics are often only available on prescription in the UK. These include racetams, such as piracetam. One nootropic, similar to piacetam, that is relatively well known, it noopept (N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester). Like piracetam, this provides a mild cognitive boost and subtle psychostimulatory effect. Another advanced nootopic is the wakefulness drug modafinil, popular with students and formally used in treating narcolepsy and shift work disorder. Others used in medicine are classed as stimulants that can double up as treatment for ADHD, such as Adderall, which can be dangerous and even addictive. On the other end of the spectrum is phenibut, a central nervous system depressant used to treat insomnia and anxiety.
Before we go into some of the lesser known nootropics, we’ll remind you of some you are probably familiar with and might even use daily.
The first, caffeine. Caffeine is regarded a nootropic as, at the correct dose, can improve reaction time, alertness, memory and mood. At large doses, caffeine can have a negative effect, increasing anxiety and nervousness. Indeed, in 1994 caffeine was confirmed to be addictive. If you are already using caffeine, we would advise not exceeding 200-400mg per day depending on bodyweight and tolerance, and avoiding it after mid afternoon based on its half life of around 6 hours in adults. To avoid having to taper up dose for the same effects, you might find it beneficial to cycle off caffeine periodically to re-sensitise yourself to it. This could be done in line with a deload from training or a holiday.
Another household nootropic is nicotine. While you might instantly draw connections to the dangers of cigarette smoking, nicotine gum or patches are actually incredibly effective to increase focus, improve immediate and longer-term memory and even supress appetite in dieters.
Lesser Known Nootropics
Now for nootropics that you might not be familiar with, or that you might have spotted on a few supplement labels and want to learn more about. We could make this an extremely exhaustive list, but instead what we are going to do is introduce some of our favourites and leave you with further resources at the end to continue digging deeper.
Huperzine is a natural ingredient extracted from herbs. It is known as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, which means that it stops an enzyme from breaking down acetylcholine which results in increases in acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is involved in learning and muscle contraction, making huperzine a popular choice with academics and athletes alike. Look for a dose of 50-200mcg huperzine-A in your favourite supplement.
Recommend: Redcon1 Big Noise
Alpha-GPC seems to increase acetylcholine in the brain by supplying choline. Alpha-GPC seems to slow the rate of cognitive decline in the elderly and can even acutely spike growth hormone and increase power output in athletes. Other choline sources you might find in supplements are CDP Choline and Choline Bitartrate.
Recommend: Nootropic Brain Fuel
Emoxypine is a compound which resembles vitamin B6. This would be more suited to general daytime and night-time use, being useful for study and anti-anxiety effects. It can act as an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory benefits. 125mg per day as offered per capsule of Hydrapharm’s standalone Emoxypine supplement is the recommended starting dosage.
9-MBC (9-methyl-beta-carboline) promotes neuron and neurite growth for long-term memory and cognitive enhancement. It is also a form of stimulant, giving a clean energy boost for sharp focus and enhanced reaction times. Hydrapharm suggest a dosage of 15-30mg per day (1-2 caps).
Lion’s Mane is an adaptogenic mushroom with use dating back to ancient Chinese medicine. It is a powerful nootropic which seems to reduce anxiety and the rate of cognitive decline. It works by increasing Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain Derived Nerve Growth Factor, thereby promoting the creation of new brain cells. We would recommend a starting dose of 500mg per day which can be increased over time.
Recommend: Nootropic Sleep Aid
Bacopa is a nootropic herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. Supplementation has been shown to reduce anxiety, therefore increasing cognition. Like ashwagandha, it is an adaptogen, so improves the stress response. Look for a dose of 300mg for best effects.
Although often considered a fat loss supplement, l-carnitine actually seems to be much more useful as a nootropic, especially in the ALCAR form which is more efficient at crossing the blood-brain barrier. It decreases fatigue and improves attention, memory, learning and executive function.
ALCAR dosage is recommended at 630-2,500mg per day.
Recommend: Orange Brainwash
Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb used for anti-fatigue and anti-stress benefits. Its root contains more than 140 active ingredients, the two most potent of which are rosavin and salidroside. Studies in trained individuals have investigated its use in combatting ‘burnout’ from exercise and improving performance by better managing this, although more research is needed.
Daily doses as low as 50mg have been shown to be effective, with a higher dose recommended acutely. Salidroside by Hydrapharm is a high purity extract from the herb Rhodiola Rosea therefore it is worth noticing the lower dosage in this supplement is as a result of increased potency. Despite the anti-stress effects, we would advise against using before bed as it can have a slight stimulatory effect.
Ashwagandha is a herb used in Ayurveda. In supplements, the root of the plant tends to be used. Among other properties, it is an adaptogen, meaning it can help the body adapt to stress. Ashwagandha has been studied for a multitude of benefits, with evidence that it can; reduce cortisol, lower anxiety, battle inflammation, raise testosterone, increase power output and increase anaerobic running capacity. Ashwagandha is best taken over a prolonged period, so don’t expect to notice anything dramatic after your first dose! Ashwaganda can be taken whenever you feel it is most needed. Post-workout, pre-bed or before a stressful day are all suitable. 300-500mg daily seems to be most effective, although lower doses can still have beneficial effects.
Recommend: Predator Ashwagandha
Phosphatidylserine is a dietary fat-like substance called a phospholipid that can be found naturally in human neural tissue, but can be ‘topped up’ through foods and supplementation.
Food sources of Phosphatidylserine:
It seems to increase cognitive function while protecting against cognitive decline. Highlights of supplementation include: improved memory, healthy sleep, improved mood and better exercise performance.
As a single ingredient, 300-400mg is recommended, with up to 800mg/day shown to be absorbed efficiently in humans. Nootropic formulas may use 200mg or less alongside other, complimentary ingredients. Starting with a lower dose can also help negate possible side effects of a high (300mg+) dose, which include gas, stomach upset and trouble sleeping.
Recommend: Outbreak Nutrition Transmit
As you can probably tell… nootropics is a larger and more diverse category than you might have first thought. Indeed, there’s so much to learn we’re putting together an entire Ebook on the topic COMING SOON.
To find the right product for you, browse our Nootropics Landing Page here!
Glade, M. and Smith, K. (2015). Phosphatidylserine and the human brain. Nutrition, 31(6), pp.781-786.
Nehlig, A. (2010). Is Caffeine a Cognitive Enhancer?. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 20(s1), pp.S85-S94.
Volchegorskii, I., Miroshnichenko, I., Rassokhina, L., Faizullin, R. and Pryakhina, K. (2018). Anxiolytic and Antidepressant Actions of Emoxypine, Reamberin, and Mexidol in Experimental Diabetes Mellitus. Neuroscience and Behavioral Physiology, 49(1), pp.136-141.
Warburton, D. (1992). Nicotine as a cognitive enhancer. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 16(2), pp.181-192.