Nootropics are designed to help improve mental performance. From improved memory to better focus and learning, nootropics can give you that mental edge you need to perform better at work or school.
Before you enter the world of mental performance enhancers, it’s important to understand the most common nootropic compounds and how they work.
Every day, people all over the world consume caffeine. In fact, it’s the most consumed psychoactive substance on the planet (1).
Caffeine is naturally found in coffee, guarana, tea, kola nuts, cocoa and other foods, but it’s also added to beverages and some medications.
Known for giving you a jolt of energy, caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain (2) to help you feel more awake. Doses of 40-300 mg can improve your focus, alertness and your reaction time.
For centuries, Ginkgo biloba has been used in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It acts as an antioxidant and also improves blood flow to the brain.
Improved blood flow to the brain may help boost memory, cognition, learning and recall. In fact, Ginkgo supplements have been shown (3) to boost memory and mental function in older adults when taking for six weeks.
Taking Ginkgo can help boost acetylcholine, dopamine and noradrenaline (4). It’s a classic nootropic compound. The combination of flavonoids and ginkgolides and bilobalides helps protect the brain from cell degeneration while improving blood flow to small blood vessels.
Ginkgo increases dopamine levels while reducing monoamine oxidase levels in the brain.
Plants produce resveratrol when they are injured or stressed. The compound, most famously found in red wine, is a powerful antioxidant that increases memory and energy, improves blood flow to the brain and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Resveratrol protects the brain by increasing the production of heme oxygenase, an enzyme that helps protect against oxidative stress (5).
One of the greatest benefits of this compound is its ability to prevent the buildup of neurotoxins and plaque that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (6).
The compound 5-HTP is made naturally in the body and is the byproduct of L-tryptophan. It helps the body produce more serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep cycles.
Healthy levels of serotonin promote restful sleep and a positive mood. But this neurotransmitter also plays an important role in regulating pain perception, digestion and appetite.
5-HTP is often used as an antidepressant, but it can also help with anxiety, sleep problems and weight management.
Supplementation of 5-HTP has to be carefully managed. Over the long term, it can cause imbalances of other neurotransmitters, like epinephrine, dopamine and norepinephrine. This nootropic compound is best taken under the supervision of a physician.
The precursor of serotonin, tryptophan plays a crucial role in serotonin synthesis. Serotonin helps regulate behavior, cognition and mood. Low levels of serotonin can cause depression, pain, seasonal affective disorder, insomnia and even chronic fatigue.
In nootropic supplements, tryptophan helps with depression, anxiety, ADHD, memory loss, insomnia and pain.
A medicinal plant used for centuries to improve brain function. Studies show that taking a dose of 200-400 mg of this plant can improve cognitive performance and reduce brain fog (7).
Researchers are still unsure of how Panax ginseng works to improve brain function, but they believe it may have to do with its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation can cause oxidative stress and hinder brain function (8).
Panax ginseng contains ginsenosides, a plant saponin that’s responsible for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidation and vasorelaxation properties.
A synthetic drug that comes in supplement form, Noopept is fast-acting and can boost brain function in several ways.
Noopept starts working in minutes and can last for several hours (9). In animal studies, Noopept accelerated memory function by improving BDNF levels (10).
There is also some evidence that Noopept can help the brain recover more quickly from brain injuries, but more research is required.
Like Noopept, Piracetam is a synthetic molecule. It works similarly to Noopept, and it has been shown to improve memory in older adults suffering from mental decline (11).
Animal studies have shown that piracetam can improve the fluidity of cell membranes, making it easier for cells to communicate (12).
Other studies have shown that Piracetam improves blood supply to the brain as well as glucose consumption and oxygen (13).
An herb known for its adaptogenic properties, Rhodiola rosea helps the body adapt to stressful situations.
Research shows that this herb can help improve mood while reducing stress and feelings of burnout (14).
Taking Rhodiola rosea can help prevent mental fatigue while improving your overall sense of well-being.
Rhodiola helps regulate stress hormones and supports brain chemicals that play an important role in cognition. It also has antioxidant activity that helps protect the brain.
Like Rhodiola rosea, Bacopa monnieri is an adaptogen and has brain-boosting properties. This herb is believed to help improve cognitive performance and deliver brain-protecting antioxidant activity.
Bacopa may help improve memory, boost visual information processing and help regulate mood.
Students often prefer to take Bacopa monnieri because of its learning and memory boosting properties.
Naturally found in tea, L-theanine is an amino acid that can also be taken as a supplement. It has a calming effect without making you feel tired, but its effects are amplified when taken with caffeine. These two nootropic compounds are often paired together in supplements for enhanced mental performance and induce a feeling a calmness.
L-Theanine works by stimulating alpha-wave activity, which promotes a more relaxed state of mind.
ALC is an amino acid produced by the body. It boosts the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that supports brain function.
ALC is also known for its anti-aging and neuroprotective properties. It can improve your attention span, reduce fatigue, improve memory and even boost learning.
This amino acid is able to offer these mental performance benefits because it can cross the brain blood barrier. It can also help repair and even prevent oxidative damage in neurons.
These are the most common nootropic compounds found in supplements and foods. Many of them work synergistically to improve mental performance and enhance the effects of other compounds.
1. Ferré S. (2008). An update on the mechanisms of the psychostimulant effects of caffeine. Journal of neurochemistry, 105(4), 1067–1079. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-4159.2007.05196.x
2. Ribeiro, J. A., & Sebastião, A. M. (2010). Caffeine and adenosine. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 20 Suppl 1, S3–S15. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-2010-1379
3. Kaschel R. (2011). Specific memory effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 in middle-aged healthy volunteers. Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology, 18(14), 1202–1207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2011.06.021
4. Ahlemeyer, B., & Krieglstein, J. (2003). Neuroprotective effects of Ginkgo biloba extract. Cellular and molecular life sciences : CMLS, 60(9), 1779–1792. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00018-003-3080-1
5. Quincozes-Santos, A., Bobermin, L. D., Latini, A., Wajner, M., Souza, D. O., Gonçalves, C. A., & Gottfried, C. (2013). Resveratrol protects C6 astrocyte cell line against hydrogen peroxide-induced oxidative stress through heme oxygenase 1. PloS one, 8(5), e64372. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064372
6. Kao, C. L., Chen, L. K., Chang, Y. L., Yung, M. C., Hsu, C. C., Chen, Y. C., Lo, W. L., Chen, S. J., Ku, H. H., & Hwang, S. J. (2010). Resveratrol protects human endothelium from H(2)O(2)-induced oxidative stress and senescence via SirT1 activation. Journal of atherosclerosis and thrombosis, 17(9), 970–979. https://doi.org/10.5551/jat.4333
7. Reay, J. L., Kennedy, D. O., & Scholey, A. B. (2006). Effects of Panax ginseng, consumed with and without glucose, on blood glucose levels and cognitive performance during sustained ‘mentally demanding’ tasks. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 20(6), 771–781. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881106061516
8. Ong, W. Y., Farooqui, T., Koh, H. L., Farooqui, A. A., & Ling, E. A. (2015). Protective effects of ginseng on neurological disorders. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 7, 129. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2015.00129