What are Nootropics?

What are Nootropics?

It’s a Saturday night in 2011, and you’ve just finished watching the new hit movie “Limitless” starring Bradley Cooper in the role of a struggling writer who gains access to a special pill that allows people to access 100% of their brains. Everyone walking out of the theater is asking themselves the same question - “Is there a pill that can actually enhance my brain functions?” While scouring the internet to find your answer, you stumble across “nootropics.” Although these compounds are not as effective as the fictional pill in “Limitless,” there has been a multitude of studies in recent years showing the effectiveness of these compounds on mental acuity, memory, and enhanced focus for a longer duration of time. 

But what exactly are nootropics? 

The term “nootropic” is defined as any compound or substance that causes an enhancement in cognition (3,4,18). These substances are typically categorized into two groups: synthetic compounds and natural or herbal compounds. Some of the most popular synthetic nootropic substances that are used frequently in the clinical setting are amphetamines and racetams, which are typically used to treat ADHD. In recent years, these medications have also been shown to have improved memory and mental accuracy in patients suffering from Alzheimers-related dementia (18). Unfortunately, these medications often come with a range of negative side effects, which has led people to turn towards alternative nootropic compounds derived from natural or herbal sources (18). Extracts from plants such as bacopa monnieri and huperzia A have shown positive cognitive effects such as increased memory, enhanced neuroprotection, increased attentiveness, and increased blood flow within the brain (1,3,4,9,12,14,19,20). A variety of different natural sources such as vitamin B6, B12, L-theanine, and L-tyrosine have also been linked to providing positive benefits to the brain when used as a dietary supplement (2,3,5,6,7). These natural and herbal substances are just a few examples of many that are currently being researched to evaluate their effectiveness as nootropic compounds.


Standard Dose

Role in Cognition/Brain Function

Bacopa Monnieri

150 - 400 mg / day

  • Supports neurotransmitter production in the brain (1,3,4,9)
  • Enhances memory and recall (1,3,4,9,14,18)
  • Improves sensory perception and reaction times (1,14,15)

Ginkgo Biloba

120 - 240 mg / day

  • Supports overall brain health (3,4,12,15,18)
  • Reduces damage made from free radicals (9,10,13)

Huperzine A

0.2 - 0.8 mg / day

  • Protects against oxidative stress (9,15,19,20)
  • Reduces neuron cell damage (3,9,15,19,20)

Vitamin B6, B12

25 mg/day , 0.03 mg/day

  • Essential for production of neurotransmitters (2,7)
  • Protects brain against damage from other vitamin deficiencies (2,7)
  • Takes part in a multitude of different metabolic processes in the brain and body (2,7)

Panax Ginseng

200 - 400 mg / day

  • Improves quality of memory (4,14,15,17)
  • Increases attentiveness (14,17)
  • Improves memory accuracy in recall tasks (3,9,14,17)


100 mg / day

  • Increases production of neurotransmitters (15)


150 mg / day

  • Reduces stress symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and sleep quality (5,6,12,15)
  • Improves verbal fluency (5,6)


100 - 500 mg / day

  • Improves memory recall (4,8)
  • Increases symptoms of depression (4,8)
  • Supports cell membrane health (4,8)

Alpha GPC

250 - 600 mg / day

  • Increases mental focusing ability throughout all age ranges (4,11,16)
  • Improves reaction time (11,16)

 How do these natural nootropics work? 







 Although the specific mechanism of action differs between each compound, there are two types of general processes that each of these compounds typically fall under when talking about how they affect cognition - effects on neurotransmitters and effects on neuroprotection (15)

How do nootropics affect neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemical molecules within the brain that deliver messages to other parts of the brain as well as the whole body in order to regulate specific functions (15,18). When a nootropic compound is ingested, it can stimulate the brain to produce more neurotransmitters, resulting in whatever neurotransmitter is affected to send out more messages than usual (18). For example, when nootropic compounds like huperzine A or L-tyrosine are ingested, they enter the brain’s blood flow and cause an increased release of neurotransmitters such as glutamate and acetylcholine, both of which directly affect cognitive functions such as memory, alertness, and concentration (18). These nootropic compounds can also suppress the release of molecules that inhibit neurotransmitter release, thereby allowing neurotransmitters to be released at a higher rate (15,18)

How do nootropics enhance neuroprotection?

Neuroprotection refers to the process of giving the brain the nutrients it needs to keep neurons (brain cells) healthy as well as destroying toxins before they can have a severe effect on neurons or overall brain function (15). Some nootropics such as bacopa monnieri are able to protect the brain from neurological damage by destroying the formation of free radicals (atoms within the body that cause damage to neurons ) (3,15,18). Other nootropic compounds such as Vitamin B6, B12, E, and C can help repair damaged neurons as well in order to maintain proper neurological function (2,3,7). Both of these roles of nootropic compounds allow for the brain to stay healthy for a longer period of time, as well as allowing neurons within the brain to function more efficiently. 

The Bottom Line- 

It all might sound very complex, and that’s because for the most part it is. Arguably, the brain is the most important part of the body, and needs to be properly fueled in order to maintain the highest level of efficiency it can achieve. Whether you’re a student studying endlessly in the library or an athlete looking to play at the highest level, peak performance starts in the brain! 

Written by David Levinson, BS Nutrition, NASM CPT and CES


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