If you want to build more muscle, you take supplements like testosterone boosters, whey protein and BCAAs to increase your muscular endurance, recovery and strength. This can give you the edge in any competition and help you to ultimately become more powerful, permanently.
But what if you want to become smarter?
In that case, there’s another category of supplement available to you: known as nootropics. This is a rapidly expanding subject matter with many underground forums and communities hotly discussing the pros and cons of various substances that promise to make them smarter, sharper and more creative.
And mainstream use is rapidly increasing too: there are more and more companies out there now selling nootropics to students and to executives and some reports suggest that 90% of ‘one percenters’ are using some kind of medication or supplement in order to give themselves a cognitive boost and mental edge.
But if you feel a little anxious about the idea of taking a drug to make yourself smarter, then you’re not alone and you’re actually very wise to want to take this cautiously. So let’s take an in-depth look at how the best brain supplements work, what the best natural nootropics are and how you can go about creating your own stack to give yourself some real mental muscle!
So let’s start with the first obvious question: how do nootropics work?
How can the best nootropics possibly make someone smarter?
To understand this, it pays for us to have a basic understanding of how the brain itself works. So bear with me and let’s take a look at some fundamental neuroscience. I know it’s not fun but it will help us to make sense of everything, so don’t skip it!
Essentially, your brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. These cells work just like any other cells in your body with a nucleus, a cell wall and a mitochondria (which produce energy). The difference is that neurons also have ‘tendrils’ of sorts which reach out and connect with one another.
At one end is the axon, which is a kind of tail ending with a ‘terminal’. And at the other end, coming off around the body of the cell (the ‘soma’), are your dendrites. The dendrites look a little like roots and these will then reach out around the brain in order to find other axons.
The other distinct difference is that cells in the brain can ‘fire’, meaning that they conduct a small electric charge. This charge occurs when the cell is excited and it will then travel along the axon and out of the synapse at the end of it. When this happens, all the surrounding dendrites of other neurons will receive that signal and they too will be excited. This firing and communication is known as an ‘action potential’.
This can all be a little tricky to understand, so check out this post on the anatomy of a neuron in order to learn more and to see a visualization of it.
All you really need to know is that when a neuron fires like this, it allows us to have a subjective experience – depending of course on what that neuron represents.
So we have neurons in our occipital lobe that controls vision. And were you to cut open someone’s skull and stimulate neurons here with an electrode (which scientists actually do sometimes!), then the patient would actually see ‘pixels’ lighting up in their vision. Likewise though, other neurons encode memory and causing these to fire would bring back certain memories.
And this is how some of the best brain supplements work: by increasing the communication and excitability of neurons to light up the brain like a Christmas tree!
But it’s not only an electrical signal that crosses the synaptic gap from axon to dendrite. You see, at the terminal point you also have something called ‘neurovessicles’. These are little sacks that contain neurotransmitters, neurotransmitters being chemicals that affect the mood and state of mind.
The best way to think about neurotransmitters is as being hormones. Like hormones, neurotransmitters are signallers that alter the state of the body and mind. The difference is that neurotransmitters tend to be not as long lasting and they primarily act on the brain. That said, some neurotransmitters also act like hormones and vice versa (which is one reason our hormones can have a big impact on our state of mind).
It’s the release of neurotransmitters across the synaptic gap that really alters the way that we behave and also that ‘colors’ the experience that is associated with the neuron. So in other words, if a neuron lights up and causes us to relive a memory, then it will be the neurotransmitters that get released that dictate whether that memory makes us happy or sad.
A few more things to understand: neurotransmitters only work between some gaps. Dendrites have ‘receptors’ which are a little like sockets specifically designed for different neurotransmitters to attach. So if you release lots of ‘dopamine’ (one neurotransmitter) then it will only work on neurons that have the requisite domain receptors.
Another thing to keep in mind is that neurotransmitters can largely be divided into two categories: excitatory and inhibitory. The former makes a neuron more likely to fire, while the latter supresses activity and makes it less likely to fire.
This is another way that some of the best nootropics work – by increasing the amount of specific neurotransmitters in the brain to change our mood, to change our ability to focus and to change our wakefulness.
The last point we’re going to touch on here is brain plasticity, also known as ‘neuroplasticity’. This refers to the brain’s ability to grow, change and adapt over time – just like a muscle.
Once upon a time, psychologists believed that the brain stopped growing and changing once we reached adulthood. More recently however, it has come to light that the brain remains highly malleable all throughout our lives.
This means that certain activities can lead to the creation of new brain cells (neurogenesis) and also the formation of new connections (synapses). What’s more, is that the more a connection is used, the more it will be strengthened and reinforced (via a processes called ‘myelination’) which makes it easier to use in future.
So when something happens to you, a new neuron might be created. This neuron will then attach to other relevant neurons that were firing at the time (the rule is that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’). Now, remembering related topics will make the other memory more likely to fire up.
And each time that happens, the connection will be strengthened, making you more likely to remember it in future. And this is even truer if the formation of that memory and connection coincided with the release of a neurotransmitter like ‘dopamine’ or ‘norepinephrine’ which will indicate that the event is important and bears remembering.
This is how all learning occurs and as you might have already guessed – many of the best nootropics work by enhancing these processes to allow for more rapid learning and more effective memory retrieval!
So with all that in mind, we can now see roughly how nootropics work.
On the one hand, you have nootropics that work by increasing the amount of specific neurotransmitters. These might increase focus and memory by enhancing dopamine production for example, or they might increase GABA to improve relaxation and aid creativity. The best nootropic for motivation may well be the one that increases dopamine, whereas the best cognitive enhancers all-round might focus on another neurotransmitter like acetylcholine.
The mechanisms through which this occurs depends on the supplement in question and as we’ll see, this depends largely on the type of nootropic.
Other nootropics meanwhile work simply by increasing the health of the brain, which essentially means they are increasing the health of the individual neurons. These are the kinds of brain supplements you take on a regular basis to help keep yourself sharp and alert. Some of the best natural nootropics include creatine and omega 3 fatty acid.
Creatine increases the energy of brain cells by letting the body recycle used ATP. Meanwhile, omega 3 fatty acid improves ‘cell membrane permeability’, effectively allowing improved communication between cells, thereby speeding up communication across the brain.
Finally, other nootropics focus very much on brain plasticity. These include the likes of lion’s mane and ciltep. These are a lesser used nootropic currently but may hold the most potential going forward.
If you want the best nootropic for studying or the best nootropic for motivation, then you’ll likely be looking at nootropics that increase the amount/potency of neurotransmitters in the brain. These are the supplements that give you a real ‘kick’, that alter your brain state and that help you to feel more awake and alert.
The best natural nootropics that work this way do so by providing ‘building blocks’ called precursors. A precursor is a substance (usually found naturally in the diet) that the body uses to synthesize a given molecule.
For example, tryptophan is an amino acid found in most of our foods and the body uses this in order to create serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter). One of the most popular nootropics for improving calmness and social ease then is 5-HTP or 5 Hydroxytryptophan.
If you’re willing to get a little more unnatural though, then this is when things get really interesting – and a little more risky…
Modafinil for instance is perhaps the most popular nootropic for business executives, traders and other high-flyers for instance and it has even been researched by DARPA for use by fighter pilots.
Modafinil is essentially a nootropic that was original designed to be a treatment for narcolepsy. This alone makes it very useful for anyone who is looking to get more productivity out of their working day – and in theory it can make you need to sleep less while staying focussed, alert and awake.
However, what was discovered during tests was that it could also improve mental vigilance, focus, awareness, concentration and memory. This led to it becoming known as ‘the real Limitless pill’ and hence many highly productive types rely on it.
What does it feel like to take modafinil? In reality, it’s nothing like the film Limitless. But you do get a noticed sense of concentration that can be incredibly hard to break. At the same time, perception slightly increases which has the notable effect of making lights seem brighter.
Modafinil is thought to work on orexins, which are a category of neurotransmitters that also seem to play a role in wakefulness and appetite (which is why one side effect of modafinil is to reduce hunger…). However, modafinil also seems to trigger the release of many more neurotransmitters associated with alertness including dopamine and histamine.
With all that said, scientists aren’t 100% sure precisely how modafinil works and what’s more, is that the effects have not been tested over the long term. Does that make it dangerous? Not necessarily, although as we’ll see, there are problems with these kinds of nootropics in general.
Another popular nootropic that falls into this category is Piracetam. Piracetam is a nootropic that increases the amount of acetylcholine in the brain (again, it’s uncertain how precisely). Acetylcholine is a stimulatory neurotransmitter that simply increases the amount of activity across the brain.
This leads to more wakefulness, more focus and better concentration. It also seems to boost the senses too though and some people describe seeing colors more vividly, or getting more appreciation from music.
Piracetam requires long-term use to build up in the brain and only then do you get to feel the effects (unlike modafinil which works instantly and has a half-life of about 10 hours). Some people love Piracetam and feel it helps them to get the very best from themselves – but others report getting a feeling of brain fog or experiencing headaches.
Either way, it is always important to stack this with choline, which is a precursor for acetylcholine and can be found in eggs.
The above two examples are considerably more ‘hardcore’ when it comes to feeling the potent effects of a nootropic. Modafinil is also only legal on prescription in many countries, which makes it hard to acquire and even more daunting!
If you want the best nootropic stack for beginners then, you may want to start with something a little less potent. And in that regard, there are few options better than taking good old caffeine with l-theanine!
Yes that’s right – caffeine is in many ways a nootropic and that means that you’re probably already using a nootropic as part of your daily routine!
Caffeine works by removing a neurotransmitter called ‘adenosine’. Adenosine is a by-product of cell energy metabolism, meaning that it’s left over when your neurons create energy. Over time, this builds-up and as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it starts to make us tired and sluggish.
Caffeine blocks ‘adenosine receptors’, meaning that adenosine can no longer impact on us. This increases wakefulness and alertness and the brain responds in kind by releasing more excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine etc.
L-theanine meanwhile is also one of the best natural nootropics and occurs naturally in green tea – notably, yerba mate tea, which Darwin described as ‘the world’s best stimulant’. L-theanine is mildly inhibitory in its effect and this allows it to balance out the effects of the caffeine to prevent you from becoming too highly alert. When you combine caffeine with l-theanine, the result is a pleasant, calm wakefulness without any side effects.
But if your aim is to be as safe as possible with your nootropics use, then you may choose to stay away from modafinil and Piracetam – possibly even large quantities of caffeine! The reason for this is that playing with neurotransmitters can lead to problems.
The first thing to recognize is that no neurotransmitter works in a vacuum. That is to say, that many neurotransmitters are precursors to other neurotransmitters. Others work against each other, meaning that raising one is going to instantly negatively affect the other.
For example, whenever you increase serotonin (like the best nootropic for mood does), then you will also increase melatonin, which makes people sleepy. That’s because serotonin converts to melatonin!
It’s also worth noting that there is no such thing as a wholly good or wholly bad neurotransmitter. Every neurotransmitter has important roles and the healthiest brain is one that can switch between brain states on a whim.
In other words, you should be alert and focussed when you need to be and likewise calm and at ease when you need to be. If you’ve artificially increase the amount of dopamine in your brain, then you might be very alert but you could also find it hard to get to sleep!
And seeing as creativity is correlated with a relaxed state of mind (which allows us to randomly ‘peruse’ our neural networks and create new associations), modafinil might actually negatively impact on creative problem solving.
Oh and as it happens, high dopamine is also one thing that causes schizophrenia…
There’s also the issue of ‘tolerance’ and ‘dependence’. Artificially inflate a specific neurotransmitter and often the brain will respond by producing less naturally – or by eradicating receptors! This happens with caffeine, which is why you can get caffeine withdrawal leading to severe headaches…
So with all that in mind, trying to artificially ramp up a specific neurotransmitter is probably not the best approach.
Instead, the best nootropic stack will be one that uses natural mechanisms and that doesn’t create an imbalance in brain chemistry.
You can raise levels of specific neurotransmitters for instance by using nootropics provide natural precursors. There’s nothing wrong with something like l-tyrosine for increasing dopamine – this is simply an amino acid that the brain uses to synthesize dopamine. It doesn’t force an increase in dopamine, it just allows for it – making it much safer and more gentle.
But the best natural nootropics of all are the ‘cognitive metabolic enhancers’. These are the nootropics that simply increase brain health and specifically, the nootropics that increase brain energy (learn more about the difference here).
Some great examples of nootropics that fall into this category are:
There are many more examples of the best natural nootropics but the key is to think about your brain health in terms of long-term benefit and not to look for short answers. Try to improve your brain’s health and only use smart drugs that stimulate neurotransmitters for specific tasks when you require maximum concentration – do not make them a regular part of your routine!
As for nootropics to increase brain plasticity, these tend to work by increase brain derived neurotrophic factor, or nerve growth factor – either way, they show a lot of potential but haven’t yet been widely used enough to draw any conclusions.
The key is to give it a go but to do so cautiously. Everyone is different and we all have different goals, so see what works for you! But don’t aim to feel transformed or different – just try to feel like you on your best day.