It is hard to read health blogs or magazines these days without coming across a word that is all the rage in sports and the mental health sector alike: nootropics, a term coined by chemist, Dr. Corneliu E. Girugea, who, in the 1960s, chanced upon a number of substances (many of which occur naturally) that could benefit brain health; or more literally nous means ‘mind’, and trepein, means ‘to bend’. Dr. Girugea set out specific criteria that substances or compounds should contain in order to be classified as nootropics, yet since then, the media has classified many so-called illicit ‘super drugs’, as nootropics. In fact, when nootropics stick to the original criteria, they can boost health in many ways.
What is in a Nootropic?
Dr. Girugea stated that a nootropic supplement or food must:
- Enhance learning or memory
- Have a protective effect on the brain against physical or chemical injury
- Have no or very few side-effects
- Increase control mechanisms in the brain
- Boost resistance to the conditions that can interfere with memory and learning
Ironically, Dr. Girugea developed piracetam, which has been used since its development to enhance memory in human beings and forms part of the treatment of ischemia, cognitive impairment, dementia, and stroke. Research has shown, however, that when taken long-term, side-effects can include weight gain, headaches, and nervousness.
How do Nootropics Work?
Nootropics modulate a series of neurotransmitters (including dopamine, adrenalin, and noradrenaline), in one of many ways: they can increase the production of specific neurotransmitters, block the effect of a neurotransmitter, or regulate the entire system of neurotransmitters.
Because each nootropic affects the brain in different ways, they have different benefits. Some are used to enhance cognition (choline supplements are said to benefit memory, concentration, focus, energy, etc.); others are thought to enhance creativity by enhancing right and left brain communication (Acetyl L-carnitine is thought to increase acetylcholine and dopamine levels); still others are taken to help slow down the rate of cognitive decline (ginkgo biloba, for instance, was found in one study to provide near equal results in patients with Alzheimer’s, as donepezil).
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Nootropics are sometimes taken to improve sleep; the red vein of kratom, an evergreen tree from Southeast Asia, contains high concentrations of 7-hydroxymitragynine, which is used to enhance sleep and mood, and reduce stress-related conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Nootropics and Side-Effects
Even natural nootropics can have side-effects when taken in excess because many have a stimulating effect. Moreover, not all nootropics enhance brain power, and not all stimulants that do enhance brain power, are nootropics. If you are interested in seeing what nootropics can do for you, it is recommendable to obtain your doctor’s approval and to opt for nootropics that have few or no side-effects.
Nootropics aren’t indicated for every person; athletes, for instance, should avoid them, so as not to have an unfair advantage over competitors.
If you have an upcoming mental or physical challenge ahead and you think that nootropics can give you a little boost, research on a large number of nootropics available, taking them in moderation and under your doctor’s supervision. You may be surprised to find that many nootropics – including caffeine – are all around us, and many are already consuming them to increase alertness and help them brave a sometimes long working day.