What are Nootropics? Smart Drugs to Supercharge Your Brain

From proposal writers to carpenters, mailmen to physicians, everyone could benefit from reduced stress, improved focus, and more energy. Many drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages to wake up and keep going throughout the day. Some risk their health, abusing diet pills and harsher drugs like amphetamines, just for the energy to get through the day. “Looks like I picked the wrong week,” Lloyd Bridges’s character in the disaster-farce movie Airplane! says, “to quit amphetamines.” Regardless of their performance-enhancing poisons of choice, regular people act out a bizarre paradox: seeking relief from stress in the form of “little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water” and even more vile tablets, only worsening the situation. The working wounded might not need such resorts, if they only knew that time-tested, safer, more potent compounds existed. Enter nootropic compounds.

What are nootropics? Nootropics, from the Greek “noos” for “mind” and “tropos” for “growing,” are a set of compounds that act safely on the brain to improve focus, wakefulness, cognition, creativity, memory, and alertness; many protect brain cells from damage and help revitalize them. Unlike caffeine and amphetamine, nootropics only act within the brain, so they lack the discomfort and danger of stimulants. Some researches dubbed nootropics “Smart Drugs.”

Nootropics, while they can treat diseases, first and foremost supercharge mental performance beyond normal: instead of offering a cure, they improve something that already works fine. Unlike stimulants, which always have a let-down period after the initial rush, nootropics almost never have noxious side effects. The pharmaceutical industry in the United States, and the bureaucrats in the FDA, just can’t fit nootropics into their current problem-centered view: after all, who would want to make a good thing better? Without government oversight in the US and with little corporate concern, most smart drugs have slipped through the regulatory cracks. Sold as nutritional supplements, bona fide compounds with decades of European and Asian research share shelf-space with ineffective snake oils at health food stores. This guide points out some of the nootropic “Greatest Hits,” the safe, tried-and-true compounds worth using.

Piracetam . This is the reigning king of the smart drugs. First synthesized in 1964 by the Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB Group, the researchers developed piracetam as a drug to prevent motion sickness. Its other benefits, however, soon eclipsed its original purpose and actually led researchers to coin the term “nootropic.” Over the past forty years, study after study has demonstrated the safety of the compound, even in extreme doses. Piracetam increases communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and protects the brain from oxygen-deprived conditions, which can result from inadequate sleep or alcohol consumption. Benefits include better recall, reduced reaction time, and improved alertness. Many users also report an improved sense of well-being and frequent creative insight. Piracetam can even reduce symptoms of dyslexia, sickle cell anemia, and Parkinson’s disease, and may reduced the frequency of epileptic fits.

Most dosing protocols call for an initial front-loading phase, where the user takes a higher-than-normal dose to sensitize the brain to Piracetam, followed by a lower, daily maintenance dose. One recommendation suggests taking 2400 mg-about half a rounded teaspoon-divided into smaller two or three smaller doses every day for a month, followed by taking 1200 mg, again divided into smaller doses, daily. Some more experienced, heroic nootropic users recommend taking 10,000mg, divided into three doses each day for two days, followed by 800 mg two or three times daily after that. Piracetam possesses almost no toxicity-even consuming 40 g daily is safe-so adjusting the daily dose is not only safe, but recommended. Generally, avoid taking it before sleep.

In the United States piracetam is legal to buy, sell, and possess for personal use, but because of the status to which the FDA consigns nootropics, piracetam cannot be manufactured in the States. Companies specializing in life extension and dietary supplementation, like Beyond A Century or 1Fast400, often carry it.

Tyrosine . Besides piracetam, the other veteran workhorse of the nootropics is tyrosine. From tyrosine, an amino acid, the brain manufactures dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, all neurotransmitters with a stimulatory effect. Tyrosine boosts mood and wakefulness. Although no formal studies have demonstrated tyrosine’s benefits for athletes, many users report short-term boosts in strength and endurance. Tyrosine appears most commonly as L-Tyrosine and N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine. Typical doses for L-Tyrosine, the more affordable albeit less absorbable of the two, are between 1,000 and 3,000 mg. The body absorbs N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine at least twice as readily as regular L-Tyrosine, so dosing at 500 to 1,500 mg should do the trick with N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine. For the amino acid to be most effective, it should be taken on an empty stomach.

DMAE . Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) exists naturally in a wide variety of food sources, particularly fish. Initial interest in DMAE occurred when several studies showed that it increased life expectancy in laboratory animals, although more recent studies have thrown this assertion into doubt. Applied with a topical ointment, however, DMAE can reverses the effects of aging on the skin. The benefits of DMAE don’t stop with wrinkle cream: European doctors frequently prescribe DMAE to treat children with Attention Deficit Disorder. The compound increases mood and alertness, by providing the brain with more raw materials to manufacture the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Recommended dosing is 100 to 200 mg, once per day. Frequently, nootropic users couple DMAE with 1000 to 3000 mg of phosphatylcholine, a less potent acetylcholine precursor, to amplify DMAE’s effects. Most supplement and health food providers carry DMAE.

Fish Oil . While not strictly a nootropic, fish oil helps so many aspects of health that it seems like a true-to-life panacea, relieving everything from joint pain to heart trouble to memory loss. Fish oil does all this by simply correcting imbalances in the modern diet. Most people consume a diet heavy in saturated and trans fats, both of which promote inflammation in all parts of the body. Reducing inflammation, then, benefits health-this is where fish oil joins the party. Fish oil, rich in the Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, reduces the overall inflammation caused by trans and saturated fats, explaining the benefits to the heart and joints. But these essential fatty acids, sometimes called EFAs, don’t stop working there: as the Omega 3 fats integrate with the cell membranes of neurons, they also improve overall brain function. Taking 7 g of fish oil daily almost nullifies the physical symptoms of stress, and regular use can alleviate depression.

Lately, concern over mercury contamination in fish has led many to voice concern about the safety of fish oil. Cholesterol-free oil from wild salmon would be the wisest choice, should mercury be a concern; several have suggested that the benefits of supplementation with fish oil outweighs the damage from mercury present. In any case, pregnant women should out-of-hand avoid it. Flaxseed oil, while not as potent as fish oil, can be a viable, mercury-free, vegetarian replacement.

Dosing with fish oil varies. Those under stress ought to consume at least 7g per day, although, for regular use, 3 g to 5 g daily should be adequate. With flax oil calls for slightly more, about 10 g, or two teaspoons, daily. Those on high-fat diets should consume more. Keep in mind that each gram of oil contains nine calories, although these doses amount only to eating one or two additional slices of bread a day. Because fish oil and flax oil are fats, they accumulate and replace older, saturated fats in the body, so after several weeks of use, it may be acceptable to taper off the dose.

Huperzine . Huperzine A, an extract from Chinese club-moss, Huperzia serrata, prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine. It also protects brain cells from toxins, and promotes the growth of dendrites between neurons, which, coupled with increased levels of acetylcholine, supercharges memory. Huzerpine is extremely potent, especially when combined with other nootropics; take between 50 to 100 mcg-that’s micrograms-daily.

Vinpocetine . European physicians have prescribed vinpocetine to increase blood flow in the brain as well as improve hearing, visual acuity, and memory, even in those without impairment. Vinpocetine seems to enhance the brain’s use of glucose; one theory suggests that vinpocetine increases serotonin and ATP production in the brain. In any case, it lifts mood and improves memory and vision. Start off taking 5 to 10 mg daily, and dose upwards gradually if necessary. Taking 10 mg three times a day is well within the safety limits of the compound.

Bacopa . Bacopa monnieri comes from Ayuvedic medicine, in which it is called Brahmi. Research shows that it helps the brain create new neurons, as well as rejuvenate older ones related to memory in the hippocampus. The herb also improves protein synthesis throughout the body. Ayuvedic medicine indicates it as a general tonic, with specific anti-anxiety effects; some suggest that Bacopa suppresses stress hormones like cortisol. Typical doses are between 500 to 1000 mg daily; studies have shown the effects increase with continued usage. Unlike most of the compounds listed here, Bacopa extract doesn’t have a mental “kick” or “feel”, but its health benefits warrant mention.

Go ahead and try nootropics, alone or in as cocktail, and learn why they’re called “Smart Drugs.” A year’s supply of piracetam costs a less than a couple cups of java-more than a few coffee chains would suffer withdrawal from early-morning customers if nootropics ever get equal time. While more exotic nootropics exist, those listed here should be available from most supplement vendors. Considering all the benefits they offer-increased alertness, improved mood, enhanced creativity, and healthier, stronger brain-why not let some nootropic alchemy into your mind?

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