How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
For example, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2000 found that ginkgo improved attention. A 2001 study in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggested that it improves memory. Nevertheless, in a review of studies on ginkgo in healthy people, researchers found no good evidence that it improved mental abilities, according to a 2002 report in Psychopharmacology Bulletin.
Pyritinol: Pyritinol has anti-oxidant effects for supporting the long-term health of the brain. But its primary benefit is aiding glucose uptake for periods of extended mental strain. If you are studying or working for a long period of time, your brain will start to diminish its glucose (sugar) stores which are the primary way that the brain derives its energy.
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Conversely, you have to consider that the long term effects of Modafinil haven’t been studies very well. It significantly upsets sleep cycles, and 50% of Modafinil users report a number of short term side effects, such as mild to severe headaches, insomnia, nausea, anxiety, nervousness, hypertension, decreased appetite, and weight loss. PET scans show it affects the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by substance abuse.
Microdosing with Iboga: Native to the rainforests in Central Africa, Iboga is an evergreen shrub, with high concentrations found in the root bark. It has a rich history amongst practitioners in the indigenous Bwiti religion in Africa and has recently found its way into Western practices, primarily for extremely effective therapy for drug addictions, but also for physical energy, cognitive performance in smaller microdoses, and a surge in positive emotions (See additional studies here and here.). To microdose with Iboga, you will want to find it in tincture or root bark form (the root bark form is typically encapsulated). If using a tincture, find a source that has the root bark extracted into its purest form, combined with Iboga alkaloids, which keeps the full spectrum of the plant untouched. Just a single drop of an Iboga tincture equates to about 0.5 milligrams and suffices as a microdose. For the root bark of Iboga, a dose of 300-500 milligrams is also an effective dose. I’ve personally found Iboga to be most useful prior to a workout or an effort that combines both brain and body demands, such as tennis or basketball – but it makes you hyperactive and jittery if taken prior to a day of desk work. This makes sense when you consider that African tribes traditionally whipped themselves into a frenzied pre-battle state on Iboga.
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As you may or may not know, curcumin has become a darling of the nutrition world in the last several years, thanks to a flurry of research that indicates the turmeric derivative can do everything from support the brain to reduce painful body-wide inflammation to even support positive mood. You can learn more about the research behind curcumin here:
Some nootropics users are hopeful that the drugs could be permanently “neuroprotective”—in other words, that the compounds could slow down the neuronal aging process, and help avoid cognitive deterioration later in life. (For what it's worth, most of the users I spoke to said that didn't matter much to them. “I doubt anything I’ve tried has made me smarter in a long-term way,” Baker says. “That’s still science fiction.”)
But when aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes.
Caffeine, Tulsi and Astragalus: Tulsi is one of the greatest calming adaptogens that exists, trusted and revered for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine and culture. Tulsi has been researched and shown to uplift mood, support digestion, and promote balanced energy. Because it’s also an anxiolytic (causes anti-anxiety effects) tulsi, similar to coffee with L-theanine, does a good job balancing out any over-stimulating effects of the caffeine in coffee. But you can also take things one step further and blend in astragalus, which, in Chinese medicine, is considered a “strong” Ki invigorating herb that provides a stable source of non-crashing energy. Astragalus also contains an enormous variety of saponins, flavonoids, and polysaccharides, and is considered to be a “longevity adaptogen”. Pairing with antioxidant-rich coffee and tulsi produces a match made in longevity heaven. For this blend, which I often use if drinking coffee in the afternoon, I’m a fan of the Four Sigmatic Adaptogen Blend, which contains coffee, astragalus, tulsi and cinnamon.
Lucas Baker, a Switzerland-based software engineer with a large tech company, takes nootropics every day. He says it helps him maintain focus, especially on projects he might otherwise put off. “When I find an unpleasant task, I can just power through it,” he says. Baker also makes the coffee comparison: “There’s already a universally-embraced nootropic called caffeine,” he says. “It’s just about making it more widely researched.”
I asked Marcus which nootropic he would want if he were stranded on a desert island. "I guess it would depend on the challenges I was facing on the island. If staying healthy was the biggest challenge, then I'd choose AC-11," he said. "If I needed to stay motivated to rebuild the village, I would choose Mucuna [pruriens]. If I was hunting, I'd choose Huperzia serrata, for mental acuity and speed."
Nootropics (/noʊ.əˈtrɒpɪks/ noh-ə-TROP-iks) (colloquial: smart drugs and cognitive enhancers) are drugs, supplements, and other substances that may improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals. While many substances are purported to improve cognition, research is at a preliminary stage as of 2018, and the effects of the majority of these agents are not fully determined.