The dietary supplement and pharmaceutical industries tend to be rife with products claiming to help you treat illness and enhance well-being, yet many of them fall well short. However, as time advances and we gain more understanding of how the body and brain function, the outlook for efficacious drugs and dietary supplements grows more promising.
One particular class of substances that has garnered a hefty amount of interest in recent years – by both laypeople and scientists – is nootropics (often referred to as “smart drugs”). These substances act by altering chemical messenger balance in the brain known.
These chemical messengers are known as neurotransmitters and neuropeptides (e.g. dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, etc.). Some nootropics are even purported to alter the physical structure of the brain directly, over time, leading to enhanced cognitive capacity.
Sounds pretty awesome, right? The brain is, after all, the most powerful (and untapped) organ known to mankind. Just think, if you’re only using 10% of your brain’s full potential and can still solve complex Calculus problems, then tapping into even the next percentile would be a significant advancement. Nootropics might just be what you need to do that.
Besides, I’m pretty sure everyone who has seen the movie Limitless thinks to themselves, “I need to found out where I can get that pill!” Truth is, “limitless pills” are what could very well come to be in the near future as nootropics advance. Read on to learn all about these smart drugs and how they can help unlock the hidden potential within your brain.
What Exactly Are Nootropics?
The term ‘nootropic’ originated in 1972 from Romanian chemist Corneliu Giurgea, who is known for creating piracetam. The term comes from Greek words meaning “mind bending”. It wasn’t until around 2013 that nootropics became a popular niche of dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals. In fact, in 2015, nootropic supplements accounted for more than one billion U.S. dollars of sales, globally.
So what’s all the craze about? Well, frankly, the beauty of nootropics is that they are beneficial for most anyone. Most dietary supplements you find only really appeal to gym-goers or people trying to treat a chronic condition. Nootropics, however, can enhance the life of business professionals, students, fitness enthusiasts, athletes, stay-at-home parents, people with anxiety or depression, the list goes on.
Quite simply, if you’re trying to optimize your cognitive function, nootropics can help you seize each and every day. Note that in mainstream culture, though, many consumers like the appeal of nootropics that are ‘natural’ substances only. For example, caffeine is a nootropic substance found in coffee. Contrarily, methylphenidate (Ritalin) is also a nootropic but must be synthesized in a laboratory (i.e. it’s not readily found in nature).
Thus, the term nootropic generally applies to natural compounds that have therapeutic effects throughout the central nervous system. Prescription medications, such as selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and psychedelics, like LSD, are still technically nootropic substances but may not necessarily be healthy for longevity and cognition in the long run. .
Moreover, controlled substances like antidepressants and psychedelics are not nearly as practical as natural nootropics that you can readily order over-the-counter.
You may be curious how exactly nootropics actually work to enhance cognition and mood. While it would be a disservice to try and summarize all of the mechanisms behind nootropics in this article, we will give some brief examples below.
This substance is a derivative of the dietary amino acid L-tryptophan (found in foods like turkey). Research shows that ingesting 5-HTP actually helps increase levels of the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin. Therefore, many people consume 5-HTP supplements to enhance their mood and promote calmness.
L-DOPA is a substance found abundantly in the plant Mucuna pruriens, and is a direct precursor to dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. Taking L-DOPA can help increase dopamine production in the brain and for this reason may assist in fighting addictive patterns (which thrive on feelings of reward).
Ultimately, nootropics/smart drugs are mind-modulating substances that work to:
- Optimize chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) balance in the central nervous system
- Enhance blood and oxygen flow to the brain
- Provide critical cognitive-enhancing nutrients that are rarely found in the diet
- Decrease oxidative stress and inflammation in neuronal tissue
Birdsall, T. C. (1998). 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Alternative medicine review: a journal of clinical therapeutic, 3(4), 271-280.