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What Are Nootropics? Your Guide To The Best Brain-Boosting Nutrients 

Image by Alita Ong / Stocksy
April 1, 2019

Brain and neurological problems have reached the highest numbers in human history. Anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, depression, ADD, autism, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and multiple sclerosis are just some of the brain conditions affecting nearly everyone on planet Earth in some way. Why is this happening? What are we doing as a society that could have triggered such a massive epidemic—one that threatens the quality and quantity of countless lives?

My job as a functional medicine practitioner is to get to the root cause of health problems, especially brain and neurological issues like the ones mentioned above. And although multifaceted and complex, one exciting tool we use to improve and support optimal brain function is nootropics.

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What the heck are nootropics?

So what are nootropics? I'm glad you asked! They're fancy-sounding, but "nootropic" is just a term for a broad range of supplements, drugs, or other substances that may have the ability to enhance cognitive function.

Also referred to as smart drugs, the goal of nootropics is to improve memory and cognitive performance in otherwise healthy individuals—hence the nickname. They have also been praised for their neuroprotective benefits. In other words, they not only claim to boost brain power, but they also may protect your brain from deterioration over time.

Natural nootropics versus pharmaceutical nootropics.

Nootropics can be natural, synthetic, or prescription. In fact, the commonly prescribed Ritalin and Adderall are considered nootropics. There are also many synthetic options hitting the market now, but research surrounding their long-term effects is still developing. So while synthetic options like Modafinil, Adrafinil, and Piracetam can seem tempting for those struggling with severe brain fog or fatigue, in functional medicine we strive to uncover and treat the underlying cause and try natural solutions before synthetic ones.

Luckily, there is also a wide range of natural nootropics—many of which you might already be familiar with—that have been used in alternative medicine for years.

These natural smart drugs include herbs, like adaptogens, as well as compounds that are commonly found in healthy foods. The biggest difference between these natural nootropics and synthetic and prescription options is how quickly they take effect. So while medications and synthetic drugs offer a quicker reaction time, they also have more intense side effects and require a prescription.

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Nootropic ingredients, drinks, and supplements

If you're just looking to dip your toes into the world of nootropics and boost brain performance, including natural nootropics in your wellness routine is the way to go. These can be easily accessed, and you'd be surprised by how many you are probably already familiar with. 

1. Caffeine

Everyone's favorite, caffeine is the superstar nootropic. Found in coffee, green tea, and chocolate, chances are you've been using this for your morning boost for years. You can also find caffeine supplements if you aren't a fan of any of the usual vehicles. Caffeine helps you feel more alert and wakes you up by blocking1 your brain's adenosine receptors.

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2. L-Theanine

If caffeine alone just isn't cutting it, add in this amino acid to boost the benefits of both of these nootropics. L-theanine and caffeine are both naturally occurring in tea, especially green tea, making this beverage the better choice over coffee if you are wanting the boost of both, with studies showing the combination2 of these two resulted in faster reaction time and improved mental fatigue.

3. Creatine

This amino acid is used by your body to make protein and promote muscle growth, making it a popular supplement among athletes. It is also considered great fuel for your brain because it binds with phosphate in your brain to give energy3 to your brain's cells for increased short-term memory4.

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4. Gingko biloba

You can't expect me to get through a list of herbs without mentioning at least one adaptogen. The leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree have been shown to be a powerful brain booster. Not only has this been shown to improve memory5, but it can also alleviate stress by decreasing6 your stress hormone, cortisol.

5. Panax ginseng

This other superstar adaptogen works to improve memory by reducing oxidative stress to promote brain-protecting nitric oxide. Research has further shown this adaptogen's brain-boosting power with its ability to prevent7 age-related memory loss and improve long-term memory8.

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 6. Curcumin

You may have 99 problems, but curcumin has probably already solved 98 of them—and you can add improved cognitive performance to that list. This compound in turmeric has been shown9 to improve working memory with consistent long-term supplementation. Curcumin can also increase BDNF10, reduce oxidative stress11, and inhibit inflammatory cytokines12.

How to use nootropics.

The amazing thing about natural nootropics is that you can easily add them to your daily wellness routine. Most of these herbs and compounds can be found in supplement form from any natural food or vitamin store and even online. You can also find adaptogens and turmeric in powder form, which you can add to various smoothies, elixirs, or recipes.

While these natural smart drugs are considered generally safe, it's still important to remember that the research surrounding them as nootropics is limited and still developing. Since everyone is different, depending on your health case, you may be more sensitive to certain nootropics, such as L-theanine or caffeine. Some people, for example, have specific gene mutations that make metabolizing caffeine more difficult. My advice is to start slow, listen to your body, adjust accordingly, and always tell your doctor about your supplement use.

William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.

Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.

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