What are Nootropics? How can you benefit from them?
Nootropics, also known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘brain boosters’ are natural and synthetic supplements that enhance cognitive function. They are known to boost memory, focus, creativity, intelligence and motivation. In this article we will outline the top 10 nootropics for cognitive focus and energy, as well as give you ideas on how to naturally experience a nootropic effect.
The word nootropic comes from the Greek root noos which means mind and trepein for toward. Nootropics enhance your mental energy, ability to focus and stimulate the mind. They can be derived from natural sources, for example caffeine from coffee has a nootropic effect, as well as L-Theanine found in green and black tea. This can be recognised in that calm focus experienced after having a cup of tea.
Synthetic nootropics have been specifically designed to enhance cognitive function and these include aniracetam, piracetam, levetiracetam and modafinil. A Telegraph article has shown that synthetic nootropics have become mainstream for millennials as 25% of UK university students have used modafinil during revision and exam periods.
From a ketogenic standpoint, one of the reasons cognitive focus and energy is so heightened in ketosis is because the ketones–which directly fuel the brain—from MCTs, fats and exogenous ketones have a nootropic effect. This is due to the anti-inflammatory properties of ketones and the fact that they are a more efficient fuel source for the brain, compared with glucose.
Do nootropics have side effects?
Some people experience allergic reactions to modafinil and others experience GI distress from MCT oil and exogenous ketones. However, the key is to start slowly on small doses and not to become dependent on the supplements. Ideally, our bodies should perform optimally without the need for supplements. If you can achieve cognitive energy and focus through fat coffee or following a high fat low carb diet, then you may never feel the need for exogenous nootropics.
Some nootropics are illegal – therefore they come with inherent risks.
Before trying Nootropics
Before adding anything new into your diet or supplement regime –it’s always best to clean up your diet first and eliminate anything that reduces your cognitive performance or causes inflammation.
When we are not performing optimally, the root causes can often be found in what we are putting into our bodies and environment. Similarly, if you put contaminated fuel into your car or diesel into a petrol engine, then you are guaranteed to have problems. Treat your body like a machine and feed it clean, energising food, purified water, pure oxygen and natural light that stimulates a healthy circadian rhythm. Do everything in your power to reduce stress and be physically active—exercise has a nootropic effect too.
Clean the slate
We might be a supplement company, but we believe true health comes from simulating a natural environment in an unnatural world. This means getting as close to nature as you possibly can and—by extension—eliminating all the crap in the modern world that depletes our health.
Crap in the modern world, for want of a more sophisticated term, includes: Processed sugar, trans fats and artificial sweeteners. These cause inflammation (in your body and brain) and negatively impact your gut bacteria. EMF, Bluetooth and a overexposure to evening blue light will also impinge on your health and circadian rhythm. So, clean these up and you may never need nootropics.
Once you start with a clean slate, maintain proper hydration, increase your electrolytes and minerals (salt water or Quinton), add in plenty of healthy fats and organic leafy green vegetables as well as meats from pastured animals. Learn more about healthy fats for a ketogenic diet here. Then, you can have a look at adding in MCTs or exogenous ketones for the nootropic effect.
You could also try adaptogens and natural nootropics from mushroom extracts sources, such as Lion’s Main, Cordyceps and Chaga. These strengthen your immunity, boost BDNF and enhance your energy as well as a myriad of other benefits. In this way, you can use these natural nootropic foods as medicine. Then, drinking mould free coffee has a positive nootropic effect without the jitters.
If you still feel like you want to delve into the world of natural, synthetic and pharmaceutical nootropics, start with very small doses.
Top 10 Nootropics for Cognitive Focus & Energy
- Lion’s Mane
- Bacopa Monnieri
Lion’s Mane is a powerful mushroom extract. It really is a nootropic superfood with a wide range of health benefits: from boosting your mood to offering neuroprotective properties. It has been used in Japanese and Chinese medicine for millennia and can reduce anxiety, increase energy levels and improve cognitive function. It is anti-inflammatory and also has anti-aging and anti-fatigue benefits.
What makes Lion’s Mane so unique is that it promotes BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), the protein that helps rewire neural connections which increases your neuroplasticity. Increased neuroplasticity enables you to learn new skills more quickly and to change old habits and thought patterns; it literally makes your brain more malleable.
Personal Note: Of the mushroom extracts, Lion’s Mane and Cordyceps are my favourites for boosting my concentration, mental energy and increasing energy levels whilst not experiencing negative side effects. These blend perfectly with fat coffee as the mushroom extracts add an earthy tone. Lion’s Mane is not recommended for anyone who experiences seizures.
L Theanine is a natural compound. It’s an amino acid often found in tea, and has been found to increase attention and improve memory.
When combined with caffeine, L theanine significantly increases cognitive performance, alertness and focus. L theanine combined with caffeine, or simply a cup of green tea is ideal for getting through some deep, undistracted work and study.
Personal Note: If i’m ever feeling stressed or anxious, L-theanine helps me to a achieve a focussed sense of calm.
Bacopa is another natural, plant based nootropic herb. It’s herbal application originates from ayurvedic philosophy and it can help repair damaged neurons and improve brain function. It is known to significantly advance cognitive performance and memory.
Bacopa Monnieri has even been used to decrease seizure frequency:
May improve epilepsy symptoms — In Ayurvedic medicine, bacopa has been used to reduce the frequency of epileptic episodes.
“In one study, the herb’s effect on the GABA receptors, which are responsible for maintaining and regulating neuronal excitation, was measured. An imbalance in these receptors causes the abnormal occurrence of seizures. The use of bacopa showed a decrease in GABA receptor activity, decreasing the frequency of seizures and epilepsy symptoms.”
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a vital compound found in every single cell in the body. As it is a type of coenzyme, it helps other enzymes work more effectively. CoQ10 enhances cellular energy production within your mitochondria. It helps shuttle electrons in the mitochondria to produce ATP – which are like the self-charging energy batteries in your body. Thus, CoQ10 is both physically and mentally energising–a brain and body booster.
CoQ10 can be found in pork, chicken, beef and fish and is also available in supplement form.
PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone) is another compound found in the mitochondria – the powerhouse of the body. It encourages the formation of new mitochondria and increases cellular energy production which translates to boosting mental and physical energy.
It is known to increase cognitive performance, energy, alertness and attention. It is anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cognitive injuries and decline.
Consider it the anti-aging compound for the brain!
PQQ is naturally produced endogenously (in the body). External (exogenous) forms of PQQ include: supplements, fermented soy, mushrooms, green tea and parsley.
Caffeine gets a bad rap, especially when abused or derived from mouldy coffee beans. In essence, caffeine is the original mainstream nootropic or psychoactive drug. It is renowned for boosting energy, increasing cortisol levels (what wakes you up), improving alertness and cognition, as well as stimulating digestion and metabolism. Caffeine can also improve strength, endurance and alertness.
Caffeine is known to catalyse and upregulate the effect of other supplements, such as exogenous ketones. It works very well when combined with adaptogens like Chaga and Cordyceps, and soothing herbs, such as Reishi as well as L-Theanine. This way, you get the boost from the coffee and calming focus from the Reishi or L-Theanine. Try Reishi with your next morning coffee and completely avoid the jitters!
Nicotine is another of the original natural nootropics, used all over the word for millennia. Nicotine is a psychoactive drug, from the same family as caffeine. If you care about optimising your health, we do not recommend that you smoke.
Nicotine can refine your motor skills, help you pay attention, improve your memory, speed up your reaction time and suppress your appetite.
However, nicotine has many downsides, even on its own, increases cancer. It can dull natural experiences and the ‘pleasure pathway’ since it increases dopamine and thus desensitises your dopamine receptors to natural pleasure. Finally, it is toxic in large doses and even in small doses, it is toxic to animals. We feel that the cons outweigh the pros.
The most common synthetic nootropics are modafinil, aniracetam and amphetamine.
Modafinil is a synthetic nootropic that is used for focus, motivation, clarity and memory. It is mentally stimulating and can fuel long periods of mental focus. That is why it is so popular with university students during exam periods. Modafinil also enhances dopamine release.
If you are already in ketosis, you’ll be so sharp that you may not even notice the nootropic effect of some of the synthetic nootropics.
Aniracetam is another synthetic nootropic that can enhance energy, focus, alertness and mood.
However, it can also leave you feeling a ‘zingy’ focus or a bit spaced out (in my case). On a personal note, I prefer my natural, ketone-fuelled focus and energy over the synthetic nootropics.
Aniracetam is not legal in Europe.
Amphetamine (Aderrall) is known to increase focus and has been subscribed to sufferers of ADHD. However, amphetamine has many side effects and so we would not recommend it if optimising your health is important to you.
Like consuming excessive coffee, amphetamine can make you feel jittery and anxious. Furthermore, research has shown that it causes stress and anxiety.
More Natural ways to achieve a nootropic effect.
We had to add this! We are big fans of using nature and our ancestral tendencies to optimise health. You really can optimise your health and cognitive function without spending a penny.
Exercise, especially weight training, HIIT and dance or martial arts are incredible ways of boosting your BDNF, detoxing the body (and brain) and have many anti-inflammatory benefits for the mind. In addition, you release many cellular regenerating hormones and serotonin while exercising. The focus and attention required for weight training, martial arts, dance and HIIT train your brain to focus more acutely for longer, especially if you notice a sense of ‘flow’ or being in the zone.
Focus and attention are skills that you can practice to train your mind. Meditation is another phenomenal way to train your brain.
Sleep hygiene & clean diets
Other natural ways to boost your cognitive performance include: getting enough sleep, following a ketogenic diet to get into ketosis, fresh air, keeping hydrated and replenishing your electrolytes. True health often means going back to basics, and supplements and herbs can give you that edge.
What do Nootropics have to do with the Ketogenic Diet?
One of the benefits of the ketogenic diet is the increased ability to maintain focus, sharp alertness and tremendous mental and physical energy.
Dave Asprey has described how the effects of Bulletproof Coffee (Mould free coffee with MCT and butter or ghee) and the Bulletproof Diet, which has similarities with the ketogenic diet, had a similar cognitive effect as taking modafinil:
“When I first started taking modafinil, I felt more like myself than I had in years. I took it just about every day in varying doses for 8 years (with a physician’s prescription). It gave me energy and changed my life. I would not be the biohacker I am today without modafinil.
When I worked on the Bulletproof Diet book, I wanted to verify that the effects I was getting from Bulletproof Coffee were not coming from modafinil, so I stopped using it and measured my cognitive performance while I was off of it. What I found was that on Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet, my mental performance was almost identical to my performance on modafinil. I still travel with modafinil, and I’ll take it on occasion, but while living a Bulletproof lifestyle, I rarely feel the need.”
Ketones: Are these natural nootropics the key to survival? Evolutionary necessity to sharpen the senses.
Why do ketones sharpen the brain? You can induce natural (nutritional) ketosis without fats by fasting. During our Palaeolithic area, once fasted for a few days, all of our senses are heightened – smell, sight, energy and alertness.
This is because we needed to be primed for hunting, especially after a few days without food when hunting prey took on critical importance—very much life or death!
Being able to oxidise our own fat stores into ketones as a clean burning fuel sharpened all of our senses as well as focus, attention, sight, smell and endurance so that we could track and hunt animals more effectively. With all of these cognitive capabilities heightened, ketosis definitely has a nootropic effect.
If we were simply glucose dependent, we would not be able to efficiently access the fat stores on our body to fuel our bodies and minds. With ketones present, we could perform, track and hunt more effectively. Thus, we have evolved to be in ketosis in times of scarcity.
Although we no longer need to fast or hunt our food, we can still benefit from our senses and concentration being heightened, as well as the increase in physical energy that comes with fat adaptation. You suddenly have a pure source of fuel for the body and brain. Thus, ketosis demonstrates evolutionary excellence.
Find out more about how to get into Ketosis here.
Check out our nootropic smoothie recipe in the vegetarian keto guide.
Disclaimer: We do not endorse synthetic or pharmaceutical nootropics and do not take any responsibility for anyone reading this post who then goes on to try synthetic, pharmaceutical nootropics and experiences negative side effects. We do not promote or sell pharmaceutical nootropics. We are not doctors and this is not medical advice.