A Beginner’s Guide to Using Nootropics to Access Your Brain’s Potential
A year ago, if you asked me if I’d write a guide on nootropics, I would have given a definitive “no.”
Nootropics, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a fancy word for smart drugs or cognitive enhancers.
Smart drugs are prevalent in college environments where students try to increase their memory, attention, and motivation to study.
But there’s a lot more to the story. And if you’re interested in activating more of your potential (especially while you work), nootropics are worth a closer look.
Table of Contents
- What Are Nootropics?
- What Nootropics Are Not
- Who Uses Nootropics?
- Smart Drugs versus Natural Nootropic Supplements
- Do Natural Nootropics Supplements Work?
- What are Natural Nootropic Stacks?
- A Quick Word on Supplement Brands
- The Best Nootropics Supplements
- Best Nootropics Supplement #1: Lion’s Mane
- Best Nootropics Supplement #2: Bacopa Monnieri
- Best Nootropics Supplement #3: L-Theanine
- Best Nootropics Supplement #4: Rhodiola Rosea
- The Darkside of Biohacking
- How I Recommend You Approach Nootropics (If You Choose To Do So)
- Read Next
What Are Nootropics?
Belgian scientist Corneliu Giurgea coined the term nootropic in the 1970s. Noos, from the Greek meaning mind, and tropos, meaning turn.
Giurgea saw nootropics as drugs that:
- Enhance memory and learning abilities,
- Improve muscle control, and
- Protect the brain from physical or chemical injury.
In essence, a nootropic is a substance that improves mental functioning, like increased information processing, concentration, memory, or some combination of cognitive benefits.
The original intended use for nootropics was to treat cognitive illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease.
However, healthy individuals now use nootropic supplements and drugs to increase their focus and productivity.
As such, nootropics are commonly referred to as “smart drugs” and “cognitive enhancers.”
What Nootropics Are Not
Did you see the films Limitless (2011) starring Bradley Cooper or Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson (2014)? Both of these films center around nootropics and the remarkable potential they represent.
Over 20,000 people search for “limitless pill” each month on Google alone. Scientists are on the hunt too.
Nootropics, however, are not limitless pills or magic pills that will instantly give you access to universal knowledge or the ability to process it.
Who Uses Nootropics?
College students aren’t the only ones using nootropics supplements and drugs.
Top performers in every field are always looking for an edge:
- Chief executives
- Doctoral candidates
In business, high achievers of every variety are catching on to nootropics.
Entrepreneurs, and silicon valley executives, in particular, rely on nootropics to give them added brain power to make challenging decisions, capitalize on opportunities, and work longer hours.
And there’s an entire “biohacking community” that is continually experimenting with different nootropic supplements and drugs to improve their cognitive performance.
Biohacking is short for biological hacking. There are tangible ways to “hack” our biology (like a computer) to increase physical and mental performance. (I address this idea in more detail later in this guide.)
Smart Drugs versus Natural Nootropic Supplements
So here’s why I was averse to nootropics: they are called smart drugs.
And while I too was fascinated with the potential of the drug NZT-48 in the film Limitless, as illustrated in the movie, synthetic drugs have side effects and often harmful, long-term consequences.
So I didn’t explore nootropics more deeply for this reason.
Most popular smart drugs, like Modafinil, Racetams, Adrafinil, and Noopept, are synthetic substances. Some synthetic nootropics require a prescription; others do not.
But at the time, I failed to make the distinction between smart drugs (synthetic) and natural nootropics supplements (derived from substances found in nature).
There are many safe, natural nootropics supplements at our disposal.
That is, there are naturally-occurring substances that can improve brain function to help us increase intelligence, motivation, learning, mental energy, and memory.
Depending on how you define nootropics, substances like tea, coffee, caffeine, nicotine, and even Omega-3 fatty acids can qualify.
Do Natural Nootropics Supplements Work?
The quick answer is “yes.” But a more accurate answer is “it depends.”
Even in the drug class of nootropics, when you read customer reviews, you’ll find that some smart drugs work for some and not for others. And some people experience more of the side effects of these drugs than others too.
And some people experience more of the side effects of these drugs than others too.
Chemically speaking, all synthetic substances are derived from an ingredient found in nature. And there are substances in nature that can:
- Increase communication between neurons
- Help balance neurotransmitter levels
- Promote brain cell health
- Improve energy metabolism in neurons
- Support neuroplasticity
- Stimulate growth of new neurons and synapses
Any substance that accomplishes these features is a “cognitive enhancer.”
The trick is that we’re all a little bit different. As I said in the pineal gland detox guide, we’re each a random sample of one. So what works for some, may or may not work for you.
So what works for some, may or may not work for you.
That said, the best nootropics supplements do work. The key is to figure out what works for you. And the only way to accomplish this is through experimentation.
What are Natural Nootropic Stacks?
Before we dive into my short list of the best nootropics supplements, there’s one more concept we need to understand: stacking.
A nootropic stack is a combination of two or more nootropic supplements taken together or in a sequence to create specific cognitive benefits.
For example, you might take one nootropic supplement to improve your focus and another to enhance your memory. This supplementation technique is called stacking, and it allows you to augment the benefits of a single, natural nootropic.
This supplementation technique is called stacking, and it allows you to augment the benefits of a single, natural nootropic.
There are two ways to use stacking:
- Take preformulated nootropic stacks
- Create your own custom nootropic stack
I prefer creating my stack via experimentation. However, I can appreciate that some people prefer the convenience of taking a single, preformulated supplement stack.
A Quick Word on Supplement Brands
I’ve been taking a host of supplements for over two decades. I was also involved in the business side of two supplement companies. Through these experiences, I’ve become very skeptical of supplement brands and wary of the quality of their products.
There’s only a select number of brands that I’ll recommend or reference.
Just because a product, for example, is an “Amazon’s Choice” or bestseller, doesn’t mean it’s a quality product.
The #1 best-selling 5-HTP (a cognitive enhancer that increases serotonin production) on Amazon is a product by BioScience Nutrition. The product contains calcium carbonate, which is a known calcifying agent.
Unfortunately, calcium carbonate is in many supplements, so you need to read labels carefully.
The Best Nootropics Supplements
Okay, let’s dive in. Instead of presenting you with a long list of substances, I’ve selected what I believe are the four best nootropics supplements based on available research.
I haven’t found negative side effects from any of these supplements in the literature or in my experience. So I consider them safe.
Best Nootropics Supplement #1: Lion’s Mane
An ancient Chinese medicinal mushroom, Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) enhances cognitive function and protects nerve cells.
Ancient physicians used Lion’s Mane to treat neurodegenerative diseases because it can activate the growth of damaged nerves and restore brain function.
Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) is an essential protein for the proper functioning and survival of nerve cells. Lion’s Mane increases the amount of NGF in the brain, enhancing cognition by encouraging neural growth.
This 2009 double-blind study of Japanese men and women over 50 diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment saw improvement in cognitive function on Lion’s Mane. (But conditions worsened again after stopping the treatment.)
If you read The Talent Code, you know that as we perform a task repeated, the myelin sheath between related nerve cells gets thicker and stronger. This 2003 study found that Lion’s Mane stimulates nerve myelination.
Finally, this human study suggests that Lion’s Mane can help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms within four weeks.
A summary of the nootropics benefits of Lion’s Mane:
- Improves brain function
- Regenerates nerves and stimulates NGF
- Enhances memory
- Promotes remyelination
- Reduces depression and anxiety
Lion’s Mane is a powerhouse nootropic supplement, ideal for nootropic stacking.
How to Take Lion’s Mane
When it comes to medicinal mushrooms, look no further than Paul Stamets. Stamets is a leading expert on mushroom cultivation (mycologist). To glimpse his genius, watch his TED talk, 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.
Stamets is the co-founder of a company called Host Defense that offers a full line of mushroom-based supplements. They are USDA organic, non-GMO, and ecologically-friendly.
Recommendation: Host Defense Lion’s Mane
Starting Dosage: 2 Capsules per day (1 g)
(Cordyceps is another mushroom that research is showing to increase the secretion and expression of Nerve Growth Factor. And Host Defense offers a Cordyceps supplement too.)
Best Nootropics Supplement #2: Bacopa Monnieri
A perennial shrub native to the wetlands of Northern India, Bacopa Monnieri is used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve cognition, memory, and perception.
Bacopa is an adaptogen (it helps the body adapt to stress). This 2011 study found that Bacopa Monnieri increases levels of serotonin while decreasing levels of dopamine (which has positive implications for memory enhancement, stress reduction, and mood elevation).
This important 2011 study shows that Bacopa increases communication between neurons in rats, suggesting that this powerful substance can help improve learning ability.
A summary of the nootropics benefits of Bacopa Monnieri:
- Boosts memory
- Elevates attention and focus
- Increases serotonin levels
- Promotes communication between neurons (learning ability)
- Improves mood
- Supports brain health
- Reduces anxiety and stress
Bacopa is a workhorse for any nootropic supplement stack.
The memory-enhancing effects of Bacopa Monnieri often aren’t experienced until after four weeks of daily use.
Bacopa is used in many pre-formulated nootropics supplements, but usually with an insufficient amount. The suggested daily dose is 750 mg.
Recommendation: Himalaya Organic Bacopa/Brahmi
Starting Dosage: 1 capsule per day (750 mg)
Best Nootropics Supplement #3: L-Theanine
L-Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea leaves (especially those grown in the shade).
Studies show that L-Theanine reduces stress and promotes relaxation. It even slows down heart rate variability.
These 2008 studies show that L-Theanine increases alpha brain waves associated with mental alertness and arousal.
But perhaps the most intriguing properties of L-Theanine come into effect when you combine it with caffeine.
This double-blind study shows that combining L-Theanine with caffeine increases reaction time, memory, and endurance.
If you’re a coffee drinker, taking L-Theanine can mitigate many of the adverse effects of caffeine like jitteriness and increased blood pressure.
A summary of the nootropics benefits of L-Theanine:
- Promotes relaxation and stress reduction
- Increases reaction time
- Enhances mental alertness and concentration
- Improves learning ability
- Reduces negative effects of caffeine
L-Theanine is an excellent supplement for nootropic stacking.
Of the four natural nootropics supplements listed in this guide, you’ll probably notice the effects of L-Theanine the fastest.
Recommendation: Jarrow Formulas Theanine
Starting Dosage: 2 capsules per day (200 mg per day)
(Note: You’ll find a lot of products on the market with “Suntheanine,” claiming that it’s superior to L-Theanine. Even though patent owner Taiyo International claims the product is safe and nontoxic, I recommend avoiding it as it’s not a naturally-occurring substance derived from green tea.)
Best Nootropics Supplement #4: Rhodiola Rosea
While Bacopa and Lion’s Mane increase cognitive ability, Rhodiola Rosea primarily serves to preserve cognitive function. However, clinical research suggests it boosts cognitive ability too.
Rhodiola Rosea is a high-altitude herb native to the Arctic regions of Europe and Asia. Traditional Chinese, Scandinavian and Russian medicine use it as a remedy for fatigue and restoration.
Research continues to demonstrate how this adaptogenic herb can increase our mental performance and reduce the adverse effects of stress. (There are over 160 published studies on this herb.)
Rhodiola has proven to increase the brain’s capacity for mental work in the face of stress and fatigue.
In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, a group of 56 healthy physicians on night duty took Rhodiola daily for six weeks.
While the researchers were studying the effects of Rhodiola on stress-induced fatigue, they found that compared to the placebo group, the physicians who took this nootropic supplement outscored the control group on a range of cognitive aptitudes including short-term memory, concentration, calculations, and overall mental fatigue.
Finally, this double-blind study of students taking exams shows that Rhodiola increases well-being, reduces mental fatigue, and improves test-taking ability.
Students taking Rhodiola scored an average of 8.4% higher on exams than those in the placebo group.
A summary of the nootropics benefits of Rhodiola Rosea:
- Combats fatigue
- Reduces stress
- Restores energy
- Elevates mood
- Increases mental alertness
- Enhances cognition
- Alleviates depression
Rhodiola is a well-rounded nootropic supplement for stacking or individual use.
Take Rhodiola Rosea in the morning, preferably before eating.
Starting Dosage: 100 mg – 400 mg daily (100 mg for cognitive enhancement; 300+ mg to relieve stress and anxiety)
The Darkside of Biohacking
An entire “biohacking community” has formed over the last decade, as many achievers want to perform at the highest level they possibly can.
I don’t have a problem with biohacking itself. Many biohacking tactics make good sense.
I was doing a lot of biohacking before I heard the term. For example, wearing blue-blocking glasses is a biohacking tactic.
But, to borrow an idea from American philosopher Ken Wilber, there’s an essential difference between states of consciousness and stages of consciousness.
A higher state of consciousness is a momentary, time-dependent experience.
A higher stage of consciousness represents a new, permanent structure in your being.
Why is this distinction important?
Natural nootropics supplements can temporarily augment your cognitive ability, offering you a higher state of consciousness.
Although there may be exceptions, most of them don’t provide any structural changes.
As George Leonard put it in Mastery:
“Seduced by the siren of a consumerist, quick-fix society, we sometimes choose a course of action that brings only the illusion of accomplishment, the shadow of satisfaction.”
Simply put, nootropics might help us “achieve more,” but in and of themselves, they won’t encourage our development.
Nootropics won’t facilitate our self-mastery.
How I Recommend You Approach Nootropics (If You Choose To Do So)
But, I believe there’s a middle ground: use the best natural nootropic supplements to get your brain back online while you continue your personal development.
For example, let’s say you’re sitting down to write. You’ve got two hours set aside. You’ve eliminated all outside distraction. It’s just you and a blank screen.
Why not sit down with natural cognitive enhancers that support mental alertness and memory?
I would, however, still suggest using something like The Mastery Method to enter an ideal mental state before you create and work on your projects.
Each of us must find a middle ground. You can combine both:
- Short-term cognitive enhancements with nootropic supplements
- Long-term developmental practices
These two go well together.