A nootropic is a supplement that is taken in because it has some type of effect on the brain.   They are used to improve the alertness, focus, and cognition of the brain as well as providing the individual with a sense of well-being. 

Nootropics is from the Greek vocabulary and means “towards the mind”.  These are neurologically-active substances that directly or indirectly improve the potential of the brain to learn, cognitive ability and an individual’s well-being. 

There are two broad categories of nootropics, including racetam and cholinergic nootropics.  Each act on the brain in different ways.  There are literally dozens of nootropics, of which a few will be discussed in this article.   

  • Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA). This is a fatty acid found in the mitochondrial.  It is involved in cellular metabolized.  The body synthesizes alpha lipoic acid but you can also eat in foods containing meats and some vegetables.  It can be taken as a supplement, where it has been found to be beneficial against inflammation and oxidation.  This might also help people with neurological deficits, liver disease, heart disease, and diabetes.  ALA is a strong antioxidant that works with the body’s mitochondria to fight off oxygen free-radicals.  Some people use it as an anti-aging agent.
  • Licorice.  This has been used by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine because it is believed to have the ability to increase vitality and aid in digestive disorders.  While some people use it as candy, it is actually a functional food that has bioactive abilities on the body.  One of the most important aspects of licorice is called glycyrrhizin. It absorbs well by the GI tract and increases the body’s cortisol levels and decreases testosterone levels after eating it. It can be toxic in high doses. 
  • Creatine.  This is a substance that the body can produce on its own.  Its function is to store high-energy phosphate groups used in cellular energy processes.  It is most active when we are stressed, where it releases energy for the cells.  Besides the brain, it has positive effects on the liver, muscles, and bones.  You can take creatine as a supplement or eat it by consuming fish, eggs, and most types of meat.  It has the ability to protect both the brain and the heart and is frequently used by athletes to increase strength and lean body mass. 
  • Oleoylethanolamide (OEA). This is found in the body’s intestines and aids in the feeling of fullness after meals. Some people use it to burn fat although there is no scientific evidence that it burns fats in humans.  OEA binds to a receptor in the intestines called PPARa and has been shown to reduce the oral intake in non-human subjects.   It does, however, bind to the PPARa receptor in humans and increases the energy production in fatty tissue.
  • Berberine. This is a substance used as a supplement for its action against diabetes and inflammation.  It can also decrease the body’s cholesterol production and improve the health of the intestines.  By reducing the production of glucose in the liver, it decreases blood glucose levels.  It has been tested against metformin and has been found to be just as effective against diabetes.  It may also act synergistically with antidepressants and can help reduce the amount of fat in the body.  It can interact with other medications, which can be serious.
  • Gotu Kola. This is a supplement that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.  It is believed to enhance cognition but has also been found to be helpful in preventing venous insufficiency, enhance wound healing, decrease, anxiety, reduce rheumatic symptoms, and aid in skin regeneration.  It takes several weeks before it enhances cognition; it is believed to increase the growth of dendrites extending from the nerve cells of the brain.  By releasing Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor, it is believed to increase cognition.  It also releases molecules secreted by immune cells that decrease inflammation. It is also believed to enhance wound healing by increasing the synthesis of collagen. 
  • Celastrus paniculatus. This comes from a vine that bears fruit containing seeds that are used by practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine.  The seeds improve the health of the intestines and improve cognition.  The seeds can be pressed, releasing oil that is used in massage.  As a massage oil, it acts as a sedative and decreases inflammation in the skin.  Non-human studies show that it can decrease cholesterol levels.  After using it for at least two weeks, it can aid in cognition. 
  • Adrafinil. This is a synthetic nootropic.  It acts by increasing the concentration of modafinil in the body.  Supplementation of Adrafinil improves wakefulness and alertness by acting as a stimulant.  Rather than contributing to hyperactivity, it decreases the sensation of sleepiness.  It may also act as a memory aid. By increasing modafinil concentration, it aids in signaling histamine receptors.  If is recommended for short-term use because its use long-term has not been evaluated. 
  • Fish oil. This is what is commonly used to define the omega 3 fatty acids known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid.  These fatty acids are generally found in phytoplankton, certain animal products, and fatty fish.  The most commonly used omega 3 fatty acids are derived from fish as this is the cheapest source of the substance.  Fish oil has many benefits, particularly when paired with omega 6 fatty acids in equal quantities.  This ratio has been found to offset the omega 6 oils found in eggs and red meat.  By having the ratio be equal, lipid counts can be decreased and the blood vessels are healthier.  The addition of fish oil can also decrease the diabetic risk as well as the risk of breast cancer and other types of cancer. Fish oil can also be beneficial in those suffering from elevated triglyceride levels.  Caution should be taken in those with high cholesterol levels because it can raise the level of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
  • Aniracetam.   This is a substance that has both cholinergic and racematam properties.  It must be taken with fatty acids because it is only soluble in fat.   It decreases the activity of some excitatory receptors and desensitizes them.  This causes stimulation of the brain.  Some believe that Aniracetam helps in holistic thought and in improving puzzle-solving abilities.  It increases the blood flow to the brain and is being looked at as a substance fighting both Alzheimer’s dementia and depression. 
  • GABA. GABA is a strong depressive neurotransmitter in the brain.  It is vital for relaxation and is responsible for sedative and depressive activities in brain cells.  GABA is produced by the brain and is not often used as a depressive supplement.  Because it is highly regulated by the brain, it does not have a large effect on human physiology when ingested.  It is often acted upon by other compounds that increase endogenous levels of GABA in the brain, resulting in depressive effects.
  • Caffeine. Caffeine is naturally found in coffee beans but can also be produced in a laboratory.  It is found in pill form, energy drinks, and tea as well as coffee.  Caffeine is a strong stimulant that has the capacity to aid in physical endurance and strength.  It is called a nootropic agent because it stimulates the brain and sensitizes nerve cells.  The regular use of caffeine has the ability to reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s dementia, liver cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver. It acts by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain.  Adenosine is a compound that acts in the brain to cause relaxation and sedation.  Caffeine blocks this ability, resulting in wakefulness and alertness.  Those who regularly use caffeine can suffer from tolerance to the substance.    It takes a month off of caffeine to reduce the tolerance to the substance.