Nootropics. It sounds like such a scary, next-gen word, doesn’t it? And brain hacking sounds so “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Surely it doesn’t apply to you or anything you’re doing at all. Or does it? Maybe the future is here, and you’ve already taken your first steps into it.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics are supplements you can take to improve brain function in many ways. While they are often natural substances or derived from natural substances, sometimes they are purely chemical. Nootropics are neurochemical compounds that enhance chemical levels that already exist in your brain. Among other things, they are vasodilators, meaning they increase blood flow to the brain.
Using nootropics is a branch of biohacking. Biohacking is the activity of using supplements, food, exercise, wearables, and more to track and manipulate the behavior of your body and mind in order to increase performance and quality of life.
Are Nootropics Safe?
Most nootropics are, indeed, generally recognized as safe. In order to be called a safe nootropic, supplements should:
- Be non-toxic
- Have few or no side effects
- Protect the brain from damage, both physical and chemical
- Enhance your cognitive abilities and protect them from being hijacked by certain illnesses
- Enhance your learning, concentration, and memory
Why Take Nootropics?
If you want to improve brain function, nootropics are a safe way to get there. Many people from all walks of life take nootropics to improve memory, concentration, mood, sleep, emotional stability, appetite, and satiety. They take nootropics to improve levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. The bonus is that while they take nootropics for all these mental processes, they also see a benefit to physical processes as well.
Entry-Level Nootropics You May Already Be Taking
Unless you live under a rock (no shade to rock dwellers), it’s a safe bet that you already use at least one nootropic in your daily life. Don’t think so? Caffeine. Yep, you read it right.
Caffeine is what I call one of the entry-level nootropics. You probably get caffeine from your morning coffee and can’t imagine life without it. Or maybe you’re a tea drinker. Unless you’re drinking herbal teas, you’re getting your dose of caffeine. And that’s not even including sodas. Energy drinks of all kinds are a staple of life nowadays.
Why are so many of us reliant on caffeine? We drink it because it wakes up in the morning, helps us concentrate, clears the morning fog, gives us more pep, temporarily speeds up our metabolism, and so on. So, you’ve already been steadily using a nootropic and it has benefited you in many ways.
More nootropics that I call entry-level are:
- Rhodiola Rosea
- CBD (Cannabidiol)
- Coconut and MCT Oils
Of course, there are many others, but I call these entry-level because they are mainstream enough to feel non-threatening and many of us are already using at least some of them. If we’re not already using them ourselves, it’s likely we know someone who is.
Many nootropics are adaptogens. An adaptogen is a substance that helps the body deal with stress and has a normalizing effect on the processes of the body. The easiest way to remember what it means is to think of an adaptogen as helping the body to adapt to stress.
Rhodiola is an adaptogen praised for contributing positively to heart health, depression, emotional stability, anxiety, fatigue, chronic stress, exhaustion, and attention. It may help the body adapt to stress thereby reducing the incidence of burnout.
Rodent research suggests it may lower blood sugar by increasing the number of glucose transporters in the blood, but this has not been tested on humans. Rhodiola may decrease your perception of exertion, allowing you to work out harder for longer.
To make sure you get a quality supplement, look for third-party certifications like USP or NSF on the label.
Personal Experience: No, not yet, but I plan to give it a try.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that has many attractive benefits. It may decrease blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation as well as cholesterol and triglycerides. Ashwagandha may increase brain function, including memory, and help in the fight against anxiety and depression.
It has been shown to increase muscle mass and strength while reducing body fat. In men, it showed promise in raising testosterone levels, sperm quality, and fertility.
People with autoimmune diseases should not take Ashwagandha. Those on medication for thyroid, blood sugar, or blood pressure should talk with their doctor before taking this supplement to make sure they are safe doing so.
Personal Experience: Yes! I take ashwagandha on a daily basis to manage depression, anxiety, and occasional chronic pain-related crying jags.
You will see this tea-derived amino acid as an ingredient in some ZMA (zinc magnesium aspartate) preparations to further facilitate sleep and recovery. When not used in this way, theanine is often combined with caffeine to enhance concentration and mental performance.
Theanine is known to help the brain transmit nerve impulses. It is often used to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as for helping people with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
Theanine has been found to reduce blood pressure, so if you are on any kind of blood pressure medication, it’s important to talk with your physician before taking a theanine supplement.
There have been a few reports of dizziness in those who are susceptible to such issues. While this appears to have affected a relatively small number of people, it’s still worth a mention. If you have experienced dizziness or vertigo from sleeping preparations or have inner ear issues, you may want to give theanine a pass or at least start out on the very lowest effective dose possible.
Personal Experience: Yes. As a person with inner ear deafness, I am among those that get dizzy. I don’t experience dizziness when it’s part of a ZMA supplement, probably because the amount is very low. When taking theanine on its own (my bottle is 200mg), I do experience dizziness/vertigo. I’ve also noticed that dizziness is more likely to occur if I take it near bedtime rather than earlier in the day. Use with caution if dizziness or vertigo has ever been part of your life.
5-HTP is an amino acid that your body naturally makes already. Your body uses this amino acid to produce serotonin. Low serotonin levels are associated with anxiety, depression, sleep problems, weight gain, and even more, so being able to produce more serotonin may relieve a lot of issues. Serotonin can convert to melatonin, which is a hormone we need for sleep.
Additionally, 5-HTP may increase feelings of fullness and counteract hunger-inducing hormones thereby suppressing appetite, which could support efforts for a healthy weight. Since researchers suspect that migraines are caused by low serotonin levels, 5-HTP may reduce migraine frequency by increasing serotonin levels.
There can be side effects to using this supplement, particularly at higher dosages. If you are taking prescription sleep medications or medications that affect serotonin levels, it’s important that you don’t use this supplement without talking with your doctor first.
Personal Experience: No. I haven’t been motivated to try this supplement.
CBD is the acronym for cannabidiol, which is a constituent of industrial hemp processing. CBD from hemp plants is considered THC-free since the amounts of THC are so negligible that it meets the requirement for that designation. THC-free CBD will not get you high.
That said, CBD may also come from cannabis plants. Some cannabis plants are bred to be THC-free like hemp. However, there are plenty of cannabis-derived CBD products that do contain THC, and those will have their amounts listed on the bottle. Both kinds of CBD are good and are each useful for specific needs and conditions.
CBD is growing in popularity for its ability to reduce anxiety and depression, increase appetite, aid sleep, reduce pain (especially chronic pain), regulate mood, and much more.
Caution: It’s important not to confuse hemp oil with hemp-derived CBD. Hemp oil does not contain CBD. If it does not say CBD on the bottle and state the strength and dosage, it is not CBD Those selling hemp oil are taking advantage of the burgeoning CBD industry and capitalizing on the naivete of those new to CBD.
Personal Experience: Yes, but still haven’t tried every form of CBD delivery. I’m working on it, though! I currently use a CBD topical rub when my hip pain is extra bad. I’m always amazed that a topical can relieve bone pain. I’ll always have some in the house.
With legalization happening in many states, marijuana is growing in popularity and mainstream acceptance. More and more doctors are beginning to realize the pain relief, nausea reduction, appetite enhancement, and mental calm that marijuana is known by laymen to provide. There are many more benefits attributable to marijuana, but these are some of the primary drivers for its use in our culture right now.
Prescription medications can cause problems of their own in addition to growing increasingly expensive. The skyrocketing costs of many prescription medications is a national crisis. Additionally, people with chronic pain are looking for effective, less costly alternatives to habit-forming prescription opioids.
Personal Experience: Yes. I use marijuana on a nightly basis, so I can get to sleep through chronic hip pain. Aside from CBD, it’s the only thing that helps. I only take it at bedtime, so it lasts me a long time. I don’t ever take it during the day since my need for productivity is great.
Coconut and MCT Oils
Coconut and MCT oils are related. To simplify, MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides) are a more concentrated form of the active ingredients in coconut oil. Both are great. MCT oil is used by keto dieters and others for helping the body get into ketosis. MCT Oil bypasses your normal digestion and goes directly to your liver where it is turned into ketones. Many keto dieters use MCT oil in their bulletproof coffee.
Coconut and MCT oils have a well-deserved reputation for increasing energy, alertness, and attention while reducing mental fatigue and stress.
Personal Experience: Yes. I consume coconut oil daily. I will be beginning MCT oil soon.
As you can see, you may already be taking nootropics without realizing it and reaping the benefits. Now the topic is not foreign to you, and you may be interested to learn more on your own. If you have had good success so far, why not try another entry-level nootropic?