A Complete Overview of Nootropics & How They Function
Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers,” refers to any natural or synthetic substance that may improve cognitive functioning. Typically, nootropics are either herbs, dietary supplements, synthetic compounds, or prescription drugs.
These substances particularly improve memory, creativity, focus, and energy in healthy individuals. While there are many different types of nootropics, the best nootropics are natural nootropics—herbs and dietary supplements—for they generally achieve their desired function without causing harm to other parts of the body, making them also the safest nootropics that one can consume.
It’s important to know, that while these brain supplements may benefit cognitive functioning, they are not some limitless pill that will override what may be causing impaired cognitive functioning in the first place. A nutritious and well-balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a positive attitude are essential for proper mental and physical health. Nootropics offer an extra boost of energy and cognitive functioning to a healthy individual, but they cannot replace the fundamental needs of the body and mind.
So How Do Nootropics They Work?
To understand how nootropics work, we need to consider how the brain works. When comparing the human brain to other mammalian brains, the human brain stands out by having an overdeveloped cerebral cortex, representing over 80% of total brain mass, containing upwards of 100 billion neurons, each attached to a concentric neural network of cell-to-cell connections and interactions.
The unique size and complexity of the human brain enables us with a uniquely complex cognitive capacity – one that allows us to think abstractly and self-consciously. While science has made tremendous advancements in understanding how the brain works, much of its function is still a mystery.
Therefore, when asking how nootropics work, we should take this into consideration. While the brain-beneficial mechanisms of action for some nootropics are well-established, their ultimate cognitive effects may be more elusive. Research has demonstrated the beneficial effects of many nootropic substances for memory, focus, attention, etc., but even though they are shown to enhance cognitive functioning in scientific research, the researchers often do not know exactly how the nootropics were able to produce the results. As a result, researchers can only suggest possible mechanisms of action.
While there is still much to learn about the mechanisms of the brain, researchers have discovered many incredible ways that the brain functions, and how it is that nootropic supplements may improve cognitive functioning.
An intensely energy- demanding organ, the brain, consumes about 20% of the body's total energy reserves. The significant energy requirements of the brain are due to the fact that it is constantly maintaining and managing the health of neurons, ensuring that they are properly signaling, receiving, and processing information.
If the body is unable to provide enough energy to the brain, or if the brain's metabolic efficiency weakens, then symptoms of brain fog and mental fatigue may surface. Furthermore, low brain energy levels are consistently linked to various states of cognitive decline and brain degeneration.
Nootropics may support brain energy by enhancing metabolic activity of mitochondria, the powerhouses of brain cells (and other cells), helping to transport fatty acid material into brain cells, where they fuel mitochondria, and increasing cerebral uptake of oxygen and nutrients, supplying the brain with "fuel" for energy production.
Cerebral Blood Flow
A healthy circulation of blood increases the delivery of brain-nourishing compounds into the brain, and helps to remove brain-damaging neurotoxins out of neuronal tissue. This balance is key to cognitive longevity, due to the significant risk factor of age-related cognitive decline that comes with impaired circulation. Also, healthy, balanced cerebral circulation itself declines with age, making it an increasingly imperative neuronal concern as we grow older. In fact, a poor cerebrovascular function is linked with brain degeneration and age-related cognitive issues.
Nootropics may support cerebral circulation by promoting nitric oxide activation and relaxation of blood vessels, inhibiting homocysteine and oxidative damage on blood vessels, and making blood cells less likely to clump.
Synaptic transmission (communication between cells), occurs when one neuron transmits brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, to another neuron. Depending on the type of information that is being transmitted, the receiving neuron may respond in any number of ways – yet ultimately transmits that particular message further to other adjacent brain cells, until the desired cognitive outcome is achieved.
Relevant neurotransmitter types and their respective associations in relation to cognitive performance include:
- Acetylcholine (ACh) - Memory, learning, and basic "thinking" cognition.
- Dopamine (DA) - Mood and motivation, pleasure-reward pathway.
- Serotonin (5HT) - Relaxation and deep satisfaction.
- Norepinephrine (NE) – attention and intense focus.
- Epinephrine (EPI) - a.k.a. Adrenaline; intense energy.
- Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) - "Downer" sedation and calmness; inhibits excessive excitation.
An optimized neurotransmitter status is one that bears not only a healthy reserve of each neurotransmitter but healthy neurotransmitter receptors, in addition to a number of other auxiliary factors – e.g., intrasynaptic enzymes.
An imbalance at any step – neurotransmitter synthesis, release, or uptake – may cause an imbalance across-the-board, resulting in disrupted emotions and cognition.
Free radicals, unstable, oxidative compounds, are one of the key offenders in neurodegeneration, and are associated with a number of negative age-related conditions. However, aging and, consequently, age-related conditions can't be reduced to a single causative factor. Other brain health risk factors include improper nutrition, poor digestion absorption and assimilation of nutrients, parasites, neurotoxins, stress, inflammation, and more.
Neuroprotection refers to the relative preservation of neuronal structure and/or function. In the case of an ongoing insult (a neurodegenerative insult) the relative preservation of neuronal integrity implies a reduction in the rate of neuronal loss over time.
Nootropics may support neuroprotection by increasing the brain's antioxidant capacity, helping to fight formation of irregular protein clusters (amyloids), clearing brain tissue of neurotoxins, and protecting the brain against the negative effects of stress.
Many nootropic herbs and supplements have multiple benefits on the body that address a variety of the neurodegenerative health factors. For example, antioxidants help to eliminate free radicals and thus lessen inflammation. Clearing the brain tissue of neurotoxins, and protecting the brain against stress are other ways that a single nootropic may address several neurodegenerative factors.
As we age, we inevitably harm the brain in various ways—head injuries, harmful chemicals, stress, etc. Thankfully, the brain is capable of regenerating new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis.
The neurons of the brain are in a perpetual state of simultaneous death, birth, and repair. With proper energy and resources, the brain is able to maintain a balanced neurogenesis performance. A healthy brain ecosystem may even engage neuroplasticity, The brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. While rare in nature, certain nootropics may assist with neuroregeneration, and may be particularly useful in reversing age-related changes in the brain.
Nootropics may support neuroregeneration by boosting natural brain-boosting growth factors, such as NGF, providing raw neuronal building block materials, like choline, and maintaining brain cell membrane flexibility and plasticity.
Interestingly, nootropics may also have an effect on brain waves. Brain waves are the collective electrical activity of your brain – otherwise known as "neural oscillations" – that are measured by an EEG (electroencephalogram). Different brain waves are distinguished by their different frequencies, of which the lower frequencies entail tired and dreamy mental states whereas the higher frequencies link to quick and alert cognition.
From the high to low, the five primary brainwave frequencies and their associated states of consciousness are:
- Gamma (38-40 Hz) - The highest frequency, transcends consciousness.
- Beta (12-38 Hz) - The average, waking mental state for "fast" thinking.
- Alpha (8-12 Hz) - Mild, meditative state for free-flowing creativity.
- Theta (3-8 Hz) - Sleep-to-wake transitions and deep meditation.
- Delta (0.5-3 Hz) - Deep sleep and advanced levels of deep meditation.
How nootropics help with brain waves:
Nootropics – most notably L-Theanine – can raise certain brain waves. Alpha brain waves are often targeted for promoting alert-yet-relaxed mind states that can be beneficial for productivity, creativity or simply relaxing.
Nootropic Herbs & Supplements
Now that we’ve gone over the various ways that nootropics affect the brain, let us look at different types of nootropic supplements, what the best natural nootropics are, and what are the most effective nootropics. Below we’ve provided a recommended list of nootropics for focus, memory, energy, and cognitive functioning.
Our Zuma Nutrition team has developed a powerful nootropic supplement, created specifically to support focus and brain function. This effective supplement is formulated with a broad spectrum of brain enhancing herbal ingredients together creating a very unique herbal nootropic blend. The combination of these synergistic herbal ingredients help support and nourish your brain cells providing oxygenation and increased memory potential.
This formula helps the brain form new nerve connections, helps with memory and motor function by increasing acetylcholine level, dissolves cellular debris that builds up in your brain cells, increases oxygen levels and blood flow to the brain, and helps repair and prevent sun damage.
Our team of herbalists formulated this nootropic supplement and we are proud to say it is the best we have seen on the market, including a balanced combination of several nootropic herbs, blended in a way that each enhances the function of the other. This blend includes a variety of nootropic herbs, many of which will be discussed further in this articlne.
Gingko Biloba (Featured in our Brain Flow Formula)
Ginkgo biloba, or maidenhair, is a tree native to China that has been grown for thousands of years for a variety of uses. One of the primary herbs in our Brain Flow supplement, Ginkgo is associated with several health claims and uses, most of which focus on brain function and blood circulation.
Antioxidants combat or neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals, also helping to reduce inflammation in the body’s tissues. Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury or invasion by a foreign substance. In the inflammatory response, various components of the immune system are recruited to fight against the foreign invader or heal the injured area. Some chronic diseases trigger an inflammatory response even when there is no illness or injury present. Over time, this excessive inflammation can cause permanent damage to the body’s tissues and DNA.
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginkgo seeds were used to open “channels” of energy to different organ systems, including the kidneys, liver, brain and lungs. Ginkgo’s apparent ability to increase blood flow to various parts of the body is likely behind its claims of opening energy channels.
One study in people with heart disease who supplemented with ginkgo revealed an immediate increase in blood flow to multiple parts of the body. This was attributed to a 12% increase in levels of circulating nitric oxide, a compound responsible for dilating blood vessels.
Additional research also points to ginkgo’s protective effects on heart health, brain health and stroke prevention. There are multiple potential explanations for this, one of which may be the anti-inflammatory compounds present in the plant.
Gingko is such a powerful nootropic herb because it benefits the body in brain in a variety of ways—improving circulation, eliminating free-radicals and other toxins from the body, and reducing inflammation.
Gotu Kola (Featured in our Brain Flow Formula)
Gotu kola has been known traditionally as the “herb of longevity,” and is a staple in traditional Chinese, Indonesian, and Ayurvedic medicine. Practitioners claim the medicinal plant has the power to improve many of the body’s functions, including the ability to significantly boost brainpower.
A 2016 study compared the effects of gotu kola extract and folic acid in boosting cognitive function after a stroke. This study assessed the impact on three groups of participants — one taking 1,000 milligrams (mg) of gotu kola per day, one taking 750 mg of gotu kola per day, and one taking 3 mg of folic acid per day. Although gotu kola and folic acid were equally beneficial in improving overall cognition, gotu kola was more effective in improving memory domain.
The extract was also shown, in lab and animal studies, to have a modest effect on protecting brain cells from toxicity.
Lion’s mane is a mushroom with a large, white, shaggy appearance that resemble a lion’s mane. It is one of the most researched nootropics and has been the center of recent clinical research for its potential in naturally increasing neurotrophic NGF activity. Studies have found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain two special compounds that can stimulate the growth of brain cells: hericenones and erinacines.
Periwinkle (Ffeatured in our Brain Flow Fformula)
Periwinkle is a perennial herb with flowers that can bloom throughout the year, depending on the climate. These often are bred for their unique colors, ranging from white to green-yellow and lavender.
Periwinkle has long been used for improving brain health by increasing blood circulation in the brain, supporting brain metabolism, increasing mental productivity, preventing memory and concentration problems, and preventing early aging of brain cells.
Water Hyssop Leaf (featured in our Brain Flow Fformula)
Water Hyssop, also known as Bacopa, is a creeping succulent herb that produces small, scentless white flowers. It has been prized for thousands of years among practitioners of Ayurveda — the ancient Indian system of medicine — as a nootropic, supporting mental performance.
Bacopa is associated with learning, memory, concentration, and knowledge. Traditionally, people have used Bacopa to increase concentration and devotion to support a spiritual practice, and it is believed that ancient scholars utilized Bacopa as a nootropic to memorize extensive hymns and scriptures.
Bacopa offers antioxidant support to the brain and is thought to promote a healthy, thriving mind. Recent research suggests it may support both short- and long-term brain health for people in all stages of life.
A 2014 meta-analysis of nine studies, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology and enrolling 518 volunteers, found Bacopa had the potential to support cognition, especially attention, and processing speed.
Used traditionally for thousands of years as a brain tonic, and with plenty of research to back it, water hyssop is a powerful nootropic aid.
Ashwagandha (Featured in our Brain Flow Formula)
Ashwagandha is an ancient medicinal herb used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s classified as an adaptogen, meaning that it can help your body manage stress, and also provides numerous other benefits for your body and brain.
It is known to boost brain function, lower blood sugar and cortisol levels, and help fight symptoms of anxiety and depression, among other things.
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is released when your adrenal glands respond to stress, as well as when your blood sugar levels get too low. Unfortunately, in some cases, cortisol levels may become chronically elevated, which can lead to high blood sugar levels and increased fat storage in the abdomen. Studies have shown that ashwagandha may help reduce cortisol levels.
Test-tube and animal studies suggest that ashwagandha may mitigate memory and brain function problems caused by injury or disease. Research has shown that it also promotes antioxidant activity that protects nerve cells from harmful free radicals. In one study, rats with epilepsy that were treated with ashwagandha had nearly a complete reversal of spatial memory impairment. This was likely caused by a reduction in oxidative stress.
Traditionally, Ayurvedic medicine used Ashwagandha to boost memory, and several studies support this benefit. In one controlled study, healthy men who took 500 mg of standardized extract daily reported significant improvements in their reaction time and task performance, compared with men who received a placebo. Another 8-week study in 50 adults showed that taking 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily significantly improved general memory, task performance, and attention.
Chinese Ginseng Root (Featured in our Brain Flow Formula)
Ginseng offers remarkable benefits for the brain. Studies have shown that this all-healing herb enhances your mental health and protects the brain from various disorders. Ginseng is an effective natural memory enhancer, and also relieves mental stress and is used for the treatment of various psychiatric disorders. Research indicates that the herb has neuroprotective properties and helps in various neurodegenerative disorders.
One study followed 30 healthy people who consumed 200 mg of Panax ginseng daily for four weeks. At the end of the study, they showed improvement in mental health, social functioning and mood.
Another study examined how single doses of either 200 or 400 mg of Panax ginseng affected mental performance, mental fatigue and blood sugar levels in 30 healthy adults before and after a 10-minute mental test. The 200-mg dose, as opposed to the 400-mg dose, was more effective at improving mental performance and fatigue during the test.
Shizandra Berry (Featured in our Brain Flow Formula)
Schisandra chinensis, also known as Schizandra, or the five flavor fruit, is a fruit-bearing vine native to Asia. It’s purple-red berries are described as having five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and sour. The seeds of the Schisandra berry contain lingans, substances which may have beneficial effects on health.
Shizandra berry is a powerful medicinal herb used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It has been demonstrated to modulate multiple body systems and has an antiaging property. Over 200 compounds have been isolated and identified from Schizandra, of which Schizandra lignans have been widely used. In the central nervous system, Schizandra was found to improve learning and memory.
Skullcap Herb (Featured in our Brain Flow Fformula)
Skullcap (sometimes spelled scullcap) is the common name for Scutellaria, a genus of flowering plants in the mint family. The name is derived from the Latin word scutella, which means “little dish,” as the small flowers of these plants have a dish- or helmet-like shape. Various parts of skullcaps, such as their roots and leaves, have been used in traditional Chinese and Native American medicine to treat a variety of ailments, ranging from diarrhea to chronic pain.
Today, this plant is widely available in supplement form and purported to provide an array of health benefits, from boosting heart health to relieving anxiety.
One of its most notable herbal actions is that skullcap is a nervine, meaning that it supports the nervous system. American skullcap has been shown to boost mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety.
It’s thought that American skullcap positively impacts mood and reduced anxiety by stimulating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps calm nerves. Notably, this plant was used in traditional medicine practices as a sedative and treatment for conditions like insomnia and anxiety. In fact, many anti-anxiety medications work similarly by enhancing GABA activity.
L-Theanine is an amino acid derived from green tea, which exhibits strong antioxidant-like properties. Interestingly, L-Theanine can also raise certain brain waves, attributing to its nootropic effects.
Nutritional considerations for brain health
No nootropic herb or supplement can make up for a lack of proper nutrition. 70% of what the body needs to function, grow and repair has to come from outside sources—meaning it needs to come from what we ingest on a daily basis. The nutrients that are needed to feed the body include oxygen, water, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and enzymes—all of which are important for our physical and mental well-being.
While all of these nutrient categories are essential for optimal health and functioning, we’ll discuss a few key groups and nutrients and how they affect brain health.
Some B vitamins are produced in the bowel, but the conditions for that to happen require the intestinal microflora or friendly bacteria species that colonize the bowel to dominate over the unfriendly species. Unfortunately, because many Americans are living on processed dead foods, alcohol and diets lacking in any living enzymes, the balance of friendly to unfriendly is inverted, preventing the body from realizing any benefit from its ability to produce B vitamins. The importance of having sufficient quantities of B vitamins available to the body is vital to not only a broad spectrum of cell and metabolic reactions, but also to the body's ability to defend itself and almost every aspect of immune response.
Age-related deficiency in B vitamin levels often contributes to impaired cerebral circulation. Supplementing B vitamins – especially vitamins B6, B9, and B12 – may protect cerebral blood vessels against homocysteine damage, resulting in improved circulation and cognitive health.
Our Zuma Nutrition offers a B-complex formula that provides a balance of vital nutrients that our bodies do not store but have to constantly replace. We make it easy with our complex, replacing these nutrients that help fuel necessary chemistry within our bodies. This helps to improve cognitive function, enhance mood and immune function, and improves collagen synthesis.
Amino acids also play a critical role in terms of brain health, as they help to repair and preserve all of the tissues in the body—including brain tissue. To function adequately, the central nervous system (CNS) requires a number of amino acids found in protein foods. Amino acids such as tryptophan, tyrosine, histidine, and arginine are used by the brain for the synthesis of various neurotransmitters and neuromodulators.
Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. Proteins are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units called amino acids, which are attached to one another in long chains.
Protein assists in the fabrication of hormones, enzymes, and antibodies. Well-formed hormones are essential for a vast number of functions, primarily: muscle repair and preservation; nutrient extraction; shielding the body from bacterial and viral infection; and infusing tired muscles with more energy.
Next to water it is protein that comprises the largest part of the body's weight and substance. It is the nucleus of all cell structures, including those that build our bones, muscles, tendons, internal organs, nails, hair, glandular function, enzymes, etc. Almost every conceivable structure and function of the body requires these key building blocks known as amino acids. Amino acids are the body's fundamental biochemical structures for cell growth, hormones, enzymes and the immune system.
Due to many people in today’s society eating diets that cause inflammation in the gut, poorly combining foods, and consuming processed or devitalized foods, amino acid deficiency has become increasingly common. The body must be given ample time to digest and break down proteins otherwise the food putrifies and can poison the body. Our Zuma Nutrition team has created a special formula, our Complete Amino Acid Complex, that features the correct combination of amino acids in the correct form, so that your body can absorb them instantaneously, not requiring digestion.
Fat is one of the three primary nutrients used as energy sources by the body (the other two being carbohydrates and protein), and ensures that fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are delivered and utilized by the body. There are a group of fats known as polyunsaturated fats, which contain essential fatty acids (EFA); they are essential because the body cannot synthesize them on its own, and therefore must acquire them from external sources. Polyunsaturated Fats can be divided into two main categories, Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty aids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are important for a structural and regulatory role in our bodies. In addition to helping form cell membranes, they regulate gene expression and support cell function.
Typically it is beneficial to consume foods with a higher omega 3 to omega 6 ratio, which has positive effects on reducing inflammation. Consuming foods with high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio can increase inflammation levels in the body.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also prone to oxidation. When oxidized, they convert to trans fatty acids. You can avoid this by not cooking with PUFA oils (industrial seed oils). Oxidized pufas have a slew of side effects including inflammation, stiffening of arteries and reduced brain function.
Essential fatty acids make up our cell membranes, and are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain's integrity and ability to perform, as the human brain is composed of nearly 60 percent fat. Antioxidants protect the cells from oxidation (a chemical reaction that produces free radicals which damage the cells), but what actually builds the cell membrane, the outer shell or cell wall, is essential fatty acids (EFA). These fatty acids, which must come from outside sources, are the major constituent of all cellular membranes in the body.
Omega-3 fatty acids improve heart health, support mental health, reduce weight and waist size, decrease liver fat, support infant brain development, fight inflammation, prevent dementia, promote bone health, and prevent asthma.
Omega-6 fatty acids are important to support healthy brain and muscle functions but, on the downside, they promote inflammation in the body. Although omega-6 fats are essential, the modern Western diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids than necessary, as they are present in many of the foods that people consume (for example, most baked goods, packaged foods like cookies and crackers, chips, french fries, breads, and snacks). Corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed, grapeseed and sunflower oils are all high in omega 6’s and are not stable. This means any food that’s fried, baked, or microwaved using these oils will oxidize and create an inflammatory response in the body. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. However, the Western diet has a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1. Therefore, although omega-6 fats are essential in the right quantities, most people in the developed world should aim to reduce their omega-6 intake.
A nootropic is any natural or synthetic substance that may improve cognitive functioning. Typically, nootropics are either herbs, dietary supplements, synthetic compounds, or prescription drugs that are noted for their ability to improve memory, creativity, focus, and energy in healthy individuals.
Nootropics work in a variety of ways—supplying the brain with energy, improving the flow of circulation and nutrients to brain tissues, optimize neurotransmitters by supplying brain chemical precursors, eliminating free radicals from the body and offering neuroprotective and neurogenerative properties, and even influencing mental states by affecting brain wave patterns.
There are many safe and effective herbs that have been used as nootropics for centuries in traditional medicine, and many of them are also backed by modern research. However, while nootropic herbs and supplements may offer a boost of cognitive performance, they are not a substitute to proper nutrition and eating a healthy and balanced diet. Rather, they are an additional supplement that one can take for their specific ability to enhance brain function. When used alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle, nootropic herbs can offer many benefits to the body and brain, allowing you to experience life with greater energy, focus, and mental clarity.