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What Are Nootropics? How You Benefit Using Brain Supplements

Written by
August 13, 2014
Updated May 15, 2020

The nootropics are a class of  “smart” drugs and supplements that enhance brain performance, and in an increasingly competitive and fast paced, sensory seeking culture, they’re quickly gaining wide popularity. The term nootropic translates to “turning the mind,” and in this sense we’re turning the mind toward improved performance by helping you remember names and places, focus on complex tasks, think more clearly under stress and react more quickly.

In the recent movie “Limitless,” Bradley Cooper’s character is shown rather quickly turning from a cognitively average drug addict into a relative genius and rising politician… all from a little pill that lights his neurochemistry up like Christmas Vacation.

While the movie gives a potential perspective on what’s possible through the massive, growing field of psychopharmacology, a personal vignette is in order.

I was diagnosed with narcolepsy in medical school. That’s where one falls asleep abruptly in inappropriate and potentially dangerous situations, and is neurologically verified by clinical data in an EEG directed sleep lab. Yep, it was official and I was given a cousin of Ritalin called Cylert.

Totally worked and I was hooked. For about four years I was tied to it daily, and it only came after another wake up that I decided to take a different approach.

How I Found Nootropics

The wake up came while in my psychiatric residency in the form of my last major concussion. Up to that point I had four major head traumas, one of which included me landing on my crown while diving and breaking my neck. This latest one happened when I got turned upside down on my snowboard in a terrain park and put a 6 inch crack in the back of my helmet.

Even with the Cylert on board my focus, concentration, and memory were shot, and it gradually dawned on me… am I going to be taking this medication for life, even if it’s not doing the trick? Now, this was all in the setting of watching three out of four of my grandparents die with neurodegenerative conditions. If you’ve ever seen a person with brain issues… it gets your attention. The natural question then arose… Holy crap, is that going to be me?

Thus started my flurry into reparative neurobiology, regenerative medicine and advanced cognitive performance strategies. So, is it really possible to dramatically change the brain for the better, and if so, how does it work and how can I do it? What is the protocol and what are the downsides, if any?

This article is essentially geared to answer these questions, although to be clear, a full discourse in answering the question of how to turn your brain into a racecar engine and drive it as such is another volume of blog posts and multi opinionated examination… we venture forth.

Can Nootropics Really Enhance your Brain

The brief answer is yes, the brain can be driven like a race car in the hands of an Andretti. In fact, it can be driven like a fighter jet on greased lightning!

We’re only scratching the surface of our cognitive potential as there are massively exciting technologies that we’re not even covering here (for example, advanced neuro-feedback, holodynamic cognitive enhancement through sound and light therapies, targeted amino acid therapy specifically tailored to a person’s individual neurochemistry, and accelerated avenues for clearing out the interference in the neural networks). But for now, we’ll settle for the nutrients and practices readily available to the average person.

The ones I’ve included here are all of the ones I’m directly familiar with, both professionally and personally, and by no means is this an exhaustive list. The list provided here can be thought of as a cliff notes version of sorts from clinical research and available experience.

As many of you know from my previous writings, I put myself in the lab in order to understand from a first person perspective the effect, because it’s only then that I can really speak from a place of truth, otherwise I’m just passing on someone else’s perspective.

I also happen to run one of the most effective ortho-molecularly based psychiatric rehabilitation centers in the country, Alternative to Meds in Sedona, Arizona. People of all ages come to detoxify their nervous systems from offending agents (drugs, medications, underlying infections, etc.) and get their Ferrari brains back online. So, I do have a bit of experience from multiple angles.

6 Classes of Nootropics

What Are Nootropics? How You Benefit Using Brain Supplements

Nootropics Class #1: Medications

Some pharmaceuticals fall into this arena. Some clinicians in the country even advocate wide and liberal use for the masses in order to boost productivity further.

The downside is the variable frequency of side-effects, especially with the stimulants (think of Ritalin as neurochemically similar to cocaine and Adderall as similar to crystal meth), which for children can be especially significant, including the long term effects on psychological development.

Another class of meds are the eugeroics, which enhance wakefulness. They’re typically used for people with narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness. One such med is Provigil (or Modafinil) that has been getting wider use.

Notably, our culture is ripe with stimulants used daily throughout the workforce, namely nicotine and caffeine. They’re used because they work! The clinical trials show improved alertness, memory and reaction time. The downside is the acidity, adrenal burnout, and in the case of cigarettes the little C problem.

An upgrade that many are switching over to is the theobromine in dark chocolate. Not only does it just make you feel super good, it’s a potent anti-oxidant profile and mineral booster.

Nootropics Class #2: Neuro-Protective Agents

Common supplements used as “brain food” that protect the brain and help it repair; for example, think of healing from a closed head injury, toxic exposures, central nervous system infections, etc.

These include broad spectrum B vitamins, as well as vitamins C, D, and E as well as Omega 3 fatty acids and alpha lipoic acid.

A few notables here for powering up neurogenesis and stimulating neuronal growth: Lion’s Mane Mushroom, SAM-e, phosphatidylserine, inositol, glutathione (massive benefit here), and cannabidiol.

Nootropics Class #3: Blood Flow Boosters

What Are Nootropics? How You Benefit Using Brain Supplements

It just plain helps to get more blood circulating in order to think better. First steps are to get hydrated, which most people aren’t, and remineralize. Then for an added support try CoQ 10.

Nootropics Class #4: Specific Neurotransmitter Targets

Dopamine Boosters: Build the “feel good and reward seeking” neurotransmitter in the brain. These are tyrosine, phenylalanine, and macuna puriens.

Serotonin Support: Build the “mood lifting” pathways via tryptophan and 5-HTP.

Acetyl Choline Strengthening: Boosting the memory enhancing neurotransmitter system. This is with alpha GPC, huperzine, sage, and rosemary.

Nootropics Class #5: Targeted Herbs & Foods

Targeted herbs and foods have been used classically for hundreds of years to get the brain juices flowing again, as well as to modulate certain psychological conditions.

Some people like to engage the plant kingdom directly as it can be seen as being closer to nature. If so, here’s your list, just note that in some cases you may need to take a truck load of a given food or herb to get the distilled benefits in one supplement capsule.

Theanine (green tea), resveratrol (blueberries and red grapes), curcumin (turmeric), and the whole class of cruciferous vegetables; all potent anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory (unless one has an allergy), and performance enhancers.

Nootropics Class #6: Adaptogens

May be the most appreciated and fastest rising class of herbs in use today. They literally help the body adapt to stress, and given the pace we live in our day and age, who couldn’t use their support?

They are generally considered tonifying herbs as well, i.e. those you are encouraged to use daily for strength and vitality. The ones I have chosen to list here are those that are specifically brain and nervous system supportive as well as being restorative to the adrenal glands.

The ones here are a bit more yang and stimulating. Rhodiola, Ginseng (all of them), Ginkgo biloba, Tulsi (Holy Basil), and He Shou Wu. These are a bit more yin and calming. Lemon Balm, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, Valerian Root, Oat Straw.

A Final Word on Nootropics

Wrapping it up, there’s a lot to take into consideration. While it’s fun and exciting to drive a Ferrari to its limit, it’s also a good idea to know how to slow down and stop when desired. And in the case of brain function, that means finding the resting and recovery period of the para- sympathetic system and nightly reparative sleep.

The downside to high octane brain performance is running a bit hot through overstimulation, symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, teeth grinding, perpetuating the “more, more, more” attitude of the rat race and eventually blowing a fuse.

In order to do it all right takes time, thoughtfulness, experimentation, and ideally support from someone knowledgeable in the field. It’s a craft, an alchemy of sorts; and when in doubt, find someone to point you in the right direction before just throwing a bunch of stuff at your fairly delicate brain matter and psychological makeup.

Dr. Dan Engle, MD is a board certified psychiatrist and the Medical Director at Rejuvenation and Performance Institute in Sedona, AZ. He skillfully combines natural medicine with integrative psychiatry to enhance the foundations of energetic health, peak performance training, and practical spirituality. Before completing his medical degree he was a collegiate soccer player for St. Edwards university, and has continued pushing the boundaries of both physical and mental capacity throughout his life. His personal travels have also led him to Peru where he has studied extensively with the indigenous medicine elders in the traditional healing methods of the Amazon River Basin.
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