Let’s help your brain help you

We’ve all been there. We do absentminded things like leave a laptop at the security checkpoint. Or we can’t focus on the one dang work task we need to get done. What if these brain battles could be fought with supplements and compounds?

The official name for these enhancers is nootropics. Although the term isn’t as mainstream as words like anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, these brain enhancers may help overtaxed noggins. In fact, some of these “smart drugs” have been studied since the 1970s, and there’s a little bit of evidence that they might make your brain feel less soupy.

So are you having the occasional bad day, battling brain fog brought on by chronic illness, or navigating learning disabilities or mental health issues? Nootropics may be worth diving into.

Nootropics are a wide range of supplements and compounds that work to boost your mental function or moods. One nootropic might reportedly juice creativity, while another might give you a mega motivational kick in the booty. Yet another might tell your anxiety it’s time to go into hibernation.

“I wish people, especially those with chronic illnesses, knew about nootropics!” says Maija Haavisto, 33. Haavisto, an author who lives in Amsterdam, says she developed chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) at age 16. A few years later, she had trouble writing, reading, and remembering things — a brain fog associated with some chronic illnesses.

Through her own research in her 20s, Haavisto discovered nootropics. “Many with myalgic encephalomyelitis (another name for CFS) or autoimmune diseases suffer from cognitive problems with no idea that it could be relieved, and their doctors are similarly clueless.”

While some believe that nootropics are just for programmers, engineers, or workers focused on productivity, they have so much more potential. In fact, you’ve probably already heard of some nootropics, especially if you have a chronic illness. St. John’s wort, magnesium, and omega-3 are just a few of them.

Chances are you’re already a nootropics user and you don’t even know it.

The mechanisms behind each nootropic is different, and research is still in the works for many of them. One of the most popular forms is in your morning cup of joe: caffeine.

We like caffeine for the way it wakes us up and makes us feel mentally alert and focused, but we rarely think about the science behind it. Caffeine has this stimulating effect because it inhibits certain receptors that slow down brain activity. As an added bonus, a recent study shows that regular caffeine consumption could also have long-term effects, like decreasing your risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Piracetam, the first compound to be labeled a nootropic, has been shown to help improve cognitive function in children with learning disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD. Another supplement called pyritinol, which is semi-synthetic, is two vitamin B-6 molecules attached to each other. It’s been associated with improved memory and reaction time.

Haavisto’s first foray into nootropics was with ginkgo biloba, a common supplement found in many health food stores. She says it helped her, but she didn’t like taking it three times a day. “If I missed one dose, already my cognitive abilities would plummet.” So she asked her doctor to prescribe two nootropics: first piracetam and then nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker. Whether you need a prescription for these depends on which country you live in and your nootropic of choice.

Both drugs have personally helped Haavisto. “Before starting it, even the smallest cognitive exertion would fry my brain,” she says of the piracetam. The benefits from the nimodipine were immediate, as well. “Already from the first pill, I felt the fog lift and could also write better.” In her experience, she noted less issues with forgetting words and brain fatigue.

Science-backed nootropics

  • caffeine
  • piracetam
  • pyritinol
  • ginkgo biloba
  • nimodipine
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Always talk to your doctor before trying any supplements as they may interact with medications you’re taking. These supplements and herbs are meant as complementary enhancers and aren’t intended to replace any treatment you may be on. Supplements aren’t monitored for purity, strength, or quality by the FDA and you must choose your brand with caution.

1. Set a goal

Your first order of business as a potential nootropics user is to decide on what you want to achieve. Are you looking to improve your motivation to finish your thesis? Reduce an uptick in anxiety while weaning off a prescription med? Clear chronic brain fog? Alleviate insomnia? Not all nootropics are the same, so figuring out your desired outcome will help narrow which nootropics might work for you.

2. Take a look at your lifestyle

See if you can achieve your goal with some healthy changes first. For example, studies show exercising can improve mood, motivation, and focus. If developing better sleep habits could be all it takes to secure those sought-after Zzz’s, you may not need nootropics. However, these first lines of defense may not be possible or enough if you have a chronic illness.

3. Do your research

As with any drug or supplement, nootropics do have side effects, interactions, and contraindications. Before trying a nootropic, read up! Always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements and choose your nootropic based on research. Human studies provide more reliable conclusions than animal studies.

One place to read about nootropics is the community on Reddit, where experienced users like Haavisto bring a science-backed approach to every suggestion they try. “The Reddit forum has been useful,” Haavisto says, “and in general it’s nice to discuss the subject, which isn’t talked about much elsewhere.” Along with user experiences and lists of nootropics and their reported benefits, you’ll find plenty of links to published research studies. It’s essentially a review forum.

Of course, a subreddit isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice or care. Consult your physician before starting any supplements, as herbs and vitamins may interact with medications you’re taking.

4. Start out slow

Some experienced nootropic users engage in stacking — taking multiple nootropics or compounds to achieve a goal. One of the most common stacks is combining caffeine with L-theanine to boost focus. This is likely a safe stack for most people, but in general, you should try a nootropic that you’ve researched and spoken to a doctor about first.

Here’s a list of the most common nootropics with their reported uses:

NootropicsReported use
ashwagandhareduces stress and anxiety
bacopa monnierienhances memory
caffeine increases alertness and focus
creatineenhances cognitive performance
curcuminprevents or delays age-related cognitive decline or mood disorders
ginkgo bilobaenhances memory and reduces anxiety
kavareduces anxiety
l-theaninereduces the negative effects of caffeine while enhancing attention
magnesiumreduces anxiety and insomnia
modafinilenhances attention
nimodipineenhances cognitive function
piracetamenhances memory and learning
St. John’s wortreduces depression
tyrosineenhances creativity

See how you react to a low dose of your nootropic before increasing to the full recommended dose on the label or adding another nootropic to the mix. In short: be smart about sharpening your brain!

Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her MS in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.