What The Heck Are Nootropics, And Could They Unlock Cognitive Function, Clarity, And Motivation?
Image: Fast CoExist
If you’re at all interested in the cutting edge of nutrition and supplementation, you’ve probably heard the word nootropics thrown around once or twice.
Or maybe you’ve seen Limitless with Bradley Cooper, did some googling and found nootropics mentioned in a NY Mag article.
First let’s break it down: the word noos means mind or thought; the word tropos means to turn towards — “turn towards the mind.” Broadly, the term nootropics refers to a wide range of artificial and natural compounds which are thought to enhance cognitive function.
Let’s be clear, though, nootropics are much less powerful than what’s depicted in the movie. They may give you an edge but they won’t completely change your life.
And they are not just some obscure, futuristic wonderdrug; in fact, the world’s most popular nootropic is caffeine.
Why Should I Care About Nootropics?
Because to get in great shape, to get the most out of your workouts; you have to get your mind right.
You may have heard the old cliché, “training is 90% mental”. Well, every cliché holds a powerful truth. Even a workout that might seem, at first glance, to be as simple as running is more dependent on the capability of your mind then you can imagine:
“You have to want it, you have to plan for it, you have to fit it into a busy day, you have to be mentally tough, you have to use others to help you. The hard part isn’t getting your body in shape. The hard part is getting your mind in shape.” — Amby Burfoot, American marathoner
Or what about lifting?
“Research shows that when you think about a muscle, greater muscular activity occurs there. One study looked at how much muscles worked in three conditions: (1) thinking exclusively about the muscles that were working, (2) thinking about the weight that was being lifted, and (3) thinking about whatever the participants wanted. Results showed that there was significantly greater muscle activity in the first condition. And more muscle activity during weight training corresponds to the muscles getting stronger.” — Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist, physical therapist
And that’s why you should care, because there might be a way to supercharge the most important muscle for your workout — your brain. Depending on the nootropic you use, the benefits can vary (as can the risks), but here’s a list of some of the common ones:
- Improved working memory (directly correlated to Reaction Time)
- Attention and long term memory
- Mood enhancement
- Non-jittery energy
- Mental focus
- Drive and motivation
What Types of Nootropics Are There?
The simplest way to try out nootropics, today, is with a combination of caffeine and l-theanine (an amino-acid found in green tea); in a dose of 50 and 100mg, respectively. It’s extremely safe and has been shown to augment the properties of caffeine while mitigating the negative aspects — promoting a gentle, sustained state of attention.
The nootropic associated with Limitless is Modafinil. It’s a wakefulness enhancing drug that was created for the treatment of daytime sleep related disorders such as narcolepsy. Although it seems to have some benefit for cognition, I would definitely NOT recommend it. It’s a Schedule IV controlled substance in the US and is associated with way too many side effects, including rashes, increased blood pressure, anxiety, addiction and messed up sleep.
I prefer herb and plant derived nootropics (they’ve been used for 1,000s of years and are much more likely to be safe, with few unknown side-effects). Some of the more popular ones are:
- L-Theanine (see above)
- Bacopa Monnieri (reduced anxiety, increased memory)
- Rhodiola Rosea (neuroprotective, reduces fatigue under stress)
- Ashwagandha (neuroprotective, anti-anxiety)
- Ginseng (cognitive enhancer)
- Nutrient nootropics:
- Choline (cognitive booster)
- Creatine (neuroprotective)
- Tyrosine (anti-stress, cognitive booster)
- Piracetam (neuroprotective)
- Noopept (neuroprotective)
If you want to do your own research on how each of these work, Examine.com is my go to for all supplement info. Another great resource is the Nootropics Subreddit on Reddit.com and their beginner’s guide.
Something To Keep In Mind: The Yerkes-Dodson law
The relationship between arousal and performance is known as the Yerkes–Dodson law. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.
As with most things in life, moderation in nootropic performance enhancement is key. Just one specific example:
“Consuming between 2-5 mg·kg-1 of caffeine has been found to be adequate to augment performance, with levels any greater than 6 mg·kg-1 being found to be deleterious to performance due to increased heart rate and over arousal.” (Ganio et al, 2009)
Be Careful – Some Nootropics Have Been Banned in Sports
The World Anti-Doping Agency, which controls many professional leagues including the NFL and the Olympics, put two nootropics on its list recently: Modafinil (and adrafinil) as well as phenylpiracetam. The WAPA has deemed these substances to be illegal due to their effects on mental and physical performance. If you are a competitive athlete, be sure to check your league’s banned substance list before trying any nootropic.
So, what do you think? Will you be giving nootropics a try? Will l-theanine + caffeine replace your usual pre-workout? Get your mind right and give me some feedback in the comments. And I’ll be around to answer any questions you might have, too.
is the founder of FlowAthletics.com, an NYU Wrestling Coach and a BJJ Blue Belt. When not training, he writes for the Flow Athletics blog.
If you want to get better at getting in the zone, be sure to follow Flow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
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