Some years ago, nootropics were only the stuff of science fiction and speculation. Then, during the 1960s, there was a research movement, initiated by the medical community (predominantly in Europe) toward the development of medications which could potentially enhance wakefulness, memory and cognitive functioning. Unlike the deadening antipsychotic medications which had been a sorrowful staple of mental institutions, or the mind-altering drugs pioneered by the military or the hallucinogens which were emblematic of the Generation of Love, these were to be something special. Something unprecedented and positive. They would mostly be available experimentally, in studies, or by prescription. And they would change the way that we think. [This article, “The Limitless Mind: Today’s Most Effective Nootropics” was originally published in HealthXWire]
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A brief background
The generally accepted definition of “nootropics”, a term actually coined in 1972, refers to a class or category of molecules which act selectively to enhance the brain’s higher-level integrative activity. Today, they are more commonly referred to as “smart drugs,” and they are available in a variety of forms, with a wide range of actions. Some of them are prescription formulations, but an increasing number of them are available as over-the-counter supplements. Still others, which are uncompounded, unrefined, and plant-based, date back much further; such natural substances as gingko biloba, ashwagandha, hericium erinaceus, lion’s mane mushroom, and rhodiola rosea, have a rich history of use among initiates and shamans in ancient cultures, and are still in use today.
The first isolated nootropics, although not truly nootropics by today’s definition, were psychostimulants, such as caffeine and variations on amphetamine. While these affected wakefulness and mental focus (somewhat), their action was crude and very largely somatic, with unpleasant and unhealthy side effects on the nervous and cardiovascular systems. These gave way, in the early 1960s and soon thereafter, to better-refined drugs like piracetam, and later, vinpocetine and huperzine-A, all of which exhibit an ability to enhance mental alertness, clarity and focus.
A growing list of brain boosters
More contemporary nootropics (some of which are significantly processed, or synthetic, and some of which require prescriptions or are legally controlled) include modafinil (and its variations), adderal, ritalin, DMEA (Deanol), phenibut, phosphatidylserine, acetyl-l-carnitine, CDP-choline, sulbutiamine, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), quercetin, n-acetyl l-tyrosine, l-theanine, PEA (phenylethylamine), maritime pine bark, and a variety of GABA derivatives.
These are used as stand-alone enhancements or in combinations, which are commonly referred to as “stacks,” and in addition to offering an increased state of alertness, some of these combinations actually improve memory, cognition, focus, drive… even creativity. Some can reduce or forestall the natural age-related decline of various mental functions. In proper combination, these substances can act complementarily and synergistically.
Interestingly, some nootropic formulations (particularly in Europe) incorporate small amounts of B vitamins, hormones and even metals in their blends to enhance their efficacy or to act synergistically with the central active components. Thyroid hormone (in very small doses) is one popular additive to aid in the absorption of other core ingredients, while very small amounts of lithium (usually as lithium carbonate, which is used as an antipsychotic and as part of a treatment for bipolar disorder) have been added for increased neuroprotectivity.
One of the challenges faced by those choosing to explore nootropia (which may or may not be a legitimate word to describe the world of nootropics) is to find the right combination of ingredients in the right proportions to suit their particular areas of interest and their metabolic types. One size, at least in the world of nootropics, does not necessarily fit all. Some adventurous souls purchase individual nootropics and put together their own brain health regimens, while others prefer to leave the blending of ingredients to the experts, and they buy branded compound nootropic products. But everyone, it seems, regardless of preference, is looking for a nootropia utopia – a panacea in a liquid, capsule or tablet.
Mechanism of action – how they work
Some nootropics act subtly and over a protracted time horizon (phosphatidylserine is a good example), while others are immediately or acutely effective, with rapid onset but a relatively short period of discernable action (PEA is a good example, as its effects last for less than an hour, but its half-life in the body can be increased somewhat by taking an MOAI-B inhibitor, like deprenyl or oat straw extract). Of particular interest in the subtle category are substances which are neuroprotectives (such as alpha lipoic acid) and thoise which increase neuroplasticity (such as DHA).
The mechanism of action associated with many nootropics is the subject of much research and a great deal of conjecture. Most nootropics increase the availability of oxygen to the brain, but there are a host of other mechanisms which are at play, including increased neurotransmitter availability and activity, increased neuroplasticity and adaptability (the ability of one neuron, or a cluster of neurons to take over or replicate the function of another neuron or cluster of neurons), and the prevention or dissolution of the formations of lipofuscin associated with aging and general cellular senescence. Lipofuscin is the lipid-containing residue of lysosomal digestion, and it is one of the benchmarks of aging. It has also been implicated in age-related cognitive decline, dementia and other debilitating conditions.
Bioavailability of active ingredients
One of the practical difficulties faced by formularies and manufacturers of nootropics is getting enough of the chemical payload past the destructive digestive enzymes of the stomach to the brain. Another is administering just the right dose in a timed-release action in order to prolong the period of effectiveness and to minimize the likelihood of inadvertant overdosing or waste. Different alternative delivery systems, such as sublingual dissolving lozenges and transdermal patches, both of which get ingredients into the bloodstream while bypassing the acidity of the stomach and digestive tract, have been tried, but these methods have not gained too much traction in the marketplace. Most of what you see, either on the shelves or on the e-commerce websites, are liquids, capsules and tablets.
The nootropics marketplace
The consumer base for the consumption of nootropics is ever-expanding. Once the province of university professors and psychonauts, the current nootropics consumer runs the demographic gamut from dock worker, to investment banker, to college student, to granddad (baby boomers have become obsessed with keeping their minds agile and their memories readily accessible), and nootropic use has become fully mainstream. While there might have been a hesitancy or a stigma associated with the use of nootropics in the 1970s or 1980s, it appears that ingesting nootropics in the interest of self-improvement
has become a fully-accepted practice.
The global nootropics market is estimated to be worth approximately $11.2 billion at present, and is expected to grow to approximately $30.0 billion by 2028, barring any unforeseen breakthroughs which would bump the growth rate and the market numbers substantially higher. Most of the nootropics sold are not single-ingredient; they increasingly tend to be customized and optimized combinations of numerous ingredients developed in laboratories, which are then branded and advertised. Some of the combination brands being aggressively marketed and dominating the media as of the time of this writing include, in no particular order, Mindlab Pro Nootropic Capsules, Noocube Brain Productivity Supplement, ZHOU Neuro Peak Brain Support Supplement, Performance Lab Mind, BrainPill, Hunter Focus, CogniBiotics, Elm And Rye Nootropics, Brain Essense, and Qualia Mind. Some of these brands are more media-focused in terms of their investment of capital and revenues while others are research- and science-focused. Put in bolder terms, some of these brand-sponsoring companies choose to plow a great percentage of their revenues into advertising, while others choose to spend much more on research and product development.
A scientifically-engineered nootropic supplement
Qualia Mind, a complexed nootropic brand of Carlsbad, California-based Neurohacker Collective, LLC, is exemplary of the newest, and one of the most effective types of nootropic formulations available for consumers who are persuaded by science (specifically complex systems science) rather than by spurious claims and media hype. The company, founded in 2015 by Chief Executive Officer James Schmachtenberger, is relatively small – some would prefer the term “boutique”, but it is growing by leaps and bounds to acquire increased retail distribution as well as total market share. This crowdfunded enterprise and its signature nootropic product are of particular interest, especially for early-stage adventurers into the world of neurohacking.
The underlying reasoning behind the mechanism of action of Qualia Mind is that the body has the innate ability to repair and to actually upregulate itself, given an infusion of the right catalytic agents – in this case, relatively small amounts of a large number (more than 20) of synergistic nootropics, adaptogens, neuroprotectives, vitamins and nutrients in a highly bioavailable form. This is a markedly different approach than the scattergun or “more is better” thinking that goes into many of the product formulations available in the unregulated over-the-counter nootropics marketplace. This whole-body wellness concept makes a great deal of intuitive sense, as well.
The product is fairly expensive, but it makes solid economic sense if you consider that you are taking something akin to a comprehensive multivitamin multimineral complex (a rough analogy) instead of washing down a drawerful of individual vitamins and minerals with your morning coffee. Simply put, Qualia has done the science for you so that you needn’t do it yourself. If you are ready to introduce nootropics into your health regimen, or if you want to graduate from dosing yourself with all manner of single ingredient nootropics, Qualia is likely a good way to go.
Two schools of thought
Although only a few of the companies serving the fast-growing nootropics market would acknowledge it (let alone openly discuss it), there are really two different schools of thought in terms of the mechanism of action and the delivery system of supplements.
On the one hand, there are those more traditional manufacturers who believe that a given product’s efficacy is largely dose-dependent, and that the best effect is achieved by suffusing the neuronal passageways with substantial doses of ingredients which target very specific synaptic receptors. They sell many singly focused products with a very limited number of ingredients so as not to “confuse” the neurons or dilute the desired effect of the principal active ingredient. They generally subscribe to the notion of direct cause-and-effect in terms of their preparations’ neurochemical activity. Most manufacturers tend to think this way, with some variations on this theme. There is little hard science which disproves this view, and from a marketing perspective it might make some practical sense.
The reason that this might make sense is that many consumers tend to think this way as well. They buy into the view that more works better and that a straight line targeted approach to nootropic problem solving (i.e., alertness, focus, flow, cognition, memory, spontaneity of recall, creativity, plasticity) is logical and appealing in its directness. Some marketing experts have determined that this is analogous to the allopath’s offering of fast symptomatic relief. Admittedly, the idea has “silver bullet” appeal.
On the other hand, companies like Neurohacker Collective, LLC, with its Qualia line of products, subscribe to the belief that the body’s systems are very complex, with many subtle interrelated dependencies and functions, and that solutions to even the most specific nootropic challenges require a multitude of smaller, but very important, biochemical and neurological interactions. Going further, since the amazing human body has the endogenous capability of manufacturing most of what it needs (with a bit of prodding from an outside catalyst or two), the best way to foster the development of the supermind in a person is to stimulate that person’s biochemistry, or more specifically, neurochemistry, to repair, preserve and upregulate itself. This requires more complicated formulations with a myriad of ingredients to address a myriad of relevant issues.
In contrast to the symptomatic relief described in the crude analogy of several paragraphs earlier, this holistic method seems to be a logical means of getting to the real root cause (or complex of causes) of the problem and solving it. While the “silver bullet” magic is missing, this methodology has, as its promise, greater effectiveness over the longer term and more permanence in the desirable effects that consumers of nootropics seek. Time, as always, will tell which methodology will prevail in the marketplace.
The probable future direction of the industry
The industry is moving at an accelerating pace on multiple fronts.
Once again sublingual, transdermal and chewable ingredient delivery sytems are being paired with timed-release technology to improve bioavailability while decreasing minimum viable dosages and side effects associated with many of the older formulations. An ever-expanding body of knowledge regarding the complexities of the body’s DNA coding, neuroplasticity, cellular memory, synaptic activity, the inter-relationship of psyche and soma, and a whole host of other important subjects relating to the workings of the mind in all of its amazing aspects is leading to better, cleaner supplements.
The dream of the limitless mind is getting closer to becoming a reality.
The information provided in this article is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any disease or condition, and examples contained herein are for the purposes of illustration only. This article is not intended as healthcare or medical advice. Before taking any nootropic supplement, and before commencing any regimen of nootropics, it is advisable to consult with your healthcare provider to determine if doing so would be advisable and safe given the condition of your health.