“Sharpen focus! Cure brain fog! Enhance memory! Boost brainpower!” If you ever picked up a nootropic supplement making claims like these, you may have wondered, “Does it really work? Can nootropic nutrients really do all these things… and if so, how?” To answer simply: YES, the right nootropics can unleash all of these brainpower benefits and a whole lot more. This guide explains how they do it. But first, let’s start with the basics:
What are nootropics, anyway?
Also known as brain boosters, smart drugs, neuronutrients, and memory enhancers, nootropics are natural or synthetic substances that are used to enhance various aspects of cognitive function.
Different nootropics boost brainpower in different ways. Some are great for memory, others for focus and concentration. Some may clear brain fog right away; others support brain health decades down the road. Attention, brain energy, reaction time, mood, alertness, stress resistance, relaxation and motivation are just a few of the other areas nootropics can address.
Dozens of nutrients have nootropic properties. But most of them work by performing similar actions within the same brain pathways. To understand how this works, let’s take a closer look at what we feel are the 7 biggest brain-boosting activities performed by nootropics:
#1. Nootropics supercharge brain energy.
Did you know that your brain consumes 20% of your body’s energy? That’s because every thought and every movement are powered by neurons “firing” with electrical activity. This eats up a lot of energy; even more so when you’re thinking hard and focusing intensely. When your brain is low on fuel, you feel it as mental fatigue, sluggishness and “brain fog.” Nootropics can help.
- How do nootropics boost brain energy? Nootropics “fuel up” brain cells, protect their mitochondria power plants, and improve brain cell efficiency—actions that raise & sustain brainpower.
- Mental performance benefits: Enhanced brain energy accelerates thinking & recall ability, sharpens focus, improves attention span, and promotes mental clarity & agility.
- Best brain energy nootropics: Citicoline, Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Huperzine-A, NADH, Vinpocetine, Ubiquinol.
#2. Nootropics increase brain chemicals.
The brain is like a drug lab, producing potent chemicals for mental performance, mood and mindset. Called neurotransmitters, these brain chemicals “jump” from brain cell to brain cell, enabling them to communicate. There are many neurotransmitters, but nootropics focus on: Acetylcholine (ACh) for memory & cognition; Dopamine (DA), for mood & motivation; Serotonin (5HT) for soothing relaxation; and Norepinephrine (NE) for attention and intense focus. Peak neurotransmitters = maximum brainpower.
- How do nootropics boost brain chemicals? They supply raw materials that make brain chemicals, and then signal the brain to release them. Other nootropics sustain brain chemicals by preventing them from degrading.
- Mental performance benefits: Brain chemicals boost every aspect of cognition. Depending on the nootropic, brain chemical benefits include sharper memory, clearer thinking, a brighter mood, better learning ability and more.
- Best brain chemical nootropics: Huperzine-A, Bacopa, Citicoline, B-Vitamins (especially B6), L-Theanine, Ginkgo Biloba, Phosphatidylserine.
#3. Nootropics boost brain blood flow.
Brain performance depends on good brain circulation. Blood flow to the brain delivers energizing oxygen, along with neuronutrients that nourish the brain. Blood flow away from the brain helps flush out toxins and cellular waste products that can build up and diminish brainpower. When cerebral circulation is impaired, it can cause a specific type of brain degeneration called vascular dementia.
- How do nootropics boost blood flow to the brain? Some can relax and dilate brain blood vessels; others nourish those blood vessels to keep them healthy and flexible. Either way helps to increase brain circulation.
- Mental performance benefits: Better brain blood flow has been linked to an overall boost in brainpower and brain health, and seems to have special benefits for memory.
- Best brain circulation nootropics: Ginkgo biloba, Vinpocetine, Bacopa monnieri, Vitamin B6, Citicoline.
#4. Nootropics multiply brain cells.
For centuries, scientists thought dead brain cells were lost forever. But a 1998 study discovered that brain cells can regenerate, a process called neurogenesis. Brain cells are also constantly being repaired, maintained and regenerated; and research is now exploring brain plasticity, where new brain cells form in response to new learning and experiences. Nootropics can help with all these aspects of brain renewal.
- How do nootropics boost brain regeneration? Nootropics supply “building blocks” that are used to make, repair and connect brain cells. They also send signals that spark the creation of new brain cells, and supply “fertilizer” that helps them to multiply rapidly.
- Mental performance benefits: Well-maintained brain cells, rapid brain cell regeneration, and flexible neural connections support sharp memory, better learning ability, and reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline.
- Best brain regeneration nootropics: Phosphatidylserine (PS), DHA, Lion’s Mane Mushroom, Citicoline, Huperzine-A.
#5. Nootropics “fine-tune” brain waves.
Have you ever seen an EEG machine with dozens of electrodes connected to someone’s head? Among other uses, EEGs measure Brain Waves (neural oscillations if you want to get fancy). Different brain wave frequencies–Alpha, Beta, Delta and Theta–reflect different mental states. In theory, by modulating these frequencies, nootropics can create specific mindsets. This “brain wave” strategy is new, but it’s red hot, featured in some of today’s most popular nootropic formulas.
- How do nootropics help brain waves? Science doesn’t know yet, but evidence suggests they can increase the Alpha frequency–which is what’s usually targeted in nootropic supplements.
- Mental Performance benefits: Alpha Brain Waves bring a feeling described as “wakeful relaxation.” This state is perfect for calm & clear thinking, creativity and peak work productivity.
- Best brain wave nootropics: L-Theanine, Avena Sativa (oat straw)
#6. Nootropics fight mental stress.
A stressed-out brain can make bad decisions, be absent-minded, and easily take a nosedive into mental fatigue and negative moods. A special class of herbs known as adaptogens can unlock peak mental performance by strengthening the brain’s resistance to stress–especially in high-intensity, pressure-filled, and highly competitive scenarios.
- How do adaptogen nootropics fight stress? These fast-acting herbs target the body’s endocrine system, where they neutralize stress hormones and stress responses. This helps the brain to “adapt” to all stressors; emotional, physical, toxic, etc.
- Mental performance benefits: Nootropic adaptogens were famously used by Russian Olympic athletes and cosmonauts to maintain focus, clarity and sound reasoning under the most stressful of conditions. You get the idea: These herbs unleash mental domination.
- Best anti-stress nootropics: Rhodiola rosea, Bacopa, Ashwagandha
#7. Nootropics protect brain cells.
As the brain “burns” oxygen for energy it creates “exhaust” as free radicals: Unstable compounds that go crazy, smashing and damaging brain cells. This oxidative stress causes brain degeneration—especially Alzheimer’s and dementia. Protein clusters called amyloids are another risk factor: When they form, they can “strangle” brain cells until they misfire and die. Nootropics protect the brain from these threats.
- How do nootropics protect the brain? Usually they are antioxidants, which can neutralize free radicals and stop them from further damaging brain cells. Some other nootropics can block the formation and slow the progression of amyloid proteins.
- Mental performance benefits: There is really no benefit until you get older, at which point a well-protected brain will have retained its youthful performance and sharp memory.
- Best brain-protective nootropics: Bacopa, Ginkgo, Vinpocetine, Lion’s Mane, Pterostilbene, Phosphatidylserine (PS), Curcumin, Ubiquinol.
How Nootropics Can Work Better
There you have it; some of the many ways that nootropics can boost your brainpower. The nootropics we’ve labeled as “the best” are highly effective, and can boost brainpower when taken alone. However, some brain supplement manufacturers are now making the best nootropic compounds even better by combining them into synergistic formulas.
Here’s the concept: If you take a single brain pathway–brain energy, for example–and enhance it with several nootropics, each helping in its own unique way, you might achieve a 2X, 3X, 4X boost in brain energy or more. Similarly, nootropic combos can boost multiple brain chemicals at once–dramatically elevating mental performance.
The same goes for combining diverse brain circulation-boosters, diverse brain-protective antioxidants, and so forth. This type of smart, synergistic formulation represents the future of all nootropics, and is something to keep an eye out for when choosing a brain supplement.
How to Pick a Nootropic Formula that Works
This guide gives a quick snapshot of how nootropics work to enhance mental performance. But whether or not a nootropic will work depends on many other factors, such as:
- Is it presented in the right dosage?
- Is it in a quality form that the body can absorb?
- Is it in an advanced form that brings more nootropic potency?
- Is it combined with synergistic nootropics to maximize brain-boosting potential?
Our Best 5 Nootropic Supplements page takes these, and other factors, into account to identify which formulas give you the best chance of brain-boosting results. If you prefer to research on your own, visit our BIG List of Nootropics as a starting point. It covers every nootropic under the sun–revealing which ones work, which ones don’t, and which ones you should avoid at all costs.