What are nootropics and how can they boost performance? 

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics. We are not your physician. Note: This post may contain affiliate links to the products we use. 

Taking your body from inconsistent to smashing personal records generally begins with improved sleep, training, and diet. Without having those three pillars in order, it’s hard to get the most out of any supplements or ‘hacks’. When you’ve got them dialed in, certain compounds can help you take your mental and physical performance to the next level. For cognitive performance, these compounds are referred to as ‘nootropics’. 

Nootropics, also known as ‘smart drugs’, are a class of natural and artificial substances that enhance cognitive function. You might’ve heard the ‘nootropic’ tag applied to numerous fad supplements or chemicals in recent years. In reality, the list likely fails to include the majority of popularly touted ‘hacks’. The cognitive benefits of some compounds are diminished by the detracting side effects. There are, however, a set of lab-tested and clinically proven nootropics that have resounding success for cognitive enhancement. 

What are a few of those proven nootropics and how do they improve cognitive function? 

L-Theanine & L-Theanine Plus Caffeine: We’ve broken the benefits of L-theanine (especially combined with low-to-moderate amounts of caffeine). What are the main findings? 

  • On its own, theanine is backed by some evidence of improved mental performance and calmness. For example, theanine consumption generates alpha brain waves. These brain waves are generally associated with increased alertness accompanied by increased relaxation. In other words, alpha waves are considered ‘flow state’ brain waves.
  • In lab settings, combining theanine with caffeine led to significantly increased attention and accuracy on cognitive performance tasks. Further, the increase in attention was not limited to one sense but spanned across visual (sight) and auditory (hearing) modalities.
  • In other studies, theanine/caffeine combinations improved reaction time, accuracy of rapid visual information processing, numeric working memory speed, accuracy of sentence verification, and feelings of alertness while decreasing fatigue and headaches. Check out the rest of our article to see how much you should get and what sources provide the most. [1-5]

    Creatine: We’ve discussed the effects of creatine monohydrate supplementation on physical performance. Put simply, exogenous creatine helps the body produce more of a powerful molecule called creatine phosphate (CP) and subsequently adenosine triphosphate (ATP). 
    • When cells and cellular ‘machinery’ operate, they constantly need a jolt of energy from ATP. When ATP stores are exhausted, the first pathway to produce more relies on internal CP levels. Creatine phosphate donates its phosphate group to the burned up energy molecule that used to be ATP (and is now adenosine diphosphate, ADP). This step recycles ADP into ATP that can power more cellular activity.
    • At a muscular level, this leads to more contractions within the muscle cell. In the brain, however, more ATP means more energy is available for brain activation. Creatine supplementation helps increase creatine phosphate and therefore enables faster recovery of ATP stores and more energy for cognitive function. [6,7]
    • This improved mental performance has actually been demonstrated in double-blind randomized studies on creatine. One such study gave participants either placebo or 5 g of creatine monohydrate and tested cognitive performance and general memory. The result? [7]

      Chaga, Reishi & Lion’s Mane Mushrooms: Certain types of mushrooms are considered adaptogenic and nootropic in their ability to restore homeostasis in the body and boost cognitive function simultaneously. Chaga, lion’s mane, and reishi mushrooms are all considered to be among the most useful fungi for inducing these physiological changes. In some studies, chaga has been shown to improve learning and memory. In others, the specific types of sugars found in reishi mushrooms helped stimulate protective signaling factors in the brain. Specifically, researchers believe that reishi could treat cognitive impairment associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Finally, compounds found in lion’s mane mushrooms induce the synthesis of a molecule called nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF helps promote the growth and differentiation of new neurons. [8-13]

      In summary, nootropics are brain-boosting compounds. While you may hear the word thrown around frequently, approach each occasion with the proper scrutiny. Even labeling caffeine a nootropic depends on the definition you choose, as certain quantities of caffeine can impair cognitive function acutely and over extended periods of time. 


      References

      1. Nobre et al. L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008; 17(S1: 167-168. 
      2. Higashiyama et al. Effects of L-theanine on attention and reaction time response. Journal of Functional Foods 3 (2011) 171-178.
      3. Giesbrecht et al. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine improves cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2010, Vol 13.
      4. Einother et al. L-Theanine and caffeine improves task switching but not intersensory attention or subjective alertness. Appetite. 2009.
      5. Haskell et al. The effects of L-theanine, caffeine and their combination on cognition and mood. Biological Psychology 77 (2008) 113-122.
      6. Avgerinos KI, Spyrou N, Bougioukas KI, Kapogiannis D. Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Exp Gerontol. 2018 Jul 15;108:166-173. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2018.04.013. Epub 2018 Apr 25. PMID: 29704637; PMCID: PMC6093191.
      7. Rae et al. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (2003) 270, 2147-2150.
      8. Huang S, Mao J, Ding K, et al. Polysaccharides from Ganoderma lucidum Promote Cognitive Function and Neural Progenitor Proliferation in Mouse Model of Alzheimer's Disease. Stem Cell Reports. 2017;8(1):84-94. doi:10.1016/j.stemcr.2016.12.007
      9. Lai CS, Yu MS, Yuen WH, So KF, Zee SY, Chang RC. Antagonizing beta-amyloid peptide neurotoxicity of the anti-aging fungus Ganoderma lucidum. Brain Res. 2008 Jan 23;1190:215-24. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.103. Epub 2007 Nov 13. PMID: 18083148.
      10. Lai, Puei-Lene et al. “Neurotrophic properties of the Lion's mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia.” International journal of medicinal mushrooms 15 6 (2013): 539-54 .
      11. Sun XZ, Liao Y, Li W, Guo LM. Neuroprotective effects of ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides against oxidative stress-induced neuronal apoptosis. Neural Regen Res. 2017 Jun;12(6):953-958. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.208590. PMID: 28761429; PMCID: PMC5514871.
      12. Chen LW, Horng LY, Wu CL, Sung HC, Wu RT. Activating mitochondrial regulator PGC-1α expression by astrocytic NGF is a therapeutic strategy for Huntington's disease. Neuropharmacology. 2012 Sep;63(4):719-32. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.05.019. Epub 2012 May 24. PMID: 22633948.
      13. Giridharan VV, Thandavarayan RA, Konishi T. Amelioration of scopolamine induced cognitive dysfunction and oxidative stress by Inonotus obliquus - a medicinal mushroom. Food Funct. 2011 Jun;2(6):320-7. doi: 10.1039/c1fo10037h. Epub 2011 Jun 6. PMID: 21779570.