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7 Impressive Nootropics Benefits (& Their Side Effects)

Modern life is BUSY. Whether you’re at work, at home with the kids, or even in the gym, you need to stay clear-headed and ready for whatever the day brings.

And when you consider that 85% of American adults use caffeine, it’s clear that many of us are short of mental energy and the ability to focus.

But as you’re no doubt aware, too much caffeine can cause fatigue and it could stop working the way it once did.

And that’s perhaps why – or at least part of the reason – more and more people are turning to nootropics…

What are nootropics?

Also known as cognitive enhancers, nootropics are herbs, plant extracts and other substances which may enhance brain function.

These substances are said to promote a host of benefits for brain health and mental performance. However, some nootropics are linked with certain side effects, so it’s important to make sure you’re aware of both the good and bad effects that you may experience…

Nootropics benefits

1. Mental energy and clarity

As we said at the start of this article, the widespread use of caffeine indicates mental energy may be in short supply.

Nootropics are said to help promote clear thinking without energy crashes that can be caused by too much caffeine and other stimulants.

The nootropics thought to boost mental energy include:

  • Citicoline (also known as CDP-choline)
  • L-tyrosine (also known as N-acetyl-L-tyrosine or NALT)
  • Rhodiola rosea
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Maritime pine bark extract (also known as Pycnogenol)

When citicoline enters the body, it splits into cytidine and choline[1]. The body is then thought to convert cytidine into uridine[2], which could increase levels of dopamine and noradrenaline (norepinephrine)[3].

These neurotransmitters have been linked to increased brain energy. According to research, citicoline improved mental energy by 13.6%[4].

L-tyrosine is said to improve mental energy under mental and physical stress[5], while maritime pine bark extract is said to improve neuronal energy metabolism and help reduce mental fatigue[6].

2. Attention and focus

Nootropics may boost mental energy

With so much to do and time at a premium, you’d be forgiven for searching for new ways to sharpen focus and stretch your attention span.

According to experts, there are four different types of attention[7]:

  1. Selective: the ability to focus on one thing at a time
  2. Divided: the power to focus on more than one event at once
  3. Sustained: the capacity to focus for an extended period
  4. Executive: the ability to focus on completing steps to achieve a goal

According to one study, citicoline improved performance in the Ruff 2&7 Selective Attention Test and reduced reaction times in a Finger Tap Test[8].

Meanwhile, bacopa monnieri[9] and L-tyrosine[10] could improve sustained energy and improve your capacity for multitasking (task switching). L-theanine is also thought to help improve sustained attention[11].

In addition, research suggests both phosphatidylserine and L-tyrosine may help executive performance under stressful conditions.

3. Enhance motivation

Motivation is the spark we need to get out of bed in the morning. It’s what drives us forward to get more done and continue to improve our lives. Without motivation, you won’t perform anywhere near your best.

According to medical research, the parts of the brain responsible for motivation are the prefrontal cortex and the striatum[12]. Studies show the people willing to work the hardest have higher levels of dopamine in these parts of the brain.

Here are some nootropics said to increase motivation:

  • Passionflower[13]
  • L-tyrosine (or N-acetyl-L-tyrosine (NALT))[14]
  • L-theanine[15]
  • Bacopa monnieri[16]
  • Ashwagandha[17]

Guess what the ingredients above are said to have in common? That’s right – the potential to raise and/or maintain dopamine in the brain.

As a result, all these ingredients are said to enhance mood and improve motivation.

4. Ease stress and improve mood

7 Impressive Nootropics Benefits (& Their Side Effects) 1

As it happens, all five ingredients listed in the motivation section of this article may also reduce stress and lighten your mood.

L-theanine is said to promote a calm alertness[18], while ashwagandha is an adaptogen which has been shown to reduce cortisol (a stress hormone) by up to 27.9% (on average) after 60 days[19].

Both passionflower[20] and L-theanine[21] thought to raise GABA levels, which in turn could reduce stress, lift your mood and help you think more clearly.

L-tyrosine is thought to be a precursor of not just dopamine, but also adrenaline and noradrenaline[22].

All three of these neurotransmitters are thought to improve memory and performance in sleep-deprived subjects and to users exposed to loud noises and extreme cold[23].

Rhodiola rosea[24] and citicoline are also thought to reduce markers of stress.

5. Improve memory and learning capacity

Whether you’re studying for an exam, memorizing a speech to make for an important client, or attempting to solve every problem that’s thrown your way, your ability to take in and recall information is one of your most important abilities. 

Here are just four nootropics said to help improve memory and learning:

  1. Bacopa monnieri
  2. Lion’s mane mushroom
  3. Citicoline
  4. Phosphatidylserine

Bacopa is perhaps the best-known memory enhancer. The herb contains bacosides A and B – the active ingredients which are thought to improve neuronal signal strength, improve processing speed and enhance working memory[25].

Meanwhile, lion’s mane mushroom is said to promote brain plasticity and improve learning capacity[26].

In addition, citicoline could help the brain produce acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter that plays a role in memory[27].

Furthermore, phosphatidylserine may help repair and renew neurons by increase nerve growth factor (NGF) in the brain[28].

6. Sharpen reaction times

Whether colleagues need you to react quickly in response to a work crisis, you play sports, or you need to escape a burning building in a hurry, fast reaction times could get you out of a few close shaves over the course of your life.

In one study, bacopa monnieri helped reduce choice reaction times[29], while another report suggests citicoline could improve reaction speed during a finger-tap test[30].

7. Improve sleep quality

7 Impressive Nootropics Benefits (& Their Side Effects) 2

Many millionaires have claimed they hardly sleep at all. Despite this, scientific analysis shows sleep plays a key role in the following:

  • Productivity
  • Mood
  • Concentration
  • Athletic performance
  • Immune function
  • Social interaction

To improve sleep quality, it may be time to ditch the large mugs of coffee – or at least drink less and add some L-theanine[31].

This non-essential amino acid is said to enhance the positive effects of caffeine while also reducing the negative effects – including sleep quality.

According to research, L-theanine works by helping to increase GABA – a sleep-promoting neurotransmitter that could improve REM and non-REM sleep[32].

Passionflower also contains flavonoids that are said to increase GABA and improve sleep quality[33].

Nootropic side effects

According to Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, the chemist who invented piracetam (a synthetic nootropic), cognitive enhancers should cause very few side effects[34].

That said, our bodies react in different ways to different substances. Here are a few reported side effects and some tips to help you avoid them…

1. Brain fog

Brain fog is defined as the ‘clouding of consciousness’ – a subjective sensation which may be mild or severe[35]. It is not clear why nootropics may cause brain fog, although it is thought that choline could help alleviate such issues.

This is said to help the acetylcholine activity to ensure that it doesn’t go beyond the brain’s cholinergic capacity[36].

With this in mind, it may be wise to add a form of choline to either your nootropic stack or choose a pre-made nootropic containing that ingredient.

2. Digestive issues

While apparently still rare, digestive upset is said to be one of the more common side effects reported by users of nootropics.

Both bacopa monnieri[37] and ashwagandha[38] are said to be generally well tolerated.

Despite this, subjects using these plant extracts have reported mild to moderate stomach upset and diarrhea. On the other hand, bacopa is also thought to ease constipation[39].

Rhodiola has also been shown to influence gut bacteria[40], which could also lead to some gastrointestinal discomfort.

As we’ve already said, these ingredients are said to be largely safe. But if you’ve experienced any of these issues, it could be an idea to reduce the amount you take or discontinue use.

3. Disturbed sleep

Some cognitive enhancers are said to promote relaxation and deeper sleep (L-theanine, passionflower). However, the likes of modafinil are said to have the opposite effect[41].

Sold under the brand names Provigil, Alertec and others, this synthetic ‘smart drug’ was originally designed to treat excessive sleepiness.

This drug is only available on prescription in the United States. As a result, you won’t find it in any natural, or widely available, pre-made nootropic products.

For these reasons, you may be better off sticking to ingredients that are both natural and freely available.

Many of the natural ingredients mentioned in the ‘nootropic benefits’ section of this article are thought to improve sleep quality – but not unwanted drowsiness.

4. Headaches and blurry vision

As nootropics are designed to affect the brain, it may come as no surprise to learn that headaches are one of the more common side effects of nootropics.

L-tryptophan is one nootropic ingredient thought to cause headaches, lightheadedness and blurry vision in some people[42].

Other reasons nootropics could cause headaches include using too much of certain ingredients, or the use of artificial colors, flavors or preservatives[43]

5. Circulation problems

Maritime pine bark extract is largely thought to be safe in doses of up to 450mg per day[44].

However, it is also thought to reduce blood pressure – which, while great for many users, could cause problems in people with bleeding conditions[45].

6. Tiredness

Although L-theanine is believed to be free from side effects in dosages of up to 400mg per day, larger amounts could increase tiredness due to its potential for promoting sleep[46].

Usage and Dosage

Usage and dosage depend largely on the manufacturer’s recommendations, so it’d be impossible to tell you the right amounts for every ingredient or pre-made stack on the market.

Here are the safe and effective ranges for some of the ingredients mentioned in this article:

  • L-theanine: up to 400mg per day[47]
  • Bacopa monnieri: typical daily dose is 300-450mg[48]
  • Citicoline: 500-2000mg (standard therapeutic dose)[49]
  • Phosphatidylserine: 100-400mg per day[50]
  • Maritime pine bark extract (also sold under the brand name Pycnogenol): Up to 450mg per day in three daily doses[51]

Note: The above dosages relate to the use of each ingredient in isolation – not as part of a nootropic stack of pre-made product. As a result, you may need to take different amounts when taking more than one nootropic ingredient at a time.

The Final Word

When used properly and in the right amounts, nootropics could enhance brain function in many ways.

From increased mental energy, to improved sleep and reduced stress, there appears to be many ways to improve performance in every part of your life.

Yes, cognitive enhancers may not be as well-researched as the likes of creatine (for example), but the available research for many of them is very promising.

Be careful

However, it may be wise to approach nootropics with some caution. Some nootropics are synthetic, whereas others are natural and free from potentially harmful food additives.

As in the case of any supplement you buy, we recommend looking for a nootropic that’s made to current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to ensure it is made in facilities which follow strict guidelines for quality and purity. Doing this may help you avoid some of the side effects mentioned above.

Do you need to take the rough with the smooth?

While most of the natural nootropics mentioned in this piece appear not to cause too many side effects, it’s inevitable that different ingredients will affect people in different ways. Besides, most of the side effects mentioned in this piece are moderate to mild and could be relieved by simply lowering the amount you take.

 


References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK28051/

[2] https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Cytidine

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16055952

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18816480

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8029265

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6619435/

[7] https://www.nap.edu/read/6173/chapter/6#118

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26179181

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5699204/

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25598314

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6574559/

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3593065/

[13]https://www.academia.edu/39642382/Passionflower_extract_improves_diurnal_quality_of_life_in_Japanese_subjects_with_anxiety_A_randomized_placebo-controlled_double-_blind_trial

[14]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17513421

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17182482

[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3746283/

[17] https://scialert.net/fulltext/?doi=jbs.2014.77.94

[18] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296328

[19] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23439798

[20] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20382514

[21] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/sleep-newzzz/201708/what-you-need-know-about-l-theanine

[22] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/norepinephrine

[23] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00426-017-0957-4

[24] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29325481

[25] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18611150

[26] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28115973

[27] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695184/

[28] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5172536/

[29] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3537209/

[30] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26179181

[31] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18681988

[32] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6366437/

[33] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2941540/

[34] https://web.archive.org/web/20140725112936/http://medicaacademica.ro/2014/05/19/prof-dr-corneliu-giurgea1923-1995-descoperitorul-piracetamului-si-al-unei-noi-clase-de-medicamente-in-terapeutica-mondiala/

[35] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xIL8VHItTp4C&lpg=PA184&dq=%22clouding+of+consciousness%22+%22mental+fog%22&pg=PA184&redir_esc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q=%22clouding%20of%20consciousness%22%20%22mental%20fog%22&f=false

[36] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7301036

[37] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/bacopa-monnieri

[38] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-953/ashwagandha

[39] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e86d/0a05e66cd24c2aaa0165be04bdbdc4877516.pdf

[40] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5861609/

[41] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4521685/

[42] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-326/l-tryptophan

[43] https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/food-related-headaches#1

[44] https://www.drugs.com/npp/maritime-pine.html

[45] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1019/maritime-pine

[46] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/sleep-newzzz/201708/what-you-need-know-about-l-theanine

[47] https://www.drugs.com/npp/l-theanine.html

[48] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22747190

[49] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1090/citicoline

[50] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-992/phosphatidylserine

[51] https://www.drugs.com/npc/maritime-pine.html

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