nootropics: the magic that could inspire your brain.

This article was written as a collaboration between B. amsterdam and Wout van Helden; Orthomolecular & Psycho-Neuro-Immunology therapist, speaker and founder of Helden Health. Helden Health is a holistic health practice that uses the latest research into lifestyle and nutrition to help clients maximize their health and happiness. A heartfelt thank you to Wout for the conversation that acted as the foundation for this article. Wout does not endorse the use of any nootropics or adaptogens mentioned in this article without prior consultation of a professional. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is also always advised to consult a health care provider when considering supplements. 

If you’ve seen the blockbuster Limitless, there’s a good chance you’ve gone onto Google, searched for “limitless pill” and found nootropics. If you haven’t, here’s a brief synopsis. A failing writer takes an untested, experimental pill that allows him to access his entire brain, maxing out his cognitive abilities. He finishes his previously floundering book in a matter of days, learns numerous languages as if it was child’s play, becomes a wizard of the stock markets and even performs a swan dive off a monumental cliff that Captain Jack Sparrow would be proud of.

Whilst the enticing effects were dramatized for the sake of cinema, the base idea is correct. Nootropics are substances that improve cognitive function, usually relating to memory, learning, creativity and productivity. Among other ways, they often work by increasing oxygen and nutrient flow to the brain whilst simultaneously increasing levels of specific neurotransmitters responsible for those processes. Substances that fall under the vast nootropic umbrella include anything from tea and nicotine to modafinil and selected mushrooms.

The term was created by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972, stemming from the Ancient Greek words for “mind” and “a turning”. He also said that “man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain”, and he seems to have been correct. Nootropics are booming, a market expected to reach a value of $4.95 billion in 2025. Fueled by the era of self-improvement, competitive work environments, increased access to these substances and stories of entrepreneurial magic when using nootropics, it’s understandable why they’re of interest to people wanting more from themselves. This article talks about the benefits and downfalls of nootropics, how to use them safely, what adaptogens are and lists five points to think about when entering the wild world of nootropics.

So how can nootropics help, and can they help as much as many claim they can? The short (and greatly simplified) answer is yes, they can help if you’re looking to boost your performance at work, learn quicker, make better informed decisions, think more laterally and have a clearer mind. Modafinil, one of the most popular nootropics, is now strikingly common throughout Silicon Valley because of its ties to maximizing productivity, endurance and alertness. It was even described by one executive as the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice”. Nootropics, and nootropic ‘stacks’ (combinations of nootropics), are one tool that may help you come up with the next big idea, but they also may simply let you get through a day of emails without checking Instagram. Equally, they may not work for you at all. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of a singular, revered result.

One basic combination of nootropics that is both accessible and illustrates the thinking behind it all is caffeine and L-theanine. Caffeine is considered a nootropic for its ability to boost alertness, focus and energy, and L-theanine (found in highest concentrations in green tea) is an amino acid that promotes a calm focus without drowsiness. On their own, they are both nootropics. But used together they can do even more; whilst caffeine is useful for extending an entrepreneur’s working hours, it comes with the risk of crashes and jittery movement. Combining it with L-theanine combats the anxiety and hyperactivity that can come with coffee, reducing the bad and maximizing the good.

Other well-known nootropics include piracetam, aniracetam, creatine, noopept and Adderall. Each has its own set of advertised brain-boosting benefits, but just because a nootropic is widely used and their benefits are well advertised, doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you. In reality, many nootropic products are now sold as tailor-made stacks containing twenty or more substances in one pill, furthering the need for genuine research, interest and experimentation. And there is no one nootropic to start with, that process starts with knowing what you want to improve or alter and using that as a basis for research.

Nootropics really can work wonders, but they do come with their fair share of concerns. Because nearly all governments view nootropics slightly differently, there is no one standard view of them. The vast majority of nootropics are legal, but specific substances do fluctuate in their control in different countries. What’s more, nootropics are usually seen as dietary supplements and not drugs, meaning they’re often lightly regulated. In fact, most of the ‘regulating’ comes from the online community that uses nootropics. Alongside the proliferation of brands selling nootropics coated in difficult language and alluring titles, it can be hard to distinguish what’s good and what’s bad.

Another question many have dipping their toes into nootropics is are they addictive? Generally speaking, they’re not, especially natural ones. Synthetic nootropics, however, such as modafinil and piracetam whilst not being physically addictive, can create a kind of dependency from feeling the ‘high’ they give you followed by the slowing down afterwards. Luckily, synthetic nootropics like the two just mentioned are commonly prescription based, although there is always those who look to abuse the system.

If you spend a little time on the internet looking at nootropics, you’ll also find stories of potential side effects. Countless journalists who have handed themselves over to the most popular nootropics for a month and recorded their results. Often, the results aren’t great; anxiety, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, nausea and a general belief that instead of spending the money on various scientifically named pills, they’d rather find other ways to improve their cognitive abilities. Bad news sells. Such stories are bound to gain traction, and if you look at many of the reviews and forums for nootropics, you’re likely to find a more positive side to their effects than in the press. Strangely, the godfather of nootropics Corneliu E. Giurgea stated that to be a nootropic it should be free of side effects. So true nootropics shouldn’t come with any side effects. But who’s checking?

So, nootropics can be beneficial if you’re looking to enhance your performance working, studying or playing, but there is another side to the brain-boosting coin that might be better for you; adaptogens. Adaptogens are a set of non-toxic herbs and plants that help to regulate various bodily systems, which in turn minimizes stress both physically and mentally. They may seem to be in the same boat as nootropics because both can positively affect brain function, but whilst classic nootropics boost cognition through often increasing things, adaptogens allow the brain to function at higher levels due to less stress and a better ability to adapt. Both terms, nootropics and adaptogens, are frequently used interchangeably (L-theanine is often cited as both), partly because all adaptogens can be classified as nootropics, but not all nootropics are adaptogens.

Adaptogens have been used for centuries in Indian, Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions and include the likes of Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Maca, Cordyceps, Rhodiola and Ginseng. All mitigate stress in one way or another, whether that’s short-term stress, long-term stress or helping to support your immune system. As with nootropics, adaptogens are often stacked; if you’re an entrepreneur looking to maximize endurance, you may take a combination of Schisandra berry, Holy Basil, Maca and Ashwagandha. Likewise, if you’re feeling burnt out during a month of intense work, a combination of Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Rhodiola and Schisandra could be the yellow brick road to deep, uninterrupted sleep.

There are also a few possible benefits of adaptogens over classic nootropics. They have a less pronounced high and low (decreases the chance of any psychological dependency), less reported side effects and are generally much safer (they’re just food). Furthermore, using these food sources as a way to improve your performance is tackling the underlying issues from the bottom up. In the last article in this series, we looked at using everyday foods to affect how you feel, think and perform. Adaptogens are the next step. Nootropics are a step further than that. Jumping straight into more heavy-handed nootropics may change everything for you, but it’s also jumping off the diving board before you can tread water.

Nootropics, adaptogens, scientific names, conflicting opinions, conflicting reports, marketing hype and loose regulations. It’s a lot to consider and a lot to process if you want to find the right path for you. So, we’ve compiled five things to keep in mind when you’re wading through it all.

1. Start with yourself. Before you take on the mission to maximize your mind, have a look at your lifestyle. If you’re chronically stressed, sleep deprived, don’t get enough exercise and have takeaways four times a week, you need to sort that out first. Nootropics and adaptogens are not a replacement for a balanced life. They are extras, not a foundation.

2. Research, research, research. Hundreds of brands, hundreds of nootropics and hundreds of reviews. The only thing that’s going to get you through it all is research. You should be spending the vast majority of your time reading about substances, side effects, brands, stacks and dosages, and it should all revolve around your specific aims. Whereas reading about which foods are a wise choice for breakfast amounts to a few minutes here and there, if you want to take things further with nootropics, put in the time.

3. Talk to a professional. It isn’t a necessity, but it’s definitely advised. Brain supplements are an extremely personal thing and having a trusted source to talk to about your motivations is useful to put things in perspective. They’ll also be to connect your needs with what potentially could work, all done in a safe manner.

4. Start small and start with one. You may feel bloated eating five pineapples in an attempt to boost your serotonin levels, but it won’t do you much harm. Whilst nootropics aren’t generally considered lethal, there is room for both abuse and misadministration which can lead to severe consequences. If you know what you’re taking and how much, nootropics are safe. But with knock-off versions in circulation and a lack of regulation, it’s essential you start off your nootropic journey with small amounts. Start with a dose less than the recommended and work your way up to the recommended dose, and if you don’t feel any benefits, stop. Don’t just keep increasing a dose because you haven’t had a breakthrough yet. Even though adaptogens are safer, take a similar, careful approach. Also, start with one substance at a time. If there are ten substances in one pill, how do you know which really works?

5. Adaptogens first. Adaptogens are food, and our bodies are made for food. This doesn’t mean the first three points are redundant or that nootropics aren’t good, just that it’s a much simpler, better way to start. The aim should be to obtain the greatest result with the smallest change, and if you can get there with adaptogens, why would you go anywhere else? If a thorough trial with various adaptogens doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board, do some research, talk to a professional and look into some other reputable nootropics.

Nootropics and adaptogens can be a tool to unlocking your brain’s potential. Reading this article, however, you’ll probably have noticed few concrete recommendations, and you may be left thinking “well what nootropics do I take?” That’s because, like with everything concerning the body and mind, it is undeniably personal. What works for one person may not work for another. Considered experimentation centered on your own personal goals is the only way to use nootropics and adaptogens. You are in control, and you are responsible for the potentially mind-changing results. And who knows, maybe you’ll be able to write a book in a few days, just like Bradley Cooper did.


Next read: neurotransmitters: food for your mood and the secret to feeling on cloud nine.