What could you achieve if you had a little more focus in your day? What if your memory was sharper or you could organise your thoughts with greater clarity? Nootropics are one way to support your brain’s full potential.
Towards the Mind
In 1972, Romanian scientist Corneliu E. Giurgea coined the term nootropic following years of research into what he referred to as the brain’s “higher integrative functions”(1). His concept of nootropics was derived from the Greek words nous, which means “mind” and tropē, which means “turning” or “towards” to highlight the benefits of nootropics for enhancing thinking and mental performance.
Dr. Giurgea proposed a set of criteria for a substance to be considered a nootropic, including a requirement that it must help to enhance cognitive functions such as learning and memory, and that it must be safe and non-toxic (1). While some of the early research in the area of nootropics was focused on synthetic chemicals, more recent research has focused on nutrients, botanical extracts, and other natural substances that support brain health as well as cognitive function.
The human brain has been called the most complex object in the universe with good reason. It is comprised of an estimated 86 billion neurons (2). These highly specialized cells connect to many other neurons to share information through chemical and electrical signals, creating trillions of connections throughout the brain (2). The coordinated action of neurons in many different regions of the brain are responsible for nearly everything you do from regulating basic body functions like heart rate and breathing, to integrating information from your senses, to remembering where you left your keys.
But all this processing power comes at a high cost. The brain weighs about 3 pounds, making up only 2% of an average person’s total weight. However, it consumes an impressive 20% of the body’s oxygen supply, as well as an outsized share of nutrients and energy (3). Because the brain takes such a large share of the body’s resources just for basic operations, conditions that are less than ideal can have a noticeable impact on the brain’s most complex functions. For example, when you are stressed, hungry, or didn’t get a good night’s sleep, you’re not likely to achieve your best cognitive performance (4-6). A healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward achieving your full cognitive potential, but additional support from nootropics can help to give you a mental advantage (7-9).
Neuroscientists describe higher integrative functions as our most sophisticated thinking skills, such as reasoning, creative problem-solving, decision-making, and executive functions. These mental abilities require the integration of many cognitive elements like attention, memory, perception, and more (10). Unlike many other processes in the brain that are essentially automatic and below our conscious awareness, higher integrative functions are both voluntary and effortful.
It is these types of cognitive functions that nootropics are intended to benefit the most, although different nootropic substances help to enhance brain function in different ways. Natural nootropics include nutrients that help to support the structure and function of the brain and other bioactive components that contribute to optimal cognitive performance. Some nootropic substances help to promote more efficient communication between neurons and can lead to benefits like improved learning and memory (11). Others help to enhance the brain’s defence against oxidative stress, helping to protect neurons from free radicals and maintain optimal functioning (9).
The human brain is a marvel of complexity that not only coordinates and controls the basic operation of the body, but is capable of reasoning, problem-solving, and creativity. Cognitive performance is dependent on conditions within the body and is influenced by overall health and well-being. Nootropics are one way to support your brain’s full potential for a stronger mental edge.
- Giurgea C. Vers une pharmacologie de l’activité intégrative du cerveau. Tentative du concept nootrope en psychopharmacologie [Pharmacology of integrative activity of the brain. Attempt at nootropic concept in psychopharmacology]. Actual Pharmacol (Paris). 1972;25:115-156.
- Tang Y, Nyengaard JR, De Groot DM, Gundersen HJ. Total regional and global number of synapses in the human brain neocortex. Synapse. 2001;41(3):258-273. doi:10.1002/syn.1083
- Raichle ME, Gusnard DA. Appraising the brain’s energy budget. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002;99(16):10237-10239. doi:10.1073/pnas.172399499
- Shields GS, Sazma MA, Yonelinas AP. The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016;68:651-668. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.06.038
- Sommerfield AJ, Deary IJ, McAulay V, Frier BM. Moderate hypoglycemia impairs multiple memory functions in healthy adults. Neuropsychology. 2003;17(1):125-132.
- Killgore WD. Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition. Prog Brain Res. 2010;185:105-129. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00007-5
- Angevaren M, Aufdemkampe G, Verhaar HJ, Aleman A, Vanhees L. Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;(3):CD005381. Published 2008 Jul 16. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub3
- Morley JE. Cognition and nutrition. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2014;17(1):1-4. doi:10.1097/MCO.0000000000000005
- Onaolapo AY, Obelawo AY, Onaolapo OJ. Brain Ageing, Cognition and Diet: A Review of the Emerging Roles of Food-Based Nootropics in Mitigating Age-related Memory Decline. Curr Aging Sci. 2019;12(1):2-14. doi:10.2174/1874609812666190311160754
- Cristofori I, Cohen-Zimerman S, Grafman J. Executive functions. Handb Clin Neurol. 2019;163:197-219. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-804281-6.00011-2
- Glade MJ, Smith K. Phosphatidylserine and the human brain. Nutrition. 2015;31(6):781-786. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2014.10.014