Do Brain Supplements Really Work?
Cognitive performance is a dynamic aspect of brain function that relies on the efficiency of neurobiological processes and the structural integrity of the brain. Our mind performs at its best when every element of the cognitive machinery is working optimally.
But we all know that’s not always the case. Our mental performance can be affected by all sorts of health and lifestyle factors such as stress, quality of sleep, physical activity, and diet. So we can easily find ourselves not being able to cope with the mental demands we’re faced with. That’s where brain supplements, or nootropics, come in.
What Are Nootropics?
The term nootropic derives from the Greek words nous (mind) and trepein (turn, bend)—“mind-bender”. It was coined in 1972 by the Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea who pioneered early nootropics that were believed to act as cognitive enhancers.
The term nootropic derives from the Greek words nous (mind) and trepein (turn, bend)—“mind-bender”.
Nootropics are compounds that selectively influence higher brain functions, i.e., cognition and behavior [1–3]. In its original definition, a substance would qualify as a nootropic if it enhanced memory and learning, increased resistance of brain function to disruptive conditions, protected the brain from physical and chemical injuries, and improved neuronal firing control, while having very few or no side effects and being virtually non-toxic .
In its current common use, the concept of nootropic has evolved and broadened to encompass any bioactive substance believed to act on the central nervous system to enhance cognitive function, mood, and/or sociability in healthy individuals. Nootropics act by supporting and protecting, either directly or indirectly, different aspects of the functional and structural health of the brain. By doing so, they can help optimize cognitive function and performance and enhance motivation and our ability to focus, sustain attention, recall information, and think clearly.
Do Nootropics Work?
Whether or not a nootropic works is often a subjective feeling. Something may work for one person but not for another for reasons that may range from physiological characteristics and health status to dietary patterns and other lifestyle factors. Because of this, a common saying in the Nootropic community is “your mileage may vary.” And an emphasis has been on self-experimentation and N of 1 experiences.
Many nootropics have been studied in high-quality, rigorous, placebo-controlled scientific studies in humans and have shown evidence of safely enhancing cognitive function. So we believe we can say with confidence that there are nootropics that do work. But we also think that, in general, there is still a great need for more and better studies with healthy individuals.
Many nootropics have been studied in high-quality, rigorous, placebo-controlled scientific studies in humans and have shown evidence of safely enhancing cognitive function.
Studies in research animals or in vitro don’t provide evidence of working in humans, but they may provide proof of mechanism and proof of principle, i.e., they may show that a given compound targets a certain process or pathway of interest in such a way that may potentially lead to the enhancement of cognitive function. There are many nootropics whose use, and our understanding of how they function in the brain, is based on this type of evidence.
Additionally, findings from N of 1 experiences with individual nootropics and nootropic stacks shared by the biohacker community also provide valuable information. Even if the evidence is anecdotal, the sum of many N of 1 experiences allows us to find patterns of efficacy and safety.
How Do Brain Supplements Work?
There are different types of mechanisms of nootropic activity, depending on what a compound targets, which can be:
- neurotransmitter synthesis and recycling;
- neuronal communication, synaptic transmission, and synaptic plasticity;
- cerebral blood flow;
- cerebral metabolism and energy production;
- neuronal structure, neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, and neuronal growth;
- neuroprotection and cerebral detoxification;
- sleep quality and nighttime physiology.
The cognitive-enhancing effects of nootropics are a consequence, either direct or indirect, of these mechanisms of action. Many brain supplements are simply molecules that support the brain’s natural physiology and that, by doing so, help enhance the cognitive functions those physiological processes support: memory and learning, executive functions, language, perception, reasoning, attention, focus, creativity, motivation, mood, and sociability.
You May Recognize Some Brain Enhancers
Nootropics have actually been used for centuries. Take coffee as an example: drinking it for its energizing and mental stimulant effects is a habit that dates back centuries—it’s old-school neurohacking! Coffee has these effects because of caffeine’s psychoactive actions: it is a brain stimulant that promotes wakefulness and enhances attention, reaction time, and information processing [4,5]. Therefore, we can think of caffeine as a time-honored nootropic.
We can think of caffeine as a time-honored nootropic.
In addition to caffeine, many other well-known substances have nootropic mechanisms of action. In fact, substances with nootropic activity are abundant and some are even quite common. Although some brain supplements may be synthetic compounds, most nootropics are naturally occurring compounds such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, botanical extracts, mushrooms, or other dietary substances.
Some examples of well-known compounds with nootropic mechanisms of action include:
- B vitamins
Given that brain enhancers are naturally found in foods and beverages, they can be consumed as part of a healthy diet. But they can also be taken as supplements, which have the advantage of providing larger amounts of nootropic compounds, more in line with studied amounts that may contribute more significantly to an enhancement of cognitive performance.
What Does Qualia Offer?
Neurohacker Collective began with a focus on cognitive products with the launch of our Qualia nootropic line. Our scientific approach to nootropic formulation is based on complex systems science. This approach acknowledges that our brain is a complex, dynamic, and tightly self-regulated network of interconnected neurobiological processes. Rather than trying to override the brain’s regulatory systems, we aim to support its endogenous capacity for adaptation and upregulation in response to mental challenges.
By combining knowledge about the neurophysiology and neurobiology of cognitive performance with knowledge about the mechanisms of action of nootropic molecules, we are able to select and combine nootropics in ways that allow for a comprehensive support of cognitive function—what we call a whole system upgrade.
This was one of our goals when we developed Qualia Mind, our flagship nootropic product. Qualia Mind combines ingredients with different and complementary mechanisms of nootropic activity targeting different aspects of healthy brain function and cognitive performance: neuronal structure and function, neurotransmitter signaling, neuronal communication, synaptic transmission, neuroplasticity, neuroprotective and antioxidant functions, cerebral blood flow, and cerebral bioenergetics and metabolism. This results in a supplement that comprehensively supports cognition. You can learn more about it in our article about the science behind Qualia Mind.
Nootropics can also be combined in ways that allow for more targeted interventions in the brain. That’s the case with Qualia Focus, which combines ingredients that have been carefully selected to support the alertness, attention, focus, motivation, energy, and resources needed to sustain demanding mental activity.
Another approach to the enhancement of cognitive function with brain supplements is to support sleep quality and nighttime physiology with nighttime nootropics, as we call them at Neurohacker Collective. That was one of our goals when we developed Qualia Night. Nighttime nootropics are ingredients that contribute to next-day cognitive performance by helping the brain perform the many tasks that go on while we sleep and that are equally essential for brain function: rest, clean up, organize, and recharge. You can learn more about supporting the brain’s nighttime physiology in our article about the science behind Qualia Night.
The versatility of brain supplements is one of their great advantages. Different people have different needs, but because different nootropics target different aspects of cognitive performance, they can be combined in different ways according to the outcomes you’re looking for.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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