You can get detailed explanations on each by reviewing the individual article dedicated to each of dozens of popular nootropics on Nootropics Expert.
Dozens of natural and synthetic substances have nootropic properties. Each fall under one of several categories affecting the brain. Each category entails a different mechanism of action, neural pathway, or part of the brain.
Here we’ll look at each category, what it is, how it works and give you examples of nootropics that can influence each one.
Table of Contents
The brain uses more energy than any other single organ in your body. Even though it represents only 2% of your body weight, it receives:
|20%||total body oxygen consumption|
|25%||total body glucose utilization|
|20%||Total body energy consumption[i]|
One recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA shows two thirds of the brain’s energy is used to help neurons or nerve cells to “fire” or send signals. The other third is used for brain “housekeeping”.
The primary source for cell energy is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The ATP produced when your brain is not active (i.e. when you’re unconscious or asleep) goes to maintenance or housekeeping.
When you’re awake and using your brain, 2/3 of your ATP fuels brain function, and the other 1/3 goes to housekeeping.[ii]
Neurotransmitters send chemical messages between neurons. Through a complex chain reaction, a neuron sends a chemical messenger (i.e. neurotransmitter) across a synapse. This messenger binds to receptors on the receiving neuron’s dendrites, and starts the process all over again.
“Scientists estimate your brain has about 86 billion neurons.[iv] Each neuron connects with up to 40,000 synapses. It’s difficult to comprehend the complexity of the brain no matter how many nootropics you take.” 🙂
Efficient signaling between neurons is critical to a highly optimized brain. When the signaling mechanism breaks down, your health breaks down along with it.
These are some of the neurotransmitters that can be helped through the use of nootropics…
Serotonin influences functions like mood, appetite and sleep. Lower than optimal levels of Serotonin results in depression and bad moods.
Dopamine is involved in controlling movement and aiding the flow of information to the front of your brain. It is linked to thought and emotion. Not enough dopamine can result in ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.
The most common neurotransmitter is glutamate. When it is released it increases the chance that the neuron will fire. Glutamate enhances energy flow among brain cells, and assists in memory and learning. Problems in making or using glutamate has been linked to autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and depression.
Norepinephrine acts as a stress hormone in parts of the brain where attention and responding actions are controlled. Along with epinephrine, norepinephrine is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. In the brain it acts like a neurotransmitter where it helps attention and focus.
Your body makes acetylcholine from choline you get from foods and supplements. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in learning and memory. It also helps the creation of healthy synapses which maintains brain plasticity.
Nootropics act to increase or modulate each of these neurotransmitters. For example, Huperzine-A limits an enzyme which blocks acetylcholine from functioning properly. Tyrosine, magnesium, turmeric, ginkgo biloba, and L-Theanine can boost dopamine. 5-HTP and L-Tryptophan can increase serotonin.
Brain Cell Health & Longevity
In 1998 scientists in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at University Hospital in Sweden proved that human adult brains have the ability to generate new neurons throughout life. This discovery finally put to rest the old theory that brain cells die off as we age. And never recover.
New neurons increase memory capacity, reduce the overlap between different memories and also add information regarding time to memories.
And when your brain goes into maintenance mode, neurogenesis ensures that neurons multiply.
Brain Blood Supply
Your brain’s plumbing, or “cerebral blood flow” uses 15% of the blood flowing from your heart.
The blood flowing through your brain delivers oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to fuel the brain’s activities.
And the outflow of blood removes carbon dioxide, lactic acid and other waste.
Blood flow slowing down, or shut down by a stroke can result in vascular dementia.
Brain waves have been studied by scientists for many years. The four categories of brain wave patterns are:
|Beta (14-100 Hz)||Concentration, arousal, alertness, cognition|
|Alpha (8-13.9 Hz)||Relaxation, super-learning, relaxed focus, light trance, increase Serotonin production|
|Theta (4-7.9 Hz)||Dreaming sleep (REM sleep), increased production of catecholamine (vital for learning and memory), increased creativity|
|Delta (.1-3.9 Hz)||Dreamless sleep, human growth hormone released, deep trance-like state (loss of body awareness), access to unconscious and “collective unconscious” mind|
We stay primarily in Beta state throughout our day.
Meditation can easily take us into an Alpha state. When you’re completely focused on work, playing music, or sports (Flow State) you often slide into Alpha.
Music with a binaural beat (i.e. Holosync) can take us into deeper states of brain wave patterns.
When you feel burnt out after a long study or work session. Or brain fog where you’re not thinking clearly. It’s “mental fatigue” wearing many different hats.
The list of causes for brain or mental fatigue is long. In brief, it can be caused by lack of oxygen in the brain, blood glucose out of control, and chronic stimulation of the brain through stress or work.
The constant state of fight-or-flight mode and lack of adequate rest can lead to breakdown.
A book can be written (and may have) on how to beat chronic stress. And heal the microbiome in your gut.
Experts in the last five years have boldly stated “heal your gut and heal your brain”. Start with a Paleo-type diet with plenty of healthy fats and organic vegetables.
Your brain is in constant repair and maintenance mode. Blood brings in nutrients and oxygen to help fuel your brain. And blood carries out carbon dioxide and other waste for disposal.
Brain damage may be repaired using nootropics depending on the length, severity and type of damage.
Brain aging can be caused by out of control free radicals in the brain. This is called oxidative stress. Free radicals damage brain cells (neurons). Some nootropics that boost choline in the brain may help prevent this damage. One study showed Noopept can assist in repairing oxidative damage.[xii]
Low levels of BDNF has been linked to many diseases including Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, obesity, depression and schizophrenia.
Earlier we talked about nootropics used to improve blood flow to your brain which can affect BDNF. You can also boost BDNF through High Intensity exercise,[xiii] and intermittent fasting or caloric restriction.[xiv]
To learn more about how each nootropic works in your brain, use the search function on Nootropics Expert. Or go to the List of Nootropics and scroll through the Table of Contents which will take you to each nootropic. And a link to its dedicated page.
[i] Magistretti P., Pellerin L., Martin J.L. “Brain Energy Metabolism” Neuropsychopharmacology: The Fifth Generation of Progress acnp.org Retrieved February 3, 2016
[iii] Balon T.W., Jasman A.P., Zhu J.S. “A fermentation product of Cordyceps sinensis increases whole-body insulin sensitivity in rats.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2002 Jun;8(3):315-23. (source)
[iv] Azevedo F.A, Carvalho L.R., Grinberg L.T., Farfel J.M., Ferretti R.E., Leite R.E., Jacob Filho W., Lent R., Herculano-Houzel S. “Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain.” The Journal of Comparative Neurology 2009 Apr 10;513(5):532-41. (source)
[vii] Wong K.H., Naidu M., David R.P., Bakar R., Sabaratnam V. “Neuroregenerative potential of lion's mane mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Bull.: Fr.) Pers. (higher Basidiomycetes), in the treatment of peripheral nerve injury (review).” International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. 2012;14(5):427-46. (source)
[viii] Takeda A., Sakamoto K., Tamano H., Fukura K., Inui N., Suh S.W., Won S.J., Yokogoshi H. “Facilitated neurogenesis in the developing hippocampus after intake of theanine, an amino acid in tea leaves, and object recognition memory.” Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology. 2011 Oct;31(7):1079-88. (source)
[ix] Kamkaew N., Norman Scholfield C., Ingkaninan K., Taepavarapruk N., Chootip K. “Bacopa monnieri increases cerebral blood flow in rat independent of blood pressure.” Phytotherapy Research. 2013 Jan;27(1):135-8. (source)
[x] Kobayashi K., Nagato Y., Aoi N., Juneja L.R., Kim M., Yamamoto T., Sugimoto S. “Effects of L-theanine on the release of α-brain waves in human volunteers” Nippon Nōgei Kagakukaishi 1998, vol. 72, no2, pp. 153-157 (source)
[xi] Berry N.M., Robinson M.J., Bryan J., Buckley J.D., Murphy K.J., Howe P.R. “Acute effects of an Avena sativa herb extract on responses to the Stroop Color-Word test.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2011 Jul;17(7):635-7. (source)
[xii] Pelsman A. et. Al. “GVS-111 prevents oxidative damage and apoptosis in normal and Down’s syndrome human cortical neurons” International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience Volume 21, Issue 3, May 2003, Pages 117–124 (source)