Food & Nutrition

What Are Nootropics—and Can They Really Make You Smarter?

We all want to focus longer, think faster, and be more creative, and some say these substances may be the answer. But are supplements or drugs appropriate sources?

Nootropics aren’t a new idea

Beatiful Ginko leaf in summer timeKars/Shutterstock

A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.

Coffee

CoffeeAlpha_7D/Shutterstock

Do you start your day with a cup (or two, or three) of coffee? It tastes delicious, but it’s also jump-starting your brain because of its caffeine content. Caffeine is definitely a nootropic substance—it’s a mild stimulant that can alleviate fatigue and improve concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Current research shows that coffee drinkers don’t suffer any ill effects from drinking up to about four cups of coffee per day. Caffeine is also found in tea, soda, and energy drinks. Not too surprisingly, it’s also in many of the nootropic supplements that are being marketed to people looking for a mental boost. Take a look at these 7 genius brain boosters to try in the morning.

Tea

green teataa22/Shutterstock

When you drink tea, you’re getting some caffeine (less than the amount in coffee), plus an amino acid called L-theanine that has been shown in studies to increase activity in the brain’s alpha frequency band, which can lead to relaxation without drowsiness. These calming-but-stimulating effects might contribute to tea’s status as the most popular beverage aside from water. People have been drinking it for more than 4,000 years, after all, but modern brain hackers try to distill and enhance the benefits by taking just L-theanine as a nootropic supplement. Unfortunately, that means they’re missing out on the other health effects that tea offers. It’s packed with flavonoids, which are associated with longevity, reduced inflammation, weight loss, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention.

Nicotine

 lot of cigarettes. Harm to health. Bad habit. Smoking Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock

One fairly powerful nootropic substance that, appropriately, has fallen out of favor is nicotine. It’s the chemical that gives tobacco products their stimulating kick. It isn’t what makes them so deadly, but it does make smoking very addictive. When Europeans learned about tobacco’s use from indigenous tribes they encountered in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they got hooked on its mood-altering effects right away and even believed it could cure joint pain, epilepsy, and the plague. Recently, researchers have been testing the effects of nicotine that’s been removed from tobacco, and they believe that it might help treat neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia; it may also improve attention and focus. But, please, don’t start smoking or vaping. Check out these 14 weird brain exercises that make you smarter.

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