We’ve all heard this term, whether in casual conversation with a new acquaintance or from a stranger whispered under their breath when standing behind you in the checkout line at the grocery store. This moniker is often well-earned, as too many strength and physique athletes perpetuate this negative stereotype. Many athletes forget that a combination of mind and body not only helps one excel in academic and career pursuits but can also help them perform to the best of their ability in the athletic arena.
Nootropics are a class of drugs and supplements that has seen a rise in popularity amongst professional and amateur athletes in all sports. Supplements marketed for memory enhancement, increased cognition, anxiety control, and decreased mental fatigue have emerged with the promise of gaining a mental edge over the competition. What’s the real story?
What are nootropics?
Nootropics or “smart drugs” are defined as any nutritive substance which is thought to improve mental function, including attention, cognition, concentration, memory or motivation. Nootropic literally means “toward the mind.” The actions by which nootropics are purported to work are by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters, enzymes or hormones in the brain, as well as by increasing oxygen delivery or neural stimulation. Nootropic supplementation doesn’t offer a permanent increase in cognitive function from acute dosing, and once administration is ceased, brain function and intelligence are decreased back to baseline levels. Continued administration is therefore required to receive lasting benefits (3, 4, 5).
The term “nootropic” is not well established. As a result, many drugs and supplements that have any effect on the brain are sometimes lumped under the nootropic umbrella. This often includes compounds that offer nootropic-like effects as a secondary benefit even though they were originally intended for another purpose. This includes (but is not limited to) Phenylethylamine (PEA), Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), Huperzine A, Alpha-GPC, Hordenine, Vinpocetine, Picamilon, GABA and Melatonin, as well as many stimulants, herbal supplements and pharmaceutical medications (9). Many of these ingredients are included in popular pre-workout powders or nighttime sleep aid supplements for good reason. Taken in research supported doses and at the right time, strength athletes anecdotally have noticed increased focus and concentration during hard training, decreased anxiety on the platform, and more restful and relaxing sleep. I personally have noticed positive effects from PEA, DMAE and GABA specifically from this list and utilize them strategically during the year as part of my own supplementation regimen.
According to leading nootropic researchers, true nootropics should not only boost memory and learning ability but should also have virtually no detectable toxicity. Unlike other kinds of psychotropic drugs and supplements, nootropics should have no sedative or stimulant effects and possess negligible side effects. This rules out common supplements such as xanthines (caffeine), as well as brain boosting medications for ADHD, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (17). Often mislabeled as nootropics, drugs such as amphetamines, nicotine and narcolepsy medications all have the potential to offer benefits to the strength athlete outside of their primary usage even though they don’t fall under the nootropic categorization (7, 11). I will focus on the most commonly accepted nootropics per the classifications above, as an exhaustive list of every available drug, supplement, and food ingredient that may benefit the brain in some way is impractical for the purposes of this article.
Do they work, are they safe?
When evaluating the efficacy of true nootropic compounds, some research has shown that mental deterioration is decreased following administration in patients with cognitive disorders, and nootropic supplementation increases cognition following traumatic brain injury. It is generally accepted that the positive effects of these compounds are primarily related to their ability to increase blood flow to the brain, causing increased uptake of glucose and oxygen, as well as increased the production of neurotransmitters, which have been linked to increased attention span, mood, memory, and concentration (2, 15, 16).
There is little data on the long-term effects of nootropic compounds so caution should be taken before shot gunning high doses of the latest-and-greatest nootropic. Specifically, the racetam group of nootropic drugs fit the classification of nootropics in that they offer cognitive enhancement without the risks commonly associated with stimulant based brain boosters, including low overdose risk and few side effects(13, 14). Common side effects that have been noted include headaches, nausea, irritability, and anxiety. These symptoms appear to be unique to the individual’s tolerance to these drugs, as well as influenced by dose.
Which nootropics should I consider?
Racetams are a group of related synthetic nootropic drugs that, when combined with intentional learning practices have shown increases in the brain’s ability to form new connections in a process that is called neuroelasticity. Each racetam offers slightly differing effects and is administered in varying dosages (1, 6, 8, 10). Specific Racetams and their respective effects and dosing are noted below:
- The parent compound of the racetam class, it may provide a mild boost to brain function in cognitively impaired people. Though piracetam may be a useful supplement for improving mental longevity, it offers limited benefits for healthy, non-elderly people.
- 1,200-4,800mg a day in primarily an elderly population.
- Largest effective dose is 1,600mg, taken three times a day for a total of 4,800mg.
- A fat-soluble molecule in the racetam family, anecdotally touted to be more potent than piracetam and more catered to creativity and holistic thinking as well as reducing anxiety and depression. It is recommended to consume with dietary fat for increased absorption.
- 10-100 mg/kg BW have been used in rats in laboratory settings.
- As low as 400 mg have been reported to have some efficacy.
- It is common to take the above 1,000-1,500mg in two divided doses of 500-750mg twice daily with meals.
- One of the three first-tier racetam compounds, being produced after both piracetam and aniracetam. It appears to reduce the rate of cognitive decline during the aging process and is slightly more potent than Piracetam.
- 1,200-2,400mg taken over the course of a day, either in two to three evenly spread dosing periods (such as three doses of 400mg or 800mg).
- Similar to aniracetam in its fat soluble properties, long term usage appears to both enhance cognitive abilities as well as be neuroprotective in both research animals as well as human studies.
- 150-450mg range over the course of a day (usually divided into three even doses).
- More specifically a dose of 0.48-1.6mg/kg (for a 150lb person, 33-110mg).
- Related to other racemic drugs but currently there is little purported nootropic benefit from taking this drug.
- No dosing recommendations recommended.
- Currently under review for pharmaceutical licensing but not available as a nutritional supplement.
- Preliminary evidence suggests it is useful in aiding long-term memory formation, although currently there are no human studies in otherwise healthy youth for the purpose of cognitive enhancement.
- 400mg three times a day or 600mg twice daily for a total of 1,200mg.
- Derived from piracetam with the addition of a phenyl group to its structure. It appears to require much lower doses for similar properties, and appears to have psychostimulatory effects and enhance physical performance. Because of its physical performance benefits, it is currently banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (http://list.wada-ama.org/list/s6-stimulants/#4-phenylpiracetam). Strength athletes should cease use before drug-tested competition as well as check with their governing body regarding its use.
- 100-200mg acutely, taken 2-3 times per day for a total of 200-600mg daily.
- Often lumped into this group as it is structurally similar to the racetamsand offers similar benefits (12).
- Compared to piracetam, noopept can be taken at a much smaller oral dose (10-30mg daily, relative to piracetam at 4800mg) and may have subtle psychostimulatory effects.
Strength and physique athletes looking to maximize their supplementation plan might consider nootropic supplementation as the “icing on the cake” in their quest to be the best they can be. Claims of memory enhancement, increased cognition, anxiety control and decreased mental fatigue are almost too good to be true for some athletes. Experimentation with nootropics to assist with intense projects at work, writing research papers, and enhancing training might just be what an athlete needs to gain a mental edge over the competition. Be a meathead, just not a dumb one.
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- Dockree PM, et al. Electrophysiological markers of cognitive deficits in Traumatic Brain Injury: A review. International Journal of Psychophysiology; 2011
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