Who doesn’t want an optimized brain?

A mind that works at its peak will not only allow you to make better decisions. It will also make you a happier and more confident person.

Nootropics, aka, smart drugs are one of the ways you can boost your mental performance.

Many people use nootropics to give their brain the edge – enhancing memory, focus, mood, and creativity.

In this article, we’ll answer the question “how do nootropics work?”

We’ll also explain the benefits of nootropics, along with listing the best nootropics for optimizing brain performance.

Let’s have a look:

The Brain is an Energy-Hungry Organ

Before we go in-depth explaining nootropics, we should take a quick look at how the brain works first.

You see, it’s no secret that the brain is an extremely complex organ.

In fact, some say it’s the most complex thing in the Universe!

But what makes it stand out from the brains of other animals?

The answer: our cerebral cortex.

With over 100 billion neurons, cerebral cortex makes up for over 80% of your brain mass.

Each neuron is attached to a neuronal network with countless connections and mechanisms of interaction.

This means two things:

One, we have an incredibly complex cognitive ability and capacity. We’re the only species with the ability to be self-aware and think “outside of the box.”

Two, with so many neurons and complex processes happening in the brain, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that the brain requires more energy than any other organ in the body. (1)

In fact, even though the brain only makes up for 2% of your total body mass, it requires:

  • 20% of your body’s total energy production
  • 15% of the blood from your heart
  • 20% of the total available oxygen
  • 25% of glucose available in the body

Since the brain is so complex, the effects of each nootropic may vary from person to person.

However, scientists were able to establish the universal effects of nootropics in all healthy people. Basically, this allows us to answer the question “how do nootropics work?”.

See for yourself:

nerve cell neuron

How Do Nootropics Work – The Science

There are a number of brain pathways which nootropics affect.

Here we’ll have a look at each of them.

#1 Brain Energy

As we’ve explained above, the brain is your most energy-hungry organ.

It accounts for about 20% of the total body’s energy expenditure.

But why does the brain require so much energy?

The answer is simple:

  1. Brain Maintenance – your neurons undergo a constant cycle of birth-growth-injury-death. This process requires a vast amount of energy to maintain the balance in the brain.
  2. Information Processing – since there are 80-100 billion cells in your cerebral cortex, they require a lot of energy to do their job properly.

According to a recent American study, one-third of your brain energy is needed just to keep your neurons alive and healthy.

The other two-thirds are used as an energy source for neurons to communicate and send signals. (2)

So, what happens when your brain’s energy supply is low?

Well, all sorts of symptoms ensue.

From milder ones such as brain fog, to more serious issues such as dementia and memory loss.

See, your brain is like a car.

You can give it cheap fuel, and it will probably work, sure. But what happens when you give your car a premium fuel?

In most cases, it works better.

The same is with your brain.

You should ensure that it gets the best nutrients in order to thrive.

And that’s where nootropics come in.

These “smart drugs” are shown to boost brain energy through a number of mechanisms (1). Including:

  • Supporting the mitochondria, the powerhouses of all cells in your body (including brain cells).
  • Improving blood flow to the brain, supplying your neurons with the building blocks to grow and repair.
  • Helping with the transport of essential fatty acids and proteins into your brain cells, giving your brain the fuel it needs to maintain its processes.

brain energy, impulses firing between neurons

#2 Neurotransmitters

The second brain pathway that nootropics affect is your neuronal network.

The way your neurons communicate is by sending brain chemicals to one another.

These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters.

In essence, neurotransmitters are brain’s messengers.

And each neurotransmitter has its own function.

So, the way your neurons will respond to these neurotransmitters depends on the type of neurotransmitter that’s being sent.

Ultimately, all of these brain chemicals have one thing in common: they transmit a particular message through neurons, in order to achieve the desired cognitive result.

These are some of the most important neurotransmitters in your brain:

  • 5HT (Serotonin) – regulates mood, appetite, and sleep, among many other functions.
  • DA (Dopamine) – the reward molecule, dopamine is what makes you motivated to go after goals. This includes the basic survival needs such as getting food, but also more complex goals such as achieving financial success. In rats who were deprived of dopamine, it was found that they starved themselves to death, even though the food was right in front of them. Simply because they didn’t have the motivation to eat. That’s how important dopamine is. (3)
  • NE (norepinephrine) – keeps you focused and attentive to what’s going on around you.
  • EPI (epinephrine) – epinephrine, aka, adrenaline is what gives you bursts of intense energy. It’s also a key part of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism.
  • GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) – Unlike epinephrine, GABA sedates your body and mind. It’s essential for relaxation and good sleep. It prevents excess neuron excitation.
  • ACh (Acetylcholine) – the number one neurotransmitter in terms of memory, thinking, learning, and cognition.

A healthy brain is one that not only has optimal reserves of these neurotransmitters. It also has properly-working receptors and intra-synaptic enzymes which are all essential for brain chemical signaling.

If just one part of the process of neurotransmitter signaling gets out of balance – such as neurotransmitter uptake, release, or synthesis – your entire brain will pay the consequences. In other words, you’ll experience low mood, poor memory, etc.

So, how do nootropics work in this regard?

Simply put, nootropics help your neurotransmitters function better by:

  • Supplying the building blocks for these brain chemicals
  • Promoting the speed of neurotransmitter signaling
  • Enhancing neurotransmitter synthesis
  • Improving receptor sensitivity
  • Slowing down the reuptake, aka, breakdown of the neurotransmitter (much like an SSRI antidepressant would do, but in a natural way and with no side effects)

serotonin and dopamine chemical structures

#3 Brainwaves (Neural oscillations)

Yes, nootropics also affect your brain waves.

See, your brain is an electrically active organ.

Neural oscillations, or brain waves, make up the collective electrical activity of the brain.

There are a number of brain waves, with each having a different frequency.

Lower frequencies link to relaxed, meditative, and dream-like mental states. By contrast, higher frequencies are associated with alertness, fast thinking, and arousal.

The five main brain wave patterns include:

  • Alpha (8-12 Hz) – Raised serotonin production, relaxed focus, meditative states.
  • Beta (12-38 Hz) – The most prevalent brain state, we spend most of our day operating in this brain state. Beta brainwaves are linked to cognition, thinking, and alertness.
  • Gamma (38-40 Hz) – The highest brain frequency known to man. Also the fastest brain waves. These brainwaves promote neurogenesis, compassion, along with transcending consciousness.
  • Theta (3-8 Hz) – Achieved during deep meditations, and while transitioning from sleep to wakefulness and vice versa. Important for memory formation and creativity.
  • Delta (0.5-3 Hz) – Associated with trance-like states, deep dreamless sleep, extremely deep and advanced meditations, and human growth hormone spurts.

Certain nootropics can regulate brain-waves by promoting calm, peaceful mental states while inhibiting excess stimulation.

The most popular nootropic for this use is L-Theanine.

Studies have found that it can raise alpha wave brain states. Helping with relaxation, productivity, and creativity. (4)

an illustration of brainwaves