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What are Nootropics?

Tuesday July 14, 2020
What are Nootropics?

Feeling a little forgetful?  Does your brain feel sluggish and foggy?  Read on, you may be interested in nootropics. We explore the herbs and nutrients considered to be nootropics and the foods to avoid which are known to decrease cognitive function.

Nootropic is the term used for cognitive enhancers; the term came from the Ancient Greek words meaning to shape the mind.  In today’s modern world, nootropics can be any compound, botanical or nutrient that results in improved cognition, working memory and learning and support brain function.

Powering the brain


Interestingly, the brain weighs 3% of total body weight, but requires much more of the body's total blood supply and oxygen – up to 15%. The brain is fuelled by glucose or ketone bodies, when in a state of glucose scarcity.  Subsequently the brain demands a large volume of vital nutrients to function optimally.

Nootropics are considered useful to support mentally demanding tasks, a forgetful episode, stress induced brain fog and study.  They are of interest to professionals and students to support their daily cognitive performance.

Making smart choices


Several nutrients and botanicals are considered as nootropics:

Choline is a member of the B vitamin family and upon consumption is used to produce acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter involved in cognition, learning and memory.  This is especially useful in children, the elderly and those planning a pregnancy.  B vitamins work synergistically and so the rest of the B vitamin family are necessary to assist the function of Choline and acetylcholine.

Brahmi, also called Bacopa monnieri is an herb used throughout Ayurvedic medicine for its cognition enhancing effects.  Often taken as a tea, it is considered that the Brahmi-specific compounds called bacosides, which are a class of saponins are responsible for cognitive enhancement.  Research shows that the best results are reported between 8-12 weeks of regular intake.

Lemon Balm has attracted public and scientific interest in recent years.  In herbal medicine it was used to balance neurotransmitters to improve mood.  While recent studies have reported an improvement in cognitive performance after one 600mg serving of lemon balm extract.

Other nootropics that are attracting interest are Rhodiola rosea and Ginkgo biloba, besides omega-3 essential fatty acids and phosphatidylserine.

Foods to avoid for brain health


Skip these foods to support your brain health


When optimising the diet to support brain health, it is important to reduce the foods that are known to decrease cognitive function.

1.      Sugar

Sugar is highly palatable and triggers reward seeking behaviours.  In fact, excessive sugar intake is related to adverse brain function, especially worsened memory.

2.      Sweeteners

Sweeteners such as Aspartame have been associated with neurological and behavioural disturbances.  Aspartame has been reported to influence neurotransmitters that prolong the activation of brain cells, which is known to damage the brain cells and promote cognitive disorders.

3.      Trans fats

Trans-fats are produced when oils are heated or highly processed, for example, hydrogenated fats or margarine.  Although the primary health risk identified from trans-fat consumption is the increased risk of coronary heart disease, trans-fats have been shown to damage brain cells that may result in diminished cognitive performance, increase the risk of depression and promote age-related cognitive decline.

4.      Stimulants

Stimulant compounds such as caffeine, guarana and taurine in energy drinks are often promoted as nootropics.  But issues can arise around tolerance, side effects, feeling jittery and unable to sleep at night.  Surprisingly, these compounds are termed anti-nutrients as they require more nutrients than they provide to process them through the body. Plus, the impacts can be negative, chances are we all can remember how we feel after a night of poor sleep. Likewise, there can be physiological consequences for taking excessive amounts of stimulants. Namely upon the cardiovascular system, stimulants increase heart rate, blood pressure and stress on the heart muscle which can cause to damage of the organ alongside excessive oxidative damage.  


In summary, improve your brain health by replacing simple carbohydrates and sugar, sweeteners and trans-fats with nootropic nutrients.  There are plenty to choose from, Choline, Brahmi, Sage and Lemon Balm have independently been shown to improve cognitive function and support the brain.

Author: Jenny Carson is a Nutritional Practitioner and Technical Services Manager at Viridian Nutrition. She holds a BSc honours degree in Nutritional Science and is a Master of Research (MRes) in Public Health.

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Freeman CR, Zehra A, Ramirez V, Wiers CE, Volkow ND, Wang GJ. Impact of sugar on the body, brain, and behavior. Front Biosci (Landmark Ed). 2018; 23:2255-2266.

Ginter E, Simko V. New data on harmful effects of trans-fatty acids. Bratisl Lek Listy. 2016; 117(5): 251-253.

Giurgea, C.E. (1982), The nootropic concept and its prospective implications. Drug Dev. Res., 2: 441-446.

Humphries, P., Pretorius, E. & Naudé, H. Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. Eur J Clin Nutr 62, 451–462 (2008).

Suliman, Noor Azuin et al. “Establishing Natural Nootropics: Recent Molecular Enhancement Influenced by Natural Nootropic.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine: eCAM vol. 2016 (2016): 4391375.

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.


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