If you've seen the movie Limitless, you know it's based on the widely-held fantasy that there may exist an as-yet-undiscovered drug that unlocks oceans of unused potential in our brains - allowing you or I to have at our command the brain power of a Nicola Tesla or a Stephen Hawking, at least while the drug is having its effect. Of course, this "Limitless" drug does not actually exist (at least not yet), but that doesn't mean there's not an entire world of brain enhancing chemicals (referred to as nootropics) that can produce substantial brain-enhancing effects.
The world of nootropics is a big and often confusing one, with dozens (maybe even hundreds) of unique chemicals that all promise impressive effects. Some of these are legitimate, but a lot of them amount to an expensive waste of your time. A comprehensive summary of nootropics would take way longer than I want to spend writing or you want to spend reading. With this article I'll do my best to give you a "lay of the land" so-to-speak - a map for understanding what works and what doesn't, as well as what works for YOU, specifically. For this article, I'll simplify nootropics into 3 categories, Acetylcholine-modulators, GABA-modulators and "The Others".
(note: the hyperlinks throughout the article will all take you to recommended brands for any of the nootropics listed)
These are the prototypical nootropics, and the ones you'll encounter most commonly as you navigate this world. Acetylcholine is a fundamental neurotransmitter in your brain and nervous system. It's primary function seems to be as an "excitatory neurotransmitter", meaning its presence in a synapse excites or "primes" the neuron, making it more likely to "fire" and conduct a signal. When your brain has higher synaptic levels of acetylcholine, more signals will be sent and the brain will be more active.
The "-racetam" family of nootropics are the most common examples of this. Their exact mechanism of action is not precisely known, but we do know that they all either raise synaptic levels of acetylcholine or amplify the effects of existing acetylcholine in the brain. If the -racetams work well for you, expect to feel a light-to-moderate stimulation and a general quickness and sharpening of thought.
Piracetam is probably the most common -racetam, and has been widely used for quite a while. It doesn't produce dramatic effects like some of the others in this family, which makes it a bit more sustainable to use frequently. Phenylpiracetam is a more recent entry into the world of nootropics, and it has gained popularity quite quickly. The effects are a lot more dramatic than with piracetam, and you will almost-certainly notice a stimulation and sharpening of thought. Noopept (GVS-111) is a cousin of the -racetam family, but also works similarly on the acetylcholine system. Potency and effects are similar to phenylpiracetam. All of the -racetams have slightly different effects for different people, which is why there is such a diversity of them available on the market. If you want to get the maximum benefit out of these products, it will require some experimentation to find both your perfect variety and dosage.
DOSING - If you're looking to dive into the world of -racetam nootropics, I recommend starting with either phenylpiracetam or noopept. Try an initial dose of 50mg of phenylpiracetam and work up in 20mg intervals until you find the dose that works best for you. If you're trying noopept, start with 20mg and work upwards in 10mg intervals.
FREQUENCY - Some people out there use -racetams on a daily basis. I do not recommend this. Just as I feel with coffee (or any other performance-enhancer), it is best to let your body's natural chemical systems recover with breaks between usage. I recommend using -racetams not more than once or twice a week.
SIDE EFFECTS - Increased stress is a common side effect of -racetam usage. Generally this happens at the tail end of a -racetam experience and is amplified when these products are used several days in a row (which is why I recommend using them only a couple times a week). Headaches can also be a result of -racetam use, but a lot of the risk here can be mitigated by "stacking" (see below).
STACKING - -racetams put a heavy demand on your acetylcholine system, making it essential to "stack" them with choline, a natural amino acid your body uses as the precursor in making more acetylcholine. Headaches that result from -racetam usage are almost always due to a deficiency in choline. I strongly advise against taking -racetams without choline. Taking 200-400mg of GPC Choline with your -racetam will minimize the potential for headaches. If stress is an issue for you with -racetams, consider stacking them with low-doses of GABA modulators (see below).
IDEAL USE SCENARIO - For me, -racetams help me hop into a "flow-state" where analytical/organizational tasks are performed with more sharpness and fluidity, while creativity perhaps suffers a bit. I use -racetams very infrequently, but when I do use them, it's for long days of tasks such as accounting or answering emails. There is also some evidence that -racetams have performance benefits for athletes, particularly endurance athletes. (phenylpiracetam is actually a banned substance for olympic athletes)
GABA-modulators represent the other (very different) primary kingdom within the nootropic universe. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is your brain's primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, responsible for anxiety-relieving and relaxing effects in the body. This might not immediately sound like something that improves cognitive performance, but for many people, GABA-modulators are far more effective cognitive enhancers than anything stimulatory. The idea is that we all carry around a lot of stress that consumes brain power by running thought processes both in your subconscious and conscious awareness. Those nagging stress-related thoughts about money, relationships, your professional life (and whatever else) are consuming brain power, even if most of the time they are operating in your subconscious. Using a GABA-modulator helps to minimize anxiety and thus, take some of the fuel out of these stress-related thought processes. This frees up cognitive power to focus on other things.
GABA taken in a chemically-identical form to what is naturally found in the brain, is the original and still the most common GABA-modulator. It is effective for some people, but most of what you consume will be broken down in your gut and blood-brain barrier by the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAOI). As a result, taking GABA is not as effective as some other GABA-modulators we'll cover here. In fact, GABA is completely ineffective for a large portion of the population, likely because they have naturally higher levels of MAOI. Phenibut (phenyl-aminobutytic acid) is the second most common GABA-modulator, and the most effective in my opinion. Essentially just a slightly-modified version of GABA, phenibut readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and produces powerful anxiety-relieving and nootropic effects. Picamilon is a newer GABA-modulator. It is effectively just GABA bonded to vitamin B6, which allows it to move easily into the brain. It is popular among people looking for a less-dramatic version of phenibut. L-Theanine is also a newer entry into the market. It is naturally found in tea and is responsible for the calming effects of drinking tea. Rather than acting directly on GABA receptors in the way all of the previous chemicals do, L-Theanine raises your brain's natural levels of GABA.
DOSING - Phenibut has been my GABA-modulator (and nootropic) of choice for a while, and I recommend starting there. Start with a dose of 500mg and work up in 200mg intervals until you find your ideal dose (700mg is my perfect dose). For me, doses above 1500mg become more recreational, as the relaxation and mild euphoria dominate and the nootropic effects start to take a back seat.
FREQUENCY - Like with acetylcholine-modulators, once or twice a week is the upper-end of what I recommend for GABA-modulator usage. Using GABA-modulators more frequently open up the potential for "rebound anxiety", meaning that your brain's natural GABA system will be suppressed a bit and anxiety will increase when the effects of the GABA-modulator wear off.
SIDE EFFECTS - The primary side effect, as mentioned above, is rebound anxiety. Most people sleep *very* well when using GABA-modulators, but can experience sleep disruption the day after use. Avoid taking GABA modulators consecutive days or more than twice a week and you should avoid negative side effects.
STACKING - It's not necessary to stack GABA-modulators with another supplement as it is with acetylcholine-modulators and choline. However, many people find that combining GABA-modulators with caffeine enhances the nootropic effects considerably.
IDEAL USE SCENARIO - GABA-modulators are best at helping to put you in a flow state where language, communication and creativity are enhanced. Writing is a great application for GABA-modulators, as is public-speaking or work-related meetings.
This list could be pages and pages long, as there are tons of plants and chemicals out there with nootropic effects. Here, I'll cover 4 of the most common and effective.
CAFFEINE - The quintessential nootropic, even if most people don't think of it that way. I covered everything you need to know about how to get the maximum benefit out of caffeine in The Truth About Caffeine and Coffee.
CACAO - Cacao contains a set of natural compounds that each enhance mental function, and the combined effect is significant. Theobromine is the primary nootropic compound in cacao. It is a cardiovascular stimulant, meaning it increases delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, including to the brain. More oxygen and nutrients delivered to the brain equals better mental performance. Cacao also contains anadamide and phenyethylamine, both of which have been shown to improve mood. The big dose of premium-quality raw cacao in Synchro Genesis accounts for a lot of its mental performance-enhancing effects. If you're looking for more info on the magic of raw cacao, I covered the subject at length in Why Chocolate Is The World's Greatest Food.
CREATINE - Creatine is an organic acid that is an essential component of your body's energy systems. Since the brain uses somewhere around 1/4 to 1/3 of the body's total energy supply, improving your body's energy systems can have big effects on mental performance. A 2003 study showed that vegetarians and vegans that supplemented with 5g of creatine per day saw a 21% increase in IQ scores at the end of a 3 week period. The study was done on vegetarians and vegans because they don't get creatine in their diets (you do get it from eating meat, however). The magnitude of the improvement shown in the study is enough for me to enthusiastically recommend daily creatine supplementation for everyone, regardless of if you eat meat or not (and *especially* if you don't!). Start with 5-10g of creatine monohydrate per day. For more on creatine supplementation, see Power Your Brain with Creatine Supplementation.
BACOPA MONNERI - Bacopa is somewhat of a mystery in the world of nootropics because the mechanism of action is so unclear. Yet, the effectiveness for a huge number of people makes it impossible to ignore. Several studies have clearly shown improved memory recall and mood enhancement. Bacopa has also been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to improve mental function, so there is a long history of (safe) use. Extracts standardized to 20% baccosides (the active chemicals) are the most commonly available form. Start with 250mg of 20% extract and work up in 100mg intervals until you find your ideal dose.