As many of you may know, I’m big in to brain nutrition. It’s something I’ve experimented with for a while and do have a substantial amount of anecdotal experience in. Now although boosting brain power may sound sexy, there definitely are some do’s and don’t’s when it comes to enhancing cognition.
Let’s get started: What is a Nootropic?
A Nootropic is the term given to any substance that enhances your mental capacity. This can be in the form of mood, memory, motivation or creativity. The compounds found in Nootropics are usually precursors for neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers in the brain. Despite there being a multitude of different neurotransmitters that impact our emotional state, Acetylcholine, Dopamine and Serotonin tend to get the majority of the attention when it comes to clinical research.
It goes without saying that I am not a brain scientist. I am just a guy with a laptop with an interest in human performance. I will not attempt to explain any form of brain chemistry, all I will do here is present a Lehman’s term review of the basic mechanisms behind these supplements. The placebo impact can never be overlooked and despite it seeming cool to find the “Limitless” pill, you are just wasting money if objective data that shows no increases in valid biomarkers.
Here is a list of supplements I have tried and researched:
Nootropics: An introduction to the research
There is a substantial amount of research in to Nootropics and an array of studies that show some interesting findings. I usually scoff at anything conducted in rats, as low and behold, I’m not a rat. However it was found that a “brain stack” called MEMACIN did impact performance in a maze exploration test in different groups of mice. The reason I like this study is because there were various groups, some of which were given a diet deficient in Folic Acid and Vitamin E.
Although I’m not that clued up on the impact a Vitamin E deficiency would have, I can say that a folate deficiency would directly affect brain development and therefore impair cognition. This studies findings were cool because there was an improvement of 15% in the deficient rats given MEMACIN. This is a pretty good indicator that taking this particular stack does increase mental performance.
The reason you have to be aware of Nootropics is when given to a human trial, 73% of subjects reported the highest level of increase in mental sharpness. Why am I dubious about this? Well quite a few humans have seen the film “Limitless” and I doubt any of the rats did. If it ain’t double blind, I’m not convinced. I believe that without a placebo group it’s very difficult to determine the full impact of the supplement. There would need to be more quantitive data such as an IQ test score for example, rather than something subjective like a questionnaire.
So what was in MEMACIN? Glad you asked. It was actually and absolute doozy of a supplement containing Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Phosphatidylerine, Alpha GPC, DHA, EPA and ALA. Now there are two types of people in the world. Those who found that last sentence extremely exciting and those who didn’t.
As far as brain stacks go, that’s a pretty good one. What’s also cool is that they actually tested different compositions of MEMACIN to see the impact this had on cognition. This is important as it gives more of an indication to what specific component may be having more of an affect than others. Maybe there’s no need to take a stack when just one ingredient delivers the same improvement in performance.
This was my aim for the investigation. Why take a tonne of supplements and waste money when you can hone in on one fact that works well for you. In a study conducted last year looking at the ergogenic affects of Nootropics, it was found there was little difference in physical and cognitive performance in taking 250mg and 500mg of Alpha-GPC. In fact, the lower dose (250mg) actually had a better effect on the counter movement jump test. This is useful as it shows that more doesn’t always mean better.
Physiologically L-Tyrosine is a good shout as it’s a precursor to Dopamine and Dopamine makes you feel pretty damn good. The research for Tyrosine doesn’t look good though, with dosages of 150 milligrams having no real impact on strength or endurance. This being said, I like it in the form of Java Stim where it is mixed with Caffeine and Phenylalanine. The reason for this is because I personally notice an increase in controlled aggression. If I need to lift heavy on big movements, it’s a go to for me.
I always include some form of research in my articles just to show that they’re not subjective pieces where I may have an agenda. I like the rat studies as it’s easier to control variables and you can delve a lot deeper in to physiological markers through dissection. Human studies are obviously a lot more complex, especially when it comes to some “perspective” such as cognition.
As shown above, there are actually some studies that show what I’m currently doing may not be optimal. This being said, here is a list of my non-scientific anecdotal experiences from using an array of Nootropics.
1. What you do is as important as what you take
Alpha GPC does not make you smart. Chinning a tonne of supplements will not do anything if you’re already thick as pig shit. When taking Nootropics you must be about to do something that stimulates your brain, such as reading, writing, playing an instrument or training. Nootropics are merely catalysts in my opinion, they don’t work unless you do.
2. Triggers are essential
When taking certain blends, specifically Caffeine and L-Tyrosine there is definitely a calm before the storm. You may feel pretty normal, like nothings happening and the supplement hasn’t worked. However, when a song with a heavy beat kicks in, you’re going to feel like you’ve just double dropped at a Swedish House Mafia concert. This is an incredible feeling and one that gives you the illusive “training high”.
3. Overstimulation isn’t pleasant
Christian Thibaudeau explained the impact of Dopamine during his Neurotyping seminar. Without going in to too much detail, you can over consume supplements leading to “Dopamine steal” which leaves you a jittery, drivelling mess. This isn’t nice and can huge severe ramifications in the form of anxiety and lack of sleep. You may also find you become briefly addicted to over stimulation and cannot pry yourself away from your phone. Just like any other area, balance is key.
4. Different stacks have different effects
I’ve gotten to the stage now where I can get quite precise with my pre-workout blends. I’ll take supplements to improve focus, supplements to increase arousal and supplements to improve muscle contractions. This is useful for anyone using an undulating periodisation approach as you can actually cycle your brain nutrition depending on whether you’re in an accumulation or intensification phase. Cycling your supplements is essential as it prevents becoming numb or immune to the effects. This is why I’ve tried so many different blends. Just like any other area, overdoing one supplements isn’t wise.
5. Your unique biochemistry will play a role in supplement uptake and utilisation
You may remember before me getting rather over enthusiastic about the rat study. This is because there was a group that were deficient in folate that plays a part in brain development. Our own deficiencies and biological make up will directly affect how well a supplement works. If you are deficient in Choline, taking Alpha GPC may make you feel like you’re superhuman, whereas the same dosage may have no impact on someone with a Cholesterol rich diet. It all depends on a lot of factors. This is why I’ve provided a little bit of scientific evidence. There is a huge difference between science and real life, especially when it comes to a “grey” area such as brain nutrition.
Brain boosting is a very cool topic. However after reading this, don’t be fooled in to thinking a supplement will turn you in to rain man. Although I’ve tried a lot of Nootropics, I can wholeheartedly say that nothing boosts brain power more than quality sleep, water and stress management. Supplementation will always come second to maximising these factors. Taking Modanifil and a double expresso after 3 hours sleep has a very short life span in terms of effectiveness.
When it boils down to it, Nootropics are the icing on a very well balanced cake that are only applicable when every other aspect is in check. Before investing, make sure all your foundations are consistent and optimal.
Black, M.M (2008) Effects of vitamin b12 and folate deficiency on brain development in children, Food and Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 29, issue 2
Farese, S. (2010) Dietary supplemental composition effective for enhancing cognitive performance, elevating mood and reducing stress, Patent Application Publication
Hoffman, J.R. et al (2010) The effects of acute and prolonged CRAM supplementation on reaction time and subjective measures of focus and alertness in healthy college students, Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 7:39
Marcus, L., Soileau, J., Judge, L.W., Bellar, D. Evaluation of the effects of two doses of alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine on physical and psychomotor performance (2017) Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 14:39
McGarel, C., Pentieva, K., Strain. J.J., McNulty, H, (2014) Emerging roles for folate and related B-vitamins in brain health across the lifecycle, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Vol. 74, Issue 1, pp. 46-55
Parker, A.G., Byars, A., Purpura, M., Jager, R. (2015) The effects of alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, caffeine or placebo on markers of mood, cognitive function, power, speed and agility, Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 12:41
Sutton E: Ingestion of tyrosine: Effects on endurance, muscle strength, and anaerobic performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2005, 15: 173-85
Ziegenfuss, T., Landis, J., Hofheins, J. (2008) Acute supplementation with alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine augments growth hormone response to, and peak force production during, resistance exercise, Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 5:15