Do nootropics work? And if so, how? The best brain-boosting nootropic supplements do appear to work, as evidenced by research demonstrating their benefits for enhanced cognitive function and overall brain health.
But when we ask the question "How do nootropics work," definitive answers are harder to come by -- partly due to the brain's complexity. Researchers have proposed that nootropics appear to work across multiple brain pathways, optimizing the brain's various structures and functions in many different ways.
This guide discusses the evidence and theories behind how nootropics work, and how one formula delivers the best nootropics that work in a single supplement.
The Human Brain: The Most Complex Object in the Known Universe
To understand how nootropics work, we need to consider how the brain works.
Relative to other mammalian brains, the human brain stands out by having an overdeveloped cerebral cortex, representing over 80% of total brain mass, containing upwards of 100 billion neurons, each attached to a concentric neural network of cell-to-cell connections and interactions.<1>
The unique size and complexity of the human brain seems to enable humans with a uniquely complex cognitive capacity – one that allows us to think abstractly and self-consciously.
- While science has made tremendous advancements in understanding how the brain works, much of its function remains shrouded in mystery.
As a result, when we ask "how do nootropics work," we should consider:
With some nootropics that work, their brain-beneficial mechanisms of action are well-established -- while their ultimate cognitive effects may remain more elusive.
This reinforces the idea that when the brain's various structures are healthy, and its pathways are operating optimally, better cognition seems to follow.
Some of the other best nootropic supplements work because human research demonstrates their ultimate benefits for memory, focus, attention etc.
Even in cases where nootropics are shown to enhance cognitive functions in human research, the researchers often do not know exactly how the nootropics were able to produce results. As a result, researchers can only suggest possible mechanisms of action.
Let's take a closer look at some of the nootropic mechanisms of action that have been suggested by researchers and experts, which appear to focus on six primary brain pathways.
Six Brain Pathways Enhanced with Nootropics
An intensely energy-demanding organ, the brain, consumes about 20% of the body's total energy reserves,<2>. Why is the brain so needy? Two reasons:
- Maintenance - Neurons are in a constant state of death and genesis, growth, and injury, requiring high levels of energy to upkeep.
- Management - Even healthy neurons require abundant energy to ensure they are properly signalling, receiving, and processing information.
If the body is unable to provide enough energy to the brain, or if the brain's metabolic efficiency falters, then symptoms of brain fog and mental fatigue may surface. Furthermore, low brain energy levels are consistently linked to various states of cognitive decline and brain degeneration.
Nootropics may support brain energy by:
- Enhancing metabolic activity of mitochondria, the powerhouses of brain cells (and other cells)
- Helping to transport fatty acid material into brain cells, where they fuel mitochondria
- Increasing cerebral uptake of oxygen and nutrients, supplying the brain with "fuel" for energy production
Synaptic transmission, or cell-to-cell communication, occurs when one neuron transmits brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) to another neuron.
Think of neurotransmitters as "information" carriers: Depending on the type of information being transmitted, the receiving neuron may respond in any number of ways – yet ultimately transmits that particular message further to other adjacent brain cells, until the desired cognitive outcome is achieved.
Relevant neurotransmitter types and their respective associations in relation to cognitive performance include:
- Acetylcholine (ACh) - Memory, learning, and basic "thinking" cognition.
- Dopamine (DA) - Mood and motivation; pleasure-reward pathway.
- Serotonin (5HT) - Relaxation and deep satisfaction.
- Norepinephrine (NE) - Attention and intense focus.
- Epinephrine (EPI) - a.k.a. Adrenaline; intense energy.
- Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) - "Downer" sedation and calmness; inhibits excessive excitation.<3>
An optimized neurotransmitter status is one that bears not only a healthy reserve of each neurotransmitter but healthy neurotransmitter receptors, in addition to a number of other auxiliary factors – e.g., intrasynaptic enzymes.
An imbalance at any step – neurotransmitter synthesis, release, or uptake – may cause an imbalance across-the-board, resulting in disrupted emotions and cognition.
Nootropics may optimize neurotransmitters by:
- Supplying brain chemical precursors
- Promoting neurotransmitter synthesis
- Enhancing receptor sensitivity
- Inhibiting neurotransmitter breakdown
Certain nootropics, such as L-Tyrosine, naturally and directly engage neurotransmitter pathways by means that essentially qualify them as nootropic neurotransmitter nutrition.<4>
Cerebral Blood Flow
Healthy circulation isn't solely a matter of increasing delivery of brain-nourishing compounds into the brain but also of removing brain-damaging neurotoxins out of neuronal tissue. This balance is key to cognitive longevity, due to the significant risk factor of age-related cognitive decline that comes with impaired circulation.
Also, healthy, balanced cerebral circulation itself declines with age, making it an increasingly imperative neuronal concern as we age. In fact, poor cerebrovascular function is linked with brain degeneration and age-related cognitive issues.
Nootropics may support cerebral circulation by:
- Promoting nitric oxide activation and relaxation of blood vessels
- Inhibiting homocysteine and oxidative damage on blood vessels
- Making blood cells less "sticky" and thus less likely to clump
Measured by an EEG (electroencephalogram), brain waves are the collective electrical activity of your brain – otherwise known as "neural oscillations." Different brain waves are distinguished by their different frequencies, of which the lower frequencies entail tired and dreamy mental states whereas the higher frequencies link to quick and alert cognition.
From the high to low, the five primary brainwave frequencies and their associated states of consciousness are:
- Gamma (38-40 Hz) - The highest frequency, transcends consciousness.
- Beta (12-38 Hz) - The average, waking mental state for "fast" thinking.
- Alpha (8-12 Hz) - Mild, meditative state for free-flowing creativity.
- Theta (3-8 Hz) - Sleep-to-wake transitions and deep meditation.
- Delta (0.5-3 Hz) - Deep sleep and advanced levels of deep mediation.
How nootropics help with brain waves:
Nootropics -- most notably L-Theanine -- can raise certain brain waves. Alpha brain waves are often targeted for promoting alert-yet-relaxed mindstates that can be beneficial for productivity, creativity or simply chilling out.
One of the key offenders in neurodegeneration is the free radical – an unstable, oxidative compound associated with a slew of negative age-related conditions. Of course, aging and, consequently, age-related conditions can't be reduced to a single causative factor. Other brain health risk factors include amyloids (irregular protein clusters), inflammation, and more.
Relative to other, more immediate nootropic outcomes, neuroprotection is a much harder sell, as it is not generally known for enhancing cognitive performance so much as for sustaining it over time. Many supplement manufacturers take advantage of this, selling long-term "rewind-time" concoctions that require for you to simply have faith that the results will show in decades' time.
Yet, there's plenty of clinical research to back the neuroprotective power of certain nootropics, and it's never too late to start taking them. (Although, better now than later.)
Nootropics may support neuroprotection by:
- Increasing the brain's antioxidant capacity
- Helping to fight formation of irregular protein clusters
- Clearing brain tissue of neurotoxins
- Protecting the brain against the negative effects of stress
Antioxidant, structure-supportive, inflammation-modulating – much of these effects overlap with the other nootropic bio-effects in this article. In several cases, a neuroprotective biomechanism is the primary pathway with which other nootropic outcomes are effected – e.g., antioxidant adaptogens.
Aging slowly chips away at the brain. Injuries leave dents. And, unless you're living in a bubble, both are unavoidable.
Fortunately, the brain is capable of regenerating new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis.
As we mentioned earlier, the brain is in a perpetual state of simultaneous death, birth, and repair – processes that justify the brain's hefty energy demands. With proper energy and resources, the brain is able to maintain a balanced neurogenesis performance.
A healthy brain ecosystem may even engage neuroplasticity, especially in response to brain training programs. Brain plasticity is the proliferation of new synaptic connections – one of the brain's responses to learning new things and engaging new experiences.
While rare in nature, certain nootropics may assist with neuroregeneration, and may be particularly useful in "reversing age-related changes in the brain."
Nootropics may support neuroregeneration by:
- Boosting natural brain-boosting growth factors, such as NGF
- Providing raw neuronal building block materials, like choline
- Maintaining brain cell membrane flexibility and plasticity
One of the more exciting neuroregenerative nootropics on the scene, Lion's Mane Mushroom has been the center of recent clinical research for its potential in naturally increasing neurotrophic NGF activity.<6>
Cognitive Benefits of Nootropics
All of above benefits of nootropic smart drugs can help to support the brain's functions in many ways. This can be good for both short-range and long-range brain health, overall.
But most people who seek out nootropics are less interested in optimizing brain pathways. Instead, their most frequently asked questions (FAQ) about nootropics focus on brainpower results:
- How do nootropics feel? What are the mental benefits of a healthy, nootropic-enhanced brain? Does this nootropic work?
In gauging if a nootropic supplement works, consumers expect some kind of cognitive performance enhancments.
The best nootropics that actually work can produce a diverse array of mental performance enhancements, across all types of thinking. Some cognitive benefits associated with nootropics include:
Memory and Learning - Long-term, short-term, and working memory. Nootropics may improve various aspects of memory performance, resulting in improved learning and informational processing.
Mood and Motivation - Low dopamine activity has suggested links to poor mood and motivation. Dopaminergic nootropics may contribute to a healthier pleasure-reward system for enhanced drive and positivity.
Creativity - Either you have it or you don't. But whatever amount of creativity that you do have may be improved by alpha brainwave-promoting nootropics and mood-supportive, anti-stress adaptogens.
Focus, Concentration, and Attention - The Catecholamine Hypothesis proposes a link between off-balance catecholamine levels and poor attention deficits. Catecholaminergic nootropics may help target attention-related brain chemicals for improved focus capacity.
Mental Stamina - Stress impairs cognition in short- to long-term capacities. Anti-stress and, thus, anti-fatigue nootropic adaptogens may help to keep brainpower charged throughout a long day and/or harsh thinking environment.
Mental Composure Under Pressure - Under highly stressful, distracting and chaotic scenarios, the brain seems to lose track of ongoing thought processes and memories. Replenisher nootropics, such as L-tyrosine, keep the brain calm and composed for peak performance when it matters the most.
Information Processing - Essentially another term for "thinking" – nootropic-enhanced information processing involves the mental ability to intake, process, store, and recall information at accelerated speeds.
Verbal Acuity - Coherent, proper expression is half the battle of having a good idea. And although nootropics may not increase your vocabulary, they may help pave cleaner pathways between your thoughts and words.
How Do Nootropics Work in Standalone Supplements?
Individual nootropics can be taken in standalone, single-ingredient brain supplements.
With standalone supplements, people may selectively choose the ingredients that best match their specific cognitive needs.
Most individual nootropic supplements will have narrow effects. Some of the best nootropics, however -- including the best individual nootropic -- will offer more versatile bioactivities and produce multiple cognitive effects.
How Nootropic Stacking Works
The practice of combining different individual nootropics, often discussed on the online forum Reddit, is called "stacking."
The theory: Some nootropics may work better together than when they are taken alone. Other nootropics may "team up" on specific cognitive concerns to address the same cognitive functions from many different angles.
The smartest nootropic stacking strategies can elevate brain supplements to new levels of effectiveness.
However, stacking different nootropics improperly can result in side effects, ineffectiveness and other unintended results.
While some people still enjoy self-experimenting with DIY stacking, haphazard or ill-informed nootropic stacking strategies may raise safety risks.
- Pre-made nootropic stack supplements -- when designed the right way -- can deliver stacking's amplified brainpower boosts without the risks of self-experimentation.
Mind Lab Pro®, the Universal Nootropic™, is the best premade nootropic stack supplement on the market because it works.
How Mind Lab Pro® Works
Not all nootropic stack supplements are well-designed. Some have nootropic combinations that are limited in their benefits, or use nootropic stacking strategies that just don't make sense.
Mind Lab Pro® works differently than any other nootropic stack supplement on the market, due to an innovative design that unlocks 100% Brainpower™.
Advanced Universal Nootropic™ Design
Mind Lab Pro® is formulated with 11 premium nootropic ingredients, each of which has versatile brain-boosting activities and research-backed cognitive benefits:
- Cognizin® Citicoline: Energizes brain cells for focus and concentration; nourishes brain structure for long-range health
- Phosphatidylserine (PS): Best overall memory-boosting nootropic; works by optimizing dynamic brain cell membranes
- Bacopa Monnieri: Anti-stress learner’s nootropic is a memory-enhancing multitasker known for helping to retain new knowledge
- Lion’s Mane Mushroom: A leading nootropic for boosting Nerve Growth Factor (NGF); supports memory and mood balance
- Maritime Pine Bark Extract: Helps brain circulation and brain anti-aging with potent support for Nitric Oxide and antioxidant defenses
- N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine: Boosts cognition under stress and multitasking; a master precursor nootropic for making several brain chemicals
- L-Theanine: Modulates Alpha brainwaves for calm, alert brainpower; may also offer neuroprotective support for long-range brain health
- Rhodiola Rosea: Anti-stress, mood-balancing adaptogen known for stimulating peak mental and physical performance under pressure
- Vitamin B6: Maintains healthy brain tissue and long-term memory; crucial for the synthesis and conversion of brain chemicals
- Vitamin B9: Optimizes brain health and blood flow to the brain; known for its key role in homocysteine metabolism and neurotransmitter synthesis
- Vitamin B12: Helps support brain energy metabolism; also nourishes the brain to help maintain its healthy volume during the aging process
Each of these 11 nootropics works on its own, as a standalone brain supplement.
- But stacked together in Mind Lab Pro®, these nootropics support virtually every aspect of peak cognitive performance.
The key is Mind Lab Pro®'s Universal Nootropic™ design.
Mind Lab Pro®'s 11 nootropics were selected for this advanced stack because:
- each one is a nootropic multi-tasker, bringing versatile, multi-pathway support for healthy brain function
- they work well together as a team, complementing each other's bioactivities to optimize the whole brain
By using 11 multi-tasking nootropics to boost multiple brain pathways at the same time, Mind Lab Pro® unlocks a healthy, peak-performing mindstate known as 100% Brainpower™:
Mind Lab Pro® works because it meets the brain's complex needs more effectively and completely than any other nootropic supplement.
Superior Quality Makes Nootropics Work Better
Nootropic quality plays a significant role in whether or not a brain supplement will ultimately work.
Some stacks use cheap nootropic forms, which may be less effective or harder to absorb. Inferior ingredients, artificial colors and pointless additives may also be associated with more side effects. If a supplement is hard to take, the consumer is less likely to stick with it -- so it simply can't work as well.
Mind Lab Pro® is designed with 11 nootropics that have been shown to be safe, effective, and well-tolerated.
Mind Lab Pro® is also the cleanest nootropic supplement on the market -- with advanced quality features that help the best brain-boosters to work even better.
- Superior forms of each nootropic ingredient, so they deliver more brain-boosting activity with no risk of side effects
- No artificial colors, no preservatives, no GMO, no gluten, no caffeine or stimulants, no soy and no synthetic additives
- Premium vegan NutriCaps®: Clean, clear pullulan naturally fermented from tapioca; no unsafe or synthetic capsule ingredients
Every detail of Mind Lab Pro® is designed to make it work.
Careful attention to nootropic stacking strategies, premium ingredient selection, clean delivery and overall quality drives Mind Lab Pro®'s overall mission: To enhance brainpower and mental performance safely and effectively, while nourishing and supporting the brain for long-range healthy function.
Mind Lab Pro®, the world’s first Universal Nootropic™, works by optimizing the whole brain to unleash 100% Brainpower™.
As you have learned in this "How Do Nootropics Work?" guide, not all nootropics work in the same way.
The best brain supplements are designed to leverage this nootropic diversity to their advantage by stacking nootropic ingredients that cover a wide spectrum of brain pathways.
- Mind Lab Pro® supplies research-backed nootropics that have been suggested to target the above listed biomechanisms – neurotransmitters, energy, circulation, and more – creating a nootropic stack that works universally for whole-brain health and all kinds of thinking.
Whether you are a nootropic beginner or an advanced user, no other brain supplement on the market works as well as Mind Lab Pro®.
- Herculano-Houzel S. The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain. Front Hum Neurosci. 2009; 3: 31.
- Magistretti PJ, Allaman I. A cellular perspective on brain energy metabolism and functional imaging. Neuron. 2015 May 20; 86(4): 883-901.
- Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, et al. Neurotransmitters, Synapses, and Impulse Transmission. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Section 21.4.
- Fernstrom JD, Fernstrom MH. Tyrosine, phenylalanine, and catecholamine synthesis and function in the brain. J Nutr. 2007 Jun; 137(6 Suppl 1): 1539-1547S.
- Schwammenthal Y, Tanne D. Homocysteine, B-vitamin supplementation, and stroke prevention: from observational to interventional trials. Lancet Neurol. 2004 Aug; 3(8): 493-5.
- Lai PL, et al. Neurotrophic properties of the Lion's mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2013; 15(6): 539-54.