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Nootropics are the latest buzzword in the fitness industry; while caffeine has stolen the limelight for quite some time for its mental stimulation properties, whether that’s in a double espresso before you get into that spreadsheet you’ve been dreading or a daring 3 scoops of some exotically-flavored pre-workout with a silly name (or just caffeine pills if you can’t stand the taste of either), Nootropics are quickly gaining traction and challenging the caffeine market.
While both provide a virtually calorie-free energy boost, Nootropics are being touted for the lack of jitters that follow a heavily caffeinated beverage, leading many to dub Nootropic supplements as a ‘clean’ energy source.
WHAT ARE NOOTROPICS?
As most of you coffee-addicts (guilty) probably already know, caffeine is the drug that makes you feel more alert, awake, and generally able to handle your colleagues sh*t first thing in the morning.
More recently, coffee has been widely used by the fitness community as a pre-workout aid, providing that calorie-free energy boost that’s often required to crank out a leg session on a Monday evening.
Of course, as time goes on, and as with any drug, the effects of caffeine can become blunted, particularly for regular and heavy users. This prompted the emergence of ‘harder’ forms of pre-workout supplements, collectively (and perhaps unimaginatively) referred to as ‘pre-workouts’.
Pre-workout supps contain large doses of caffeine (typically 200-450mg) – roughly equal to between 2-5 cups of coffee along with a variety of other goodies (depending on the product) delivering an even more intense mental boost.
The problem is, with such a large dose of caffeine comes some not-so-desirable side-effects – increased heart rate, jitters, and the need to pay a visit to the gym toilet (and not to take a selfie). This can undermine the original aim of pre-workouts – to MOTIVATE you to train harder.
While Nootropics are the collective name for a group of ‘smart drugs’, Nootropic supplements generally don’t contain caffeine, since the unique selling point of these supplements is that they provide all the benefits of caffeine (alertness, motivation, focus) without the downsides (jitters, an eventual energy crash). According to this study published in 2007;
“Nootropics act as a vasodilator against the small arteries and veins in the brain”
This allows more blood flow to the brain which gives rise to all the purported benefits.
So what exactly do Nootropics contain? These are some of the typical natural and synthetic compounds found in Nootropic supplements;
- Lions Mane
- Bcopa Monnieri
- Huperzine A
- Alpha GPC
The presence and dosage of ingredients do vary from supplement to supplement (as is the case with most other types of supplement), but the ones that seem to be common across the majority of Nootropic supplements seem to be L-Tyrosine and L-Thenine. Some Nootropics do also contain a small dose of caffeine, at least much smaller than the amounts found in pre-workout supplements.
DO NOOTROPICS MAKE A GOOD PRE-WORKOUT?
Yes. Some of the pre-workouts I’ve tried in the past (Jack3d, AK-47, I’m looking at you) pack such a punch that they can actually hinder your performance because your heart rate is already heightened from all the caffeine (and various other sketchy ingredients).
Nootropics deliver a much smoother, ‘cleaner’ energy boost that lasts longer, and gives you focus and motivation, rather than getting you ‘hyped-up’. Even so, as with regular pre-workouts, my recommendation would be to use them only when you really need them. If you start to rely on Nootropics (or pre-workouts) to get you through a session, you’ll start to feel like you can’t train without them.
But don’t take my word for it, the science backs up the efficacy of Nootropics as well. This 2020 study carried out on 20 professional female rugby league players was designed to test the effectiveness of Ārepa, a blackcurrant Nootropics drink on their performance. The study found a ‘significant increase in cognitive function scores’ as well as being less distracted and better able to control their nervousness.
NATURAL VS SYNTHETIC NOOTROPICS
Nootropics can be derived both naturally and synthetically, since the studies on Nootropics are life and far between there’s no scientific consensus on which is ‘safer’. If you want to stick with natural Nootropics some examples are;
- Bacopa monnieri
- Ginkgo biloba
- Panax ginseng
- Rhodiola rosea
WHAT ARE THE BEST NOOTROPICS?
Nootropics are relatively new to the market so there isn’t a huge amount of choice around at the moment, but some of the brands I’m aware of at the moment are;
- Denovo Utopia
- Brain Gains
- CNP Cognition
- The Protein Works Endless
As mentioned, all of these contain slightly different ingredients, as well as different doses of those ingredients, so finding one you consider to be the ‘best’ will take a bit of trial and error.
While coffee is generally considered to be the go-to drug for people that need a boost when they’re at work, and pre-workouts are designed to be taken, surprise surprise, before a workout Nootropics seem to be aimed at a slightly more diverse market.
In fact, many Nootropics are targeted at professional gamers, claiming that they allow players to focus more deeply.
Studying for exams is another common use case for Nootropics, in fact My Vitamins even sell something billed as a ‘study buddy’ stack which essentially a bundle of supplements designed to aid wakefulness and focus.
Of course, the benefits also carry across to people that want to be more productive, whether that’s working on their own business or in their day job, and of course, they can be used as an alternative to pre-workout supps.
DO NOOTROPICS WORK?
In my experience, yes; the mental stimulation aspect is always hard to quantify, but I’ve definitely felt more focused 10-15 minutes after taking some Brain Gains or Cognition.
It’s a very similar feeling to drinking coffee, but I’ve found that’s it’s possible to get the same effect from a scoop of Cognition than it is from having 2-3 coffees in a row, the difference being that you need a much lower volume to get the same effect.
It’s a similar feeling to the one you get from a pre-workout, but without the elevated heart rate and ‘jitters’.
When it comes to training, I definitely feel more ‘in-the-zone’, and I actually perform better on Nootropics than I do on a pre-workout, probably because I can push a bit harder since my heart rate isn’t already high like it would be after taking a pre-workout.
I’ve only tried 2 Nootropics so far; Brain Gains and Cognition. Both a pretty good, but for me, Cognition has a more noticeable and intense effect and tastes and mixes a bit better. Brain Gains is more subtle and kicks in more slowly so it might be the one to go for if you’ve never tried a Nootropic or pre-workout before. I did find that it didn’t mix as well however and had a bit of a powdery texture.
WHERE TO BUY NOOTROPICS
If you want to get really geeky with your Nootropics, you can shop somewhere like Mind Nutrition or Intellimeds – these are both Nootropic-specific retailers that sell a huge range – Mind Nutrition even allow to you to customise your own Nootropic blend, but you’re probably better off trying a few of the pre-made ones first to see what kind of ingredients work for you.
Many of the ‘traditional’ bodybuilding supplement brands (e.g. My Protein, Bulk Powders, Optimum Nutrition, USN, etc) don’t offer a Nootropic product; so if you you’re looking for a Nootropic you’re better off going direct to one of the ‘specialist’ brands mentioned above.
IS CAFFIENE A NOOTROPIC?
Technically, caffeine is NOT a Nootropic because it has a directly stimulating effect. In contrast, Nootropics serve to support natural cognitive processes.
This is a bit of an unclear topic however since some supplements that are branded Nootropics DO contain some caffeine. If you’re trying to avoid caffeine – check the label before you buy.
ARE NOOTROPICS LEGAL IN THE UK?
Again, this is a tricky area since there are so many different types of Nootropics. If you want to stay on the safe side, only buy Nootropics from the UK, rather than importing them from abroad.
Improving Mental Performance in an Athletic Population with the Use of Ārepa®, a Blackcurrant Based Nootropic Drink: A Randomized Control Trial https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7222175/
Vasodilators and Nootropics as Predictors of Dementia and Mortality in the PAQUID Cohort https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2007.01084.x
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