Nootropics are really anything external compound that makes us think clearer and solve problems better. So, in practice everything that you or I eat is nootropic in nature. Everything you put into your body is either helping you think better or hurting you. If we think about what we put into our bodies this way a whole new world can and does open up to us.
If you eat a diet of simple sugars, low protein, and with lots of so called bad fats, your brain is going to atrophy over time. This is not speculation, it’s been proven in studies time and time again. High insulin levels and high blood sugar can cause inflammation in the brain and cause neuronal break down, bad fats slow circulation in all part of the body (including the brain), and low protein diets don’t give you body enough raw materials to create the very compounds that power the brain.
Improving diet will improve your brain at any age and you start as soon as your next meal, that should get you pumped up and chomping at the bit. Remember that what you eat is either helping or hurting, and it’s all about balance. We balance our macronutrients, our micronutrients, our calories, the whole shebang.
Often people don’t think of simple nutrition as nootropic, but food is in reality the very first nootropic. Our entire evolution as a species and brain development is based on what we put into our bodies as food. (So, the real take away here is don’t just think you can pop a few pills and your brain is going to magically function at it’s very best. Diet matters a lot.)
There is so much ground to cover on this front, but in this section we’d like to focus on amino acids (simple proteins) and how they can effect how the brain works. In conjunction we will touch on other aspects of nutrition and the brain, but simple amino acids are the focus, as well as neurotransmitter production.
Tyrosine & Tryptophan – The Gas And The Breaks Of Our Brains
Serotonin and dopamine are probably the most widely studied neurotransmitters in the human brain. In simplistic terms they are the gas and the breaks of the brain, and they function together in opposition. If one gets to high, the other will go low, and over time if one goes low they can both get low. It can get more complex than that, of course, but for our discussion we will keep it very simple.
Basically, low levels of these neurotransmitters will impair cognition, often times drastically. This could cause panic attacks and depressive emotions along with creating severe brain fog. In other words when these neurotransmitters are in a deficient state we can’t think very well. If this isn’t a problem for you then it doesn’t really matter but if you are deficient, and many people are, then it can make all the difference in your cognition.
So, we want to make absolute sure that our dopamine and serotonin levels are both up to par, and that one is not too much higher than the other. It’s a balancing act, but when we get this balancing act right then our brain’s will achieve both a calm and alert state of being, a so called flow state will be achieved. If you’ve never enjoyed this state of mind, you’ll be amazed at how much better you can think while in this state of mind.
Now, the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan are the main building blocks of dopamine and serotonin, respectively. But, if we want to take these supplementally and want them to work optimally to produce these neurotransmitters then we need to do a few special things.
The first rule would be that we must take them on an empty stomach and away from other foods or amino acids (amino acids compete with each other for absorption). So, we would take tyrosine, let’s say, in the morning and the afternoon, and tryptophan at night, both away from food. To be safe take these about two hours away from any food so they are not competing with any other amino acids, otherwise they may not be able to cross the blood brain barrier and do their duty.
Doing it this way will allow the body to easily uptake that particular amino acid (whether tyrosine and tryptophan) and create the needed neurotransmitter. But, we’re not done yet. When taking either amino we need to take a small amount of vitamin B6 and some vitamin C as well, these must be taken at the same time.
Dopamine and serotonin are created optimally in the presence of vitamin B6, along with B9 and B12 but these others can be taken in a multi-vitamin. In addition taking vitamin B6 in it’s active form of P5P is recommended because some folks can’t easily break down synthetic B6, this is the kind of stuff that you don’t want to gloss over. The details matter, definitely try the so-called active b vitamins in case you have problems converting synthetics, you won’t know until you try.
Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and will preserve dopamine and serotonin from breaking down too quickly, this is particularly the case with dopamine. And the longer we can preserve the neurotransmitter the longer we get the benefits. (Taking other anti-oxidants or eating an anti-oxidant rich diet is an excellent way to preserve dopamine).
Last but not least in the steps needed to optimally create both dopamine and serotonin is to chase down your amino acids and vitamins with a small amount of carbohydrate. This makes sure that the amino acids are able to cross the blood brain barrier in order to get where they need to go.
A small amount of honey or fresh fruit juice works well, we don’t recommend anything we added sugar. White sugar spikes insulin too high and can actually be detrimental to brain function. Remember things like eating naturally are naturally nootropic, and this principle is always at work. Anything processed can have adverse effects on your cognition, but most especially would be refined sugars and grains along with trans fats and oils high in omega 6 fatty acids.
Keeping The Ratios To Optimize Functions
Because everyone’s genetic make up is different, we all need different amounts of these amino acids. And some of us might not need to supplement with them at all, if you are never feel down, anxious or low energy, you probably won’t need to supplement. But, if you do respond to these amino acids then you will most likely notice a difference with a few days.
However, you must take both tyrosine and tryptophan so that one doesn’t go too high, if they get out of balance then your brain will be in big trouble. Remember our gas and breaks analogy, to get from point A to point B you’ll need both the gas and the breaks.
A one to one ratio is perhaps a good place to start for everyone, so one gram of tyrosine to one gram of tryptophan is the best ratio to experiment with at first. Or you can take 5 htp instead of tryptophan, in which case the ratio would be 10 to 1.
We suggest you go by feel and access your personality before beginning supplementation. Are you very aggressive naturally and easily agitated? Well, then you many need more inhibitory serotonin to balance you out, in this case it would be a good idea to start with more tryptophan and less tyrosine.
If you are, on the other hand, kind of brain foggy and spacy, less aggressive and lack motivation, then you will probably want to experiment with higher doses of dopamine producing tyrosine. Over time you will find the exact right ratio that produces a balanced brain state for you specifically.
You many need multiple doses of amino acids daily to do the trick, you may need more tyrosine or more tryptophan, it’s up to you to find what works for you. Start low and increase the dosages slowly and you will find what works for you personally in time.
In addition, some doctors believe that supplementing tyrosine for long periods of time may deplete cysteine levels. Therefore supplementing with cysteine is also a good idea, you shouldn’t need much, a few grams a day works.
Supplementing with these amino acids does not mean you can skimp on getting enough protein in your daily diet. Your brain needs a large amount of protein in order to repair itself and keep things running well. Shoot for a higher protein diet if you are interested in preserving your brain, although this high protein eating pattern can be interrupted at times with periods of fasting, fasting in this way (briefly) is excellent for the brain and it’s the way our brains are genetically programmed to work.
Access to unlimited food sources may be great for survival but our brains are actually not genetically adapted to this type of environment, they will actually function best with short periods of low calorie intake. This type of way of eating is nootropic in and of itself, for further reading you can look up intermittent fasting or juicing.
Dopamine And Serotonin – Their Roles In The Brain
Dopamine is the reward chemical and the feel good chemical, if we had no dopamine in our brains we would barely be able to think and we would not be able to even move because we would have not motivation to even stand up out of our chairs.
Dopamine is excitatory in nature. On the other hand we have serotonin that is inhibitory, it slows the brain down, but also makes us feel calm, it eases anxiety. It may seem counter intuitive but higher serotonin levels can actually help our brains to work better and more efficiently.
We may think, how can a slower brain function better? Well, think about this, have you ever been so wound up that you can’t even think straight? Have you ever felt so many thoughts rushing through your head that you can’t stop and think? That is how many people feel when serotonin levels are low.
So, this type of slower thinking is in contrast to what people might refer to as brain fog. Brain fog can usually be attributed to a defect with dopamine, but not always. Of course it’s very difficult if not impossible for someone to see inside our heads and actually see our thoughts. But suffice it to say that we want brain thought patterns that move somewhere in the middle of two extremes. We want the brain flow state to move fast enough to process things quickly but slow enough that we are not over loaded with so many thoughts that we can’t concentrate.
Theanine, Another Amino Acid That Can Be Used As a Nootropic
One of the other major neurotransmitters in the brain is GABA, and it is intimately involved in anxiety. Yes, increasing serotonin levels can aid in calming us down and fighting anxiety, however, there is another pathway involved as well, and it runs on GABA.
Now GABA doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier very well in studies, therefore it is not frequently used by itself in order to boost GABA. Thankfully there are other substances that we can use, of which the main one is an amino acid called theanine. It works very well, and is worth a try for anyone who is having trouble with anxiety.
Theanine is a popular nootropic that is often used in conjunction with caffeine and/or coffee. Theanine is like the breaks and the caffeine is like the gas pedal in this situation as well. By using both at the same time we can get the benefits of both without the negative side effects of either (in theory). And in practice for many people, however, if you have really bad anxiety issues then you really should probably ditch coffee and caffeine for good. They have very high potential for triggering panic attacks (along with abusing alcohol). For those with extreme anxiety, cutting out alcohol and caffeine, at least for a while, is a very sound idea because they can mess up our GABA, serotonin, and dopamine systems.
Acetylcholine – A Neurotransmitter Not Build From An Amino Acid
The final major neurotransmitter in the brain (and one that is excitatory in nature) is acetylcholine. The major difference with this system is that a single amino acids is not a precursor. The major precursor for acetylcholine is choline, which is in fact a B vitamin.
In case you’re wondering, yes, amino acids and B vitamins are the main building blocks of neurotransmitters. Therefore a could B complex which utilizes the active B forms and a healthy dose of amino acids and protein in the diet does indeed lead to increase neurotransmitters in the brain. If you try them for yourself, you’ll see a difference, and it many cases it is as profound as taking prescription medications.
Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that many nootropics influence and manipulate. And in fact acetylcholine function is very likely highly tied to dopamine expression. By increasing acetylcholine levels it’s postulated that dopamine function improves, receptors will more easily up regulate. Therefore we should not over look enhancing this pathway and system (the first class of nootropics actually work on acetylcholine).
This is done through supplementing choline in the forms of citicholine or alpha GPC, in most cases. I addition compounds like racetams and ALCAR are known to increase acetylcholine production.
So, in review the major neurotransmitters we’d all like to balance are dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and acetylcholine. All are important, and some will be more important to some and less important to others.
In order to access what may be of value to you in improving your cognition and mode, it’s best to ask yourself questions about your mood and brain state. If you are more type A, aggressive, and have lots of energy, occasional anxiety, and can’t seem to time straight sometimes because of information over load then you’ll want to look into increasing serotonin and GABA levels. (Increasing serotonin must be accompanied by raising dopamine levels to some degree as well, or you will diminish dopamine stores eventually).
If you’re spacey and unmotivated more often than not, and don’t suffer from anxiety much then you’ll benefit greatly for boosting dopamine levels higher as well as acetylcholine levels (as they influence dopamine receptors as well). Again, when you boosting dopamine though supplementation you must always also boost serotonin, or risk reducing stores of serotonin to too low a level.
Causes For Low Neurotransmitter Levels
Does everyone have low dopamine or serotonin levels? The answer is no, however, these conditions are extremely wide spread in modern societies and even those that don’t suffer from clinical depression or anxiety can benefit from supplementation often times.
The reasons for low neurotransmitters levels in the general population are due to many factors including high stress levels, little physical exercise, poor diet, infections, candida, SIBO, parasites, leaky gut, brain inflammation, Lyme, sleep problems and so on.
The fact is that without good neurotransmitters levels our brains aren’t functioning properly or optimally and this is a great place to start looking into nootropics. Yes, other nootropics are great, but if we don’t address these potential deficiencies then we are trying to operate a car that’s not operating on all cylinders.
Always look for balance, be careful, go slow, and look to balance all your neurotransmitters and you’re cognition levels will sky rocket. You’ll never know if this will work for you unless you try. And it’s an extremely cheap experiment that could very well change your life forever.