The Student Stack: What are the Best Nootropics for Studying?
Please note: Because nootropics are not supplements or approved drugs they cannot be sold as for human consumption. We do not endorse the consumption of any product for sale on our website as they are strictly intended for use in non-clinical scientific research. Not for consumption. As such, all articles and content on this website are strictly for entertainment purposes only.
The Problem with Traditional Stimulants
Whether studying before exams, understanding difficult concepts or having to write a lengthy paper with little time, students face a lot of pressure to perform well academically. It is no wonder then that many have resorted to stimulants like caffeine to give them that extra little boost needed to get the job done. However, even though it is the world’s most widely consumed stimulant, caffeine has proven to have a wide range of undesirable side effects when ingested in large quantities (which is so often the case when it’s 3am and you have several thousand words to write before the morning).
Recent years have also seen an increase in the use of drugs ADHD medication. Usually prescribed to sufferers of ADHD to increase concentration, they have a similar effect on healthy individuals. Unfortunately, they also come with an array of short and long-term side effects including headaches, dehydration, insomnia, increased blood pressure, loss of consciousness, seizures and depression to name but a few. Additionally, these substances are also habit forming and users can not only become dependent, but may also develop a tolerance meaning they will no longer experience cognitive enhancing benefits. In recent years, America has seen an epidemic of college students illegally obtaining these prescription medications to boost their academic performance, and there have even been several reported deaths linked to these drugs. Not only do the side effects pose an immediate danger, but in several cases the abuse of these medications has led to psychosis, causing the individuals to commit suicide or perform dangerous acts with complete disregard for their own safety.
What Are Nootropics?
Considering these all too real dangerous, you may be reluctant to use any type of cognitive enhancer. There is however an alternative; a loosely related group of supplements known as nootropics which have been proven to safely enhance cognition with virtually no side effects. The term nootropics encompasses a wide range of natural and synthetic supplements that are used for everything from memory and learning enhancement, to promoting alertness or better sleep. Some nootropics are even used to improve physical performance and fight diseases.
There are well in excess of a hundred different nootropic supplements and their mechanisms of action can vary considerably. Many of them are designed to modulate neurotransmitter activity by providing precursors, increasing production or regulating the sensitivity of receptors. Depending on the neurotransmitter concerned this can result in changes to behaviours including mood, memory, learning, sleep or appetite to name a few. Other nootropics work by increasing cerebral blood circulation, providing the brain with more oxygen and nutrients needed to function efficiently. Some are even known to aid in the removal of waste products like lipofuscin that could otherwise contribute to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. This wide range of applications means that smart drugs are used by everyone from athletes to business executives. However because they are considered to be primarily cognitive enhancers, their use still remains most prominent among academic circles.
How Can Nootropics Benefit Me as a Student?
Whether you lack the motivation to work, are feeling overwhelmed, or struggle with difficult study materials, there are many reasons why you may feel you are not achieving the highest grades you are capable of. Even those who are at the top of their class can benefit from these supplements ability to improve mental agility or think creatively. But what specific aspects of academia can these supplements help with?
Nootropics are known to increase performance in practically all aspects of memory which is invaluable to the average student trying to memorising various formulas, theories and techniques alike. To understand how they work it is a good idea to first look at how memories are created. Memories are first formed in a process known as encoding where stimuli, whether this be visual, acoustic, semantic or a combination of different types, passes from the various receptors in your body to the brain where they are incorporated into a single experience. This is the equivalent of reading a book, or listening to your lecturer talk and consciously perceiving what is going on. This is the first hurdle in successfully remembering information as unfortunately we do not always encode all the information we want to remember. However supplements like bacopa monnieri and vasopressin (more commonly known as antidiuretic hormone) are known to directly increase the amount of information that is encoded. Other nootropics may also enhance this process through indirect means (increased blood circulation or more neurotransmitter, leading to greater overall neuronal efficiency).
After encoding, memories must be stored and this refers to the passive ability to retain information indefinitely. Memories are stored as a series of synaptic connections between neurons. This information begins first in sensory memory, before graduating to short term memory stores which can hold information for a limited period of a few seconds to about a minute. This obviously isn’t very useful if you’re trying to study for an exam and so information must be consolidated into long term memory using processes like rehearsal. This would be the equivalent of repeating a phrase or piece of information to yourself several times which aids in strengthening connections to stabilise a memory trace.
Neurologically, consolidating information from short to long term memory uses a phenomenon known as long term potentiation. This refers to the process by which the strengthening of connections occurs between two simultaneously firing neurons. The effectiveness of this process can be enhanced by taking a combination of nootropics known as a CILTEP stack which is discussed later in this article. Information that is stored, whether in sensory, short, or long term memory must be done in an effective manner to prevent it being lost. We know that a healthy human brain has an almost unlimited capacity for storing information over an indefinite period, so forgetting things is likely due to improper encoding or a failure to recall information.
Recall is the final process in memory, referring to the action of searching for and retrieving specific information. Sometimes we tend to forget things but remember it later on, suggesting that while the memory still exists there may be problems in the process of retrieving them. Fortunately nootropics can help in this area too. For example, 2006 study looked at individuals with age-related memory impairment who would often forget where they had left things, or information such as phone numbers. After being administered Bacopa Monnieri, researchers found a significant improvement in recall ability. Oxiracetam, another nootropic, also appears to have similar recall-enhancing effects in addition to improving attention and semantic memory. These nootropics of course, won’t just help you remember where you left your keys, they could help make the difference between a good and excellent grade when trying to remember critical information in an exam.
Having a high level of intelligence can obviously make a big difference when it comes to doing well academically but there are different types of intelligence to consider. The first form, crystallized intelligence, refers to the cumulative amount of knowledge you have acquired over your lifetime and is very much a function of long-term memory. This type of intelligence is often what we think of as “book smarts” and tends to increase as we grow, before dropping off with old age as a result of memory deficits. The second type, fluid intelligence, is independent of prior knowledge, referring more to your ability to think logically, problem solve and recognise patterns.
Fluid intelligence is thought to be a function of working memory (sometimes confused with short term memory). Working memory refers to a series structures and processes in the brain that can temporarily retain and manipulate information. This requires neurons to constantly form, destroy, strengthen and weaken synaptic connections between them, and your brains ability to manipulate such processes is known as synaptic plasticity. With a greater synaptic plasticity, your brain can work with more pieces of information, making it more likely that you will be able to successfully devise solutions, perform calculations or carry other tasks commonly associated with this type of intelligence.
Synaptic plasticity can be enhanced by several types of nootropics including the racetams (Piracetam, Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Pramiracetam), Huperzine A, DMAE, Centrophenoxine and Bacopa Monnieri to name but a few. Though some of these mechanisms are not fully understood, there are a few hypothesized routes through which this can occur. Researchers theorize that nootropics can increase the activity of certain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters act as chemical messengers relaying electrical signals (action potentials) between neurons connected by synapses. In some cases, greater amounts of the neurotransmitters present in the brain can enhance the sensitivity of post synaptic neurons, allowing signals to propagate with greater ease. To give an example, some nootropics appear to increase levels of glutamate and acetylcholine in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain. These areas are involved in memory acquisition and can facilitate the learning of new information, particularly in regard to working memory. Other types of nootropics are capable of regulating levels of acetylcholine and norepinephrine which has been shown to contribute to the maintenance of information in working memory.
Increased functionality of working memory, and by extension fluid intelligence, can be particularly helpful in fields of study like engineering, mathematics and science in which students are constantly challenged to solve problems, manipulate information and think laterally.
Focus and Concentration
The ability to concentrate for long periods will no doubt be useful to any student whether sitting in a lecture hall, or reading difficult texts. Concentration can be thought of as being able to pay attention to one particular stimulus, while simultaneously ignoring other competing stimuli in your environment. This is a part of what is known as the executive function that is associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Although we often consider the ability to concentrate as an abstract idea, is can be thought of as a state of mind that is brought about by the action of several key neurotransmitters. Thus, by altering neurotransmitter levels, we can exert some positive effects on our concentration levels.
There are several neurotransmitters concerned here. Dopamine is responsible for controlling reward mechanisms and is used by our brains to help keep our attention focused on a particular task. Low levels of dopamine have been observed to decrease levels of concentration, so logically nootropics that increase dopamine activity can have the opposite effect. The adrenal system is also implicated in maintaining concentration. Hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine are usually released upon exposure to stressful stimuli to prepare your body for a flight or fight response and part of this effect is to increase alertness.
Nootropics can increase concentration in a number of different ways. As mentioned earlier, using nootropics to enhance dopaminergic activity can modulate reward systems to help keep your attention focused on the task at hand. Similarly some nootropics are cholinergic, increasing acetylcholine activity in the brain which can aid to make the executive function more efficient. Other nootropics have mood enhancing effects and can help the user to concentrate by negating negative moods which could otherwise cause a significant distraction.
Reducing Anxiety and Stress
With deadlines to meet and exams that may ultimately determine future career prospects, there is no denying that today’s students are under a substantial amount of pressure. This often leads to many students underperforming because of pre-test nerves, or dropping out altogether to remove themselves from stress inducing situations. Therefore, being able to control or reduce anxiety and stress levels is important not only for academic success, but the welfare of the individual as well. Experiencing some stress and anxiety is perfectly normal and can even be helpful in motivating us to take actions to remove ourselves from situations that evoke these feelings. It becomes a problem when these feelings of anxiety and stress prevent us from being productive, or this reaction occurs frequently in response to inappropriate situations.
While the exact causes of excessive anxiety are unknown with some scientists suggesting a psychological basis while other believe it may be down to neuroanatomy, most cases can be characterised by excessive stimulation in the brain caused by our body’s flight or fight response. This overstimulation is responsible for many of the symptoms seen with anxiety that can include restlessness, irritability, feelings of dread, changes in sleeping patterns, loss of appetite, nervous habits and increased motor tension (such as foot tapping or other repetitive actions).
Fortunately, a number of nootropics are known to have significant anxiolytic and stress reducing properties. Supplements like Picamilon and Phenibut are GABA derivatives that are broken down into GABA upon entering the body. This important substance is the brains primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that can prevent action potentials from propagating. This mechanism aids in calming an overstimulated brain and can help to break anxious thought cycles that are centred on negative beliefs.
Being a student of course, doesn’t just mean studying. The ability to socialise as well as create friendships and relationships with other people can greatly enrich your life. Social acuity can also be seen as an important tool to help you more easily achieve your goals. Being an individual who can easily interact with other people is becoming a prerequisite for many jobs, and it is not hard to see why a potential employer would sooner hire a confident, easy going applicant over a stuttering nervous one. Furthermore, some areas of academia often require students make presentations and speak in front of large audiences, something that evokes stage fright in a surprisingly large number of people. Unfortunately not all of us are born as natural socialites, while others have additional obstacles like social anxiety to contend with.
Some of the aforementioned supplements can help individuals to overcome social anxiety. Picamilon for example, while helping to pacify overactive anxious thoughts, can also lower inhibitions that prevent us from making successful interactions out of fear or embarrassment. Other nootropics enhance regions of the brain associated with verbal language skills, and while this does not directly counter anxiety, being able to communicate more effectively can naturally make a user feel more confident.
Additionally, being able to think with more logic and clarity is useful in helping us to understand other people. A greater ability to analyse and empathise means we can more easily determine how to act in an appropriate manner. The memory enhancing benefits of nootropics could also help you avoid certain social faux pas, particularly if you are the sort of person that forgets names and faces easily.
Stacks for Students
Although nootropics can be used individually, most users find that combining several different types into what is known as a stack can greatly increase the range and strength of benefits that are seen. Furthermore, using stacks can help to negate some of the potential side effects that may arise from singular use of nootropics. To give an example, many racetams work by enhancing acetylcholine activity in the brain which causes an increase in the demand for the acetylcholine precursor choline. A majority of the population is deficient in dietary choline sources, so it is often necessary to supplement intake with products like CDP choline or Alpha GPC in order to avoid depletion and resulting side effects such as headaches.
There are numerous companies that supply various combinations of nootropics combined into a single product, however these come with some distinct disadvantages. Although it is generally more convenient to take a single pill or powder rather than measuring out several different types, preformed stacks do not offer the same versatility as separate supplements. For example it would be impossible to selectively increase the dosage of a single supplement in your stack when using these all-in-one products. Furthermore, the amount of each individual supplement in the stack may not be appropriate for you personally as physiology and brain biochemistry can differ dramatically from person to person. Finally, there is the issue of price which may be particularly relevant to students who seldom have much money to spare. Much of the expense associated with stack products is due to processing and branding costs. It is far more economical to use generic forms of single supplements and combine them yourself. Below is listed a few examples of stacks that may be ideal for students.
Caffeine & L-Theanine
This stack is ideal for both inexperienced users, and students that may already be using caffeine-based products as a cognitive enhancer. This stack uses only natural nootropics and is considered to be very safe, cheap, easily obtainable, and with effects that are almost immediately discernible. The caffeine element of this stack functions as an adenosine receptor antagonist. Adenosine is usually responsible for inhibitory effects within the central nervous system. By preventing the activation of receptors that correspond to adenosine, caffeine can prevent inhibitory signals from propagating. This is the primary mechanism responsible for most of caffeine’s benefits which include increased levels of alertness and concentration. The addition of L-Theanine not only potentiates the positive effects of caffeine, but also helps to negate some of the possible side effects including the jitters, disturbances to sleep patterns, anxiety and increased blood pressure.
Pramiracetam & Alpha GPC
Pramiracetam is considered by many to be among the most versatile and balanced racetam supplements in terms of the benefits that it offers. Though like many of the racetams its mechanisms are not fully understood, it is believed to function by increasing high affinity choline uptake (HACU) and subsequent production of acetylcholine in the brain. Through this mechanism it is able to offer students enhanced memory and concentration, and helps to increase productivity in whatever task attention is directed towards. This makes it an ideal supplement when trying to complete work in a limited time.
The addition of alpha GPC ensures that choline deficits do not occur as a result of increased cholinergic activity. Some users may also find it useful to use L-Theanine with this stack for its positive mood altering properties, helping the user to feel calm and optimistic when under the pressure of deadlines and exams.
Aniracetam, Alpha GPC, Huperzine A & Vinpocetine
Another good all-round combination of supplements, this stack uses a variety of mostly natural nootropics with low toxicity and differing mechanisms. Aniracetam provides the main cognitive enhancing benefits seen with this stack, with the ability to enhance memory, improve learning and increase the speed of cognitive processing. Aniracetam also has some notable stress and anxiety reducing properties, which can be invaluable in reducing pre-test nerves that can significantly affect cognitive performance.
The Huperzine A in this stack functions as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, helping to prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Higher levels of this neurotransmitter are thought to improve memory, specifically the ability to effectively form and recall information which may be useful both in the process of studying, as well as recalling information during an exam.
Alpha GPC is a precursor of acetylcholine, working synergistically with the mechanism of Huperzine to increase overall levels in the brain as well as negating the possibility of choline depletion as a result of Aniracetam use and increased cholinergic activity.
The final component of this stack, Vinpocetine, is renowned for its neuroprotective effects that prevent excitotoxicity (excessive stimulation of neurons) and inflammation of the brain. This aids in maintaining the overall health of neurons and as a result, memory retention is improved as information is not as likely to be lost through damage to synaptic connections. These neuroprotective effects would no doubt be valuable to the average student whose lifestyle often involves imbibing a considerable amount of potentially damaging alcohol. Vinpocetine also acts as a vasodilator, causing blood vessels in the brain to expand delivering greater quantities of materials such as oxygen and glucose needed by neurons to function efficiently.
The CILTEP Stack
This stack has gained much popularity in recent years. An acronym for chemically induced long-term potentiation, this stack is designed to induce the phenomenon of LTP (long term potentiation) covered earlier in the article. The benefits provided by this stack can help students to consolidate and recall study materials with greater ease and aid in the understanding of difficult concepts.
The stack is usually composed of two main components; a cAMP booster and PDE-4 inhibitor. The cAMP booster, commonly a supplement like forskolin from the Plectranthus barbatus plant, works to increase levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate. Meanwhile, PDE-4 inhibitors such as artichoke extract work by inhibiting the enzymes that break down cAMP. The result is a dramatic increase in cAMP levels, which is thought to lead to long term potentiation.
An additional advantage of this stack is its versatility; because CILTEP stacks work using rather unique mechanisms, it is possible to use it with other combinations of nootropics. For example some users add additional racetams to this stack, while others have noted that CILTEP greatly potentiates the action of stimulants, allowing them to use smaller amounts of stimulants for greater effects.
Users may also want to consider adding a dopamine precursor like phenylalanine to their CILTEP stack as some have reported experiencing fatigue when using this combination of nootropics, most likely a result of dopamine depletion.
These are just a few examples of the many types of stacks students are currently employing to boost their academic performance. With so many different types of nootropic supplement out there, the combinations are limitless. Although these stacks are an excellent place to start, the best stack for your requirements will no doubt be one tailored for your needs. We would therefore advise that you spend some time researching and experimenting with different nootropics to find which supplements and dosages are ideal for you. Remember to keep in mind what you hope to achieve (is it a stack for memory, concentration or learning?) and always consult a doctor before using any type of nootropic.
Modern academic institutions demand a lot from their students. Whether underperforming or overwhelmed, there is no doubt many students feel the need for cognition enhancing supplements. Regardless of whether this should be considered ethically as cheating or not, the fact is that students will go to tremendous lengths to ensure they perform well academically and there is no question as to whether it is better to use potentially illegal, habit forming and dangerous drugs like ADHD medication or safe, legal, neuroprotective supplements like nootropics.