Nootropics: The Basics

The culture around cognitive performance enhancement is changing. It’s no longer about plying your brain with noxious substances into remaining alert for 48 hours and then spending the next day in a zombie-like state. The new motto is maximising today’s energy instead of spending tomorrow’s.

There is also the growing recognition that the mind and the body are closely linked, and that what’s good for the body is also good for the brain. The sports nutrition sector, in particular, increasingly leverages this dual benefits approach. Younger audiences are a core target, but so are active seniors pursuing the anti aging objective.

What are nootropics?

In a nutshell, nootropics, also sometimes referred to as “smart drugs,” are substances geared towards boosting cognitive performance. This includes aspects such as mental focus, clarity, memory, motivation, concentration, creativity, processing efficiency and reaction time.

Nootropics as a category is extremely broad and encompasses anything from illicit drugs to prescription medications like methylphenidate (“Ritalin”), to substances found in everyday foods and drinks. The latter includes caffeine, omega-3 fatty acids, choline, amino acids B-group vitamins as well as a whole host of botanical compounds.

Moving on from caffeine

Without a doubt, caffeine is the most popular nootropic there is. Enabling students to study all night before an exam and preventing truck drivers from falling asleep at the wheel, caffeine is tried, tested and effective. But it has disadvantages, especially if consumed in excess. The famous “jitters,” sleep disturbances and irritability are among the most common side effects.

At the more extreme end of the nootropics spectrum are drugs like cocaine, sometimes used by people in high pressure jobs, like stock traders. This, however, can come at a very high cost. Heart disease, for one, is common among habitual cocaine users.

What is happening currently is that we are seeing a much more diverse offering of nootropics. These are often targeted at young people who want to improve their performance, mental as well as physical, throughout the day in a more sustainable way.

Nootropics Market: Sports Nutrition connects body and mind

The rapid expansion of the market for sports nutrition products is one of the major growth trends in packaged foods and beverages. This has been achieved by making products, which were once targeted at a specialist niche audience, relevant to mainstream Millennials. The roaring popularity of high protein products across virtually all categories is probably the most visible manifestation of this trend.

For any athlete, the mental component is just as crucial as their physical condition when it comes to achieving success. Therefore, the brain is becoming an increasingly important organ targeted by sports nutrition products, further heightening their mass market appeal.

Lumina Intelligence research, which analyses the top-ranking sports nutrition products online across 20 global markets, found that 24% of offerings claimed to improve energy, and 6% claimed to improve focus. There is also a new niche of products appearing that explicitly leverages mental health benefits. These currently account for 0.7% of sports nutrition products.

A factor that is fuelling the demand for sports nutrition products positioned as improving mental acuity and stamina is the continuing rise of online gaming culture. “E-sports,” as online gaming is also referred to, are a highly competitive pursuit, be it as a leisure activity or practiced at professional level.

The brain, after all, consumes around 20% of the body’s energy and gamers need to stay highly alert for hours on end, maintaining their focus, reflexes and quick decision making capacity on point. Besides the mental endurance required, gaming for extended periods is also physically taxing. For this reason, sports nutrition products, which are positioned as having brain health benefits, are attractive to this growing audience.

Two classic sports nutrition supplements that were once primarily associated with muscle building, but which are increasingly appreciated for affording brain health benefits, are creatine and L-carnitine. Creatine is essential for energy metabolism, and a good amount of research reports that supplementation has shown to impact positively on both physical and cognitive performance. L-carnitine supplementation may modulate nerve growth and acetylcholine pathways, though the research in this area is still rather tentative.

Then there is also choline. Choline is an essential component of cell membranes. It is also required for the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, memory, muscle control, plus a range of other brain and nervous system functions. Foods like eggs, peanuts and liver are rich sources of choline, but not everyone gets enough through the diet, and supplementation has shown benefits.

Our research found that choline was present in 17% of pre-workout blends with an average dose of 335mg per servings. Five different types of choline compounds were identified, each with their own unique effects, e.g. choline bitartrate and CDP-choline. This indicates plenty of potential for product differentiation.

One of the long-standing key players in functional choline ingredients is Kyowa Hakko with its cognizin (citicoline) ingredient. Cognizin is promoted as fuelling mental processes, enhancing focus and concentration, supporting healthy memory function. It can be added to a wide variety of products, including beverages, cereals, candies, dairy products and chewing gum.

Another insight gleaned from our research is that the positioning of some types of ingredients, for example antioxidant compounds, is shifting more into a brain health related direction.

This appears to be the case, for instance, in the case of Pycnogenol (maritime pine bark extract). Formerly promoted chiefly as a supplement conducive to cardiovascular health, when examining sports nutrition products, Lumina Intelligence found five brands that used Pycnogenol to address energy, focus and sleep. We shall return shortly to the importance of sleep as a target for nootropics.


Nootropics have come a long way from short-term attention boosters like caffeine. The latest nootropics formulations are more complex, targeting both the body and the mind in a way that supports health in the long term.

Nootropics market research needs to focus on the specific needs of different target groups. For older generations, nootropics will become a firm part of the pursuit towards longevity and anti aging, while for younger audiences, they may serve to help with achieving a particular goal or working through high pressure periods.

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