Let's start at the beginning. The dictionary defines 'nootropic' as:
Adjective, Noun - Pertaining to a drug that enhances mental functions, such as memory.
The word 'nootropic' was coined in 1972 by a Romanian chemist and psychologist called Corneliu E. Giurgea, from the Greek words that meant 'mind', and 'turning' or 'bending'.
Corneliu E. Giurgea was born in Bucharest in 1923 and died in Brussels in 1995. He received a Ph.D. in medicine from the University of Bucharest, where he taught for several years. He continued his research at the First Pavlov State Medical University of St. Petersburg where he specialised in Psychology. This was followed by a post-doc at the University of Rochester, a professorship at the Université catholique de Louvain and a scientific counsellor and researcher at the Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB.
In 1964, 6 years before coining the term, Giurgea synthesized Piracetam, which he would later describe as a nootropic.
In fact, Giurgea said that there were five things that defined a nootropic? So what are they?
They should enhance learning and memory.
They should enhance the resistance of learned behaviours/memories to conditions which tend to disrupt them.
They should protect the brain against various physical or chemical injuries.
They should increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms.
They should lack the usual pharmacology of other psychotropic drugs and possess very few side effects and extremely low toxicity.
It's Giurgea's Piracetam that's often referred to as being the spark for the nootropic fire. Developed in 1964 and intended to be a calming, sleep inducing drug, it was considered a failure.
Under the insightful inventiveness of Giurgea, in 1971 the drug was marketed by UCB as Nootropil, and the apparent failure soon became a roaring success.
From that point onwards, doctors, scientists and biohackers alike have experimented with the best ways to bend their own minds whilst closely following the principles set out by Dr. Giurgea.
Duly, nootropics have seen their popularity soar, as individuals everywhere find them key in helping with cognition, mental energy, enhanced memory, focus, improved mood, reduced stress, and increased self-control.
But we were experimenting with bending the mind long before Dr. Giurgea defined the word.
Research suggests that cave paintings were produced after consuming plants with psychoactive properties, with some murals even appearing to show psychedelic mushrooms.
It seems cavemen understood that special powers from plants could help unlock the brain and inspire early works of art.
In a religious, shamanic, and spiritual context 'entheogens' (psychoactive substances for "generating the divine within") have been used for thousands of years.
Some shamans even observe dietary restrictions that are more than just cultural prior to their ceremonies, consuming foods rich in tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin, which affects mood) and avoiding foods rich in tyramine and alcohol.
But for a long time, perhaps the world's most famous mind-bending stimulant has also been the world's most widely consumed psychoactive drug.
At 120,000 tonnes per year currently, it amounts to one served beverage for every person on earth, every day...
Whilst coffee drinking appears to have started in Sufi monasteries in the middle of the fifteenth century, many West African cultures chewed Kola nut to restore vitality and ease hunger pangs, Mayans (and later the Spanish) consumed a stimulating drink with cocoa beans, and Native Americans brewed a tea using the leaves and stems of the yaupon holly.
Theanine, an amino acid found primarily in particular plants and fungal species, was found to be a constituent of green tea in 1949 before being isolated from gyokuro leaves in 1950.
...and of course theanine and caffeine are both found in tea, which has been consumed for millennia.
Back in the present, Caffeine and L-Theanine are very popular ingredients in modern nootropic 'stacks'.
A nootropic stack is a combination of 2 or more supplements that when combined have a synergistic effect greater than just taking the substances by themselves.
In the case of caffeine and l-theanine, while the caffeine acts as a stimulant, the l-theanine works to counteract the negative side-effects such as the anxiety and jitters often associated with caffeine on its own. So we 'stack' them together.
In the Internet era, 'biohackers' have found it even easier to discuss and compare notes. Places like Reddit's Nootropic subreddit have provided valuable information and research into substances, creating stacks and everything else.
The availability of information on the Internet, however, caused experimentation with more than just nootropics, as individuals over the UK (and the rest of the world) began having 'legal highs' manufactured with formulas almost exactly like those of existing, illegal drugs.
This in turn lead to the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, intended as a blanket ban on legal highs. Although well meaning in principle, the ban effectively outlawed many popular nootropics in the United Kingdom.
From that point onwards, nootropics proponents in the UK have sought to find the best combinations of vitamins, supplements and amino acids that remain on the right side of the law, whilst staying as close to possible to Dr. Giurgea's definition of a nootropic.
As the doctor himself said:
"Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain."
- Corneliu E. Giurgea
So let's see if we can improve our own.
We hope this has been an interesting introduction into nootropics! If you think so, please share!
If you'd like to try a nootropic stack, Supercharged Nutrition's GO includes the stack favourites caffeine, l-theanine, and more.
And as you took the time to read this piece, we're happy to offer you a 10% discount on the bottle price with the code 'ukhistory' - plus free shipping within the UK.