The nootropic class of compounds were discovered serendipitously and after their initial discovery, some use of the compounds like phenibut, picamilon and piracetam by Soviet Cosmonauts were primarily used as pharmaceuticals for people suffering from cognitive debilitation. From cosmonaut performance enhancers to prescription medications for Alzheimer’s, dementia and more, nootropics eventually gained popularity amongst healthy individuals seeking a competitive edge in business, school and other arenas.
There are several nootropics which work as cholinergics. Acetylcholine is not only one of the most vital neurotransmitters involved with memory and learning functions, but also a primary chemical signal in regards to loco-motor function (movement). Originally nootropics were prescribed for patients with age or trauma related cognitive issues and eventually became popular with the cognitive enhancing underground. Just as the “on label” use moved from patients with brain related issues to healthy individuals seeking general neuroprotective and cognitive benefit. Researches exploring the effect of acetylcholine on strength, endurance as well as certain nootropics’ connection to human growth hormone secretion have been published. This seemed to make some of these substances a potential fit for those who would like to improve their overall physiological functioning as well as their intellectual and mental capacities.
In the movie ‘Burn after reading’, George Clooney’s character refers to “muscle memory.” According to the theory of muscle memory (which is related to manual dexterity, strength training or even performing a musical instrument) our muscles are possessed of “excitable circuitry capable of directing complex behaviour on their own” according to researchers Qiang Liu and Erik Jorgensen
The Choline Connection
If you’re not new to the field of nootropics, you’re surely familiar with “the racetam’s best friend,” choline which is not only a vital nutrient for the brain but is also an essential precursor to the learning, memory and movement neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Choline supplementation might be powerfully synergistic with the racetam family of cholinergics but evidently, choline and acetylcholine’s connection to muscle movement and tension can also be tweaked by those seeking to get the most out of their exercise or workout regimen.
In the article “Dietary Supplements: Effects of Choline on Athletic Performance and Fatigue” by Bobby Sandage PhD, Richard Wuronan MD & LuAnn Sabounjian, the effects of choline on exercise endurance, performance and fatigue were observed. A series of running and swimming exercise based tests were used to explore the connection between plasma choline levels after exercise (running 20 miles or swimming for 2 hours) which led to a significant (40 – 50%) decrease in plasma choline levels. Choline, by the way is an essential fatty acid vital to neurological functioning. Choline (found in ample amounts in fish and eggs) makes up the greatest percentage of the brain’s mass and is also one of it’s most essential “brain foods.”
It was shown that test subjects offered 2 grams of free choline before the exercise tests had a less significant drop in choline levels (25 – 40%). The randomized placebo-controlled crossover study resulted in findings that suggest that choline supplementation before heavy exercise or strenuous labor could improve performance by reducing fatigue and enhancing “vigor.”
In 2008 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Drs. Ziegenfuss, Landis and Hofheins published their article “Acute supplementation with alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine augments growth hormone response to, and peak force production during, resistance exercise.” The connection between muscle gains (as far as both increased mass and strength and decreased fat goes) and growth hormone (GH) is thought to be connected to an exercise-induced increase in the production of GH. Alpha GPC is a highly processed form of lecithin and one of the best choline substrates available to supplement with.
The study, conducted by The Center for Applied Health Science Research in Fairlawn, Ohio utilized randomized, placebo-controlled crossover design and a sample size of seven men with two or more years of resistance training. The subjects were offered a single dose of 600mg Alpha GPC or a placebo 90 minutes before being instructed to complete 6 sets of 10 reps of squats performed at near 3/4 their predetermined maximum capacity.
The GPC group had 44-fold peak GH increase (as compared to 2.6 fold increase in the placebo group). In the GPC group, average bench press force increase was 14% in the Alpha GPC group as opposed to placebo. In addition to this, it was found that GPC had no statistically significant effect on the cardiovascular system (neither heart rate nor blood pressure adversely affected).
Nootropics Performance Enhancers
In addition to choline supplementation the addition of nootropic supplements could also be beneficial to strength and athletic training. Oxiracetam, for instance might have potential to increase alertness and spatial learning, which may result in improved physical coordination. Huperzine-A might also have a beneficial effect on physical coordination but it’s not recommended to use acetylcholinesterase inhibitors like Huperzine-A at the same time as using traditional cholinergics like the racetams. Doing so might exuberate many side effects.
Carphedon, the trade name for phenylpiracetam (piracetam with a phenyl chain added resulting in greater potency and increased stimulation) has been proven effective in increasing physical endurance as well as cold resistance,
Rhodiola rosea is another supplement that is as popular to those seeking a mental boost as they are an increase in physical strength and endurance. The arctic herb is similar to Siberian Ginseng though it’s not a true ginseng. A 2004 study from the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism entitled “Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance” delved into the effects of both acute (short term) use and after a 4 week cycle. Physical capacity, muscle strength, limb movement speed, reaction time and attention were observed.
An hour after Rhodiola ingestion (an extract was used in the study) or placebo, aural and visual reaction time as well as limb movement and “vigilance” (ability to stay focused and attentive for long periods) were tested. A second phase of the trial used the same practicum just running the tests for 4 weeks. Rosea use resulted in increased endurance (time to exhaustion was measured). The effects in the acute (single dose) subjects and the 4 week rosea subjects were not altered by continual use for the 4-week trial.
Serial Response Timing & Working Memory
A fairly recent bit of research from 2011 shows a strong correlation between SRT (serial reaction time) tasks and visuospatial and verbal working memory. In the journal Experimental Brain Research from 2011 it was suggested that “Working memory capacity correlates with implicit serial reaction time task performance.”
Another 2011 study “Neural Correlates of Skill Acquisition: Decreased Cortical Activity During a Serial Interception Sequence Learning Task” noted that “the timings between actions are critical for expert performance in athletics and music. An interesting note especially in athletic skilled performance. Performers are often unable to explicitly describe the sequences they are expressing, suggesting a strong contribution of implicit sequence knowledge.” So there’s a possibility that the increase in working memory could improve SRT and in turn improve performance in sports or musical performance.
Now we’ve talked about some traditional nootropics used in sports and strength training, but there is also a possibility that the popular body building supplement creatine may have some nootropic effects of it’s own. In addition to being one of the most widely used muscle building supplements and a common addition to whey and protein powders, creatine has shown some benefit in clinical trials involving neurological, neuromuscular and atherosclerotic conditions as well as being vital to the brain’s energy homeostasis.
Creatine & Cognition
In the article discussing the clinical trial “Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance”
researchers found “oral creatine supplementation (5 g d(-1) for six weeks) would enhance intelligence test scores and working memory performance in 45 young adult vegetarian subjects in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over design. Creatine supplementation had a significant positive effect (p < 0.0001) on both working memory (backward digit span) and intelligence (Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices), both tasks that require speed of processing. These findings underline a dynamic and significant role of brain energy capacity in influencing brain performance.”
Creatine leads to increased energy metabolism via increased ATP (adenine triphosphate, the body’s energy currency) but is probably most likely to have a positive nootropic effect on vegetarians who don’t get enough creatine (which occurs naturally in red meat) in their diet without supplementation.
A Word of Warning to Professional Athletes
Some nootropics may be banned for use in professional sports as per the World Anti-Doping Agency’s “Prohibited list.” For instance “All stimulants including optical isomers” which specifically includes cognitive enhancers such as adrafinil, bromantane, fonturacetam, phenylpiracetam, modafinil, prolintane and even the supplemental forms of the endogenous phenethylamine (PEA).
It is important to note that nootropics have not been approved by the FDA and that there are still dangers to consuming these substances. Although many have been shown in studies to be generally safe, consuming is not without risk. Adverse side effects and allergic reactions are possible so that must be taken into account. Every nootropic should be reviewed and allowed by a doctor as there is always some level of risk.
Nootropics are not approved to treat or manage any medical condition. Always check with your personal care provider before attempting any exercise, workout or supplement regimen especially if you are currently under a doctor’s care or taking any over-the-counter or prescribed medicines.
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