Nootropics 101 – A Detailed Guide on Nootropics Supplements

Pills that level up brain power are no longer a fixation of science fiction.

“Smart drugs” – aka nootropics – have officially broken into mainstream. Promising to boost cognition and mental performance, these substances are being used globally by students, athletes and businessmen alike.

But are nootropics the real deal? This detailed 101 guide finds out.

Introducing the brain

Our brains are the most complex creations in the entire solar system. How you think, react, make decisions, and even feel still shocks scientists today.

Just like space exploration, we’re only just scraping the surface of human cognition. Your cerebral cortex alone is home to over 100 billion neurons.

Optimizing your brain health goes beyond being smart. The micro universe inside your head oversees your entire body, regulating every single thing you do.

Certain parts operate different functions; such as the cerebrums ability to analyze math equations, the cerebellum’s coordination control, or the way your pituitary gland releases hormones.

Cell-to-cell communication relies on chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, which attach to receptor sights to stimulate a reaction.

Maintaining an optimized balance of these neurotransmitters is important for supporting cognition and mood. The same can be said for energy and blood flow.

Think of your brain as a small but mighty supercomputer, using technology that’s far too advanced for man to recreate. If scientists could, they’d have done it already, believe us.

Biohackers have been trying to optimize this advanced biotechnology for decades. Their tool of choice? Nootropics.

It’s said that the left-hand side of your brain is the analytical side, whereas the right fosters creativity. Harnessing the power of both allows people to become great calm and precise critical thinkers with flair. This state of optimized cognition is what many nootropic users are seeking.

What are nootropics?

Nootropics – aka smart drugs – are substances that improve cognition, memory, creativity, and enhances learning ability.

They’re the top searches on biohacker forums, and in the backpacks of college students revising for exams. Businessmen are always looking for ways to elevate their game, so some swear by nootropics too.

Not all nootropics are created equal though. The research into some is quite scant, whereas others are well-evidenced. It seems like every day there’s a new nootropic on the market to test.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how a lot of them work either. Because the brain is so complex, they can only make educated decisions by looking at the data they’re given and comparing it to what they already know.

That doesn’t mean researchers aren’t confident. They just can’t pinpoint every detail.

Nootropics might seem like the hot new thing. Unless you’re really in the know, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the latest type of wonder-drug hot off the press. But in actual fact, the term nootropic has been floating around for about five decades.

It was first used by chemist and psychologist Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, after he created the nootropic piracetam by accident. What he actually set out to do was formulate a new sleeping pill.

After stumbling on his new discovery, Dr. Giurgea established a criterion every nootropic needed to match. According to him, it needs to protect the brain, upgrade memory, and help improve behavior. It should also pose low toxicity, minimal side-effect risks, and not be addictive.

Using compounds to boost brain power wasn’t the sole idea of Dr. Giurgea alone. Civilizations were employing plant-based medicine for thousands of years before him as part of ancient remedies.

What do nootropics do?

Nootropics are designed to benefit how in-tune the brain operates. Naturally, given the complexity or your insanely powerful biocomputer, the way they work can be expansive and too intricate for just one article. So, we’ll keep things top-level and just cover the key points. 

Nootropics that work should benefit your brain in a bunch of ways. Without wading too deep into the science, here is what they could do for you:

  • Enhance mood and motivation – Nootropics that support dopamine upkeep can contribute toward optimizing your internal reward mechanism. They can help you feel happier and more motivated.
  • Unlock creativity – Creativity isn’t something you can muster will a pill. It’s intrinsic, something that separates natural artists from the rest of us. Yet, by boosting alpha-brainwaves, a nootropic might help creatives tap into their gift even more.
  • Improve learning, information processing, and memory – Nootropics may enhance learning by improving information processing and memory. This is one reason why nootropics are so popular among students.
  • Focus and attention – Certain nootropics could help the brain balance chemicals related to concentration. Athletes and businessmen often try nootropics for this reason.
  • Better recall – Nootropics may make information recall faster. Naturally, this has many benefits for knowledge workers and students alike.
  • Stamina – Adaptogens are substances that help the body adapt to stress. Certain nootropics contain adaptogens to help reduce stress and enhance mental stamina.
  • Promote calm and composure – Some nootropics might help your brain to remain calm and composed in high pressure situations. Ambitious types could benefit here, especially if they need to regularly rise to the occasion.

Who should use nootropics?

When Dr. Giurgea set out to formulate a new sleeping pill, he had his set audience in mind. Chances are, he didn’t know just how universal his happy mistake would become.

Nootropics could be ideal for anyone looking to improve their brain power. It’s quite common to see students sharing study aid advice across social media. Athletes and even gamers are becoming more in tune with nootropics too.

Smart drugs are also popular among business circles. For some people, being mentally sharp can mean the difference between upward progression or dropping down the ranks. Entrepreneurs and managers alike are known to use nootropics to support their careers.

Entrepreneur fixing tie
Entrepreneurs and managers alike are known to use nootropics to support their careers.

But just because people take them, doesn’t mean all nootropics work. Like any drug or supplement, the results can vary from person to person. Not every product or plant is proven to work, and some results might just be a placebo effect.

If you’re planning on using nootropics make sure to check out all the relevant studies. None of the information in this article is meant to be taken as medical advice either. If you suffer from a preexisting medical condition, ask your doctor before trying a new supplement.

What are the most common nootropic ingredients?

Identifying a nootropic depends on how closely you follow Dr. Giurgea’s guidelines. Today, most experts call anything that supports cognitive function a nootropic. So, we’ll do the same for the sake of this article.


Yes, one of the world’s best nootropics is right under your nose – buzzy caffeine. There’s a chance you’re one of the millions who’ve consumed the psychoactive substance today too.

Caffeine, the stimulant inside your cup of coffee, can legitimately boost cognition. It works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, which helps you feel awake and alert[1].

Studies show that moderate doses up to 300 mg can increase attention and vigilance while decreasing reaction times[2][3][4].

Other research suggests coffee drinkers have a 65% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and a significantly lower risk of developing Parkinson’s[5][6][7]. It’s not a smart move to go above 300 mg, though, as you could start to experience side effects.

Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa Monnieri is an ancient herb with roots in Ayurvedic medicine. Inside it are active compounds which help defend your brain from oxidative stress, as well as enhance how well signals travel through the hippocampus, where memory functions are handled[8].

Studies show that this herb can improve how fast the brain processes information, as well enhance memory and reaction times[9][10][11]. However, to experience these effects, users should take bacopa monnieri consistently for a few months[12].


When we usually think of amino acids, they’re usually accompanied with images of building muscles. But when it comes to L-theanine, this one’s all about boosting brain power.

Typically found in tea, L-theanine has a calming quality, without making you feel tired[13][14]. Research suggests that as little as 50 mg can also boost creativity-benefiting alpha brainwaves too[15].

Interestingly, you can even amplify the amino acid’s effects by combining it with caffeine. According to studies, the combo dubbed smart caffeine, brings the best out of both substances. Taking them together can improve performance in cognitively demanding tasks[16].

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhiodiola rosea is an adaptogen herb, which as its name suggests, helps the body adapt to stress.

People who are highly stressed and anxious are common users, as studies show it can enhance their mood and diminish feelings of burnout[17][18]. Other research says the herb may also help fight fatigue and depression[19][20].

You don’t have to take a lot either[21]. Even small doses have been shown to help exam students experience a better sense of wellbeing.


Just like rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha is another adaptogen with ancient history. It’s been used for thousands of years for natural healing and is backed by substantial scientific evidence.

Ashwagandha has many health enhancing properties, from helping to protect against cancer, through to improving blood sugar[22][23]. But it’s also a potent nootropic too.

Research suggests that the ancient herb can help to block stress[24]. So much so, studies have shown it has the impressive ability to tackle anxiety, depression, and insomnia[25][26][27]. Healthy men who take it also seem to perform better in cognitive performance tasks[28].

Other nootropic benefits may also include how it helps to restrict how much the brain is harmed by injury and disease. According to test tube studies, ashwagandha may reduce memory and general functioning problems[29][30][31][32].


Creatine is an amino acid that’s popular among bodybuilders, because the muscle uses it to make protein. However, it’s actually a powerful nootropic too.

Once creatine travels to the brain it binds to phosphate to create a molecule the brain can use for fuel. According to studies, this energy can lead to improved reasoning and memory[33][34][35].

Bodybuilder lifting weight


Tyrosine is a natural amino acid produced inside your body. It has many benefits for brain health making it a popular nootropic.

First of all, tyrosine is important for producing vital neurotransmitters[36]. Experts say it plays a part in the production of dopamine, as well as adrenaline and noradrenaline.

Dopamine manages the reward and pleasure center in your brain, but also plays a part in memory and motor skills. On the flip side, adrenaline and noradrenaline trigger your fight or flight response[37].

Studies have shown that tyrosine can improve memory during mentally demanding tasks[38]. The same has also been seen for enhancing cognitive flexibility – aka changing between tasks and thoughts[39].

Other notable nootropic ingredients include:

*Given the high withdrawal effects of Adderall and Ritalin, they might not be a nootropic by Dr. Giurgea’s guidelines.

Are nootropics safe?

Natural nootropics usually have the highest safety profile. Although they might not kick in as fast as pharmaceuticals, their effects can still be felt, just in a less intense way. Naturally, this trait can help lower the risk of side effects and possibly make them safer.

Most of the natural nootropics don’t have bad withdrawal effects either. They’re not as addictive as pharmaceuticals, and don’t have the same side effect risks. When taken in safer recommended amounts; any side effects felt from natural nootropics should be mild.

Pharmaceutical nootropics are by far the most powerful and they don’t take long to start working. As pharmaceutical drugs, they’re designed to treat specific medical conditions, but healthy people still find a way to use them.

According to one expert, there are no safe pharmaceutical drugs that boost brain power in adults[46]. When possible, try to stick to natural nootropic ingredients.

One issue with using pharmaceutical nootropics is the possibility of dangerous side effects. Ritalin, for example, can cause headaches, insomnia, psychosis and seizures[47][48][49]. Whereas Adderall may trigger low libido, anxiety, and heart attacks[50].

Do nootropics actually work?

The best nootropics are those supported by science. These are the ones that should work if you take the suggested doses.

For a natural nootropic to work, you will probably need to take it consistently. It can sometimes take weeks or months for the full benefits to take effect. Fortunately, natural nootropics typically have a high safety rating when taken over longer periods.

Pharmaceutical nootropics have a very consistent track record for working. However, like we mentioned earlier, these are the kind with the biggest side effect risks. It is never recommended to take unprescribed pharmaceutical drugs.

It’s impossible to say whether or not all nootropics work. There are just too many individual ingredients available to make a blanket statement.

To decide for yourself, check which nootropic you’re looking at against any recent research. Let science decide if something’s worth taking.


When it comes to nootropics, it’s easy to feel full of questions. So, in this section, we’ll go over the most frequently asked ones.

When should I take nootropics?

It’s generally recommended that you take your nootropics in the morning. Doing this should help to set you up with cognitive support from the start of the day. Some nootropic advocates take theirs in the afternoon too, for a specific post-lunch boost.

Night owls and shift workers, however, might prefer taking them in the evening. It’s all about planning when you want to experience the most benefits.

Man planning

Is coffee a nootropic?

Coffee itself isn’t a nootropic, but the caffeine inside certainly is. Head back up to the common nootropic ingredients list to learn more about it.

Do nootropics show up on drug tests?

That would depend specifically on the nootropic you’re taking. Check with the manufacturer for your product, or alternatively, find information for the specific ingredient online. Always rely on reputable sources when doing this.

What are the best nootropics to take?

We created a section above for the most common nootropic ingredients. In it, you’ll find some of what we feel are the best nootropics to take. These are the one’s backed with substantial evidence and are completely natural.

Others we outlined as notable nootropics are also shown to be effective. However, we do not recommend using pharmaceutical nootropics without the guidance of a doctor. Even then you may experience adverse side effects.

Can nootropics cause anxiety?

Natural nootropics should not cause anxiety when taken in suggested doses. Some pharmaceutical nootropics, however, may cause anxiety. Check each individual ingredient with a reliable source before taking it.

What is the most effective nootropic?

When talking to TIME, expert Dr. Mark Moyad says he thinks the nation’s favorite caffeine is one of the most effective nootropics[51]. Head back to our list of the most common nootropic ingredients to see which others stand out.

Will nootropics keep you awake?

Some nootropics can disrupt sleep. So, if you take one or more of these, they might keep you awake. Melatonin, for example, can help people get a great night’s sleep. Adrafinil, on the other hand, could leave you wide awake if you take it too late in the evening.

Bottom line – it depends on the variety you’re taking. Check each individual ingredient before consuming it.

The Final Word

Nootropics are dedicated cognitive enhancers enjoyed by people the world over. Mostly known as ‘smart drugs’, it’s their job to boost your brain power, or protect its health and function. If it enhances cognition, improves memory, and helps learning; it’s a nootropic.

Today, nootropics are the hot new thing. Everyone from students to entrepreneurs are popping brain pills in the hope of bagging a mental edge. Many have built a community around finding the best stacks – aka combination of ingredients – as well.

But even with a sudden emergence in the supplement market, nootropics aren’t new. Civilizations have employed them for thousands of years and scientists have been experimenting for generations. It’s just that we now have a name for these specific smart drugs.

Not all nootropics are the same and the market is huge. Some are small, natural, single ingredient capsules; whereas others are complex, potent pharmaceuticals. They aren’t all equal either and need to be well-researched before being taken.

The safest way to enjoy nootropics is to try a safer, natural supplement. Choose a reputable brand that shows the scientific studies they referenced when picking their ingredients. Also look for high-manufacturing standards, or at least a guarantee of them.

Nootropics could take your cognition to another level. It’s all about finding which one’s right for the task.



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