Everything You Need To Know About Nootropics

Fact Checked By: Dr. Brendan Courneene, ND

Many people struggle with focus, attention, and learning, which is why substances called nootropics are becoming so popular among the general population. Even if your work or school performance is top-notch, most people would love to optimize for even more efficiency. 

Nootropics, also known as brain supplements, offer a range of benefits to boost cognitive performance and dial up brainpower. They can help you sustain focus, retain more information, and generally become more efficient in your work. But many questions exist around nootropics, their safety, and what they’re actually doing in your brain. 

This article will discuss what nootropics are, how they work, the difference between natural and man-made cognitive enhancers, and then cover some frequently asked questions. 

What Are Nootropics? 

Nootropics, sometimes called “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers,” enhance cognition and memory and help facilitate learning, motivation, and creativity. From its Greek origins, the word nootropic translates into mind-bending. [1]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18353672/

Although synthetic (man-made) nootropics have only been around for about 50 years, natural cognitive enhancers that boost brain function date back thousands of years to ancient China and India. 

Functions Of Nootropics

Many people are turning to nootropics today to enhance their work performance. Whether you’re experiencing real cognitive decline, have ADD or ADHD, or just want to optimize your workflow, nootropics offer a range of benefits. 

Some of the most notable functions of nootropics include[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5021479/#:~:text=Nootropics%20or%20smart%20drugs%20are,creativity%2C%20motivation%2C%20and%20attention

  • Enhancing memory
  • Increasing focus and concentration
  • Stimulating creativity (thinking outside the box)
  • Enhancing brain energy and stamina (working for longer hours)
  • Improving motivation 

How Do Nootropics Work?

Nootropic is a broad term that defines any substance that enhances cognitive health. So, the mechanisms behind nootropics aren’t all the same. With that being said, there are a handful of common pathways that these smart drugs work on in your brain. Some ways that nootropics help your brain along include:

  • Promoting neuroplasticity (the ability for brain cells and networks to grow and change)
  • Improving blood flow
  • Increasing neuroprotection
  • Enhancing resilience against stress

Promoting Neuroplasticity 

Neuroplasticity is a term that describes your brain’s ability to change and grow over time. It’s a common belief that after a certain age, your brain stays the same and stops developing. With the understanding of neuroplasticity, however, we now know that our brains are forever reshaping and developing. 

Nootropics enhance your brain’s ability to adapt and grow by increasing something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a molecule that naturally declines with age and is intimately involved in brain changes related to memory and learning [3]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2019.00363/full

When you take the right nootropics for your individual biology, you may enhance BDNF expression and prime your brain to take in and process new information. 

Animal studies show that certain nootropics can enhance BDNF in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, which are two areas of the brain that have significant roles in memory and learning [4]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20095391/[5]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19240853/.

Improving Blood Flow

The more blood flow your brain receives, the more oxygen and nutrients it’s able to take up. When the circulation in your brain isn’t as efficient as it could be, you feel it.

Your brain needs oxygen to create energy, and it needs energy to process information, make new connections, and create lasting memories. 

Certain nootropics can enhance the amount of blood flow to your brain by creating more vasodilation, which enhances the amount of blood your vessels are able to carry[6]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10978039/[7]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5021479/

Increasing Neuroprotection

Several environmental and physiological factors can cause inflammation and oxidative stress in your brain. The neuroprotective effects of nootropics help to stave off potential harm and keep your brain cells healthy and fully functional. 

Some ways that certain nootropics can protect your brain include[8]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16284628/[9]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27765355/:  

  • Suppressing inflammatory molecules that could damage your neurons
  • Protecting your mitochondria (energy centers in the brain) from damage
  • Protecting against oxidative stress (cell damage from unbound oxygen atoms)  

Your brain function is electrical, so even the most basic process of brain cells transferring information releases free radicals (unbound oxygen atoms).

Enhancing Resilience Against Stress

Avoiding stress altogether is impossible, but learning to manage your stress can make a huge difference in your quality of life. 

Along with the uncomfortable feelings that stress generates, chronic stress can have a detrimental impact on your brain, increasing inflammation and oxidative stress. 

What’s more, research shows prolonged stress can impair brain function and cause memory loss over time. 

Certain nootropics work by helping your brain and body combat stress’s physiological and emotional effects while calming inflammation and oxidation in your brain.[10]https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12272-013-0205-4?shared-article-renderer

These substances won’t make your stressors go away, but they’ll enhance your resilience and ability to process and deal with the stressors in your life. 

Common Natural Nootropics

There are several all-natural nootropics that don’t require a prescription and can be found over the counter and online. 

Some examples include:

  • Caffeine
  • Gingko biloba
  • Ashwagandha
  • Panax ginseng

Caffeine

Perhaps the most widely used nootropic is caffeine. You can find caffeine naturally in your coffee or tea, but supplement manufacturers have also leveraged the brain-boosting power of caffeine by adding it to nootropic formulas. 

Caffeine’s primary nootropic effect is its ability to increase alertness and attention[11]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27612937/

Ginkgo Biloba 

Ginkgo biloba is one of the most well-researched natural nootropic herbs and is even listed as an anti-dementia drug. One of the primary benefits of ginkgo is its neuroprotective effect, which may help combat oxidative stress and could potentially protect against amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzhiemer’s disease.[12]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5021479/ 

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a popular herb that’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years as an adaptogen. Adaptogenic herbs help your mind and body adapt to stress. Doing so can help prevent some of the cognitive and memory issues that come with long-term stress.[13]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11536383/ 

Panax Ginseng

Panax Ginseng (also known as Asian ginseng) is a staple herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The nootropic activity of ginseng can be broken down into two primary mechanisms:

  • Improved circulation to the brain due to increased nitric oxide
  • Neuroprotection against oxidative stress

Studies show that taking Panax ginseng may improve memory, focus, and attention.[14]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575939/ 

Common Man-Made Nootropics

Noopept®

Noopept is a man-made nootropic that stimulates the production of BDNF and NGF (nerve growth factor). Research suggests that Noopept may protect your brain against the development of Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment.[15]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19240853/ 

Adderall® (Amphetamines)

Adderall is a prescription medication that works by increasing the availability of dopamine and noradrenaline in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. These chemicals enhance your ability to pay attention and retain memories, which is why it’s frequently prescribed to people with ADD and ADHD. Adderall is a prescription medication that works by increasing the availability of dopamine and noradrenaline in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. These chemicals enhance your ability to pay attention and retain memories, which is why it’s frequently prescribed to people with ADD and ADHD.[16]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25499957/ 

Due to the amphetamines in Adderall, this drug is highly stimulating and may be dangerous for some.[17]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19264944/[18]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12187149/ Also, Adderall is addictive and people who have been taking it for a while may have a hard time coming off of it. 

Modafinil  

Modafinil, also sold under the name Provigil®, is a prescription drug mainly used to treat narcolepsy.

Although it is almost as stimulating as amphetamines, Modafinil is considered less addictive.

Research shows that Modafinil can enhance executive functioning and reduce drowsiness, especially for those with sleep deprivation.[19]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10607161/ 

FAQs About Nootropics

What Is A Nootropic Stack? 

A nootropic stack is a combination of two or more nootropic substances. When you combine two or more nootropics together, it can provide a synergistic effect, which can optimize the entire formula. Nootropic stacks are a popular way to get the biggest boost in brainpower. 

Are Nootropics Safe? 

Man-made nootropics may come with potentially dangerous side effects, like high blood pressure, increased heart rate, insomnia, and addiction. On the other hand, natural nootropics are generally safe for consumers as their action in your body is much more subtle than pharmaceutical-grade substances. 

What Are The Best Nootropics? (Different ones work for different individuals)

The best nootropic for you will depend on your individual needs at this time. While some people may benefit from substances that increase blood flow to the brain, others may find that nootropics’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory impact is what they need.

What Are The Most Popular Nootropics?

Caffeine and Ginkgo Biloba are the most widely used all-natural, research-backed nootropic substances, while Noopept and Modafinil are the most popular synthetic brain-boosting drugs. Other commonly used nootropics include bacopa monnieri, Panax ginseng, choline, l-theanine, ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, and MCT oil. 

Are Nootropics Always Prescription Drugs, Or Can I Buy Them Over The Counter?

Nootropics that pharmaceutical companies formulate to treat specific conditions, such as Adderall®, Vyvanse® and Provigil®, are only available as prescriptions due to safety. However, most nootropics and nootropic formulations are available over the counter and online with no prescription needed. 

How Do I Get Started With Nootropics?

The best way to get started with nootropics is to assess what your needs are in terms of cognitive health. For the best results, your nootropic formula should be unique to you and include only the ingredients that will support your neurological health at this time. 

What works for your sister may not work for you. What worked for you seven years ago may not be that effective for you now. There’s a little trial-and-error involved. 

You can take this quiz to zero in on a personalized formula for your unique situation and goals. 

I Heard You Have To Buy Nootropics Overseas. Is That True?

Nootropics are available online, over the counter, or by prescription. Most research-backed nootropics that have been assessed for safety are readily available for purchase in the United States. There are a handful of nootropics that are banned in the US due to a lack of safety research.

Do I Have To Mix My Own Nootropic Powders And Make My Own Brain Pills?

Nootropics are either sold as individual supplements in capsule or powder form or pre-formulated as a nootropic stack. Unless you wish to create your own formulation (and are willing to do hours upon hours of research), there is no need to mix your own powders or make your own pills. 

Can Nootropics Increase Your IQ?

Nootropics work by increasing your cognitive function, attention, learning capabilities, memory retention, creativity, and motivation. Therefore, if you land on the right formula for you, they may help you to access higher levels of innate intelligence and learning capabilities. Whether nootropics can increase innate IQ is yet to be determined. 

Can You Take Nootropics Every Day?

You will get the most out of your nootropics if you take them consistently. Some experts recommend taking time off of certain ingredients so that you don’t build up a tolerance to the nutrients in your nootropic formula. 

Always read package directions and consult your doctor before getting started. 

Do Nootropics Have Side Effects?

Some nootropics may not be compatible with your individual biology, in which case you might experience side effects like headaches or upset stomach. If you’re taking prescription nootropics, side effects like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and insomnia might occur. 

If you experience side effects from your prescription nootropic, call your doctor or pharmacist to see if your reaction is to be expected. If you’re experiencing side effects with over-the-counter nootropics, discontinue use and read the packaging and inserts thoroughly to see if what you’re experiencing is expected. Consult your doctor if you’re concerned.. 

Are Nootropics And Noopept The Same Thing?

Nootropics encompass a wide range of brain-boosting substances that include both synthetic and natural compounds. Noopept® is a type of man-made nootropic that astronauts originally took on long missions to help them with neuroprotection, stress relief, memory, reasoning, and focus.

Are Nootropics Stimulants?

Not all nootropics have a stimulating effect; however, many nootropics include stimulants to enhance alertness. A common stimulant in over-the-counter nootropics is caffeine, while prescription nootropics like Adderall include amphetamines. All-natural nootropics like Ginkgo Biloba and Gotu-kola do not have a stimulating effect. 

What Is The Best Vitamin or Supplement for Brain Health?

The best vitamin or supplement for brain health will be individual to you. Depending on your unique needs, you may benefit from increased blood flow to your brain, enhanced neuroprotection, a boost in neurotrophic factors like BDNF, or enhanced stress resilience. 

What Medicine Makes You Focus?

The most commonly prescribed pharmaceutical medicines to help with focus include stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse, and Ritalin. These drugs are primarily prescribed to individuals with conditions like ADD and ADHD. Noopept is an over the counter alternative that also helps with focus but does not require a prescription. 

Do Nootropics Show Up On Drug Tests? 

Most nootropics aren’t illegal drugs and will not show up on drug tests. However, if you take prescription nootropics like Adderall or Vyvanse, the amphetamines will show up on your drug test. Therefore, it’s best to alert your employer that you are on these prescriptions before they drug test you. 

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