What are Nootropics?

what are nootropics

With the stress and strains of daily life, many people suffer from poor memory or cognitive function. Supplements that help to rectify this problem are called nootropics. Nootropics are chemicals, some man-made and some occurring naturally,that are used to enhance concentration and memory. They are often known as ‘smart drugs’ due to their association with increased brain power. However, unlike smart drugs, which may result in negative side effects, nootropics must have a low risk of side effects when used.


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What are Nootropics?

nootropics guide

Cognitive enhancements have been noted in Chinese medicine for years. The name nootropics was devised by Dr Corneliu Giurgea in 1972; the scientist responsible for the first man-made nootropic, piracetam, in 1964.

To be classed as a nootropic, Dr Giurgea established a range of criteria that a substance had to meet before it can be classed as a nootropic:

  • The substance should increase memory.
  • The substance should aid brain function in moments of disorder, such as low oxygen.
  • The substance should provide protection to the brain from physical and chemical assaults like barbiturates.
  • The substance should boost the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in certain regions of the brain, including the cortical and sub-cortical regions.
  • The substance should have barely any side effects, be virtually non-toxic and not possess a generalized sedative effect.

This criteria rules out common cognitive enhancers like caffeine. Caffeine is not a nootropic as it only increases cognitive function in the short term. Furthermore, it has side effects of anxiety when increasingly used. Thus, caffeine does not fit Dr Giurgea’s nootropic criteria.

There is another way to classify if a substance is a nootropic. Dr Skondia devised a range of criteria based on the metabolic approach of a nootropic. Under Dr Skondia’s criteria;

  • A substance should possess no direct vasoactivity.
  • A substance should not change basic EEG rhythm.
  • A substance should cross the blood brain barrier.
  • A substance should possess metabolic activity in the human brain.
  • A substance should have little or no side effects.
  • A substance should undergo clinical trials which reveal metabolic cerebral improvement.

The real difference between the two criteria is that Dr Giurgea believed that nootropics should increase learning while Dr Skondia thought they should increase brain metabolism via oxygen or glucose update.

Not all cognitive enhancers can be considered as nootropics

Nootropics like racetams would be defined as true nootropics according to both criteria. However, many cognitive enhancers would not. So, while all nootropics are cognitive enhancers, not all cognitive enhancers can be considered as nootropics.

When the term nootropic is used, many people use a looser definition for everyday substances, such as omega 3 fatty acids, to more regulated substances like Adderall may be included in discussion.

Nootropics create a positive impact

In the broad sense, a nootropic can act to increase any aspect related to cognition, including mood and motivation. Nootropics work to alter or support neurochemicals in the brain. Some nootropics change neurotransmitters, others can stimulate neurogenesis and some improve blood flow to the brain.

However, all nootropics create a positive impact to benefit the requirements of the individual. Nootropics won’t improve your IQ but they can offer long term benefits to memory and brain function.

Enhances Neuroplasticity​

Both old and young can safely use nootropics in the short term to aid their brain health and they offer several benefits to users. One of the most well-known benefits of using nootropics is that they may can enhance neuroplasticity.

The brain contains billions of growing neurons that have long offshoots extending from the center.These are known as neurites, which connect neurons together and send messages to form our thoughts. When a neuron releases particular neurotransmitters, the receptors at the synapse (the junction between neurons) are activated, resulting in a chemical change.

This process occurs billions of times every day, functioning our memories, data, movements and thoughts. In young people, the brain can form connections between neurons quickly and efficiently. However, as we age, this function declines, causing slower responses, skills and knowledge. This decline can be reduced with the help of nootropics.

Producing more neurotransmitters​

Using nootropics daily will help your brain to produce more neuro-transmitters. To enhance this benefit, its best to use a brain training program or to use your brain daily by completing activities like reading and learning new skills. By challenging your brain regularly, its capacity will grow quicker.

For nootropics that are not to be used daily, for example, those that are for occasional use, consumption is limited to prevent the risk of long term side effects.

What Are The Benefits Of Nootropics?

nootropics benefits

​Increased Concentration

The benefits of taking nootropics include an increased concentration. In particular, nootropics can be helpful to students who require concentration to study over several hours. By improving brain function, your motivation and thought is boosted, allowing you to concentrate more easily. The best nootropic for concentration would be one from the class of racetams.

Enhanced Memory

As well as concentration, an enhanced memory is received via nootropics. This is because nootropics repair memory function and boost it so you can retrieve information more accurately. Brain cell growth is improved and neurons are repaired so that memory function is increased.

Improves Brain Health​

A poor diet and busy lifestyle can result in poor brain health. Nootropics not only boost your memory function and concentration but also improve the health of your brain. This occurs via improved oxygen flow and brains cells being maintained.

nootropics for beginners

Ideal For Older People

Certain nootropics like Huperzine A have been proved to provide advantages for those with Alzheimer’s and patients with brain trauma. Due to improving brain health, nootropics are ideal for older people to use to help the brain function efficiently.

As well as being beneficial to older people, nootropics can be taken to reduce signs of aging linked to poor brain function. This includes wrinkles, dark circles, and impaired vision. While a healthy diet and exercise may help to reduce these symptoms, many of these signs of aging are associated with the brain.

Relieve Stress

Furthermore, nootropics can help to relieve stress by keeping your brain calm, aiding better sleep.

Improves Mood​

One of the main reasons you may struggle to concentrate is due to a low mood. Both a low mood and lack of concentration and motivation can lead to depression. Nootropics like Sulbutiamine can be taken to increase your mood and help to alleviate symptoms of stress, social anxiety, and depression.

The Side Effects Of Taking Nootropics

side effects of nootropics

Before you consider taking a nootropic, it’s important to know the potential side effects that may occur. Most nootropics side effects occur when you first begin to take a nootropic or if you consume a dose that is too high. Milder reactions include anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and issues with the GI tract.


The most commonly noted side effect is headaches. This is due to the brain working harder than normal and requiring more Acetylcholine than what is produced. However, headaches are easy to alleviate. Adding Choline to your daily routine helps the brain to increase its supply of Acetylcholine in a safe manner, thus, helping to eliminate headaches.

GI Tract Issues

Another side effect is issues in the GI tract. When a dose of a nootropic is taken in excess, it can put pressure on the intestines. This causes the excess substance to be eliminated by the body, resulting in pain, nausea, and diarrhoea.

To eliminate these problems, it’s important to reduce your dose of nootropic to a recommended level. If this doesn’t relive the symptoms, then a break from taking the nootropic should be initiated until the side effect has subsided.

Insomnia & Fatigue​

Despite nootropics having the ability to boost concentration and motivation, this may result in the side effect of insomnia and fatigue. In the case of insomnia, this side effect normally occurs when a nootropic is taken in the evening, causing the brain to be stimulated at bedtime.

Don’t Take In The Evening

Certain nootropics like CDP Choline have stimulating effects and when taken before bedtime are more than likely to cause insomnia. In this case, it is advisable to avoid taking nootropics in the evening.

Supplement With A Nootropic That Promotes Sleep

nooptropics and sleep

Furthermore, you could supplement with a nootropic that promotes sleep. Melatonin and Phenibut are just two that may help you sleep better. Nootropics cause fatigue when an excess dose of a stimulating nootropic is used.

This fatigue may feel similar to the crash and burn feeling, hours after consuming caffeine. To alleviate this side effect, taking a small dosage or several dosages over a longer period is recommended. This should help to stabalize your energy levels. If fatigue continues, it may be best to switch to an alternative nootropic.

Side Effects Vary Depending On Nootropic​

As every nootropic is different, they may have varying side effects. Thus, each nootropic should be researched before you take them.

Other side effects that may occur include:

  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Low mood.

These side effects are rare, however, any adverse changes should be noted when taking a supplement.

In very rare cases, a nootropic may cause:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Skin irritation.

These side effects are usually associated with the consumption of high doses or a nootropic stack with substances that shouldn’t be taken together.

Safe Use Should Not Cause Side Effects​

When used safely, nootropics should not cause any side effects. The majority of users don’t feel any side effect at all. When taking a nootropic, consider your age and the dosage you are taking.

You should also consider the mechanism of action of the nootropic and how frequently it should be taken. For example, it isn’t known whether continual nootropic usage will be harmful to teenagers. The brain is fully developed at the age of 25 and using a nootropic on a consistent basis before then may potentially impair development. However, no research has provided a conclusive result.

Effects Of Dosage​

The effects of dosage should also be recognized. Some users find a nootropic highly effective and consume a larger dose than required. When high doses are taken over a long period of time, the brain may become dependent on the dosage. In this situation, the user will be unable to focus without using that level of dosage. To prevent this from occurring, users should only consume the recommended dose of nootropic. However, the specific type of nootropic should be contemplated.

Some nootropics are suitable to take over a long period of time while others should only be taken in the short term. For instance, racetams are considered safe for long term use. When using a nootropic, take into account if it is suitable for short or long term and if its effects have been researched.

The longer a nootropic is used, the higher the risk of altering your brain function.

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Those who take a nootropic daily for a long period of time will aid their brain into relying on it for brain system support. To keep potential risks to a minimum, only take nootropics over a short period. Those who consume nootropics for study periods or to increase productivity before a deadline are likely to have less risks of suffering from side effects. However, it is important to realise that if one person suffer from a side effect of nootropics, it doesn’t mean another person will have the same side effects, or any at all.

Other Dangers Of Nootropics

As well as the side effects of nootropics, other dangers should be noted when taking this supplement. For example, specific nootropics alter the way the brain works. Currently, it is not known what effect this may produce in the long term or how the brain responds when discontinuing use of a nootropic.

Furthermore, stimulating nootropics, such as Provigil that promote energy within the body may accelerate the aging process, while long term use of nootropics will likely diminish specific neurotransmitters, thus, it may take time for the brain to establish homeostatic neurotransmission again.

Due to a lack of research on the long term use of nootropics, no long term impact has been established.

To minimize the dangers of nootropics:

  • Know the reason why you intend to use them and understand the mechanism behind the nootropic you’re taking.
  • Purchase a high quality nootropic. Some internet sellers may supply low quality nootropics that are unsafe for consumption. As there is no regulation around nootropics, it’s important that you determine where your product was manufactured, if its vetted by a third party or if there are any added ingredients.
  • Avoid stacking nootropics as some may interact with each other, producing negative effects. Take one supplement at a time and give yourself regular breaks from the supplement to avoid dependency or side effects from taking place.


Regardless of the information you may have seen on nootropics, it’s important to know fact from fiction in terms of what this supplement can and can’t do.

1. Nootropics Are “Limitless Pills”​

While nootropics will indeed enhance your cognition, they are not pills that provide unlimited brain power. Unlike the movie ‘Limitless’ in which the lead character takes a pill that gives him 100% brain function, nootropics are not powerful. They offer an increased memory, concentration, motivation, mental energy and mood, however, they will not make you a genius overnight.

2. If You Don’t Feel A Change, They Aren’t Working Correctly​

Nootropics don’t provide an immediate effect, especially after one dose. They can affect each user differently, so while some people may experience an effect after a short period of time, it’s highly unlikely that every user will react in the same way. The majority of nootropics require time to work and its best to give it at least a month before you try an alternative.

3. Nootropics Are Not An Alternative For Hard Work​

It can seem tempting to rely on nootropics for enhanced brain power. However, any kind of supplement should be taken alongside a healthy diet and adequate sleep. Nootropics will give you an added boost of concentration, but in the long term, you need to ensure that you exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough rest.

4. Nootropics Don’t Have Side Effects​

While nootropics have low toxicity, like any supplement, they have side effects due to people having a unique body chemistry. In order to avoid this, a low dose should be taken to start with, or you should begin with a nootropic that has been used a long time, such as Rhodiola Rosea or a natural nootropic.

Types Of Nootropics

There are varying types of nootropics. Each type of nootropic has a differing type of mechanism and some are man-made while others are natural.


The most popular type of nootropic,and the first created,is the class known as racetams. These include Piracetam, Oxiracetam, Aniracetam, and Pramiracetam. These nootropics have a similar chemical structure and work to increase neurotransmitters needed for correct brain function. Overall, they improve cognitive function and prevent brain cell damage from consuming alcohol. Racetams are synthetically made.


Normally found in a nootropic stack with racetams, these supplements produce higher levels of the acetylcholine neurotransmitter. As racetams increase the demand for this neurotransmitter, stacking the two together enhances the overall benefits. Choline supplementation enhances memory function and has been found to increase social behaviour. Both CDP and GPC choline are bioavailable forms of choline, however, it is important to note that some choline nootropics are more effective than others. Choline Bitartrate is a cheaper nootropic but it’s less effective and may produce more side effects.


This supplement contains anti-oxidant effects to support brain health. It also aids glucose uptake in times of mental strain. During times when the brain works head, for instance, studying, the brains glucose supply is depleted as that is how the brain gains energy. With restored glucose supplies, concentration and cognitive ability is improved. Pyritinol is man-made and is a b-vitamin derived nootropic along with Sulbutiamine. Pyritinol is formed from B6 while Sulbutiamine is created from B1. One of the disadvantages of b-vitamin derived nootropics is that the effects appear to diminish over a long period of time so they may need to be taken in a cycle.


Ampakines are a relatively new category of nootropics and are the most powerful.Some ampakines include Sunifram and Unifram. Ampakines boosts glutamic activity, which is important for cognitive function, particularly memory, alertness, and learning. However, Ampakines have not been proven safe and require more research, though they do not produce the same side effects as other stimulants, such as insomnia and anxiety.


Peptide nootropics are not alike but they share some similarity to peptides. For example, Semax is a heptapeptide derived from the stress hormone corticotrophin. One disadvantage of peptides is how they are taken. Semax must be taken nasally while Cerebrolysin must be injected.

The most common peptide nootropic is Noopept. This nootropic was developed by Russian researchers and is derived from Racetams. It is highly bioavailable and effectively penetrates the blood and brain barrier.

Noopept stimulates the receptors available for the release of glutamate while it also releases a neuropeptide known as the Nerve Growth Factor which is required for maintaining neurons. Noopept is one of the most effective nootropics and it efficiently enhances motivation, energy, memory, and learning.

Natural Nootropics​

Natural nootropics are derived from plants or are plant based. Some natural nootropics include Ginkgo Biloba and Vinpocetine. Natural nootropics are less effective than synthetic variations, however, they can be stacked to boost results. They are also deemed to be safer.



Are Nootropics Legal?

One of the biggest discussions about nootropics is their legal status. The main reason for this is the confusion over which nootropics are considered nootropics and not just cognitive enhancers, and the legal status surrounding this. Two supplements may produce similar effects and have an almost identical chemical structure but they may have differing legislation. There are also inconsistencies with international laws in which some banned nootropics are available to purchase in certain countries.

Most nootropics are legal.

However, in the US, there is a difference between regulation and legislation. For a supplement to be legal, it depends whether it is a controlled or scheduled supplement under state or federal law. Most nootropics are not controlled substances in the US, so they are legal for consumption. However, with regards to regulation under the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration), nootropics fall into several categories.

Some nootropics may be considered supplements or food, while some may be considered prescription medications. In terms of supplements, only production is generally regulated while prescription drugs are regulated in terms of possession.

While nootropics are currently legal, the majority are sold as research products and many retailers don’t sell them as general supplements. For example, racetams can be purchased by anyone but many big retailers do not stock them. There are also customs limits regards to overseas purchases, so if you want to import racetams, you have a three-month supply limit.

Do Nootropics Actually Work?

One of the big questions many have about nootropics is whether they actually work or not. Several nootropics have been studied over time in order to answer this question. A Cochrane review on Piracetam found that no benefit was discovered with regards to treating those with dementia or cognitive impairment.

In terms of healthy individuals, other studies have demonstrated that there is little to no cognitive benefit. However, evidence suggests that those who will likely benefit from supplementation are older individuals.

In 2015, the nootropics industry made over $1 billion dollars so surely there is some suggestion that they do work? As noted, studies have shown that older people can benefit from the effects of Piracetam. Furthermore, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology suggests that Piracetam can aid dyslexic students with their non-verbal learning like reading comprehension.

Other research on alternative nootropics have demonstrated evidence that these supplements have an effect on the brain. Alpha GPC or alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine increases the level of a brain neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which aids cognitive function.

In 1993, a study in Clinical Therapeutics revealed that Alzheimer’s patients who consumed Alpha GPC three times each day over 180 days demonstrated a higher score on cognitive tests than patients who has a placebo.

In the case of Huperzine A, a natural extract from the Chinese club moss, it inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine to improve mental function. Huperzine A is a common ingredient in many brain enhancing drugs.

A 1999 study in Acta Pharmacologica Sinica indicated that several adolescents who took Huperzine A demonstrated memory and learning improvement over those that took a placebo.

While there is varying research on the effect of nootropics, it remains unclear as to what long term effect they have on the brain. More research is required to fully understand how they fully work and if there are indeed any benefits over a long period of time.

Can I Overdose?

Like many supplements, consuming too many nootropics can result in negative side effects. It is highly uncommon to overdose on a nootropic and death from nootropics is pretty much unheard of. However, taking a higher dose than the recommended amount may result in headaches, nausea, and diarrhoea. Most nootropics have very low toxicity, however, its best to consume only the suggested amount per day and to research different nootropics when stacking as some nootropics can react negatively with each other, causing side effects.

Be sure to take a look at our list of the best nootropics on the market!


1. http://www.cochrane.org/CD001011/DEMENTIA_evidence-for-the-efficacy-of-piracetam-for-dementia-or-cognitive-impairment-is-inadequate-for-clinical-use-but-sufficient-to-justify-further-research

2. https://examine.com/supplements/Piracetam/

3. http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4829

4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16284628

5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3305591

6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8477148​

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