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What Are Nootropics?
Updated on August 16, 2022
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What Are Nootropics?

Studying for an exam or tackling projects at work can be nerve-wracking. If you’ve been looking for ways to help you with these things, you may have come across nootropics

Also known as smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, nootropics are often used to boost mental performance.

Nootropic popularity has soared in recent years. More and more people are searching for something to give them an edge in school, work, and in life. 

But are nootropics safe or effective? Let's take a look at what the research says.

What Are Nootropics? 2

Nootropics Definition

Nootropics can be any drug, compound, or supplement that boosts brain function. They help enhance your learning, memory, and focus. 

They work by altering your brain chemistry. This includes the neurotransmitters in your brain, such as acetylcholine and dopamine. 

Nootropic drugs may also increase blood flow to the brain and improve connections between neurons. You can think of them as a brain booster.

The term was first coined by Romanian chemist, Corneliu Giurgea in 1972. Nootropics comes from the Greek words for “bending the mind.” 

Giurgea had strict criteria for what a nootropic was, such as a lack of toxicity and its ability to protect the brain from lack of oxygen. 

Nowadays, it simply refers to compounds that enhance cognition. 

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What Are Nootropics For?

Nootropics can be used to:

  • Improve focus and productivity
  • Increase energy levels
  • Enhance learning and memory
  • Increase creativity and motivation
  • Improve mental function
  • Bolster mood and reduce anxiety
  • Support mental health

People often take nootropics to help them study for long periods, process what they learn, and retain more information. 

Many people also use them to be more productive at work. For example, you may need help with meeting deadlines or delivering an important presentation. 

Others use them to keep their brain healthy and prevent cognitive decline. 

Each nootropic is unique. Some are more stimulating while others are calming. The same nootropic may also produce different effects on each person.

Types of Nootropics

Nootropics are generally divided into three categories:

  • Prescription nootropics
  • Synthetic nootropics
  • Nootropic supplements

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Prescription Nootropics

Also known as nootropic drugs, these are medications that require a doctor’s prescription.

These include prescription drugs such as:

  • Modafinil (Provigil)
  • Amphetamines and dextroamphetamine mixed salts (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

They are mainly used to treat narcolepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and some sleep disorders. 

Nootropic drugs may also act as stimulants that improve cognition. These cognition enhancers work increase your focus and alertness. 

However, they come with some negative side effects such as high blood pressure, disrupted sleep, headache, and irritability. 

More serious side effects include blurry vision, dizziness, fainting, and vomiting.

Keep in mind: You shouldn’t take nootropic medications without any prescription. Healthy people who use them without their doctor’s consent may be suffering from drug abuse.

Synthetic Nootropics

Synthetic nootropics are made in a laboratory. 

The most notable synthetic nootropics are the racetams. They are used to support brain health, improve memory and focus, and help with brain aging.

Multiple studies have shown that piracetam helps slow cognitive decline in older people.2

Other examples of synthetic nootropics include: 

  • Aniracetam 
  • Pramiracetam
  • Picamilon (GABA and vitamin B3)
  • Noopept 

Although rare, racetams can lead to anxiety and difficulty sleeping in some people.3 Picamilon can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea.4

Nootropic Supplements

These are dietary supplements such as herbs, vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients.

Typically, they are used to reduce anxiety, improve focus, boost energy levels, and improve memory. Nootropic supplements can have a variety of effects including:

  • Boost neurotransmitter levels in the brain
  • Protect the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation 
  • Increase blood flow to the brain
  • Help the brain make new neurons

Below is a list of some common nootropic supplements.

1. Coffee Alternatives

Coffee alternatives are products that are used to substitute coffee but still contain caffeine. This includes beverages such as green and black teas, as well as caffeine pills, gums, and powders. 

They can be used to improve attention and focus and increase energy levels. Many studies have found that caffeine has positive effects, namely:5

  • Increased alertness
  • Faster reaction times
  • Increased mental endurance
  • Improved memory and decision making

2. B Vitamins

The B vitamins are a group of vitamins that play a key role in brain health. 

The most commonly used types are vitamins B3, B5, B6, and B12. They are used to boost energy levels, improve mood, and balance neurotransmitter levels.

Vitamin B3 helps neurons grow and develop and protects them from damage. Vitamins B5 and B6 are needed to make dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and other neurotransmitters. 

Vitamin B12 helps with energy production and communication between neurons. 

One study found that supplementing with vitamins B6 and B12 improved memory in women of different ages.6

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids are an essential group of fats found in walnuts, flaxseeds, and certain fish. You can also get them from omega 3 supplements such as flaxseed oil and fish oil.

Omega 3 is important for a healthy brain. It helps reduce inflammation in the brain and allows neurons to communicate effectively.

Research has found that omega 3 fats improves memory in healthy adults.7

4. L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It has calming and anti-anxiety properties. 

It is often taken to counteract the stimulating effects of caffeine. In other words, it can help reduce your coffee jitters.

Using caffeine and L-theanine together can improve alertness, attention, and memory more than if you take either taken alone.8

5. Creatine

Creatine is a supplement popular with bodybuilders. It helps draw water into the muscles and increases strength. However, it also supports cognitive functions. 

It supplies the brain with energy and helps protect it from stress. A review of multiple studies found that creatine improves short-term memory and reasoning ability. 

It’s especially beneficial for people who are under a lot of stress.9 

6. Herbal Supplements

Certain herbs may act as natural nootropics. Herbal nootropics are supplements made from plant extracts. They may contain roots, leaves, stems, or flowers. 

Three popular herbal supplements with nootropic effects are:

  • Bacopa
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Rhodiola rosea

Medical students who took bacopa had improved attention, focus, and memory.10 Ginkgo biloba extract taken for 14 days enhances working memory in middle-aged men.11

Rhodiola rosea seems to be very effective for people who are stressed or tired. It can boost their energy levels and concentration while reducing stress.12

When to Take Nootropics

Knowing when to take a certain nootropic is important.

Stimulating nootropic drugs like Modafinil and Adderall should be taken in the morning because they can disturb your sleep. If you’re not sure, remember to refer to your prescription.

Synthetic nootropics can be taken any time of the day. You can consume them with or without food, although food may slow their absorption. 

The bes time to take nootropic supplements may vary. For example, you may  want to avoid caffeinated nootropics hours before sleep. 

B vitamins can be taken in the morning since they can be stimulating. Omega 3 fats should be taken with a meal that contains fat to improve their absorption. 

Meanwhile, herbal nootropic supplements can be taken any time of day. Although it’s best to take them on an empty stomach.

Are Nootropics Safe?

Yes. Prescription nootropics are safe if you follow the directions on your prescription.

However, you should watch out for potential drug interactions when taking them. Prescription drugs can interact with other medications you may be taking. 

Synthetic nootropics are usually safe but they’re accompanied by mild side effects. However, they aren’t as well-studied as most nootropic medications.

Nootropic supplements are generally safe to consume. Just make sure to follow the instructions with the packaging.

Like most dietary supplements, they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although many of them contain ingredients backed by science. 

You should stop taking nootropics if you experience negative reactions. If this happens, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider.

Do Nootropics Work?

Nootropics have been proven to improve a person’s cognitive performance. Among the many benefits of nootropics are:

  • Improving concentration and focus
  • Protecting the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation
  • Increasing energy and mental endurance
  • Improving memory
  • Boosting mood

Certain nootropics like prescription stimulants carry risks. So you should use them with care. 

Before taking any nootropic, it’s important that you understand its effects and proper use. That way, you can get the most out of it.

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Resources

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  1. Potential Adverse Effects of Amphetamine Treatment on Brain and Behavior: A Review” Molecular Psychiatry.
  2. Clinical efficacy of piracetam in cognitive impairment: a meta-analysis” Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders.
  3. Piracetam and piracetam-like drugs: from basic science to novel clinical applications to CNS disorders” Drugs.
  4. Preclinical prognosis of pyracetam and picamilon safety based on acute toxicity data” Experimental Clinical Pharmacology.
  5. A review of caffeine's effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance” Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews.
  6. Short-term folate, vitamin B-12 or vitamin B-6 supplementation slightly affects memory performance but not mood in women of various ages” PubMed.
  7. Impact of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on Memory Functions in Healthy Older Adults” Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
  8. The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood” Nutritional Neuroscience.
  9. Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials” Experimental Gerontology.
  10. Efficacy of Standardized Extract of Bacopa monnieri (Bacognize®) on Cognitive Functions of Medical Students: A Six-Week, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial” Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine.
  11. Examining Brain-Cognition Effects of Ginkgo Biloba Extract: Brain Activation in the Left Temporal and Left Prefrontal Cortex in an Object Working Memory Task” Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine.
  12. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue” Planta Medica.
Will Hunter
Will Hunter
Content Contributor
Will is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Will has 7 years of experience writing health-related content, with an emphasis on nutrition, alternative medicine, and longevity.
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