Nootropics 101: Why Smart People Are Using Smart Drugs to Get an Edge

By Roy Krebs

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Wake, news, coffee, rush, commute (social media), work, lunch at desk (with work), work, meetings, rush, commute (podcast and social media), home, dinner (while watching TV), computer, phone, sleep, repeat. 

In today's world, we're on constant information overload. Considering our highly competitive society and internet advances, it feels like we have to keep up or get left behind. This necessity to propel through life has left us reaching for external forms of assistance -- we could all use an extra push from time to time. 

As humans, we're always looking for new ways to boost cognitive performance. From ancient Chinese traditional herbs to South American Yerba Mate stimulants, we've been using natural substances to enhance cognitive performance for decades. 

Nootropics (or smart drugs) have rightfully taken notice as natural or synthetic substances used to improve our mental performance and give us that extra umph. Since some stimulants can be highly addictive, not to mention have dangerous side effects, we'll walk you through safe ways to boost your performance.

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics, also referred to as “smart drugs,” are natural compounds that make our brains work better. These cognitive enhancers can help us think more clearly, give us more energy, boost concentration, advance cognitive performance, and may even help us feel happier.

Nootropics work to increase blood flow to the brain, enhance neuron signaling, and promote neurotransmitter production, making our brains work more efficiently overall. These smart drugs may even have the potential to protect our brains and bodies from diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, and Huntington's. While nootropics may not literally make us “smarter,” they can certainly help us think and function at a higher level. [1]

How Nootropics Evolved

The word "nootropics" comes from the Greek word "noos" (mind) and "trepin" (to bend). Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, the “father” of nootropics, actually gave them this name way back in 1970 when he discovered the "mind bending", or rather memory improving, effects of the drug piracetam. 

Dr. Giurgea developed the first synthetic nootropic, Piracetam, which is still used today to enhance memory. As part of his research, Dr. Giurgea also created five guidelines for classifying nootropics.

Nootropics may be synthetic or natural, but in either case should have the following characteristics: [2]

  • Improve memory and learning
  • Help reduce distraction
  • Protect the brain from damage
  • Enhance wakefulness
  • Be non-toxic with little to no side effects.

Nootropics Today

Nootropics have gained a recent surge in popularity, particularly because of advancements in biotechnology and due our escalating expectations. The best example of a popular "nootropic" is the NZT-48 drug used by Bradley Cooper in the movie, Limitless. Unfortunately, this drug is yet another aspect of movie magic and is fake.

There isn't a “real life” version of NZT-48, the drug that turns us into some sort of uber productive superhuman. But some people claim that NZT-48 is similar to a drug called Modafinil (used to treat narcolepsy), but this is not quite accurate and related claims should not be trusted. The truth is that there's no magic pill for health, well-being, or cognitive enhancement. No nootropic will change us into superheroes overnight!  

In a more of a general sense, NZT does illustrate the type of effect that nootropics can have on us: we might think more clearly, be more observant, have faster reaction time, and our senses may be more alert. 

The Benefits of Nootropics

For those of you coffee lovers and caffeine addicts out there, taking a nootropic kind of feels like that moment when the caffeine from the first cup of coffee hits -- suddenly you're more awake, alert, and able to concentrate. But what sets nootropics and caffeine apart is that same feeling of wakefulness and focus can last for an entire day. What’s more, is they may not give you side effects like the afternoon crash. 

In general, nootropics have been proven safe to use and non-addictive but this isn’t to say they’re perfect for everyone, of course -- even natural substances can have side effects and become addictive if not used as directed or if you have underlying medical conditions. 

For you healthy adults curious about giving nootropics a try, we've compiled the best research based benefits of nootropics.

Beat Brain Fog

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably experienced brain fog before: you’re unable to think clearly, you have trouble making decisions, you can’t articulate your words, you have trouble remembering things. It could be caused by a number of things including a lack of sleep, nutritional deficiency, lack of exercise, or even your environment.

Nootropics help clear up a foggy mind by improving blood flow to the brain. This means that more nutrients and oxygen are able to get in there, helping to improve brain health and providing cognitive benefits.

A brain fed with high quality “fuel” is going to be more alert. 

Improve Memory

Memory can be affected by many different things -- lack of sleep and stress to name a few. Nootropics offer the brain much-needed micronutrients (nutrients needed in small amounts but required for optimal functioning) and neural maintenance. Nootropics may also reduce brain inflammation, which some experts link to Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. [3]

Enhance Focus

It's all too easy to get distracted by the positive effects of “all things internet” on a day-to-day basis. This can be a serious detriment to productivity. Mood and lack of sleep can play a big part in our capacity to concentrate and get stuff done. 

When the brain is functioning well, we have a higher chance at succeeding. So ensuring adequate blood flow to the brain (via exercise or supplements) is one way to ensure better focus. Nootropics like CILTEP can do this, while balancing or boosting certain neurotransmitters.

Boost Energy

Feeling tired and wish you had more energy? You’re not alone. Almost half of Americans report being tired or fatigued a few days a week -- and these are the ones who get 7-8 hours of sleep a night! [4]

Low energy can result from a number of different things, including sleep, lack of adequate nutrition, stress, oxidative stress and inflammation. Nootropics can help you to get a more restful sleep and help you feeling more energized in the mornings. They also supply your brain and body with important nutrients which may be lacking in your diet.

Manage Anxiety

Stress and anxiety rears its well intentioned but ugly head from time to time. Functioning at a constant level of anxiety can raise our heart rate, stress hormones (cortisol), and cause blood sugar imbalances. Nootropics can help by balancing the uptake of chemicals released by the body when stressed, thus minimizing acute stress reactions. 

Reducing anxiety frees up a lot of energy and mental load you can use on other things you enjoy. It allows us to concentrate and sleep better, thus promoting a positive cycle for focus and concentration.

Nootropics and Longevity

Research suggests that nootropics may have a similar effect as drugs used to treat age-related diseases, thus acting as effective treatment and prevention mechanism. [5] Other factors that can contribute to aging include shortening telomeres (the structure at the end of a chromosome), general cell damage, and inflammation.  

By helping nutrients get to the brain, nootropics may lessen or even diminish things like cell damage and inflammation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that nootropics are a one-size-fits-all cure -- you still need a nutritious diet and adequate exercise for the best chance at longevity.  


A Full List of the Best Nootropics

There are over 80 different substances that can be classified as nootropics, including vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, pharmaceutical drugs, and herbs. 

Keep in mind that not all nootropics are created equal, and effects can even vary between individuals. Remember that many of these formulas may not be legal in your country, so always do your research before trying them out or even looking to purchase them.

Keep in mind that this is not medical advice and you should always consult your doctor if you're thinking of trying anything new, especially if you are already taking prescription medication, are pregnant or have health concerns. Certain compounds may not interact well one another, with medications, or with your own metabolism or body chemistry. 

Modafinil (Drug / Synthetic)

Modafinil is a lab-made drug that has been used to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy for the past few decades. Research shows that it can work wonders when it comes to mental alertness, and may even improve higher cognitive functions such as executive decision making and learning. [6]

It’s one of the most popular "smart drugs" because it’s known to be effective in boosting cognition without causing many side effects. 

Possible side effects: insomnia, anxiety, irritability, stomachaches (basically, common stimulant side effects).

Armodafinil (Drug / Synthetic)

Armodafinil is similar to Modafinil in that it contains the active ingredient, R-modafinil. Users report fewer lapses in attention when taking Armodafinil versus Modafinil. But it’s important to note that, because this drug is stronger, the side effects can be more pronounced.  

Possible side effects: headache, dizziness, stomach upset, anxiety and dry mouth, and less commonly can include muscle pain, weakness, skin rashes, and heart palpitations.

Racetam Family (Drug / Synthetic)

The Racetam family of drugs are also synthetic. They can be used to improve memory. There are many different types of Racetams, and they each have slightly different modes of actions leading to slightly different effects.

We recommend Axon Labs for all of your racetam needs.

Aniracetam (Drug / Synthetic)

Aniracetam is a prescription drug with a higher potency than Piracetam, but the effects don't last as long. It is prescribed to help with symptoms of degenerative cognitive disorders in the human brain and for general memory or attention disorders.

Possible side effects: digestive problems, insomnia, and headache.

Phenylpiracetam (Drug / Synthetic)

While not well studied yet, Phenylpiracetam is thought to improve memory and learning while elevating mood and lowering the symptoms of depression and anxiety.  

Possible side effects: Headache, stomach upset, and irritability have been reported but are rare.  


Piracetam (Drug / Synthetic)

Piracetam was originally developed as a medication to help Soviet cosmonauts to help with prolonged stresses of work. It improves both short and long-term memory by boosting the production of acetylcholine as well as protecting the brain’s cell membranes. It also helps our brains process glucose more efficiently.

Possible side effects: drowsiness, irritability, and sleep disturbance.


L-theanine (Natural)

L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid compound that comes from green tea, black tea, and some mushrooms. It's shown to have positive influences on anxiety, cognition, and brain function. L-theanine can effect neurotransmitters in the brains, including serotonin and dopamine. The most beneficial effects are when l-theanine is combined with caffeine [7].

Possible side effects: headaches, sleepiness, low blood pressure.

Panax Ginseng (Natural)

Ginseng is a natural nootropic that is well known to help improve cognitive function and long-term memory. It’s been used as a remedy in Asia for thousands of years. The popularity has created a large market for ginseng, leading to varied quality and active ingredients in supplements. This makes it very hard to establish a standard dose. 

Possible side effects: excitability and hormone reactions.

Rhodiola Rosea (Natural)

Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb that has been used for centuries to reduce the physical and chemical effects of stress, reduce anxiety, improve mood, and alleviate fatigue in stressful situations.

Possible side effects: dizziness, dry mouth, sleep problems


Ginkgo Biloba (Natural)

Often paired with Panax ginseng, Ginkgo Biloba is also a natural nootropic used to help memory and brain function in general.It also has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. 

Possible side effects: mostly gastrointestinal discomfort.


Bacopa Monnieri (Natural)

Bacopa is another natural product for improving memory recall and reducing forgetfulness. It also can help regulate blood pressure and help reduce stress. 

Possible side effects: gastrointestinal issues, dry mouth, and temporarily reduced sperm count.

Huperzine-A (Drug / Synthetic)

Huperzine-A may slow or reduce cognitive damage in patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Outside of medical treatment, it may be used to enhance memory and prevent memory deterioration.

Dosage: 200 – 400 mg a day and it should be cycled on and off.

Possible side effects: digestive issues and blood pressure changes.

Curcumin (Natural)

Curcumin comes from an Asian plant called Curcuma longa, the same plant that the spice turmeric is made from.

Curcumin is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The compound prevents damage and helps balance the body’s natural processes.

Dosage: a minimum of 500 mg / day.

Side effects: gastrointestinal issues and elevated liver enzymes.

Nicotine (Natural)

Nicotine is the main active ingredient in tobacco. It can be a powerful nootropic and stimulant but use extra caution before considering using it as a stimulant. Commercial cigarettes contain loads of cancerous chemicals and nicotine is highly addictive. Not to mention that ingesting nicotine via smoking is very damaging to your lungs, mouth, and throat. 

Possible side effects: headache, nausea, heartburn, cough

Other Nootropics to Check Out

Here’s a rundown of some of the others that you may have heard of or want to spend more time researching:


Where can you Buy Nootropics?

Are you trying to figure out the best place to buy nootropics? It’s important to do your research to ensure you’re getting a quality product from a reputable company. Depending on what part of the world you’re in, you’ll want to check to make sure that what you’re ordering is legal.

Here are a few reputable places to start.  


Nootropics Depot

Nootropics Depot offers a range of products in capsule and powder form. Products include cholinergic, fish oil supplements, medicinal mushroom extracts, dietary supplements, and nootropic compounds.

Nootropics Depot has both third party and in-house testing to ensure their products are real and effective.

Lift Mode

Lift mode is a company based out of Chicago and is a division of Synaptent LLC. They have many products either from plants and natural compounds or synthetic compounds. 

You can search by the benefit you want --- for instance, mood-lifting, energizing, etc.

Natural Stacks

Natural Stacks is an open source supplement company -- committed to full disclosure and third-party testing. In fact we have the most rigorous quality control standards. When you buy from us you know exactly what’s in our product -- there’s absolutely nothing to hide.

Natural Stacks also donates a portion of their profits to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Each product you buy does double duty by helping both you and Alzheimer’s research.


Maximize Nootropic Capacity 

Your body and brain work hard to keep you balanced. Nearly every process in your body and physiological reaction rely on homeostasis and stability. Using and abusing anything may cause your brain to change and compensate. 

Developing a tolerance happens with repeated use or exposure to a substance - you may end up being less responsive to its impact over time. Similar to developing a tolerance to caffeine or pain medications, taking the same thing for too long may make your body used to having it around and wanting more to reach the same effect. 

To prevent this ever-increasing need for substances from happening with nootropics, you can focus on specific types, using them on a case-by-case basis rather than a daily habit. Nootropics with vitamin-like action or antioxidant effects are less likely to loose their effectiveness over time - think natural versus synthetic. 

You can also limit tolerance by only taking them when you need them. So rather than making them part of your daily supplement routine, only take them on days or periods of time that require that extra push. For instance, use them when you're cramming for a presentation or exam rather than every day just because. 

Trick your body by using different types of nootropics. Since each nootropic has slightly different actions, switching them up every few months can prevent that intolerance. If you feel the need (or have been instructed by your physician) to take nootropics chronically, try taking a week off every month or two to give your brain and body a chance to revamp - with your doctor's approval of course.

It's All About Balance 

Supplementing with nootropics isn’t all about pushing yourself to the limit; it’s about having enough energy and focus to live a balanced, happy life while taking care of your body with proper nutrition, fitness, and mental health. Rather than using a nootropic as a band-aid for an unhealthy lifestyle, use it to take things to the next level.

To up your mental and physical performance, take a minute to assess what area of your life requires attention right now? 

Adding these healthy habits with a high quality nootropic will get you geared up, mentally and physically strong, and ready to take on whatever life is throwing at you. 

Nutrition:

  • Focus on minimally processed foods
  • Aim for balance (protein, fat, carb) with every meal and snack
  • Add fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Minimize alcohol, sugar, and caffeine 

Fitness: 

  • Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of activity per day
  • Take the stairs and walk whenever possible
  • Find an activity you love (dancing, skiing, swimming, biking - it all counts!)
  • Anything is better than nothing - start with 10 minutes of movement today and work your way up. 

Mental health:

  • Surround yourself with good people
  • Try meditating, deep breathing, or mindfulness 
  • Set realistic goals and thank yourself for what you've accomplished 
  • Reach out for help when you need it

The Nootropics Potential

The world is a hectic place full of demands on your time, energy, and body. Nootropics may be that extra something that helps you weave through the intricacies and complications of life -- giving you that drive to push past your last. 

But before you start, do your research, consult a physician, and explore the best nootropic for you and your chemistry -- find what works for you:

  • Prescription smart drugs are the strongest and have the most significant effects on energy, memory, and attention but require a doctor's order and typically have side effects. 
  • Synthetic nootropics are easily available but clinical research is limited. 
  • Natural nootropics are slow, steady, and tend to be more safe with less side effects. 

Taking the right supplements can boost your mental performance, giving you the edge that you need to get everything done in a day, without dangerous side effects.

If you could get more done in a day, what would you do?  



  1. Suliman, Noor Azuin et al. Establishing Natural Nootropics: Recent Molecular Enhancement Influenced by Natural Nootropic. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. Published online 2016 Aug 30. doi: 10.1155/2016/4391375
  2. Corneliu E. Giurgea, Wikipedia.
  3. Aguirre, Lauren. “An Inflammatory Theory of Brain Disease.” Nova Next, 25 Feb 2015.
  4. McCarthy, Niall. “Americans Are Tired Most of the Week.” Statistica, June 8, 2015.
  5. Jellen, Leslie C. et al. Screening and personalizing nootropic drugs and cognitive modulator regimens in silico. Front. Syst. Neurosci., 06 February 2015.
  6. Moyer, Melinda W. “A Safe Drug to Boost Brainpower.” Scientific American, March 1, 2016.




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