What are Nootropics?

What are Nootropics?

It’s popping up more and more these days. It’s in pills and energy drinks, and you might even see it written on the side of your favourite brand of coffee. It seems like everywhere you turn, you see the word - Nootropics.

But what does it mean? Why has the world become so crazy about nootropics, and why are they found in so many different types of food and drink? Actually, now that we think about it, perhaps the better question to ask is, what do they do? And are they even safe to consume in the first place?

That’s a lot of information to work through all at once, so let’s take it slow and start off with something simple, like - What are Nootropics?

 What are Nootropics?

‘Nootropics’ is an umbrella term used to refer to a wide array of natural and artificial supplements that have positive cognitive effects.

Some nootropics, like caffeine, are found in many of the foods and drinks that we ingest on a day-to-day basis, and usually form a common part of the average person’s diet.

Meanwhile, other nootropics, such as the medicines used to treat ADHD, normally require a medical prescription of some kind and may produce much more powerful and potentially life-altering effects in users.

What do Nootropics do?

The benefits themselves vary depending on the nootropic in question, but they usually include things like -

  • Increased Attentiveness
  • Increased Energy Levels
  • Stress Relief
  • Mood Stabilization
  • Fatigue Reduction
  • Improved Cognitive Functioning

Oftentimes, nootropics are combined into various ‘stacks’ so as to capitalise on their complimentary effects.

A common example of this can be seen in the caffeine/L-theanine stack which fuses the stimulative effects of the caffeine with the relaxing effects of the L-theanine.

Do Nootropics and Brain Boosters Work?

It’s important here to draw a distinction between credible nootropics and brain boosters generally. We’ll go into brain boosters in just a moment, but for now, let’s just consider nootropics on their own.

Do nootropics work? Yes, they do.

While the effects may vary in both their nature and intensity, most nootropics do produce scientifically verifiable benefits to cognitive functioning and mood.

Of course, some nootropics may require a higher level of intake to achieve these desired effects, which may in turn pose certain dietary challenges if they usually come in the form of food or drink.

This is where the pill-based supplements really come into a league of their own. By concentrating the ingredients into precise and balanced quantities, users are able to achieve the benefits of the nootropics without feeling the negative effects often associated with excess tea, coffee, etc.

Brain Boosters - Defined and Explained

‘Brain Boosters’ is a term usually reserved for a more controversial subset of cognitive enhancers - although it should be noted that many people tend to use it interchangeably with nootropics.

Put simply, brain boosters are normally products which contain various ingredients with unproven benefits that are believed by some to improve cognitive functioning and/or mood. This sets them apart from standard nootropics which usually have scientific backing to support their alleged benefits.

Now, some brain boosters may include proven nootropics such as caffeine and L-theanine, and will thus have some verifiable effects, but others may only contain a blend of untested ingredients which may or may not create a noticeable difference in your life.

The Best Nootropics

  1. Caffeine - Right out the gate, there’s no beating caffeine in the race for best nootropic. This ubiquitous chemical can be found in a wide variety of foodstuffs and tends to make people feel energetic and attentive.
  1. L-Theanine - Normally found in green and black teas, this nootropic has the incredible ability to calm people down without making them drowsy or lethargic. It also has a low toxicity rating, which means you can get all these benefits without having to suffer through any real side effects.
  1. Amphetamines - Used to treat ADHD, substances like Adderall can have a powerful effect on the user and enable them to combat the worst parts of their disorder. That said, amphetamines are oftentimes addictive, and users can find it hard to stop their usage once they become dependent on the positive effects.
  1. Methylphenidate - Also used to treat ADHD, this compound, usually found in Ritalin, has similarly powerful effects amongst its users. As you can imagine though, it also brings along a relatively high chance of addiction and dependency in its users.

What are Nootropics?

The Origin of Nootropics

The label of ‘Nootropics’ was first used by Corneliu Giurgea in 1972.  It was used to identify a new classification of molecules that provided certain cognitive benefits to the user’s brain.

The word itself was derived from the ancient Greek words, nóos (mind) and tropḗ (turning).

In the years since their discovery, various nootropics have been used as dietary supplements and as mental performance aids by many individuals around the world.

Are Nootropics Safe?

Generally speaking, nootropics are safe to consume so long as they are used legally and responsibly.

Given the wide range of nootropics out there, it’s impossible to use absolute terms when we talk about them, and, as noted, you do run the risk of addiction when dealing with the more powerful variants.

That said, many nootropics such as caffeine and L-theanine tend to have relatively low toxicity ratings, which makes extreme side effects unlikely.

However, it is important to remember that certain nootropics (such as those used to treat ADHD) may require a medical prescription before use, while others may still be largely untested. 

Individual Nootropics vs Nootropic Stacks

Occasionally, nootropics are used in tandem with one another so as to compliment their effects on the user. In some cases, this combination may even end up making the effects stronger than if they were used separately.

For this reason, many people like to use nootropic stacks to get the most out of their ingredients rather than taking them separately.

On the other hand, a lot of people like to start off small and learn exactly how their bodies react to specific chemicals before they try any combinations.

The choice then, between stacks and non-stacks, largely comes down to the individual. There is no ‘better way’ of experimenting with nootropics and you may simply wish to try them both out for yourself to figure out what really works for you. 

Nootropic Supplements vs Nootropic Drugs

Once again, we run into two terms that are normally used interchangeably when they probably shouldn’t be.

In this case, the difference really lies in the intensity of the substance. When we talk about supplements and/or stimulants, we’re usually referring to over the counter items like caffeine in the form of coffees and teas.

The effects of these substances generally range from weak to moderate, but they also come with fewer dangerous side effects given their relative low toxicity. L-theanine, for example, has essentially no known side effects so far as anyone can tell.

On the other hand, nootropic drugs commonly refer to prescription medications that are used for the treatment of specific disorders such as ADHD. These items normally have a substantially stronger effect on the cognition of the individual taking them, but also tend to come with more severe side effects.

With all this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some popular nootropics to better understand their different effects.

Amphetamines (Adderall)

Stimulants such as Adderall are commonly used to treat ADHD and, in some cases, narcolepsy.

Much like caffeine, these amphetamines usually fill the user with energy and help them to stay alert and attentive when completing tasks. Unfortunately, these drugs can be addictive, and users may suffer from various withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly discontinue their usage.

Amphetamines normally require some kind of medical prescription to obtain and are not meant for people who just want to boost their cognitive abilities. That said, many students without any disorders find ways to obtain Adderall so as to improve their performance at school or during university.

What are Nootropics?

Modafinil (Provigil)

Modafinil is a stimulant used to treat instances of extreme drowsiness as seen in conditions such as narcolepsy. The drug produces an intense feeling of wakefulness in the user and can help control sleep cycles in patients.

Side effects of modafinil tend to grow as dosages increase and may result in paranoia, delusions, and irrational thoughts. 

Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

Used to treat ADHD, ADD, and narcolepsy, methylphenidate is a stimulant used to increase attentiveness and control certain behavioural issues. 

Much like the other prescription nootropics, methylphenidate can become addictive and may cause serious problems if misused.

It can also be very difficult to stop the use of methylphenidate once a person begins to misuse it. Sudden withdrawal may result in severe depression and should be managed by a professional. 


We’ve all heard about nicotine before. It’s the stuff you find in cigarettes that makes them so addictive and is probably on par with caffeine as the most popular and widely used nootropic in the world.

Studies have shown that nicotine consumption can increase memory, fine motor skills, and attentiveness, and smoking is often associated with a feeling of calmness and anxiety relief.

Unfortunately, smoking is also the leading cause of lung cancer deaths, and many millions of people around the world can attest to the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms that are felt when you try to give it up.


Most of us tend to associate creatine with bodybuilding and muscle growth, but you may be surprised to learn that it is also known for its cognitive benefits.

While a lot of the research is still in its early stages, it would appear as though creatine may also improve short-term memory and cognition, while simultaneously reducing stress caused by sleep deprivation.

Creatine itself occurs naturally in the human body, but can also be found in seafood and red meat.

Ginkgo Biloba

Usually shortened to ‘ginkgo’ or ‘gingko’, this item is made from the half-moon leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree, and is used by many people as a natural remedy for everything from memory problems, to anxiety and high blood pressure.

That said, the scientific studies surrounding the ingredient are inconclusive at best, and many professionals within the healthcare community usually see it as more of a placebo than anything else.


One of the more controversial supplements out there is Noopept. Advocates argue that it is a powerful nootropic capable of improving long-term memory, brain health, and mood.

However, human studies of the drug are few and far in between, and there is little clinical evidence to suggest that the nootropic is actually capable of producing long-lasting benefits to the user.

Panax Ginseng

Another form of traditional medical treatment comes in the form of Panax Ginseng.

Generally thought to improve memory and mood stability, this herb has also been credited with better immune functioning and improving conditions associated with diabetes.

That said, there is little scientific evidence to support these effects, and detractors tend to disregard most of these claims.


Maybe you’re reading through some of the side effects of the different nootropics on this list and getting a bit scared - after all, you don’t want to take something that might end up hurting you.

Well, if safety is your primary concern, look no further than L-theanine.

 What is theanine?

Commonly found in black and green teas, studies show that L-theanine creates a calming effect after consumption and can also improve sleep quality in users.

On top of that, L-theanine’s stress reductive qualities are produced without making the individual feel tired or foggy.

Put simply then, it’s the perfect supplement for people in high-stress environments who need to stay on the ball. 

The best part though, is that L-theanine has an extremely low toxicity level. This means that (unlike most prescription nootropics), L-theanine has essentially no known side effects to worry about. 

It has also been shown to have a complementary effect when used in tandem with caffeine. Put together, these two nootropics are able to relax users while simultaneously making them feel energetic and awake.


Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa Monnieri is another kind of traditional medicine usually taken to boost cognitive ability, mood, and memory. However, unlike many other traditional medicines, Bacopa Monnieri may actually have some tangible benefits as studies show measurable improvements in users.

Of course, a lot of this research is still in its preliminary stages, but it does seem as though Bacopa may in fact be able to positively improve both memory and mood if taken consistently.

What’s more, Bacopa is usually quite well received during studies with only a few upset stomachs being the chief complaint.


Caffeine - the kingpin of cognitive enhancers - is arguably the most common, most available, and most used nootropic on the planet.

Famed for its stimulatory behaviour, caffeine blocks the reception of adenosine in your brain, making you feel energetic, attentive, and alert.

Odds are, you’ve already had your fair share of caffeine whether you meant to or not as it can be found in a wide range of consumables such as coffee, tea, soda, dark chocolate, etc.

Caffeine is also used by many people to treat headaches and migraines, and can even improve the breathing of premature infants in certain situations.

Most people can consume the daily recommended dose of caffeine (around 400mgs) without feelings too many negative side effects, however, excessive levels of consumption may lead to things like -

  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Dehydration
  • Heartburn
  • Stomach discomfiture
  • Insomnia or other changes to your circadian rhythms

Caffeine can also be quite addictive, and many users may find it hard to quit after it becomes a regular part of their everyday lives.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola is another alleged nootropic from the realm of traditional medicine. Advocates argue that the root of this perennial plant can be consumed to relieve stress and mitigate fatigue, although some sources also claim that it works as a mood stabiliser and is able to help treat depression.

Once again, studies are scarce when it comes to the true effects of such an ingredient, and many experts are slow to recommend it without further testing.

That said, the negative side effects noted in the current studies have been relatively mild and usually include things like dizziness, dry mouth, or excessive production of saliva.


Unlike our aforementioned traditional medicines, Piracetam is a lab-made drug which is sold for the treatment of a wide variety of illnesses or as a brain booster.

Usually, Piracetam is used to treat things like -

  • Myoclonus (involuntary, irregular twitching)
  • Dyslexia
  • Dementia
  • Schizophrenia

Additionally, its cognitive enhancing abilities are said to include -

  • Improved memory
  • Attentiveness
  • Improved learning

All that said, the scientific data regarding Piracetam is often mixed, with some research suggesting that there may indeed be moderate benefits to be gained from its use, while others show negligible changes at best.


Phenotropil is a phenylated analog of the drug we just discussed - Piracetam. However, unlike our earlier drug, Phenotropil has a bit more evidence to back some of its nootropic claims.

Developed in Russia, this drug has been said to improve the conditions of patients suffering from certain brain disorders or diseases.

It is also said to be able to reduce the speed and symptoms of cognitive decline.

Research conducted on animals has also suggested that Phenotropil may have antidepressant, anticonvulsive, and memory enhancing effects. There are different forms of the drug, but most are used as stimulants to combat stress and improve cognition. 

 What are Nootropics?

In Conclusion - What are Nootropics and How do they Work?

The term ‘Nootropics’ refers to a range of supplements, drugs, and naturally occurring compounds that produce certain cognitive benefits in their users.

Most nootropics are known for creating a feeling of attentiveness and energy, and are generally used to improve things like memory, reaction time, and some fine motor skills.

That said, many people also experience various mood stabilising effects when using nootropics and may end up taking them in order to reduce stress or battle depression.

For these reasons, nootropics are often referred to as ‘brain boosters’, although many items within this category may not actually produce scientifically verifiable results.

For example, Methylphenidate (or Ritalin) has provable effects that can help treat individuals suffering from ADHD, and is sometimes taken illicitly as a means to improve cognitive functioning.

On the other hand, nootropics that fall into the subset of traditional medicine (like Ginkgo Biloba) may have beneficial properties, but these are not currently proven by reputable scientific sources.

Amongst the nootropics that have credible effects, we can create a further distinction between drugs and supplements.

Generally speaking, nootropic supplements are over-the-counter products that provide moderate benefits alongside unremarkable side effects.

By contrast, the term ‘nootropic drugs’ normally refers to cognitive boosters that are more powerful and which require medical prescriptions.

While the effects of these drugs are usually more pronounced, they also tend to come with stronger drawbacks, and many can end up being highly addictive.

There are also some nootropics which tend to have a complimentary effect when coupled with others. For example, caffeine on its own normally creates a sensation of alertness and high energy, while L-theanine tends to make users feel relaxed and at peace, without simultaneously making them tired or docile.

These two chemicals wouldn’t seem to play well together, but, when combined, they actually begin to boost the most positive elements of one another and create a sensation of calmness and stimulation, all rolled into one.

These nootropic mixtures are sometimes called ‘stacks’, and can come in a variety of combinations. It may be easier to regulate your intake of nootropics by using them individually, and this can also help you to understand exactly how your body reacts to each chemical. However, as mentioned, some nootropics work best in tandem with others, and you may end up missing out on the most powerful effects if you relegate yourself to only trying one at a time.

Given the wide range of nootropics on offer, it is impossible to say that they are universally safe, or that they have no serious side effects to worry about. That said, things like caffeine and L-theanine are known for their relative low toxicity, and are thus far less dangerous than most prescription nootropics on the market.

Indeed, studies have shown that individuals who moderate their intake of caffeine and do not exceed the daily recommended dose of 400mgs, will not normally feel any real downsides at all.

At the end of the day though, individuals are always advised to consult with a healthcare professional if they have any concerns relating to nootropics and the effects that they might have on the body. 

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