If you’ve landed on this page, you are likely intrigued by the promise offered by nootropics. But, the idea of taking a supplement that can help you naturally access your brain’s higher powers seems like something out of a science fiction movie.
Nootropics don’t have magical powers, but they may boost your brain health.
First off, it’s important to establish that there are many, many different types of nootropics. Different types of nootropics act on the body in different ways, and so general statements cannot be made about all nootropics.
Some work with your body’s natural chemistry to help support the brain to have a steady supply of nutrients and oxygen, support certain neural receptors, and fight off potentially damaging toxins and free radicals.
In the same way that there are many different types of nootropics, there are different levels of safety and effectiveness for different people.
In this article, we will review the latest research on the safety and effectiveness of nootropics. After you read this, you can confidently make a choice about whether or not nootropics will work for you.
A Review: What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics are loosely defined as substances that help improve human cognitive abilities. They are found in the form of medicine (drugs), herbs and herbal extracts, and in food.
Cognitive abilities nootropics may help enhance include:
By increasing your brain’s abilities to intake, process, and retain information, you essentially boost your intelligence.
In the 1970s, the scientist that originally developed the concept of nootropics, Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, identified several chemicals and herbal substances that seemed to improve the brain’s function, unlike other drugs that had been developed up to that time.
One of the main differences he identified between this newly-grouped selection of substances is that they didn’t have a lot of the altering or damaging effects of other drugs acting on the brain, like anesthetics, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.
In addition to not having the usual brain-altering pharmacological effects of other drugs, nootropics also seemed to improve brain function in four other ways:
- Enhanced the brain’s ability to learn.
- Helped the brain resist or fight off agents that impair brain health.
- Facilitated transfer of information between the right side of the brain, in charge of creativity and the arts, and the left side of the brain, in charge of logical functions.
- Improved control over parts of the brain in charge of higher functions as well as those in charge of body movement.
To sum it all up, nootropics work with your brain chemistry to make the most out of your brain’s natural abilities, while protecting it from potential damage and deterioration. In other words, they claim to improve your brain’s function, as long as the potential exists; they do not claim to make new abilities appear, but they may enhance the abilities your brain already has.
Types of Nootropics
There are many ways to classify nootropics: by function (what they do to our brain), pharmacology (how they work), and form and origin (how they are found). One of the most straight-forward classifications of nootropics is by their origin.
The classification by origin and forms of nootropics includes drugs and medicines, natural nootropics, and supplements.
Drugs and Medicines
Drugs are defined by the FDA as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” Any article that is claimed to be beneficial against diseases is categorized as a drug.
Some nootropic drugs are more powerful than others, some may have some adverse or unpleasant reactions, and some are free of known adverse reactions as long as they are used in the recommended doses.
Nootropic drugs are those that are made in the lab and have isolated chemicals that are known to produce a certain pharmacological effect on the brain. Once categorized as a drug, they are regulated by the FDA, and most are only available by prescription. These are usually used for therapeutic purposes alone or in combination with other treatments, with successful results. Some of the conditions nootropic drugs are used for include:
- Memory impairments
- Adverse blood flow
The types of nootropics that fall into this category are:
- Racetams (Examples: piracetam, oxiracetam, pramiracetam, and fosracetam)
- Stimulants (Examples: amphetamines, eugoroics, xanthines, adrenergic)
- Cholinergics (Examples: nicotine, acetyl-L-carnitine, Alpha-GPC, CDP choline, DMAE, Meclofenoxate)
- GABAergics (Examples: fipexide, gabapentin, GHB, picamilon)
- Serotonergics (Examples: theanine, tryptophan, gerovital, hydergine, vinpocetine)
Natural nootropics are herbs and foods that contain components that benefit brain activity.
They are referred to by their whole herb and food name, but there are specific chemicals within them that are responsible for the beneficial effects on the brain.
There are thousands of natural nootropics that have been used for centuries by ancient cultures all over the world, but only now are they beginning to be studied in labs to identify how and to what extent they work.
Some of the most common herbal nootropics are adaptogens. Adaptogens are substances that help to increase bodily resistance to physical, chemical, or biological agents that could cause damage to cells, or that normalize disbalances without disturbing normal bodily function.
There are thousands of potential herbal nootropics, but only a few dozen have been thoroughly studied in clinics and laboratories for their brain enhancing effects. Some of the most-studied herbal nootropics include:
- Ginkgo Biloba
- John’s Wort
- Lion’s Mane mushroom
- Rhodiola Rosea
- Bacopa monnieri
Foods, like herbs, contain substances that may help boost your brain health and thus allow you to take advantage of your brain’s potential. Some of these foods aren’t regarded as nootropics in the traditional sense, but evidence shows that they do act on the brain as other nootropics do by stimulating blood flow to the brain, ameliorating symptoms of depression, fighting off free radicals that may damage brain cells, and others.
Some popular nootropic foods include:
- Coconut oil
- Almond oil
- Coffee and teas
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and they are found in large quantities in our body. Some amino acids can be made by our bodies, while others need to come from the food we eat (called essential amino acids). Certain amino acids have been found to have a particularly important impact on brain health, so pharmaceutical and supplement companies will extract them or make them synthetically to offer as a supplement. Note that you can also gain access to these amino acids by eating foods that have high quantities of each.
Some nootropic amino acids include:
- DL-Phenylalanine (DLPA)
- L-Aspartic acid
- L- Glycine
How do Nootropics Work?
To understand the safety and effectiveness of nootropics, it is often helpful to have a general understanding of the different ways in which nootropics work.
Different nootropics act on the brain in a wide variety of ways. Some of these include:
- Those that provide key nutrients to the brain: These generally come from the diet and from supplements:
- Dietary sources: Foods that contain phytochemicals (plant chemicals), micronutrients, and macronutrients that help your brain reach its full potential, beyond that
- Supplements: Similar to dietary sources, they contain components from foods to ensure your brain has the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients it needs. Supplements provide these components in higher doses and concentrations that are usually found in food.
- Racetams: Synthetic chemicals, some of which are used as nootropics and others that are used as medicine to treat seizures. They activate glutamate and acetylcholine receptors – important neurotransmitters in the brain that control action and cognitive functions.
- Stimulants and dopaminergics: Only some are considered nootropics. Activates dopamine and adrenoreceptors to improve alertness and performance.
- Memory enhancers: They enhance neurotransmitters associated with memory
- Serotonergics: They enhance the serotonin system and are associated with improving mood and the sleep cycle.
- Anti-depression, adaptogenic, and mood stabilization agents: They include modes of action, but all help to counteract processes that affect mood.
- Metabolic and blood flow enhancers: Help get oxygen, energy, and nutrients to the parts of the brain that need them.
- Nerve growth stimulators and agents that protect brain cells.
- Hormones: A small number are considered nootropics. They are cell messengers that improve brain function.
- Unknown enhancement: Their mode of action isn’t completely understood, but they have demonstrated effectiveness.
Are Nootropics Effective?
There is more information available on the effectiveness of some nootropics than others.
Nootropic drugs generally have much more research conducted on their effectiveness, but they are often the ones that are usually reserved for prescription and therapeutic purposes only.
In this section, we will briefly overview the effectiveness of nootropics for different diagnosable conditions (therapeutic purposes), and then we will explore the evidence of the use of nootropics as smart drugs.
Effectiveness of Nootropics for Cognitive Disorders
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Dementia is the general term used to refer to a decline in mental ability that interferes with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain condition that slowly destroys the parts of the brain associated with memory and thinking skills. It is irreversible and progressive, and there are some estimates that it affects as many as 5.5 million people in the United States.
Alzheimer’s and dementia can be devastating for individuals and families, and since they are irreversible, researchers and physicians have a significant interest in finding new treatments that may help to slow the progression or improve certain cognitive functions of the brain.
Some of the drugs, herbs, and supplements with evidence for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Nefiracetam: natural acetylcholine is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and nefiracetam may help to module the receptor channel.
- L-Arginine: naturally found in fish, chicken and dairy products.
- Gingko Biloba: Helps to reduce free radicals that arise in Alzheimer’s disease models and may help to prevent the disease.
- Piracetam and aniracetam: When administrated in high doses, piracetam may slow the progression of cognitive deteriorate in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Note that evidence is lacking for the use of piracetam for dementia and aniracetam for Alzheimer’s. Other nootropics with similar modes of action include aniracetam.
- Coconut oil: coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides, which are a direct source of cellular energy. Some evidence shows that administering coconut oil may help to improve the cognitive level of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Ocimum sanctum: While only animal trials have been carried out to date, the use of Ocimum sanctum (holy basil), an ayurvedic herb, may be beneficial in the treatment of cognitive disorders in humans.
- Cerebrolysin: This mix of peptides derived from pig’s brains is shown to improve measures of cognition in some types of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Ashwagandha: May help to reconstruct neuronal networks and hold promise in treatment for dementia.
Clinical depression is a cognitive impairment that causes feelings of sadness or loss of interest in activities people normally enjoyed. About 6.7% of adults are affected by depression in any given year. It can be treated in many people with conventional drugs and psychotherapy, among other treatments, but there has been increasing interest in the use of nootropics as an alternative for the treatment of clinical depression.
Some of the nootropics that have shown effectiveness for the treatment of depression include:
- L-Arginine and L-Glutamine: amino acids found in fish, meat, and dairy. They help to improve blood flow to the brain and may help to reduce symptoms of depression.
- Phenylpiracetam: a more potent form of piracetam, it is currently under trial for use as an antidepressant.
- Reboxetine: a type of adrenergic stimulant that is approved for the treatment of clinical depression in Europe.
- Bupropion: a type of dopaminergic that moderates dopamine inhibition.
- Siberian Ginseng or Panax Ginseng: an adaptogen that exhibits anti-fatigue, anti-stress, improved CNS activity, and anti-depressive effects.
- Lemon balm: a GABA transaminase inhibitor
- John’s Wort: Existing studies show that St. John’s Word is safe, well-tolerated, and effective for treating mild to moderate depression.
- Rhodiola Rosea: Some studies show effectiveness for treating overall depression, insomnia, and emotional instability when administered daily over several weeks.
Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system characterized by unpredictable seizures and other health problems. According to the epilepsy foundation, it is the fourth most common neurological disorder that affects people of all ages.
- Piracetam: studies show a positive influence of piracetam on the cognitive disturbances of people with epilepsy without diminishing the effects of anticonvulsant drugs.
- Nefiracetam: inhibits proconvulsant action of certain agents, and is more potent than piracetam.
- Bacopa monniera: animal trials show that Bacopa monniera is effective for improving memory acquisition and retention without affecting the anticonvulsant activity of other drugs.
Effectiveness of Nootropics for Increasing Intelligence (“Smart Drugs”)
A sub-category of nootropics, often referred to as “smart drugs” are those that are used, not for treating cognitive disorders, but instead, are used for improving cognition and helping your brain access its full potential.
In this category, we usually find herbal and food-derived nootropics, though or rare occasions there may be some that are developed in the lab and require prescriptions.
Below we will overview the different categories of “cognitive enhancement” often sought after with nootropic use.
Concentration, Memory, Focus, and Learning
Some of the nootropics known to improve concentration include:
- Caffeine: the most commonly consumed nootropic in the world, it can help to improve concentration and work energy. It may, however, be less effective for some types of memory learning.
- DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol): naturally found in fish, but also found as a dietary supplement. It helps to increase the production and release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Evidence shows that it may reduce memory deficits in people with cognitive impairment.
- Theanine: an amino acid found in high amounts in green tea, but also marketed as a dietary supplement. It can improve concentration by enhancing nervous impulses in the brain.
- Ginkgo Biloba: contains flavonoids and terpenoids that protect brain cells and enhance blood flow, thus potentially improving memory over longer periods of supplementation.
- Vasopressin: a prescribed hormone nootropic that facilitates information retention in the memory centers of the brain.
- Piracetam: One of the first nootropics to demonstrate an improvement in verbal learning over several weeks of administration.
- Lion’s Mane: Supplementation is shown to improve recognition memory and learning.
- Ashwagandha: may help to improve general and immediate memory, executive function, attention and information processing speed in people with mild cognitive impairment.
- Rhodiola Rosea: A very versatile adaptogenic nootropic, it may support a positive mood and memory.
Note that for many of these herbal supplements and food components, there is still only initial research on their effectiveness. However, it is important to note that many non-western societies have held the application of many of these nootropics in high esteem for centuries, and people are currently successfully using them for their brain-enhancing effects.
Watch this video on the top 4 benefits of nootropics if you are considering taking them to boost your brain abilities.
Safety of Nootropics
If you are considering taking an over-the-counter (non-prescription nootropic), or if your physician has prescribed a nootropic as part of your treatment regiment, it is important to understand the safety and risks of each one.
In general, nootropics are known for not having any side effects at recommended doses, which is true for most herbal and food-based nootropics. However, there are some that may have adverse effects on specific people, depending on sensibilities, conditions, and other drugs and supplements you may be taking.
Those nootropics with more risk (nootropic drugs, in most cases) are available by prescription only.
Below, we summarize the safety of some of the most popular nootropics as described by Jay Siva, a nootropic expert.
|Racetams||Non-toxic and usually free of side effects, including addiction, when used at the recommended doses. One exception includes:
|Stimulants||Some are free of side effects. Exceptions include:
Eugeroics like modafinil and adrafinil have very few adverse reactions, even in people who are taking them to improve concentration, rather than for a therapeutic purpose.
Caffeine, a type of xanthine stimulant, is safe to take at about 250mg/day for most people. Theobromine and Paraxanthine are two stimulants that may be less toxic than caffeine.
|Adrenergics||May interfere with other drugs and herbs, including dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, metaraminol, phenylephrine, ephedra, and St. John’s Wort|
|Cholinergics||Side effects ay high doses may include blurred vision, eye burning sensation, headaches, breathing difficulties, swelling, dizziness, and wheezing.|
|Glutamatergics||At controlled levels, there are no side effects. Abuse of glutamatergics, however, can health to over excitation of neurons and brain damage.|
|GABAergics||At mild doses, the effects on relaxation are positive, but excessive doses can induce anesthesia, sleep and could cause death.|
|Serotonergics||Generally considered safe, and toxic levels are virtually impossible to reach. Some cases of “serotonin syndrome” have been presented, which may result in hyperactivity, irregular heart rate, and increased blood pressure. In very large doses, seizures, metabolic acidosis, and renal failure may occur.|
|Ginkgo Biloba||In most people, there are no side effects.
There may be side effects, however, in pregnant women, and there may be adverse reactions in people taking antidepressants, anticoagulants, and in people with blood circulation issues. Adverse reactions include diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, and dizziness.
|St. John’s Wort||In some people, side effects may include increased sensitivity to the sun, skin rash, mouth dryness, constipation, dizziness, headaches, abdominal pain, and sleep problems.|
|Lion’s Mane mushroom||Free of side effects and non-toxic in most people.|
|Rhodiola Rosea||Considered safe for long-term use at doses between 200-600mg. Adverse reactions are rare but may include mouth dryness, anxiety, and fluctuations in blood pressure.|
|Ashwagandha||Considered safe in most people, but should be avoided by pregnant women.|
|Bacopa monnieri||Considered safe with no significant side effects.|
|Cod liver oil||At very high doses, users may be at risk of mercury intoxication. Pregnant women should avoid cod liver oil.|
|Cocoa||No known side effects.|
|Cinnamon||Very safe when consumed in moderate amounts.|
|Coconut oil||Excessive consumption may lead to an increase in LDL “bad” cholesterol.|
|Almond oil||Safe when consumed in moderate amounts.|
A Note on Safety
In general, nootropics are considered safe, given the following conditions:
- They are taken at the recommended doses and for the recommended length of time.
- You have consulted with your doctor about potential interactions with other drugs you are taking.
- You have consulted your doctor about the effect of the nootropic on other health conditions you may have.
- You do not take prescription nootropics unless they are prescribed to you.
- You are not pregnant or breastfeeding.
If you are considering taking a nootropic supplement, it is recommended that you start with the lowest dose to measure your body’s reaction before increasing dosage or taking it for a long period.
Nootropics have been studied in the laboratory setting for over 50 years to determine their safety and effectiveness. There are dozens of nootropics that are currently used as part of prescribed treatments and therapies for cognitive-related disorders. Additionally, natural and herbal nootropics that can be purchased over-the-counter have gained significant attention for their use as Smart Drugs.
In general, herbal and food-based nootropics are considered safe for most healthy people, and there is growing evidence on their effectiveness for cognitive health and performance.
If you are considering taking nootropics to improve your brain health and cognitive abilities, talk to your healthcare provider about starting a nootropic regimen.
Sasha is a Nutritional Anthropologist with an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition. She has been a food, nutrition, and health researcher and writer for six years and also works as an international development consultant.
She is passionate about empowering people to make the best nutrition and health choices in a way that makes cultural and logical sense for each individual and community.
Sasha currently lives in Guatemala with her family and three dogs. In her free time, she cooks, reads, gardens, and goes on adventures with her family around Guatemala and the world.