Nootropics — or as many people like to call them, “smart pills” — are “cognitive enhancers” that claim to improve learning capability, motivation, concentration and creativity. But do nootropics really work, and are they safe?
In recent years there’s been a major surge in popularity in nootropics, especially among college students, recent grads and even hard-working corporate executives. Nootropics are considered non-addictive “smart drugs” or substances that help the brain work more efficiently. So what is the best nootropic on the market today?
Many of the most popular nootropic vendors in the world have only emerged in the past several years, mostly selling their products online to those interested in “neurohacking,” or the ability to apply cutting-edge science and technology to positively influence how the brain and body work. The term “nootropics” covers a broad range of brain-boosting drugs, herbs and supplements that are all said to have cognitive-enhancing effects.
When it comes to finding the best nootropic for you, it’s important to consider why you’re using nootropics in the first place, your goals, medical history and the potential risks involved. Some of the best brain supplements that seem to be both safe and effective, according to studies, include: adaptogen herbs, medicinal mushrooms, bacopa, ginseng, DHA/fish oil and gingko biloba.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics is another name for “smart drugs,” “brain boosters” or “memory-enhancing drugs.” There’s now a wide variety of products available on the market that are classified as nootropics, considering the exact definition of a nootropic is still up for debate, as the term is not tightly regulated. What makes things even more complicated is that nootropics are often manufactured as “stacks,” or substances that include many different ingredients that interact in complex ways. (1)
- B vitamins (vitamin B1, B2, B6, B12, etc.)
- Vitamins A, C, D and E
- Gingko balboa
- Medicinal mushrooms, such as chaga, cordyceps and reishi
- Caffeine, such as from coffee or green tea extract
- Fish oil, including omega-3s like DHA
- Alpha GPC
- Bacopa monnieri
- Cat’s claw extract
- Artichoke leaf extract
- Rhodiola rosea root
- Macuna prurien extract
It’s hard to describe exactly how nootropics work exactly because each one in unique and has its own specific mechanisms of actions. Considering how many different “brain supplements”s fall into the nootropics category, there are dozens of possible explanations for how nootropics enhance cognitive function.
But what most smart drugs have in common is that they are capable of altering levels of certain neurotransmitters, enzymes or hormones in the brain — such as acetylcholine, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and GABA. Many increase energy (some via caffeine), promote blood flow and help protect the brain from oxidative stress.
Are nootropics natural, and are they even legal? What makes nootropics different from most stimulants, illegal drugs and mood-altering prescriptions is that they are considered non-toxic and non-addictive. Many are derived from plants or isolated amino acids that are found in common protein-rich foods.
However, some nootropics are not natural (they’re synthetic), and these tend to have stronger effects and pose more risks.
So what is the most effective nootropic? Nootropics that have been studied most extensively and shown to offer real mental health benefits include:
1. Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms include species like reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, turkey tail and chaga. These fungi have been shown in studies to help support cognitive function in some of the following ways:
- fighting cognitive impairment in older adults
- possessing antioxidant properties that protect the brain
- acting as adaptogens that increase resilience during times of stress
- helping to regulate cortisol levels
- fighting fatigue and low immune function
- possessing anti-tumor and immune-enhancing properties (5)
2. Adaptogen Herbs
Adaptogens include herbs and fungi like ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola rosea and cordyceps. Holy basil is one adaptogen that may be effective in improving stress response, lowering blood corticosterone levels (another stress hormone) and creating positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain. (6)
Rhodiola and astragalus can help those suffering from stress-related fatigue and may boost mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response. (7) Licorice root can help increase energy and endurance and boost the immune system, while ashwagandha may prevent stress-related gastric ulcers, poor cognition and memory, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation and dysregulation of the adrenal glands caused by high cortisol levels.
This herbal remedy, also known as Brahmi, has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine that originated India for hundreds of years. It’s used to help manage a broad range of mental and mood-related health concerns, including Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and more.
Bacopa has been shown to help regulate dopamine and serotonin production and also works as a natural stress reliever. Studies suggest that bacopa is non-addictive, can improve memory, reduce anxiety and depression, and support focus, attention, learning and memory. (8) Best of all, it has very few (if any) side effects.
4. Fish Oil & Omega 3s
Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA are essential building blocks for a healthy brain and may offer protection against damage to brain cells. They may also help support memory and focus and reduce inflammation. (9) Omega-3’s can be found in fish like salmon or sardines, nuts like walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds, and also obtained from taking fish oil capsules.
Ginseng (or Panax ginseng) is one well-known adaptogen that has been shown to successfully improve calmness and some aspects of working memory performance in healthy young adults. Studies suggest that ginseng possesses significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders, including anxiety, lack of focus, fatigue, etc. It also has antioxidant effects, may offer neuroprotection, and has been found to improve mood, mental performance and fasting blood sugar levels. (10)
6. Gingko Biloba
Ginkgo is one of the most commonly ingested herbs taken for brain health. (11) It has been widely studied for its effective anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, platelet-forming and circulation-boosting effects. Ginkgo biloba benefits include improved cognitive function, positive mood, increased energy, improved memory and reduced symptoms related to multiple chronic diseases, like ADHD and dementia. (12)
Other safe, honorable mentions include:
- Forskolin, an Ayurvedic herb that may support learning and memory.
- L-theanine, which can improve alertness and arousal.
- Artichoke extract, which may boost motivation and learning capability.
- Cat’s claw, which can help fight fatigue and has anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic and antioxidant properties that protect the brain.
- Enhancing learning acquisition.
- Increasing the coupling of the brain’s two hemispheres (the way that the left and right sides of the brain work together to process information).
- Improving executive processing, which includes tasks like planning, organizing, focusing, remembering, and spatial awareness.
- Improving one’s mood, energy, mental clarity, motivation and creativity.
- Possibly working as a natural remedy for ADHD.
- Building the body and brain’s defenses against a stressful and toxic environment.
- Neuroprotective benefits, in other words protecting your brain from damage and degeneration.
- Increasing willpower.
- Improving long-term memory and short-term memorization of facts.
- Affecting plasticity of synapses in the brain, or in other words how the brain changes depending on experiences.
- Enhancing cellular membrane fluidity.
- Improving cerebral blood flow.
- Providing metabolic support, such as helping with mitochondrial production of ATP (the main “energy currency” that the body uses).
What are the best nootropics to take if you want to improve memory, thinking speed and attention span? Some options include: ginkgo biloba, green coffee extract or matcha green tea. Caffeine and L-theanine are both found in black tea and can help improve concentration and possibly your mood.
What is the best nootropic supplement if you want to better deal with stress, stabilize your moods and beat brain fog? Try adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms, such as such as chaga, cordyceps and reishi, plus rhodiola, ashwagandha and astragalus.
The Worst Nootropics
Something important to point out is that there’s a lot of variability when it comes to the effectiveness of nootropics. How impactful and beneficial a nootropic product will be on someone’s cognitive function depends on the individual’s unique neurochemistry, genetics, weight, sleep patterns and mood.
Each person will react differently to different nootropics, but generally speaking it’s riskier to use more potent, synthetic forms of nootropics. Synthetic versions often require a prescription, depending on the country you live in, and can cause a range of possible side effects. Some are also powerful stimulants and may be addictive, or may interact with medications, causing unexpected side effects.
Use caution when using nootropics like:
- Modafinil (Provigil) — This “wakefulness-promoting” substance is sold to help improve focus, motivation, clarity and memory. It’s currently offered only as a prescription drug in countries like the U.S., but it’s possible to buy it online from places like India. Before taking this drug (whether the brand name or generic version), talk to your physician about potential risks like immune reactions, fever, sore throat, headaches, vomiting, hallucinations and unusual thoughts. (15)
- Adrafinil — This product is available without a prescription and has similar effects as Modafini. Adrafinil is a stimulant and eugeroic substance used to increase alertness, attention, wakefulness and mood, especially in elderly adults. Dangers associated with this substance can include: interfering with sleep and potentially stressing your liver. (16)
- Armodafinil (Nuvigil) — Armodafinil is described as a more purified form of Modafini, having many of the same stimulating effects. It is used to help treat sleepiness from narcolepsy, sleep apnea or symptoms caused by night shift work. It’s considered a controlled substance and may cause rapid or irregular heartbeat, delirium, panic, psychosis and heart failure. (17)
- Piracetam — This synthetic compound of the racetam family was created in the 1960s and is now only available in the U.S. by prescription only. (18) Studies suggest that piracetam is most effective for older people when it comes to fighting cognitive impairment, but has limited effects in healthy people. Adverse effects are possible, although usually they don’t last very long, and can include: anxiety, insomnia, drowsiness and agitation. It may be safe to take for up to 18 months but has been shown to be safe long-term. It can also interact with medications including blood-thinners.
- Lucidril (Meclofenoxate) — Promoted as having anti-aging, neuroprotective and cognitive benefits, this substance has also been associated with mood-related side effects like depression and hopelessness. It can also exert teratogenic (birth defects) effects and should not be used by females of child-bearing age.
- Phenibut — Phenibut is chemically similar to the natural brain chemical GABA and is used to manage anxiety, trouble sleeping (insomnia), tension, stress, fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcoholism. Many people rapidly develop a tolerance to this substance and need increased amounts to maintain the desired effects and prevent withdrawal symptoms. It can also negatively interact with alcohol, narcotic drugs and tranquilizers, and increase risk for overdose. (19)
- Nicotine — Some people use nicotine as a way of increasing mitochondrial function, boosting alertness and dealing with stress. But regardless of how you consume nicotine, whether it’s from smoking, tobacco products or extracts, it poses risks including dependence, increased heart rate, dizziness and nausea.
- Amphetamine and dextroamphetamine drugs (the brand name drug Adderall is a combination of these two stimulant drugs. More on these stimulants below).
- Stimulants, including high doses of caffeine (more on this below).
Nootropics vs. Adderall
- Adderall is a form of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine that is legally prescribed in a limited number of countries, primarily the U.S. and Canada. (20)
- Stimulant medications including Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil were originally developed to help manage symptoms of specific disorders, such as ADHD or narcolepsy. Today there’s growing concern over these drugs being commonly misused by both teenagers and adults looking to be more productive, energized and focused.
- One difference between nootropics and these medications is that nootropics are intended to gradually improve brainpower in healthy adults over extended periods of time, rather than working immediately and having effects that are temporary.
- There are both pros and cons associated with Adderall. For example, when used appropriately by people with a prescription, the drug can help counteract symptoms of ADHD by increasing availability of certain neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. This can help to boost alertness, attention and energy levels and may help with test taking or performance at work or in school.
- Adderall can also increase heart rate and the flow of blood to the muscles, leading to increased stamina and feelings of energy and invigoration. Additionally, some may experience a mood-enhancing effect after using Adderall, since it can create rewarding feelings of euphoria.
- On the other hand, Adderall can be highly addictive and dangerous, sometimes even when taken as prescribed. Negative effects can potentially include: appetite suppression and unhealthy weight loss, increased tolerance and dependence, withdrawal symptoms, irritability, anxiousness, restlessness, twitching and involuntary movements, trouble sleeping and potentially dangerous cardiac issues.
- Most of all, Adderall should be used with caution because amphetamine has addictive potential and can cause insomnia, stress and anxiety.
Nootropics vs. Stimulants
- The definition of a stimulant is “a substance that raises levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body.” Stimulants are sometimes referred to as “uppers” because they make you feel less tired and more alert. Many different substances can be considered stimulants, including caffeine (found in coffee, tea and some soft drinks or energy drinks), nicotine, diet pills, amphetamines like Adderall, methamphetamines drugs, Ritalin, over-the-counter stimulants like NoDoz, Vivarin, Caffedrine, and illegal drugs like cocaine. (21)
- Why is caffeine considered a nootropic? Caffeine fights fatigue and can increase focus, mental clarity and sometimes reduce symptoms of sadness. It’s a chemical that affects the central nervous system (CNS) and considered a stimulant of the methylxanthine class of psychoactive drugs. While it might have benefits, in high amounts it can also have negative effects; for example, caffeine affects blood pressure, brain activity, hormonal balance, blood sugar levels and overall mood. A caffeine overdose can make you feel physically sick and very dizzy, nervous and out of control.
- Is nicotine a nootropic? Nicotine is considered to be a potent nootropic that is naturally occurring in many plants, especially tobacco. Nicotine acts on acetylcholine (ACh) receptors in the brain and increases release of “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which increases alertness, memory and mood. Nicotine is usually used in small doses as a lozenge or gum for cognitive enhancement, but smoking or using tobacco rarely are for this purpose. While nicotine may have some benefits, it can also be addictive and cause increased heart rate, dizziness, cough, sneezing, sinus problems, upset stomach, constipation and headaches. (22)
- Can nootropics cause anxiety if they are also stimulants? Definitely. There are both physical and mental side effects associated with stimulants, especially when they are overused. Physical side effects include: dizziness, shaking, headache, flushed skin, chest pains with palpitations, excessive sweating, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Mental/psychological effects: include agitation, hostility, panic, aggression, insomnia and anxiety.
Nootropics vs. Adaptogens
- Adaptogens are considered some of the best nootropics because adding these herbs to your routine can make you more resilient to the damaging effects of chronic stress and give your body protection against perpetually high cortisol levels.
- Adaptogens can help regulate the release of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which if elevated over long periods of time can affect every physiological system in your body, including your digestive system, reproductive system, thyroid and adrenal glands.
- Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants because they help balance, restore and protect the body as it responds to various stressors, normalizing physiological functions like blood pressure and hormonal balance. They can also help increase antioxidant activity, quelling excessive oxidative stress that damages the brain.
- Adaptogenic herbs than can help boost resilience and mental performance include: Panax ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola rosea and cordyceps.
- However, adaptogenic herb can interact with certain prescription medications and are not recommended for people with some conditions, so talk to your doctor first if you currently take any medications.
Where to Find and How to Use
Depending on which type of nootropic you use, you’ll have the option to purchase formulas that are available in several forms, including capsules, powders, extracts, oils, teas and syrups. If you’re looking for the safest and best nootropics, look for a natural product (such as those that are plant-derived) as opposed to synthetic products which tend to have stronger effects.
Purchase from a reputable brand that lists all of the ingredients clearly on their label. If using an herbal product, look for one that’s organic or wild-crafted to reduce the likelihood of contamination and GMOs.
Each nootropic product/stack works differently, so always read dosage directions carefully. Also pay attention to whether to take the product on an empty stomach or with food, and whether to avoid taking it too close to bed time.
The best nootropics for you will depend on what you’re hoping to improve or enhance, such as focus or creativity. Regarding how to use nootropics, consider trying a popular strategy: cycling. To cycle nootropics, take them for a predetermined period of time (for example 5–7 days) then take a two-day break from using them. You can then continue this cycle, giving yourself a break every week or so. This is intended to lessen the risk of dependence, withdrawal or a built-up tolerance.
- Homemade Bacopa Tea — This tea will have an uplifting and simultaneously relaxing effect. To make tea, you can add a few fresh leaves or a good pinch of dried bacopa to one cup of boiled water and allow them to steep up to 10 minutes. If you use fresh leaves, you can tear and bruise the leaves so the aromatic oils are released into the water. Strain off the infused water so the leaves don’t get in the way of your drinking. Add some raw honey if you want to disguise bacopa’s taste.
- Mushroom Coffee — Several companies are now making a powdered combination of instant coffee and mushrooms extracts that can be instantly added to hot water to create a cup of mushroom coffee. There are also packets of mushroom extracts with healthy ingredients like organic peppermint and anise extracts along with some stevia. A packet like this can be added to your favorite tea to create a hot cup of mushroom tea.
In addition to incorporating nootropics into your routine, consider how you can include more brain-boosting foods in your diet to naturally improve focus and memory. Examples of nutrient-dense “superfoods” that include vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants which can support cognitive function include:
- Wild-caught fish like salmon
- Bone broth
- Egg yolks
- Organ meats like liver
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens
- Green tea and organic coffee
Natural nootropics like fungi and adaptogens have been consumed for thousands of years. But starting around the 1950s, Britain and American scientists began experimenting with mind-altering substances that could aid military personal and potentially fight certain diseases. One of the first uses of nootropics was assisting the CIA. Substances were combined with approaches like shock therapy and hypnosis, but these efforts mostly backfired and wound up causing harmful effects.
When Dr. Corneliu Giurgea first coined the term “nootropics” in 1972. He researched nootropics in regards to their ability to benefit memory and support the cognitive processes, but also wanted to ensure they were safe and non-toxic. Giurgea came up with the word nootropics by combining the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.”
Giurgea first synthesized the substance piracetem in 1964, which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Piracetam was found to “activate rather than quiet the brain,” according to Giurgea, and was then declared by him to belong in a new category of drugs. (23)
Many of the pioneers in nootropic development worked in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and 2000s, during the time when the “Information Age” was unfolding. As a 2014 VICE article puts it, “Smart drugs could be seen as the key to unlocking our full potential within the narrow confines of a society reliant on technology.” (24)
Now, there is a world of cognition-enhancing drugs (nootropics) available to the public — some of which are prescription, some over-the-counter and others only sold online on the “gray market.” (25) Today some of the leaders in the nootropic category include Onnit, Nootroo, Nootrobox and truBrain.
Risks and Side Effects
Not much is known about the the potential long-term side effects of using many nootropics, especially when taken in “stacks” (complex formulas that combine various products). While most nootropics are generally considered to be safe, there are possible side effects to be aware of. These include: developing a tolerance (which means you’ll need more to get the same affects), symptoms of withdrawal, brain fog when discontinuing nootropics, hyperactivity, anxiety and trouble sleeping.
Certain nootropics may also taste unpleasant and cause an upset stomach if taken without food. Keep in mind that nootropics are intended to work gradually when it comes to providing cognitive benefits, so you may not experience many improvements for eight 12 weeks.
If you’re concerned about any interactions between nootropics and medications you’re taking, always consult your doctor. Stop using nootropics if you experience side effects, especially if combining nootropics with other drugs.
- Nootropics is another name for “smart drugs,” “brain boosters” or “memory-enhancing drugs.” Nootropics are often manufactured as “stacks,” or substances that include many different ingredients which interact in complex ways.
- What is the best smart drug on the market today? This depends on why you’re using nootropics in the first place — for example, to fight anxiety and brain-fog, or improve focus, attention and memory.
- Benefits of nootropics can include: enhancing learning acquisition, increasing the coupling of the brain’s two hemispheres, improving executive processing (planning, organizing, focusing, remembering and spatial awareness), improving mood, energy, mental clarity, motivation and creativity, and protecting the brain from oxidative stress.
- Some of the best nootropics include: adaptogen herbs, medicinal mushrooms, fish oil/omega-3s, gingko biloba, bacopa and ginseng.
- Nootropics that can cause side effects and should be used with caution include: Modafinil (Provigil), Adrafinil, Armodafinil (Nuvigil), Piracetam, Lucidril, Phenibut, nicotine, and stimulants like Adderall or even high doses of caffeine.
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