Nootropics – The Ultimate Guide to Understand the Smart Drugs

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In recent years Nootropics, colloquially referred to as smart drugs that were once the preserve of nerdy geeks, the military, or people with psychological disorders have gone mainstream.



The advent of mind-bending movies such as Limitless, Lucy, and Phenomenon that feature protagonists that attain superhuman cognitive abilities is one that has fascinated people from all walks of life.


The term Nootropic was first coined by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea the Romanian chemist and psychologist that synthesized Piracetam, the first smart drug.

Nootropics may be defined as a class of chemicals, supplements, functional foods, or drugs that enhance cognitive functions such as focus, memory, and intelligence.

According to Dr. Giurgea, chemical substance fits the description of a Nootropic if it fulfills the following criteria:

  • 1. Does not induce the pharmacological effects such as motor stimulation and sedation common with psychotropic drugs, has low toxicity, and very few side effects.
  • 2. It enhances the effectiveness of tonic cortical and subcortical control mechanisms.
  • 3. Increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms.
  • 4. Protects the brain against a variety of chemical and physical injuries.
  • 5. Reduces the erosion of learned memories and behaviors from disruptive disorders and conditions.
  • 6. Enhances memory and learning.


Nootropics can generally be classified into three classes according to function. These are nutraceuticals, stimulants, and racetams.

1. Racetams – These work by enhancing the effectiveness of acetylcholine in the brain, which makes one have better focus, mental agility, mood, and memory.

nootropics boost focus

2. Stimulants – As opposed to racetams that enhance the capacity to collate and analyze ideas, stimulants will increase focus and make you alert making it easier to concentrate.

3. Nutraceuticals – Nutraceuticals are the simplest of Nootropics, as they are majorly food or food products that combine the functions of stimulants and racetams.

However, it is important to note that even as they combine the effects of stimulants and racetams, their effect is less pronounced.

Nonetheless, while Nootropics perform different functions, you can combine these smart drugs from different classes for that powerful synergistic effect that is impossible to achieve with one Nootropic.


One of the most common questions that I receive in my inbox on an almost weekly basis is, do Nootropics work?

There are many students who assert that they would never have made it through college were it not for a prescription of smart prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin.

The simplest answer to the question is:

Yes, Nootropics do work, though the effectiveness will depend on the drug used and the person.

For instance, while most users of Modafinil report that they experience enhanced concentration and focus, there are some differences in other aspects such as socialization and ability to speak.

Even as some reported an increase in eloquence and wit, some said the drug made them lose interest in socialization and a pronounced stutter due to the brain working too fast.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that unlike pharmacological drugs, Nootropics will not give you that wow feeling when consumed.

The effect will be subtle yet so dramatic if you just look for it. You may just find that you develop a kind of tunnel vision and an intense enhancement of the senses where you can just tune out of outside stimuli or be more sensitive to bright headlights.

Overall, a smart drug may or may not work for you and work for another person because you have different body and brain chemistry. In some instances, you may have to do a little experimentation to unearth that Nootropic that works for your cognitive goals and needs.


Contrary to popular belief, Nootropics will not give you a better intellect or instantaneous IQ. What the smart drugs will do is make your brain functions more effectively by enhancing the production and signaling of a variety of enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters.

To understand how Nootropics work, you need to go to the basics of the brain as a network of billions of billions of neurons, which communicate with each other through synapses.

nootropics amplify neural signals

For neurons to communicate with each other they need chemical signals such as the naturally occurring dopamine or the artificial amphetamine, that are commonly referred to as neurotransmitters.

Efficient transmission of signals between the synapses is what makes one experience better cognitive aptitude, improved concentration, better mood, memory, and attention span.

a) Synaptic Receptors and Neurotransmitters:

Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that make it possible to transmit messages between the hundreds of billions of neurons in the human brain.

The transmitter will typically bind to their corresponding receptor synapses (receptors sites) thus creating a neurotransmitter receptor system.

The most important of these systems include the Cholinergic system, Glutamatergic system, the Serotonergic system, and the Dopaminergic system.

1) Cholinergic System – Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter associated with decision-making, focus, learning, and memory.

Therefore, Cholinergic Nootropics are any supplements that work to increase the levels of Acetylcholine in the brain. Some of the most common cholinergics include Centrophenoxine and Alpha GPC.

2) Glutamatergic System – Of all the neurotransmitters in the human nervous system, Glutamate is the most abundant.

Although vital to overall brain health and vitality, glutamate supplements such as Aniracetam also enhance cognitive functions that include learning and memory.

3) Serotonergic and Dopaminergic Systems – These are some of the most critical neurotransmitters associated with motivation, feelings of well-being, and mood.

Serotonergic Nootropics tend to be supplements associated with the cognitive aspects of mood.

Dopamine supplements such as Sulbutiamine are associated with higher cognition and brain energy.

In general, most Nootropics that enhance mood and feelings of well-being will influence the serotonergic and dopaminergic system.

b) Blood Flow and Oxygen Uptake:

Some Nootropics work by improving the flow of blood to the brain, the uptake of oxygen and nutrients. Even as the brain is about 2% of total body mass, it consumes about a fifth of all the energy.

By improving the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients such as glucose to the brain, you become more alert and focused. This enhanced alertness and concentration enhances the cognitive capacities to learn new things, and perform challenging mental tasks.

Some of the most common blood flow enhancing Nootropics include; Vinpocetine, Gingko Biloba, Creatine, and Caffeine.

Their capacity to improve blood flow and energy supply, which improves clarity, enhances mental energy, and focus, is what makes them a favorite among students.

c) Brain Plasticity:

Some Nootropics work by enhancing the plasticity of the synapses thus making it easier to increase cognitive capacities through making the brain more adaptable.

They do this by improving the linkages between the synapses, which makes it easier to store and transfer information, enhancing learning and memory.

Nootropics also increase the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Nerve Growth Factor, critical in the slowing down of the rate of damage and stimulation of the growth of neuritis and neurons.

Myths and Truth about Nootropics:

myths and truth about nootropics

Even as the number of articles and research studies about Nootropics continues to increase with the rise in interest in smart drugs, separating myth from the truth when it comes to Nootropics is not that easy.

Given that most users get their information from unreliable sources such as movies or websites that do not bother to educate their readers or just have inaccurate information, it is important to determine what is fact from fiction when it comes to Nootropics.

The following are some of the most widespread myths about smart drugs:

1. Nootropics are Highly Dangerous:

Misinformed people will often confuse Nootropics with pharmacological drugs such as amphetamines that can be neurotoxic. What you need to know is that the modern smart drug is well researched and safe to use.

If it is toxic or dangerous then it is not a Nootropic and you should not use it.

2. Nootropics Work Like the ones They Do in the Movies:

Many people get their information about Nootropics from movies such as “Limitless”. In fact, some people believe that NZT-48, the smart drug from “Limitless” is a real drug. This makes people have all kinds of unrealistic expectations about Nootropics.

Even as Nootropics are real drugs that will enhance your cognitive capacities (mental energy, concentration, focus, learning, and memory among others), using them will not make you an overnight genius or a multimillionaire.

What Nootropics will do is offer you that competitive edge that makes it possible to achieve more than what you are currently able to. The following are just some of the benefits you may accrue from using Nootropic drugs:

  • Enhanced awareness
  • Enhanced mental energy
  • Enhanced concentration and focus
  • Enhanced mood
  • Enhanced motivation and productivity
  • Enhanced learning capacities
  • Enhanced Memory

3. To Determine if Nootropics are Working, You Need to Feel Some Drastic Changes

As previously mentioned you should not expect to feel some high from Nootropics similar to that you get from drugs such as amphetamines.

Another thing to keep in mind is that people have unique body chemistry and hence they absorb and metabolize chemicals differently. As such, even if two people took the same drug at the same time they may not feel the effect at the same time.

Even if you do not feel any effect of the drug after some time, it does not mean that Nootropics are not working for you. Maybe you may need to try other smart drugs or work the drug into your system over time to feel the full effect.

4. You Do Not Have to Get Quality Sleep, Proper Nutrition or Work Hard When on Nootropics

It is very tempting for many people to believe that Nootropics are the silver bullet for success when in fact they are not.

While they are great for at enhancing your cognitive focus and getting you sharp, just like with other supplements, you need to eat well, sleep enough, and work just as hard.

Just as you would not take a weight loss pill and expect to lose weight while eating all manner of junk food, the same applies to Nootropics. In fact, some Nootropics will be more effective if you have a healthy lifestyle.

5. Nootropics Do Not Have Any Side Effects

Considering Dr. Giurgea’s definition, a Nootropic needs to have very low levels of toxicity. But given our different bodily chemical compositions, some people may experience adverse side effects when they consume some Nootropics.

As such, new users of Nootropics need to try Nootropics such a Rhodiola Rosea, L-Theanine, and Bacopa Monnieri in small doses to familiarize themselves with smart drugs.

What makes these Nootropics great for beginners is that ancient medical practice has been using them for centuries, meaning that they have been proven safe.

6. Nootropics Benefits/Side Effects are the Same for All Users

While Nootropics are known for producing specific effects and benefits, many factors will influence how one takes to the brain supplement.

Similar to pharmaceuticals, aspects such as level of use, frequency, dosage, and genetics play a significant role in how you may or may not take the drug and the side effects.

As such, the benefits you may achieve will also vary from person to person.

7. Nootropics are Synthetic, Under-Researched, and Relatively New

Even as some Nootropics need a degree of distillation and processing, many smart drugs that have been synthesized in the last half of the twentieth century such as Bacopa Monnieri and Ginseng are made from natural ingredients.

With regard to research, the subject of Nootropics has seen an influx in persons looking for information such that, there is sufficient information on the subject for anyone that takes the time to find it.

Nootropics Side Effects

Even as the definition of Nootropics has the provision that such a drug needs to be nontoxic and safe for human use, many people still worry about the side effects versus the benefits of these drugs.

Please note that many Nootropics that have been around for a long time such as Choline, Noopept, Aniracetam, and Piracetam have been the subject of multiple research studies and been found to be safe for human consumption.

Nonetheless, the introduction of any performance-enhancing drug or chemical into the body will most likely result in some side effects, and Nootropics are not the exception.

Nootropics users have reported having some mild side effects that include insomnia, headaches, GI tract issues, dependence, and fatigue.

1) Insomnia

nootropics side effects

Some Nootropics such as Pramiracetam and CDP Choline improve alertness and energy levels, and hence if you use them a few hours before bedtime you are likely to experience insomnia.

2) Headaches

One of the most common side effects that Nootropic users tend to report is headaches.

Nootropics from the Racetam class tend to give headaches as the brain uses Acetylcholine at a rate faster than it could be manufactured resulting in Acetylcholine receptors sites burning out.

However, this can be alleviated by the consumption of a choline supplement such as Alpha GPC.

3) GI Tract Issues

Taking Nootropics for the first time or taking excessive amounts may cause irritation and discomfort in the GI tract. To counteract these issues, you need to ensure that your consumption is within the recommended dosage.

4) Dependence  

Some people that have been using Nootropics for a long time will develop a dependence on the drug, such that their cognitive function is impaired making it impossible to function without the drug.

However, most users will recover cognitive function after getting off the drugs.

5) Fatigue

 You may experience fatigue similar to the spike and crash brought about by stimulants such as caffeine, particularly if you use greater than the recommended dosage of alertness promoting smart drugs.

To counteract this side effect, you may need to reduce your usage or spread it more evenly over several hours or days.

It is important to note that the instance of side effects will not be uniform for each user and will depend on age (brain development), dosage, Nootropic used, duration of usage, the frequency of usage, and individual body chemistry.

Benefits of Nootropics

For working professionals, students, and any other person interested in smart drugs, Nootropics provide improved brain function that includes better attention spans, focus, and memory.

nootropics benefits

Ancient medicine recognized the different applications for the foods and herbs in their environment, and the chemicals therein are what modern medicine has come to acknowledge and synthesize in the form of Nootropics.

Some of the most important benefits of Nootropics include:

1) Improved Concentration

 For students or professionals working on tasks that require concentration, Nootropics from the Racetam family offer improved clarity of thought and motivation as well as better brain function, which also helps in fostering memory.

2) Improved Memory

 For the elderly and young adults, Nootropics play a significant role in preventing neurological degradation that results in conditions such as Parkinson’s, senile dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

For young people and students, smart drugs such as creatine and choline enhance short-term memory, which comes in handy during times of study.

3) Better Brain Health  

With our modern lifestyles that incorporate poor diets and busy schedules, the brain is exposed to a lot of strain.

Nootropics such as multivitamins and fish oil capsules counteract the degradation of the brain by improving blood flow and promoting cell growth and regeneration.

4) Anti-Aging Benefits

 Studies have established that some classes of Nootropics are effective in reversing signs of stress and aging in both the old and the young.

Problems such as dark circles, gray hair, wrinkled skin, poor metabolism, and impaired vision are signs of poor brain function that may be reversed by taking Nootropics that make you feel fresher and improve your sleep patterns.

5) Improved Mood

 A foul mood is associated with the lack of focus and concentration needed for cognitive tasks. Lacking motivation and being in a perpetual state of bad mood can also result in depression and stress.

Taking Nootropics such as Asian ginseng, Bacopa Monnieri, and Sulbutiamine not only helps to battle depression, stress, and social anxiety but also improves your mood.

6) Better Reasoning and Creativity

 A smaller subset of Nootropics such as creatine and iodine improve problem solving abilities, foster creativity, and reasoning.

Nootropics List Based on their Effects

The following is a list of Nootropics according to their function and effects

a) Nootropics for Memory:

  • Acorus calamus
  • Bacopa Monnieri
  • Boron
  • Celastrus Paniculatus
  • Centrophenoxine
  • Choline Bitartrate
  • Choline Citrate
  • Ginkgo Biloba
  • Glycine
  • Huperzine A
  • Idebenone
  • Lion’s Mane Mushroom
  • L-methylfolate
  • Methylcobalamin (Methyl-B12)
  • Noopept
  • Oxiracetam
  • Phenylpiracetam
  • Picamilon
  • Piracetam
  • Pramiracetam
  • PRL-8-53
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Uridine
  • Vinpocetine

b) Nootropics for Focus and Attention:

  • Adrafinil
  • Armodafinil
  • Ashwagandha
  • Boron
  • Caffeine
  • Ephedrine
  • Ginseng
  • Gotu Kola
  • L-Dopa
  • L-Tyrosine
  • Modafinil
  • Mucuna Pruriens
  • Noopept
  • Oxiracetam
  • PEA (Phenylethylamine)
  • Phenylpiracetam
  • Pramiracetam
  • Pyritinol
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Sulbutiamine

c) Nootropics for Depression and Mood:

  • 5-HTP
  • Centrophenoxine
  • Fish Oil
  • Lithium
  • L-Lysine
  • L-Tryptophan
  • SAM-e
  • St. Johns Wart
  • Uridine

d) Anti-Aging and Longevity Nootropics

  • Alpha GPC
  • Alpha Lipoic Acid
  • Carnosine
  • Centrophenoxine
  • Fish Oil
  • Green and white tea
  • Hydergine
  • Idebenone
  • Lithium
  • Multivitamin
  • NAC (N-Acetyl-Cysteine)
  • R-Lipoic Acid
  • Turmeric (Curcumin)
  • Uridine
  • Vinpocetine
  • Zinc

e) Nootropics for Anxiety

  • Aniracetam
  • Ashwagandha
  • GABA
  • L-Lysine
  • L-Theanine
  • Phenibut
  • Picamilon
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Saint John’s Wort

f) Nootropics for Dream Enhancement, Recovery, and Sleep

  • Arginine
  • Ashwagandha
  • Bacopa
  • Citrulline
  • GABA
  • Glycine
  • L-Tryptophan
  • Magnesium Aspartate
  • Melatonin
  • Mucuna Pruriens
  • Phenibut
  • Picamilon
  • Saint John’s Wort
  • Valerian Root
  • Zinc

Even as Nootropics are a relatively new phenomenon, at least in the public consciousness, the benefits they offer humanity in the form of better brain health and enhanced cognition means that they will gain an even stronger foothold in the coming years.

After all, who would not want to have enhanced memory, learning capacity, be more productive, motivated, focused, and full of awareness, and mental energy.

Moreover, the fact that there is more interest in Nootropics means that more research will be conducted on the drugs to make them even more safe for human consumption.

As for all the myths about the drugs, it is just a matter of time, before they are inundated with accurate data proving nootropics are the drugs that give us that superhuman performance levels we have craved for so long.

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