Nootropics or “smart drugs” are natural and man-made compounds used to potentially enhance cognitive performance in healthy adults. They’re taken to boost attention, memory, learning, creativity, motivation, mood, and overall cognitive function.
Most nootropics are used off-label, meaning that their intended use is to address some other health issue rather than improve mental performance in healthy individuals.
Nootropics have been steadily growing in popularity over the past decade, especially among students, working professionals, and anyone else looking to gain a mental edge in today’s competitive world.
Please keep in mind that the evidence of nootropics boosting cognition is a bit thin and anecdotal generally speaking, and it’s always best to consut your doctor beforehand.
Read on for a closer look at the best nootropics and the science behind their potential benefits.
Caffeine is arguably the most popular nootropic in the world. It’s taken regularly in the form of coffee and tea by billions of people. Caffeine is also naturally found in guarana, cocoa, and chocolate, and added to many other drinks and foods, such as energy drinks and Coca-Cola.
Caffeine is classified as a stimulant — a drug that increases brain activity. In doing so, it enhances energy, focus, and wakefulness, improves mood and motivation and decreases tiredness.
Caffeine works mainly by blocking the brain’s adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that makes you feel sleepy and tired, which means caffeine prevents these effects by stopping adenosine from binding to its receptors.
Found in tea leaves, L-theanine is an amino acid-like compound that’s largely responsible for the calm, focused feeling you get from drinking tea.
Numerous studies have shown that L-theanine reduces anxiety, promotes calmness, and enhances alertness. L-theanine is often combined with caffeine in what’s known as a “nootropic stack” — a combination of multiple nootropics that work together in synergy.
This is a popular stack because L-theanine helps counteract the anxiety-related side effects of caffeine while adding to its nootropic benefits, such as increased focus.
This also explains why tea — which contains both caffeine and L-theanine — has a calming, yet energising effect.
L-theanine is believed to work primarily by influencing the brain’s neurotransmission. For example, it may boost the effects of serotonin, dopamine, and the calming neurotransmitter GABA.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a natural compound found in cannabis. Unlike its close cousin THC, CBD is non-intoxicating, so it doesn’t cause the high associated with cannabis use. People use CBD oil and other cannabidiol-infused products for a long list of health benefits.
Strictly speaking, CBD is not a nootropic because it doesn’t boost your cognition outright. However, what it can do is counteract the negative cognitive effects of other issues, namely anxiety.
In other words, for people that suffer from anxiety, CBD can result in a mental performance boost. There’s also some early evidence that CBD may have antidepressant properties, which offers another potential way that it can improve cognitive function.
CBD works through multiple mechanisms, including interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), as well as serotonin and GABA receptors.
You’ll find CBD (cannabidiol) comes in a variety of product types the most popular being CBD oil.
Creatine is an amino acid that helps recycle ATP, the body’s main energy molecule. Most of the creatine is stored in our muscles where it helps generate energy during high-intensity, anaerobic activity such as sprinting or weightlifting.
Creatine is made by the body and also found in red meat and fish. However, it’s best known as the most popular and effective sports performance supplement.
Despite this, there’s some evidence that creatine’s role in energy production can also have nootropic benefits.
Several studies have shown that creatine supplementation may improve short-term memory and overall cognitive function in healthy adults. Coupled with its remarkable safety, this makes creatine one of the simplest, evidence-based ways to enhance mental performance.
Bacopa is a herb with a long history of use in India’s traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It belongs to a group of plants called adaptogens, which increase the body’s resistance to various forms of physical and mental stress.
Bacopa is mostly used to improve learning and memory, with some studies providing evidence for these and related cognitive effects in healthy adults and those with Alzheimer’s disease.
A meta-analysis of nine research studies also concluded that Bacopa can “improve cognition.”
Scientists believe Bacopa works primarily by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays an important role in memory and attention. Bacopa also appears to enhance blood flow to the brain.
Ginkgo is another popular nootropic herb used to improve memory and attention. It’s been utilised by traditional Chinese medicine for millennia to treat asthma, poor blood circulation, and cognitive issues.
Some studies show that Ginkgo can improve memory and other aspects of cognitive function in people with dementia as well as healthy adults.
Gingko works by dilating blood vessels, which can increase blood flow to the brain, and might affect neurotransmitter levels. Like Bacopa, it also seems to block the enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Nicotine is a natural compound found in tobacco and other plants of the nightshade family. Nicotine is an all-around nootropic capable of improving memory, focus, mood, reaction time, inducing pleasure, and reducing stress and anxiety.
It’s the main ingredient responsible for the pleasant, addictive effects of cigarettes and vape products.
Nicotine seems to work by activating the brain’s nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.
The key problem with nicotine is that your body builds up a tolerance to it quite quickly. You can also get addicted to nicotine and suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it.
That’s why it’s not that popular in the nootropic community and mostly used on a short-term basis.
Racetams are a class of synthetic nootropics considered by some to be the holy grail of cognitive enhancement. They’re used to improve learning, memory, mood, and overall mental performance.
Piracetam is the most researched and widely used racetam. In fact, the very term nootropic was first used by researchers to describe the effects of piracetam.
Other racetams are considered stronger and include oxiracetam, aniracetam, pramiracetam, phenylpiracetam, and the Russian drug Noopept (omberacetam).
Racetams seem to improve memory and cognitive deficits, although most of the research evidence is restricted to people with brain injury, dementia, and other causes of cognitive impairment.
Researchers are not entirely sure how racetams work, but they’ve been shown to influence various aspects of neurotransmission.
For example, piracetam seems to improve the usage of glucose by neurons and promote the production of neurotransmitters and other compounds in the brain.
Modafinil is a man-made prescription drug used to treat excessive daytime sleepiness caused by narcolepsy, sleep work shift disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea.
Modafinil functions as a stimulant, helping you stay awake and counteracting the negative cognitive effects of sleep deprivation such as impaired memory and attention.
These properties have made it a popular off-label nootropic, especially among students looking to finish assignments and prepare for tests.
Researchers believe it works by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine, increasing its levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with many functions, including sleep regulation.
Amphetamines are synthetic stimulants. Amphetamine-based drugs, such as Adderall, are used as prescription medications for narcolepsy, obesity, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Adderall and other amphetamines are also used by healthy individuals to boost attention, motivation, energy, mood, and overall cognitive performance. Like modafinil, Adderall is an especially popular “study drug.”
Amphetamines work by inhibiting the transporters of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, increasing their concentrations in the brain.
Despite their widespread nootropic use, researchers believe that amphetamines don’t have major effects on cognition. Instead, people may feel like their mental performance improves on amphetamines due to their mood and motivation-boosting properties.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is an edible medicinal mushroom that grows on trees.
It has been demonstrated to improve cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment and may have antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.
As a nootropic, Lion’s Mane is mostly used to enhance memory and improve issues such as brain fog, low mood, and anxiety.
Lion’s Mane works by increasing neural growth factor (NGF), a protein that promotes neurogenesis (growth of new neurons in the brain) and regulates overall neuron health.
A compound found in the moss Huperzia serrata, huperzine-A is a natural acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Such substances suppress the enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Huperzine-A is commonly used to enhance memory. Studies show that Huperzine-A may enhance memory in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A study of healthy adolescents also reported improvements in memory and learning.
Also known as Asian ginseng, Panax ginseng is another adaptogenic herb with a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine.
As a nootropic, ginseng is used to enhance mental energy, alertness, mood, and memory, particularly during times of fatigue or stress.
There’s some research evidence to back these effects. One study found that Panax ginseng improved memory and promoted calmness in healthy adults, while another reported improved cognitive performance during a stressful task.
Panax ginseng might also improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease patients.
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb used to boost energy levels during times of fatigue.
Although the quality and validity of some of these studies has been questioned, it hasn’t stopped nootropic enthusiasts from using this popular herb.
Rhodiola appears to work mainly by reducing the activity of enzymes that break down neurotransmitters.
Also known as CDP-choline, citicoline is a form of choline, an essential nutrient.
Choline is involved in healthy brain function, particularly as one of the building blocks for:
- the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a role in memory, attention, motivation, and other processes
- the phospholipid phosphatidylcholine, which is a key component of cell membranes
As a nootropic, citicoline is mostly used to improve memory, but also attention, brain fog, energy, and overall cognitive function.
Studies suggest that citiclone may help mitigate cognitive decline caused by ageing, stroke, dementia, and other issues, improving memory and other markers of brain function.
N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine (NALT) is the most effective form of L-tyrosine, an amino acid required to produce the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
These key brain chemicals can decrease during times of stress and fatigue, leading to a drop in cognitive performance.
That’s why NALT is used to improve mental performance in people who are sleep deprived, fatigued, or stressed in some other way.
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is a form of L-carnitine, a natural compound involved in cellular energy production. It has several beneficial effects in the brain, such as:
- Helping to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine
- Supporting optimal nerve growth factor (NGF) function
Nootropic enthusiasts use ALCAR to improve memory, focus, mental energy, and overall cognitive function.
Although there isn’t much evidence in healthy adults, studies in people with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment suggest that ALCAR can help with cognitive decline.
Final Thoughts – Not a Genius Pill
Nootropics are natural and synthetic substances that can enhance your cognitive function in one way or another.
Although they’ve yet to completely enter the limelight, nootropics have been slowly gaining popularity as people look to maintain peak mental performance in the face of diminished sleep, stress, and other pressures of modern life.
Having said that, the most important thing to realise with nootropics is that they’re not a free ticket to becoming a genius.
Once again please take into consideration that evidence of nootropics boosting cognition is a bit thin and anecdotal generally speaking, the bottom line is that you should be careful when using nootropics, and it’s worth consulting your doctor before using and keep an eye on new research studies.