A Beginner’s Guide To Understanding Nootropics

Remember that movie Limitless, about a guy who discovers a drug that can unlock the 80% of his brain that humans supposedly don’t use? He becomes a financial wizard, gets tangled up with angry hit men, gets addicted to the drug, experiences some weird side effects, and has to outwit a lot of people who want to kill him.

It was about as realistic as it sounds.

But in recent years, there has been a surge in people taking nootropics, or “smart drugs.”  Those taking these drugs believe they increase their mental stamina and clarity, allowing them to achieve more in less time. While the idea of nootropics isn’t new (the term was coined in 1971), they have increased in popularity as more and more people are interested in “body hacking”   for optimal performance.

So what are these drugs? Are they safe? Who should take them?

In this post, we’re going to break down the  who, what, when and why of nootropics. We’re going to bring clarity to the topic so that you can make informed decisions.

What Exactly Is A Nootropic, and Who Is Taking Them?

According to Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, who created the first nootropic, piracetam, a nootropic must adhere to these rules: 

  1. The substance should help the brain function under disruptive conditions, such as hypoxia (low oxygen) and electroconvulsive shock.
  2. The substance should enhance memory and ability to learn.
  3. The substance should protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, such as anti-cholinergic drugs and barbiturates.
  4. The substance should increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain.
  5. The substance should lack a generalized sedative or stimulatory effect. It should possess few-no side effects and be virtually non toxic.

As Vice puts it

Due to the wide variety of supplements classed as nootropics, there’s no single way of explaining how they work. Broadly speaking, however, nootropics achieve their effects by altering the supply of neurochemicals, enzymes, or hormones in the brain.

In 2013, the Daily Telegraph reported that up to 25% of university students had experimented with Modafinil, which is a drug typically used to treat narcolepsy. They used the drug to stay awake for long periods of time and boost performance while studying for exams.

It’s increasingly common for young techies in Silicon Valley to microdose LSD for improved cognition and creative skills. Many people report that when taken in miniscule doses, LSD drastically improves their ability to get things done.

Of course, most people don’t want to experiment with pharmaceutical or illegal drugs and thus resort to a variety of nootropic supplements which are fully legal and can be beneficial to the brain. These supplements can range from the common, like ginseng, to the exotic, like phenylalanine.

Many people report huge benefits when taking these nootropic supplements, and use them on a regular basis for improved productivity and mental performance.

Think of nootropics as mental steroids, of sorts.

As with all supplements, you should consult with your doctor before using nootropics.

What Types Of Nootropics Are Available (And Why Should You Use Them)?

There are a variety of nootropics widely available that can be taken on a regular basis for increased cognitive performance.


A vast majority of people are significantly deficient in choline, which is a nutrient normally found in eggs, meat, seafood, and dairy products. It is an integral part of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (ACh), which is essential for memory encoding and retrieval, cognition, and mood regulation.

People deficient in ACh may encounter:

  • Low memory capacity
  • Sluggish thinking
  • Overall sense of being in a fog

If you want to increase the amount of choline in your brain, you may want to consider supplementing with Alpha-GPC, choline citrate, or choline bitartrate.

Generally speaking, when it comes to choline, the more inexpensive supplements don’t function as well on their own and need to be combined with racetams to achieve noticeable effects. However, Alpha-GPC or Citicoline can create a noticeable difference even when taken without anything else. Our overall favorite is definitely Alpha-GPC, as it easily crosses the blood-brain barrier.


The racetam family of nootropics contains a variety of different compounds, with piracetam being the most studied and aniracetam and phenylpiracetam being some of the most effective.

Many people say that racetams provide the effects of amphetamines without the wicked crash afterwards.

Racetams stimulate the acetylcholine receptors, as well as stimulating glutamic receptor activity. The end results may be:

  • Improved memory
  • Ability to learn more effectively
  • Increased focus
  • Elevated cognition

Studies have suggested that phenylpiracetam can improve cognition of those recovering from strokes, improve memory and counter depression and improve verbal learning.

Granted, some of these studies are small and in the early stages, but the results have been promising to say the least.

People often take a variety of racetams and stack them together for maximum effectiveness.


This is an amino acid with cognitive- and -relaxation-inducing abilities, found in green and black tea. Additionally, it can be used as a sleep aid (though the impact here is so slight that it probably should not be an initial choice; talk to your doctor to see if you can safely combine it with a sleep aid).

Its effects in increasing cognition and attention tend to be more subtle, so ideally it should be combined with caffeine. Taking 200 mg of each can help enhance the best qualities of both.

Many people speak of combining L-Theanine and coffee for a “clean” caffeine boost, meaning they get the stimulant effects of caffeine without the jitters

You can ingest L-Theanine via green tea (which is the only dietary way to receive it), or via capsule. Green tea grown in the shade is best for this as these leaves tend to be very high in this amino acid.

Unfair Advantage

This is the brand name of something called a “mitochondrial energizer.” Your mitochondria are the little powerhouses that animate your cells.

Unfair Advantage has two extremely helpful ingredients: The first, called CoQ10, enhances cell energy production in your cells, and Active PQQ™ , which promotes both the growth of new mitochondria, and helps the body clear out old ones.

Often, its healthy effects on brain and heart function make it an excellent pre-supplement for your daily workout.

Bacopa monnieri

This is an extract from a water plant located in India. Depending on where you purchase it, it may also be called brahmi (so be careful to not confuse it with other drugs that can go by that name).

The primary effect of bacopa is its ability to enhance memory and lower stress in healthy adults–but note that you probably won’t notice its effects until about four weeks of consistent intake (at last 750 mg daily, taken with a source of fat).

Medical researchers advise users to stop taking bacopa after three months, at only 300 mg per day.

Forskolin and artichoke extract

Forskolin is a plant extract that has been used in Indian forms of medicine for thousands of years. It’s also been suggested to increase cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which is essential for memory formation and better learning.

When combined with artichoke extract, forskolin is even more effective, because of enzymes in the artichoke that break down the cAMP and make it more available to the body.

Be careful, though: Some users get bad headaches and an energy crash when the effects wear off. You can buy a commercial combination of the two called Ciltep.


This is the brand name for a molecule with similar effects as Piracetam. It provides a small cognitive boost after intake and its distinctive contribution is a neuroprotective effect that helps the body heal from stress.

The vast majority of studies  done on Noopept have been within the last fifteen years, and all suggest very positive and helpful insights on the supplement. Many people find it most helpful if consumed with a dose of choline.

Where Can I Find Safe Nootropics, and How Can I Start?

Some nootropic experts say the easiest place to begin is by combining Piracetam with a choline supplement. (Please make sure to talk to your primary care provider first to see if any of these drugs will negatively impact you or have bad reactions with current medications.) 

Moreover, simple regular vitamin intake can be very effective with lots of positive effects. If you do decide to take nootropics, it may be best to do it simultaneously with exercise and better diet–not only will the healthier eating and physical activity be beneficial in themselves, but as you grow healthier the nootropics will have a better effect on your internal makeup.

As far as finding safe nootropics: Common sense is key here. Most of us don’t read labels (or don’t read them closely if we do). Some companies push products with food coloring, fructose, even pieces of metal.

Make sure your nootropics are pure and purchased from companies with high standards. Be wary of purchasing things off of catch-all online stores like Amazon, as well. Anyone can sell anything with little oversight or regulation.

And don’t forget to frequent your local health food store for excellent natural supplements, vitamins, and (hopefully) tasty food, all with the personal interaction and service from committed, face-to-face professionals.


Do you want to have better memory, clearer thinking, relief from anxiety, more energy, and just feel better? Nootropics, like anything, don’t work for everyone, but lots of people are finding them an integral part of a healthful lifestyle. With common sense and patience, you might be one of them!


The Foundation thanks John Hawthorne for submitting the above article for us to re-publish.  To learn more, click here.  

One Response

  1. Nice to see a mention of racetams — many introductory nootropics articles omit this category of smart drugs. There are over 20 different racetams, but not all of them were created as nootropics. And the ones that are considered nootropics each have different cognitive-enhancing properties. This article at https://brighter-health.com/determining-best-racetam-nootropic-for-your-cognitive-goals/ will be of interest to any of your readers that want an introductory-level summary of the different nootropic racetams.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *