What are Nootropics?

In 1650, a Lebanese man known only as “Jacob” opened the first coffeehouse in Britain. Despite London’s growing economic success, this first coffee dispensary sprung up in the quaint university town of Oxford.

Within thirteen years there were 83 coffeehouses in London alone with direct impacts on human history. Instead of drinking beer and wine, the great thinkers of Europe were consuming coffee. The scientists, intellectuals, and merchants were feeling focused and energized rather than calm and inebriated.

It’s no wonder the introduction of coffee in Europe coincided with the Scientific Revolution and Age of Reason [1]. The old religious, political, and even financial orders were turned upside down by this drink and we are on the midst of a similar movement with nootropics today.

The substances humans consume have drastic long-term consequences for the cultures and developments that follow. Nootropics are the newest iteration of substances that can allow you to reach a higher cognitive potential and contribute more to society.

What are Nootropics? A Brief Primer

The term “nootropic” was derived by a Romanian scientist named Corneliu Giurgea in 1972 [2].

Nootropics are synthetic or natural compounds to improve cognitive function.

There are very specific characteristics of nootropics, which make substances like caffeine fall outside the scope of the term “nootropic” [3]. Most people consider anything that improves cognition to be a nootropic and we will too (despite the purists’ objections).

Anyone asking “what are nootropics?” can simplify by understanding they are substances that can improve your focus, concentration, memory, learning ability, protect your brain, and perform better mentally. Although the question “what are nootropics?” implies a novice understanding, this article can still help moderate to advanced users.

Common Misconceptions

As a beginner to nootropics, you’ve probably been exposed to a few misconceptions about smart drugs and nootropics. This section is Q&A style to provide direct answers to your questions. Below, you’ll find a place for beginners to start using nootropics.

Q: Are nootropics a Limitless pill?
A: Not exactly. The film Limitless popularized smart drugs and cognitive enhancement, but this is an exaggerated depiction. Any attempt to sell a Limitless pill is a marketing attempt to separate you from your hard earned money.

what are nootropics

What are nootropics? Not this

Q: Are stimulants (like Adderall) nootropics?
A: Not really. While Adderall and similarly strong stimulants can improve focus and concentration, many studies suggest they harm cognitive function [4]. If you are interested in learning more about this, we suggest you view the Yerkes-Dodson law [5].

Q: Are nootropics snake oil?
A: It depends. Most individual compounds (such as creatine, piracetam, or bacopa) have more research than blended nootropics (such as Alpha Brain or CILTEP). Many of the nootropic compounds work in theory and practice, but there are also many products that are way too expensive and do not provide any profound effects.

Q: Are nootropics legal?
A: Most nootropics are legal to use or considered in a legal gray area. It is considered illegal to use drugs like modafinil without a prescription in some countries, but there is little evidence of government organizations carrying out any criminal action.

Q: Are nootropics safe?
A: Every nootropic has a relatively safe dosage range to start, but each unique person will react with chemical compounds differently. One safe way to start would be to use the Alexander Shulgin method [6]. You take a fraction of a whole dose to rule out allergy, then half dose to rule out negative reactions, and finally take a full recommended dosage.

Q: Do nootropics work long term?
A: Yes. Many nootropics have research to indicate that they work long-term. Bacopa monnieri is one example, which is known to improve cognitive function for at least 12 weeks [7]. Unfortunately, funding multi-year nootropic studies is not easy so there are few studies beyond one year. It is plausible to say many nootropics work long-term beyond one year, however.

Q: How do I know if nootropics are working?
A: Many nootropics will come with a distinct “feeling”, which is often subjective and hard to quantify. Although many beginners to nootropics desire to have feeling from the smart drugs, not all of them will. In fact, some of the most well-researched nootropics (such as creatine or bacopa) will likely provide no subjective “feeling” at all.

Tracking the subjective feeling via a journal will help you to better understand how nootropics impact you. Another method is to use cognitive tests and metrics such as Quantified Mind and Cambridge Brain Sciences. If you want more information on this, Lesson 1 of our free 5-day course covers this topic in-depth.

Q: What nootropic is a good place to start?
A: This will depend highly on your goals. We have provided a few recommendations in the section below.

Beginner Nootropics

Now that you’ve had a brief primer on nootropics, you can begin enhancing your cognitive abilities and hopefully contributing to our next cognitive revolution. Our ancestors had caffeine at their disposal, but as you will see, we have so much more.

Caffeine and L-Theanine – if the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th century knew about L-theanine, they might have produced even greater works than they did. The combination of caffeine and L-theanine is one of the most well-researched nootropics to start with. Repeated evidence suggests L-theanine can reduce negative side effects of caffeine while enhancing the focus and attention [8].

Bulletproof Coffee – a new take on an old treat, this popular craze (also known as butter coffee) has substantial scientific credence. By using MCT oil (or coconut oil) and butter in your coffee, it produces ketones like beta hydroxybutyrate, which aid in focus and concentration.

Piracetam and Choline – the nootropic that started it all is a synthetic compound called piracetam. Discovered in the 1960s, it now has decades of research and plenty of positive evidence that it improves memory formation and learning ability.

Some evidence suggests adding choline (such as CDP choline or alpha GPC) can improve memory even further, but this is individualistic and not necessary for everyone.

Aniracetam – from the same family of drugs as piracetam, the aniracetam option is fat soluble, has a shorter effect, but can be stimulating and anecdotally helps to enhance creativity. There are several drugs in this family that are more potent than piracetam, but aniracetam is the most well-researched.

Creatine – despite the bodybuilder stereotypes, creatine is a great place to begin if you are a beginner. It has a high quantity of research in favor (especially for vegetarians and vegans) and there are relatively few side effects. The only exception would be people who already have kidney or renal health problems.

Adaptogenic Herbs – an entire class of drugs called “adaptogens” are said to improve the body’s reaction to stress. Whether it is the stress that comes from your work, family life, or travel, there are numerous well-studied options.

Many of these herbs have been used for thousands of years. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen used by Viking soldiers and people in harsh climates of Siberia. Ashwagandha is a plant from traditional Ayurvedic medicine used to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress in India. Herbs like panax ginseng have made it into mainstream and popular energy drinks.

A New Version of Yourself

With the use of these substances you can improve your focus at work, enhance your creative thinking and learning ability, while also improving your mood and protecting your brain from long-term decline.

Nootropics and smart drugs will not completely change your life, but they will allow you to achieve more and contribute to society in a meaningful way.

References (Click to Expand)
  1. Standage, Tom. “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” Bloomsbury, 2006. Accessed December 29, 2016.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4541214
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corneliu_E._Giurgea
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24344115
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Shulgin
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22747190
  8. httpss://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24946991


Nootropedia is meant to be a resource for individuals researching drugs and supplements that are good for brain health, otherwise known as nootropics, and thus we are the Nootropics Encyclopedia. Because of our in-depth coverage of this topic, our community has requested that we cover other brain health topics and "lifehacks" so that has become the focus of Nootropedia.