The word nootropic is derived from the greek words noos, meaning mind, and trope, meaning turning. In essence, nootropic perform one function: they “turn” your mind to boost your cognitive abilities and make your mental state better in some way, shape, or form.
Different groups classify different drugs as nootropics, but for the most part, everyone agrees that nootropics have two defining characteristics:
- They improve your cognitive abilities; and
- They have very few or no side effects when used in the recommended dosages.
Keep in mind that nootropics are not vitamins or minerals. Usually, they’re synthetic chemicals produced in laboratories. They’re not essential to your body’s functions. They’re “add-ons” in that you use them and you feel better, but if you don’t, it’s not like your body is lacking anything otherwise required. We do advocate getting the proper amount of essential nutrients, and minerals as a starting point to improved cognitive health. We’ll talk about generally optimizing brain health (your cognitive baseline) through sleep, diet, and exercise a later post.
We’re being relatively vague here because there is a wide spectrum of nootropics available today. And they all claim to do different things for you. It’s up to you to pick the right nootropic for what you want to accomplish. Later posts will cover the different types of nootropics, as well as specific nootropics to use in certain scenarios – for studying, for sharpness, for recovery after partying, etc.
After understanding what a nootropic is, the next question that begs to be asked is, “How do they work?”
How do nootropics work?
Every nootropic affects your body in a different way. It’s important to note the distinction between “results” and commonly referred to as “working mechanisms.” One thing that we also want to note is that nootropics are a very subjective experience, and although one person may have great results with a particular nootropic, another person may have no result when using that same nootropic.
If the working mechanism for a drug is known, we know exactly how it affects your body. As in, if you ingest drug A, it affects receptors X, Y, and Z. This modification to receptors X, Y, and Z produces effects B, C, and D.
If the working mechanism for a drug isn’t known, then we only know A, B, C, and D in the above example. For most nootropics, there is speculation behind the working mechanisms, but there has not been any conclusive evidence of these claims. As such, the working mechanisms being discussed are theories, not fact.
Don’t let this turn you off of nootropics as a safe way to improve your mental function. The human body is incredibly complex, and we haven’t even begun to understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. We don’t even know the working mechanisms for some of the most popular drugs sold worldwide.
Take acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) as an example. There have been tens of thousands of studies conducted with this drug, and after studying human reactions to it over, and over, and over again, we’ve come to these three conclusions:
- Acetaminophen helps to relieve minor aches and pains in the body
- Acetaminophen helps to relieve headaches
- Acetaminophen does not help with inflammation
You’d think that after tens of thousands of studies, a working mechanism would have been found, right? Unfortunately not – the working mechanism for acetaminophen isn’t known, and it doesn’t look like we’ll know exactly how it works anytime soon.
Take this example and apply it to nootropics. The working mechanisms usually aren’t known, but after observing empirical evidence over, and over, and over again, we can come to some pretty consistent conclusions about them.
Are Nootropics Legal? Legality of nootropics
Now, we know what you’re thinking; If these drugs claim to enhance your cognitive abilities but the working mechanisms aren’t 100% known, are they legal?
The answer is both yes and no.
Yes: most nootropics are perfectly legal to possess. This means that if a police officer were to see you taking one and stop you, he’d likely be suspicious (nootropics often come in the form of white powder), but if he were to conduct a field test on it, you would not be arrested or issued a ticket. Your package won’t be taken if inspected by customs, etc.
No: like dietary supplements, most nootropics aren’t approved by the FDA. All countries vary on the legality of nootropics. In Russia, most are legal, and many are prescription medicines. We suggest that you research the laws of your country regarding possession of a particular nootropic before you order. Those are just two examples. Always do your research on your specific country’s laws before purchasing any nootropic supplements.
What should I expect from nootropics?
The cool (and sometimes off-putting) thing about nootropics is that everyone reacts differently to each one. This is pretty standard with drugs in general – if we take marijuana as an example, it relaxes some people, whereas it makes other anxious and paranoid. It’s your personal reaction.
In general, the effects of nootropics are fairly mild. They’re not meant to be stimulants like adderall, ritalin, vyvanse, or concerta. Instead, they aim to take your “base level” of cognitive performance and bring it up. Go from being able to give 100% when not taking nootropics, to being able to give 105% or 110% when you are. If you focus in on how the nootropic is affecting you, you’ll be able to tell, but with the vast majority of nootropics, you won’t feel over-stimulated or anything of that nature, sometime the effects are rather subtle. One thing that we suggest is tracking the efficacy of the nootropics you take to really determine the value you are getting from nootropics; this is covered later.
Also, you should expect no comedown and no come up. Nootropics work in the background. When you dose, you won’t feel a rush (although some do report a “tingly feeling”), and when the nootropic starts to wear off, you won’t feel like you’re crashing. Instead, you’ll slowly climb to where your cognitive abilities are enhanced, and then gradually ease off of that as the chemical is depleted until you’re at your normal baseline mental state.
The Different Types / Categories of Nootropics
Every nootropic out there can be categorized into a certain subset of nootropics. Here are the main ones below – all popular nootropics will fall into one of these categories. We’ll talk about some more specific nootropics later. If you’d like to skip ahead to the best nootropics for beginners, click here
Racetams (One our of favorites)
All racetams (about 20 in total, depending on who you ask) are derived from the king: piracetam. After being synthesized in the early 1970s, piracetam quickly took its place at the vanguard of the nootropic movement – if you ask someone to name a nootropic, piracetam will always be the first answer.
The formula for piracetam is C6H10N2O2, and most of its derivatives such a aniracetam, oxiracetam, and pramiracetam have certain elements added or removed from that base structure. Good ol’ piracetam provides a wide range of cognitive enhancements including improved memory, improved verbal articulation, improved long and short term memory, etc.
More often than not, a racetam is the base of any nootropic stack. Users often add other nootropics to enhance the effects of a racetam.
If you’re diving into nootropics and want the surefire bet, choose piracetam. But if you have certain needs – maybe you want more energy than piracetam, or you need a creative boost – then it’s worth checking out its derivatives. Despite their formulaic similarities, users report substantially different effects when taking them.
Choline (usually paired with racetams)
Choline isn’t usually used by itself in the nootropic landscape, but it’s a very common addition to any nootropic combination (stack). There are two reasons for this, choline itself gives you additional cognitive enhancements, and adding choline is theorized to boost the effects of any racetam that increases acetylcholine uptake. Choline was once classified as vitamin B4 and has since been reclassified as an essential nutrient and is metabolized by the body in acetylcholine.
Before going further I want to note that acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter that is thought to be responsible for decision making and certain types of learning. Many nootropics have some effect on the way the body processes or interacts with acetylcholine and those effects generally have cognitive benefits when utilized responsibly.
To put it simply, adding in a choline source means that you have an increased amount of acetylcholine available in your body. Having plenty of acetylcholine is said to have cognitive enhancing benefits all by itself, but they’re usually amplified when you have another nootropic in the mix.
Also, there have been studies that suggest piracetam (and most other racetams) deplets the acetylcholine you have in your brain. If your body does not have enough acetylcholine, the end result is that you’ll often end up with headaches. The same works the other way, which is another reason why almost no one adds in a choline source without adding in a nootropic, as having too much acetylcholine (or anything else for that matter) is generally not a good thing. They balance each other out perfectly to give you cognitive enhancement and prevent you from getting headaches; it’s a symbiotic relationship that requires balancing.
You’ll notice that there are two terms mentioned here – acetylcholine and choline sources. Choline sources are the actual supplements you take, and once ingested, they increase your acetylcholine levels. Every choline source will produce a different amount of acetylcholine. Alpha GPC is considered to be the most potent with highest bioavailability. A rudimentary search will put you on the right track – see what others users have paired with their particular nootropics to balance acetylcholine levels correctly. For more information on choline, check out our beginners guide to choline.
The Natural Ones
Natural nootropics are no different from what you’d referred to as “natural herbs” or “natural remedies”; they are naturally-occurring elements (from plants) that when ingested, provide cognitive enhancing effects.
The effects of natural nootropics vary greatly, and by and large, users have vastly different experiences with each and every one. Some claim they’re straight placebo, whereas others think that they can be even more potent than their human-made counterparts. However, the general consensus is that they’re less potent than synthetic nootropics are.
This shouldn’t turn you off to them as a whole. Although less potent, some natural nootropics provide benefits in some way, shape, or form that synthetic ones can’t match. Generall speaking, because natural nootropics are (by definition) from nature, they are often available at a cheaper price than synthetic nootropics are. No laboratories, purity tests, etc. are needed.
Bacopi Monneri is one of the most prevalent natural nootropics. It acts as a memory and anxiety aid, but effects usually take 6-8 weeks to kick in – this is a great example of natural nootropics being less potent than a synthetic memory or anxiety aid that might take effect within just a couple of days, or even immediately. It’s also a great example of how one can work in a way that its synthetic counterpart can’t – while anti-anxiety nootropics are usually borderline sedative, users report that Bacopi Monneri works “in the background” so that you don’t feel like you’re under the influence.
Other popular natural nootropics are Huperzine-A, and Gingko Biloba. If you’re interested in nootropics but aren’t a fan of the ones produced in laboratories, these three are great jumping-off points.
Smart drugs are where the border between nootropic and drug is tested; some consider smart drugs to be nootropics, whereas others think that they should be heavily regulated just as prescription medications are.
Modafinil is the best example of a smart drug. It’s prescribed in some countries, banned in some, and completely legal in others. It promises a full-blown energy increase similar to adderall, but without the euphoria or other side effects.
Many people think that smart drugs like modafinil aren’t nootropics because of how they affect you. If you take a standard nootropic like piracetam for a month straight and then abruptly stop, you might notice the nootropic not being present, but you won’t have any real side effects. On the other hand, dosing a smart drug like modafinil on a consistent basis and then suddenly stopping might lead to insomnia, lack of focus, etc.
We’re not saying that smart drugs are bad, necessarily. We’re just saying that you shouldn’t expect a subtle effect like other nootropics give you. When you take one, you’ll easily notice the effects, and when you come off of it, you’ll easily notice that you aren’t on it.
Vitamin B & Vitamin B Derivatives
B vitamins are unique in how they affect us. One of the most popular energy drinks, 5 Hour Energy, has vitamin B6 as its main ingredient (albeit 10,000x the RDA) because of the energy boost that it gives to us.
Naturally, with such effects, B vitamins are being explored as nootropics. It’s important to note that vitamin B derivatives aren’t the same thing as B vitamins; they’ve been modified in some way to become something other than the naturally-occurring vitamin. As of 2015, vitamin B derivatives are relatively new. Sulbutiamine is a derivative of vitamin B1 that was originally developed by the Japanese to combat fatigue, and it has the largest user base out of all of them. Picamillion is also a B derived nootropic as it combines niacin (B3) with GABA . More research is needed to conclude anything about B vitamins, but if you’ve had success from taking a B-complex or an energy drink like 5 Hour Energy, they’re worth exploring.
Ampakides are generally seen as piracetam was in the 80s and 90s – interesting, but not researched a whole lot. Actually, out of all of the different types of nootropics, ampakides have the least research done on them.
They appear to work by antagonizing the AMPA and NDMA receptors in your body; this in turn leads to an uptick in glutamate available for your brain to use. Glutamate is said to increase memory span and focus abilities. But again, there hasn’t been a whole lot of research done on ampakides or how they will affect you in the long-term. Only use ampakides if you’re an explorer and willing to ingest something that hasn’t been fully studied.
Peptides are interesting in that they operate similarly to racetams, but aren’t the same thing. There aren’t a whole lot on the market today aside from noopept.
Noopept has quickly earned a reputation for being 1,000x more potent than piracetam while having similar effects. This means that the dosage is a lot smaller – whereas you need 1.6g to 4.8g of piracetam per day, you only need 10mg to 40mg of noopept per day.
Although not as popular as racetams, peptides are worth exploring. Many users report similar effects as racetams, but not identical. Some like peptides more, whereas others stick with racetams. If you don’t like what you feel from a certain racetam, it’s worth exploring peptides.
Many companies have jumped on the nootropic bandwagon and created nootropic blends. These blends are just a bunch of nootropics combined into a single pill, which is similar to stacking nootropics all on your own – just easier.
It’s important to take a look at the ingredients of each blend that you’re considering. Sometimes, there will be ingredients that aren’t nootropics, and other times, there will be a blend of ingredients that you could easily concoct yourself for a fraction of the price. Often times they don’t contain proper dosages of the ingredients to make them worthwhile.
The most popular nootropic blend is Alpha Brain from Onnit; you can check out our Alpha Brain full review and analysis here. By and large, people see success with this blend, but a lot of marketing is put into it – it’s hard to get unbiased information when you look online. We’d recommend starting with pure nootropics first, and if you find one that you like, possibly getting a blend that has your choice nootropic as the #1 ingredient. If there’s something we missed, please let us know so that we can bring our customers the most relevant information possible.
In a follow up blog post we will introduce you to the best nootropics for beginners, and from there we will cover some popular combinations of the individual nootropics in our post on the best nootropic stacks.