Nootropics - Everything You Need to Know

On This Page

    If you are looking to boost your cognitive performance, you have probably heard of nootropics. But what are these substances, and do they work? Let’s find out.

    In today's fast-paced world, people are always looking for ways to boost their mental performance, increase focus and concentration, and enhance memory. This is where nootropics come in. Nootropics, also known as or cognitive enhancers, are substances that are used to enhance cognitive functions, including memory, creativity, motivation, and attention. The popularity of nootropics has been steadily increasing, with many people turning to them to improve their productivity. In this article, we will explore what nootropics are, how they work, and whether they are safe and effective.

    What are nootropics?

    Nootropics are a diverse group of substances that have gained popularity in recent years due to their ability to enhance cognitive functions such as thinking, learning, and memory, especially in cases where these functions are mildly impaired due to normal aging.

    They are of particular interest to healthy individuals looking to increase their intelligence and improve their memory. Nootropics can be of natural origin and are often available in the form of food supplements or herbal extracts. Some examples of natural nootropics include caffeine, L-theanine, and gingko biloba.

    Prescription nootropics, on the other hand, are medications that treat medical or mental health conditions. Regardless of their origin, nootropics are substances that can help people achieve their cognitive goals.

    The history of nootropics

    The history of nootropics can be traced back to the 1960s, when C. G. Giurgea, a chemist and psychologist, developed Piracetam, one of the first cognition-enhancing drugs. Giurgea also coined the term "nootropics" to describe a diverse group of substances that can enhance cognitive functions.

    But what about the word itself? The word "nootropic" comes from the Greek words "nous," meaning mind, and "trepein," meaning “to bend.” Over time, other researchers and scientists began to explore the potential of nootropics, leading to the development of many other cognition-enhancing substances. Today, nootropics continue to be a popular topic of study and research, with many individuals using them to improve their cognitive abilities and enhance their overall quality of life.

    What does a nootropic do?

    Nootropics are defined as compounds that enhance mental functions, such as memory, motivation, concentration, and attention. There are three main types of nootropics: prescription drugs, synthetic or lab-created compounds like Piracetam, and natural and herbal nootropics such as Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng.

    Do nootropics work?

    The question of whether nootropics work is a complex one, as the answer depends on several factors. Research into the effectiveness of different nootropics is ongoing, with some substances showing more promise than others. It is also important to note that the risk-benefit profile of a particular nootropic can vary widely. For example, caffeine is a well-known nootropic that has been extensively researched and has a relatively low risk of adverse effects when used in moderation. Other nootropics, however, may not be as well researched, and their safety and efficacy profiles may be less clear. Prescription drugs that have nootropic effects are evaluated by the FDA for their safety and efficacy.

    Are nootropics safe?

    The use of prescription nootropics by healthy individuals who do not require them for medical reasons is of great concern due to the lack of clinical evidence regarding their efficacy, safety, and social consequences, especially in long-term use.

    In addition, some herbal nootropics have varying safety data, and their long-term effects are not well understood.

    Types of nootropics

    There are three types of nootropics available: prescription, natural/herbal, and synthetic. We will break down each of these in more detail.

    Prescription nootropics

    Prescription nootropics are a type of medication that is designed to treat various medical or mental health conditions. There are several different types of prescription nootropics that are commonly prescribed by doctors. Some of the most common include:

    • Adderall: This is an amphetamine that is prescribed to help people manage symptoms of ADHD. It works by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which can improve focus and attention.
    • Provigil (modafinil): This is another type of prescription nootropic that is a stimulant, which is prescribed to treat conditions such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work sleep disorder.
    • Ritalin (methylphenidate): This is a stimulant medication that is prescribed for people with ADHD, as it can improve focus and attention and reduce impulsivity.

    While prescription nootropics can be effective in treating these conditions, they can also have potential side effects and risks that should be carefully considered before use. It is important to discuss any concerns or questions with a healthcare professional before taking prescription nootropics.

    Synthetic nootropics

    Synthetic nootropics are a class of compounds that are created in a lab and have cognitive-enhancing effects. Synthetic nootropics include a class of drugs known as racetams. Racetams are legal, nonprescription drugs that many users believe enhance cognition, though there is limited research to support any enhancing effects in normal, healthy adults.

    Racetams are structurally similar to a neurotransmitter called GABA. Some common racetams include Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Phenylpiracetam, Piracetam, and Pramiracetam. These compounds are not regulated and can be purchased online or in health food stores as dietary supplements.

    Dietary nootropics

    Dietary nootropics are natural substances that can be found in food, beverages, and other sources. Some common types of dietary nootropics that do not require a prescription include:

    • Caffeine: This stimulant is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. It is commonly found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks. Caffeine can boost attention, alertness, and cognitive performance.
    • Creatine: This amino acid is commonly found in red meat and fish. It is also available as a dietary supplement. Some studies suggest that creatine may influence memory and reasoning abilities.
    • Ginkgo biloba: This herbal extract has been shown to improve cognitive function and may also have neuroprotective effects. It may have an influence on the brain in several ways by supporting cognitive function, fighting brain fog, and improving focus.
    • L-theanine: This amino acid is commonly found in green and black tea. It can also be found in dietary supplements. L-theanine has been shown to boost alertness and cognitive performance.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids: These are polyunsaturated fats found in fish oil supplements and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and cod. Omega-3s have been shown to support brain function, maintain cognitive health, and may even have neuroprotective effects.
    • Panax ginseng: This herb has a long history of traditional use and may improve brain health.
    • Rhodiola: This plant, native to parts of Europe and Asia, has long been used as an herbal adaptogen for boosting energy and managing stress. As a nootropic, it is also used to help improve memory, learning, and brain function.

    We briefly touched upon a few of the most popular dietary nootropics out there, but let’s take a deeper look at the science behind some of these.


    Caffeine is one of the most popular nootropics, despite some disagreement over whether or not it fits the definition. Nevertheless, caffeine is known to enhance alertness and boost attention, which are key components of nootropics.

    Research has shown that caffeine can improve alertness, vigilance, attention, reaction time, and attention, especially when taken in low (~40 mg) to moderate (~300 mg) doses. However, the effects on higher-order executive functions, such as judgment and decision-making, are less consistent.


    Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in our muscles and dietary sources such as meat and fish. It is a popular dietary supplement among athletes and bodybuilders for its role in enhancing physical performance. However, recent studies suggest that creatine may also have cognitive benefits. Some researchers believe that creatine aids cognition by improving energy supply and neuroprotection. There is evidence that oral creatine administration may improve short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning of healthy individuals.


    Nicotine is a highly controversial nootropic due to its association with cigarette smoking, which has led to its negative reputation. Yet it has been found that nicotine can increase alertness in non-smokers, as it primarily acts on the dopamine neurotransmitter, which plays a crucial role in modulating attention, reward-seeking behaviors, drug addictions, and movement. Despite these potential benefits, it is important to note that nicotine is highly addictive and can have harmful effects on health, so its use as a nootropic should be approached with caution.

    Rhodiola Rosea

    Rhodiola rosea is a popular dietary nootropic and a well-known adaptogen. It is believed to support cognitive function and enhance memory and learning. Rhodiola supplementation demonstrated a significant reduction in self-reported stress after 14 days, as well as significant improvements in overall mood.

    Panax Ginseng

    Panax ginseng, also known as Asian Ginseng, has a long history of traditional use. As a nootropic, it may modulate cognitive function in a positive way and may even improve working memory. In this study, 400mg of Panax ginseng improved mental math performance and increased cognitive processing speed in healthy young participants.


    L-theanine is an amino acid that is commonly found in green tea. It has been shown to affect brain functions by managing stress, improving mood, and maintaining normal sleep. L-theanine, at realistic dietary levels, has a significant effect on the general state of mental alertness or arousal. Furthermore, it has been shown to increase alpha activity in the brain, which is known to play an important role in critical aspects of attention and relaxation.

    Omega-3 Fatty acids

    Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, found in fish oil, have been considered nootropics due to their potential brain-boosting benefits. Studies have shown that DHA supports brain health, particularly in terms of cognitive function, memory, and mood.

    What are nootropics used for?

    Nootropics are used to enhance cognitive performance and brain function. They are sometimes referred to asmemory enhancing substances or cognitive enhancers. Most individuals use nootropics to support mental functioning, including thinking, memory, mood, attention, creativity, and motivation.

    How to use nootropics

    Before taking any prescription medication or dietary supplement, it is recommended to consult with a doctor. This can help you understand what to expect from a particular nootropic and identify any potential interactions or risks.

    Additionally, it's essential to be open with your doctor about any other medications or supplements you are taking to avoid negative interactions. It is also crucial to only take the dose that your doctor has recommended or that the manufacturer indicates on the product’s packaging. Using more than the recommended amount may result in unwanted side effects.

    Potential risks and side effects from nootropics

    While nootropics are generally considered safe when taken as directed, potential risks and side effects can vary depending on the specific substance and the dosage used. It is always advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any nootropics.

    What are the long-term effects of nootropics

    As nootropics are a relatively new field, there is still limited research on their long-term effects. With data still emerging, we can not definitively say what those long-term effects would be.

    You're unique. Your supplements should be too.

    Take the quiz
    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.