Nootropics are nutritional compounds or drugs that improve the brain function of people, both the general healthy population and those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.
Specifically, nootropics claim to boost your memory, motivation, creativity, alertness, and overall problem-solving processes. Notably, nootropics also may be able to reduce age-related declines in cognitive function.
Below we discuss the benefits of nootropics and the side effects of them.
1Modafinil can reduce drowsiness and improve brain function. Both a 1997 and 2003 study showed that Modafinil improves memory and attention in sleep-deprived adults and reduces the feeling of fatigue (1, 2).
A 1995 study also demonstrated that modafinil improves the ability to accomplish goals and manage resources, also known as executive functioning (3).
2Adderall enhances working memory, attention, and behavior. A 2015 study showed that Adderall increases brain chemicals such as noradrenaline and dopamine to stimulate and improve working memory, attention and behavior (4).
Another 2015 study published in the International Review of Neurobiology showed that Adderall promoted wakefulness, optimism and reduced appetite in normal people (5).
Lastly, a meta-review of 48 studies found that amphetamines significantly improved people’s ability to control their behavior and enhanced short-term memory (6).
3Noopept can promote the growth of new brain cells. Studies show this synthetic nootropic improves memory by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels in the brain. BDNF promotes the growth of new brain cells and can help the brain form and retrieve memories (7, 8).
4Nicotine increases motor function and boosts alertness. Nicotine is a natural plant-derived nootropic that has been shown to improve attention, motor function and alertness, both in normal populations and those with poorer natural cognitive functioning (9, 10).
It has also been found to improve motor function. A 2004 study even showed that chewing nicotine gum, such as Nicorette, is linked to better handwriting speed and fluidity (11).
5Caffeine stimulates your nervous system to make you feel less tired and more alert. The evidence for caffeine is solid with studies illustrating that caffeine can improve your memory, reaction times, energy, and overall cognitive function (12, 13).
Caffeine is hypothesized to work by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain to hide signs of fatigue while stimulating the brain and central nervous system.
Unfortunately, if you eat meat you’re not likely to see the same benefits because meat eaters have adequate levels of creatine already (16).
Regardless, creatine is one of the most researched and safest supplements on the market today.
7Bacopa Monnieri is a medicinal herb used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve thinking. 2006 research tested Bacopa’s ability to increase memory and thinking skills. In both healthy populations and the elderly Bacopa was seen to It’s been shown to be effective in boosting both (17, 18).
8Alpha GPC has neuroprotective properties. A 2003 study showed that Alpha-GPC can mitigate cognitive decline as we age (19).
It does this by increasing the activity of acetylcholine in the brain, which is a chemical used by nerves to communicate with each other (neurotransmitter). It provides your body with glycerophosphate, which is a substance in the membranes of nerve cells that supports brain health and function.
9CDP Choline improves verbal memory. Research from 1997 shows that supplementation with CDP-Choline can improve memory (and verbal memory in particular) (20).
Like alpha-GPC, CDP-choline provides the brain with choline which helps the brain communicate better with each other.
10L-theanine reduces stress and promotes relaxation. L-theanine is an amino acid that’s a major component of black and green tea. One study found that consuming L-theanine can increase both mental focus and arousal (21).
Another 2007 study found that subjects who took L-theanine reduced overall stress responses (22).
11Blueberry enhances cognitive abilities and protects the brain. Blueberries contain pigments known as anthocyanins and, while studies are done on blueberries, the following likely applies to all dark blue and blackberries.
Both of the above studies noted improvements in memory and those improvements correlated directly with BDNF levels and activity. Now, extending that to human studies, we find that juices that have a decent anthocyanin content (500 mg or more) improve spatial recall and verbal memory in the elderly compared to juices without anthocyanins (25, 26).
12Maca helps increase focus. 2006 research published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science showed that maca helps to boost focus by stimulating the pituitary gland and hypothalamus (27).
13Panax Ginseng improves brain function and calmness. One 2010 study tested a 400 milligram (mg) dose of Panax Ginseng on 30 participants for 8 days. Participants showed improved calmness and the ability to do math (28).
14Rhodiola Rosea helps speed up mental processing. Rhodiola Rosea is often used in traditional Chinese medicine and is hypothesized to speed mental processing by reducing fatigue, like caffeine (29).
Rhodiola is anecdotally used as an adaptogenic herb to reduce stress, which can explain the evidence that Rhodiola acts as a nootropic as well.
15S-Adenosyl methionine improves brain health by reducing the decline in cognitive function and improving the effectiveness of antidepressants (32). S-Adenosyl methionine (SAMe) is used to create and destroy biological substrates including proteins, fats, and hormones. Researchers illustrated that adding a SAMe supplement to patients already taking depression medications improved their remission rates by 14% (33).
Building upon that, researchers recently found that SAMe may be just as effective as antidepressant medications in some patients (34).
16Ginkgo Biloba can increase focus. The way Ginkgo Biloba is hypothesized to work is through its ability to increase blood flow to the brain allowing it to increase your brain’s ability to focus and retain memories (35).
There are studies showing that Ginkgo Biloba supplements reduce age-related decline in cognitive skills (36, 37). Specifically, one study in healthy middle-aged people showed significant improvements in memory and thinking skills (38)
17Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can increase memory. Your brain right now is about 25% DHA because DHA’s role is to maintain the structure and the function of your brain (39).
Even more impressive, 90% of the omega-3 fatty acids located in the brain are DHA (40).
It’s no surprise that the consumption of DHA supplements is related to increased memory, reaction times, and problem-solving skills in the average population and those with a mild decline in brain function (41, 42).
18Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) that improves mood. EPA protects the brain mainly through its anti-inflammatory properties because while DHA is linked with improved brain function, EPA is not (43).
However, in patients with depression, EPA supplementation is linked to improved mood (44).
19Resveratrol is an antioxidant that protects the hippocampus and improves memory. Foundational research hints that supplementing with resveratrol can improve memory because resveratrol can save your hippocampus from deterioration (44).
The hippocampus is the long and short-term memory center of the brain, so treatment with resveratrol can slow down the decline in brain function associated with aging (45).
In humans, one group of researchers saw the safety and efficacy of resveratrol in increasing the memory of older adults over 6 months (48).
1Nicotine, modafinil, and Adderall can be very addictive. Due to the potent effects on brain chemicals, these nootropics tend to be abused and highly addictive. Once abused, the side effects start to pile up fast.
2Adderall can cause anxiety. It has also been linked to low sex drive and can even increase the likelihood of heart attacks when mixed with alcohol.
3Ginkgo Biloba can cause nausea, dizziness, stomach pain and even rashes in some individuals.
4Ginseng interacts with many medications and can cause rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure in certain people.
5Caffeine supplementation can be counterproductive. If you consume too much caffeine, you’re at greater risk of experience anxiety, nausea, and trouble sleeping. Going further, caffeine is a stimulant and can be life-threatening in mega-doses or for those with cardiovascular conditions.
6Bacopa Monnieri may cause gastrointestinal distress. Studies of Bacopa Monnieri can occasionally cause IBS like symptoms such as diarrhea or an upset stomach (53).
7A majority of these nootropics are not 100% proven to work. This may be due to a lack of research or conflicting research. To start, fish oil research shows mixed effects on brain health because it does not work consistently from study to study.
Resveratrol shows promise. However, there are not enough studies on humans to confirm resveratrol nootropic effects. Resveratrol supplements show a lot of promise to improve memory and brain function in animals, yet in humans, it isn’t clear what the effects are.
Lastly, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated that more research on Rhodiola Rosea needs to be conducted to confirm Rhodiola’s effects in humans because of inconsistent research results on the effect of Rhodiola Rosea on the brain.
Clinically effective doses for 55% Bacoside Bacopa Monnieri are between 250 and 300mg.
The clinically effective dosage for CDP-choline has been shown to be between 250 and 1000mg. Under 500mg seems to result in more focus where above 500mg seems to better for inducing the neuroprotective properties of CDP-choline.
The clinically effective dosage of alpha-gpc is between 250 and 1200mg. For increasing cognition, 250mg the same effects as 500mg (54).
Modafinil doses range from between 50-200mg once per day. Always start at the lower dose and titrate up.
Generally, a dose around 200 to 400 mg per day is considered safe and beneficial
Phosphatidylserine taken three times per day with dosages of 100 mg has been seen to reduce age-related decline in cognitive function (55). For the general population, doses up to 400 mg have been seen as helpful and safe. In the future, an optimal dosage may be discovered because to confirm the use of phosphatidylserine as a nootropic requires further research.
For fish oil, more research is needed to find the optimal dosage of EPA and DHA. That being said, many studies do find that taking 1 gram per day of combined DHA and EPA benefits brain health (56).
Resveratrol is seen to be beneficial when taken daily at a dose of 200 mg (57). This study was done over 26 weeks and saw improvement in memory, so this dosage is proven to be safe and effective. Because more research is needed to confirm the nootropics of resveratrol, this is the ideal amount to supplement with for now.
Adderall should be dosed based on your prescription needs.
Are nootropics safe? Yes, most nootropics are considered safe for long-term use. However, exercise caution with prescription nootropics such as Adderall and modafinil can be dangerous. Of course, always consult with your doctor before consuming any nootropics.
What is the best nootropic? There is no best nootropic as all of them enhance different parts of the brain. Some work on learning, others memory, and others work on focus. However, the best overall, with the lowest side effects is the prescription medication modafinil.
How long do nootropics last? Depending on the nootropic, they can last from 2-12 hours and beyond.
Are nootropics legal? Depending on the country, some nootropics may be illegal. Always check your countries laws before purchasing anything.
How do nootropics work? Nootropics work in many pathways. Often times they can increase brain chemical levels to enhance neuron connection, growth and speed of information travel. They also can work on hormones such as dopamine and serotonin.
Do you need to cycle nootropics? For the most part, no you do not need to cycle nootropics. In fact, it may even be counterproductive since a lot of them need to build up levels in the brain to stimulate their full effects.
Are nootropics vegan-friendly? Yes, most if not all nootropics are considered vegan-friendly.
Are nootropics addictive? Yes and no. Some nootropics are chemically addictive such as nicotine and Adderall. However, they can all be psychologically addicting, especially if you find you become a better version of yourself when on them.
Do nootropics have side effects? Yes, some nootropics do have side effects. The most common are headaches, nausea, and intestinal distress.
What is the worst nootropic? Piracetam, while popular, is believed to be the worst nootropic. Its been around for decades and there is no human evidence to support any of its claims. Furthermore, many users find it does nothing more than cause headaches.
Nootropics show a real benefit in preventing dementia, which affects 1 in 2 adults over 80.
Additionally, there is some research-supported excitement that nootropics can significantly increase your memory and overall cognitive function. However, most nootropics seem to benefit people who have mental conditions the most.
This is an exciting field because it is new and the future promises to provide further insights as well as concrete evidence towards the use of nootropics to drastically improve your cognitive function in the future.