What are Nootropics? The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Cognitive Enhancers

3-oxypyridine nootropic
Key Takeaways:
  • “Nootropics” generally refers to any cognitive enhancing supplement that is non-toxic, non-addictive, and neuroprotective

  • The first nootropic, piracetam, was synthesized in 1964. Since then, the category has grown to include hundreds of compounds

  • Many nootropics have solid clinical evidence that they can enhance cognition (others, not so much)

  • Nootropics supplements can potentially help with any number of cognitive functions, such as memory, mood, attention, alertness, focus, learning, and processing speed

  • Some nootropics are created in labs, others occur naturally

What are Nootropics? The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Cognitive Enhancers

The word Nootropic is a relatively loose term for any cognitive enhancing supplement. These are natural or synthetic compounds that can help with various mental processes, from focus to memory, to mood.

Some nootropics can treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), depression, and anxiety, while others may have long-term benefits for brain health and cognitive function.

Some nootropics have pretty noticeable, immediate effects, while others are very subtle and have a cumulative impact.

What Are Nootropics?

The term “nootropics” was first coined by Romanian chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972. Dr. Giurgea synthesized the first nootropic, piracetam, and is considered the grandfather of this field.1Corneliu E. Giurgea, Wikipedia

By Dr. Giurgea’s strict definition, a nootropic is any substance that can enhance mental processes while at the same time protecting the brain from injury. Nootropics should have very few side effects and low toxicity.

However, the modern definition of nootropics is a bit looser and covers over a hundred natural and synthetic compounds.

We should point out that “smart drugs” and amphetamines such as Adderall and Ritalin are NOT considered nootropics due to their negative side-effects and potential toxicity.

Today, millions of people worldwide are starting to turn to nootropics for a safe and sustainable way to enhance cognitive performance and prevent cognitive decline.

Nootropic Stacks

What Are Nootropic Stacks, Best Nootropic Stacks, Natural Nootropic Stacks
Many nootropic cognitive enhancers work best when paired with other complementary nootropics.

Combinations of nootropics are called “stacks.” Most users will take multiple nootropics together for complementary and overlapping effects. For example, someone’s daily nootropic supplement stack might consist of:

This combining of nootropics would be considered a basic stack. Other stacks could involve significantly more nootropics, depending on what the user is looking for and their brain chemistry.

Some nootropics pair and interact exceptionally well together, and others do not. It is essential to do your research when developing your personal nootropic stack.

On the other hand, if you would prefer to purchase a pre-formulated stack and leave the guesswork out of it, we recommend Mind Lab Pro.

Nootropics Vs. Smart Drugs

Although sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, nootropics are NOT smart drugs.

“Smart drugs” refer to pharmaceuticals; prescription medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil. These drugs are certainly effective at boosting cognitive performance, but they also come with side effects and complications, such as withdrawal.

Learn More: Best Over The Counter Nootropics for Replacing Adderall

Nootropics vs. Adderall

Anyone who has experienced an Adderall crash will attest that there is a dark side to these smart drugs.

They generally work by flooding your brain with an unnaturally high level of “feel-good” neurotransmitters like dopamine.

This process can result in a temporary increase in mental power, but your brain is deficient in these neuro-chemicals after the drug wears off. After all, what goes up must come down.

Although many people can use smart drugs under a physician’s care without issue, others become addicted.

Addiction is especially likely for people who use them without a prescription. In excess, these drugs can cause significant damage, including overdose and death.

On the other hand, nootropic brain supplements are neuroprotective by definition.

Drugs such as Adderall or Ritalin would not qualify.

Do Nootropics have Side effects
By definition, nootropics should have less of the harsh side effects of pharmaceuticals.

In contrast to these medications, nootropics are much more subtle on brain function. They protect, rather than deplete, your brain.

So, although both categories can boost brain function and improve mental health, they are not the same. Nootropics are generally a much more sustainable and healthy option in the long term.

Many people are starting to use nootropics as an alternative to prescription drugs. For some, this is a way to keep their brain health operating at peak levels without the nasty side effects.

Learn More: Best Nootropics for ADHD

Are Nootropics Safe?

Nootropics are generally safe by definition. There are many different kinds, but the vast majority have a low side-effect profile and are non-toxic when used as intended.

In contrast to prescription pharmaceuticals, nootropics are available over the counter because they have not been shown to harm the user in average doses.

That said, there may be occasional issues. Nootropics live under a vast umbrella that includes a wide variety of different supplements. Not every supplement is healthy for every person, and there can sometimes be adverse reactions to other medications.

As with anything health-related, it is essential to do your research on any nootropic you consider taking. Consider the following before adding any new supplement treatment to your routine.

Nootropics Safety Guidelines:

  • Clinical Research and Randomized Controlled Trials. You should take a look if there have been any high-quality clinical trials on the supplement. The best trials look at large sample sizes under a double-blind, placebo-controlled setting. If researchers have found evidence for cognitive function, this is a good sign that the nootropic has been tested as safe and effective. The internet is full of anecdotal reports for supplements. This “evidence” may be somewhat useful for your research, but it is not a substitute for laboratory-controlled studies.
  • Minimum Dose: Although nootropics are usually non-toxic, you should always take the minimum effective dose. Many nootropics are dose-dependent. Too little may be ineffective, but too much give you unwanted side effects. Always take a low dose and ramp up slowly to maximum effectiveness.
Scientific Nootropics studies, nootropics clinical research, Studies to test Nootropic Effects
Look for nootropics that have clinical research backing them up.
  • Consider The Source. Not all nootropics are created equal, even if they are the same compound. Also, most dietary supplements are not regulated by the food and drug administration. Some vendors are more trustworthy than others. Do your research and see which suppliers have good quality control practices. You don’t want to buy an ineffective bunk.
  • Cycle Your Doses. Some nootropics work best when you take regular weekly or monthly breaks to avoid tolerance.
  • Consult Your Doctor: It’s always a good idea to consult a physician before starting a new supplement. This approach is especially true if you have underlying medical issues or are taking certain medications. It’s always smart to play it safe.

Read More: Why You Should Never Buy Nootropics From Amazon

Best Nootropics and Cognitive Enhancers

Nootropics can act as cognitive enhancers (and also prevent cognitive decline) in a variety of ways.

They can also be used to boost neurotransmitters and manage dopamine levels that support concentration, energy, learning, creativity, performance, sleep, and behavior.

Here are just some of the most popular choices for each category, backed by clinical studies:






When you are researching, it’s important to keep in mind that not every nootropic will work for every person. Every brain is different, and what may work well for one person may not work at all for another. This is called bio-individuality.

It’s important to listen to your body and make decisions based on your personal situation.

Natural Nootropics

natural nootropics, all-natural nootropics, what are natural nootropic
If you are wary of taking synthetic chemicals, there are also natural nootropics available.

Although many nootropics are synthetic compounds, many are all-natural. Some nootropics are herbal or mushroom remedies that have been used by different cultures for millennia for mental benefits.

So, if you are hesitant about taking something made in a lab, don’t worry! There are plenty of all-natural options, as well.

The most famous natural nootropics include:

Wrapping Up

So, in a nutshell, nootropics are supplements that can boost your brain power in various ways.

By definition, they are neuroprotective, unlike smart drugs and stimulants commonly prescribed by doctors for ADHD such as Adderall, which can certainly increase alertness and cognition but have serious adverse effects, like an addiction.

Some are synthetic, and some are all-natural. People generally take multiple nootropics together in complementary “stacks.”

We hope this has helped you understand the basics of nootropics! Please continue reading for more in-depth coverage of individual supplements that may help you achieve your goals.

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Erik Abramowitz is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP), Naturopathic Doctoral student, health coach, and father. He is the primary content creator for HolisticNootropics.com and the host of the Holistic Nootropics Podcast.

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