Everything you need to know about nootropics: what they are, what they do, all the jargon explained, and how to find the best nootropics for you.
1. What is a nootropic?
a. Short answer
b. Long answer
2. Why people use nootropics
a. Productivity and study
c. Exercise and health
3. Understanding the basics
4. How to get the most from nootropics
b. Best practices
5. Common misconceptions
6. Where to start
Nootropics are synthetic compounds that improve the cognitive abilities of healthy individuals. In their basic state they’re powders, but we sell them in capsule form. Nootropics are not medicines: medicines bring you back to health when you’re sick, whilst nootropics help you improve when you’re healthy.
Given the unique effect profile of each nootropic compound, and given the variation in people’s brain chemistry, individuals can use different nootropics for different purposes and outcomes. The most commonly sought-after effects are enhanced cognition, motivation and concentration.
The term ‘nootropics’ is relatively recent, the name having been coined in 1972 by Romanian chemist Corneliu Giurgea to describe compounds that could ‘turn the mind’ (from Greek, nous trepein). There is no universally accepted set of formal criteria for what qualifies as a nootropic, but Dr. Giurgea’s original definition still holds sway. He considered that for any substance to be called a nootropic, it must:
- enhance memory and learning ability,
- help the brain function under disruptive conditions,
- protect the brain from harmful chemical damage,
- improve neuronal firing mechanisms, and
- lack any sedative, stimulant or toxic effects.
In common online usage, the term ‘nootropic’ is applied to any substance that can provide safe cognitive benefits to users, where ‘benefits’ has a very broad range of meaning.
In general, a substance can be called a nootropic if it grants the user more control over their neurochemistry and the resulting behavioural and experiential outcomes.
In general, a substance can be called a nootropic if it grants the user more control over their neurochemistry and the resulting behavioural and experiential outcomes. On this view Melatonin also qualifies, given its ability to allow a user to intelligently regulate their sleep cycle.
Ideologically, nootropics are celebrated for their ability to allow individuals to gain some mastery over their brain chemistry and the resulting mental states. For the history of the human species, brain chemistry has been largely inaccessible to targeted improvement, leaving us the prisoners of our biology. Nootropics are humanity’s first tentative forays into taking control of our mood and intellect at the chemical level.
Nootropics allow users greater control over their states, moods, and cognitive abilities. In the same way as the caffeine in a morning coffee can wake you up and ready you for the day, nootropics can be used for a range of functional benefits.
Useful for their productivity and motivational effects, nootropics provide a boost for getting essential tasks done. Ideal for high-pressure cognitive work such as studying, essays and exams.
Additionally, some users take nootropics for a boost in social ability, including benefits to confidence, extroversion and verbal fluidity. Ideal for public speaking, presentations and parties.
More recently, nootropics have begun to be included in pre-workout mixes to ensure that exercise can be carried out with an iron will. When your motivation needs an extra edge, nootropics can help.
Some nootropics also provide neuroprotective effects, supporting brain health and stimulating the generation of new neurons. Maintain and support the engine of your productivity and creativity.
Nootropics can allow improvements to mental wellbeing, acting as anxiety aids, anti-depressants and mood brighteners. When you need a healthy lift to your mood, nootropics can help.
More on each of these, including specific useful nootropics, below.
Motivation and concentration can often be fleeting and fickle, and whilst nootropics can never replace a disciplined workflow, they can give you a substantial boost towards getting your critical tasks done, and getting them done well.
For long periods of concentrated cognitive effort, such as study, revision, essays, writing introductions to nootropics, and other time-consuming and mentally demanding tasks, longer lasting nootropics such as Adrafinil, Piracetam and Phenylpiracetam are ideal.
the potency of these nootropics is such that one journalist pondered whether they are “a form of cheating that should be banned”
These show evidence of improving learning ability, recall, problem solving, concentration, motivation and general cognition. And these are effects that you can really notice: distractions seem to fade away, intrusive thoughts seem quietened, the work seems more rewarding and less of a chore. In fact, the potency of these nootropics is such that one journalist pondered whether they are “a form of cheating that should be banned”.
For short periods of intensive cognitive load under high pressure, such as exams or public speaking, nootropics can also provide a controlled peak of sustained mental performance.
Short-duration, high power nootropics such as Aniracetam and Noopept can provide exactly the edge you need. These zone out distractions and fuel your cognitive processes, enhancing and ensuring mental performance for the most critical of tasks.
For some people socialising can feel like an energy-depleting activity, even when it’s enjoyable. And that’s okay: some are naturally less extroverted. But the paradox of wanting to do an exhausting activity can be frustrating.
For others, the problem isn’t exhaustion, but rather they are plagued by anxiety. For them, self-doubt and low confidence can make meeting new people, and even old friends, feel like a mammoth task. For others, communicating effectively and precisely can be a struggle, especially when articulating thoughts feels like a chore.
For each of these cases, the good news is that nootropics can help. When used correctly, they are a powerful tool for assisting and enhancing your social abilities, best treated as part of a rounded strategy of self-improvement.
[Nootropics] are a powerful tool for assisting and enhancing your social abilities, best treated as part of a rounded strategy of self-improvement.
For extroversion, and greater energy for socially draining situations, Phenibut is often celebrated for its social-enhancement properties, which create a calm and collected affect. The effects are subtle: there’s none of the ‘buzz’ of alcohol or other traditional aids to socialising. Instead, social interactions simply feel less taxing, and it can often be that only at the end of an evening do you realise you enjoyed yourself more than usual.
For helping with anxiety and anxiousness, in the broadest sense taking care of your mental health will always be the best strategy – see Wellbeing below. When used in conjunction with good mental health practices, nootropics can be a useful aid in overcoming low self-confidence and anxiety. Naturally occurring in tea, L-Theanine is well supported as a potent supplement for anti-stress, anti-anxiety, and comfortable relaxation. In its concentrated form and separated from caffeine, it provides a mellow calm that smooths away the rough edges of anxiety.
For clearer and more precise speaking, Aniracetam and Phenylpiracetam show evidence of improving verbal fluidity as part of their thought-enhancing effects. Communication becomes easier and more exact, with the words flowing more smoothly and capturing more of what needs to be conveyed. These can give you the linguistic boost you need for all forms of public communication, whether at parties, at the podium or slaving over papers.
Whilst nootropics are not medicines, they can can provide a range of benefits for the health-conscious. Boosts to motivation are not only advantageous for cognitive tasks, as physical exertion and exercise are also fuelled by your willpower. When you need to run that extra mile, or complete that last set, nootropics can grant you a vital boost to your endurance.
Boosts to motivation are not only advantageous for cognitive tasks, as physical exertion and exercise are also fuelled by your willpower.
Additionally, nootropics show evidence of supporting brain health: many nootropics were originally synthesized for treating Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive-degenerative disorders. As a whole, they offer neuroprotective and neurogenerative effects, protecting your brain and keeping your neurons healthy.
For exercise, and the focus needed to maintain peak performance, Phenylpiracetam is an ideal pre-workout addition. This potent racetam shows evidence of enhancing stamina and physical endurance – so much so that professional athletes are prohibited from taking these substances when competing in official events.
Recently, Noopept has also gained popularity as a pre-workout booster for maximised willpower and resilience, allowing you that extra burst of motivation for breaking down those mental barriers.
For brain health, whilst all nootropic compounds show some neuroprotective effects, a range of celebrated benefits have been attributed to Citicoline (Choline CDP). This refined form of Choline shows solid evidence of benefits to brain resilience, neuroplasticity, and neurogenesis. Additionally, it works as a supreme accompaniment to cognitive enhancing nootropics – for more information see Combinations/Stacks.
Whilst taking care of yourself and your mental health is paramount, sometimes greater control over your brain chemistry is exactly what’s needed. Nootropics are not anti-depressants, and are no replacement for thoughtful mental care, but when used well they can provide a range of tools for boosting your happiness and improving your life.
Regular sleep patterns are crucial for maintaining a healthy work balance, and here nootropics can help. Whilst greater concentration and focus are helpful, boosts to your day-to-day mood can be exactly what you need. And for others, stress and anxiety get in the way of productivity, and direct interventions can be hard to find. For each of these, nootropic compounds can allow you to take control of your brain (and consequently your life!).
Nootropics … are no replacement for thoughtful mental care, but when used well they can provide a range of tools for boosting your happiness and improving your life.
For sleep, Melatonin is perfect, especially given that getting enough sleep is one of the most reliable predictors of wellbeing. A synthetic version of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, Melatonin creates familiar feelings of drowsiness that result in a relaxing and revitalising sleep. Though not usually considered a nootropic, its ability to allow a user to decide precisely when they wish to sleep earns it its place in this guide. Ideal for resetting and regulating sleep cycles, whether from jet lag or broken routines.
For affecting mood more directly, Tianeptine has been shown to be surprisingly effective. It creates a subtle short-duration mood brightening effect that serves as a very mild lift, useful for motivation and mental fuel. Additionally, when taken at standard dosages over a long period, it has shown long-term wellbeing improving effects with comparable effectiveness to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), though with a different method of action. For times when low mood has you feeling paralysed, it can be exactly what you need to break out and get things done.
For stress and anxiety, L-Theanine’s renowned calming effects can put you back in control. When your head feels cluttered by intrusive thoughts or rogue worries, it can clear your mind to create a medium-duration relaxed mental space. In conjunction with good mental practices, it can help you to banish the stresses of overwork and competing demands on your attention.
The goal of taking nootropics is simply to obtain specific desirable cognitive effects. It’s important to know that how (and how often) you take nootropics will affect your outcomes.
One of the biggest mistakes new nootropics users make is thinking that taking more of a substance is always better… The key is to find an optimal dose that works for you.
Your brain chemistry and certain chemical compounds interact in complex ways, and so the same substance taken at different doses or at different times can lead to different effects.
To get a good overview of some of the important considerations, familiarize yourself with these commonly used terms:
One of the biggest mistakes new nootropics users make is thinking that taking more of a substance is always better. The reality is that at high doses the costs of side effects often outweigh the benefits. However, everyone is affected differently, and at too low a dose, the main effect might not be noticeable. The key is to find an optimal dose that works for you.
Nootropics are only active for a limited amount of time in your body, so you might want to take a nootropic multiple times per day in order to maintain an effect. Caution is essential for how often a nootropic is taken, as overdosing can lead to two specific and undesirable side effects:
Tolerance, in which our bodies build resistance towards a nootropic compound, limiting its efficacy. Just as alcohol or caffeine has more effect on a first-time drinker than a veteran of many years, the same is true of nootropics. So nootropic users try to thoughtfully regulate their intake so that tolerance doesn’t develop (also, see Cycling below).
It is also worth knowing about what is commonly called the ‘honeymoon period’: the experience of when a nootropic works especially well the first few times you take it, then drops in efficacy as your body becomes used to it. After the honeymoon period is over, some will increase their dose until they experience the full effect again, though this carries risks. It is important to be careful if this happens to you, as you may be tempted to exceed recommended doses. If tolerance builds faster than expected, we always recommend that you take time off nootropics to allow your brain time to regulate.
Dependency, where similar to caffeine and alcohol, some nootropics have habit-forming properties. If a nootropic has been taken continually at above-recommended doses, suddenly quitting it may cause nasty withdrawal-like symptoms. If ever you feel that dependency is forming, we strongly recommend slowly reducing your intake over a period of many days. Special care should be taken particularly with Phenibut, which is open to abuse potential at high doses.
As a response to the development of tolerance and dependency, nootropics users sometimes use the technique of ‘cycling’. This refers to alternating, or ‘cycling’ through a number of nootropics periodically. This allows for a nootropics user to benefit from the effect of each compound while not taking any one of them frequently enough to develop tolerance or dependency. For example, you might take X for two weeks, then switch to Y for two weeks, and repeat. This way your neurochemistry never becomes too accustomed to either substance.
‘Stacking’ refers to taking two or more nootropics at the same time to enhance their effects. It has become popular to combine nootropics for two reasons:
Some nootropics are compounding, which means their effects are stronger combined than when taken separately. Examples include:
- Racetam stacks: The Racetams (Piracetam, Aniracetam, Phenylpiracetam, and Noopept) are known for working well in stacks. Though all the racetams have a similar structure, they each have different mode of action. This means that combining e.g., Piracetam with Noopept, or Aniracetam with Phenylpiracetam, can amplify the effects of each.
Other nootropics are combined in order to reduce the side effects of another. For example:
- Caffeine and L-Theanine: Caffeine is a well-known stimulant and wakefulness agent, but it also has the tendency to cause jitters and anxiety. In contrast, L-Theanine is an anxiolytic that can help reduce jitteriness while not affecting the positive effects of Caffeine. This is one of the most well-known and effective stacks.
- The ‘racetams and Choline: Aniracetam, Piracetam, Phenylpiracetam and Noopept (which is similar to the racetams) sometimes cause headaches. It is generally believed that this is due to the depletion of the brain’s natural supply of choline, which is used in the process of creating the nootropic effects. Supplementing with Citicoline decreases the likelihood of these headaches.
- Tianeptine and Adrafinil: Tianeptine is an effective mood booster but can sometimes make users drowsy. Adrafinil, on the other hand, is a wakefulness agent which can be employed as a counter-measure.
The internet is full of differing voices on how best to approach and use nootropics. Online advice by its nature can only be very broad, and nootropic usage for you in particular may vary from the norm. Preamble aside, some nootropics best practices remain useful no matter what:
Do your own research. No overview – including this one – can contain all of the information you may be interested in. Google is your friend.
Pay attention to your behaviour. Many nootropic effects are subtle, and may be inaccessible to experience and introspection.
Never exceed recommended or standard doses. If you wish to be experimental, always consult a qualified and knowledgeable medical professional.
Take nootropics separately before combining any. This will help you understand how each nootropic affects you, and which nootropics to take less of (or to avoid if they produce unwanted side effects!).
Be wary of interactions with any drugs, medicines or compounds you may be taking. If in doubt, ask your doctor.
Be aware of tolerance. If nootropics lose their effect, don’t increase your dosage, but instead take time off and allow your brain to regulate.
Be aware of dependency. Though nootropics have no chemically addictive properties, habit forming is real, and can carry risks. If you think you are becoming dependent, carefully and slowly reduce your dosage.
Remember: nootropics are no replacement for a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Exercise, regular sleep and healthy eating habits are still the most reliable and effective methods for optimising cognition and wellbeing.
While nootropics are certainly effective cognitive enhancers, they will (unfortunately) not make you superhuman. Healthy expectations should be set – otherwise you might be unnecessarily disappointed – and might miss out on their real benefits.
Even though the effects of nootropics are significant and reliable, they can be quite subtle. For some substances, you might not ‘feel’ anything at all – at least not in the way you ‘feel’ alcohol or caffeine. Rather you might just notice significant behavioural changes: You will be able to work longer hours, be in a consistently good mood, or get tired less quickly. This is why it’s good advice to put yourself and your nootropics to the test. Make to-do lists, time your work hours, monitor your sleep, track your mood, and see the difference yourself.
It’s also important to understand that nootropics will not change who you are. You wouldn’t say that a cup of coffee changes your personality, just because it gives you a mental boost. The same goes for nootropics. Think of it this way: imagine yourself on your best days, where you’re in a good mood, feeling productive and really getting things done. Nootropics might not revolutionise your life, but they can certainly help you have those days a lot more often.
So now that you understand the basics, how does one get into nootropics? We recommend three options:
A. Use our Effects Filter: Rather than wading through endless online resources and trying to figure out what each nootropic does, we have built a simple search filter that does the hard work for you. All you need to do is click on the effects that interest you, and the engine will automatically show you which products provide those benefits. Add multiple effects to find the ideal nootropics for you.
B. Use this Introduction: Review Section 2: Why People Use Nootropics, and try figure out how you would like to enhance your brain. Are you looking to improve your productivity and study? How about socialising skills, wellbeing, exercise or health? For each of these we have recommended the safest and most reliable nootropics.
C. Try the Basics: Still not sure? Why not go for the tried and tested?:
L-Theanine – the perfect starter nootropic.
L-Theanine is the natural amino-acid responsible for that feeling of calm you get from green tea. Interestingly, it works exceptionally well when combined with coffee. Due to its anxiolytic and stress-reducing properties it takes away some of the jitteriness caused by caffeine, and provides you with a clean, lucid energy boost. It has even been shown to amplify caffeine’s cognitive effects.
Piracetam – The original nootropic.
Piracetam was first created in 1964 and has over 40 years of peer reviewed studies attesting to its effectiveness. It is predominantly recognized for it’s ability to improve focus, memory, and verbal fluidity. It does, however, draw on your choline reserves, which may lead to headaches in some users, so supplementing Piracetam with Citicoline ensures that your brain has the fuel to keep you going.
Adrafinil – The Modafinil metabolite.
This nootropic is celebrated for good reason. When Adrafinil becomes Modafinil in your liver, it produces a state of heightened cognitive ability, characterised by concentration, wakefulness, and focus. In case you were wondering why we don’t advise taking Modafinil directly, it’s because (unlike Adrafinil) Modafinil is not legal in most countries and/or requires a prescription.