What Exactly are Nootropics? Guide on Benefits, Side Effects, & Research
By Ali Kuoppala | Last reviewed Tue 25 September 2018
Medical Review by Dr. Stefano Pizzo, MD
For several years, startups, CEOs, authors, students, and entrepreneurs used smart drugs and nootropics in silence.
But ever after the release of the movie "Limitless" in 2011, more and more people have caught interest in cognitive enhancing medication and supplements, and finally nootropics are being openly talked about in media and the internet.
But the majority of people still wonder: "what the heck actually is a nootropic?"
In 1964, Romanian chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea synthesized a chemical compound by the name of Piracetam.
At the time he worked for a Belgian drug company called UCB, and their goal was to create a drug that would enhance memory and learning without having any serious side effects or toxicity.
In fact, Giurgea had five rules;
- The drug should enhance memory and learning.
- It would protect the brain from physical stressors/trauma.
- It would be neuroprotective against toxins and drugs that harm the brain.
- It would boost the efficacy of various mechanisms of the cerebral cortex
- It had no side effects or toxicity commonly seen in pharmaceuticals.
Piracetam met all of this criteria, and the creation of it would spark a new field of medication for the specific purpose of safe cognitive enhancement.
Since these type of drugs/supplements didn't have any real name, Dr. Giurgea ended up coining the term "nootropic" in 1972. (the term was derived from Greek language in which nous means mind and trepein means bending).
In more recent times, nootropics have also been called "smart drugs" or "study drugs", due to being used generously by startups and students.
Why Smart Drugs are so Popular Today
The above clip is from the movie "Limitless", in which Ed Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling author who is battling with a writers block that causes his life to go into a rapid downward spiral.
An old friend then bumps up to Morra in the streets and offers him a test sample of a brain boosting drug called NZT-48. Little does Ed know, taking the drug activates 100% of his brain potential and he ends up writing great books in just days, learning the tricks of the trading game, and is eventually a billionaire and generally a dude that is just S-M-A-R-T.
After watching the movie, a lot of people started looking if there would be anything close to NZT-48 in real life.
There is, kind of.
Obviously the movie adds a huge amount of Hollywood into the mix, but nowadays, a wakefulness promoting narcolepsia drug by the name of Modafinil is asynomous with "real life NZT-48" or "the limitless pill".
While Modafinil is considered to be the king of smart drugs - and there are hundreds of other bit weaker compounds that act in similar manner - none of them will make you experience anything CLOSE to the cognitive enhancement seen in the movie...
...However, there's science and user experiences showing that the real smart drugs and nootropics DO WORK insanely well too (just don't expect to become a millionaire by popping a supplement).
The Different Classes of Nootropics
Like everything in life, nootropics come in different sizes, strengths, types, colors, effects, tastes, side effects, and so forth.
Below are the three most commonly used categories for identifying different classes of nootropics. There are literally thousands of compounds with evidence on their cognitive benefits, so this is just a scratch on the surface.
Racetams - everything started from Piracetam, which is a synthetically made compound that belongs to the racetam class. The original compound has been modified into various similar chemicals with slightly different effects, half-lifes, and ways of absorption (Oxiracetam, Aniracetam, Pramiracatem, Phenylpiracetam, Nefiracetam, Noopept, etc).
Smart Drugs - this "category" typically holds in the stronger nootropics that tend to require a prescription all-around the World. They are definitely potent, but can also have more side effects. I'm talking about Modafinil, Armodafinil Adderall, Ritalin, Cylert, Phenibut, Celebrolysin, Selank, etc.
Nutraceuticals - the safest class of nootropics are the type that come from nature. They are simply cognitive enhancing supplements derived from food or plant sources. The list of natural nootropics is huge, but some of the more common ones and well-researched include: various forms of choline, caffeine, carnitine, phosphatidylserine, Bacopa Monnieri, Huperzine A, etc.
NOTE: The Smart Drug Crash Course made by Chris Walker, will quickly get you up to speed about the differences between main nootropics.
Nootropics Benefits and Research
It would take many books to lay down all the beneficial effects of nootropics that have been scientifically proven.
So to make things a little bit condensed, below will be quickly the main findings from some of the more popular cognitive enhancing drugs and supplements.
Here we go;
- Racetams - Piracetam and the other racetam compounds synthesized after it (Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Pramiracetam, Noopept, Phenylpiracetam, etc), generally show potent neuroprotective effects and long-term improvements in memory and learning. They seem to improve cognition mainly by increasing acetylcholine synthesis and stimulating the AMPA and NDMA receptors of the brain.
- Eugeroics - Modafinil and Armodafinil are eugeroics. These types of smart drugs promote wakefulness and attention by acting as dopamine transporter blockers (which results in increased extracellular dopamine and heightened dopaminergic neurotransmission). Eugeroics increase brain histamine production (which increases synaptic plasticity, and thus, learning and memory), and they can also act on various brain neurotransmitters, generally stimulating the excitory ones (glutamate, acetylcholine, NDMA, etc) and reducing the activity of the sedative kind (GABA, glycine, etc).
- Stimulants - Adderral, Ritalin, Cylert, and similar medication that are based on either amphetamine salts or methylphenidate, are popular among students. They are extremely potent at improving alertness and focus, while several systematic reviews have found these type of drugs to also improve episodic memory and working memory. Though stimulants are extremely effective, they are also the ones with the most side effects and tendency to develop addiction.
- Herbs & Natural - nutraceutical nootropics are the safest, and in many cases not as "potent" as some of the drugs that require prescription (although some of them have shown some mind-blowing cognitive benefits). The kind that have the most impressive scientific backing are: caffeine, choline, phosphatidylserine, theanine, carnitine, levodopa, nicotine, huperzine A, lion's mane, Rhodiola Rosea, and Bacopa Monnieri.
Like said, combining all the studies here would stretch this article into oblivion. For a good starting point, check out the Smart Drugs Crash Course. And in close future, we will be publishing more in detail articles about various nootropics right here in the AM website.
The Side Effects and Safety of Nootropics
Many nootropics are considered extremely safe and non-toxic (as that's kind of what is used to determine them as compounds)...
...Racetams in particular show less toxicity than salt, and offer neuroprotective benefits to the consumer.
Nutraceutical nootropics are also considered safe when taken at recommended dosages. I have yet to see a single study warning about any known side effects of plant or food derived cognitive enhancers.
When it comes to anecdotal reports, some people can get slight headaches and trouble sleeping after taking racetams. The headaches are likely caused by the increased choline to acetylcholine conversion which depletes the bodily pool from choline (this should be fixed by co-supplementing with choline), whereas not taking racetams close to bed time would also be a good idea since some of them are stimulatory and can interfere with sedation.
Other than that, racetams and nutraceuticals are nothing to worry about.
However, when it comes to the more potent stuff (that usually also requires a prescription) we start to see higher rates of side effects.
Modafinil acts on the body for 12-16 hours, and during this time YOU WILL NOT be able to sleep. It's also stimulatory so it can raise blood pressure and heart rate and cause anxiety in some users. Intense headaches post-use and even hallucinations have been reported with eugeroics use too.
The amphetamine salt and methylphenidate based stimulatory smart drugs like Adderral and Ritalin are well-known of being addictive, and due to their stimulatory nature they are also linked to insomnia, increased blood pressure, anxiety, and nervousness.
For these types of smart drugs, you really have to K-N-O-W what you are taking and how it works before you just dive right into using them.
How to Use Nootropics and Smart Drugs
There is a smart way on how to take nootropics and smart drugs.
It's called slow build up and experimentation with substances that you understand and properly know their benefits and risks of side effects.
After reading a lot about these compounds and doing my fair share of experimentation with them, I have come up with few rules on how to use them safely (yet effectively).
- Start from nutraceutical nootropics like the basic caffeine + theanine combo, choline, phosphatidylserine, carnitine, levodopa, Bacopa, etc.
- If you feel like you want bit more "brain boost", you should next test out some of the racetams (Pi-, Ani-, Oxi- racetams make good starters).
- Always use the stimulatory stuff early in the morning, and co-supplement with choline to prevent headaches and sleep disturbances.
- If you want to try the "heavy-hitters", I only recommend occasional low-dose Modafinil or Armodafinil. I don't think anyone NEEDS Adderall.
- Don't think that you can use nootropics as substitutes for proper sleep, balanced diet, or exercise.
Lastly, take a look at the Smart Drugs Crash Course if you feel like you'd want to know more about nootropics. It's better to be smart than stupid when taking smart drugs 😉