Nootropics: Smart Idea or A Clever Con?

Whether you’re a student aiming to score well on your finals, a professional in the business world looking to get ahead in the workplace, or getting along in years and concerned about dementia, the prospect of taking a pill to enhance your brainpower would be understandably appealing. So it’s not surprising that the usage of nootropics – also known as cognitive enhancers or smart drugs – is steadily on the rise.

In this post, we’ll discuss what exactly nootropics are, some of the most common nootropics on the market, and some of the studies and professional opinions related to their use. 

What are Nootropics?

The term “nootropics” originally referred to medications that met very specific requirements. However, today it refers to any natural or manufactured substance that may have a beneficial impact on mental or cognitive abilities. In general, nootropics are divided into three categories: dietary supplements, synthetic chemicals, and prescription medicines. The two you’ll most commonly run into in the market are prescription nootropics and over-the-counter dietary supplements.

Prescription Nootropics

Prescription-grade nootropics usually refer to a type of stimulant — like an amphetamine — which can help treat conditions like narcolepsy, ADHD, or dementia. Below, we’ll briefly go over three of the most commonly prescribed nootropics:

  1. Provigil (modafinil) is a stimulant often prescribed to those who suffer from extreme tiredness, or experience sudden drowsiness from conditions such as narcolepsy.
  1. Adderall contains amphetamines used to treat and manage symptoms of conditions like ADHD.
  1. Ritalin (methylphenidate) is a stimulant that can be used to manage the symptoms of both narcolepsy and ADHD.

Though these drugs can be effective in treating specific medical conditions, taking them without a prescription is not recommended due to the number of potentially harmful side effects when not taken in correct dose ranges, which vary between individuals. Prescription-grade nootropics should only be taken under a doctor’s care.

Some of the minor side effects of taking prescription nootropics include headaches and elevated heart rate. Severe side effects can include high blood pressure, impaired vision, and addiction. There’s also evidence that suggests people who use prescription nootropics to enhance brain function are more likely to engage in impulsive actions such as risky sexual behavior. For this reason, healthcare professionals typically observe patients taking prescription nootropics to manage any adverse effects and track their health.

Over-the-Counter Nootropics

The nootropics that are more mainstream are non-prescription supplements that can be purchased from drug stores and groceries. Over-the-counter nootropics come in isolated form as well as in “stacks”. Nootropic stacks are supplements that combine 3 or more nootropics which purportedly complement each other for improved efficacy. Three of the most popularly used over-the-counter nootropics include the following:


Caffeine is a stimulant that many people consume due to its ability to increase alertness. Caffeine has been shown in studies to be safe for most individuals when consumed in moderation. A regular cup of coffee or tea may help you stay focused, however, large amounts of caffeine can cause unpleasant side effects like elevated heart rate and frequent urination.

400 milligrams is the recommended maximum amount of caffeine an adult should consume within a day according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is equivalent to 4–5 cups of coffee.

Pregnant women and those who might become pregnant should think about limiting or avoiding caffeine intake. Caffeine is linked to a greater risk of pregnancy loss in studies that included 4 or more servings per day. Caffeine pills and powders are the forms most commonly marketed as nootropics. Since these can contain very high quantities of this stimulant, it’s considerably easier to overdose when compared with getting caffeine from natural sources like tea or coffee.


L-theanine is an amino acid that can be found in black and green teas. A 2008 randomized control trial found that “l-theanine significantly increases activity in the alpha frequency band which indicates that it relaxes the mind without inducing drowsiness.” Moderation of alpha waves may help to produce a calm yet attentive cognitive state, which is why using l-theanine to moderate social anxiety is becoming more common.

The effects of l-theanine may be amplified when combined with caffeine, which is why they’re often seen together in nootropic stack products. There is some evidence to suggest that this combination improves cognitive performance and alertness. There are no dosage guidelines for l-theanine, but many supplements recommend taking 100-400 mg per day.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo biloba comes from the ginkgo biloba tree, which is native to southeast Asia. It’s a well-established component of traditional Chinese medicine, and became popular worldwide in the late-20th century due to its ability to improve some cognitive functions related to memory.

Ginkgo biloba is currently being researched for its potential as an Alzheimer’s therapeutic since, according to a 2017 review, “studies showed that taking a higher dose of the Ginkgo extract (240 mg per day) could improve participants’ memory [as well as] their ability to manage activities of daily life, such as doing household chores or washing themselves.” 

Due to the somewhat limited amount of research into the potential risks of ginkgo biloba, some physicians feel that (with prescription nootropics available) self-supplementing with this compound may not be the most safe or effective option. Fully confirming ginkgo biloba as an accepted therapeutic in the West still requires further research. 

In general, compounds listed as nootropics all show a degree of efficacy in terms of their ability to improve alertness and cognitive ability, but this of course varies from person to person. The marketing claims companies make are oftentimes sensational, so it’s best to consider them with a grain of salt.

Divided Professional Opinions

Current research indicates that the advantages of nootropics for attention and memory function are modest, and that potential risks like anxiety, addiction, and overconfidence should be considered against the benefits before supplementation. Many well-reputed medical professionals remain on the fence as to their viability.

There’s “no solid evidence” that any of the supplements now being marketed for their memory-boosting properties are beneficial, according to Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the cognitive neurology/neuropsychology division at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Along with their overall efficacy and safety, he also questions the basic premise behind their development. In his opinion, those who believe they’ve experienced a jump in mental performance due to nootropics are being significantly influenced by a placebo effect. “If you’re more confident and think you’ll do better, you will do better.”

Chris D’Adamo, PhD, director of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, agrees with Gordon in that he doesn’t think nootropics can give users superhuman mental abilities. However, he believes they do have the potential to give some people a bit of an edge.

According to D’Adamo, the majority of people seeking to optimize their own cognitive function would do better prioritizing sleep, a rounded and nutrient-dense diet, and controlling stress levels. Once those basics are covered, certain nootropics can act as a bonus by helping you think more clearly, or by reducing your chances of cognitive decline that typically comes with age.

The Necessity of Guarded Optimism

There are numerous nootropics on the market that purport to significantly improve cognitive function. However, if you’re healthy to begin with, it’s vital to be realistic about the potential for minor to imperceptible changes when you take these supplements. Moreover, it’s important to always check with your doctor before taking any supplements, including nootropics.


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