Nootropics and Smart Drugs: Brain Boosting Substances?

Nootropics and Smart Drugs- brain boosting substances

Throughout human history there seems to be a constant search for a silver bullet or pill that will make us faster, stronger and smarter. Sure, there are more difficult ways of accomplishing all of these goals (through various types of training), but humans seem fascinated with the search for a substance or “hack” that will make the process easier.

While this is an age-old search, new options have emerged and gained popularity in the form of smart drugs and nootropics, though many are still not aware of the benefits (and risks) of these substances.

The movie “Limitless” increased interest in these substances as the main character finds a smart drug that allows him to become cognitively superhuman, but then faces the unintended consequences of the drug.

What are Nootropics and Smart Drugs?

In short, these are substances that enhance cognitive performance in some way. Some are natural, in the form of herbs or high-dose vitamins, while others are man-made and pharmaceutical. Technically, while “smart drugs” typically refer to any pharmaceutical (or nutritional substance) that increase brain performance, nootropics must fulfill five criteria defined by the man who coined the term, Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea:

  1. The substance should enhance the brain in some way.
  2. It should improve cognitive performance under stress (such as electrical shock or oxygen deprivation)
  3. The substance should have protective properties that protect the brain against harmful substances.
  4. The substance should “increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain.” (1)
  5. It should be non-toxic and have no harmful side effects.

Tall order, huh?

As you can imagine, this limits the number of substances that technically meet the definition of “nootropics,” and as Bradley Cooper’s character found in the movie “Limitless,” substances that offer incredible benefit and seem too good to be true often are.

In common conversation, the terms “nootropic” and “smart drug” are often used to define any substance, supplement or chemical that improves cognitive performance in some way, though many of these substances do have side effects and do not meet all of the technical criteria for a “nootropic.”

Additionally, while the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are important differences in their mechanisms and safety.

“Smart” Drugs?

Smart drugs are typically pharmaceutical substances (prescribed medications or off-label drugs) that are used to improve cognition in some way. Popular options include off-label use of the ADD/ADHD drugs Adderall or Ritalin to increase cognitive performance in someone who doesn’t struggle with these conditions.

In the highly-competitive honors program at the university I attended, I often saw use (and mis-use) of these substances as they enabled students to sleep less, study more, and focus under extreme conditions. Unfortunately, I also saw the negative side effects in my fellow students, including sleep problems and irritability.

More recently, the drug Modafinil has gained popularity in a similar way:

A popular atypical stimulant “smart drug” includes the narcolepsy agents Modafinil / Adrafinil, although their effects on cognition beyond wakefulness are unproven, and side effects – while rare – can be life threatening.  If attention problems are already present the side effect risk appears to be significant increased, as well. (Kumar, (2008), Approved and Investigational Uses, Drugs. 68(13):1803-39.). (2)

While the cinema perception may be that college students are using illegal drugs recreationally, I never saw this when I was in school and instead saw rampant off-label use of potentially dangerous but legal pharmaceuticals by students to keep up with demanding academic programs.

Benefits of Nootropics

Personally, I’ve always stayed away from smart drugs because while they offer some potentially impressive benefits, they also tend to come with side effects and I’ve always preferred natural options whenever possible. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve also always thought the best way to improve cognitive performance is to regularly challenge the mind (without the need for pharmaceutical assistance!).

At the same time, I can honestly say I’m probably more stressed and sleep deprived now as a mom of six than I was in college and over the last few years I have researched and evaluated several natural types of nootropics for their effect on cognitive performance (without the negative side effects of smart drugs).

I stuck to substances that seemed to meet the actual definition of “nootropics,” offering benefits and cognitive protection without the negative side effects and I found several that seemed to be very effective. I realized that many of us moms use substances that affect the brain daily anyway, especially caffeine and sugar, and I wanted to see if there were other natural ways to improve energy and brain performance.

It is important to note that even natural substances that improve cognition do have an effect of some kind of the brain. While there isn’t a single way that they work, most affect the brain by changing the neurochemicals or hormones in the brain. It goes without saying that it is vitally important to ensure the safety of any substance and check with a doctor before using anything that may affect the mind in this way (especially if pregnant or nursing) and many are not recommended at all during pregnancy/nursing.

Types of Nootropics

Many types of substances get lumped into the broad category of “nootropics” or “smart drugs,” though as explained above, not all of them technically meet the criteria. That said, there are several classes of herbs and supplements that seem to improve cognition.


These are natural substances that help the body handle stress and that as a byproduct may improve cognition. Examples include herbs like ginseng, maca and cordyceps.

Unlike caffeine, which is a stimulant that encourages a specific response within the body, adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt to stress by nudging it toward balance. To put it a different way, if caffeine is like a map from point A (sleepy) to point B (alert), adaptogens are more like a GPS system that figures out where you are and helps you get where you need to go (balanced). (3)

Since stress and exhaustion are two factors that can greatly decrease cognitive ability, it makes sense that adaptogens may improve brain performance by balancing the body and reducing stress. Some of the most common adaptogens are:

  • Rhodiola
  • Ginseng
  • Tulsi
  • Ginkgo
  • Cordyceps
  • Maca

What I did: I personally tried Maca and Cordyceps (when I wasn’t pregnant or nursing) with good results. I drank a coffee that contained Cordyceps Extract and used a Maca and Greens powder.

Food Based Nootropics

Nature provides many natural foods and herbs that support the body in various ways, including supporting brain health (with or without side effects). Popular substances that we know affect the brain include caffeine and high doses of certain amino acids or herbs.

These are my go-to brain boosters, as most foods are generally considered safe (even while pregnant/nursing) and they support and nourish the body in other ways as well. The best option for ensuring optimal brain performance (and overall health) is consuming a nourishing and varied diet, though I try to include these foods and herbs specifically when I need a brain boost:

  • Sources of DHA and EPA like oily fish and supplements
  • High antioxidant foods like berries and brightly colored vegetables
  • Healthy fats like coconut oil, ghee and MCT oil
  • Vitamin K from leafy greens and supplements
  • Coffee (because motherhood)

Alpha Brain

Much less often, I’ve used specific nootropic supplements designed to improve mental performance. I tried quite a few and only saw results without side effects from a couple of them. The first is called Alpha Brain, an herbal nootropic supplement designed to increase focus and concentration. I noticed that it helped my energy and focus much more than coffee without making me jittery like coffee can at times.


Dave Asprey introduced me to this supplement and I was amazed at how effective it was for me. It is essentially a “nootropic stack” meaning a combination of herbs that are designed specifically to support the brain. I would take this supplement on days that I needed to be able to concentrate on writing or meet deadlines and noticed a big difference in focus and concentration. When I wasn’t pregnant or nursing, I would often alternate these supplements a couple of times a week with good results.

The Bottom Line

Nootropics aren’t a magic bullet and they won’t create superhuman abilities like they seem to in movies, but there are some natural substances that may help improve brain performance. Smart drugs, on the other hand, have potentially dangerous side effects (especially when used off-label or by someone they were not prescribed to) and should generally be avoided, especially without the oversight of a trained doctor or medical professional.

Ever tried any Nootropics or smart drugs? What did you think? Share below!

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Reader Comments

  1. Thank you for the suggestions, Katie. It is a great tool to be able to come to one page and have so much knowledge at my fingertips. I appreciate your page so much I have an icon on the home screen of my smart phone. That says a LOT. Thanks again. Love

  2. I use nootropics as needed, my favorite is Optineuro. I tried a lot of the other brands and sent them back because they didn’t work. I am 55, a teacher, have my own side business, and there are times that I need to FOCUS on one thing that I do, that’s where Optineuro comes in. I don’t get any super-human abilities, just pure focus. They are $40.00 for a bottle of 30. They have an evening formula which is amazing and does indeed help me to sleep very well and wake rested. Do these make me smarter? Doubt it, but the focus and the good sleep are worthwhile.

  3. Do you know if the CILTP is soy-free? The Alpha Brain is not soy free, and the pictures and info on the other do not say whether it is or not. Thanks for sharing this! Hope you are enjoying you baby!

  4. Have you tried PHOSPHATIDYLSERINE? Huperzine, and Vinpocetine are in the Alpha brain supplement but have you tried them separately?
    What is your opinion?

  5. I take Ayurvedic herbs as tea. I take Ginko Biloba and Gotu Kola as gelcaps. The herbs are Bacopa Monniera, Gaduchi-Tinospora Cordifolia and Shankapushpushpi-Evolvulus Alsinoides. I researched these on PubMed and there are a number of studies on them from India. I prefer to take these as a tea with added ginger. I have taken a pharmacy class, pharmacognosy, the study of plants used to make drugs and have studied use of plant medicine for about forty years. This tea helps me after years of brain fog from fibromyalgia. It is safe for school aged children and up, but probably best used when you need a boost or when you are older.

    • So much great information not only from Katie but her very learned and experienced audience. I suffer from CFS and the chemical sensitivity makes me fatigued. But, I never stop trying recommendations from reliable sources. I took heparin injections twice daily many years ago after a pharmacist researched that the fibro fog is related to clotting factor 9 and causing blood to thicken. Only took for short while. My doc was squeamish about prescribing anyway.

  6. You never touched on any of the choline precursor – Phosphatidyl Serine (PS), DMAE, etc. I’ve heard from one author that supplementing choline during pregnancy can result in “super brains” in the offspring, which I’m not saying is true or false, it sounds a bit suspicious, but I wonder what the effects would be (I’d imagine at least some positive ones in birth and developmental outcome). There have been some interesting studies done on golfers supplementing PS and the supplement improved their overall game. It’s been show to help with ADHD and kids with focusing issues, evidenced as an anti-cortisol, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it could greatly help with Alzheimers or other neurological disorders (in the context of a healthy diet). But I agree with your article, they’re not a cure-all type of supplement. I think people expect a supplement to live up to hype, though they continue eating bad and wonder why the supplement isn’t as claimed.

    • Cholene is common enough in pastured eggs.

  7. I use my own nootropic cocktail which I’ve formulated based off of Alpha Brain and another supplement Brain Stack. I have ADD and feel that this helps me far more than any type of amphetamines I’ve been prescribed. I buy bulk powder and make my own capsules to save money.

    • John,
      Do you have somewhere to share your recipe?

  8. Great take on nootropics Katie! I love the breakdown including adaptogens, it’s often overlooked. 🙂

  9. Yes! I have been taking CBD oil for about a month now, and it should definitely come under that heading, “nootropics”! It directly effects the brain, reprogramming our endocannabinoid system, setting us back in balance, boosting cognitive power in the process. As an incredible anti-inflammatory, it only makes sense. Inflammation decreases our brain functions, and caffeine definitely causes inflammation. I would trade CBD for coffee any day!

  10. I’m a 34 year old women. The past 3 years my memory has gotten really bad where I get embarrassed talking to people because I forget simple words, I’m talking two words every three four sentences. I’m just hoping I can get some thoughts to what and why this is happening to me. I have a 13 year old daughter, so I didn’t just have her so it can’t be postpartum. I did have a cyst on my ovary the size of a football . I had that along with my ovary taken out this past December. I know you guys aren’t doctors but I know there’s a lot of smart people out there and maybe someone could give me some advise. Thanks!

    • Hi Dallas!
      I am the same age as you. I had some of what you’re describing happening to me as well. I was able to find a N.D. and he helped me find I was estrogen dominant and started me on supplements to correct it. I can’t tell you how much it helped my brain! I am taking a DIM product, thyroid support, and since I was a little anemic some blood support as well. I would highly recommend having a root cause/natural treatment Dr do some blood work to check your hormone levels at the proper time of your cycle, I feel SO much better, and I can think now! Hope this helps till Katie or someone wiser than me can answer :-))
      P.s….make sure your supplements are non-gmo and soy free 😀

    • Hi Dallas, I’m sorry to hear about what you are going through, there are many deficiencies that could be causing you to loose your memory. Lack of healthy fats could be a contributor. I work among many naturopathic doctors who could give better advise than I. What I can say is choline supplements are crucial for brain deterioration. I actually did a summary of the Harvard study for treating Alzheimer’s on my blog >
      I take it myself along side a b vitamin complex.

      Hope this helps!!

    • Hi Dallas, you said that you have used Alpha Brain and CILTEP, they are indeed excellent to boost brain and memory. There are three more herbal nootropics; Ginseng, Ginkgo and Bacopa. They increase mental capacity, brain power and through clarity. Ginkgo is known as the “best natural nootropic” for a few years now. It contains “flavonoid” that reduces brain inflammation and increases concentration level.

  11. You should try Nootroplus. It’s the best nootropics I tried. It makes me focus on what I do and helps when I want to work out too. Zero side effect so far.

  12. Katie,
    Are any of these ‘stacks’ safe for pregnancy?
    I have severe ADD, and I miss my adderal dearly.

    • I would not take any of these while pregnant, but check with your doc to be sure.

  13. I found that CoQ10 (normally known for heart health) helps me stay focused, clear and awake. In fact, since starting to take 2x100mg of a pharmaceutical-grade ubiquinone used in clinical trials around the world, I don’t drink coffee until noon some time.
    It make sense, our hearts and our brains are the most energy-consuming. Clinical trials show CoQ10 also has many neurological benefits, which makes sense considering it is responsible for 95% of our internal energy production. I never cease to be impressed with the amounts of conditions and issues it helps combat – my new favorite place to geek out on CoQ10 info is the q10facts site.
    Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions – I use many different recipes from you. Love your site!!

    I learned so much about how magnesium plays such a vital role in the health of our brain 🙂
    Who knew?! Magnesium?? once i read the book “The Magnesium Miracle” I was amazed by how much our body can benefit it SOO MANY WAYS!!!

  15. Great post, Katie!

    Brain health is a subject that a lot of people don’t know about, but they should! It’s always good to have a balanced diet and exercise more – not only your body, but also your mind.

    Keep up with the amazing work here.


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