Seems humans have always been in a constant search for the silver bullet or magic pill to make us faster, stronger, and smarter. Sure, there are more difficult and time-consuming ways of getting these things done, usually with training and education. But people are fascinated (and dare I say obsessed?) with the search for a substance or “hack” that will make it easier.
While this is an age-old search, today we have different options that are gaining popularity. Smart drugs and nootropics, as they’re called, are still widely unknown to the general population. That includes both benefits (and risks) that they may have.
The movie “Limitless” drew interest in these types of substances because the main character finds a smart drug that allows him to have a superhuman brain. But then he goes on to face the unintended consequences of the drug.
Do you want to be “limitless?” Well, let’s explore the ups and downs of these nootropic supplements and cognitive enhancers.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics and smart drugs are substances that enhance cognitive performance in some way. They can be herbs, higher-dose vitamins or minerals, food-derived, or manmade. Nootropics can come in many forms, including:
- Nootropic supplements (such as ginkgo biloba, B vitamins, rhodiola rosea, and l-theanine)
- Prescription “smart drugs” (including Adderall, Ritalin, Selegeline, and other amphetamines)
- Foods (like coffee, coconut oil, MCT oil, green tea, and omega-3 fatty acids)
To be considered a nootropic (which “smart drugs” fall under), a substance must fulfill five criteria. Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, a psychologist and chemist, is the first who coined the term. His criteria are:
- The substance should enhance the brain in some way.
- It should improve cognitive performance under stress (such as electrical shock or oxygen deprivation).
- Have protective properties that defend the brain against other harmful substances.
- It should increase the way that the brain’s neurons and neurotransmitters communicate and act in the cortical and subcortical regions.
- It should be non-toxic and have no harmful side effects.
Seems like a tall order, huh?
Weighing the Options
As you can imagine, this limits the number of substances that technically meet the definition of “nootropics.” As Bradley Cooper’s character found in the movie “Limitless,” substances that offer incredible benefit and seem too good to be true often are.
The terms “nootropic” and “smart drug” are often used to refer to any substance, supplement, or chemical that improves cognitive performance in some way. But many of these substances do have side effects. That means they do not meet all of the technical criteria for being a nootropic.
The two terms—nootropics and smart drugs—are often used interchangeably. But there are important differences in their mechanisms and safety.
What Are Smart Drugs?
Smart drugs are typically prescription drugs that are used to improve mental sharpness or brain function in some way. They may be prescribed medications for a certain condition, like ADHD, or they may be used for off-label purposes.
- Adderall (amphetamines) and Ritalin (methylphenidate) are both psychotropic medications that are used for ADD or ADHD to improve cognitive performance by regulating neurotransmitter functions. They may also be used in people who do not have these specific diagnoses, but feel they need support for clearer thinking and better brain organization.
- Piracetam, a type of racetam substance, is another example that may be used for cognitive enhancement. It is typically used to treat muscle spasms, but has also found use as a smart drug since it is available over-the-counter in the U.S. as a compound—not a supplement, but not a drug either. In many other countries, it requires a prescription.
- Provigil (modafinil) is a stimulant drug that is typically used for treating narcolepsy or sleep apnea, but may also have off-label use for cognitive impairment. Ben Greenfield talked about this in one of his podcasts, and noted that even if a smart drug can improve brain function, if it has side effects (as nearly every smart drug does) it’s not actually a nootropic.
I saw firsthand how these types of prescription medications could be abused when I was in a highly competitive honors program in college. Students weren’t just trying to improve cognition, they were trying to be smarter and more focused while also sleeping less. I also saw how these could affect people with misuse and as the drugs wore off, with insomnia, irritability, and even dependence.
I’ve always stayed away from smart drugs because while they offer some potentially impressive benefits, they also tend to come with side effects. I have always preferred natural options whenever possible. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve also always assumed the best way to improve my cognitive performance is to regularly challenge my mind—without the need for pharmaceutical assistance!
Benefits of Nootropics
I can honestly say that I’m excited about what nootropics can offer based on the thorough and promising scientific research available. We can all use a leg up in life (moms especially!) so as the research develops I’ve become more and more open to nootropics as a health tool.
Many of us moms use substances that affect the brain daily anyway, especially caffeine and sugar. I wanted to see if there were other natural ways to improve energy and brain performance.
Natural nootropics work to boost brain function and also improve your brain’s health. So you’re not sacrificing better function now for consequences later. They actually work by dilating the small arteries and veins in the brain. This leads to increased circulation, nutrient delivery, and oxygen flow in the brain. All of these are important to promote anti-aging benefits, too.
Note that even natural substances that improve cognition do have an effect on the brain. While there isn’t a single way that they work, most affect the brain by changing the neurotransmitters 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.
Deciding Which Nootropics to Try
I stuck to substances that seemed to meet the actual definition of “nootropics.” I wanted benefits and cognitive protection without the negative side effects. I found several that seemed to be very effective.
Types of Nootropics
Many types of substances get lumped into the broad category of “nootropics” or “smart drugs,” though not all of them technically meet the criteria. That said, there are several classes of herbs, supplements, and even foods that seem to improve cognition.
These are natural substances that help the body handle stress. They may also:
- Help improve cognition
- Reduce fatigue
- Increase memory
Examples include herbs like ginseng, maca, ginkgo biloba, and cordyceps.
Adaptogens have a balancing effect on the brain. They are not stimulants and they don’t induce sleep, but they can have those effects depending on what your brain needs. Some people take ashwagandha, an herb that is both a nootropic and an adaptogen, and it can make them sleepy—if they’ve been too stressed to relax enough to rest. Others could take it and feel more alert if their stress has been making their brain feel tired and sluggish.
Also, adaptogens literally help the body to adapt to the circumstances at hand. 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:
Keep in mind that some adaptogens, like ashwagandha, are not recommended for people with Hashimotos. This is because they can stimulate the immune system enough to potentially worsen antibody levels.
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.
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). They support and nourish the body in other ways as well. The best option for ensuring optimal brain performance and overall health is to consume a nourishing and varied diet. When I need a brain boost, I am more intentional about adding these foods:
- Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA from oily fish and supplements
- Antioxidant foods like berries and brightly colored vegetables
- Healthy fats like coconut oil, ghee, and MCT oil
- Vitamin K from butter, cheese, and supplements
- Coffee (because motherhood)
A Note on Coffee
Coffee is the only nootropic food that is essentially dose-dependent. In smaller amounts, it can lead to increased focus and optimized brain function. But if you take in too much caffeine, you may get jittery, feel anxious, or experience other side effects. This would negate the nootropic benefit.
Caffeine as a supplement is also risky and not considered to be a nootropic. It would be classed as a psychoactive substance with too many potential risks since they are not dose-regulated.
Nootropic Supplement Blends
Much less often, I’ve used specific nootropic supplements designed to improve mental performance. These are the brands/supplements I’ve used or our medical review experts recommended. I’ve given my personal experience with each and whether I saw any side effects along with benefits.
Important: By no means did I take these together… I always cycle supplements, especially when trying something out, to see how I personally react.
I also wouldn’t use any of these without a doctor’s okay when pregnant or nursing.
All health is individual, so in all cases, check with your doctor to find out which ones might be right for you.
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 as 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. I 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. Read the full review here.
Ari Whitten formulated UltraBrain, his nootropic full-spectrum blend along with some other awesome energy boosters. Over 20 ingredients will help your mitochondria and reduce inflammation.
This supplement from Paleovalley (pictured above) contains a blend of 8 organic mushrooms known to support mental clarity and healthy inflammation response. They also added organic whole coffee fruit as a source of BDNF, a key neuro-protein that promotes mental sharpness.
While most supplements made from mushrooms use mycelium grown on grain (problematic for many people), Paleovalley only uses mushrooms farmed in natural, organic growing conditions. (Just another reason we love all their products!)
B.Smart Brain Fuel
If you’re looking for a simple adaptogen formula that’s straight from nature, I highly recommend Beekeeper’s Naturals B. Smart Brain Fuel. It contains just 5 ingredients: royal jelly, bacopa extract, gingko, vegetable glycerin, and purified water.
This company does their research! Their nootropic supplements contain 24 ingredients known to improve uptake and regulation of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other critical compounds for optimal brain function. Their products are non-GMO and gluten-free.
Perfect Supplements Rhodiola
If you’re looking for just rhodiola by itself, try this 100% wildcrafted supplement from Perfect Supplements, one of my favorite companies. I feel a boost of energy when I use this, but I wouldn’t suggest combining with coffee or other stimulants (too many jitters!). I also noticed that even though I had more energy during the day, I felt calmer and slept better when using this supplement.
This supplement increases cerebral blood flow, thus enhancing nutrient delivery. It is made from the Periwinkle plant and without side effects. Vinpocetine is most effective when taken on an empty stomach. I haven’t tried this one personally but Source Naturals is a brand with excellent sourcing and reputation.
This substance, derived from Chinese Club Moss, raises acetylcholine levels. Acetylcholine serves as a major neurotransmitter and cellular communication molecule. It is important for muscular contractions to occur as well. This is one I don’t have personal experience with but comes highly recommended by doctors I trust.
Should You Try Nootropics?
The answer depends on what you’re looking for and your stage of life. Smart drugs aside (since you can’t or shouldn’t get these without your doctor’s approval), most nootropic supplementation won’t be considered safe in the context of trying to conceive, pregnancy, or breastfeeding. If that’s where you are, best to save the idea for a different stage of life.
While most people assume that supplements are “safe” because they’re natural, most medications and supplements use the same pathway in the body to be metabolized and put to use. So, if you’re taking several different supplements, or some supplements with medications, it’s a good idea to run it by your provider. Some supplement combinations can have some potentially serious risks for liver or kidney health.
If you have none of the above concerns, healthy individuals should still remember that the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements for effectiveness. Ask your healthcare provider or alternative medicine specialist for trusted brand recommendations. You can also use ConsumerLab.com or look for other third-party certifications and testing to verify which supplements are high-quality.
The Bottom Line
Nootropics aren’t a magic bullet and they won’t create superhuman abilities as they seem to in movies. 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.
If you’re ready to keep learning more, I highly recommend this podcast I recorded with Dr. Ted Achacoso.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Ernesto “E” Gutierrez. Dr. E is a physician by training and an educator by choice. His training background includes an MD degree and additional degrees in Age Management and Regenerative Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Ever tried any nootropics or smart drugs? What did you think? Share below!
Discussion (29 Comments)
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!
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.
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.
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!
Great take on nootropics Katie! I love the breakdown including adaptogens, it’s often overlooked. 🙂
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.
Do you have somewhere to share your recipe?
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.
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.
Sherry Sheshe Hammett
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.
Have you tried PHOSPHATIDYLSERINE? Huperzine, and Vinpocetine are in the Alpha brain supplement but have you tried them separately?
What is your opinion?
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!
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.
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
You’re very welcome and thanks for reading!