Nootropics are brain-boosters: Supplements that help to improve cognitive performance and brain wellness. Nootropics enhance memory, focus, attention, motivation, relaxation, mood, alertness, stress resistance and more. The best nootropics are also good for the brain, helping to promote healthy brain function over time.
In this guide, we discuss the meaning of nootropics in detail: What they are, what they do, and how to find the best ones for various cognitive functions, mental health and more. While nootropics are sometimes referred to as "smart drugs," this article will focus on nootropic dietary supplements that are available without a prescription. Let's get to it.
The Origin of Nootropics
How are nootropics defined? In general, nootropics are cognitive enhancers. But that's just the beginning of a complex story. Romanian psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, the founding father of nootropics, was the first to attempt to define nootropics. He developed six key criteria to qualify substances as true nootropics. Giurgea's criteria:(1)
Enhancement of memory and learning
Improved cognition under stress
Protection of brain cells (neuroprotective)
Facilitation of cell-to-cell communication
Backed by human research demonstrating brain bioactivity
Absence of usual pharmacological effects of psychotropic drugs
By the strictest definition, only a handful of true nootropics exist. But as science has learned more about the brain and identified more brain-beneficial supplements since the 1960s, the original definition has expanded dramatically.
Modern Definition of Nootropics
Now, if a supplement helps boost brain function in any way, it may be considered as a "nootropic." This amounts to a long list of nootropic supplements – over 80, in fact – that have been linked to better brain health and cognitive function in some way. As the list of nootropics has grown, so has appreciation for a healthy brain's capacity to improve all aspects of life in all types of people.
What Are Nootropics Used For?
In the early days, brain supplements were used by seniors seeking memory support. Now, nootropics are used by all age groups, for a wide variety of potential benefits.
So what do nootropics do? The cognitive benefits associated with various brain supplements and smart drugs are more numerous and expansive than ever before:
Improve Memory - Traditional one-dimensional memory pills evolved into dynamic nootropics for short term memory, recall, learning and more.
Boost Mental Energy - The brain has high energy demands. When brain energy runs low, mental functions suffer. Nootropic supplements can both fuel the brain and boost its energy metabolism.
Sharpen Attention - Nootropics enhance various aspects of attention, focus and concentration; these cognitive function benefits can give users an edge in productivity.
Increase Learning - Students of academia and lifelong learners can benefit from nootropics' various enhancements for cognitive learning processes like memory formation, storage and recall.
Enhance Mood & Mental Health - Nootropics that help with relaxation, confidence, mood balance, motivation, sociability, anxiety, happiness and more can optimize cognitive function and improve life performance.
Promote Creativity - Brain wave-tuning nootropics can foster relaxed, free-flowing thinking that is conducive to creative thinking, artistic exploration and quiet contemplation.
Improve Physical Performance- Nootropics are now considered sports nutrients, too -- due to their ability to improve motivation, training intensity, and focus in the gym.
Strengthen Stress Resistance - Nootropics well-documented anti-stress benefits. Stress reduction can enhance brain performance of everyone from multitasking professionals to competitive athletes.
What are the best nootropics for ADHD?
In 2023, nootropics are increasingly sought by people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Nootropics that influence brain chemicals, particularly dopamine, are found in ADHD supplements. Cognitive enhancer nootropics may also sharpen general mental function when attention problems are present. Phosphatidylserine (PS) and L-Tyrosine may be two of the most promising nootropics for ADHD.
Brain Health Benefits of Nootropics
In addition to boosting a lot of cognitive functions, the best nootropics also nourish the brain for long-range health, helping with:
Brain aging - Antioxidant nootropics protect the brain from unstable molecules called free radicals that otherwise damage cells and accelerate aging.
Cognitive decline - Mild mental processing issues are considered normal as we grow older: Age-Associated Cognitive Decline, Age-Related Mental Decline, and Age-Associated Memory Impairment. Some nootropics help slow this decline and manage symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.
Brain structure changes - Some brain wellness problems are caused by irregularities in the brain's structure. Nootropics may help to maintain normal brain structure in healthy individuals.
How do Nootropics Work?
So how do nootropics work? Nootropics are believed to work by boosting multiple biological pathways in ways that support sharp cognition. Typically, nootropics and stack supplements are designed to target one or more (ideally, all) of the six following brain function pathways:
Increase Brain Energy - The brain consumes about 20% of the body's total energy, qualifying as the body's most demanding organ.(4) Nootropics may support energy metabolism by enhancing mitochondrial efficiency, delivering raw fuel material, and more.
Support Brain Chemicals - Neurotransmitters facilitate neuron-to-neuron communication, essentially regulating all cognitive and memory functions. Increasing neurotransmitter production can help tune brain chemistry for better performance.
Boost Blood flow to the brain - Whether affected by injury or age, impaired cerebral circulation can diminish cerebral function.(5) Supporting blood vessel integrity and nitric oxide levels may help increase delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
Tune Brain Waves - Different brainwave frequencies – in order from highest to lowest: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, delta – correspond to different mental states. Some nootropics can help raise certain frequencies to stimulate desired cognitive effects.
Protect the Brain - Antioxidant reduction in free radical damage. Adaptogenic resistance to stress. Healthy brain structure maintenance. Nootropic neuroprotectors may assist the brain's natural defenses against unhealthy changes via several adaptive processes.
Promote Brain Regeneration & Renewal - Neurogenesis is the process by which the brain regenerates and renews via brain cell repair, maintenance, and plasticity. Some nootropics help by supplying nutritional building blocks and stimulating growth factor.(6)
Smart, skilled nootropic users have a keen eye for nootropic combinations and stacks that boost these brain biopathways simultaneously and safely.
What Are Examples of Nootropics?
In the long run, enhanced brain wellness ultimately results in elevated and sustained mental performance. Contrary to the mass focus on certain synthetic “smart pills," many of the best nootropic supplements sold today are either all natural or extracted from natural sources, and come in various forms:
Vitamins and minerals encompass a wide range of dietary compounds that, depending on your diet, may require supplementation to achieve healthy levels. Some to look for include:
Magnesium - Important for 300+ reactions in the body; may be nootropic for its roles in mood, stress responses, apprehension and relaxation(7)
Vitamin B6 - Helps form sheathing that protects nerve cells; also helps with blood vessel flexibility and brain chemical production(8)
Vitamin B9 - plays a key role in regulating homocysteine levels in the blood, thereby supporting cerebrovascular healthy people(9)
Vitamin B12 - raw material for protective myelin that surrounds nerve cells, also a key player in brain energy and fighting age-related cognitive impairment(10)
Herbs & Mushrooms
Many of the most popular nootropic ingredients are botanical. They range from chewed, brewed, and steeped roots and leaves to herbal extracts standardized to precise levels of their active ingredients.
Some herbal nootropics have been used in folk wellness practices for centuries, suggesting a long track record of safety and efficacy. Examples of nootropics in the "herbs and mushrooms" category:
Lion's Mane Mushroom - This brain-booster that associated with traditional Eastern herbalism and cuisine. It is suggested to raise brain levels of nerve growth factor (NGF).(11) Lion's Mane is associated with support for positive mood, mild age-related cognitive problems and overall brain health.(12,13)
Ginkgo biloba - One of the more historic herbs used to boost brain performance, ginkgo biloba is associated with memory and has been used in traditional Eastern alternative medicine for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Ginkgo biloba is believed to work by boosting blood flow to the brain.
Bacopa Monnieri - a classic Ayurvedic alternative medicine herb associated with knowledge, it has research-backed benefits for spatial memory and learning.(14) With its combined with its memory benefits and anti-stress effects, Bacopa monnieri an especially effective brain supplement for students' distinct needs.
Maritime Pine Bark Extract supplies brain-protective antioxidants, supports brain regeneration and is known for its ability to naturally raise nitric oxide (NO) levels. NO is a vasodilator: It relaxes blood vessels, which in turn enhances blood flow, including to the brain.(15)
Adaptogens are a sub-category of herbal cognitive enhancers that may naturally help bolster the brain and body against the negative effects of stress – be it emotional, physical, chemical, cognitive, etc.
Essentially, adaptogens are natural nootropics that strengthen the body's adaptive resistance to stress, enhancing focus, clarity, emotional stability and overall cognitive ability during stressful conditions.(16)
Rhodiola Rosea is among the best adaptogen nootropics. Its golden root has been used for centuries in Russia to enhance mental energy, inner drive, mental health and resilience under challenging and stressful conditions.(17,18)
The brain is about 60% fat. So it's no surprise that consuming the right fats as part of a healthy diet can benefit the brain. Especially in maintaining healthy brain structure, forming new neural connections (plasticity) and supplying raw materials that are used in various brain regeneration processes.
Phospholipids: Sourced from fish, sunflower, soy, egg yolks, and animal organs, phospholipids are good fats that play important structural roles in brain cell growth, genesis, and repair. As we age, brain phospholipid levels decline. Research suggests phospholipid supplementation helps.(19) Phosphatidylserine (PS) is the top phospholipid nootropic that helps to improve memory and mood, as well as fighting age-related cognitive impairment.(20)
Omega-3 fatty acids: DHA is the Omega-3 that is often associated with brain health. Researchers have linked high Omega-3 intake (especially DHA) and blood levels to cognitive performance metrics like processing speed and attention; as well as to robust overall brain health.(21) Traditionally sourced from fish, Omega-3 supplements are increasingly vegan-sourced from algae and flaxseed.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT): Commonly taken as MCT oil (although powder supplements are also available), these healthy fats serve as fast-acting brain fuel. Specifically, they are converted into ketones and travel quickly to the brain, where they help to energize cells' mitochondria powerplants.(22)
Choline is a natural nootropic used by the body to make and use fats. The brain is itself 60% fat. Therefore, Choline is an important nootropic for supporting brain structure; invaluable for brain repair, regeneration and plasticity. It also helps form the brain chemical acetylcholine.
Nootropic choline sources either provide choline, or help to raise brain choline significantly via indirect pathways. Choline nootropics work well with phospholipids, and are associated with enhancements to memory, mood and mental energy. Examples of choline nootropics include:
Lecithin (phosphatidylcholine): The form that is found in foods we eat, it is estimated to be about 13% total choline. Phosphatidylcholine is the form of choline that is primarily found in our tissues.(23)
Choline: This is the popular source found in supplements. It is more highly concentrated than Lecithin, so a little goes a long way. The body must then convert it into the phosphatidylcholine form that is used to form and maintain cell membranes.
Citicoline (CDP-choline): This form is the best nootropic choline source to look for in brain supplements. It features unique multi-tasking nootropic activity – including an ability to efficiently raise brain phosphatidylcholine levels.(24)
Antioxidants help to protect the brain against free radicals: Unstable molecules that smash against brain cells, damage their membranes, accelerate aging and lead to cognitive decline.
Coenzyme Q-10 is a vitamin-like nootropic that delivers high antioxidant activity and crucial cell energy support. CoQ10 is highly concentrated in the body's high-energy organs, especially the heart and brain. Here, CoQ10 helps to spark high energy levels while protecting against the cell-damaging effects of toxic free radicals.(25)
Pyrroloquinoline Quinone (PQQ) is a super-antioxidant suggested to have up to 5000X the antioxidant activity of vitamin C. Beyond its formidable antioxidant power, PQQ helps to protect and multiply the mitochondria powerplants that are crucial for peak brain energy.(26)
Amino Acid Nootropics
Perhaps the most multi-functional resource of nootropics, amino acids include a set of organic compounds that may benefit in many ways. Examples of nootropic amino acids:
N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine is one of the most significant cognitive enhancers because it serves as a precursor to brain chemicals that are required for sharp mental processing. Stress and multitasking tend to deplete these brain chemicals. Tyrosine helps replenish them. It has been shown to improve brain function under stressful, distracting conditions.(27,28)
L-Theanine is one of the best nootropic amino acid supplements, known for anti-stress effects and its ability to promote a relaxed and alert mental state. Found in green tea, L-Theanine is commonly taken with caffeine because it helps enhance stimulant benefits while reducing jitters and other side effects.(29)
Creatine supplementation has long been used by athletes to energize muscle performance. But did you know creatine may boost your thinking, too? Creatine is an amino acid suggested to help with short term memory and reasoning in healthy people.(30)
The gut and the brain are closely connected. So much so, that some scientists have even called the gut the "second brain."(31) Psychobiotics are supplements -- prebiotics and probiotics, usually -- that nourish the probiotic colony that inhabits the gut and plays important roles in mood and cognitive function.(32)
Is caffeine a nootropic?
Caffeine is among the most popular substances used as a brain-boosting nootropic. It works by blocking adenosine, a compound involved in feelings of tiredness at bedtime.
There is some debate as to whether caffeine is a true nootropic, due to its potential for side effects. However, low-dose caffeine and moderate caffeine intake are gaining momentum as strategies to get greater cognitive benefits and beneficial effects (and less chance of jitters) out of caffeine, especially when combined with L-Theanine.
*How much caffeine is too much? The upper limit is suggested at 400 mg caffeine per day. Higher levels can lead to high blood pressure, irritability, nervousness, and other unpleasant side effects. For better cognitive results, consider low dose caffeine in the range of 50 mg per serving, or moderate dose caffeine ranging from 100-150 mg per serving.
Nootropic Supplements vs. Nootropic Drugs
We've come a long way in establishing natural nootropics as a good option for boosting the brain. But some nootropics are also synthetic or semi-synthetic in origin. This can create some confusion. Further muddying the waters, nootropics are sometimes called "smart drugs." But it's important to remember:
Nootropic supplements are not the same as prescription drugs.
As dietary supplements, nootropics can be purchased in many retail locations, and are intended to improve cognitive functions in healthy people. But in neurodegenerative diseases, such as with Alzheimer's disease patients, only prescription medications (as smart drugs) taken under the direction of a healthcare professional can make claims about prevention and treatment.
Further, while nootropic supplements do not require pre-market approval, prescription smart drug nootropics must be extensively medically reviewed, with clinical research performed before reaching the market. This enables them to be marketed for certain brain diseases.
Remember: A supplement is not in the same league as a healthcare professional's advice diagnosis or treatment.
While we've noted that this article focuses on over-the-counter nootropic supplements, it makes sense to cover prescription nootropics as well. Three of the most popular prescription nootropics smart drugs are:
Adderall: Combination of methamphetamine salts including amphetamine and dextroamphetamine that is widely prescribed to help with cognitive deficits associated with ADHD
Modafinil: This nootroopic smart drug is prescribed to treat narcolepsy, especially for workers with long hours or night shifts
Ritalin (Methylphenidate): Another of the stimulant-class prescription nootropics, used for attention problems, including to treat ADHD, as well as narcolepsy
Are Nootropics Safe?
There are so many nootropics, combinations and products that side effects, adverse events and health risks are possible. Further, even "safe" nootropics can be rendered unsafe for otherwise healthy individuals due to low quality, bad formulation strategies and shoddy manufacturing practices. For these reasons, it is advisable to seek out supplements that emphasize quality and have a strong track record of safety. And always take supplements under the direction of your healthcare professional.
What Are Individual Nootropic Supplements?
Single ingredient supplements often supplied for specialized purposes to improve an aspect of cognitive function – e.g., L-Tyrosine for stress relief – or cheaply bought in bulk and in conjunction with other standalone bulk ingredients to craft specially enhanced nootropic stack supplements for each individual person.
What Are Nootropic Stack Supplements?
Stacking is the process of combining diverse nootropics into a formula with the goal of compounding and synergizing individual ingredient bioactivities for greater brain-boosting effects. The two types of stacks are called:
Homemade Stacks - The DIY biohacker route to enhanced cognition, often tied to the online forum Reddit, in which efficacy and safety are contingent upon the creator's discretion.
Pre-made Stacks - Manufactured multi-ingredient supplements, ideally subjected to safety and quality testing.
Whereas the former type of cognitive enhancers allows nootropic enthusiasts to freely customize a virtually limitless combination of formulas, the latter stack provides a more reliable standard of effects.
Do nootropics actually work?
Some nootropics work. Some don't! There are at least 80 nootropics you can buy in supplement form. Ultimately, the question "Do nootropics work" may be answered with:
Nootropics demonstrating benefits in well designed human studies: Double-blind randomized controlled trials that are medically reviewed.
More research! Nootropics with supportive scientific evidence shown in early research: smaller, non-human studies
Brain-boosters that have a long history of safe and effective use, as well as abundant positive reviews documenting real benefits that people have experienced
With a combination of these factors in mind, you can try a nootropic with confidence. The real test is if it works for you and helps improve cognitive function in a way that you can feel.
Mind Lab Pro®: Scientifically Proven to Enhance Brainpower
Mind Lab Pro® is the best nootropic supplement. It enhances learning, improves memory and more. In fact, with its Universal Nootropic™ stack strategy, Mind Lab Pro® optimizes the whole brain to enhance all types of mental performance and cognitive abilities. In addition, it optimizes brain health in many ways to best support long-range mental clarity.
All 11 ingredients in Mind Lab Pro® are safe and well-tolerated. Mind Lab Pro® is also the cleanest nootropic supplement ever developed: No artificial colors, no preservatives, no GMO, no gluten, no caffeine and no additives. Even the capsules are clean: Premium vegan NutriCaps®.
Mind Lab Pro® is Backed by Science.
Mind Lab Pro works. How do we know? It has sold over one million bottles, with most customers returning to purchase the formula again and again. It is made with research-backed nootropics in carefully calibrated combinations and dosages.
But most importantly, Mind Lab Pro® has been proven effective in well-designed in randomized controlled trials. Making it one of the only pre-made stack supplements in the world that backs up its claims with real science.
- In one study, researchers reported that subjects taking Mind Lab Pro for 30 days experienced significant improvements (when compared to those taking placebo) in performing information processing tasks involving simple reaction time (SRT), choice reaction time (CRT) and anticipation.(2)
- A second study found that subjects taking Mind Lab Pro demonstrated significant improvements across all memory functions that were tested, including auditory, visual, visual working, immediate and delayed recall memory.(3)
Additional Nootropic Supplements to Consider
The makers of Mind Lab Pro® also make the Performance Lab® line, which includes additional high-quality nootropic supplements to consider:
Performance Lab® MCT: Medium-chain triglycerides C8/C10 from 100% organic coconuts that provide fast fuel for brain energy. Fuels and protects brain cells’ powerhouse mitochondria and supports overall brain health.
Performance Lab® Prebiotic: Psychobiotic support in the form of Orafti® Synergy1 (Inulin-FOS) (FructoOligoSaccharides from Chicory Root) prebiotic fiber. Great for heart and digestive health; boosts the microbiome "second brain" for mood support.
Performance Lab® Omega-3: Supplies vegan Omega-3 fatty acids from life’s™OMEGA Algal Oil, 2000 mg. Supplies DHA, the most important Omega-3 fatty acid for overall brain health.
Performance Lab® Energy: Targets cell mitochondria to unleash stim-free vitality, including a boost for mental energy. Includes Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Bio-Enhanced® R-Lipoic Acid, MicroActive® Q10 Coenzyme Q10, BioPQQ® and more.
Performance Lab® Caffeine +: Low-dose caffeine enhanced with NutriGenesis® Caffeine Balance B-Complex, Suntheanine® L-Theanine, Ajipure® L-Tyrosine. Supports calmer energy and alertness plus faster bounce-back from stimulation.
Performance Lab® Mind: Stim-free cognitive enhancer with mental recovery and brain health support. Targets focus, mental speed, multitasking, motivation, memory and more*
When healthy adults ask the question, "What are nootropics?" They are really asking, "What's in it for me?" That is why the common answers relate to natural nootropics' ability to improve and enhance short term memory, long range memory, attention, mental processing and other aspects of cognitive performance.
But to really know what nootropics are, we must look deeper – to the original definition of nootropics, and its specific criteria for extremely good safety profiles, human research-backed bioactivities, outstanding tolerability, and brain-protective properties. This means it must be backed by high-quality, well-designed human clinical research that demonstrates its claimed benefits.
Mind Lab Pro® is the most advanced nootropic you can buy – scientifically proven to enhance cognition while adhering to the safe, brain-healthy and holistic philosophies that exemplify the true meaning of "nootropic."
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- Abbott-Imboden C., Gonzalez Y., Utley A. (2023). Efficacy of the nootropic supplement Mind Lab Pro on memory in adults: Double blind, placebo-controlled study. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, e2872. https://doi.org/10.1002/hup.2872
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