What Are Nootropics?

Also known as ‘smart drugs’ and ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics come in many forms. From organic-based compounds like herbs and amino acids to completely synthetic drugs designed and manufactured in a laboratory. Their obtainability also ranges widely, from readily available herbal extracts and supplements all the way to completely illicit substances.

Nootropics of all kinds have seen tremendous growth in popularity in recent years. They are now used by athletes at all competitive levels and are relied on by many programmers and developers in the tech world. In fact, nootropics have made their way into mainstream society.

is caffeine a nootropic?

Well if we want to be completely accurate, they’ve actually been there for quite some time! In reality, you’ve probably been taking nootropics for years. You just didn’t know it.  If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee or a spot of tea, then you have taken a nootropic.  

Caffeine is the naturally occurring psychoactive ingredient found in coffee beans and tea leaves. Its ability to jolt your brain into a heightened state of alertness makes it the most popular nootropic substance in the world.

But it’s not just their energy-boosting properties that have made nootropics popular, they’re known to enhance your cognitive functions on several different levels.

How Do Nootropics Actually Work?

When it comes to the question “how do nootropics work”, it is tough to boil things down into a one size fits all answer. There are hundreds of different nootropic substances and each of them interacts with the brain in a distinct way.   

We can, however, break them down into different categories based on the brain functions in which they affect. Some nootropics may interact in your brain by influencing the production of certain chemicals, while others may instead help to promote improved blood circulation and nutrient absorption. Some may do both. Others may do neither.   

In general, nootropics help to improve your cognitive abilities in one or more of the following ways:  

Protect Your Brain

Some nootropics function as neuroprotectors, meaning that they help to protect your brain against other substances that can impair cognitive abilities like memory and information processing.

For example, l-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. One of its functions is to inhibit the release of the excitatory chemical glutamate in the brain. Glutamate is a natural and necessary substance in your brain, but at high levels, can induce feelings of stress and uneasiness. (1)

Modulate Brain Chemicals

Nootropics can also work by increasing the production of certain types of chemicals in your brain, known as neurotransmitters. These are signal messengers that travel from nerve to nerve. Brain chemicals such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine are known to enhance your feeling of well-being. For example, a nootropic like 5 HTP boosts the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin in your brain, which helps to produce a relaxed, worry-free state of mind. (2)(3)

On the flip side, some types of nootropics work in the opposite way: by blocking the production of neurotransmitters that produce unwanted effects like stress and apprehension. For instance, some nootropics help to improve your mood by targeting and inhibiting the production of cortisol, which is a neurotransmitter directly associated with stress. (4)

Support Brain Energy

nootropic brain energy

Some Nootropics such as creatine (a non-essential amino acid) help to boost the brain’s energy by increasing the output of certain chemicals such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in your brain cells. ATP is derived from the breakdown of food molecules like amino acids and glucose and is your brain’s primary chemical fuel source.  

The increased availability of ATP in the brain is believed to boost cognitive skills such as critical thinking and short-term memory. Some studies on creatine, for instance, have demonstrated that it increases ATP production which in turn helps to improve the cognitive performance.(5)

Support Brain Blood Flow

Improved blood flow, circulation, and oxygen utilization are also benefits associated with some nootropics. Substances like ginkgo biloba (a natural herb), target tiny blood vessels in the brain, helping to increase oxygen uptake by the nerve cells these vessels supply. Increased cerebral blood circulation is believed to improve your ability to perform cognitive tasks such as those requiring memory recall and information processing. (6)

Regulate Brain Waves

Another way in which some nootropics interact with your brain is through regulating the frequency of your brain waves. It all sounds pretty complicated…and it kind of is.

But in general, your brain waves fluctuate across a number of different frequencies, from delta at the low end, all the way up to gamma at the high end. Different frequencies are associated with different states of mind. Some nootropics help to boost a particular brain wave frequency to produce a desired mental state.  


For instance, theta brain waves (which are on the lower end of the frequency spectrum) are believed to be closely associated with the creative process and the subconscious mind. On the other hand, nootropics like GABA help to boost Alpha brain waves (they’re more in the middle of the spectrum), which helps to alleviate stress-related feelings by producing a calm, relaxed mental state. (7)

How to Take Nootropics Safely

When taken at the correct dosages, there are many nootropics that appear to be safe for adults. However, it is important to point out that there has yet to be much research on the long term effects of many nootropic substances.

In any case, here are some basic rules to follow in order to minimize the potential dangers associated with taking nootropic substances:

Hold Off Until Your Brain Fully Develops

The primary function of a nootropic is to interact with your brain. However, when your brain is still developing, you may be at an increased risk of doing unintended damage. Long story short, it’s probably best to hold off on the cognitive enhancers until your brain is fully developed — for most people, that’s somewhere in their mid-20s.(8)

Do Your Research

Know exactly what it is you are taking and why it is you are taking it. You should at least have a basic understanding of how the substance works and what its effects are before you begin taking it.

If you are looking for nootropic supplements, make sure that you are getting products from reputable manufacturers and distributors. Unfortunately, there are many tainted and/or miss-advertised supplements out there, so make sure that you are purchasing 3rd party tested, well-reviewed products.

Beware of Interactions With Other Drugs

One of the biggest things to be aware of before taking any nootropic product is potential interactions it may have when combined with medication that you’re already on. If you are regularly taking some type of prescription drug, you will want to consult with a medical professional before adding a nootropic substance into the mix.

Can You Take Different Nootropics Together?

The short answer is yes, you can definitely take certain nootropics together in order to enhance their effects.  In fact, a number of supplement companies offer ‘nootropics stacks’ that combine several different ingredients to further enhance their effects on your brain.  

There are lots of different nootropics that become more effective when paired together; however, there are also some that become more dangerous.

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As such, one of the easiest ways to avoid any of the dangers associated with stacking nootropics is by leaving the mixing and matching to the professionals. As with any supplement, do your research and be sure that you’re using ingredients that are safety and quality tested!

Wrap Up

From improving your memory to stabilizing your mood, there are a number of benefits nootropic substances have to offer. They come in many different forms and each of them interacts with your brain through a unique set of pathways.

While there appear to be numerous natural nootropics that are both safe and effective, there are some synthetic substances that relatively little is known about.

Many nootropic substances are available on the open market, while others are only available as prescription-based medication here in the U.S. When the appropriate factors are taken into consideration, there appears to be a number of substances with positive benefits and no serious long-term health effects.