Do Nootropics Actually Work?

Nootropics, also known as "smart drugs" or cognitive enhancers, are compounds that aim to improve cognitive function. They have become increasingly popular in recent years among individuals seeking to enhance their productivity, focus, and overall brain power. However, there is still much debate over the effectiveness and safety of these substances.

What are Nootropics?

The term "nootropic" comes from the Greek words "noos" meaning "mind" and "tropos" meaning "turning." It was first coined by Romanian chemist Corneliu Giurgea in 1972 to describe a class of compounds that could enhance cognitive function without causing harmful side effects.

Nootropics can be synthetic or natural, and they come in a variety of forms, including pills, powders, and drinks. Some of the most common natural nootropics include caffeine, ginkgo biloba, and omega-3 fatty acids, while synthetic nootropics include modafinil and Adderall.

How Do Nootropics Work?

The mechanisms behind how nootropics work are complex and vary depending on the specific compound. However, there are some common pathways that many nootropics use to enhance cognitive function.

One of the primary ways that nootropics work is by promoting neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt over time. Certain nootropics can increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a key role in promoting neuroplasticity.

Nootropics can also increase blood flow to the brain, which can enhance oxygen and nutrient delivery to brain cells. This can help improve cognitive function, memory, and learning.

In addition, many nootropics offer neuroprotective benefits, helping to prevent oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. They can also help increase resilience against stress, allowing individuals to better manage stressors and maintain cognitive function.

Types of Nootropics

Nootropics can be classified into three main categories: prescription drugs, dietary supplements, and synthetic compounds.

Prescription Nootropics

Prescription nootropics are medications that require a doctor's prescription and are typically used to treat medical conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy. Some common prescription nootropics include Adderall, Ritalin, and modafinil.

While prescription nootropics can be effective for treating medical conditions, they can also have serious side effects and are not recommended for healthy individuals looking to enhance their cognitive function.

Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements are over-the-counter products that are typically made from natural ingredients such as herbs, vitamins, and minerals. Some common natural nootropics include ginkgo biloba, omega-3 fatty acids, and caffeine.

While some dietary supplements may offer cognitive benefits, they are not regulated by the FDA, and their efficacy and safety hasn't always been thoroughly studied, although we're all familiar with at least a couple of these and their effects, with some of the more well known and well studied ones being:


Caffeine is one of the most well-known and widely used nootropics. It is a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks that can improve mental focus and alertness in the short term. While caffeine is generally safe when consumed in moderate amounts, excessive consumption can lead to negative side effects like insomnia, anxiety, and rapid heart rate. That said there is no question as to whether or not caffeine works to improve focus and stave off tiredness. 


L-theanine is a natural amino acid found in certain teas that has been shown to increase alpha waves in the brain, which can promote a relaxed yet alert mental state. While there are no official dosage guidelines for L-theanine, most supplements contain 100-400 mg per day.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that the brain requires to function properly. They are found in fatty fish, fish oil, and plant sources like flaxseed (although most plant sources aren't as good as the body can't break down ALA, the more common omega 3 found in plants effectively, algae is a little different). While omega-3s are critical for basic brain functions, there is some strong evidence that they improve cognition in people otherwise deficient, but supplementing beyond the RDI has much less evidence in support of it. 

Panax Ginseng

Panax ginseng is a perennial shrub found in parts of China and Siberia that has been used for medicinal purposes for millennia. It may help prevent certain neurodegenerative brain diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. There definitely seems to be something for Ginseng in double blind placebo controlled trials, but it does seem to be somewhat inconsistent.

Synthetic Compounds

Synthetic nootropics are man-made compounds that have been designed to enhance cognitive function. Some common synthetic nootropics include noopept and phenylpiracetam.

While synthetic nootropics may offer cognitive benefits, they can also have serious side effects and are not recommended for healthy individuals looking to enhance their cognitive function. A couple of the more common and well known examples being:


Racetams are a class of synthetic compounds that all stem from the original nootropic called piracetam. They are thought to help cells in the brain and blood vessels to function better by maintaining and restoring the membrane that surrounds cells. While some proponents claim that racetams can boost cognition, energy, focus, and memory, there is little scientific evidence to support these claims.


Phenibut is a synthetic form of GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits the activity of neurons in the brain. It is marketed as a nootropic mood enhancer, sleep aid, exercise recovery booster, and even "smart drug." While phenibut can have calming yet mentally stimulating effects, it carries a risk of dependence and addiction, and withdrawal can be unpleasant and long-lasting.

The Science of Nootropics

The scientific research surrounding the efficacy and safety of nootropics is still in its early stages, and there is much debate over their potential benefits and risks.

Some studies have suggested that certain nootropics can improve cognitive function, memory, and learning. For example, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that a combination of caffeine and L-theanine improved cognitive performance and mood in healthy volunteers.

However, other studies have found little to no evidence of cognitive benefits from nootropics. A review published in the journal Psychopharmacology concluded that while some nootropics may offer cognitive benefits, more research is needed to fully understand their effects.

In addition, there are concerns over the safety of nootropics, particularly synthetic compounds. Many synthetic nootropics have not been thoroughly studied, and their long-term effects on the brain and body are not well understood.

Potential Benefits of Nootropics

While the scientific research on nootropics is still in its early stages, some potential benefits have been suggested. These include:

  • Improved cognitive function: Some nootropics may enhance cognitive function, memory, and learning.
  • Increased motivation: Certain nootropics may increase motivation and drive.
  • Increased focus: Some nootropics may improve focus and concentration.
  • Enhanced creativity: Certain nootropics may enhance creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Potential Risks of Nootropics

While nootropics may offer potential benefits, there are also potential risks to consider.

  • Side effects: Some nootropics can have side effects such as headaches, nausea, and insomnia.
  • Addiction: Certain nootropics, particularly prescription drugs, can be addictive and may lead to dependence.
  • Lack of regulation: Many dietary supplements and synthetic nootropics are not regulated by the FDA, and their safety and efficacy have not been thoroughly studied.
  • Interactions with other medications: Nootropics may interact with other medications, leading to potentially dangerous side effects.

So Do Nootropics Work?

Nootropics are a class of compounds that aim to enhance cognitive function and improve brain power. There's no debate that some do in fact most definitely work. Caffeine for example, but with lesser known and studied compounds there is still much debate over their efficacy and safety. Ultimately it's going to come down to each nootropic ingredient individually as to how much science there is to back up the claims, and unfortunately some unscrupulous companies will continue to push long debunked products.

However, there are also potential risks to consider, including side effects, addiction, lack of regulation, and interactions with other medications.

We do have a list of the best nootropics we've tested available here.

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