Nootropics and smart drugs are substances that act as cognitive enhancers, potentially improving specific mental functions such as concentration, memory, and attention span.
The market has exploded with a surge of people wanting to gain an edge when it comes to mental performance.
Curious about what nootropics might do for you? We’ll take a closer look at the best nootropics in 2021 and shed some light on why this market was recently valued at $2.21 billion.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics, from Greek, meaning “mind-turning”, are substances that claim to act as ‘brain boosters in order to aid alertness, intelligence and creativity.
Nootropics fall into two broad categories:
● Natural nootropics – These include all-natural ingredients like herbs and plant extracts that have been evaluated for their ability to enhance cognition. These substances are not regulated by the FDA and are restricted from making certain claims.
● Synthetic smart drugs – These are pharmaceutical agents that can have a strong effect on mental functions. They often require a prescription and are used under medical supervision.
Whether you opt for synthetic or natural nootropics will depend on your personal goals. To find the right solution for you, you’ll need to know a little more about each ingredient found in common nootropics and how they work.
Natural Nootropics 2021: A Quick List
1. Brain Powher
12 Natural Nootropics and Smart Drugs
Depending on your individual needs, you may choose to go the natural or synthetic route to support your brain health. Both types of nootropics have pros and cons that should be considered.
Although natural nootropics are not regulated by the FDA, they may still be effective for promoting brain health.
Many of these traditional substances have a longer history of use than their medicinal counterparts.
While evaluating the best nootropics, pharmaceuticals or so called ‘smart drugs’ are generally considered to be the most effective option.
However these medicines can come with side effects and require a prescription from a doctor to supervise their use.
Caffeine – (Natural)
The most common nootropic in everyday use, caffeine, is a stimulant, psychoactive, and nootropic drug. Studies show that caffeine can improve alertness and focus while reducing perceived fatigue.
Caffeine impacts the brain by blocking a chemical messenger called cyclic adenosine monophoshate (cAMP), that makes you feel tired. The absence of cAMP triggers the release of several other stimulating hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing feelings of alertness.
Caffeine has been found to offset the cognitive problems caused by sleep deprivation. A 2002 study showed that the nootropic benefits of caffeine can occur both as part of a regular caffeine-intake habit (for example 65 mg over five hours) or as a single large dose of 200 mg.
Up to 300 mg of caffeine a day or the equivalent of about 2 cups of coffee is considered safe for helping increase alertness and reaction time. With caffeine being both legal and incredibly popular, it’s a great example of how natural nootropics can have subtle yet powerful effects.
L-theanine – (Natural)
An amino acid usually derived from tea leaves, L-theanine has been shown to control stress and anxiety, even helping lower elevated blood pressure triggered by stress.
It may also help improve focus on certain mental tasks. L-theanine works by enhancing certain brain waves that increase creativity and promote feelings of “relaxed alertness”.
The relaxing aspect of L-theanine may be why a cup of tea is frequently used to unwind. Being a naturally occurring amino acid, there are minimal side effects for L-theanine. Caffeine, found in black or green tea, seems to enhance the impact of L-theanine on the brain.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom – (Natural)
Lion’s mane is a mushroom with a rich history of use in alternative medicine. Lion’s mane mushrooms contain two compounds called hericenones and erinacines that have been found to stimulate the growth of brain cells.
The discovery of these compounds in lion’s mane has sparked interest in the possibility it may help slow cognitive decline associated with aging. At this time, there are positive results from animal studies suggesting it can improve memory and combat the decline of cognitive health.
Human studies on lion’s mane are sparse. One human study found that regular supplementation with lion’s mane did improve cognitive function in older adults, but the effects disappeared once the supplementation stopped.
Although more research is needed in humans, some research points to lion’s mane mushrooms as a particular candidate for tackling issues affecting brain health.
Magnesium – (Natural)
Magnesium is an essential mineral in the human diet that plays a role in every cell in the body. According to the EFSA, an average adult’s diet should include 300-350 mg of magnesium a day for healthy psychological function.
48% of the US population falls short of the recommended intake, which can cause deficiency-related problems including detrimental effects on brain health.
Magnesium depletion has been associated with insomnia, depression, increased stress, and ADHD in children. Although it is well known that magnesium deficiency can lead to multiple cognitive concerns, there are limited human studies on the impact of magnesium supplementation for improving brain health.
Ashwagandha – (Natural)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a plant in the nightshade family, popular in traditional medicine. It is considered an adaptogenic herb, which helps mitigate the impact of stress on the body.
A 2008 study found that when chronically stressed participants took ashwagandha for 60 days, they were found to have a more balanced stress response. Participants also had improved levels of inflammation markers, cortisol, and blood pressure. Other studies have found similar potential for ashwagandha as a stress-relieving agent.
There are several ways that ashwagandha may help relieve the physical effects of stress. Firstly, it is said to contain compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
It may also regulate hormones and neurotransmitters, reducing stress. This is because ashwagandha could potentially interact with the adrenal glands, responsible for releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Ginkgo Biloba – (Natural)
Ginkgo biloba (aka maidenhair tree) has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years and has a long history of use in traditional medicine.
Supplementation with ginkgo was found in a small study to enhance mental functioning and improve general well-being. Another found that it enhances cognitive processing ability in older adults.
A larger scale meta-analysis of the impact of gingko on cognitive function found no consistent improvements in attention and memory.
At this time research on the impact of ginkgo for brain health is mixed. Even so, it remains a popular ingredient in nootropic supplements.
Cannabidiol (CBD) – (Natural)
Cannabidiol or CBD is a compound derived from the plants of the Cannabis sativa family, hemp or marijuana. CBD can be extracted from either plant. With the recent legalization of this class of plants in the 2018 Farm Bill, interest in using CBD for a variety of health purposes has exploded.
CBD was only legalized for research purposes in 2015, therefore research is sparse.
CBD is believed to impact a part of the nervous system called the endocannabinoid system, directly modifying communication with the brain. It is theorized that modifying this system may help improve mood, sleep, stress, and pain. CBD is also an anti-inflammatory compound, which may translate to additional health benefits.
With all the interest around CBD for health, the number of companies selling CBD has exploded in recent years. For this reason and the lack of available research, the FDA has significantly limited claims that can be made about this promising compound.
Bacopa Monnieri – (Natural)
Bacopa monnieri is a wetland herb found throughout the world. It has enjoyed a long history of use in the Ayurvedic medical tradition.
One 12 week study found that taking 300 mg of Bacopa monnieri increased processing speed, learning, and memory when compared to a placebo. Multiple other studies have shown the nootropic potential of Bacopa monnieri, highlighting its incredible potential as a natural nootropic.
Bacopa monnieri works by impacting levels of neurotransmitters related to regulating stress and improving memory and brain function. It also has antioxidant properties that may help reduce oxidative stress in the brain.
Modafinil is a drug often used to treat sleep-related disorders like narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnoea. It has been approved for medical use in the US since 1998 and is available on prescription in the UK. Provigil is one of its most recognized brand names.
Modafinil is also used as a cognitive enhancer, though research on its efficacy is currently inconclusive.
Armed forces throughout the world consider modafinil a possible alternative to the amphetamines often used for combat missions to tackle sleep deprivation. It’s also available to ISS astronauts to counteract the effects of fatigue caused by circadian disruption.
Side effects associated with modafinil range from common problems like nausea and headaches to more serious problems like skin lesions and rashes. Though rare, some of these side effects can be severe.
Noopept is a brand name for a nootropic that is a potent psychoactive. For this reason it has attracted clinical interest for its potential use in tackling the effects of traumatic brain injury, though research is ongoing.
It also has protective effects on the brain and may slow cognitive decline. Interestingly the effects are only seen in those with active brain damage. There is no evidence that it will improve brain function in healthy people.
Noopept’s legal status varies greatly by jurisdiction. In Russia, you can access Noopept without a prescription, while the UK lists it as a scheduled substance. In the United States it is available over-the-counter in supplement form.
If you’re reading about nootropics for the first time, there’s a good chance this is the first one you’ve heard of. Adderall is a household name brand for an amphetamine-based drug often prescribed for conditions like ADHD and narcolepsy.
Adderall is actually a stimulant that helps modify the function of the nervous system. It works by modifying certain neurotransmitters in the brain to speed up their activity.
As a commonly prescribed nootropic, Adderall demonstrates that nootropics have their place in a medical context. Adderall is typically well-tolerated, offering a lot of bang for the buck in terms of medical potential versus side effects.
In some rare cases, Adderall can cause severe side effects, such as depression, delusions, or aggressive behaviour.
Piracetam is a nootropic belonging to the class of drug called racetams. It is sold as a medicine throughout Europe, but as a dietary supplement in the US. In the UK, Piracetam is available on prescription for the treatment of jerking spasms called myoclonus, but is not otherwise prescribed for nootropic purposes.
It has been prescribed to treat illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, seizures, dementia, and dyslexia. It works by improving neuroplasticity in the brain and modifying the function of neurotransmitters, slowing down the nervous system.
Evidence for Piracetam’s effectiveness is mixed, though it also has very few side effects.
Natural Nootropics You Might Consider
1. Brain Powher
Brain Powher’s formula includes natural plant extracts and herbs as well as a blend of vitamins and minerals. It is designed to give you a mental boost when used alongside positive lifestyle changes.
This supplement includes caffeine, the well known nootropic used by people across the globe in order to improve alertness and concentration.
Powher’s formula also includes magnesium which has been approved by the EFSA to contribute to normal psychological function, as well as several B vitamins which have been shown to reduce fatigue. Other notable ingredients include ashwagandha, ginkgo biloba and lion’s mane mushroom.
The dosage is two capsules per day with a morning meal, with the potential for an increased dose for those who tolerate the supplement well.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Low in stimulants
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2. Littledrops CBD
CBD products are making headlines for their huge range of potential health benefits. Some of these benefits might be improved cognitive function, as well as reduced anxiety and stress.
Research on CBD is in its early stages, as it was just recently legalized for scientific study. Many of the claims around the benefits of CBD are anecdotal for now, but do show promise for certain cognitive conditions.
If you are not familiar with CBD you might be surprised when you hear it is derived from the cannabis plant family. Don’t panic about getting high! Most CBD products contain only trace amounts of the psychoactive THC, the compound associated with the high. If you use THC-containing products regularly, you may test positive in a drug test, so be aware of that.
Hemp oil products, which are also CBD, contain no THC. This may be a better option for those who want to try CBD, but don’t want to risk a positive drug screening.
Littledrops delivers its CBD dose in gummy form, which makes a palatable, convenient way of adding nootropics to your diet. It’s one of the most popular CBD brands around, so it’s clear that a lot of people are finding benefits in Littledrops CBD.
It’s no surprise that Littledrop’s nootropic punch comes entirely from its helping of CBD. Each gummy includes 20 mg of CBD.
As expected of a gummy, Littledrops is a tasty snack as well as a supplement. Flavoured with blueberry ternatea, each gummy has a light natural blueberry flavour.
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Prevagen is a brain health supplement that claims to improve memory.
The main ingredient of Prevagen is apoaequorin—derived from bioluminescent jellyfish.
Apoaequorin possesses a similar structure to the proteins responsible for binding calcium in the human body, which may help to combat the role poor calcium regulation plays in mental decline and neurotransmitter production.
Most of the research to support the use of apoaequorin is on animals. The dosage given in animal studies is several thousand times higher than what would be used for humans. Although animal studies are promising, they have some limitations.
Prevagen also contains vitamin D3, which has been linked to brain health.
Prevagen’s makers cite the Pharmacy Times publication as placing the Prevagen brand as their top recommended memory support brand in 2020.
Prevagen is available in six varieties, so customers can choose between multiple strength options and opt for chewable capsules.
Neuriva is a nootropic from Schiff Vitamins, a well-established supplement manufacturer with plenty of experience in the field.
Neuriva’s main nootropic punch comes from a combination of coffee fruit extract and phosphatidylserine, with its Plus variety also including vitamins B6 and B12—both essential vitamins for supporting normal cognitive functions.
According to the manufacturer, Neuriva is tailored to improve what it calls 5 indicators of mental performance: literacy, memory, learning, accuracy, and focus.
Neuriva’s nootropic supplements come in four varieties, with two being recent additions to the product line. The flagship products are Neuriva Original and Neuriva Plus, while the newer products add a gummy option and a new De-Stress formulation.
Zhou Nutrition is an established and popular supplement brand.
It’s product Neuro-Peak claims to improve mental energy and alertness, aid memory and mental accuracy, and boost focus and clarity.
Neuro-Peak’s balanced formula is structured around its six active ingredients: vitamin B12, Bacopa monnieri extract, phosphatidylserine complex, ginkgo biloba, rhodiola rosea extract, and dimethylaminoethanol bitartrate (DMAE).
Neuro-Peak is designed to be taken in the form of 1 capsule once or twice a day with meals meaning it’s easy to add to your daily routine.
Bacopa Monnieri extract
Do Nootropics work?
The word nootropic has come to embody many different supplements and medications, which means this is not a simple question to answer.
It’s important to note that pharmaceutical nootropics are primarily used by doctors to treat mental health conditions and symptoms associated with aging.
Unfortunately the potent effects of these drugs have meant that increasing numbers of healthy people are using them recklessly to improve their mental performance.
Natural nootropics might offer a safer alternative if you’re determined to gain an edge, however the major drawback is that there is no clear cut evidence for many of these substances.
Caffeine is by far the most reliable ingredient to try should you wish to experience subtle benefits such as increased alertness and wakefulness, however there is no suggestion this stimulant can aid memory.
Aside from that supplementation with B vitamins could potentially help you feel more energetic throughout the day.
Nootropics for memory
In theory, a nootropic ‘super pill’ sounds like the perfect solution to help you achieve better results in your exams and in your career. In reality there is no natural substance or pharmaceutical that can increase intelligence or IQ.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are one type of drug designed to treat illnesses associated with mental decline. They are used to delay the onset of symptoms relating to memory, language and judgement.
However under no circumstances should these be used by healthy adults, their use is limited to people who have a very real medical need.
Can Nootropics reduce anxiety?
Improving cognitive function isn’t all about focus and concentration. Many people who buy nootropics are seeking to alleviate symptoms such as anxiety.
For those looking for natural options to help calm their nerves, substances like ashwagandha and CBD have both been studied for their soothing qualities, which has made them increasingly popular. However, many claims about these substances don’t yet have full scientific backing and aren’t approved by regulatory bodies.
If you have severe anxiety, you may need prescription medications to help manage it. Common medications for anxiety include Xanax, Ativan, and Valium. These should not be used without supervision by a medical doctor.
While nootropics may help with mood regulation, they’re unlikely to work well in a vacuum. Instead, consider them a partner for other changes you can make to control anxiety, such as lifestyle and dietary modifications, or therapeutic solutions like CBT.
Nootropics for Motivation & Energy
How much more could you accomplish with just a little extra motivation?
Your sense of motivation is influenced by everything from your mental hang-ups to your diet and overall well-being. Nootropics could help you out by tweaking those many factors affecting your sense of drive.
Think about your morning cup of coffee and the caffeine it contains. With that nootropic boost, you can shake off brain fog and stay motivated for longer—and both of those benefits are well-supported by science. Could nootropic supplements allow you to do even more? Possibly.
As we’ve said before, none of this makes nootropics a substitute for tackling the root causes of your motivational problems.
Improving your sleep routine, getting more exercise, and eating a healthy diet will have by far the biggest impact on your level of motivation. However, nootropics may compound the effects of other changes, improving the perceived result of the lifestyle changes you’ve made.
Are nootropics safe?
Research into the long-term safety of nootropics is ongoing. However, many natural nootropics contain supplement-level ingredients including common herbs and vitamins, which are likely to have minimal, if any, long-term effects. Synthetic nootropics may have more potent long-term effects.
Are nootropics legal?
Nootropics come in a wide range of forms, from an every day cup of coffee to potent psychoactive drugs. As such, their legality varies from place to place. As a general rule, nootropic supplements using natural ingredients aren’t typically regulated as a drug, but you’ll need to investigate your local laws to know for sure.
What is a nootropic stack?
Stacking is a popular method of using nootropics that involves taking a mix of nootropics to “stack” their effects. Many nootropic supplements are effectively stacks, as they combine multiple nootropic ingredients to create synergy.
Some common examples include pairing L-theanine with caffeine or taking multiple adaptogens together, like ashwagandha, rhodiola, and lion’s mane. However, stacking is more commonly used in the context of personal, tailored nootropic combinations.
Are natural nootropics or smart drugs better?
As with most things, there’s no straight answer.
Natural nootropics tend to have more subtle effects, both in primary function and in their side effects.
By contrast, prescription nootropics have stronger regulatory backing, however their increased potency might mean they are more prone to causing side effects.
What is the most effective nootropic?
Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, here. The best nootropic for you will depend on your needs. For instance, someone looking for the best nootropic for memory, focus, and concentration may look for different ingredients than someone looking for help with anxiety.
Do nootropics have side effects?
Like any drug, nootropics can have side effects. Most natural nootropics have only the rare and subtle side effects you might associate with a cup of coffee, while smart drugs are closer to pharmaceutical agents and have a comparatively higher potential for side effects. Some of the more severe smart drug side effects include:
Poor mood regulation
You should take care when using nootropics if you have a pre-existing medical condition, particularly if you’re already taking prescription medication. These could have unexpected interactions with supplements. If in doubt, consult your doctor.
Will nootropics help beat brain fog?
Brain fog is a universal symptom for a diverse set of underlying problems. Whatever the cause, brain fog seems to cloud your thoughts and inhibit focus and motivation.
In theory, some nootropics could potentially help you combat this symptom, depending on the cause.
For instance, a 2010 study on caffeine found that sleep-deprived shift workers made fewer mistakes when ingesting caffeine than those who didn’t. That shows the potential benefits of using nootropics to combat brain fog that is related to sleep deprivation.
If like millions of other people you are looking to improve your memory, alertness, and increase your productivity, you may be considering a nootropic.
However, research on the efficacy and safety of nootropics is still young, and the conclusions so far aren’t solid. As the body of research continues to develop, we’ll get a clearer picture of whether nootropics have something to offer.
In the meantime, you could benefit from nootropics as part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Nootropics aren’t a magic bullet, so consider tweaking your lifestyle in ways that can enhance whatever effects nootropics might impart—for instance, by improving your quality of sleep, your diet, or your exposure to natural light and fresh air.
This content was provided by Ultimate Life and has been fact checked by Ana Reisdorf RD.
The information in this article does not constitute medical advice, and is only to be used at your own risk.
Under no circumstance should the information in this article be taken as medical advice or be used to prevent, diagnose, or treat any disease or illness.