"Nootropics" is the word on everyone’s mouth.

Ever since the film Limitless made us aware of the power of improved cognitive function, we've been intrigued as to ways of maximising our mental performance.

Most people have a lot of questions when they first hear about these seemingly magical brain-boosting supplements.

What are Nootropics? How do Nootropics work? Are Nootropics effective? Do Nootropics have side effects? We answer the basics below.

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“What are nootropics?”

Nootropics is an umbrella term for a class of chemicals that can boost brain performance. They are often referred to as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognition enhancers’.

The cognitive benefits associated with nootropics include improved concentration and focus, motivation, creativity, memory, reasoning, verbal coherence and better mood.

There are two types of nootropics, those that come from natural sources and those that are synthetic, or man-made.

Many nootropics are available over-the-counter, whereas for some synthetic nootropics a private prescription, issued by a medical professional, is required.

“What are Nootropics used for?”

Nootropics impact the way the brain functions and are used to optimise human cognitive processes.

There are a wide variety of organic and synthetic nootropics, each of which impacts the brain in different ways, and so each will have a different effect on cognitive ability.

For example, Ritalin, a synthetic nootropic requiring a prescription, stimulates dopamine and norepinephrine production in the brain.

Dopamine is a mood boosting neurotransmitter, whilst norepinephrine helps improve concentration. Ritalin is therefore used a lot by students when studying.

Nootropics are also used for many other activities where enhanced cognitive function is useful, such as gaming, exercise, sleep, weight loss, and even social anxiety.

“How do nootropics work?”

Nootropics work by manipulating the functions of the brain to optimise cognitive output.

There are many different types of nootropic, and each has its own specific way of working. Some of the common effects that nootropics have on the brain include;

  • Increasing blood circulation to the brain which, by extension, increases nutrient and oxygen flow. The extra energy generated by brain cells is proven to boost brain function, and at the same time make the brain healthier. 
  • Stimulating the regeneration of nerve cells and the creation of new nerve cells and neural pathways in the brain. The extra energy nootropics give brain cells is used by neurons to repair themselves, thereby improving brain function, as well as protect the brain from toxins and minimise the effects of aging. Nootropics may even stimulate the creation of new neuronal pathways which enhance thinking and memory abilities.
  • Altering the concentration of existing neurotransmitters in your brain, which, depending on the type of nootropic, can lead to different functions, but overall work to increase memory and learning, while protecting your brain from potential harm.
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“Are Nootropics effective?”

Many of the most commonly consumed nootropics are proven to be effective, albeit not all nootropics available on the market are.

If you want an effective nootropic, you should pay attention to the individual ingredients included in the drug or supplement, as well as their dosage.

Prescription smart drugs that have been through lab testing, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are clinically proven to be highly effective. They often have the strongest and most significant effects, such as on memory and concentration.

To maximise the cognitive benefits, some supplements contain a combination of nootropics, or alternatively a number of nootropics may be taken together in a process called stacking. 

The most well-known stack in nootropics is the combination of Guarana (caffeine) which promotes alertness, and L-Theanine, which promotes relaxation without drowsiness.

“Do doctors prescribe Nootropics?”

In many cases nootropics may be bought over the counter. This is particularly the case for natural, organic nootropics, whose effects are typically more subtle and slower acting.

Man-made synthetic nootropics often have stronger effects and require a private prescription from a doctor. This includes smart drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin.

Adderall has a reputation as a mental performance-enhancing drug. It works by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine which raises alertness and makes tasks more pleasurable.

It is taken by professionals and students for this reason. Adderall also plays a huge role in controlling hyperactivity and is often used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Are nootropics safe?”

The simple answer is that it depends on the specific nootropic drug or supplement.

The most common organic nootropics tend to be safe provided they are consumed in moderation and meet your own personal risk tolerance.

This includes caffeine from coffee, omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish, and L-Theanine from green and black teas.

Synthetic nootropics may be generally considered safe when they have been backed by clinical trials and have a good history of use with few adverse events.

Consuming synthetic nootropics in accordance with clinical guidance is often more important because of their more potent effects.

Any decision to take a particular drug or dietary supplement should be made based on independent research, a consultation with a doctor, and a honest, rational view of your personal risk tolerance.

“Do Nootropics have side effects?”

Some nootropics are more likely than others to have side effects.

In general, organic nootropics consumed in moderation will have few side-effects.

You will most likely encounter side effects if you consume synthetic nootropics, particularly those available on prescription, which makes sense as they are stronger and more potent and so require a doctor to administer.

To avoid the possibility of side effects, you should avoid low-quality nootropics, high dosages and any supplement containing stimulants or caffeine.

Stacking makes it more likely that you will experience side effects. This is when a combination of two or more nootropic supplements are taken together or in sequence to create specific cognitive benefits.

“Are Nootropics legal?”

The legality of nootropics is governed by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act.

The Act restricts the availability of synthetic smart drugs with psychoactive effects to prescription only, so they must be prescribed by a doctor in accordance with need and suitability.

Note that food and drink are exempt from this Act. This means that most natural nootropics are legal to produce or supply, as they do not contain psychoactive drugs.

“Are nootropics psychoactive?”

The simple answer is no.

Psychoactive is a term that is applied to substances that change the mental state by affecting the way the brain and nervous system work.

Because psychoactive deals with the brain and nootropics claim to enhance brain faculties, some people associate them together.

However, nootropics do not have psychoactive effects because they are not psychoactive drugs.

Nootropics help with natural brain process related to cognitive function such as memory, mood balance and concentration, instead of causing hallucinations and paranoia like psychoactive drugs.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Written by Dr. Mike Firth, GP and Medical Director

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