Nootropics, or smart drugs, are an umbrella term for organic foods or synthetic supplements that profess to boost cognitive ability.

The cognitive enhancements include in areas such as learning, thinking, memory, reasoning and concentration.

Through their specific effects on the brain, some nootropics also stimulate other enhancements such as greater energy and better mood.

People generally take nootropics to improve their performance in events and activities where these attributes are sought.

These include studying for exams, video gaming, gym work, sleep deprivation, weight loss, and even social anxiety.

Nootropics work by manipulating brain functions to optimise cognitive output while protecting the brain from harm. 

They generally take effect in three ways; 

  • Nootropics serve as a vasodilator which open (dilate) small arteries and veins in the brain. They do this by preventing the muscles in the walls of arteries and veins from tightening.
  • The diluted blood vessels allow for increased blood circulation to the brain, providing brains cells with more nutrients and oxygen. 
  • This allows brain cells to generate more energy which helps to boost brain function and keep the brain healthy.
  • Nootropics stimulate the regeneration of neurons (nerve cells) and the creation of new neural pathways in the brain.
  • Neurons are responsible for carrying information throughout the body, coordinating all of the necessary functions of life through electrical and chemical signals.
  • Unlike other parts of the body, such as skin and bone, in most cases neurons can't replace themselves by growing new cells. Instead, they have to repair themselves.
  • 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 brain ageing.
  • Furthermore, the increased activity in the brain improves its ability to reorganise itself by forming new nerve cells. The creation of new neuronal pathways enhances thinking and memory abilities.
  • Some natural and synthetic nootropics take effect by altering the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain.
  • Neurotransmitters are often referred to as the body's chemical messengers. They are the molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages between nerve cells, or from neurons to muscles.
  • For example, natural nootropics have been found to stimulate the release of dopamine, a “mood-lifting” neurotransmitter, as well as stimulate the uptake of choline, which helps brain cells produce a key neurotransmitter for mental focus and learning.

Ultimately, the impact of a nootropic on the brain depends on its nature, whether it is organic or synthetic, and if it used on its own or in combination with other ingredients as part of a aggregate blend.

Stacking nootropics may also have an effect. This is a feature of the industry, where several different nootropics are taken at the same time to achieve the combined cognitive benefits. 

As an example, the most commonly consumed natural nootropic in the world is coffee. The caffeine in coffee promotes central nervous system stimulation, making you feel alert.

It does this by inhibiting the action of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and builds up during the day.

Caffeine binds to specific receptors of nerve cells in the brain, blocking adenosine from doing so, and thereby preventing it from taking effect.

It's thought that stacking caffeine with L-tyrosine, another organic nootropic found in cheese, may help sustain the attention and mood enhancements of coffee for a longer period of time.  


Whilst the most common nootropics are widely consumed, some nootropics contain stimulants that can cause adverse side effects, particularly those manufactured as a drug. 

Some nootropics will also contain less effective, low-quality ingredients compared to others. You should read the label and check the research on any nootropics before consumption.

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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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