The term “Nootropic” refers to any substance that enhances brain function by improving intelligence, alertness, or creativity.
This definition covers a wide range of substances, from synthetic drugs to special foods that act as natural nootropic supplements.
Nootropics are fast gaining popularity in today’s increasingly competitive society, but are the claims of brain-boosting pills simply too good to be true?
Although naturally occurring stimulants (such as caffeine) have existed for centuries, the first true nootropic, Piracetam, was synthesized by Romanian chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1964. He later coined the term “nootropic” by combining the ancient Greek “nóos” (mind) and “tropḗ” (a turning) in 1972, which helped to bring his ideas of ‘brain-boosting’ drugs into the mainstream.
In the present day, there is a massive demand for (mental) performance-enhancing drugs, and all kinds of people are trying to find the right synthetic or natural nootropic supplements for a boost. Whether you’re trying to focus for a deadline or get rid of your brain fog, there are plenty of reasons to take nootropics, but there are also a lot of misconceptions surrounding them…
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Nootropics are substances intended to boost your mental faculties by enhancing your focus, memory, creativity and more, though research on their effects is limited. While there are lots of substances that could be considered nootropics, (such as caffeine, a natural stimulant), many fail to meet the definition put forward by the inventor of piracetam, widely considered the first true nootropic.
According to the definition put forward by Dr Giugea, synthetic or natural nootropic supplements can only be considered “true nootropics” if they:
Although nootropic usage is commonly associated with hard-working engineers or students studying for exams, their brain-boosting effects could benefit virtually anyone.
By definition, true nootropic supplements improve your natural brain functions, enhancing your attention span, learning capacity, memory and overall cognitive health. However, nootropics can vary greatly depending on the active ingredients and whether you opt for synthetic or natural nootropic supplements.
For example, caffeine-based nootropics keep you feeling alert by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain to make you feel less tired, though they shouldn’t replace a healthy sleep pattern. Similarly, the synthetic drug Piracetam is designed to improve cognitive function by using Gamma-AminoButyric Acid (GABA) to improve neural connectivity between your brain cells.
As you can see, these two nootropics have very different compositions and intended effects, though they are both intended to improve your brain function.
‘True nootropics’ are non-toxic to humans and do not unduly depress or stimulate the brain, so these types of synthetic or natural nootropic supplements are theoretically fine. However, any substance that alters your brain chemistry can be harmful, and while many nootropics are considered safe, there isn’t enough long-term research on humans to definitively say whether nootropics are safe for regular usage.
So you don’t run the risk of permanently altering your brain chemistry or becoming dependent on nootropic supplements, we recommend you take nootropics in moderation. Try to take the ‘minimal effective dose’ (the smallest dose that gives you benefits), avoid relying on these supplements on a regular basis and you should be able to minimise your risk.
‘True nootropics’ should not have adverse side effects, though many substances marketed as nootropics may produce side effects, depending on the active ingredients and dosage. Because most natural nootropic supplements are legally classed as dietary supplements (rather than medications), they aren’t as closely regulated and have side effects that aren’t immediately obvious.
For example, the synthetic medication modafinil – which is used to treat sleepiness but is often used as a nootropic – has numerous side effects including nausea and dizziness. Although natural nootropics are generally safer and easier to find, you should always research the potential side effects of any new supplement and consult your doctor to make sure that it won’t affect any existing conditions or prescriptions.
Finding the right nootropic for your needs can be challenging, as you have to scrutinise the more exaggerated nootropic supplements reviews, research potential side effects and decide what kind of mental boost you want. To make things a little simpler for you, we’ve picked 11 of the best natural nootropic supplements which have recognised benefits and minimal side effects so you can save your brain power for now:
Caffeine is one of the most widely enjoyed psychoactive substances in the world and can be found in tea, coffee, energy drinks, supplements and more. This powerful stimulant increases your alertness and decreases reaction time even in doses as small as 40mg (roughly the same caffeine as in a cup of coffee), making it a highly popular nootropic used by everyone from professional gamers to CEOs.
But while caffeine is one of the most widely used natural nootropic supplements, it can be addictive and comes with a range of side effects, such as insomnia and raised blood pressure. Fortunately, studies show that caffeine is generally safe in low-to-moderate doses and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine in the form of coffee, tea, or energy drinks.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid with documented calming effects that is found in tea and extracted to make supplements aimed at promoting creativity. Doses of L-theanine as low as 50mg – roughly the same as two cups of tea – have been found to increase alpha-waves linked to creativity in the brain without causing drowsiness, making it a desirable supplement for professional writers, etc.
These effects are enhanced when L-theanine is taken with caffeine, leading many supplement manufacturers to use them together in many nootropic supplements. What’s more, caffeine and l-theanine are both naturally found in tea, meaning that cups of tea can be considered as natural nootropic supplements – how’s that for an easy way to boost your brain?
Creatine is an amino acid your body uses to produce protein, making it a popular bodybuilding supplement that also benefits your brain by binding with phosphate to quickly fuel brain cells. The energy increase created by these new phosphocreatine molecules is linked to improved short-term memory and reasoning skills, making it a promising nootropic.
Creatine is one of the safest and most well-researched supplements available, with long-term studies – of up to four years – unable to find any negative side effects. Studies show that doses of up to 5 grams per day are safe, meaning creatine may be one of the few ‘true’ natural nootropic supplements, as per Dr Giugea’s definition.
Bacopa Monnieri, also known as water hyssop, herb of grace and brahmi, is a perennial herb which grows in wet, tropical environments and has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Several studies have found that bacopa monnieri supplements can improve information processing, reaction times and memory, making it a promising nootropic supplement.
In addition to these benefits, bacopa monnieri also contains antioxidant compounds called bacosides which protect your brain from oxidative stress, helping to reduce neurodegenerative damage. However, these benefits aren’t felt immediately, and you may need to take bacopa monnieri doses of 300-600mg per day for months to make the most of these natural nootropic supplements.
Rhodiola Rosea, also known as arctic root or golden root, is an herb with adaptogenic benefits that help your body to handle stress more effectively. Like the other items on this list, rhodiola rosea has long been used in (Russian and Scandinavian) traditional medicine and is now scientifically proven to have beneficial effects on stress, fatigue, and mood.
Even small doses of rhodiola rosea have been shown to reduce fatigue and increase feelings of well-being, making these herbs powerful natural nootropic supplements. Although scientific research on rhodiola rosea is limited and there is a lot of uncertainty over how it causes these effects and the optimum dosage, it’s generally safe and effective, making it a great alternative to synthetic mood-boosting drugs.
Panax ginseng has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, thanks to its invigorating effects which help to reduce mental fatigue and improve performance even after a single dose. However, it’s unclear how ginseng boosts brain function, with some scientists theorising it may be due to its strong anti-inflammatory effects which also protect your brain from oxidative stress.
Unfortunately, some longer-term studies have found that your body may build up a resistance to ginseng’s effects over time, making it unsuited as a long-term nootropic supplement. For this reason, you may want to avoid adding ginseng to your daily routine – opting for alternative natural nootropic supplements – so you don’t build up a resistance.
As one of the oldest known species of tree on earth, extracts from the leaves of ginkgo biloba have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve memory and mental processing. Studies have shown that these mental boosts can be slow to take effect, taking several weeks of daily supplements, though taking a single dose before stressful tasks has been shown to reduce stress-related blood pressure and cortisol levels.
However, more research is required to better understand the effects of ginkgo biloba on the human brain, as some studies cannot find any observable positive effects on cognitive functions. Although the science may not be settled on ginkgo biloba, it deserves an honourable mention in this list of natural nootropic supplements for its long history and many intriguing properties alone.
Nicotine is a naturally occurring chemical that is found in many plants – notably tobacco – with well-known addictive qualities. Although it is often associated with cigarettes, nicotine supplements have been shown to improve attention spans and motor function (particularly handwriting) in non-smokers, meaning that it could be a powerful aid for students and office workers.
However, the addictive nature of nicotine and the many side effects mean that nicotine is NOT a ‘true’ nootropic, nor one we’d recommend for repeated use. So while nicotine is a great aid for those trying to quit smoking, you should find alternative natural nootropic supplements if you want to boost your brainpower without serious side effects.
Also known as yamabushitake, lion’s mane mushrooms are used for culinary and medicinal properties in many Asian countries thanks to their beneficial properties and unique taste. These mushrooms contain hericenones and erinacines – which can stimulate the growth of brain cells – and have been shown to significantly improve mental function in people with minor cognitive impairments, making them some really fancy fungi.
In addition, animal studies have found that lion’s mane mushroom supplements have anti-inflammatory effects which can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Great news if you’re a depressed mouse, but there is very little human research to support these benefits, meaning there are better-researched and more effective natural nootropic supplements out there.
A group of essential nutrients linked to a wide variety of health benefits, Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as supplements. These fatty acids contribute to general health and have been shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and ADHD, making them very versatile supplements.
Because the main dietary source of omega-3s is fatty fish (and most Americans fail to eat the recommended eight ounces a week), these natural nootropic supplements are especially beneficial for vegetarians and vegan. As well as providing a wide range of health benefits, omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively researched and are widely considered safe, making them a great all-round health supplement.
Related: If you want to add more Omega-3 to your daily routine but are unsure on the best type of supplement, why not read about:
The active ingredient of turmeric– curcumin – has powerful anti-inflammatory effects which are linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases and improved mood. Although the natural curcumin content of turmeric is rather low (around 3% by weight), it can be extracted to make pure curcumin supplements that offer powerful benefits.
Because curcumin has such powerful anti-inflammatory effects, it is believed to help prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. All these powerful health benefits make curcumin one of the most widely beneficial natural nootropic supplements on the market!
Related: If you’re still unsure of what curcumin is and how it can benefit you, why not read about:
Because there is little conclusive evidence to suggest that these substances will provide measurable benefits to your mental abilities, we urge you to use them responsibly. For example, while it’s generally safe to enjoy the occasional caffeinated drink as a pick me up, you should avoid taking large doses on a frequent basis.
Unfortunately, it may be some time before we can discover or develop the perfect nootropic – a substance that offers brain-boosting power without side effects – so we should make the most of the natural nootropic supplements we do have. As with any type of supplement, you should consult your doctor before taking a new dietary supplement to make sure that they won’t exacerbate an existing condition or interfere with your meds.
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