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The Ultimate Nootropics Guide For Beginners

Last updated on July 28th, 2020 at 03:19 am

If you’re new to nootropics then you may be wondering what they are, how they work, and how to get started with them. In this article, you will learn the basics of nootropics. And hopefully it will help you on your journey of bettering yourself.

What Are Nootropics

Nootropics are drugs, supplements, and herbs that can enhance cognitive functions like focus, memory, creativity, and even intelligence. In addition, they are also neuroprotective or extremely nontoxic. Thus they are commonly called cognitive enhancers or smart drugs.

But not all cognitive enhancers are nootropics. And this is because some cognitive enhancers are not neuroprotective while others may be toxic. For example, stimulants like Adderall can improve cognition but they may be neurotoxic in high doses.

Moreover, cognitive enhancers like Adderall only provides benefits when it’s in your system. In contrast, many nootropics can provide benefits that persist long after you’ve stopped taking them.

In other words, cognitive enhancers provide acute benefits while nootropics can provide both acute and chronic benefits.

Regardless, nootropics can:

  • Enhance cognition
  • Improve brain health
  • Prevent brain damage

There are even some nootropics that can reverse brain damage. An example being Jiaogulan, also known as Gynostemma pentaphyllum. This herb was shown to reverse some of the neurotoxic effects of 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) in rats.[1] What 6-OHDA does is it selectively kills dopaminergic and noradrenergic neurons.

In a way, 6-OHDA mimics what happens to the neurons of people with Parkinson’s disease. Because of this, Jiaogulan may be useful for this condition. But more studies are needed to confirm this.

Brief History

The word nootropic originated in 1972 and was coined by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea. In fact, he came up with the term after he created Piracetam. And Piracetam is widely considered as the pioneer nootropic.

The doctor specified that nootropics should have 5 key features. Namely, they should:

  • Improve memory and learning
  • Guard against memory impairment
  • Protect neurons from physical and chemical damage
  • Improve communication between neurons
  • Have few side effects and extremely low toxicity

In truth, nootropics have been long before anyone came up with a name for them. In particular, natural nootropics like herbs and caffeine have been used for thousands of years to enhance cognition. For instance, Ginseng was widely used in ancient medicine. Specifically, traditional Chinese, Korean and Japanese medicine.[2]

Types of Nootropics

There are 5 basic types of nootropics. Different types of nootropics have different mechanisms of action.

Nootropic Drugs

These are usually synthetic and made in the lab. They often target specific neurotransmitters. Also, they are likely to be more potent than the other types. Examples include:

Nootropic Supplements

A lot of supplements may have nootropic properties. In particular, sport supplements are the most likely ones to improve cognition. And this is because they’re usually used to improve focus, energy, and strength during workouts.

Some examples include:

  • Agmatine
  • Magnesium
  • Alpha-GPC

Nootropic Herbs

These are probably the most popular out of all the other nootropics. And this is mainly because herbs have been used for far longer than any other substance. Also, herbs are natural and many people think that natural products are better than artificial ones.

Examples of natural nootropics include:

  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Ginseng
  • Lion’s Mane Mushroom

Nootropic Peptides

Out of all the types of nootropics, peptides are probably the least studied. For this reason, you should avoid them unless you know what you’re doing.

Notable examples:

  • Noopept
  • Semax
  • Cerebrolysin

Nootropic Activities

Finally, there are also non-substance nootropics. That is, activities you can do that improve cognition. An example being exercise.

Though not a drug, exercise has been shown to have remarkable benefits in many areas of health. Most notably, cognition and mental health. In fact, it’s strongly recommended you try exercise before taking nootropics.

Other examples include:

  • Meditation
  • Memory training games like Dual-N-Back
  • Breathing exercises

Why Take Nootropics

It is important to realize that nootropics are not magical. That is, they’re very unlikely to make you a genius. In truth, most nootropics only provide subtle cognitive benefits.

Consider this, does caffeine make you super smart? Of course not, and neither will any of the current nootropics available.

But that’s not to say they’re useless. In fact, they can be especially helpful when you need a mental boost. Really, if treat nootropics the same way you treat caffeine then you will have realistic expectations.

That said, nootropics can be useful in many situations including:

  • Academic performance
  • Academic jobs
  • Stressful jobs
  • Jobs that require creativity
  • Job interviews
  • Public speaking
  • eSports

Though, most people take nootropics specifically for school and work. This is because many nootropics improve memory, learning, and concentration. All of which are important for those fields.

For academic performance, the most popular nootropics are the racetams, noopept, and choline. These enhance memory, learning, and focus. For work, modafinil is considered the number one nootropic.

That said, many people take nootropics just to get an edge in their field. Indeed, with the introduction of computers, humans are able to work faster and smarter than ever before. But, having access to this wealth of information alone isn’t enough.

You need to be able to learn many concepts and understand them in order to utilize creatively. And that’s where nootropics come in. By enhancing memory, learning, focus, and creativity, these substances can allow you to get ahead of the competition.

For these reasons, nootropics are very popular in the Silicon Valley. Though, most of the Silicon Valley users tend to microdose LSD, which is currently illegal.

Benefits of Nootropics

Not surprisingly, nootropics are becoming a part of our everyday lives. In fact, you, along with billions of people ingest a nootropic every single day: caffeine. Caffeine promotes wakefulness, increases attention, and decreases fatigue.

Because of this, many take it in order to increase productivity. Caffeine is one of the oldest and safest nootropic available. In addition to improving cognition, it also has many health benefits. And that’s from the caffeine alone. In truth, coffee and tea each provide their own benefit irrespective of the caffeine.

However, caffeine is just one example of a nootropic. There are literally hundreds more, each that serve different functions. For example, a nootropic like Piracetam may enhance memory and learning while another, like Aniracetam, may decrease anxiety.

Regardless, nootropics can offer many benefits. Some of these include:

  • Improving memory and learning
  • Increasing creativity
  • Enhancing verbal fluency
  • Improving sociability
  • Increasing motivation
  • Decreasing anxiety
  • Decreasing brain fog

How Nootropics Work

There are 3 basic ways in which nootropics. A common neuroscience phrase for the way a drug works is mechanism of action. And many of them share three common actions.

1) Affecting Neurotransmitters

Many nootropics change the levels of certain neurotransmitters found in the brain. Neurotransmitters are like messengers that tell neurons to do a certain task.

But neurons can only specialize in a few tasks. For this reason, only one neurotransmitter can have control over them. There are many neurotransmitters in the brain, but the most important ones and the ones which nootropics target are:

  • Dopamine – Involved in motivation, drive, reward, attention, learning, memory
  • Norepinephrine – Important for motivation, concentration, focus, energy
  • Serotonin – Implicated in mood, overall well-being, satisfaction
  • Glutamate – Affects learning and memory
  • Acetylcholine – Important for learning and memory

A lot of nootropics increase either the level or expression of these neurotransmitters. But, some may also decrease them. This really all depends on the area of the brain and the neurotransmitter involved.

For example, increasing norepinephrine levels in the prefrontal cortex can improve executive functions.[3] In other words, it improves attention control, planning, and even working memory.

On the other hand, increased levels of norepinephrine in a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus is associated with stress and anxiety.[4]

So it’s not as simple as more is better. Rather, optimal levels provide optimal benefits.

Because of this, some nootropics increase neurotransmitter levels while others decrease them. Basically, nootropics can modulate neurotransmitters.

2) Improving Blood Flow

Some nootropics work by improving blood flow to the brain. As a result, this increases the brain’s oxygen supply.

The brain is much like a car engine when it comes to energy consumption. In other words, the more powerful the engine, the more energy it requires. In fact, the the brain uses a tremendous amount of energy even when resting.

But, this increases when doing something cognitively demanding.[5] As a result, blood flow also increases to supply the brain with the energy it needs.

Therefore, improving the brain’s blood flow will ensure that it’s getting enough oxygen to supply the energy it needs.

3) Increasing neurogenesis

Neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons from neural stem cells. It was once thought that the adult brain didn’t produce new neurons. But new research has shown that new neurons are constantly being produced.[6]

Most notably, they’re produced in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. This part of the brain is very important in regulating memory and learning.

One of the ways in which nootropics increase neurogenesis is by increasing BDNF and NGF. Both of these are growth factors that are important for the production and proliferation of new neurons. They also play a role in long-term memory.

The benefits of neurogenesis include:

  • Improved memory and learning
  • Enhanced cognition
  • Increased memory capacity
  • Reducing interference between memories

Getting Started With Nootropics

First of all, if you consume caffeine then you have already started taking nootropics. Caffeine is one of the safest and most effective nootropic available today. The fact that caffeine is widely consumed around the world means that anyone, anywhere can start taking nootropics.

Getting started with nootropics is as easy as popping up a pill in the morning. Though, you should follow some guidelines to ensure your experience goes smoothly:

  1. Choose only one nootropic – Take one nootropic at a time to see what effects that nootropic alone has on you.
  2. Be patient – Not all nootropics have instant effects. In fact, some take 2 to 3 weeks before you start seeing any results.
  3. Measure your results – See below on how to track your progress
  4. Try another nootropic by itself – Different nootropics will affect you in a different manner.
  5. Add the first nootropic to the mix – Some nootropics are synergistic with one another. For example, Caffeine paired with L-Theanine produces a synergistic effect which results in wakefulness without the feeling of being stimulated.

Ways to track your progress

There are many sites and programs for helping you to measure your results with each nootropic you take. However, you must use the site or program for a prolonged period before you start taking a nootropic otherwise you will not be able to compare the before and after results.

  • Cambridge Brain Sciences – A free site that features multiple tests and test types which plots your results on a graph and also compares it to other people’s results.
  • Dual N-Back – A free program that improves your working memory and fluid intelligence
  • CogniFit – Similar to Cambridge Brain Sciences, CogniFit is a free site that features a variety of brain tests such as memory and focus.
  • Cognitive Fun – Another brain games site that’s completely free to use.
  • Quantified Mind – A brain game site that allows you to test many aspects of cognitive performance.


  1. Choi, Hyun Sook, et al. “Neuroprotective effects of herbal ethanol extracts from Gynostemma pentaphyllum in the 6-hydroxydopamine-lesioned rat model of Parkinson’s disease.” Molecules 15.4 (2010): 2814-2824.
  2. Park, Ho Jae, et al. “Ginseng in traditional herbal prescriptions.” Journal of ginseng research 36.3 (2012): 225.
  3. Arnsten, Amy FT, and Bao-Ming Li. “Neurobiology of executive functions: catecholamine influences on prefrontal cortical functions.” Biological psychiatry 57.11 (2005): 1377-1384.
  4. Bremner, J. Douglas, et al. “Noradrenergic mechanisms in stress and anxiety: I. Preclinical studies.” Synapse 23.1 (1996): 28-38.
  5. Gur, Ruben C., et al. “Age and regional cerebral blood flow at rest and during cognitive activity.” Archives of general psychiatry 44.7 (1987): 617-621.
  6. Gage, Fred H. “Neurogenesis in the adult brain.” Journal of Neuroscience 22.3 (2002): 612-613.

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