What Are Nootropics?
27 Jul

What Are Nootropics?

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Your mind is holding you back. The path to achievement would likely be much shorter with a flawless memory, a 160 IQ, and the charisma of James bond. Much like physical abilities, one can improve cognitive abilities with effort, patience, and consistency. Supplements can help expedite the process, and nootropics are the supplements for your journey to cognitive enhancement.

Nootropics Definition

Nootropic: noun- A substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning.

Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nootropic

Nootropics are supplements that improve cognition in one way, shape, or form. They are primarily used to improve executive functions, memory, motivation/focus, and calmness. Students, business executives, entrepreneurs, gamers, and technology founders are the main consumers of nootropics; however, most individuals can enjoy the benefits of cognitive enhancement.

Where to Start

Most nootropics can fit into one or more classes: racetams, stimulants, and amino acids. Every member of the racetam family can improve memory formation and recall. However, additional benefits differ between different racetams due to different chemical structures.

Stimulants are the most common type of nootropic, with caffeine being the most well-known nootropic in the world. Stimulants tend to improve alertness by clearing brain fog and combatting the effects of sleep deprivation.

Amino acids are known for benefiting physical gains, but show equal potential for mental gains as well. No two amino acids have similar nootropic properties. Hopefully this article will make the decision making process easier for you.


The racetam class of nootropics is the most notorious in the nootropic community. Their primary benefit revolves around memory formation. All racetams have the potential to modulate acetylcholine and glutamate, the two primary neurotransmitters involved in long-term potentiation. [1]

However, each racetam has a unique mechanism to achieve this, giving each unique benefits alongside modulating memory formation.


The original racetam, piracetam, is a good place to start for those interested in diving into the world of nootropics. It is a GABA derivative, but does not affect GABA levels in the brain. [1] Instead, piracetam modulates AMPA and NMDA receptors. [2, 3] It modulates AMPA by increasing the density of AMPA binding sites. [2] Similarly, piracetam can increase NMDA receptor density by up to 20%. [3]

It’s important to understand that the brain will not make new receptors in one day. The memory related benefits of piracetam may take up to 2-3 weeks to be noticeable. [4] Individuals may notice the anxiolytic properties of piracetam much sooner, however. Its calming affects are non-sedative in nature, so it may induce a calm state of mind without causing drowsiness. The anxiolytic affects are likely due to piracetam increasing serotonin concentrations. [1]

Overall, piracetam is the perfect introduction to the racetam family. It can improve memory formation and recall by improving AMPA and NMDA receptor density. The anxiolytic properties of piracetam can increase cognitive performance as well.


For individuals looking for a supplement that can improve executive functions and memory formation, Aniracetam may be the supplement you’ve been searching for. Aniracetam can improve memory formation by modulating NMDA receptors. [5] Aniracetam can also increase extracellular acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin in the hippocampus to further its memory boosting potential. [5]

Increasing extracellular levels of dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine is how aniracetam can also improve executive function. Increased concentrations of these neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex improves logic, creativity, and overall executive functioning. [5] This is also why some individuals feel Aniracetam has minor stimulant properties.

Individuals can experience the benefits of aniracetam even after ceasing supplementation because it can increase the expression of BDNF. [6] Increased levels of BDNF correlate with neuroplasticity. [7] Neuroplasticity enhancement can make it easier to take cognitive functioning to new heights.


Supplementing with a stimulatory racetam can improve focus and motivation in addition to boosting memory.  Just like the previous racetams, oxiracetam can increase NMDA and AMPA receptor density. [2] Oxiracetam is the only racetam with the potential to improve NMDA receptor sensitivity as well. [8]

The stimulatory effects of oxiracetam stem from its modulation of acetylcholine and glutamate. [9] This may be how oxiracetam earned the reputation for being the best racetam for memory enhancement. [10] Verbal learning and fluency are the most noted improvements that can occur following oxiracetam supplementation. [11, 12]


Phenylpiracetam may be the most powerful racetam available. It has psychostimulatory properties, making it useful for alleviating fatigue. [13, 14] Phenylpiracetam can improve every area of cognitive performance by up to 12%. [15] Scores on memory and attention tests show the most improvement following phenylpiracetam supplementation. [14] Its potential to improve motivation and focus make phenylpiracetam useful preworkout as well, as it can improve physical endurance secondary to improving vigilance. [16]

With a half-life of 2.5-3 hours and an absorption rate of less than an hour, phenylpiracetam is perfect before a big test or job interview. [14] However, users report rapidly diminishing effects after supplementing for several consecutive days. It can provide a mental boost to start the week off on the right foot by supercharging Mondays; however, it might not be the best supplement for your daily arsenal.


Fatigue is like a weight vest for the mind. The sluggishness and inability to organize thoughts make staying on task exponentially difficult. Many individuals turn to stimulants to avoid this conundrum. In addition to mitigating fatigue, stimulants can improve focus and processing speed.

Caffeine is the most common stimulant while caffeine combined with theanine is the most common nootropic stack. Adrafinil has quickly gained popularity due to its potential to reverse fatigue and improve cognition. A variety of individuals looking for a thermogenic supplement that adds an impressive energy boost consider yohimbine a staple in their supplement stack.


87% of Americans consume the most common nootropic: caffeine. Most commonly used to promote wakefulness, caffeine also has several nootropic properties.

Adenosine is the hormone that promotes sleep and drowsiness when bound to its receptor. Caffeine abolishes exhaustion by inhibiting adenosine. [17] Caffeine consumption increased dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. [18, 19]

Caffeine supplementation can improve working-memory, focus, and vigilance thanks to it augmenting catecholamines. [20, 18, 19] Caffeine supplements increase dopamine in the prefrontal cortex as well. [21] The prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive functions such as working-memory and focus. By increasing dopamine in this particular area of the brain, caffeine shows impressive nootropic potential.

Since caffeine’s mechanisms are primarily neural, it can improve strength and lipolysis. [20] Beta-endorphins are responsible for the euphoria many experience during exercise. Beta-endorphins also decrease pain perception. Caffeine increases the amount of beta-endorphins released during a workout, which increases strength and enhances resistance to muscular fatigue. [20] Caffeine improves lipolysis by decreasing muscular dependence on glycogen and increasing muscular oxidation of free-fatty acids. Caffeine further enhances this benefits by augmenting catecholamines which elevate metabolic rate. [20]


For the overachievers, Adrafinil is widely known for its ability to make brain fog from sleep deprivation a thing of the past. Adrafinil is a eugeroic agent, meaning it increases energy without resulting in stereotypical stimulant activity. [22] It is considered a novel stimulant due to its virtually non-existent peripheral effects. Adrafinil is converted to Modafinil in the liver. Unlike Modafinil, it takes time for adrafinil to accumulate to active levels, with initial effects being noticeable within 45-60 minutes, and peak blood concentration occurring about 90 minutes after consumption. [23]

The exact mechanisms of adrafinil are not fully understood. An increase in overall EEG activity has been observed following adrafinil supplementation. However, research indicates that supplementation increases dopamine and glutamate in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, respectively. [24] As a result, attention, concentration, vigilance, information comprehension, and power of memory recall can be increased by supplementing with adrafinil. [24]

Many individuals consume adrafinil pre-workout to take a break from caffeine. Similar to caffeine, adrafinil helps induce mental tunnel vision. [24] By improving focus and vigilance, it has been found to prolong workouts and dampen the sensation of fatigue. [25]


Yohimbine is one of the most common fat burners for a reason: it is a powerful thermogenic with some nootropic properties. Its primary thermogenic mechanism consists of blocking alpha-2 noradrenergic receptors which can elevate norepinephrine levels. [26] This can also increase dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine to a lesser degree. [27] Modulating these neurotransmitters increases fatty acid mobilization and increases basal metabolic rate. [28] Research indicates supplementation can increase caloric expenditure during a workout by 29.6%. [28] Much like other stimulants, yohimbine can improve working memory, alertness, and attention span secondary to increased arousal. [29]

Amino Acids

Amino acids are known for their muscle building potential. Did you know that several amino acids also have nootropic benefits?  Since they are the building blocks of protein, every area of the body needs amino acids. This allows most to readily pass the blood-brain barrier, where they begin working their respective nootropic magic.


Tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid that is used to synthesize catecholamines. Supplementing with L-Tyrosine can directly increase dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. [30] Elevating the catecholamines can help nerve communication and improve mood. [30]

Many users report that this amino acid improves their ability to solve difficult problems, such as calculus and physics. Research backs these reports, with improved deep thinking and problem-solving occurring following L-Tyrosine supplementation. [31] Several studies suggest that L-Tyrosine can improve cognitive performance despite psychological stress. [30]


One of the most important regulatory neurotransmitters, GABA, is an amino acid, yet it is not found in protein sources. It can be found in plant sources, however, as it plays several roles in plant cell signaling. In humans, GABA regulates many physiological and psychological processes.

Although it is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in humans, GABA supplementation does not induce sedation unless consuming very high, inadvisable doses. Glutamate, the primary stimulatory neurotransmitter, is synthesized from GABA and vice versa. [32] Supplementation provides a large supply of both of these essential neurotransmitters which can help balance neurotransmitter levels. For stress-prone individuals, supplementing with GABA can help reduce stress and related symptoms. [33]


The most popular amino acid in the world of nootropics is L-Theanine. L-Theanine is responsible for the calming effects of tea. Pure L-Theanine powder and capsules are optimal for consistency and controllability purposes. Supplementing with L-Theanine can improve memory and attention span. [34] This likely occurs as a result of L-Theanine increasing alpha-1 brain waves which are associated with relaxation and attention span. [35] Improvements in memory can occur with long-term supplementation, as L-Theanine promotes neurogenesis (cell growth) in the hippocampus. [36]

Caffeine + L-Theanine

It is very common to stack L-Theanine with caffeine. L-Theanine acts to balance out the stimulant effects of caffeine to give a calm sense of focus. [37] Caffeine can improve alertness and mental accuracy. However, the caffeine and L-Theanine stack can improve alertness, attention span, and mental speed and accuracy. [37]

Closing Thoughts

Developing an understanding of nootropics can seem like a difficult feat in and of itself. It is important to have an introspective understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses in order to figure out which nootropic is best. It takes some trial and error to fine-tune cognition. Nootropics are merely supplements. One would not, logically, drink protein shakes, sit on the couch all day, then expect to put on muscle. Congruently, one cannot take nootropics and expect to become a genius overnight. The trial and error is what furthers one’s understanding of one’s self. Isn’t that the greatest education that can be obtained?

Further Reading

Creating a Latticework of Mental Models:









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  37. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18681988

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