Nootropics is an umbrella term for a class of chemicals — some naturally-occurring, some manmade — that give cognitive benefits to the human brain.
To get really technical, in order to be a nootropic, a substance must meet five criteria set by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, the man who coined the term “nootropic.” The substance must…
- Enhance memory and ability to learn.
- Help the brain function under disruptive conditions, such as hypoxia (low oxygen) and electroconvulsive shock.
- Protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, such as anti-cholinergic drugs and barbiturates.
- Increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain.
- Possess few or no side effects and be virtually non-toxic.
This is a pretty hefty list of requirements for any chemical. In fact, anything that meets this full definition, could equally well be called a “miracle drug,” not just a nootropic.
However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above. “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.
With this looser definition, discussions about nootropics can range from innocuous everyday substances like caffeine and Omega-3 fatty acids to regulated (and deservedly so) substances like Adderall.
For a more visual definition of nootropics, check out our infographic What Are Nootropics?
Well, how can a Swiss Army knife help with a do-it-yourself project?
Acute-onset smart drugs (that precipitate a certain state of mind in a predictable short-term) can be hugely handy if you know what you’ll be doing and how you want to be behaving. (Example: “I know I need to get 10 hours worth of focused work done. How can I minimize my likelihood to get distracted?”)
Long-onset smart drugs (that must build up to a foundational level in your body and brain) can bring your overall cognitive baselines up over weeks or months, gradually improving your thinking and/or mood in ways that won’t be perceptible moment to moment or hour to hour.
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The terms “nootropic” and “cognitive enhancer” are often used interchangeably, but “nootropic” actually has a much more restrictive definition. (All nootropics are cognitive enhancers, but the opposite is not true.) Cognitive enhancers include any substance that enhance cognitive function, including concentration, learning, memory, and mood. Nootropics must also be neuroprotective and relatively non-toxic.
For example, while Adderall is a cognitive enhancer, it is not a nootropic due to its stimulant qualities and potential negative side effects.
In this FAQ, we will use “smart drugs” to refer to both nootropics and cognitive enhancers, and will make the distinction where necessary.
Unfortunately, these questions are impossible to answer in general terms. Individual responses to most neurologically-active compounds – including smart drugs – are highly variable and depend on a number of factors, including genetics, individual biochemistry, the user’s lifestyle choices, and even mood.
Answering this question depends on the particular substance, and your country or jurisdiction. Check out our Legality Lookup page.
If you have additional information about which smart drugs are legal in your country, please let us know so we can make the database as comprehensive as possible.
By definition, nootropics are both safe and non-toxic (see above; this is actually built into the definition of the word “nootropic”). In addition, many cognitive enhancers have been found to be relatively safe in clinical trials. However, the decision whether or not to take any particular drug or dietary supplement should be made based on consultation with a doctor, thorough independent research, and personal risk tolerance.
This is a hugely important question, and the answers vary on a substance-by-substance basis. Again, close consultation with your doctor is recommended throughout any pregnancy.
A few of our podcast episodes have touched on optimal dietary habits for pregnant women for fetal brain development; check out Episode #51 with Dr. Michael A. Crawford and Episode #54 with Dr. Gilles Guillemin.
Nootropics, by definition, are not addictive. However, some cognitive enhancers – particularly stimulants – can be addictive. Also, any substance that is perceived to yield positive results can be self-reenforcing, even if not physiologically “addictive.” Please consult your doctor before taking any drugs or dietary supplements.
It depends on which smart drugs you are taking and which side effects you are experiencing. Smart Drug Smarts is not a licensed medical establishment, and cannot give medical advice. If you are suffering negative side effects, it would be wise to discontinue use of any substances you think may be a root cause, and seek professional medical advice.
Some smart drugs are wakefulness-promoting agents that make sleep more “optional” than required. Others are stimulants that actually work against your ability to sleep. (And still others may make you drowsy!)
If you want to maintain your regular sleep schedule, there are two things you can do:
(1) Don’t take stimulants (like caffeine, for example) in the afternoon or evenings. The precise cut-off time will depend on your individual biochemistry, so you may need to experiment a bit here to find what works.
(2) Take up to 3mg of melatonin 30 minutes before your desired bedtime. Sweet dreams!
Smart Drug Smarts is not a licensed medical professional, and we cannot take the place of your doctor in advising you on particular pharmaceuticals, supplements, dietary choices, or interactions. This is to protect both your health and our backside. 🙂
Which substances are advisable will depend heavily on your goals. Are you looking for greater focus? Wakefulness without anxiety? Brain-protection as you age?
We recommend taking a peek at our Getting Started page to get a sense of what the (many!) options are… We’ve got a number of episodes that highlight a particular pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, or compound.
If a drug has been prescribed for you, use it only at the amounts and in the frequency prescribed by your doctor. If a substance is a non-prescription supplement, we recommend conducting your own thorough research and making informed decisions about any dietary supplements and doses, as well as consulting with a medical professional. Suggested doses listed in our Smart Drugs Library are for informational purposes only. Use caution and always begin with the minimum recommended dose of any supplement.
Welcome to the world of cognitive enhancement! We’ve actually got a Getting Started page tailor-made to bring you up to speed. And remember: any time you’re learning something new, there can be a lot of unfamiliar concepts and new terminology, but don’t be daunted. After all, this whole site is about getting smarter. 🙂
Have a question we haven’t answered yet?
Drop us a line and we’ll have one of our resident smart people add the answer to this page.