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What are nootropics?

What are nootropics? This is a question many people are asking these days.

There is undoubtedly a massive market for nootropics. According to Grand View Research, "The global nootropics market size was valued at USD 9.57 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.0% from 2021 to 2028." (1)

That's a LOT of money spent on nootropics. But, what exactlyarethey?

A graphical image of a medicine capsule broken open and spilling its content onto the human brain.

What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics are "smart drugs" or cognitive enhancers that contain substances known to improve brain function. Nootropics can include prescription drugs and dietary supplements. (The supplements are often taken as an alternative medicine for cognitive dysfunction.)

Why Are Nootropics So Popular?

Nootropics are popular because of the many individuals who want or need to increase their cognitive abilities. Stimulants and other cognitive enhancers are frequently used by students in an effort to improve their academic performance. Or, medical doctors may prescribe nootropics to dementia patients to counteract the effects of age-related cognitive decline.

The FDA has given its approval for some of these uses but not to others. For example, this government agency has not yet approved the use of pharmaceutical nootropics for healthy individuals. Instead, prescription nootropics have FDA approval to treat or manage only medical conditions that affect cognitive abilities. 

Causes of Cognitive Dysfunction

Many factors can affect brain function, including:

Brain Aging. Research shows that a gradual decline in certain cognitive abilities is a normal part of aging. (2)

Nutrient Deficiencies. The brain needs certain nutrients to function well. Most natural nootropic supplements provide some of these "brain-boosting" nutrients.

Medical Conditions. Stroke, dehydration, traumatic brain injury, kidney disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, etc., can impact the brain and lead to poor cognitive performance.

Alzheimer's Disease. A progressive neurodegenerative disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. More than 6 million Americans have Alzheimer's. (3)

Mild Cognitive Impairment. According to the Alzheimer's Association, mild cognitive impairment causes cognitive changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the person affected and by family members and friends but do not affect the individual’s ability to carry out everyday activities." (4) It does not always progress to dementia.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A brain disorder that is characterized by one or more of these traits: inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity. An estimated 6 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD, (5) but this disorder can also affect adults.

Parkinson's Disease. A progressive movement disorder caused by a loss of certain brain cells. Cognitive impairment is one of the most common non-motor symptoms of this disease.

Multiple Sclerosis. An autoimmune disorder affecting the central nervous system. A decline in cognitive performance is a common symptom of this disease and often a source of significant disability.

An image of an elderly man with dementia reading notes on the wall.

What Are Signs of Cognitive Decline?

The signs of cognitive decline are many and can include:

  • Brain fog
  • Memory issues
  • Forgetfulness
  • Confusion
  • Losing items
  • Problems focusing on a task
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • A decrease in the time it takes to complete a mental task, aka "processing speed"
  • Decreased verbal fluency, meaning you have trouble finding the right word in your memory bank
  • Short-term memory loss
  • And more.

As mentioned above, gradual cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, which usually does not progress into a significant mental disease.

How Effective Are Nootropics?

Numerous research studies suggest that specific nootropics may effectively improve cognitive function in healthy individuals.

Here are just a few of them.

Prescription Nootropics

Prescription nootropic medications are commonly used for cognitive enhancement in certain brain diseases and other mental function conditions.

Nootropic drugs include:

  • Adderal, which contains stimulant drugs (amphetamines) to treat ADHD. It increases the activity of the central nervous system, which can, oddly enough, improve focus and decrease restlessness and fidgeting.
  • Ritalin, which also contains stimulants to treat ADHD. It increases the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, improving the ability to focus. Doctors also sometimes prescribe Ritalin for narcolepsy to increase wakefulness, counteracting the drowsiness of narcolepsy.
  • SSRIs (Prozac, Lexapro, etc.) increase serotonin levels within the brain, improving concentration in depressed individuals.

Like all synthetic drugs, these nootropics come with a risk of various side effect, such as high blood pressure, racing heartbeat, sleep issues, etc. Consequently, you must only take these drugs under the supervision of a medical doctor.

5 Best Natural Nootropics

Studies suggest  that there are several natural nootropics may help boost brain performance, regulate brain chemistry, improve blood flow to the brain, and more.

Ginkgo Biloba

A graphical image of ginkgo biloba leaves in outline, green, and black.

Ginkgo Biloba is a tree species native to China. It is used as an herbal treatment to enhance brain performance and soothe other mental and physical health issues. As a result, this herb is commonly featured in nootropic supplements. (Dietary supplements usually contain extracts of the plant's leaves.)

Research shows that Ginko Biloba may be effective in treating age-related cognitive decline. Indeed, in a review and meta-analysis of 9 trials (2372 patients), researchers discovered "a statistically significant advantage of Ginkgo biloba compared to placebo in improving cognition for the whole group of patients with Alzheimer's disease, vascular or mixed dementia." (6)

Citicoline (CDP-choline)

Citicoline (CDP-choline) is a naturally occurring chemical present in every body cell. It is among the best natural nootropics for brain health because of its direct effect on neurotransmitter function. The US Institute of Medicine found that citicoline can “alleviate or improve memory impairment.” (7)

A study from the University of Oslo also found a direct link between low choline levels (the precursor of citicoline) and poor cognitive performance. (8)

The usage of citicoline for cognitive enhancement goes way back. The Japanese first used it in 1974 as a drug to treat Parkinson's disease and stroke. These doctors found that they could recover completely if they gave their patients citicoline within 24 hours of having a stroke.

Citicoline is available as a nootropic prescription drug and an over-the-counter dietary supplement.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Fish has a reputation as a “brain food” for a good reason. It is loaded with brain-bosting omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are essential fats that your body cannot make on its own. Unfortunately, the standard American diet is typically deficient in omega-3s.

Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids "exhibit neuroprotective properties and represent a potential treatment for a variety of neurodegenerative and neurological disorders." (9)

Fats make up approximately 60% of the human brain, so it makes sense that your brain needs healthy dietary fats like omega-3s to support mental health.

There is scientific evidence that omega-3s are especially beneficial for the aging brain and age-related mental decline. For example, in one study, researchers found an association between low DHA levels (one of two main types of omega-3s) and smaller brain sizes in older adults, indicating accelerated brain aging. (10)

Various studies also suggest that fish oil supplements, loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, may improve brain function in those with mild cognitive impairment and age-related cognitive decline. (11, 12)


If you’re a coffee drinker, you already know that there’s nothing like a strong cup of coffee to wake you and increase focus and attention. A significant reason for this effect is that coffee contains a powerful stimulant-- caffeine.

Caffeine intake has increased wakefulness and attention in numerous clinical research studies. It has also been shown to increase alertness and reaction time and counteract degraded mental performance caused by sleep deprivation. (13, 14, 15)

And get may even defend against Alzheimer’s disease. In a study with mice, researchers discovered that caffeine intake appeared to protect against age-related memory impairment and restored memory in cognitive-impaired mice! (16)

An image of green tea in glass mugs on a wooden table.

Green Tea

Speaking of brain-boosting beverages, you may want to try sipping on a cup of green tea.

Green tea contains three compounds that boost brain function: l-theanine, caffeine, and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).

L-theanine is an amino acid known to promote relaxation, but studies show it may increase focus and improve memory when combined with caffeine. (17)

EGCG is a polyphenol found in green tea that may also have neuroprotective properties. EGCG has been shown to modulate brain activity. In one study, participants given EGCG showed a significant increase in their alpha, beta, and theta brain wave activity. Participants reported increased calmness and reduced stress. This suggests that EGCG may promote relaxation and improve attention. (18)

EGCG occurs naturally in many plant foods, especially berries, so if you don't like green tea, you can always increase your intake by eating various fruits and vegetables.

As for caffeine...we'll, we've already discussed its positive cognitive effects.

Are There Any Side Effects of Taking Nootropics?

There is always the risk of experiencing side effects when taking nootropic drugs -- and the same is true of dietary supplements.

Some side effects of taking natural nootropic supplements include: (19)

  • Paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Hypomania (A less severe form of mania)
  • Restlessness
  • Severe anxiety
  • A worsening of the symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as ADHD, schizophrenia, depression, etc.

Researchers caution that individuals with a history of substance abuse or mental health disorders may be especially vulnerable to adverse effects from taking nootropic supplements (20). Therefore, you must always consult your health care provider before starting a nootropic regimen.

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