MIND, NUTRITION 3rd October 2016

Nootropics: what are they and do they actually make you smarter?


‘Nootropics’ (noo-tro-pics), would make a cool name for the aliens in Men in Black 4, right? Derived from the Greek words noos (mind) and tropein (to bend), nootropics is an umbrella term used for supplements, nutraceuticals and herbal drugs which enhance brain power and cognitive functioning. Also known as smart drugs (the terms are often used interchangeably), nootropics are fast becoming the go-to choice for executives and entrepreneurs looking to max out their brain’s potential. Yet despite this increased uptake, little is known about them in the mainstream. Let’s delve into the world of nootropics.

History and classification

Researchers have traced the use of nootropics as far back as ten thousand years ago. Back then it was fruits and plants used to alter the state of one’s mind. Fast forward to the 1950’s and one of the first synthetic nootropics, Piracetam was produced to treat depression and anxiety disorders. Currently, the status of Piracetam in the U.S. deems it an unregulated drug. It does not require a prescription and it is legal to buy provided it’s not labeled for human consumption. This somewhat vague stance is echoed across the world when it comes to nootropics. In the U.K. for example, a doctor’s prescription is required for nootropics acquired in an actual drugstore, yet this rule does not extend to online purchases. You can easily buy certain nootropics online as long as they are for personal use.


Nootropics are classified according to their benefits and are available in tailor made stacks: a combination of types into a single smart drug for optimal performance. Some of the most common nootropics include:

Racetams: the most common nootropic, known to improve memory, focus, mood, learning abilities and energy levels. They are also known to fight cell deterioration thereby providing anti-aging benefits. Most nootropic stacks will include racetams.

Peptides: very similar to racetams but much more potent. The peptide family of nootropics are known for their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier; in other words our body’s ability to absorb them is greater.

Natural Nootropics: are plant-based. The ancient Chinese herb Gingko Biloba is a natural nootropic. It comes with a history of enhancing memory and focus. Compared to their synthetic counterparts, natural nootropics are known to be less effective.

Do nootropics work?

A search for nootropics on PubMed retrieved 31,775 results. In comparison, penicillin and antibiotic searches came closer to the hundred thousand mark respectively. The field of nootropics is still in its infancy, especially when considering human studies are few and far between. Reaching a meaningful conclusion around effectiveness is therefore difficult at this point. However, that didn’t stop Hollywood from forming a conclusion. In the 2011 movie Limitless, the star character played Bradley Cooper takes a smart drug (NZT-48) which makes him cognitively super human. As the movie plays out we see adverse side effects, suggesting smart drugs and nootropics are dangerous.

In reality, nootropics are going nowhere. Silicon Valley venture capital firms are receiving an influx of applications from startups seeking seed capital to develop nootropics. This is partly due to the ambiguous regulation which offers entrepreneurs the chance to cash in. Products appropriately named Optimind, CompleteBrain and Brainstorm are just a few of the examples I found online for as little as $15 . Can something so cheap really hold the key to antiaging and enhanced brain power? As always, quality matters. Performing due diligence on the manufacturer is essential in this industry.

Silicon Valley is also home to the millionaire entrepreneur and nootropics advocate Dave Asprey. In his daily regime, Asprey consumes 15 pills to increase mental focus and energy, improve memory and prime his body’s metabolism. Asprey claims to have increased his IQ by 20 points using his evolving cocktail of nootropics – at a personal cost of $300,000 over the course of the last 15 years.

The final word

If nootropics aka smart drugs are really as good as they claim, should the real question be one of ethics? At what point do we stop hacking our body’s natural state? Is this better living through science or the equivalent of steroids?

As always, pushing for health.