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What Are Nootropics? What’s Behind Their Sudden Rise

Geraldine is a lifestyle and wellness writer. She writes about substance abuse, mental health, and how to live a healthy lifestyle.


Nootropics, popularly known as “smart drugs,” are the latest drug use trends among young adults in the United States. These can be natural or synthetic substances that aim to improve mental performance in healthy people. In today’s highly competitive society, nootropics are an alternative to boost memory, focus, creativity, and motivation. But, at what cost?

What Are Nootropics?

Initially, the term “nootropics” was used to describe chemicals that met particular criteria. However, today it’s used to talk about any natural or synthetic substances that positively impact mental skills. Nootropics can be dietary supplements, synthetic compounds, or prescription drugs.

These are the types of nootropics:

  • Natural nootropics: include all-natural ingredients like herbs and plant extracts that might enhance cognitive performance and even prevent cognitive decline. These substances are not FDA-regulated and are restricted from making specific claims.
  • Synthetic nootropics: also known as “smart drugs,” are pharmaceutical agents that affect mental functions. They require a prescription and should only be used under medical supervision.

Who Uses Nootropics?

Without realizing it, people of all ages can be using nootropics. However, nowadays, individuals of Gen-Z or Millennial demographics are the go-to nootropic users. These substances are desirable to students preparing for tests, young adults in high-powered jobs, and anyone looking for a creativity and productivity boost.

Prescription Nootropics vs. Over-the-Counter Options

There are some prescription nootropics, which are medications that have stimulant effects. These can counteract symptoms of deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Over-the-counter nootropics can enhance brain performance and focus. These substances can be creatine and caffeine, for example. They don’t treat diseases but can have positive effects on memory and thinking.


Some FDA-approved nootropics can help treat medical conditions. Usually, the medications are some stimulant drugs, like amphetamines for ADHD and dementia. The most popular prescription nootropics are:

  • Modafinil (Provigil) to help address the sudden drowsiness effects of narcolepsy
  • Adderall to treat ADHD
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin) to manage symptoms of ADHD and narcolepsy
  • Memantine (Axura) to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

These medications can be highly effective in treating such conditions. However, this is only true if someone genuinely needs a prescription. These nootropics carry risks of side effects and interactions, which is why they should just be taken under the supervision of a doctor.

The most common side effects of prescription nootropics are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Faster than regular heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Vision troubles
  • Addiction

Additionally, research suggests that people who misuse prescription nootropics for brain hacking have a higher risk of engaging in impulsive behaviors, such as violent activity and risky sexual practices.


Some nootropics can be natural or synthetic supplements that aim to boost mental performance. These are relatively common supplements used in alternative medicine. Many of these don’t require a prescription and are part of many dietary supplements. Popular OTC nootropic supplements include:

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  • Caffeine
  • L-theanine
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Racetams
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Panax ginseng
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Creatine

Still, these nootropics have little research behind them to back up all their claims. Some of these supplements have FDA-approval to help with specific claims, but not all of them. There’s a heated debate on whether or not these supplements are effective or improve cognitive function.

Do Nootropic Supplements Work?

As of right now, some small studies suggest nootropics can affect the brain. However, there’s a lack of evidence from extensive, controlled studies actually to show these supplements work and that they’re safe to use.

Experts cannot say with certainty if over-the-counter nootropics improve thinking or brain function using just the information available. Nor can they say they’re safe to use.

One report on cognitive enhancers found there’s little to no evidence indicating they’re safe and effective for healthy people. On the other hand, there’s evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can promote overall health and benefit the brain. Caffeine is known to improve mental focus in the short-term, so some indicators are helpful.

Safety Questions Around Nootropics

As with any medication or supplement, there’s a risk of side effects and interactions with drugs. Even healthy individuals should consult a doctor before taking a new supplement. Even the most common nootropics can cause adverse side effects.

These are some common side effects that can potentially lead to more severe effects without medical attention:

  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Dysphoria
  • Dizziness
  • Memory loss
  • Motor function impairment
  • Vertigo

Some other side effects include poor mood regulation, delusions, and even depression. People with pre-existing conditions should stay away from nootropics, especially if they’re under another prescription medication.

Also, since nootropics come in a wide range of forms, their legality varies tremendously. As a general rule, natural nootropics are not regulated by the FDA and are legal over-the-counter. However, prescription nootropics are strictly regulated and do follow specific laws and regulations to obtain them.

A Word on Nootropics

It’s fair to say that everyone wants to improve their memory and attention, alertness, and productivity. Nootropics seem to be a great way to achieve this. However, the lack of evidence on their efficacy and safety means there’s still a lot we don’t know about.

In the meantime, it’s best to benefit from a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Consider tweaking your lifestyle without the use of substances. For example, improve your sleep quality, change your diet, and increase your exposure to natural light and fresh air. These changes in your life can make a huge difference.


Talih, F., & Ajaltouni, J. (2015). Probable Nootropicinduced Psychiatric Adverse Effects: A Series of Four Cases. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 12(11-12), 21–25.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Geraldine Orentas

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