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Brain Supplements: A detailed guide to understanding the terms cognitive enhancers, nootropics, and “brain pills”

By on June 4, 2017 in News with 0 Comments

If you are an avid film watcher, then you might remember a 2011 film called Limitless, which starred Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. The film concerned a magical pill that when taken, gives the person who took it massively improved mental abilities. Their memory is massively improved, their ability to synthesize information is drastically improved, and in general, their mental capacities are greatly improved. Now, believe it or not, this is not a total fantasy. The pill in the film is what is known as a nootropic (also commonly referred to as cognitive enhancers, brain pills, smart pills, and brain supplements) and they actually exist. Now, in the film, the effects of the nootropic are greatly exaggerated, as they essentially give the main character superpowers, in real life, there is no nootropic that is that powerful. However, nootropics do exist and they do help improve cognitive functions like memory and information synthesis. There is also evidence that they help encourage creativity and improve motivation. Nootropics are not exactly well understood by a lot of people and a lot of research is still being done into the potential benefits of nootropics. So, to help clear up the confusion, we have compiled this in-depth guide on nootropics. In this guide, we will go over exactly what nootropics are, what some common ingredients are, what the benefits and side effects are, go over some research that shows the benefits of nootropics.

What are nootropics?

Nootropics are anything that improves the cognitive functions of your brain. The term was coined by a Romanian doctor and scientist named Corneliu E. Giurgea, who was responsible for creating one of the first nootropics. The name comes from two Greeks words, nous and trepein, which is translated to mind-bending or mind-turning. If we go by Giurgea’s original definition, a nootropic is anything that:

  • Improves your ability to learn
  • Improves your ability to remember things
  • Protects your brain from injuries and chemicals like barbiturates
  • Increase the efficiency of your cognitive functions

Giurgea also specified that nootropics should have few side effects and have a low level of toxicity.

If this sounds like a very broad definition, it is because it is a very broad way of defining nootropics. This definition encompasses everything from certain drugs to everyday stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. Roughly speaking, you can divide nootropics into three distinct categories. There are racetams, stimulants, and miscellaneous supplements. Let’s take a quick look at each of these 3 categories.


Racetams refer to certain kinds of drugs that can be taken to improve cognitive functions. The best example of a racetam is the drug piracetam, which was actually synthesized by Dr. Giurgea himself in the 1960s. If you are not familiar with the drug, that is probably because it is sold under many different brand names; in Europe, the drug is best known under the brand names Nootropil and Lucetam. So, you may be wondering what racetams do that makes them increase cognitive functions? Well, piracetam and other racetams work by influencing the chemical acetylcholine; which is a chemical in the brain that controls things like your mood, your mental ability, your ability to memorize things, your ability to learn things, and your ability to focus. Racetams will increase the effect of acetylcholine, which will mean that you will be able to focus better, you will be able to take in and remember information better, and you will be able to understand things easier.


This refers to drugs or chemicals that increase your alertness, your ability to focus, your memory, and your performance. There are a wide variety of stimulants out there that do this. The most popular type of stimulant is by far caffeine, which is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world, with over 90% of North Americans consuming caffeine at least once a day. Other popular stimulants include nicotine and amphetamine-based drugs like Adderall and Concerta. Obviously, stimulants are a bit less powerful than racetams, but they can still be effective. Also, with stimulants, there is a risk of abuse. For example, Adderall is primarily intended to be for those suffering from ADHD or other disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to focus and retain information, yet many university students abuse the drug so that they can stay up studying longer.

Miscellaneous supplements

Finally, there are various supplements and foods that people claim helps improve cognitive functions. For example, many people advocate on behalf of ginseng supplements, with many claiming that it can help improve a person’s memory and increase their ability to focus. The scientific research behind these supplements is still very uncertain about whether the supplements actually help or not and obviously, there are a lot of scam supplements out there that do not actually help at all. Still, there is some research out that does suggest that some supplements are able to noticeably improve cognitive functions. That being said, one should not expect supplements to be as effective as pills.

How do nootropics work?

Exactly how nootropics work is not exactly well understood, but as we said above, current research suggests that nootropics work by enhancing the effect of the chemical acetylcholine. This naturally occurring chemical in your brain is involved in several actions depending on what part of the brain it is. So, it can influence your sleep cycles, how well you memorize and absorb information, how well you can focus, how well your brain communicates with other parts of the body, and how much pain you feel when injured. Now, certain other nootropics may take different approaches. For example, certain nootropics may also improve the blood flow to the brain, which helps make the brain more active. Others may increase the amount of oxygen consumed by the brain, which increases the activity of the brain.

Now, let’s take the time to address some possible misconceptions that you or others may have about nootropics. When you take nootropics you suddenly do not gain superpowers like the main character in Limitless; you will not suddenly become a savant who is able to solve complex math problems in seconds. Furthermore, taking nootropics will not suddenly alleviate your need to get a proper amount of sleep nor will they make you have to work less. Instead, when you take nootropics you will notice that you can focus better and that you are less prone to distractions like social media. You will notice that you have to reread passages less to absorb the information. You will notice that you are more motivated to finish your work.

Common ingredients found in nootropics

Now, we obviously cannot list every possible ingredient that you can find in nootropics, it would be impossible since every manufacturer can add their own ingredients. Instead, we will simply run through some of the more common ingredients that you can find.

Huperzine A

Huperzine A is an alkaloid compound that is extracted from the plant Huperzia serrata, more commonly known as “toothed clubmoss.” This is a firmoss plant that is found in India and other parts of Southeast Asia. It has been sold as a supplement of its own, but others may incorporate it into their own larger nootropic supplement alongside other ingredients. This compound is responsible for preventing the breakdown of our old friend, the chemical acetylcholine. Now, we have already gone over the benefits of acetylcholine, and thus they will not be repeated. Because huperzine A helps prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, it means that it can help improve your memory, your focus, and other cognitive functions. In fact, many have been researching the possibility of using huperzine A to help fight diseases that cause neurodegeneration, most notably Alzheimer’s disease.  

Vitamin B6

One common vitamin that you will see many in nootropic supplements is vitamin B6. This vitamin is one of the vitamins that helps contribute to the synthesis of neurotransmitters. As we have already covered, neurotransmitters are responsible for a wide array of cognitive functions. Now, vitamin B6 on its own will not actually help you improve your memory or your ability to focus on things. But, deficiency of vitamin B6 can contribute to memory problems and other cognitive issues in both healthy adults and the elderly. Thus, taking vitamin B6 supplements can help to keep your memory and other cognitive functions from degrading.  


L-tyrosine is an amino acid that is primarily found in high protein foods. So, things like egg whites, chicken, turkey, fish, different types of cheeses, various kinds of nuts, seeds, and avocados are all great sources of L-tyrosine. So, what about L-tyrosine makes it valuable enough to be included in various nootropics. Well, L-tyrosine has two main functions, it reduces stress and it improves memory. With regards to stress, L-tyrosine stimulates the product of the chemical dopamine in the brain. This helps improve your mood and deal with stress. Now, a little bit of stress is actually not bad for helping you to focus and work harder. But, significant levels of stress can severely interfere with your ability to focus on your work and to remember important things. So, by improving your moods and reducing stress, L-tyrosine can help you focus better. As to its other effect, improved memory, the benefits of that go without saying. Also, it is worth noting that L-tyrosine has been shown to be extra effective in improving memory when multitasking.


Choline is a nutrient that is naturally produced by the human liver. However, it is also very popular as a dietary supplement. Much like some of the other ingredients mentioned so far, choline can be gotten through consumption of certain foods. Specifically, foods like certain types of red meat (liver and beef are both examples), eggs, salmon, and certain vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli to name a few) are all foods rich in choline. However, many choose to get choline through consumption of certain nootropic supplements. Now, as you may have noticed from the name choline is related to the chemical acetylcholine. In fact, choline, along with acetic acid, is one of the building blocks of the chemical acetylcholine. So, by getting more choline, you will be improving your body’s cognitive functions. Also, it is worth noting that choline is especially useful for pregnant women. Research has shown that increasing choline intake while pregnant can noticeably improve the baby’s future cognitive functions, most notably their memory.


This compound, much like huperzine A, is derived from a plant. In this case, the plant in question was the dwarf periwinkle plant; a plant that can be found all over Europe, from France to Turkey. The compound was first discovered in the 1970s by a Hungarian scientist. So, how does this particular compound help out cognitive functions? Well, vinpocetine does two things. First off, it increases blood flow to the brain. Increased blood flow helps keep the brain healthy. Likewise, the compound has been shown to prevent the degradation of certain chemicals in the brain, which helps keep your memory and other cognitive functions working well. Also, the compound has been noted to have very few, if any negative effects on humans, which makes this a very popular nootropic ingredient.

Common side effects

Nootropics do not give too many side effects; in fact, if you will recall, one of the original characteristics of nootropics as outlined by Dr. Giurgea is that they have relatively few side effects and low toxicity. Still, like most everything in life, there are a few potential downsides to taking nootropics. One of the more common, but mild side effects of nootropics is headaches. No one is quite sure why exactly this happens, but it probably relates to the fact that your brain is not used to working so hard and thus you get a headache (it probably does not help that headaches themselves are somewhat poorly understood). Another common side effect is insomnia. Insomnia is usually due to one of two things. Either a person took a nootropic supplement too late in the day or they used too high of a dosage. The bout of insomnia should not be permanent, but it can last for a couple of days until your body gets back to its regular sleep schedule. Another common side effect is a feeling of fatigue. This more common with stimulants than other types of nootropics. You have probably heard of this before; people who rely on caffeine or other types of stimulants often suffer a crash many hours after taking the stimulant. This side effect can be easily avoided by sticking to safe dosages of certain stimulants. There are other, very rare side effects, but in general, nootropics are perfectly safe. As long as you are careful with dosage and practice some common sense, then you should avoid experiencing any major side effects.

The benefits of taking nootropics

We have already touched on many of the benefits of nootropics throughout the article, so we will keep this section brief. Here are just some of the many benefits associated with taking nootropics:

  • Better memory. Now, taking nootropics does not mean that you will suddenly acquire a completely photographic memory. But, they can help you improve both your short-term and long-term memory abilities.
  • Better creativity and problem-solving skills. Some nootropics do help you think through issues and come up with better solutions for problems. Now, if you are not a naturally creative person, these are not going to turn you into a creative genius, but they can help you slightly improve in these areas.
  • Better focus. Simply put, nootropics help you focus on a specific task and get it done. If you are the type who gets distracted easily, this can be very helpful.
  • Better stress control. A lot of people experience intense stress when they are forced to work on something and meet a tight deadline. Nootropics help keep that stress under control so that you can focus on getting the task at hand done.

Nootropic Stacking

Some people like to engage in what is called “nootropic stacking.” This essentially means that they take certain nootropics together to get the maximum benefit from each nootropic. Some people swear by this, saying that it is the best way to get all the benefits you can out of nootropics. In fact, when you go to buy nootropics, you may see certain stores selling premade stacks. Others, prefer to make their own based on experimentation. Although not extremely dangerous to your health, it is possible to take too many nootropics at once, in which case you will not be getting the full benefit from the nootropics, so make sure you are careful when creating your stack.

Scientific/Clinical studies about nootropics

When it comes to nootropics, there is quite a bit of research that has already been done on the matter (but as always, more research is still being done). We are going to link a few studies so that you can see what the experts have to say about nootropics.

On the subject of stimulants, this 2014 study showed that at lower doses, psychostimulants acted as cognitive enhancers. Meaning that lower doses of stimulants are able to improve things like working memory and focus. Thankfully, the full study is available for free (which is rare for these platforms) so you are able to read the entire study yourself.

On the subject of racetams, there are also many studies you can look at. This 2005 study (which unfortunately cannot be read in full unless you have a subscription) shows that the drug piracetam is useful in treating many cognitive disorders, including dementia, and that it is tolerated relatively easily by humans.


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About the Author

About the Author: Hi, My name is Tom Curren and I appreciate your interest in my male supplement review site My mission is to provide well researched, unbiased, honest reviews of the top supplements on the market today. As a personal trainer I strive to assist my clients everyday, this also including recommendations for only the best supplements produced. Along with my own personal testing I also am provided with honest reviews from individuals on a daily basis who test new supplements, thus I am able to only recommend what is going to be the most effective and what you should avoid. .


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