Nootropics – sometimes called smart drugs – are compounds that enhance brain function. They’re becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost. According to one Telegraph report, up to 25% of students at leading UK universities have taken the prescription smart drug modafinil , and California tech startup employees are trying everything from Adderall to LSD to push their brains into a higher gear .
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.
They did, and I’ve been a big fan of certain cognitive enhancers ever since.
I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 13 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
I started taking modafinil while getting my MBA at Wharton. At the same time, I was also working at a start-up that later sold for $600 million in value, so you can imagine how busy I was. I wanted a way to keep my brain running.
When I first started taking modafinil, I felt more like myself than I had in years. I took it just about every day in varying doses for 8 years (with a physician’s prescription). It gave me energy and changed my life. I would not be the biohacker I am today without modafinil.
When I worked on the Bulletproof Diet book, I wanted to verify that the effects I was getting from Bulletproof Coffee were not coming from modafinil, so I stopped using it and measured my cognitive performance while I was off of it. What I found was that on Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet, my mental performance was almost identical to my performance on modafinil. I still travel with modafinil, and I’ll take it on occasion, but while living a Bulletproof lifestyle I rarely feel the need.
There’s a slight risk (about 5 in a million people) of having a life-threatening immune reaction to modafinil. It’s the same reaction that happens with ibuprofen and other NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), so if you know you don’t react well to NSAIDs, talk to your doctor before taking modafinil.
One reason I like modafinil is that it enhances dopamine release, but it binds to your dopamine receptors differently than addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines do, which may be part of the reason modafinil shares many of the benefits of other stimulants but doesn’t cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms.   It does increase focus, problem-solving abilities, and wakefulness, but it is not in the same class of drugs as Adderall, and it is not a classical stimulant. Modafinil is off of patent, so you can get it generically, or order it from India. It’s a prescription drug, so you need to talk to a physician.
You can also try armodafinil, which is a more purified form of modafinil with only biologically identical molecules in it. It has nearly identical and sometimes stronger effects. It’s very expensive without insurance.
If you don’t want to get a prescription, there’s adrafinil, which has similarities, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it regularly because it stresses your liver a lot.
Normally prescribed modafinil dose: 50-200 mg, taken in the morning (unless you want to be awake all night)
Normally prescribed armodafinil dose: 100-200 mg, taken in the morning
Nicotine can be a powerful nootropic if you take it carefully and sparingly. Here’s a full guideto using nicotine as a nootropic, complete with pros and cons, risks, dose recommendations, and advice about what form of nicotine to use.
I do NOT recommend smoking cigarettes or using tobacco to get your nicotine. I’m talking about very small doses that are far lower than you’d get from smoking. Nicotine has a direct effect on your mitochondrial energy, and just about anything that increases mitochondrial function is going to make your brain work better.
3) Amphetamine (Adderall) – focus…but with high risk and several drawbacks
Big Pharma has recommended amphetamine (Adderall) for ADHD sufferers for years now. It’s also popular on college campuses around exam time. Too bad, because there are much better choices.
Amphetamine has substantial risks. In healthy adults, it improves attention, focus, motivation to work, and short-term memory, all by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine release in your prefrontal cortex.   Amphetamine also decreases fatigue, but it makes you jittery and can increase anxiety.
What worries me about amphetamine is its addictive potential, and the fact that it can cause stress and anxiety. Research says it’s only slightly likely to cause addiction in people with ADHD,  but we don’t know much about its addictive potential in healthy adults. We all know the addictive potential of methamphetamine, and amphetamine is closely related enough to make me nervous about so many people giving it to their children. Amphetamines cause withdrawal symptoms, so the potential for addiction is there.
4) L-theanine – calm alertness, reaction time, mental endurance
L-theanine is a major component of black and green tea. On its own, theanine promotes relaxation, alertness, and arousal. 
Theanine also works synergistically with caffeine. Together, the two increase reaction time, memory, and mental endurance. 
You can get your theanine from a capsule, or you can drink a cup or two of green tea. If you decide to do the green tea, look for tea that’s grown in the shade, because shade-grown green tea typically has much higher levels of theanine.
L-theanine dose: 200 mg. You can take it with your morning coffee, or you can take it at night, like me.
This is a small water plant native to India. Bacopa is an adaptogen – it helps your body adapt to stress. It also improves memory in healthy adults and enhances attention and mood in people over 65.  Scientists still don’t fully understand how Bacopa works, but they do know it takes time to work; study participants didn’t feel its memory-enhancing effects until they’d been supplementing with it daily for 4 weeks, so if you try Bacopa, stick with it for a month before you give up on it.
Bacopa suppresses sperm production in male mice, so you may want to skip it if you’re trying to conceive.  It didn’t affect the mice’s testosterone or sex drive, though.
A lot of nootropic companies include Bacopa in their stacks, but they often don’t use enough to give you real benefits. You want at least 750 mg daily. Take Bacopa with a fat source to increase its absorption.
Unfair Advantage supports your mitochondria, the power plants of your cells, with two different ingredients:
CoQ10 enhances cellular energy production in your mitochondria, giving you both a mental and physical boost.  (The dose of CoQ10 is low, but it’s in a colloidal form which potentiates delivery of the PQQ)
ActivePQQ? is a novel form of PQQ that does not get inactivated by stomach acid. PQQ promotes the growth of new mitochondria and also helps your body clear out and replace old mitochondria. 
You have the highest density of mitochondria in your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps to explain why I feel Unfair Advantage in my head first. You have the second highest density in your heart, which is probably why I feel it in the center of my chest next. Mitochondrial energizers can have profound nootropic effects! At higher doses mitochondrial energizers also make for an excellent pre-workout supplements.
KetoPrime is another powerful nootropic. It contains oxaloacetate, a compound that can shield your brain from environmental toxins.
Common environmental toxins – pesticides, for example – cause your brain to release glutamate (a neurotransmitter). Your brain needs glutamate to function, but when you create too much of it it becomes toxic and starts killing neurons. Oxaloacetate protects rodents from glutamate-induced brain damage. Of course, we need more research to determine whether or not oxaloacetate has the same effect on humans.
KetoPrime is a great way to give your brain a little extra boost. In animal studies, it also modifies the Krebs Cycle, shifting the ratio of NADH to NAD+, which makes mitochondrial energy production more efficient.
Forskolin has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. 
I have used forskolin for more than a decade.
Forskolin is especially effective if you combine it with artichoke extract. Artichoke extract inhibits PDE4, an enzyme that breaks down cAMP. PDE4 inhibitors make cAMP more available, and when you add in artichoke extract’s cAMP-enhancing effects, you get a significant boost to learning, memory, and motivation.
Or you get a headache and an energy crash when you “come down.”
That may be because upping cAMP uses more dopamine than your brain usually would. It affects different people differently. You only know if you try it.
A supplement called CILTEP is the the first commercial combination of artichoke extract and forskolin.
CILTEP dose: 1-3 capsules, taken in the morning on an empty stomach
9) Neuromaster – memory and focus
Neuromaster is a supplement I helped formulate when I learned about the power of coffee fruit extract. This stuff significantly increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels – even more than exercise. BDNF is a crucial neuroprotein that helps increase neuroplasticity and create new neurons, resulting in better memory and focus.
This is important for the short-term, and essential for the long-term because you naturally lose BDNF as you age. Lower BDNF levels are associated with age-related hippocampal shrinkage and memory decline.
100 mg of extract of coffee fruit (the red fruit surrounding coffee beans) raised BDNF by about 140% in several studies. The boost lasted for a few hours.
Neuromaster dose: 1 cap, taken in the morning with or without food
Stuff you should know about nootropics
When you first start taking nootropics, sometimes you’ll feel like nothing is happening. That’s what I experienced. Then, a week later, I quit taking them, and noticed their absence immediately. This is because when your brain works better, it feels so natural that it’s hard to notice unless you have a great degree of self-awareness.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if youare already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.
You can also get profoundly depressed. One of the nootropics I did not write about here, Lucidril, has superb anti-aging and cognitive benefits for some people, but others get deeply sad after taking it. After three days on Lucidril I felt entirely hopeless about my life. Fortunately, I’d done my research and I stopped taking it immediately.
There is inherent risk in experimenting with pharmaceuticals, or illegal drugs like LSD. The risk is greater than it is with most natural substances. You can have a psychotic experience if you take too much LSD; you’re more likely to get a big headache if you take too much of a choline-stimulating herbal substance.
It also pays to check the purity of your nootropics. I’ve seen some companies promoting pre-made nootropic stacks that contain ingredients like blue agave (fructose!), food coloring – even pieces of metal. Read your labels!
I have great hope that medicine will wake up to the amazing benefits of nootropics and begin to incorporate them into society. Many of them not only increase your quality of life, they make your brain more resilient to the environment around you. We could all use a little more that.
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.
The truth is that, almost 20 years ago when my brain was failing and I was fat and tired, I did not know to follow this advice. I bought $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe, took them all at once out of desperation, and got enough cognitive function to save my career and tackle my metabolic problems. With the information we have now, you don’t need to do that. Please learn from my mistakes!
We’ve all been there. We do absentminded things like leave a laptop at the security checkpoint. Or we can’t focus on the one dang work task we need to get done. What if these brain battles could be fought with supplements and compounds?
The official name for these enhancers is nootropics. Although the term isn’t as mainstream as words like anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, these brain enhancers may help overtaxed noggins. In fact, some of these “smart drugs” have been studied since the 1970s, and there’s a little bit of evidence that they might make your brain feel less soupy.
So areyou having the occasional bad day, battling brain fog brought on by chronic illness, or navigating learning disabilities or mental health issues? Nootropics may be worth diving into.
WHAT ARE NOOTROPICS?
What are nootropics?
Nootropicsare a wide range of supplements and compounds that work to boost your mental function or moods. One nootropic might reportedly juice creativity, while another might give you a mega motivational kick in the booty. Yet another might tell your anxiety it’s time to go into hibernation.
“I wish people, especially those with chronic illnesses, knew about nootropics!” says Maija Haavisto, 33. Haavisto, an author who lives in Amsterdam, says she developed chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) at age 16. A few years later, she had trouble writing, reading, and remembering things — a brain fogassociated with some chronic illnesses.
Through her own research in her 20s, Haavisto discovered nootropics. “Many with myalgic encephalomyelitis (another name for CFS) or autoimmune diseases suffer from cognitive problems with no idea that it could be relieved, and their doctors are similarly clueless.”
While some believe that nootropics are just for programmers, engineers, or workers focused on productivity, they have so much more potential. In fact, you’ve probably already heard of some nootropics, especially if you have a chronic illness. St. John’s wort, magnesium, and omega-3are just a few of them.
Chances are you’re already a nootropics user and you don’t even know it.
HOW DO THEY HELP?
How do nootropics help the brain?
The mechanisms behind each nootropic is different, and research is still in the works for many of them. One of the most popular forms is in your morning cup of joe: caffeine.
We like caffeine for the way it wakes us up and makes us feel mentally alert and focused, but we rarely think about the science behind it. Caffeine has this stimulating effect because it inhibits certain receptors that slow down brain activity. As an added bonus, a recent study shows that regular caffeine consumption could also have long-term effects, like decreasing your risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Piracetam, the first compound to be labeled a nootropic, has been shown to help improve cognitive function in children with learning disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD. Another supplement called pyritinol, which is semi-synthetic, is two vitamin B-6 molecules attached to each other. It’s been associated with improved memory and reaction time.
Haavisto’s first foray into nootropics was with ginkgo biloba, a common supplement found in many health food stores. She says it helped her, but she didn’t like taking it three times a day. “If I missed one dose, already my cognitive abilities would plummet.” So she asked her doctor to prescribe two nootropics: first piracetam and then nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker. Whether you need a prescription for these depends on which country you live in and your nootropic of choice.
Both drugs have personally helped Haavisto. “Before starting it, even the smallest cognitive exertion would fry my brain,” she says of the piracetam. The benefits from the nimodipine were immediate, as well. “Already from the first pill, I felt the fog lift and could also write better.” In her experience, she noted less issues with forgetting words and brain fatigue.
Always talk to your doctor before trying any supplements as they may interact with medications you’re taking. These supplements and herbs are meant as complementary enhancers and aren’t intended to replace any treatment you may be on. Supplements aren’t monitored for purity, strength, or quality by the FDA and you must choose your brand with caution.
HOW TO USE NOOTROPICS
Here’s a crib sheet for nootropics newbies
1. Set a goal
Your first order of business as a potential nootropics user is to decide on what you want to achieve. Areyou looking to improve your motivation to finish your thesis? Reduce an uptick in anxiety while weaning off a prescription med? Clear chronic brain fog? Alleviate insomnia? Not all nootropics are the same, so figuring out your desired outcome will help narrow which nootropics might work for you.
2. Take a look at your lifestyle
See if you can achieve your goal with some healthy changes first. For example, studies show exercising can improve mood, motivation, and focus. If developing better sleep habits could be all it takes to secure those sought-after Zzz’s, you may not need nootropics. However, these first lines of defense may not be possible or enough if you have a chronic illness.
3. Do your research
As with any drug or supplement, nootropics do have side effects, interactions, and contraindications. Before trying a nootropic, read up! Always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements and choose your nootropic based on research. Human studies provide more reliable conclusions than animal studies.
One place to read about nootropics is the community on Reddit, where experienced users like Haavisto bring a science-backed approach to every suggestion they try. “The Reddit forum has been useful,” Haavisto says, “and in general it’s nice to discuss the subject, which isn’t talked about much elsewhere.” Along with user experiences and lists of nootropics and their reported benefits, you’ll find plenty of links to published research studies. It’s essentially a review forum.
Of course, a subreddit isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice or care. Consult your physician before starting any supplements, as herbs and vitamins may interact with medications you’re taking.
4. Start out slow
Some experienced nootropic users engage in stacking — taking multiple nootropics or compounds to achieve a goal. One of the most common stacks is combining caffeine with L-theanine to boost focus. This is likely a safe stack for most people, but in general, you should try a nootropic that you’ve researched and spoken to a doctor about first.
Here’s a list of the most common nootropics with their reported uses:
See how you react to a low dose of your nootropic before increasing to the full recommended dose on the label or adding another nootropic to the mix. In short: be smart about sharpening your brain!
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her MS in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.