6 Best Nootropics (or Brain Supplements) to Boost Learning, Creativity & More

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Best nootropics - Dr. Axe

Nootropics — or as many people like to call them, “smart pills” — are “cognitive enhancers” that claim to improve learning capability, motivation, concentration and creativity. But do nootropics really work, and are they safe?

In recent years there’s been a major surge in popularity in nootropics, especially among college students, recent grads and even hard-working corporate executives. Nootropics are considered non-addictive “smart drugs” or substances that help the brain work more efficiently. So what is the best nootropic on the market today?

Many of the most popular nootropic vendors in the world have only emerged in the past several years, mostly selling their products online to those interested in “neurohacking,” or the ability to apply cutting-edge science and technology to positively influence how the brain and body work. The term “nootropics” covers a broad range of brain-boosting drugs, herbs and supplements that are all said to have cognitive-enhancing effects.

When it comes to finding the best nootropic for you, it’s important to consider why you’re using nootropics in the first place, your goals, medical history and the potential risks involved. Some of the best brain supplements that seem to be both safe and effective, according to studies, include: adaptogen herbs, medicinal mushrooms, bacopa, ginseng, DHA/fish oil and gingko biloba.

What Are Nootropics? How Do They Work?

Nootropics is another name for “smart drugs,” “brain boosters” or “memory-enhancing drugs.” There’s now a wide variety of products available on the market that are classified as nootropics, considering the exact definition of a nootropic is still up for debate, as the term is not tightly regulated. What makes things even more complicated is that nootropics are often manufactured as “stacks,” or substances that include many different ingredients that interact in complex ways. (1)

Some examples of nootropics include: (2, 3, 4)

It’s hard to describe exactly how nootropics work exactly because each one in unique and has its own specific mechanisms of actions. Considering how many different “brain supplements”s fall into the nootropics category, there are dozens of possible explanations for how nootropics enhance cognitive function.

But what most smart drugs have in common is that they are capable of altering levels of certain neurotransmitters, enzymes or hormones in the brain — such as acetylcholine, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and GABA. Many increase energy (some via caffeine), promote blood flow and help protect the brain from oxidative stress.

Are nootropics natural, and are they even legal? What makes nootropics different from most stimulants, illegal drugs and mood-altering prescriptions is that they are considered non-toxic and non-addictive. Many are derived from plants or isolated amino acids that are found in common protein-rich foods.

However, some nootropics are not natural (they’re synthetic), and these tend to have stronger effects and pose more risks.

Top 6+ Best Nootropics

So what is the most effective nootropic? Nootropics that have been studied most extensively and shown to offer real mental health benefits include:

1. Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms include species like reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, turkey tail and chaga. These fungi have been shown in studies to help support cognitive function in some of the following ways:

2. Adaptogen Herbs

Adaptogens include herbs and fungi like ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola rosea and cordyceps. Holy basil is one adaptogen that may be effective in improving stress response, lowering blood corticosterone levels (another stress hormone) and creating positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain. (6)

Rhodiola and astragalus can help those suffering from stress-related fatigue and may boost mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response. (7) Licorice root can help increase energy and endurance and boost the immune system, while ashwagandha may prevent stress-related gastric ulcers, poor cognition and memory, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation and dysregulation of the adrenal glands caused by high cortisol levels.

This herbal remedy, also known as Brahmi, has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine that originated India for hundreds of years. It’s used to help manage a broad range of mental and mood-related health concerns, including Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and more.

Bacopa has been shown to help regulate dopamine and serotonin production and also works as a natural stress reliever. Studies suggest that bacopa is non-addictive, can improve memory, reduce anxiety and depression, and support focus, attention, learning and memory. (8) Best of all, it has very few (if any) side effects.

4. Fish Oil & Omega 3s

Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA are essential building blocks for a healthy brain and may offer protection against damage to brain cells. They may also help support memory and focus and reduce inflammation. (9) Omega-3’s can be found in fish like salmon or sardines, nuts like walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds, and also obtained from taking fish oil capsules.

5. Ginseng

Ginseng (or Panax ginseng) is one well-known adaptogen that has been shown to successfully improve calmness and some aspects of working memory performance in healthy young adults. Studies suggest that ginseng possesses significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders, including anxiety, lack of focus, fatigue, etc. It also has antioxidant effects, may offer neuroprotection, and has been found to improve mood, mental performance and fasting blood sugar levels. (10)

6. Gingko Biloba

Ginkgo is one of the most commonly ingested herbs taken for brain health. (11) It has been widely studied for its effective anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, platelet-forming and circulation-boosting effects. Ginkgo biloba benefits include improved cognitive function, positive mood, increased energy, improved memory and reduced symptoms related to multiple chronic diseases, like ADHD and dementia. (12)

Other safe, honorable mentions include:

Benefits of the Best Nootropics

Why are nootropics good for you if you want to boost cognitive performance and mental health? Benefits associated with nootropics include: (13, 14)

What are the best nootropics to take if you want to improve memory, thinking speed and attention span? Some options include: ginkgo biloba, green coffee extract or matcha green tea. Caffeine and L-theanine are both found in black tea and can help improve concentration and possibly your mood.

What is the best nootropic supplement if you want to better deal with stress, stabilize your moods and beat brain fog? Try adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms, such as such as chaga, cordyceps and reishi, plus rhodiola, ashwagandha and astragalus.

The Worst Nootropics

Something important to point out is that there’s a lot of variability when it comes to the effectiveness of nootropics. How impactful and beneficial a nootropic product will be on someone’s cognitive function depends on the individual’s unique neurochemistry, genetics, weight, sleep patterns and mood.

Each person will react differently to different nootropics, but generally speaking it’s riskier to use more potent, synthetic forms of nootropics. Synthetic versions often require a prescription, depending on the country you live in, and can cause a range of possible side effects. Some are also powerful stimulants and may be addictive, or may interact with medications, causing unexpected side effects.

Use caution when using nootropics like:

Nootropics vs. Adderall

Nootropics vs. Stimulants

Nootropics vs. Adaptogens

Where to Find & How to Use the Best Nootropics

Depending on which type of nootropic you use, you’ll have the option to purchase formulas that are available in several forms, including capsules, powders, extracts, oils, teas and syrups. If you’re looking for the safest and best nootropics, look for a natural product (such as those that are plant-derived) as opposed to synthetic products which tend to have stronger effects.

Purchase from a reputable brand that lists all of the ingredients clearly on their label. If using an herbal product, look for one that’s organic or wild-crafted to reduce the likelihood of contamination and GMOs.

Each nootropic product/stack works differently, so always read dosage directions carefully. Also pay attention to whether to take the product on an empty stomach or with food, and whether to avoid taking it too close to bed time.

The best nootropics for you will depend on what you’re hoping to improve or enhance, such as focus or creativity. Regarding how to use nootropics, consider trying a popular strategy: cycling. To cycle nootropics, take them for a predetermined period of time (for example 5–7 days) then take a two-day break from using them. You can then continue this cycle, giving yourself a break every week or so. This is intended to lessen the risk of dependence, withdrawal or a built-up tolerance.

Healthy Nootropics Recipes

In addition to incorporating nootropics into your routine, consider how you can include more brain-boosting foods in your diet to naturally improve focus and memory. Examples of nutrient-dense “superfoods” that include vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants which can support cognitive function include:

History/Facts About Nootropics

Natural nootropics like fungi and adaptogens have been consumed for thousands of years. But starting around the 1950s, Britain and American scientists began experimenting with mind-altering substances that could aid military personal and potentially fight certain diseases. One of the first uses of nootropics was assisting the CIA. Substances were combined with approaches like shock therapy and hypnosis, but these efforts mostly backfired and wound up causing harmful effects.

When Dr. Corneliu Giurgea first coined the term “nootropics” in 1972. He researched nootropics in regards to their ability to benefit memory and support the cognitive processes, but also wanted to ensure they were safe and non-toxic. Giurgea came up with the word nootropics by combining the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.”

Giurgea first synthesized the substance piracetem in 1964, which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Piracetam was found to “activate rather than quiet the brain,” according to Giurgea, and was then declared by him to belong in a new category of drugs. (23)

Many of the pioneers in nootropic development worked in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and 2000s, during the time when the “Information Age” was unfolding. As a 2014 VICE article puts it, “Smart drugs could be seen as the key to unlocking our full potential within the narrow confines of a society reliant on technology.” (24)

Now, there is a world of cognition-enhancing drugs (nootropics) available to the public — some of which are prescription, some over-the-counter and others only sold online on the “gray market.” (25) Today some of the leaders in the nootropic category include Onnit, Nootroo, Nootrobox and truBrain.


Not much is known about the the potential long-term side effects of using many nootropics, especially when taken in “stacks” (complex formulas that combine various products). While most nootropics are generally considered to be safe, there are possible side effects to be aware of. These include: developing a tolerance (which means you’ll need more to get the same affects), symptoms of withdrawal, brain fog when discontinuing nootropics, hyperactivity, anxiety and trouble sleeping.

Certain nootropics may also taste unpleasant and cause an upset stomach if taken without food. Keep in mind that nootropics are intended to work gradually when it comes to providing cognitive benefits, so you may not experience many improvements for eight 12 weeks.

If you’re concerned about any interactions between nootropics and medications you’re taking, always consult your doctor. Stop using nootropics if you experience side effects, especially if combining nootropics with other drugs.

Final Thoughts on the Best Nootropics

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