Do Nootropics Work?

Posted by: Chris June 18, 2017

Why You Should Read This

Nootropics work. They have a long history of use. In the future, we believe nootropics will be like coffee. Everyone will be using them. Just like coffee, nootropics affect people differently.  We think if you experiment and find the right nootropic for you, it can be life changing. Literally. We're not kidding. We're kicking off this series with a little intro to Nootropics. Here goes...

History of Nootropics

586 BC- Patna, India – Alone in the wilderness, a healer bends down in front of an herb with white flowers covering it to harvest some of the precious medicine called bacopa monnieri. The old man then places it into his basket on top of some roots called ashwagandha and starts to walk home to prepare the medicine for improving people’s memory and overall cognitive function.

347 BC- Chengzhou, China- King Xian of Zhou smiles inwardly at the earthy taste of his green tea infused with ginko biloba that he drinks every morning to keep him focused yet calm and his mind sharp to better manage his kingdom.

793 AD- Lindisfarne, Northumbria- As the Vikings prepare to beach their longships and begin for their raid on the monastery, a few of the men can be seen chewing on a root of the adaptogenic herb rhodiola rosea to increase their endurance, strength and boost their ability to focus on the approaching battle.

2017- Silicon Valley- Inside a dimly lit office, in the middle of the night, a lone soul types away at his keyboard. This entrepreneur has been working all night trying to complete a project that will take his software company to the next level. He has been awake for over 24 hours using modafinil to keep him awake and focused and aniracetam to keep his cognitive abilities operating at peak levels.

It is hard to say exactly how long nootropics have actually been in use.  We do have accounts that they have been used in some form or another since the beginning of modern civilization.  People have been using caffeine, herbs, and mushrooms to affect their cognitive abilities and mood for a very long time.  The more recent compounds like piracetam, which was the first in the family of racetams, was first created in 1964, and became available in the early 1970’s.  Other things like modafinil and andrafinil were first created back in the 1960’s but did not start to be used as nootropics until the 1990’s.

We can say that for thousands of years, humans have been using plants, mushrooms and other substances to improve the functioning of their body and mind. I think this alone makes a very strong case for what we today call nootropics.

Welcome to the ancient and also cutting edge of nootropics!

What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics (/noʊ.əˈtrɒpɨks/ noh-ə-trop-iks)—also called smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers-are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve one or more aspects of mental function.  Specific effects can include improvements to working memory, motivation, or attention.  The word nootropic was coined in 1972 by a Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneilu E. Giurgea, from the Greek words νους nous, or “mind”, and τρέπειν trepein meaning to bend or turn.[1]  To hear it pronounced, click here.  According to Dr. Giurgea, nootropics should have the following characteristics:

  • Little to no side effects and low toxicity
  • Enhance learning and memory
  • Protect the brain against physical and chemical injuries
  • Enhance resistance to conditions that disrupt learner behaviors
  • Nootropics run the spectrum from substances most of us use every day to readily available supplements to readily available supplements to harder to obtain supplements and even prescription and illegal drugs.

Do Nootropics Work?


Many Nootropics have been used safely and effectively for thousands of years.

It is our experience talking with many people who have used nootropics and our own experience using these that they absolutely work!

Some people are quite skeptical when they are first introduced to nootropics.  Not all nootropics will work for everyone, and some lose their effect over time if they are used continuously or often. Just like 200mg of Tylenol doesn’t work for everyone and not every prescription will work for you, nootropics are the same way.

You may have to experiment and try different supplements and different combinations to find what works best for you.

You also may not feel the effects right away.  Some nootropics take four hours to begin working while others may take a week or two to start having noticeable effects because they have to build up in your body.  I’m not saying that they will do things like in the movie and tv show Limitless or like in the movie Lucy.  That is science fiction and to my knowledge there doesn’t exist anything that even approaches that level.  They will however have noticeable effects on your memory, attention, alertness, focus, mood and anxiety.

I have been experimenting with them for a few years now and can undoubtedly say they work.

If you want a little extra boost getting to work writing a chapter in your book, creating an important presentation, getting on stage in front of 100s of people, cranking out a blog post, rapidly learning a new skill, or just having an extra edge on your work colleagues then you might want to explore nootropics a bit further.

How Do Nootropics Work?

In layman’s terms, they work by changing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain and also the way those chemicals interact with each other, modulating neuronal metabolism, cerebral oxygenation, and neurotransmitter availability.  The exact method of effect will depend on the specific nootropic.

The brain is filled with neurotransmitters.  They are responsible for focus, memory, learning, mood, anxiety, motivation, appetite, pleasure, pain, libido, just to name a few.  Brain chemistry is very complex and we are only starting to scratch the surface of how it actually works.  We do know, however, that we can change the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain, and that will lead to changes in the way feel, think and act.

What Are The Risks Involved With Nootropics?

Most nootropics are known to be very safe. Many are considered supplements, and some are even everyday foods for most of us that have been used for millennia (like the caffeine in coffee and L-theanine in tea). Others are prescription drugs in some countries but not in Canada or the US and can be purchased over the counter. Other smart drugs may be prescription based or have addictive or other qualities that the user must know about and understand before deciding whether or not to try out. And finally, there is a class of nootropics considered illegal substances, at least in the US.

Everyone’s body and brain is different, so there is no guarantee that you won’t have an adverse reaction to a compound, even if other people have reported no problems.

Chances of an adverse reaction can increase when mixing different compounds together in what is called a “stack” (more on stacks later).  The risk of most normal stacks is very slim.

The possibility of addiction is only a concern when using specific stimulant type compounds, but a very large body of research on the therapeutic use of the “more addictive” psychostimulants indicate that addiction is fairly rare in therapeutic doses.

Some nootropics may have a negative effect on other supplements or prescription drugs.  If you aren’t sure, do your research and speak to your preferred health advisor.

It is not advisable for children or young adults to use nootropics, especially the chemical and lab manufactured ones.  Our brains are not fully developed until around the age of 25, so the use of nootropics may have a negative impact on the complete development of someone’s brain.  It is much more important to make sure you are getting adequate sleep, exercise and a nutrient dense diet.  That alone will help you much more than nootropics.

Who Uses Nootropics and Why?

People from all walks of life use nootropics today.  From top level CEOS, professional athletes, college students, all the way down to the normal person just wanting a little edge.  Other people that are showing signs of cognitive decline like Alzheimer’s and dementia use them to try to slow or reverse the process. Some people that have anxiety or mood disorders also use them to help lessen some of these symptoms. Here is a short list of things people use them for:

  • Increase attention focus, concentration, and alertness
  • Improve memory, learning, mood and overall cognitive function
  • Treat age-related cognitive decline, brain injuries, and brain fog
  • Increase creativity, logical thinking and problem solving

How To Use Nootropics

Before you start using any supplement, you need to know how to make sure it’s working for you. This means getting a baseline level before you start taking them and then tracking the effects regularly.

Everyone’s body chemistry is different. This is especially important with nootropics. You may not notice that a certain nootropic is working, even though it may be having a very strong effect on your cognitive function.

A lot of people have a hard time with nootropics because they don’t pay enough attention. Some people have a hard time knowing what works and what doesn’t. That’s why some of the stacks are really problematic. Nobody knows what exactly in the blend is causing them to have positive results.

What works well for me may not work as well for you.  Things that have no effect on me may be the thing that really gets your brain humming at high speed.

One reason for this is that our brains all produce different levels of certain neurotransmitters. For example- I use a choline source with all of my stacks because it helps to tie them all together and increases the amount of acetylcholine that my brain produces.  One of my good friends only supplements with a choline source a few times a week because if he uses it every day, he gets a slight headache and tension in his jaw.  This is because he is acetylcholine dominant.  His brain produces quite a bit of acetylcholine so that when he supplements with it, it becomes too much for him and can have some side effects.


This is why it is so important to track your usage and the effect of the things you are trying.

Here are some things that you can use.

Journaling is a good way to track changes in your physical, mental and emotional states. Its also great to have a reference to look back at.

Track My Stack- This a tool I use to track what I am taking on which days. I find this very effective at comparing data on certain days that I felt better or worse than normal. It also has a journal function to record how you are feeling each day. You can also see what is working well for other people.

Cambridge Brain Sciences & Quantified Mind –These are two resources to track the actual cognitive effects you are experiencing. You can track many different aspects of cognitive function with these like:

  • Reaction Time
  • Verbal Learning
  • Visual Perception
  • Memory
  • Reasoning
  • Attention
  • Many More


Mercury App- You can use this to track how you are feeling and your emotions. This is especially important because many of the neurotransmitters affected by nootropics are also related to your mood and emotions.

Stay Away From Addictive Substances

Some nootropics are very powerful.

The most important thing that I can say here is to steer clear of Adderall and any ADHD type pharmaceuticals.

Adderal is the go-to choice for a lot of students cramming for a test. The problem with this is that it only gives you a perceived effect of cognitive enhancement. You only think you are doing better, but it actually can hurt your cognitive performance. A study from the University of Pennsylvania had this to say:

“The research team tested 47 subjects, all in their twenties, all without a diagnosis of ADHD, on a variety of cognitive functions, from working memory — how much information they could keep in mind and manipulate — to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces. Each subject was tested both while on Adderall and on a placebo; in each condition, the subjects didn’t know which kind of pill they were receiving."

The researchers did come up with one significant finding. The last question they asked their subjects was: “How and how much did the pill influence your performance on today’s tests?” Those subjects who had been given Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job on the tasks they’d been given, even though their performance did not show an improvement over that of those who had taken the placebo.”

It can also be extremely addictive.

Other stimulants like caffeine can have some negative effects as well. The best way I have found to lower the chances of experiencing these are to cycle on and off. The way I do it is to drink caffeinated coffee for 2 or 3 days, then go with decaf for a day.

Some of the popular nootropics that should be cycled because of either physical and mental attachment or tolerance build up are:

  • Caffeine
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Phenibut
  • Phenylpiracetam

Different Types of Nootropics

Natural Nootropics - Plants for Your Brain

1442 AD- Cusco, Peru- A shaman awakens with all of the glory of the rising sun and sets out to start his day. Part of his morning ritual after meeting Inti (the sun god) is to prepare his morning tea composed of maca root and yerba mate. This helps him to keep his energy up throughout the day and also to make sure he is thinking clearly as he guides people through the journey of life.

236 AD- Kyoto, Japan- A young man bends down to look at something growing from the bottom of a fallen tree. It’s a mushroom of some sort with white stringy hairs coming off of it. He smiles with delight as he harvests the yamabushitake, otherwise known as the lion’s mane mushroom. As he heads home he smiles as he knows that it will help to heal his mother’s cognitive impairments as a result of a fall she took last month.

Humans have most likely been using plants to enhance and treat problems with their brains since we emerged from the stone age. We as a species have come a long way since the days of trying different combinations of plants to decipher their positive qualities. Whether you look at more recent scientific studies or at ancient texts of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine we can see that we have been studying these plants for thousands of years and learn more every year.

Here are some of the most popular natural nootropics people use in an attempt to either optimize their brain function or to try to overcome some type of cognitive issue. Most of these plants are adaptogenic which help the body adapt to stress by improving the health of your adrenal glands and help to normalize our bodily processes.

Before you start reading this, ask yourself what you are trying to gain by taking nootropics. Is it more focus, better memory or are you trying to compensate for some type of cognitive decline caused by an injury, old age or just an ongoing issue you had had with cognitive function.

This will make it easier to skim through the information and find what we think we will be of most benefit to you. Just remember, WE ARE NOT doctors. WE ARE BIOHACKERS. These are things that have been shown by either scientific studies, citizen scientists or by our own experiments to have very positive effects on cognitive function.

Happy brain hacking. 

mucuna nootropics

Mucuna Pruriens

Cognitive Benefits of Mucuna

  • Neuroprotective properties [r]
  • Reduces stress [r]
  • Helps to regulate hormone levels [r]
  • May help those suffering from Parkinson’s disease [r] [r]

Mucuna is a climbing shrub that is native to tropical regions of African and Asia. It is a legume that has a wide range of medicinal uses. Traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and also in tribal cultures throughout Africa, mucuna can have many benefits to help regulate neurotransmitters in the brain as well as many other things.

Many of the nootropic properties of mucuna are because it is a natural source of L-DOPA which is an amino acid that converts in to dopamine. Dopamine is one of the “feel good” chemicals in the brain which can be taxed by a number of contributing factors like stress, environmental toxins and drugs.

It is also a source of serotonin and 5-HTP which are very important to our brains.

It has even been shown that it may be more helpful than L-DOPA drugs for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Additional Benefits of Mucuna

  • Increased fertility in men 
  • Increase growth hormone [r] [r]
  • Supports kidney and adrenal health
  • Regulate blood sugar [r]
  • Aphrodisiac [r] [r]

Mucuna Dosage

The dosage of mucuna all depends on the strength of the extract. Our favorite nootropic stack, Qualia, for example, uses an extract which is 98% L-Dopa and the dose is 100mg. On the other hand, Lost Empire Herbs’ extract is 15.76% L-Dopa and their recommended dosage is 1 gram or ¼ teaspoon.

Side Effects of Mucuna

Mucuna is very low in known side effects but there are some situations where people should be careful.

  • Can lower blood pressure so don’t use in conjunction with blood thinners
  • Because of the L-Dopa, be careful or avoid using with anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication
  • Like most nootropics I recommend cycling on and off.

My Experience with Mucuna

I have used mucuna on and off for a few years now. I really enjoy the stress-reducing qualities of it. I have also started to add it to my preworkout shake and have noticed that I see to get a little extra boost when trying to get that last rep in.

bacopa nootropics

Bacopa Monnieri

Cognitive Benefits of Bacopa

  • Improves memory recall [r]
  • Reduces stress and anxiety. [r]
  • Neuroprotective, protects against oxidative damage and mineral buildup [r]
  • Could improve symptoms associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy [r]
  • Increases the number of certain neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin [r]
  • Increases blood flow to the brain which leads to increased oxygen, fuel, nutrients and helps to remove toxins. May even lower the chances of a stroke. [r]
  • Adaptogenic [r]

Bacopa is one of the most thoroughly studied and tested natural nootropic.  It is also one of the safest and most effective natural memory enhancers.  It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a memory booster and stress relieving herb.

Bacopa Dosage

Bacopa can be purchased in capsules or as powder.  Capsules are the easiest way to take bacopa because you don’t have to worry about measuring your dose.  If you do decide to buy it in powder form, you can make your own capsules or just add it to a smoothie or coffee. The standard dose depends on the concentration of your supplement.

Standard dose depends on the concentration:

50% bacosides-300mg

20% bacosides-750mg

Bacopa Side Effects

Side effects are very rare but could include nausea and fatigue.

Additional Benefits of Bacopa

  • Reduced sensitivity to pain and anti-inflammatory [r]
  • Protection against stomach ulcers [r]
  • Powerful antioxidant properties [r]

My Experience with Bacopa

Along with a higher pain threshold, I’ve noticed a greater tolerance to the cold while using bacopa. I haven’t seen any studies on this but have noticed it multiple times myself. I also notice a large increase in verbal recall while I am speaking in front of a crowd. This may also have something to do with the stress reducing properties.

lions mane nootropics

Lion’s Mane – Hericium Erinaceus

Cognitive Benefits of Lion’s Mane

  • Reduces anxiety, stress and has anti-depressant properties [r]
  • Stimulates myelination (production of the myelin sheath) [r]
  • Helps repair the brain from physical damage [r] [r] [r]
  • Neuroprotective and increases nerve growth factors [r]
  • May slow or help prevent Alzheimer’s, dementia and age-related cognitive decline [r]

Lion’s mane is an edible mushroom traditionally used in Chinese and Japanese medicine to improve brain function and support immune system function. It was also used as a meat replacement to help people eat less meat. It gets its name from the stringy texture that resembles the mane of a lion.

Lion’s Mane Dosage

Up to 3 times daily

Extract at a strength of 30% polysaccharide

If using raw powder, I use up to a tablespoon.

Lion’s Mane Side Effects

No known side effects.

Additional Benefits of Lion’s Mane

  • Boosts immune system
  • Anti-fatigue [r]
  • 20% protein by volume
  • Aids in healing when applied topically [r]
  • Anti-inflammatory [r]
  • May inhibit weight gain [r]

My Experience with Lion’s Mane

Lion’s mane is one of my favorite nootropics of all time. I started taking it a few years ago to fix some of the damage caused by multiple concussions that I had sustained throughout my life. I have found that not only has it helped to repair my brain and allow me to think better, it has increased my ability to pull those words and thoughts out of my head that used to seem to be right on the tip of my tongue but more often than not eluded me. It has been especially useful during writing sessions by helping me really get what’s on my mind out on to the paper. I take this almost every day by adding it to my coffee or taking it in a capsule. You can also cook it up. Tastes a little like steak.

coffee caffeine nootropics


Nootropic Benefits of Caffeine

  • Increases alertness [r]
  • Improves concentration [r]
  • Decreases fatigue [r]
  • Boosts mood [r]
  • Improves short-term memory [r]
  • Improves athletic performance [r]

Around 90% of the world’s population uses some sort of caffeine whether it’s from coffee, tea, soda or in supplements. It is definitely the world’s favorite and most used nootropic. It may be the longest used one as well. I prefer my caffeine in coffee or tea. Check out why My Coffee Is Better Than Yours

Caffeine Dosage

  • 50mg caffeine anhydrous
  • 100mg caffeine citrate

If you decide to get you caffeine from supplement form instead of from coffee or tea, you will mainly find it in the two forms listed above. Caffeine anhydrous is the standard form. The other form, caffeine citrate takes effect much faster but requires a higher dosage.

Caffeine Side Effects

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Increased blood pressure

A lot of your risks of these side effects are associated with genetics. If you do experience some of these, don’t worry. There is a great way to lessen some of the negative effects. You’ll find out what that is with the next nootropic we are featuring.

Additional Benefits of Caffeine

  • Improves athletic performance [r]
  • Decrease negative side effects of sleep deprivation [r]
  • Boosts thermogenesis which can help you lose weight

My Experience with Caffeine

I love my morning coffee. If you want to know why, check out My Coffee is Better Than Yours I drink coffee most days of the week but I am cautious to cycle off of it every once in a while to give my adrenals a break and with any stimulant to make sure that I do not become addicted.

green tea l-theanine nootropics


Nootropic Benefits of L-Theanine

  • Counteracts negative effects of caffeine [r]
  • Works synergistically to boost mood and cognitive performance [r] 
  • Reduces physical and mental stress [r]
  • Helps you relax and enjoy a more restful sleep [r]
  • Reduces anxiety 
  • Enhances attention and focus 
  • Improves memory 

L-theanine is the main psychoactive compound found in green tea. It wasn’t discovered as a compound until 1949 even though people have known about the beneficial properties of it for thousands of years.

L-Theanine Dosage

Standard dose is 100-200mg up to twice daily.

L-Theanine Side Effects

No known side effects unless taken in very large amounts.

Additional Benefits of L-Theanine

  • Boosts’s the body’s immune response to infection [r]
  • Promotes healthy blood pressure levels [r]

My Experience With L-Theanine

L-theanine and caffeine are one of my favorite combinations for a relaxed focus. If I’m reading to listening to something that I am really trying to absorb and there are distractions around it’s much easier to tune out those distractions. Having 4 young boy’s has made distractions and HUGE part of every day so anything that helps with that is great.

It also helps to keep me present and more engaged when I’m just hanging out with the family or playing with the kids. Not distracted thinking about work that I need to get done or any of life’s other stresses.

rhodiola nootropics

Rhodiola Rosea

Nootropic Benefits of Rhodiola

  • Helps reduce anxiety
  • Combats mental fatigue stress and anxiety [r] [r]
  • Short-term memory improvements and concentration [r]
  • Increased mental work capacity [r]
  • Improves depression [r]
  • Improves visual reaction time


Rhodiola Dosage

Using a standardized dose of 2-3% rosavin and .8-1% salidroside, the low end of dosage is around 50mg as a preventative for fatigue. To see more pronounced effects, a dosage of 288-680mg is used.

Rhodiola Side Effects

While side effects are rare, there are a few things to watch out for. The largest issue I have found with using Rhodiola is that it is a mild stimulant so if taken later in the day it may have negatively effect the quality of your sleep. You can also develop a tolerance to rhodiola, so cycling is highly recommended. Other potential side effects include:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth

Additional Benefits of Rhodiola

  • Helps combat physical fatigue [r]
  • Anti-aging benefits and helps promote longevity [r]

My Experience with Rhodiola

I have found this great to use when I really need to concentrate on finishing a project that requires long periods of acute focus. It gives me a very calm focus to stay on task.

Because of the mild stimulant effect of Rhodiola, I have found it of great use during those times that I cycle off of caffeine. I usually do this every month or 2 for about a week and use Rhodiola for the first few days until my body adjusts to it.

I also use this as a pre-workout and during times that I know, I will need an extra boost to endurance and to combat fatigue.


A nootropic stack is a combination of supplements designed to synergistically create a specific effect that one supplement alone cannot perform.

Biohackers and experimenters from all over the world try out and share stack combinations with each other to improve the field of nootropics.

A common stack many people use is caffeine and L-theanine created most often by drinking a coffee and popping an L-theanine pill or drinking a coffee followed by a cup of green tea. This stack is said to reduce the jitteriness and intense high from coffee and provide a more mellow and relaxed focus.

There exist stacks for many brain states people wish to achieve such as stacks for creativity, sociability, recall, retention, stage performance, increased learning capacity, writing and more.

We’ll explore the world of stacks in future nootropic articles.


I KNOW nootropics can change your life. It has for many people just like you (myself included). Research has indicated that these compounds are very powerful and they have been used since sometime in prehistory.

We will be looking at some of the more synthetic nootropics like racetams in a coming article.

You’re invited to take this journey into the world of nootropics with us.

What are your favorite nootropics and what do you use them for?

About the Author


Chris began his journey outdoors foraging medicinal and edible plants, hiking, hunting and camping in the woods around his childhood home in central Indiana. After spending a few years inside a windowless office he knew he needed to be outside and started working outside as an ironworker building tall commercial buildings all around the Midwest.

After a serious accident that resulted in numerous injuries to internal organs and trauma to his brain he began to study and research ways to heal himself and make sure his body and mind was operating at peak levels. After experimenting on himself and helping family and friends to do the same he realized that optimal health and performance through biohacking and ancestral health was one of his biggest passions and decided design his life around this. PrimalHacker is the combination of those two passions.

Chris loves spending time in the woods with his four boys, foraging, practicing martial arts and exploring ways to improve all aspects of health and performance. He is a certified Bulletproof Coach from the first ever class of coaches and a certified holistic health practitioner.

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