Are Nootropics legit? Or is it just marketing hype? We found out.



Medically reviewed by Ryan Ernsbarger, CPT, SNS


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Odds are that if you’ve landed on this page, you’ve already heard a thing or two about nootropics. And if you’re like us, you’re probably sitting somewhere between justifiably skeptical and cautiously optimistic that maybe, just maybe, there’s a quick fix for that Monday morning lull.

And who wouldn’t be? With all these bold claims that nootropic brands make about cognitive enhancement, on-demand creativity, and laser focus in a bottle, it’s hard not to want to believe the marketing buzz around these “smart drugs”.

So around two months ago, our team buckled down and started digging into the real research behind “cognitive enhancing supplements” to better understand what actually qualifies as a nootropic, how (if?) they work, and (if so) which ones have the most scientific support for efficacy. We also tested two of the market leaders for a bit of anecdotal experience. Buckle up!

Wanna skip ahead? (I won’t be offended)

    What exactly is a nootropic?

    A precise definition in today’s context is a bit elusive, but the term was originally coined in the 70’s by psychologist and chemist Corneliu Giurgea to designate a new class of psychoactive substances that can increase cognitive function in the human brain. His definition states that, “These substances work by altering the balance of brain chemicals in order to induce some improvements in human cognitive faculties.” 123

    Today, a wide range of products are marketed as nootropics and, colloquially speaking, the term has come to mean any naturally derived or synthetic substance that may improve cognitive function or memory. This includes a wide range of dietary supplements, synthetic compounds and prescription drugs.45 While there is no definitive list out there – due to how broadly the term is used coupled with sparse research – a quick search for nootropic shows 100’s of ingredients claimed to improve cognitive function and memory.67

    A lot of these substances are well studied and undeniably effective; prescription amphetamines, for example, like Adderall 8 or Ritalin have been used to treat ADHD since the middle of the 19th century.9 Other common nootropics, like caffeine and ginseng, have been consumed for their nootropic properties for thousands of years. 10 Even fish oil 11, yes plain old fish oil, is considered a nootropic and has plenty of research to back up the claim.

    So, it’s not all BS. We don’t need much convincing that caffeine and prescription stimulants have the power to impact cognitive functioning. But what about lesser known ingredients? And how do they work?

    So how do nootropics actually work?

    It’s genuinely hard to give an absolute, definitive answer to this question. Some people respond positively to certain amino acids, for example, while others don’t feel a thing. But in general, there are promising findings that call for optimism.

    Despite huge strides in understanding the brain over the last few decades, we’ve still barely cracked the surface. As neurobiologist Lu Chen puts it, “We know very little about the brain.”

    And, while there are some smaller studies supporting the efficacy of particular nootropics, we just don’t have the science to point to how they actually work. Until we learn more about how our brains function and more research dollars are poured into studying nootropics, we have to lean on hypotheses about how nootropics may work in the brain.

    These hypotheses are grouped into six main categories:

    • Nootropics may support brain energy by enhancing the metabolic activity of mitochondria, helping transport essential fatty acids to the brain and increasing the brain’s uptake of oxygen and nutrients.
    • Nootropics may balance neurotransmitters, like dopamine & norepinephrine.
    • Nootropics may increase cerebral blood flow and deliver more oxygen to the brain.
    • Nootropics may affect brain waves – alpha waves for example – that are associated with increased alertness.
    • Nootropics may support neuroprotection, an effect that may result in the protection of the nervous system, its cells, structure and function.
    • Nootropics may support neuroregeneration, the grown of new neurons. 12

    So, as you can see, nootropics may work in a lot of different ways. The likely reality is that caffeine impacts the brain differently than ADHD meds which work differently than fish oil. How exactly they work, however, we still can’t say with certainty.

    One important term that’s worth mentioning is bioavailability: the proportion of a drug or other substance which enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect.

    Ever heard of adaptogens? One popular class of nootropics on the market today, functional mushrooms, are a great example of why bioavailability matters. 13 In their cell walls, all mushrooms contain a long carbohydrate polymer called chitin that cannot be broken down or digested by humans. 14 If the chitin isn’t chemically broken down through processing, then the claimed beneficial nootropic compounds aren’t bioavailable and we can’t efficiently absorb them into our bloodstream.

    When shopping for nootropics, it’s worth doing some research into the bioavailability of the product that you’re buying. If you’re going to give functional mushrooms a try, make sure you’re buying a product that has been processed for bioavailability. If not, you risk buying an expensive powder that has no chance of delivering the effects you’re after.

    Another example, curcumin, the nootropic anti-inflammatory compound in turmeric, has notoriously poor bioavailability. 15 If you’re going to buy a turmeric product for it’s claimed nootropic benefits, you’re going to want to buy a product that also contains piperine. Piperine – a compound found in black pepper – has been shown to substantially increase the bioavailability of curcumin when taken along with turmeric. 16 One study showed that curcumin bioavailability was increased by 2,000 percent when co-administered with piperine.

    All we’re really saying here is that if we can’t know for sure how nootropics work in our bodies, we wan’t to at least give them their best shot at working by selecting products that are bioavailable.

    Which nootropics have the most scientific support for efficacy?

    Specifically, which of the naturally derived nootropics – you know, the ones you’re probably getting Instagram ads for – have enough science to support their claimed benefits?

    As we mentioned earlier, there are some studies examining the efficacy of naturally derived nootropics in humans. So, we’re not working from nothing here but the hard truth is, again, that the scope of quality research pales in comparison to the claims being made. A 2015 review of nutrients and dietary supplements – several of which are now touted as nootropics – concluded that, “Much of the research demonstrating a potential link between nutrition and cognition is observational, done on animals, or in vitro and may not be relevant to clinical practice”. 17

    Does this mean nootropics don’t work? Not really. It just means that, for the most part, we don’t know if they work. For one thing, a lot of the claims of cognitive enhancement are based on observation. Of the studies that do exist, many were conducted on animals or have relatively small human sample sizes. And, while research that proves efficacy in animals is often followed by similar findings in human trials, it’s not always the case. 18

    There is, of course, the placebo effect which is not to be ignored. Consider this: in a 2014 study examining medication for migraines, researchers found the placebo to be 50 percent as effective as the real drug in reducing pain associated with migraines. 19 Our point here is that if the nootropic Instagram ad has you sold, you may not need clinically proven efficacy for real results. The placebo effect is real and it just may be enough to achieve the desired nootropic benefits regardless of conclusive human trials.

    Which ingredients make for the best nootropic supplement?

    When we began this research, we were hoping that there’d be more conclusive evidence to make some recommendations from. We really wanted to be able to tell you that, for sure, XYZ ingredients are 100 percent worth your while. But, as you may have already come to realize, based on the available evidence, nothing is as conclusive as an FDA-approved medication.

    So it’s really up to you, as a consumer – and with everything we’ve discussed in mind – to decide whether or not you’re still willing to set some money aside to try nootropics for yourself.

    With that being said, we took a look at the biggest players in the nootropics game and put together a short list of our top picks. We’ve highlighted a few ingredients with the most promising research and tried to vet out shady brands with big price tags and too much hype (there are a lot of them).

    Rhodiola Rosea

    rhodiola rosea dried

    Commonly known as Golden Root, Rhodiola Rosea is a flowering herb native to the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. For centuries, its roots have been used in eastern medicine to treat fatigue and depression. Today, you’ll see Rhodiola sold on its own as a supplement and as a common ingredient in nootropic products. It made our list thanks to promising research linking Rhodiola consumption with decreased fatigue and increased cognition. Of the nootropic ingredients ranked by Nootralize – a great resource for your own nootropic research – Rhodiola shows some of the strongest positive effects for problem solving, energy, memory and focus. 20

    Panax Ginseng

    The only ingredient here you probably HAVE already heard of: Ginseng. Panax Ginseng has a rich history in eastern medicine as an anti-fatigue elixir.

    But as comforting as thousands of years of human use may be, that’s not why we’re recommending it. Rather, it’s the modern studies showing that Panax Ginseng may improve working memory and reduce feelings of mental fatigue in healthy adults that caught our attention. 21

    panax ginseng

    Ginkgo Biloba

    ginkgo biloba

    Fun fact: Ginkgo Biloba trees were among the only plants to survive the 1945 bombing in Hiroshima, Japan. 22 Six trees still standing today were less than half a mile from the explosion. Relevant? Not really. But still pretty cool.

    What makes Gingko a viable nootropic ingredient is research linking supplementation with positive effects on learning, focus, energy and memory.


    In one placebo controlled study, Ginkgo Biloba was found to have a moderate positive effect on cognitive performance in healthy adults. 23

    Another study concluded that, “Significant differences between the groups of subjects treated with GBE for different periods of time (4-10 months) suggest that the extract has a demonstrable effect in improving mood and the self-assessed performance of the tasks of everyday living.”

    All in all Ginkgo Biloba is one of the better studied nootropic ingredients that we reviewed and is worth considering if you’re going to give nootropics a try.

    Bacopa Monnieri

    Last but not least, Bacopa Monnieri is an herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory. It grows naturally all around the world and has been shown to have a positive impact on working memory, problem solving, learning, focus and energy.

    In one study, researchers administered 300 mg of Bacopa Monnieri daily for 12 weeks to healthy adults and observed significant improvements in learning rate, memory, and the speed of processing visual information compared with a placebo group. 24

    bacopa monnieri

    Soooo… which is the best nootropic brand out there?

    Tough call, for sure. We live in an age where any 13-year-old can create a brand from his room and dropship sketchy supplements from China to unsuspecting customers. That’s partially why we’ve done all this research into nootropic ingredients and “smart drugs”. First, to determine which (if any) ingredients add legitimate value to users. And second, to highlight the brands who are actually delivering on their marketing claims.

    So without further adieu, let’s take a quick look at a couple of the most popular nootropic brands out there, and dig a bit into their products and pricing.

    Plato

    Plato stands out from the crowd as a nootropics brand with pure intentions and transparent practices. They spent 3 years developing a straightforward, science backed, nootropic supplement that includes three of the ingredients we highlighted above plus L-Theanine.

    Remember the bit about bio-availability we mentioned before? Well, with Plato you don’t need to worry about that. They’ve carefully sourced their ingredients and use only branded, standardized extracts selected for their potency and bioavailability. Oh, and they run every bath through 18 rounds of testing to make sure you’re getting exactly what you’re paying for. If you’re going to go for a blended nootropic product, we think Plato is a top notch choice.

    plato nootropic product shot

    What do we like about Plato?

    Open, honest ingredients. Plato’s team put a ton of work into R&D before even creating their formulas. And after they did, they ensured that everything was dosed for efficacy AND worked to find honest suppliers who weren’t delivering bunk product.

    No proprietary ingredient blends. You know exactly what you’re getting, and you know it’s dosed properly.

    They’ll give Zenmaster Wellness readers 10% off with code ZEN10. (GoPlato.com)

    Discounted bottles for larger purchases and subscriptions.

    What do we NOT like about Plato?

    Price ranges from $46/mo (for a one-time purchase) to $31/mo (for larger subscription purchases). So for first-timers, it can feel like it’s on the pricier side of supplements.

    Alpha Brain by Onnit

    alpha brain nootropic product shot

    Another brand worth checking out is Onnit. Their Alpha Brain formula contains Bocopa Monnieri plus Alpha GPC, Huperzia Serrata, L-Theanine and a handful of other well-studied nootropics.

    In a market saturated with pills and capsules, Onnit’s Alpha Brain Instant product stood out to us not only because of their popular branding, but because of the sheer number of loyal customers use their product year-over-year.

    If pills aren’t for you, Onnit also sells tasty dissolvable drink packets that come in a handful of flavors. It’s also a handy way of increasing your water intake, imo.

    Onnit it also a good choice if ordering online isn’t your thing; while many nootropic brands are online only, you can find Onnit’s products at everyday retailers like CVS & The Vitamin Shoppe (although they’ll usually be cheaper online).

    You can also snag a free 15-day supply of Alpha Brain with this link.

    What do we like about Alpha Brain?

    Includes both L-Theanine and L-Tyrosine – both are amino acids that have been thoroughly researched and proven to aid cognitive function.

    Keto / Paleo friendly. No caffeine, nuts, gluten, or dairy.

    Free 15-day trial with this link.

    Generous discounts for large or subscription purchases.

    Available in convenient, powdered drink mixes that come in 8 flavors. (People clearly like this stuff; otherwise they wouldn’t invest in product innovation.)

    What do we NOT like about Alpha Brain?

    Proprietary blends of ingredients prevent you from seeing actual dosages. For example, the ingredients label markets their “Onnit Focus Blend” of Alpha-GPC, Bacopa, etc. We know that overall blend is 240g, but we don’t know how much of each ingredients within that blend there is. If Alpha Brain weren’t such a popular supplement, this would be a bigger issue than it is.

    tldr; Are Nootropics Legit? And are they worth trying?

    In a world of ever changing buzzwords, it’s easy to classify nootropics as just another fad. The word itself, nootropic, has the kind of catchy coolness we expect from a new health and wellness trend. They promise big results and seem to have emerged as a market category overnight.

    Despite getting a formal name in the 70’s, nootropics only recently stepped into the limelight. But, the reality is that many of the suddenly popular nootropic ingredients aren’t new at all. As you can see from our short list, most of the ingredients we identified with the most promise have been used by other cultures for hundreds of years. It’s just that now we have a name for them.

    That’s not to say you should go spend your next paycheck on a year’s supply of Plato, but it does help to explain why more and more companies are developing nootropic products.

    Humans were drinking caffeine long before any research proved its stimulating effect. We just knew it worked. And until science catches up with the culture, those interested in trying nootropics will also need to rely on anecdotal evidence to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

    Our advice? If you’re keen to give nootropics a go, keep your expectations fairly low, and then give either Plato of Onnit’s Alpha Brain a shot. Both have quality ingredients and customer loyalty, while still not confusing your system with caffeine. That means you’re in a better place to evaluate the effects and see if they’re adding value to your cognition.

    Tread lightly, talk to your doctor, keep an open mind and see what works for you. Who knows, maybe nootropics will help you push through that Monday morning lull. Maybe they won’t. Either way, the journey of biohacking is a fascinating one. And for many, shelling out a bit of money to give nootropics a shot for your own body is an experiment worth taking.

    References

    1 The uncertainties of enhancement: A mixed-methods study on the use of substances for cognitive enhancement and it’s unintended consequences Science Direct

    2 Pharmacological Cognitive Enhancement among healthy university students: conceptual definitions, empirical aspects and ethical issues. LUISS

    3 Nootropic. Wikipedia

    4 What Are Nootropics? WebMD

    5 Nootropic. Lexico

    6 A-Z List of Nootropics. Lifetropics

    7 The Big List of Nootropics. NootropicsExpert

    8 Prescription Stimulant Medications (Amphetamines). National Institute on Drug Abuse

    9 A Brief History of ADHD. WebMD

    10 Caffeine: The Good, The Bad, and The History. Macromoltek, Inc.

    11 Ultimate Guide to Nootropics | Part 5 | Fish Oil. NootropicsDepot

    12 Nootropics for Energy – Power-Up Your Brain with Crash-Free Cognitive Enhancers. MindLabPro

    13 Targeting the fungal cell wall: current therapies and implications for development of alternative antifungal agents. Future Med Chem

    14 Fungi: More on Morphology. UC Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley

    15 The Problem of Curcumin and Its Bioavailability: Could Its Gastrointestinal Influence Contribute to Its Overall Health-Enhancing Effects? Advances in Nutrition, Volume 9, Issue 1, January 2018, Pages 41-50

    16 Recent Developments in Delivery, Bioavailability, Absorption and Metabolism of Curcumin: the Golden Pigment from Golden Spice Cancer Res Treat, January 2014

    17 Effect of Nutrients, Dietary Supplements and Vitamins on Cognition: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials Canadian Geriatrics Journal

    18 Are animal models predictive for humans? Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine

    19 The power of the placebo effect. Harvard Medical School

    20 Rhodiola. Nootralize

    21 Panax Ginseng. Nootralize

    22 Ginkgo biloba. Wikipedia

    23 Ginkgo Biloba. Nootralize

    24 The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology (Berl). July 2015

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    Matt Oney
    Fitness enthusiast, mental health advocate, and lover of all things tech. Since studying Psychology and Marketing at the University of San Diego, I’ve spent the last 7 years working in the tech sector. I’m passionate about how tech and mental health research can intersect to bring real good to the world.