What is a Nootropic Compound?

What is a nootropic?  More specifically, what is a nootropic compound?

Why do people always refer to them as ‘smart drugs’?  Are they dangerous?

Should we simply write them off as steroids for the brain?

That may sound a little harsh, but a lot of people are relying on sketchy information when it comes to understanding nootropics.

One of the best known influences is the movie ‘Limitless’.

In the popular film, Bradley Cooper plays a character who’s down on his luck.  He accidentally gets his hands on an experimental drug called NZT.

Single capsule on a table.

NZT makes him a genius overnight, and before you know it, he’s running for mayor(spoiler alert).

Since Limitless was so popular, most people naturally assume that all nootropics are pharmaceutical compounds like NZT.

Little do they know that nootropics can also be natural substances, and they’ve been in use for a very long time.

That being said, let’s dig into the rich history of nootropics, and get a better sense of what they really are…

What are Nootropics? – Who were the first Neuro-Hackers?

Monks in China have used Gingko Biloba for greater mental focus, and Ayurvedic practitioners have used Ashwagandha to manage stress for thousands of years.

Mortar and pestle with herbs.

The truth is, the idea of cognitive enhancement has been around long before Bradley Cooper strutted his stuff in front of the camera.

It’s just a concept that didn’t go mainstream until 2011, when Limitless got released.

These are the traditional origins of neuro-hacking from Eastern cultures, but what about modern day research in the West?

According to a scientist in a lab coat, what’s the definition of a nootropic substance?

The term ‘Nootropics’ was first coined by the Romanian psychiatrist Dr. Corneliu Giurgea in 1972.

It comes from the Greek word ‘noos’ meaning mind and ‘tropein’ meaning towards.

What is a nootropic compound - Man focusing his mind by meditating.

In order for a substance to be considered a nootropic, it has to:

  • Improve Memory & Focus
  • Enhance Speed & Efficiency
  • Prevent Brain Damage
  • Have Almost No Side Effects

If you distill this down to it’s bare essentials, you could say Nootropics are:

‘A class of compounds that improve cognitive performance with virtually no side effects’.

So by their very nature, nootropics are supposed to support higher brain function.  Sounds like a good deal to me, but what else is driving their growing popularity?

Benefits of Nootropics – Who should take them?

“Man will not wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.” – Corneliu Giurgea

What is a nootropic compound - Neurons integrated with technology.
Neurons in a matrix with integrated technology.

The motivation to give our brains a boost can vary widely from person to person.

You might be looking to get a leg up on your competition.

Maybe you want to have more mental clarity and energy throughout the day.

Whatever your reasons, nootropics are being used by:

  • Students
  • Working Professionals
  • Athletes
  • Busy Parents
  • Seniors

This list is just a sampling, really.  Nootropics are growing in popularity every day.

Still, there are always some skeptics in the crowd, and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t at least try to answer their questions.

What is a nootropic compound - Man staring at questions on wall.

Some of the more common concerns are whether or not nootropics are effective, or how they enhance brain function…

Do Nootropics Work? – What do they do?

The simple answer to the first question is yes, nootropics work.

What we really want to know is HOW they optimize cognitive performance.

There are 7 main pathways:

  1. Vasodilation
  2. Neurotransmitter Synthesis
  3. Neurogenesis
  4. Neuroprotection
  5. Stress Control
  6. Neuroplasticity
  7. Alpha Brainwave Stimulation

I know some of these terms sound like something out of a bad sci-fi novel, but please bear with me.

What is a nootropic - Science fiction novel on table.

Vasodilation is simply an increase in blood flow to the brain.  When more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to our neurons, brain function is enhanced.

Certain nootropics are building blocks needed to synthesize neurotransmitters, so taking them as a supplement helps speed up signal transmission.

Neurogenesis refers to the stimulation of accelerated brain cell growth.  Several nootropics are able to encourage growth hormone release in the brain.

Numerous nootropics are also very potent antioxidants, and can protect our neurons from harmful chemical constituents like free radicals.

Adaptogens are herbal nootropics that can regulate stress hormones.  This in turn prevents extreme immune system responses that can do some serious brain damage.

What is a nootropic - Flaming burnout sign.

Neuroplasticity is an improvement in the flexibility and structural integrity of brain cell membranes at the synapses.

The end result is improved memory, learning, and reasoning ability.

Last but not least, some nootropics encourage a state of Zen by increasing our Alpha brainwave activity.  Creativity and problem solving capacities are often enhanced as a result.

This all sounds great, but are there any strings attached?

Good question…

Are Nootropics Safe? – Are there Side Effects?

The best answer to this question is that most nootropics are very safe, when used properly.

Woman drinking coffee.

In fact, a lot of them are very common, and get used every day.  Caffeine and Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are both considered nootropics.

That being said, each nootropic is unique, and they all have their own potential side effects.

I know, I know, I just finished saying that nootropics aren’t supposed to have any side effects.  Well, nothing’s perfect, my friend.

That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid.

Besides, you won’t hurt yourself by using nootropics, as long as you don’t exceed the daily recommended amounts.

You wouldn’t take a whole bottle of painkillers just to see what happens, would you?  Just use common sense, and you’ll be fine.

Doing research, knowing why you’re taking a supplement, and consulting with your doctor first are also good ways to achieve best results.

I also favor using naturally derived compounds over man-made substances.  As a general rule, anything made in a lab tends to be harder on the body.

What is a nootropic compound - Tired man holding his head.

Nootropics span the full gamut of supplements we have available on the market; they can be prescription medications, vitamins, natural compounds, or herbal supplements.

Which brings us to our next topic of discussion…

Types of Nootropics – What are the Major Classes?

Personally, I like to put nootropics in one of 3 categories:

  • Herbal
  • Natural
  • Synthetic

Herbs like Ginseng and Bacopa Monnieri are both nootropics.

The natural nootropics are compounds in the body that, when taken as a supplement, can help us perform better.

What is a nootropic compound - Man winning at chess.

Uridine and choline are good examples of natural nootropics.

Then there’s the synthetics.

These compounds are quite often prescription medications used to treat specific medical conditions.

Adderall, for example, is often recommended for ADHD to improve attention and motivation.

Herbal, natural, and synthetic nootropics are used in various combinations in nootropic supplements.

But they can also be purchased individually to achieve targeted results.

Single Nootropics vs Pre-Formulated Supplements

A lot of neuro-hackers combine solo nootropics, or ‘stack’ them on top of each other to achieve specific effects.

Sandwich stacked with ingredients.

You see, some nootropics are able to support one another so that using them together makes them more effective than if you took them alone.

A good example is caffeine and theanine.  Caffeine makes you more alert, and gives you physical endurance, but it can also make you jittery.

L-Theanine is a natural nootropic found in green tea that calms the nerves and helps people focus.

When taken together, Caffeine and L-Theanine make a great nootropic stack.

L-Theanine takes the edge off the caffeine, and the caffeine allows the L-Theanine to provide more energy and focus than if it were taken by itself.

This overall effect of complimenting or supporting one another’s effects is commonly known as ‘synergy’.

What is a nootropic - Small particles sharing energy.

It’s also one of the reasons many nootropic supplements contain several ingredients instead of just one…

What is a Nootropic Stack?

The term, ‘Nootropic Stack’, is used to describe a specific combination of nootropics in any one formula.

You can create your own personal stack by purchasing a few solo nootropics, if you want to approach neuro-hacking as a DIY project.

If you’d like to go that route, I highly recommend you check out DoubleWood.

There’s a banner ad on the right side of all the pages here at nootropicscoach.com.  Just click on it, and you’ll get redirected to their online store.

Example of banner ad for DoubleWood.
Display Image for DoubleWood – No Link.

DoubleWood has straightforward summaries of what each nootropic supplement can do for you, and their products are a good value.

I always recommend Doublewood to anyone interested in custom stacking.

That being said, there are a lot of supplement companies trying to win the ‘Secret Recipe Lottery’ by putting together the next household name in nootropics.

The average number of constituents in most pre-made stacks usually hovers around 10 ingredients, but it varies.

Whether you choose to try nootropics one at a time, put together a custom stack, or prefer the convenience of a pre-formulated supplement is totally up to you.

Three arrows on ground pointing in different directions.

So now that we know how to recognize a nootropic compound, and how they’re offered to us on the market, let’s wrap things up…

What is a Nootropic Compound – Final Commentary

This article started out exploring the basic question, “What is a nootropic compound?’, but so many other concerns came to light.

Do nootropics actually work?  Are they safe?  How can we use them for best results?  What types of nootropics are out on the market?

One thing is for certain; nootropics is a growing area of interest for a lot of people.

The modern day world places a lot of importance on personal achievement and productivity; we’re almost expected to be ‘Limitless’.

What is a nootropic - Woman balancing on log.

When you give that some consideration, isn’t our newly found obsession with enhancing cognitive performance inevitable?

Let’s be honest; who doesn’t want to be smarter?

Who doesn’t want to ace that next exam?  Who doesn’t want to get that promotion at work?

Using nootropics makes life a little bit easier, and allows you to really stand out.

They can help you be your best.

In any case, I hope this post has given you a basic understanding of what nootropics are, and how they can help you.


In my next article, I’ll go over some of the best supplements for cognition, and the specific benefits they can offer you.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions at all, please leave a comment below.

Until next time,



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8 thoughts on “What is a Nootropic Compound?”

  1. Wow! What an informative article about nootropics.  I’m amazed by your expertise.

    I honestly don’t consider nootropics drugs, as I know they can also be natural compounds.  They are given by mother nature.

    BUT, they CAN be dangerous if they’re not used properly. 

    Since you mentioned Gingko Biloba, I wanted to share my experiences with it.

    I started using a ginkgo extract a few years ago, and I saw a huge improvement in my focus. Then I tried some tablets, and can only say good things about Gingko.

    For the last couple of months, I’ve been drinking some homemade gingko tea, since my mom has 2 gingko trees in our garden.

    It’s helped me out quite a bit, especially at work. 

    Amazing article! Thanks. 


    • Hey Sunny,

      Thanks for reading my article!  Really appreciate your interest!

      I’m glad that ginkgo has been helping you stay focused, especially at work.  If you’d like to learn more about ginkgo, you should check out my full review on it.

      If you ever want to share your thoughts on nootropics again, just leave a comment here, and I’ll get right back to you.


  2. A good article Michael, and a nice little analogy with the movie Limitless – if only.

    I didn’t really appreciate the breadth that nootropics covered, and in particular many of the non-pharmaceutical versions.

    I’m a coffee fan, so I get that, and I drink different herbal teas, but have only really approached them from a cleansing perspective.

    Some good info here so time to explore a little further.

    Thanks again – Jason.

    • Hey Jason,

      Thanks for giving my article a read, and sharing your thoughts.

      I’m glad this post helped you realize that there are all kinds of nootropics available on the market, and not all of them are pharmaceutical-grade.

      Caffeine is a good nootropic, and I enjoy a nice thick cup of mud in the morning too, but it has a few limitations.

      You might be interested in reading my article on caffeine as well; it gives you a well-rounded understanding of how caffeine helps improve cognition.

      Thanks once again for visiting, and feel free to leave another comment if you think of any other questions.


  3. Awesome article Michael!

    I’ve read about nootropics before, and I have to say, they are an interesting addition to the world of supplements.

    I like how you went through all the most important facts about nootropics. I remember the movie with Bradley Cooper. It’s the bomb!

    I drink a fair amount of green tea, and the effect of nootropics seems to be immediate. My concentration improves, tiredness goes away, I feel relaxed, and overall quite good and in the moment.

    I’ll try some other, natural suggestions that you have mentioned in your post here too.

    Thanks for sharing this interesting read. Keep up the good work!

    • Hey Ivan,

      Thanks for visiting nootropicscoach.com, and sharing your experiences!

      I think the movie ‘Limitless’ really got people thinking about how they could explore their own potential, and VOILA!

      Suddenly everybody wanted to know more about nootropics!

      If you’ve found that green tea helps you stay focused, I’d recommend you read my article on L-Theanine.

      Green tea is the main source of L-Theanine, and it’s a great natural nootropic for improving your focus.

      Thanks again for reading, and feel free to comment again if you have any questions.


  4. Heh! Heh!

    I finally understand the word nootropic now, I think…


    Thank you so much for writing this article. I’ve been wondering for some time if ‘nootropics’ is just another word for supplement.

    But if I understand you correctly, nootropics are supplements, but not every supplement is a nootropic. Right?

    You have surely sparked my interest in the matter. Especially because you mention nootropics are good for seniors.

    Is there a pre-made nootropic supplement you would recommend for memory and focus?



    • Hi Hannie,

      Ha! Ha! That’s why I wrote the article. Glad you liked it!

      You’re on the right track; nootropics are any compound that can improve mental performance without any serious side effects.

      They can be herbal extracts, natural substances, prescription medications, or even stimulants(which I’m not a fan of personally).

      A lot of nootropics are supplements, but not all supplements are nootropics, as you put it so beautifully!


      The 2 supplements I would recommend for you are the same ones I’m taking myself: Mind Lab Pro and Performance Lab Omega-3.

      You can check out my full reviews on both of them by clicking on the links I’ve included here for you.

      I hope that answers your questions, but if you think of more later, just post another comment and I’ll get right back to you.



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