Nootropics: Smart Drugs for a Brain Boost? There’s a Smarter Alternative

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Let’s get something clear right off the bat—some drugs are smarter than others.

The word Nootropics literally means “to turn the mind” in Greek. Sound a little twisted? Well, it’s not what you think. By definition, nootropics not only stimulate certain parts of the brain, but also protect it… unlike their popular prescription counterparts that have recently be labeled “smart drugs.”


If you’re cramming for an exam or you want to sharpen up for a big presentation, please don’t take the amphetamine-based drugs that are now being referred to as “smart drugs”—like Ritalin and Aderol. While they might help you stay up all night or nail that big speech, they can do serious long-term damage to your body, including:

  • Addiction
  • Liver damage
  • Heart damage
  • Raise in blood pressure
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

No test or presentation is worth risking your health. The price could be painful and expensive.


Yes, nootropics are cognitive enhancers–so, technically they’re in the same school as the drugs mentioned above, but they’re not in the same class. Not even close.

Nootropics work by healing and stimulating cells while protecting the brain from degeneration due to aging or trauma… and they are nontoxic. They are not addictive, nor do they cause that whole laundry list of side effects. I like to use nootropics occasionally, and generally stick to the racetams.


Racetams were first synthesized back in 1964 by a Belgian pharmaceutical company. Scientists there were struck by their ability to improve cognitive function in the brains of healthy subjects without any of the nasty side effects often attributed to other cognitive enhancers.

Racetams belong to a group of drugs called “ampakines,” which means that they affect the AMPA receptors of the brain. These AMPA receptors are highly concentrated in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and spatial awareness.

Piracetam hit the market as a pharmaceutical drug in the 1970’s under the trade name Nootropil, and is still prescribed in Europe today where nootropics remain categorized as prescription medication.
In the States, nootropics are not regulated and can be purchased over the counter.

How does piracetam work?

C6H10N2O2: This is the chemical makeup of piracetam. It’s a combination of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen that works to stimulate several functions of the intricate neural superhighway that is the human brain.

While we are still unsure of piracetam’s exact mechanisms, but the fact that it influences neuronal, vascular, and cognitive function without a sedative or stimulant effect is apparent. The scientific hypothesis is many-fold. The current thought is that, via the following methods, piracetam:

  • Acts on ion channels to increase neuron excitability
  • Amps up oxygen consumption in parts of the brain
  • Increases cell and mitochondria permeability
  • Improves neurotransmitter function

By stimulating and improving some parts of the brain, and then also inducing heightened permeability in others, piracetam can have a huge effect on everything from memory to mood.

Benefits of Piracetam Usage

The scientific research is finally catching up to the anecdotal success of piracetram treatment for a number of mental health issues. While this nootropic can be used to address specific conditions, it can also be taken by healthy individuals simply wanting to remember their dreams or where they put their car keys.

The therapeutic effects of piracetam usage include:

  • Heightened awareness and sensory reception
  • Increased focus and concentration
  • Sharper memory
  • Decrease in symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • A kick in the pants—increased motivation

The clinical use of piracetam is broad and includes limited scientific studies to support their efficacy. However, the research is mounting and the anecdotal evidence is abundant regarding the value of piracetam in treating the following health issues:

  • Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • Vasospastic disorders
  • Improving cognition after a stroke
  • Dysgraphia and dyslexia
  • ADHD
  • EVEN shows promise as an effective treatment for alcoholism!

Without the side effects associated with other cognitive enhancers, many people are turning to piracetams as part of their treatment process.

How does aniracetam work?

C12H13NO3: This is aniracetam. You can see how closely related it is to piracetam…but that slight change in structure differentiates the way these two compounds work in the brain.

First of all, aniracetam is the only fat-soluble racetam—one possible reason that it’s more potent than the others. While piracetam has a broad, mellow, general effect on the brain as a whole, aniracetam specifically targets creativity, holistic thinking, and mood.

Again, the exact mechanism is still being studied, but the current theory is that aniracetam works by:

  • Increasing serotonin and dopamine production
  • Improving communication between neurons
  • Increasing the number of acetylcholine receptors (a neurotransmitter)

Benefits of Aniracetam

We have recently seen a surge in the usage of aniracetam for both clinical and therapeutic treatments. This is the nootropic that I tend to use occasionally for sharpening my memory or to get my creative juices flowing.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s more potent and is well-absorbed by all of those healthy fats that are an important part of your regular diet.

The therapeutic benefits of aniracetam include:

  • Heightened creativity
  • Improved judgment
  • Better mood
  • Improved memory
  • Increased adult neural plasticity

The clinical uses for aniracetam include treatment of:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Mood disorders
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Sleep disorders

This list is narrower because aniracetam specifically targets certain parts of brain function, whereas piracetam has a broader effect.


When you are choosing a nootropic, it’s important to think about what you want it to do, then research your options. As with all supplements, make sure you are buying from a reputable company. See my conversation with Gary Collins, an ex-FDA special agent from a few weeks ago for more information on that topic.

Also, make sure that you discuss any new health regime with your doctor, especially if you’re targeting specific clinical conditions.

Bottom line is: If you feel the need to sharpen your mind, get your creativity on, sleep better, be happier, or remember the name of your second-cousin twice-removed at the family reunion, nootropics are the intelligent alternative to so-called “smart drugs.”



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  1. It’s awesome that nootropics are just starting to enter the mainstream conversation here in the United States. They are a great way to improve your performance!

    Just like anything else, we all react to things differently so it’s best to use caution when trying anything new.

  2. Thanks for linking my site in the article and thanks for writing such a thoughtful explanation of the difference between Smart Drugs and Nootropics! Piracetam exhibits less toxicity on the body than table salt and in human trials, individuals who take Piracetam are often less likely to report side effects than those who take placebo sugar pills. This is the nootropic I recommend the most to beginner users, although there are lots more powerful ones out there.

  3. Thanks for the concise breakdown Abel. This is something I’ve been curious about trying for very specific purposes, but it’s really hard to week through the crap on the internet.

    I know a lot of people will give you flack because this isn’t “paleo”, but everything has a place under the right circumstances. I personally have been told I have ADHD but was not profesionally diagnosed, and didn’t care to be since I have absolutely ZERO interest in a lifetime of drugs. I’ve gotten much better by using diet to stabilize and clear my thinking naturally, but the occasional massive project or crazy complex spreadsheet take me much longer than they should due to my inability to focus for long periods.

    Thanks for being willing to go out on the fringe and give us a good foundation to work from.

  4. Is there any information about how safe these might be for kids? I have two teen boys on stimulant medication for ADD, and I would love to find a better answer for them.

  5. Very helpful article Abel! Thank you for bringing to light this helpful brief as well as your personal experiences regarding Nootropics. The links are great for drilling down a bit more — not sure if these are actual drug? or supplement? Down the rabbit hole I go!

  6. I currently take 60 mg adderall xr a day. I’m trying to live a much healthier life and getting off adderall is at the top of the list. I started taking pine pollen after listening to the podcasts from fbm, but I’m a little hesitant to take this one. The research online is sketchy at best and I really don’t want to be a guinea pig when it comes to my brain (I think I’ve done enough damage to it). Anybody else tried this yet?

  7. I was linked to this post from your newsletter right after popping an Alpha Brain from Onnit. This is my second time using it, but the results are very noticeable. Having actually taken prescription smart drugs illegally without a prescription, I can attest to their danger. They can run you into the ground and leave you feeling worse off than a horrible hangover. I saw no such effects with this nootropic. Quick uptake in focus, slow steady decline to pre-pill normal, with no crash. Thank you for helping me to know that I’m making a better choice.

  8. Wild Variable says:

    Can you point to any research that shows why prescribed stimulant meds are not advisible for children with ADD/ADHD?

  9. Trubrain makes a great nootropic blend that is now available in liquid form as the “Think Drink”. I like to combine Trubrain with Ciltep.

  10. You should try Modafinil before speaking about the harmful effects of certain smart drugs. Although I appreciate the support for natural based nootropics they cannot be categorized into the same group. Smart drugs by far will exceed nootropics on a scale of normal to CEO. By the way, correct this part in the first paragraph “that have recently be labeled “smart drugs” and the spelling of “aderol”, then delete my post.

  11. Mansal Denton says:

    Great distinction of “Smart drugs” vs. “nootropics”, though I don’t know that it is a distinction many make as they are general terms in most situations.

    Also, just as an FYI if you are going to be speaking about racetams, you should probably also mention the #1 way to find safe vendors: third party certificates of analysis. Because so many of the products are purchased (in bulk) from China, it is concerning that no FDA regulation of the substances exists. That means the market has to self-regulate a bit and in this case, that is through the use of third party certificates and non-vendor analysis. Many vendors provide the results as PDFs or via email for you to read before buying. Definitely take advantage of this.

  12. Following up on my last comment, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Andrew HIll at Peak Brain Institute. He mentioned that the distinction is “nootropics” have a significantly reduced (or NO) risk of side effects. Smart drugs enhance some aspect of cognition, but have the potential for potentially dangerous side effects.

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