The Ultimate Guide to Nootropics for Beginners (How to Upgrade Your Brain)


You know those moments of pure genius?

An elegant solution strikes you.

You overcome a problem that’s plagued you for ages.

Now imagine that you can recreate those situations at will. What would you do with:

  • Memory as sharp as a tack
  • Clear mind
  • Free-flowing creativity
  • Unparalleled productivity
  • Eloquent verbal fluency
  • Sound logical reasoning
  • Fast thinking

Most people consider this is a pipe dream.

Your brain is your greatest (untapped) asset. Despite what your professor may have told you, you’re not stuck with a sub-optimal brain.

Fortune 100 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professional athletes have a secret. A secret they use to tap into greater physical and mental performance. This secret gives them an unfair advantage in any situation.

Today’s post will help you understand how to use nootropics to upgrade your work, productivity, mood, and overall quality of life. We’ll cover the basic background necessary to understand the world of cognitive enhancing supplements, and the best nootropic brands and stacks for beginners.

What are Nootropics?

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics are a class of ingredients that enhance the way your brain operates (cognitive performance) in healthy individuals. The term “nootropic” came from two Greek words, roughly translated to “mind-bending”.

These special ingredients work by supporting, protecting, and upgrading the brain’s structure and thus function. The best formulas are safe, effective, and legally available over-the-counter.

Some benefits of nootropics include:

  • Focus
  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Motivation
  • Creatvitiy
  • Logical reasoning
  • Sociability
  • Clarity
  • Productivity
  • Mental clarity
  • Sleep

The term “nootropic” can mean different things.

Nootropics vs. smart drugs

To some, any cognitive enhancer qualifies. I consider the more risky and experimental substances “smart drugs” rather than true nootropics.

Real nootropics must fulfill five criteria:

  1. Improves learn and memory
  2. Supports brain under while under stress
  3. Protects the brain against injury (chemical or physical)
  4. Enhances natural cognitive ability (memory, logic, creativity, focus, etc)
  5. Safe and non-toxic

Conversely, smart drugs deplete the brain over time, come with more side effects, and their use is not sustainable.

Therefore prescription drugs like Modafinil, Ritalin, or other “smart pills” used off-label do not qualify as true nootropics.

Nootropic ingredients, stacks, and pre-made formulas

At the simplest level, a nootropic is any ingredient that satisfies the above criteria.

Advanced neurohackers sometimes take individual ingredients. “Stacks” and pre-made formulas, however, have become the standard.

A nootropic stack refers to multiple different nootropic ingredients (ranging widely between 2 and 30) combined for a more powerful, balanced, or more effective outcome. The nootropics community has popularized several stacks (discussed later).

Buying individual ingredients and making your own nootropic stacks has several advantages:

  • Precise dosage control
  • Ingredient form
  • Add or omit ingredients from the stack

Pre-made products have their own advantages:

  • No experimentation required
  • Just one container rather than a cabinet full of raw powders
  • Portable and easy to travel with

Beginners do better starting with an established product. Only after sufficient experience would I consider the DIY approach.

Nootropic connoisseurs often bucket ingredients into categories based on other factors.

Natural vs. man-made synthetic nootropics

How a nootropic gets synthesized determines many of its qualities. The primary two classes include:

  • Natural
  • Synthetic

Each has its own pros, cons, and uses.

To simplify, naturals exert preventative long-term health benefits, while manmade ingredients can help remedy acute conditions.

I’ll discuss these two in more detail below. I prefer natural nootropics for several reasons:

  • Bioharmonize
  • Less toxic
  • Longer history of use

The body scrutinizes and protects itself against molecules foreign to humans. It can recognize substances that we evolved alongside, and thus innately “knows” how to properly use them.

That’s why natural medicine healers have had astounding success with ancient formulas thousands of years old. Conversely, manmade molecules can exhibit xenotoxic effects because they’re unfamiliar. Damaging mitochondria and other biological components on the cellular level. Synthetic lack sufficient “vital force” energy to heal or bring the body back into balance.

Additionally, non-natural nootropics have a short history. Little research backs their use in healthy populations. We’re still discovering their long-term effects.

New studies constantly uncover toxicities in some of the oldest and most widely used pharmaceuticals.

Again, both have their uses. But I favor the benefit-to-risk ratio of natural nootropics.

Forms nootropics come in

Brain boosters come in either pills, powders, capsules, liquids, sprays, or even vials. Each has its own advantages.

The best delivery method varies from one ingredient to the next.

For example:

  • Powders are generally the cheapest
  • Sprays, topicals, and injectibles absorb best

Types of Nootropics

Types and Categories of Nootropic Brain Boosting Supplements

Examples include everything from innocuous vitamins & minerals, to omega-3 fish oils, to cutting-edge peptides and adaptogens.

These categories are subjective, but encompass most nootropics.

Vitamins & minerals

Vitamins and minerals are considered low-risk, and a good starting place for beginners.

A vitamin or mineral is called a nootropic if it enhances cognitive function without being a stimulant or having addictive potential. This does not mean that a vitamin or mineral cannot have side effects or that it is “safe.”

Cobalamin, or vitamin B12, is a good example. It is a necessary nutrient, and the body has mechanisms to store it for later use.

Vitamins and minerals are generally cheap,

Several important nootropic vitamins and minerals include:

  • Magnesium
  • Lithium
  • Zinc
  • B Vitamins
  • Vitamin D

Vitamin and mineral supplements help fill gaps in our diet, helping our brain reach its natural potential.

Amino acids & peptides

Aminos and peptides are among my favorites. They are:

  • Extremely safe
  • Improve many functions of the brain and body
  • Bioregulate the body towards optimal

Amino acids are the raw materials that makeup protein. Every protein source contains different ratios of the 23 amino acids. The body uses different amino acids to synthesize its brain chemicals (neurotransmitters).

Most of us don’t consume enough overall aminos. Even worse, modern diets completely lack certain aminos required to produce the neurotransmitters of an optimally performing brain. See this guide to learn the importance of essential amino acid supplements for brain health.

Popular amino acids to support optimal brain health include:

  • L-tyrosine
  • L-tryptophan
  • Phenylalanine
  • Taurine
  • Glycine

The first three aid production of productivity and motivation brain chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine). The last two enhance recovery and relaxation (GABA).

Peptides are small chains of amino acids linked together. They often provide more noticeable and powerful effects than amino acids.

Popular peptides include:

  • Dihexa
  • Semax
  • Oxytocin

Dihexa is one of the strongest ingredients on Earth to boost learning and memory.

Herbs & adaptogens

Herbs, botanicals, and adaptogens have evolved alongside humans.

For millennia, Shamans and medicine makers wielded this class of ingredients to successfully heal virtually any condition. Ingredients classified as adaptogens must meet even stricter criteria than nootropics:

  1. Work at the cellular level
  2. Naturally-derived
  3. Modulate (increase or decrease) bodily systems to work optimally
  4. Safe under virtually all circumstances
  5. No crash

At their core, botanicals increase your resilience against stress.They rebalance the body, without stimulating or sedating. Stress directly and profoundly impacts cognition, so it follows that adaptogens indirectly increase brain performance.

These plant-based ingredients are foundational to my own supplement stack; sitting alongside vitamins, minerals, and aminos.

Popular herbal and adaptogenic ingredients include:

  • Rhodiola rosea
  • Ashwagndha
  • Bacopa Monnieri
  • Gotu Kola
  • Ginseng
  • Maca

Felt responses to these ingredients vary widely. Some claim to feel an energy boost comparable to caffeine from rhodiola and ginseng, while others report mild effects.

Functional mushrooms

Mushrooms could fit under the category of herbs and adaptogens. In fact, some call these “adaptogenic” or “medicinal” mushrooms.

Mushrooms fall into a separate kingdom from plants and have vastly different properties.

Cultures throughout the world have also used mushrooms medically for millennia.

Popular medicinal mushrooms specifically for cognition include:

  • Lion’s mane
  • Tremella

The Chinese have used Lion’s Mane to treat dementia and Alzheimer’s, paralysis, memory loss, and even baldness. Lion’s Mane mushroom has been shown to improve cognitive function in healthy people. It also improves short-term memory and object recognition.

Another mushroom with notable nootropic effects is cordyceps, which increases cellular energy (ATP) and makes a great addition to a pre-workout drink. Click here to learn more about medicinal mushrooms for optimal performance.

Modern science has taken notice and is scrutinizing the vast potential of these special mushrooms.

Fats & phospholipids

The human brain is at least 60 percent fat.

Every cell in your body has a membrane made of a special class of fat called phospholipids.This layer helps separate the contents of your cells from the outside. When that membrane gets damaged, your mitochondria move from “energy” generation mode to “danger” mode.

Supplementing additionalphospholipids helps our body and brain:

  • Run optimally
  • Produce hormone-like full-body effects
  • Synthesize the required neurotransmitters
  • Send neurochemical messages at faster rates
  • Generate more energy
  • Improve metabolic health

Scientists have known about these beneficial effects since the 1990s.

Clearly fat matters, and it comes from diet.

Phospholipids also help dietary fats work better.

Omega-3 oils like EPA and DHA are not absorbable until they bind to phospholipids.

Examples include:

  • Phosphatidylserine (PS)
  • Phosphatidylcholine
  • Lecithin
  • Alpha-GPC

That last one is especially important as it appears in the next category too.

Choline sources

Choline is a substance found in a variety of foods, and is essential to our health and wellbeing. This compound is a fundamental part of neural communication.

Choline is one of the two precursor compounds that enable the brain to manufacture a vital messenger molecule, acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter is responsible for enabling movement, learning, and memory.

Supplementation isn’t essential, since we get some through diet and endogenous production.

Nevertheless, adults supplementing choline report memory improvements.

Foods highest in choline come from animal sources, such as eggs and broccoli. Though choline is present in plant-based foods including beans, nuts, and soy products.

The best choline sources include:

  • Eggs
  • Liver
  • Alpha-GPC
  • Citicoline

Choline also provides methylation support, which aids neurotransmitter production. Limited evidence suggests that alpha-GPC may improve physical strength as well.

Stimulants

Stimulants excite the brain. Making you:

  • More alert
  • Quicker thinking
  • Enhancing mood
  • Hyper-productive
  • Physically and mentally strong and energetic.

They work by increasing the activity of certain wakefulness neurotransmitters along with hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol.

Most stimulants fall into the smart drug category rather than qualifying as a true nootropics.

Side effects often include hunger suppression, and for sensitive individuals, impaired seep. Stimulants build tolerance and are notoriously addictive.

Popular smart drug stimulants include:

  • Modafinil
  • Bromantane
  • Nicotine

Racetams

Racetams are a class of synthetic drugs that all have the same basic structure—a chain of slightly modified piracetam molecules.

Piracetam is regarded as the original nootropic substance and was first synthesized in 1964 by Romanian chemist Corneliu Giurgea.

But the newly discovered brain enhancer piracetam could be transformed into a number of other drugs with new chemical structures, all of which seemed to work even better than piracetam itself.They seem to work by enhancing brain metabolism via increasing oxygen supply and changing the consumption of oxygen and glucose.

Each racetam has different effects and benefits.

Racetams are usually taken to improve memory and cognition, lift brain fog, and reduce reaction time. Some users report that they also help them cope with stress and anxiety.

The most popular racetams are:

  • Piracetam
  • Aniracetam
  • Oxiracetam
  • Pramiracetam
  • Phenylpiracetam

There’s very little research on racetams in healthy populations. Nonetheless, healthy and sick users alike report great effects. Though I personally like aniracetam, oxiracetam, and phenylpiracetam, I do not recommend beginners experiment with racetams.

Ampakines

Ampakines are a new class of synthetic drugs that enhance memory, mood, and cognition. Ampakines work on the AMPA and NMDA receptors to modulate glutamate levels in the brain.

Glutamate is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that accelerates the transmission of signals from one nerve cell to another.

For cognitive enhancement, preliminary animal research suggests improvements in focus, attention, memory, neuroprotection.

Examples of ampakines include:

  • Sunifiram
  • Unifiram
  • Ampalex

They’re currently being investigated for conditions like ADHD, dementia, treatment-resistant depression, and schizophrenia. Some find that ampakines cause headaches, somnolence, and nausea.

Overall, I haven’t taken any ampakines and don’t recommend them as nootropics due to the limited human research or even anecdotal data.

The Best Nootropics

A quick Google Search (or my preference, Qwant), returns hundreds of nootropic ingredients and even more products.

So many nootropics to choose from!

Everyone’s brains are different, which explains why most generic formulas produce lackluster results.

Since 2013, I’ve been personally researching, testing, and reviewing my favorite nootropics.

No regulatory agencies govern these unique supplements. The ease of spinning up a company, and the ever-decreasing cost of bringing nootropics to market has caused a deluge of semi-worthless nootropics start-ups.

I will dedicate an entire post to the subject, but for now, click here to read my reviews of the best nootropics. Today I will list some of my favorite ingredients, stacks, and pre-made brain supplements.

The following ingredients produce pronounced effects that will convince skeptics. Each works on different systems. The most powerful (advanced) nootropic ingredients I’ve discovered:

  • Dihexa — excellent for long-lasting effects, enhancing learning, memory, and protecting the brain
  • Bromantane — great for energy, motivation, ambition, and drive
  • Afinils — molecular cousins of modafinil, used for alertness, improving reflexes, and alleviating fatigue
  • Picamilon — boosts GABA which can reduce overstimulation, lessen stress, calm, and promote memory

Later, I’ll create a separate post of all the top, most often recommended ingredients.

While experimenting with single ingredients can be cost-effective and help you best understand your own neurochemistry, I recommend beginners start with a nootropic stack for beginners.

Nootropic Stacks

Science Bio Nootropics Stack
A small order I placed with Science Bio

Stacking (or blending) is the practice of mixing several nootropics together for a synergistic effect that exceeds what any of the ingredients do on their own.

Your goal will determine what kind of stack will work best for you. Get clear on what you want out of brain-boosting supplements. Some of the most common are “motivation” stacks, “energy” stacks, and “productivity” stacks.

Motivation stacks are designed to increase drive and energy, while productivity stacks are aimed at increasing focus, concentration, memory, and creativity. These generally elevate the neurotransmitter of motivation, dopamine.

Productivity stacks usually include racetams like piracetam, oxiracetam, or aniracetam, along with a choline source and other adaptogenic herbs.

Motivation blends usually contain stimulants like caffeine or nicotine, vitamins and minerals, as well as herbs like ginseng or huperzine. This category sometimes includes some wakefulness medications like modafinil (Provigil) or phenylpiracetam.

You have two options for nootropic stacks:

  • Buying something pre-made
  • Formulating your own

Though I suggest saving the latter until you have experience using nootropics, I’ll give a few examples of each.

Note: please consult your doctor before trying any nootropic, smart drug, or supplement.

DIY homemade stacks

To create your own stacks, you’ll want a milligram scale. Precision is key for all stacks below except L-theanine (which has a great safety profile).

These are the simplest and most popular homemade nootropics stacks for beginners (in order):

  • Caffeine + L-theanine: the first and easiest nootropic stack. L-theanine smoothes out the caffeine and induces hyper-productive alpha brainwaves.
  • Ashwagandha + Rhodiola: two powerful ingredients, known as the “yin and yang” of adaptogenic herbs. Ashwagandha modulates stress, while rhodiola increases physical resilience. Gentle but noticeable effects make for a well-rounded anytime nootropic stack.
  • Racetam + Alpha-GPC: perhaps the most popular option is to combine a choline source with one of the many racetams. Different racetams spark creativity, logic, energy, clarity, or social confidence.
  • CILTEP (Artichoke extract, Forskolin, ALCAR, L-Phenylalanine, Vitamin B6): the most complicated beginner DIY stack, but one of the originals for boosting motivation, focus, concentration, and memory.

Those not interested in buying a milligram scale, ordering a bunch of bags of powder on the internet, and mixing them together have a better option.

Premade blends

Leverage the research of PhDs and the world’s top formulators.

Some companies pour hundreds of thousands into R&D for their products. Making sure they work optimally and safely.

Test these products first.

For nootropic beginners, look no further than:

  • Mind Lab Pro — passed rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. The latest (V4) is 100% stimulant-free, packed with 11 research-backed brain-boosters and has sold over one million bottles. It’s a popular nootropic gentle enough for daily use, but powerful enough to match any of the others.
  • Find My Formula — a company that customizes their nootropics to your unique neurochemistry based on your answers to a behavioral survey. Read my Formula nootropics review here.
  • Qualia Mind — the most popular nootropic supplement on the market. Qualia Mind features 28 different ingredients specifically designed to support all aspects of cognition.
  • NeuroEffect — this unique blend features 8 organic adaptogenic mushrooms. Combined with organic whole coffee fruit, Paleovalley has created one od the cleanest, most biologically compatible adaptogenic nootropics available.

Start with any of the above three and adjust from there. Or click here to see my latest nootropic reviews.

How to Measure & Use Nootropics (For Max Effects)

If you go the premade nootropic route, the bottle contains the directions for use. Stick to those and you’ll be good.

Should you choose to make your own stack, there are a few general things to know before starting:

  • Consult your primary healthcare provider before adding or removing any nootropic or medication
  • Get a milligram scale to measure your powders
  • Buy from a trusted vendor to ensure you get high-quality ingredients (I use Science Bio)

Do some research before getting started.

For each ingredient:

  • Determine whether it’s fat or water soluble. For the strongest effects, take fat soluble compounds with a meal (or Genius Coffee)
  • Look for high-quality clinical trials using the ingredient. Ideally you’ll find double-blind, placebo-controlled studies with healthy individuals. Check sample size too, as a study of four people isn’t conclusive.
  • Research the ideal “cycle” time. A general principle is to avoid taking any nootropic every day, and to take breaks regularly.

Now, you’ve done your research, and know the background on your ingredients.

Next, determine the “half-life” (how long you’ll feel the effects) of the powerful ingredients. Especially stimulants. Begin with the minimum effective dose. Only take more once you grasp what it feels like.

Should your stack contain stimulants, take it in the morning to prevent sleep disturbances. For the best experience, I suggest jotting down notes at the end of each day.

For example, if I took a productivity stack, some things I could note:

  • How it made me feel
  • If I got more done
  • The quality of my workouts
  • Changes in temperament or behavior
  • Any side effects
  • Motivation level throughout the day
  • How easily I got distracted

Depending on the compound, take a break and repeat. After 3-5 sessions, you’ll have a solid list of notes and can make an informed decision on whether the stack helped.

If you go the DIY route, I’m sure you’re wondering how to source nootropics.

Where You Can Buy Nootropics

Dangers of Buying Supplements on Amazon

Avoid buying nootropics on Amazon (with a few exceptions).

You’ll likely get fake or adulterated products. With these brain supplements, you’re better off with nothing than something fake.

I’ve heard instances of manufacturers not selling on Amazon. Some random third party created an account with their name, used virtually identical packaging, but sold completely different pills. Even legit vendors on Amazon will sometimes discreetly change their formulas, evading all but the most discerning long-time customers.

Amazon does not regulate or police supplements listed on the platform.

Thanks to ever-changing legality in different jurisdictions, nootropic vendors come and go.

The only two nootropic vendors I trust and regularly buy raw ingredients from are:

Note that Science Bio’s products are for research purposes only. That’s how they stay in business and keep producing high-quality ingredients.

From talking to several founders of nootropics companies, I’ve learned that many of them bulk purchase raw materials from Science Bio to use in their own products. Read my Science Bio review to learn why it’s one of the best nootropic superstores on the internet.

If I cannot find something on Science.bio, I’ll turn to my next favorite vendor. Nootropics Depot has also stood the test of time, and has a similarly impressive catalog. Third-party testing regularly reports clean and pure products.

Common Nootropic Questions & Answers

Are Nootropics Safe?

The safety of nootropics varies from one ingredient to the next. The most commonly recommended nootropic products have been thoroughly researched by experts in nutriceuticals. Always do your own research and consult your healthcare professional before starting a new supplement.

Do nootropics work?

Certain individuals and organizations promote the idea that nootropics don’t do anything and may do more harm than good. This is demonstrably false. Nootropics absolutely work. Ample evidence (thousands of studies) supports nootropics on improving the brain power and speed. Off-label prescription “smart drug” use, however, doesn’t seem as effective for actual learning, memory, and cognition.

Can you feel the effects of nootropics?

Some nootropics produce obvious effects, while others improve function on the cellular level. At the simplest level, certain health foods support cognitive function. You can combine something like caffeine with L-theanine on your own and quickly feel the effects of a popular nootropic stack.

Who takes nootropics?

Nootropics have become popular amongst students, executives, entrepreneurs, professional athletes, biohackers, and health optimizers. These groups recognize that mental health and performance translates directly into quality of life.

Are nootropics addictive?

The best true nootropics, by definition, are not physically addictive when used responsibly. Nor should they have serious withdrawals from stopping use. Nevertheless, I suggest you avoid relying on any single substance by taking occasional breaks (called “cycling off” the compound). Anything that modulates neurotransmitters can cause psychological dependence. Take social media and technology as prominent examples of psychological addiction caused by common lifestyle habits.

Getting Started With Nootropics Safely & Effectively

CTA: Try an ingredient

Your teacher was wrong. You’re not stuck with brain fog, hyper-distractability, lethargy, and mental sluggishness.

An emerging field called cognitive enhancement has shattered that paradigm. Every day new people discover a special class of supplements that can help you achieve more and at a higher level.

Nootropics are ingredients that help you brain work faster, more efficiently, and protect it from all forms of damage.

The right nootropic for your mind increases:

  • Mental energy
  • Focus and concentration
  • Memory
  • Learning ability
  • Motivation and drive
  • Social and verbal eloquence
  • Recovery and sleep

Some you feel (almost) instantly, and others work in the background. You might get your work done faster, or leave the office with more energy to do what you want. Maybe you’ll need fewer breaks and get far more done. Maybe you’ll discover creative, elegant solutions to tricky problems.

I suggest beginners stick to one of the proven nootropic stacks:

  • Find My Formula
  • Qualia Mind
  • Mind Lab Pro

When you’ve gotten the grasp, you can start customizing the formula to your own unique neurochemistry.

If you’ve tried nootropics, let me know in the comments below!

Nick Urban

Nick Urban is the Founder of Outliyr, an expert biohacker of 10+ years, Data Scientist, Certified CHEK Practitioner, host of the Mind Body Peak Performance Podcast, and a High-Performance Coach.

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