Everything You Need To Know About Nootropics, The "Smart Drugs" Every Coder In The Valley Is Taking

The hottest drug right now is actually designed to make your smarter. Nootropics, sometimes called "smart drugs," are synthetic compounds that have been credited with everything from keeping users focused to making people rich. But there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding nootropics, and much of the evidence in existence is more anecdotal than scientific.

On a basic level, nootropics modify the supply of enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters in the brain. But the exact definition of the drugs and their effects can be difficult to pin down since nootropic drugs and nootropic drug combinations (known as "stacks") interact in different ways with the brain and body. Some have been available for years as prescription drugs, but many can be obtained without a prescription.

Nootropics have also been the source of controversy. While there is an entire faction of users who credit nootropics for helping them lead happier, more productive lives, there is another faction that encourages extreme caution with these substances until more definitive information is known. Here's what we know about nootropics so far.

  • Different Combinations Produce Different Effects

    Nootropics are often combined into "stacks," a term that refers to when two or more nootropics are taken together to produce a specific effect. This helps customize the nootropics experience and users can choose the stack that will give them the desired results. Most users turn to nootropics to enhance theiur focus and concentration and many stack combos aim to boost a user's motivation, mood, and memory. One important note: Certain nootropics are compounding, which means they are of stronger concentration, and, thus, the effects are more potent.

  • There Are A Variety Of Combinations

    As nootropics have become more popular, users have devised a practically endless variety of stack combinations. You can purchase pre-formulated stacks or create stacks on your own, although the pre-formulated stacks save the user considerable work since all of the dosing, measuring, weighing and mixing has already been done. Plus, for pre-formulated stacks, the final result has been proven to work, at least to some extent. Popular stack combos include L-theanine and caffeine, racetams or Noopept and choline, and St. John's-wort and ashwagandha. These are fairly basic combinations; many users employ more involved and advanced mixtures to achieve a desired effect.

  • They're Intended For People With Sleep Disorders Or Cognitive Issues

    They're Intended For People With Sleep Disorders Or Cognitive Issues
    Photo: Deconism Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Before they became trendy as "smart drugs," most nootropics were used for specific disorders. Many of these disorders were related to cognitive issues or sleep ailments. The nootropic drug Provigil (Modafinil), for instance, has long been prescribed by doctors for narcolepsy, shift-work sleep disorder, and chronic fatigue. Semax is often prescribed in Russia to treat ADHD and other hyperactivity conditions. Aricept (Donepezil) is a widely prescribed medication for treating and managing Alzheimer's disease.

  • Nootropic Drugs Are Especially Popular Among College Students

    Nootropic Drugs Are Especially Popular Among College Students
    Photo: Rennett Stowe / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    It used to be that college students cramming for tests and aiming for optimum cognitive performance would depend on copious amounts of coffee to get through study sessions. Now, more and more are turning to nootropics to enhance and prolong the focus they feel they need. Though this spike in usage has not been without controversy, many students extol the virtues of nootropics for academic performance. A Swiss study found that as many as one in seven college students utilized nootropics for this purpose. One college student explained nootropics' appeal like this:

    "For most people, to go from a 97 to 99 is useless, they’re still getting an A-plus on their score. But for me, when I’m at that 98 or 99, and I’m so close to 100 and that 100 feels so good, and it’s so different than a 99, it’s totally worth it."

  • Silicon Valley Really Likes Nootropics, Too

    Nootropics are also extremely popular among the tech crowd of Silicon Valley. Given the hyper-focus needed for technical work like coding, computer folk seem to be the ideal market for nootropics. As a result, the nootropic industry in Silicon Valley is widely considered to be the most advanced and developed in the world. Tech entrepreneur George Burke told The Washington Post, "It’s not like every tech worker in Silicon Valley is taking nootropics to get ahead. It’s the few who are getting ahead who are using [nootropic] supplements to do that."

  • Some Nootropics Are Not Approved By The FDA

    Some Nootropics Are Not Approved By The FDA
    Photo: Kai Schreiber / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Not all nootropics are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but that doesn't stop users from taking them. The term nootropic is not officially acknowledged by the FDA, and the only approved versions are those used as prescription drugs such as Provigil and Aricept. Another popular nootropic called Piracetam is allegedly ideal for improving memory; however, it is not approved by the FDA. This means that any potential benefits or risks have not been sufficiently researched by the governing agency that oversees and regulates drugs and other substances--legal or otherwise. In other words: buyer beware.