What are Nootropics?

Haven’t heard of the term nootropics before? 

The industry is still young, and certainly far from mainstream. Whilst interest has really kicked off amongst Silicon Valley high performers, its no surprise little New Zealand is lagging.

Let’s set the scene with the commonly accepted definition of the term, courtesy of the Miriam Webster dictionary. They define a nootropic as “a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning”.  Well that was easy! But lets not flick back to the cat memes too quickly – there is much more nuance to the term, so be sure you read on.

Unfortunately, the Miriam Webster definition is both too limited, and too specific for the practical use in the real world.

That is, what does the word "nootropic" mean when stamped on a label?

Most companies in the nootropics, biohacking and personal optimisation industry use the term nootropics to broadly define a supplement that can help the brain in any way. Because language is only effective with shared understanding, I’d say the populist definition is most relevant when checking out a new supplement company such as… VitaKea!  

Nootropics are also often referred to as “smart drugs”. This is usually in the context of synthesised or prescription substances, but be used to apply to any plant derived nootropics too. So really the two terms should just be treated as synonymous. If you ask my inner conspiracy theorist, the term smart drugs is primarily referred to when a media outlet is trying to damage readers impressions with our negative associations of the word drug. Stigma strikes again!

The Origins

In 1964 the Romanian chemist and psychologist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea synthesised the compound Piracetam. It was shown to boost numerous brain performance factors through its action in enhancing cerebral circulation. In an effort to classify Piracetam and similar substances, Giurgea created the term “Nootropic” from the ancient greek words “Noos” for mind, and “Tropein” for towards (1972). The criteria to meet this classification was originally defined as:

1.       Enhances memory and the ability to learn

2.       Assists brain function under disruptive conditions

3.       Protects the brain from chemical and physical toxins

4.       Increases natural cognitive processes

5.       Must be non-toxic to humans, nor stimulate or depress the brain

This criterion gives sets a very narrow standard, and so it’s no surprise that most treat it more like the ideal situation, than the minimum requirement. I'd even make the claim that this standard was really set specifically tailored for the marketing campaign of Piracetam, rather than for some greater all encompassing purpose. However all this said, there’s still some purists out there that claim this is the end all be all definition to smear certain stimulants (eg. Coffee), claiming an elitist position for those that meet this technical criterion for nootropic.
My opinion?  Its good to consider these principles when weighing up the value of a supplement, but because the term nootropic is already so widely used, practically there’s no real value in trying to enforce the classical definition. 

If you want to educate yourself well and truly on the original definition and considerations, I strongly recommend doing more research past this article, or any other bloggers breakdown for that matter. An excellent next step would be to read "A Weird Concept with Unusual Fate: Nootropic Drug"  by Doru Georg Margineanu. This paper presents a well educated and carefully researched discussion of the topic. If you're really interested, I would also highly promote Doru Georg Margineanu's many other neuroscience and pharmacology related publications.

What to consider when choosing your supps?

If you see the term “nootropic” crammed in there, then it’s an indicator that it will work on your brain in some way. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that this supplement is worth your time and cash – or that it won’t cause harm. So lets take it back to the basics.
Your body doesn’t care about some fancy terminology, it cares about what’s in the supplement and what it’s going to do. Conclusion? Do your own research. Be sure of what you are trying to achieve, and how, before you decide to make an investment. We should always consider that the supplements industry is treated as a sub-group of food, and therefore is highly unregulated. This means reading the label and checking out the manufacturers claims is a basic pre-caution to safeguarding your health and wallet. The VitaKea website provides multiple sources of information for research (see the Blog and Resources pages), but I’d also encourage you to do some reading separate of these. A single source or study will never paint the full picture!

Thanks for reading! Be sure to leave a comment or flick us a message if you have any questions!

Nootropics are substances that help your brain operate. Keen to try some? Be sure to do your research to make sure the substance is right for you, and you can use it safely.


VitaKea Founder & Caretaker

Key players in my current health regime include daily meditation, intensive exercise of any form, early to bed, early to rise, and packing in as many leafy greens as possible! 

I rotate on and off a variety of nootropics to test new products - Huperzine A, L-Theanine, and Ashwagandha are definitely amongst my top rated.