Nootropics vs. Smart Drugs | What's the Difference?

Hand holding jar filled with blue smoke upside down

Nootropics and smart drugs are often used as interchangeable names to describe cognitive enhancing substances. And to a degree this makes sense, they have similar first order effects (the reasons we take them - energy, focus, memory, learning, mood).

But is this the whole story? Well, no.


What are the differences?

So how can we tell the difference between Nootropics, which are usually natural, and smart drugs, which are synthetic?

To be a Nootropic a substance doesn’t have to be natural, but it does have to hit all these criteria:

  • Enhance learning and memory

  • Help the brain function under disruptive conditions

  • Protect the brain from physical and chemical attack

  • Increase efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms

  • Have few or no side effects and be non-toxic

How do we know natural Nootropics like Guarana Extract and Ashwagandha Extract hit the mark on all the above? Because people have been using them for thousands of years (known as ayurvedic medicine, the medicine we used before we had pharmaceutical companies).


It comes down to side effects.

Natural Nootropics have thousands of years of use to back them up, to show the benefits are real and so is the lack of side effects.

So what about smart drugs? It’s easy to see how they get confused with Nootropics - they do have all the benefits, they hit 4 out of 5 nootropic criteria. But what about the side effects? What about toxicity?

Some common smart drugs are amphetamines. It’s hard to argue that amphetamines don’t have side effects. Some newer smart drugs just don’t have enough time or testing to know what the side effects will be.

These second order effects, the short and long term side effects, are either unknown or categorically separate smart drugs from nootropics entirely.


Piracetam was synthetic.

There’s a caveat here, and it’s that Nootropics don’t have to be natural - they just need to be cognitive enhancing and safe. When Dr Giurgea coined the term nootropic he did so for piracetam, a synthetic nootropic. Since then the list of Nootropics has grown.

And in the spirit of human nature when it comes to enhancing anything, we tried harder. We made more. We made stronger, faster, more potent synthetics.


Smart drugs are banned, at least in the UK.

So in the UK most synthetic Nootropics like modafinil and the racetams are now banned, as of May 2016, unless prescribed by a doctor for a diagnosed illness. (Side note - this is because once we start showing symptoms of cognitive decline, it’s often too late to start using the natural Nootropics for prevention and when your brain starts to fail the side effects of the synthetics don’t seem so bad in comparison).

In the EU it varies by country. In the US smart drugs are legal (but so are guns). In Canada you can possess a personal supply of some racetams, but not much, and you’re only able to import up to a 3 month supply at a time.


Summary, it comes down to safety.

So in summary, Nootropics and smart drugs are used interchangeably because they both have cognitive enhancing effects. Where they differ is side effects, known and unknown. These side effects separate real smart drugs - mostly prescription medicines synthesised in a lab, from Nootropics - mostly natural substances with benefits for our brains.


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