The Brave New World of Nootropics and Adaptogens [Cognitive Performance Enhancers]

Let’s venture into a realm that sounds like it’s straight out the film “Limitless” with Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper).  In Limitless, Eddie takes a (fictional) pill know as NZT, a designer pharmaceutical that makes him laser-focused, able to access WAY more information from the depths of his brain and more confident than any person alive. 

The second that the film ended, I (along with most other people) googled “real life NZT” and “does NZT exist?”.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t, but there are some naturally occurring substances, and synthesized compounds that have become increasingly popular over recent years to give people an edge. They tend to come under the umbrella of nootropics and adaptogens. These are the compounds getting Silicon Valley techies and biohackers all excited—and for good reason. They promise to ramp up your cognitive function, reduce stress, and even help your body adapt to all kinds of pressure. If this is not fore you and you would prefer the natural way, check out our article: The Ultimate Guide to Boosting Your Cognitive Performance. If you’re still interested, let’s break it all down shall we?

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What is the difference between Nootropics and Adaptogens?

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Nootropics: The Brain Boosters

Creating the “best” stacks of nootropics

Adaptogens: The Stress-Busters

The Holy Grail: Combining Both

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this article about nootropics and adaptogens is intended for informational and educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. While the substances discussed may have reported cognitive-enhancing effects, their efficacy can vary from person to person, and they may interact with medications or pre-existing medical conditions. We strongly recommend consulting with a qualified healthcare professional for personalised medical advice before beginning any new treatment regimen. Use of nootropics and adaptogens should always be done responsibly and in accordance with legal regulations and medical guidelines.

What is the difference between Nootropics and Adaptogens?

Nootropics and adaptogens are both classes of substances that are purported to have beneficial effects on human physiology, but they target different aspects and mechanisms of action.


  • Primary Focus: Enhance cognitive function, including aspects like memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.
  • Mechanism of Action: Typically work by modulating neurotransmitters, enhancing blood flow to the brain, or protecting neurons from damage.
  • Examples: Caffeine, Piracetam, L-Theanine, Modafinil.
  • Scientific Support: Varies from substance to substance; some nootropics like caffeine have substantial evidence, while others are less researched.
  • Usage: Often used for specific cognitive tasks such as studying, memory retention, or problem-solving.


  • Primary Focus: Help the body adapt to stress and exert a normalising effect upon bodily processes.
  • Mechanism of Action: Commonly work by balancing hormone levels, reducing cellular damage from stress, or improving the efficiency of energy metabolism.
  • Examples: Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, Holy Basil, Ginseng.
  • Scientific Support: Generally less well-studied than nootropics, though some like Ashwagandha and Rhodiola Rosea have been researched for their stress-reducing effects.
  • Usage: Often used for general well-being, to enhance resilience against physical or emotional stress, rather than for specific tasks.

Though both classes aim to improve aspects of human performance, the primary difference lies in their focus and mechanisms. Nootropics aim more towards cognitive enhancement, whereas adaptogens focus on holistic wellness and stress resistance. Some substances can overlap in their effects and be considered both nootropics and adaptogens.

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Nootropics: The Brain Boosters

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Nootropics, often called “smart drugs,” are compounds designed to enhance cognitive functions like memory, creativity, and motivation. We’re talking substances like modafinil, racetams, and even some over-the-counter options like caffeine and L-Theanine. Yep, that daily cup of coffee or green tea can technically be counted as a nootropic.

Below is a table summarising the better known Nootropics, what they do and results from scientific studies.  There are mixed results from most of them, this is partly because it’s difficult to demonstrate improvements without a studies carried out with a large number of participants.  There are alternative ways to hack your brain function that are all natural and we work through them in this article: The Ultimate Guide to Boosting Your Cognitive Performance.

NootropicSummaryCognitive FunctionScientific Results
CaffeineCaffeine is a stimulant most commonly found in tea, coffee, and energy drinks.It’s primarily known for enhancing alertness and concentration.Numerous studies have shown that caffeine can improve various types of cognitive performance, including reaction time and short-term memory, though its efficacy can vary among individuals.
L-TheanineL-Theanine is an amino acid commonly found in tea leaves.It is believed to promote relaxation without causing drowsiness and to improve attention.Some studies suggest that when combined with caffeine, L-Theanine can improve attention and reduce susceptibility to distractions, although results are not universally consistent.
NoopeptNoopept is a synthetic nootropic claimed to be much more potent than piracetam.It is supposed to improve memory, learning ability, and focus.Research is quite limited, and though some studies suggest potential cognitive benefits, these are not yet well-substantiated.
Alpha GPCAlpha GPC is a cholinergic compound that is believed to be a cognitive enhancer.It’s thought to increase the release of acetylcholine, thereby improving memory and learning capabilities.Some studies, primarily in animals, indicate improved cognitive performance, but more human research is needed.
PiracetamPiracetam is often cited as the first true nootropic, developed in the 1960s.It is believed to improve memory, cognition, and learning.Research has yielded mixed results, with some studies showing modest improvements in cognitive function, but others showing minimal or no effect.
CholineCholine is a nutrient often grouped with B-vitamins.It is a precursor to acetylcholine and is believed to aid in memory and muscle control.Evidence is inconclusive, but some studies suggest that choline supplementation can improve cognitive performance.
CiticolineCiticoline is a compound that is converted into choline in the body.Like choline, it’s thought to improve memory and cognitive function.Some studies have indicated improved memory and focus, particularly in older adults, though evidence is not definitive.
Lion’s ManeLion’s Mane is a mushroom with neuroprotective and nootropic effects.It is thought to stimulate nerve growth factor, thereby enhancing cognition.Some animal and human studies suggest potential benefits in cognitive function, but more research is needed.
ModafinilModafinil is a prescription drug used to treat sleep disorders.Off-label, it is used to enhance focus, memory, and mental clarity.Studies have shown that it can improve cognitive function in sleep-deprived individuals, but effects in healthy individuals are less clear.
PhenylpiracetamPhenylpiracetam is a piracetam derivative, thought to be more potent.It is purported to improve memory, learning, and possibly even physical performance.Limited research suggests potential cognitive benefits, but more studies are needed.
AshwagandhaAshwagandha is an herb commonly used in traditional Indian medicine.It is believed to reduce stress and improve concentration.Some studies show reduced anxiety and improved cognitive function, but evidence is not yet definitive.
Bacopa MonnieriBacopa Monnieri is an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine.It is said to improve memory and cognitive function.Some research supports its efficacy in improving memory and cognitive performance, particularly over longer periods of supplementation.
Rhodiola RoseaRhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb.It is purported to reduce fatigue and improve focus.Studies show some promise in reducing fatigue and improving cognitive function, though more research is needed.
Omega-3 Fatty AcidsOmega-3s are fatty acids commonly found in fish oil.They are believed to support brain health and cognitive function.Research generally supports the benefits for cognitive health, particularly in older adults and those with cognitive impairments.
CreatineCreatine is an amino acid derivative commonly used for muscle growth.It is also thought to improve cognitive function under conditions of sleep deprivation or cognitive impairment.Some studies show improved cognitive performance in specific conditions, such as sleep deprivation.
Ginkgo BilobaGinkgo Biloba is an herbal supplement commonly used for various health benefits.It is often claimed to improve memory and cognitive speed.The evidence is mixed, with some studies showing potential benefits, particularly in older adults, and others showing little to no effect.

Creating the “best” stacks of nootropics

The term “best” when referring to nootropic stacks is highly subjective and can vary depending on individual goals, physiology, and tolerances. Here are some commonly recommended stacks that aim to synergise the effects of individual nootropics for specific purposes. However, it’s crucial to consult a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen, especially when combining multiple substances.

For Focus and Attention:

  1. Caffeine + L-Theanine: This stack is popular for enhancing focus without the jitteriness that caffeine alone can cause.
  2. Modafinil + Alpha GPC: Modafinil for focus and Alpha GPC for choline can make for an effective stack, although Modafinil is a prescription drug in many jurisdictions.

For Memory Enhancement:

  1. Piracetam + Choline: The classic stack, Piracetam is thought to be more effective when taken with a choline source like Alpha GPC or Citicoline.
  2. Bacopa Monnieri + Lion’s Mane: Both are thought to have neuroprotective properties and may synergise well for improving memory.

For Mood and Well-being:

  1. Rhodiola Rosea + Ashwagandha: Both are adaptogens that can help the body adapt to stress, potentially improving mood and well-being.
  2. L-Theanine + Magnesium: This stack aims to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.

For Physical and Mental Endurance:

  1. Creatine + Caffeine: Creatine for muscle endurance and caffeine for mental clarity can make an effective pre-workout stack.
  2. Phenylpiracetam + Alpha GPC: Phenylpiracetam is thought to improve not just cognitive but also physical performance, and Alpha GPC can complement it by supplying choline.

For General Cognitive Enhancement:

  1. Noopept + Alpha GPC: Noopept is a potent synthetic nootropic, and pairing it with a choline source like Alpha GPC could boost its effectiveness.
  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids + Ginkgo Biloba: Aimed at overall brain health, this stack combines the neuroprotective benefits of Omega-3s with the circulatory benefits of Ginkgo Biloba.

While anecdotal evidence often supports these stacks, scientific studies on the efficacy of specific nootropic combinations are generally sparse. Also, the safety of these combinations has not always been rigorously tested, and there may be potential interactions or side effects to consider. Always consult with a healthcare provider for personalised advice especially if you have any underlying medical conditions or are taking medications.

Adaptogens: The Stress-Busters

Nootropics Adaptogens - Five Years to Financial Freedom 1

While nootropics are the loud party guests begging for attention, adaptogens are the quiet, steadfast ones holding everything together. Derived from herbs and roots, adaptogens like ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, and holy basil help your body adapt to stress. Think of them as your body’s internal shock absorbers.

Adaptogens regulate cortisol, the stress hormone, balancing your body’s stress response. You know that panicky feeling you get when you’re under a tight deadline? Adaptogens help you manage that, offering a sense of calm and focus without sedating you. You’re not spaced out; you’re zoned in.

AdaptogenSummaryPurported BenefitsScientific Results
AshwagandhaAshwagandha is a popular herb in Ayurvedic medicine.Known to reduce stress and improve mood.Some studies suggest reduced stress levels and improved cognitive function, though evidence is limited.
Rhodiola RoseaRhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb commonly found in cold regions.Aimed at reducing fatigue and enhancing focus.Studies indicate potential for reducing fatigue and enhancing cognitive performance, more research needed.
Holy BasilHoly Basil, also known as Tulsi, is used in traditional Indian medicine.Claims to reduce stress and enhance well-being.Limited human studies, but some animal studies suggest anti-stress and neuroprotective effects.
CordycepsCordyceps is a type of mushroom that has adaptogenic properties.Thought to improve stamina and reduce fatigue.Preliminary studies indicate potential benefits for physical performance, but more research is needed.
Siberian GinsengSiberian Ginseng, also known as Eleuthero, is a root used in herbal medicine.Claims to boost immune function and increase stamina.Some evidence supports reduced fatigue and improved well-being, though research is limited.
Panax GinsengPanax Ginseng is a root commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine.Known for improving energy levels and mental clarity.Research shows some promise for cognitive improvement and reduced fatigue, but results are mixed.
Maca RootMaca is a root vegetable from the Andes Mountains.Purported to improve energy and hormone balance.Limited human studies have shown potential for improved energy and well-being.
Reishi MushroomReishi Mushroom is used in traditional Chinese medicine.Known for its immune-boosting and anti-stress effects.Some studies suggest improved immune function and stress reduction, though evidence is limited.
SchisandraSchisandra is a berry used in traditional Chinese medicine.Said to improve liver function and reduce stress.Limited research suggests potential for improved stress response and cognitive performance.
Gotu KolaGotu Kola is a herb commonly used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine.Claimed to improve mental clarity and reduce stress.Limited studies suggest potential cognitive enhancement and anti-stress effects.

The Holy Grail: Combining Both

Limitless (2011) directed by Neil Burger • Reviews, film + cast • Letterboxd

What happens when you pair nootropics with adaptogens? It’s like your brain puts on a superhero cape. Nootropics can give you the edge in cognitive performance, while adaptogens can ensure that stress doesn’t pull you back down. Some products out there even offer a blend of both, promising an all-in-one cognitive and stress management powerhouse.

However, just like you wouldn’t put diesel in an unleaded car, don’t randomly start mixing these without understanding the impacts. Do your research, consult professionals, and as always, listen to your body. Side effects are possible, and misuse can lead to health issues.


So, whether you’re Team Nootropic, Team Adaptogen, or rooting for both, these potent compounds can offer a notable leg-up in the cognitive arena. Just remember, they’re not a replacement for a balanced lifestyle. Think of them as the cherry on top of all the other cognitive-boosting strategies we’ve discussed. Combine them wisely with exercise, sleep, and a balanced diet, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for peak cognitive performance.




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