- Trusted Brands
- Health & Nutrition
- Fitness & Weight Loss
Evidence Based Research To fulfill our commitment to bringing our audience accurate and insightful content, our expert writers and medical reviewers rely on carefully curated research.
Read Our Editorial Policy
From the small things, like remembering you need milk at the grocery store, to the bigger things, like acing a test or completing a complex project at work, we rely on cognitive processes to get us through our days.
Students tend to face more intense cognitive demands than at other stages of life, especially during periods of high stress and workload, like midterm or final exams.
Many of the critical aspects of studying—like memory, comprehension, learning abilities, and perception—come from complicated networks of neural activity and processing.
But our brain activity isn’t set in stone—we can alter our cognitive performance with various compounds, including nootropics.
Although it may sound like something out of the movie Limitless, many nootropics are safe, have been widely studied over the past few decades, and won’t cause those terrifying side effects that Bradley Cooper experienced.
In this article, learn more about what nootropic supplements are, how they can work for students, and the top seven best nootropics for studying.
In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the top seven best nootropics for focus that come from a natural source, including plants, herbs, or those naturally produced in the body.
Bacopa monnieri (also known as Brahmi or water hyssop) is an herb historically used in Ayurvedic healing practices from India for supporting memory, mood, and cognition.
The primary active compounds in Bacopa are bacosides A and B, which support neuronal health by providing antioxidant activity, increasing blood flow in the brain, and modulating essential neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
Bacopa also functions as a nootropic by activating choline acetyltransferase, the enzyme that prompts the synthesis of acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter that regulates neuron activity and firing, as well as synaptic plasticity.
Many nootropics like Bacopa are considered cholinergic drugs, meaning they enhance or mimic the activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
In a study of healthy adults, those who supplemented with 300mg of Bacopa per day for three months had significantly improved visual information processing, learning, and memory recall.
A systematic review of six clinical studies concluded that “Bacopa could potentially be clinically prescribed as a memory enhancer” even in cognitively normal adults, suggesting its use as a good nootropic for studying.
However, unlike other nootropics like caffeine, the effects of Bacopa monnieri are not felt immediately—it works best as a cognitive enhancer when taken regularly for several weeks or months.
Research thus far suggests that Bacopa exhibits low toxicity in both humans and animals, although long-term studies have yet to be performed.
Reported side effects of taking Bacopa on an empty stomach may include nausea, cramping, bloating, or diarrhea.
Likely the most well-known substance on this list, caffeine is both a nootropic and an energizing stimulant that wakes you up.
When used in moderation, caffeine can improve reaction time, alertness, memory, and mood—which is why it’s the most widely used psychoactive compound in the world, utilized by 85% of the population.
Caffeine is known as an adenosine receptor antagonist, which is how it promotes wakefulness; it also regulates acetylcholine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and serotonin activity to boost mood and alertness.
Keep in mind that higher doses of caffeine can cause side effects—like anxiety, jitters, and gastrointestinal issues—as well as withdrawal symptoms.
L-theanine is an amino acid found primarily in green tea and matcha that promotes a wakeful relaxation—a peaceful brain state that puts you into “flow.”
This compound acts as a nootropic by enhancing alpha brain waves, which create calm and focused concentration without causing drowsiness or fatigue.
L-theanine is also a cognitive enhancer because it increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) production—a growth factor that stimulates new neuron growth and survival in the adult brain.
Consuming L-theanine in combination with caffeine—like how it’s found naturally in green tea or by adding supplemental L-theanine to your coffee routine—augments the beneficial effects on cognition and focus.
In a study of young adults with an average age of 21, combining 97mg of L-theanine with 40mg of caffeine significantly improved their accuracy during task switching, increased their self-reported alertness, and reduced task-induced fatigue.
Similarly, a study of older adults found that taking a single dose of 100mg of L-theanine reduced the reaction time to attention tasks, increased the number of correct answers on a test of processing speed, and decreased the number of errors in working memory tasks.
CDP-choline—also known as citicoline—is a compound that breaks down into choline, a vitamin-like substance that is required to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
As acetylcholine plays a vital role in regulating memory, mood, and cognition, CDP-choline is thought to be a nootropic compound.
CDP-choline has also shown neuroprotective effects because choline is a crucial part of neuronal cell membranes, which can help protect the brain from damage or injury.
In a study of adult women, supplementing with 250mg of CDP-choline for 28 days led to significant improvements in attentional performance with fewer errors on a neuropsychological test compared to those taking a placebo or 500mg of CDP-choline.
Similarly, adolescent males who supplemented with a clinically tested form of CDP-choline called Cognizin citicoline had increased accuracy, improved attention and psychomotor speed, and reduced impulsivity compared to males taking a placebo.
The plant ginkgo biloba is a powerful antioxidant that has been used for millennia in traditional Chinese medicine.
Ginkgo biloba extract acts as a nootropic by boosting mental alertness, improving cerebral blood circulation, and increasing dopamine levels in the brain.
Some research has shown that supplementing with ginkgo biloba extract supports memory, cognitive function, and recall abilities—especially in people who are already showing signs of memory loss.
While some people anecdotally report immediate nootropic effects of ginkgo biloba, others may require several weeks of supplementation before the active compounds take effect.
However, while ginkgo biloba is generally considered safe, more clinical research in humans is warranted, as many studies have produced inconsistent results thus far.
Acetyl L-carnitine (sometimes called ALCAR) is an amino acid that enhances fat uptake across the mitochondrial membranes of our cells.
It can cross the blood-brain barrier, providing our brains with ample energy from dietary fat to enhance cognitive processes.
Research shows that acetyl L-carnitine strengthens cell membranes, supports acetylcholine production, and increases the production of neuron growth proteins like BDNF.
Phosphatidylserine is a fatty compound known as a phospholipid—a crucial component of the cell membranes in our brain and nervous system.
It supports brain health by facilitating communication and transmission between nerve cells, protecting the coating around nerves known as myelin, and modulating the activity of neurotransmitters like dopamine and acetylcholine.
Because of these essential functions, phosphatidylserine benefits alertness, communication, problem-solving, language, and memory.
In a study of older adults, supplementing with 100mg of phosphatidylserine for six months improved memory function, especially delayed verbal recall.
The word “nootropic” is derived from the ancient Greek words “nous,” which means mind, and “tropein,” which means to bend or turn.
Also referred to as “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers,” these compounds claim to boost cognitive function, including focus, memory, creativity, or motivation.
Some natural nootropics have been used for thousands of years, but the term wasn’t coined until the 1960s when Dr. Corneliu Giurgea accidentally created one of the first synthetic nootropics—piracetam—when attempting to make a new sleeping pill.
Dr. Guirgea outlined five specific conditions for a compound or drug to be called a nootropic:
Today, nootropics are simply considered substances that enhance mental function and generally fall into three categories: dietary or natural supplements, synthetic compounds, and prescription drugs.
While the previous seven compounds are all-natural, plant-based, or already produced in the human body, there are also several human-made substances commonly referred to as synthetic nootropics or smart drugs.
The three most common synthetic nootropics are:
Keep in mind that it is definitely recommended to speak with your health care provider before starting to take one of these synthetic nootropics—especially modafinil, which you would need a prescription for.
Nootropics are thought to work for many cognitive activities, including studying.
From cramming for exams to completing frustrating group projects to writing essays on a deadline, students need to use various cognitive processes all semester long.
Nootropics may help students face these intense cognitive demands, as these smart drugs can benefit attention, memory, focus, executive function, learning, comprehension, emotion, and self-awareness.
In addition to students, nootropics are commonly used by working professionals in complex or high-powered jobs, creative workers, people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), athletes, or just about anyone wanting to live a cognitively enhanced life.
Instead of taking one single nootropic, some people recommend nootropic stacks—a combination of nootropic substances that tend to complement each other.
One such nootropic stack is Neurohacker’s Qualia Mind, which contains 28 brain-boosting ingredients, including phosphatidylserine, Bacopa monnieri, ginkgo biloba extract, L-theanine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and Cognizin citicoline.
Another way to boost the effectiveness of single nootropic compounds is by adding B vitamins or vitamin C, which are necessary for proper acetylcholine production and neuron signaling, respectively.
Similarly, vitamin B12 is a cofactor needed to synthesize the neurotransmitters dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Some people who take nootropics without adequate amounts of these vitamins will have subpar cognitive results.
Yes, many nootropics are good for studying—depending on the compound, nootropics are known to support cognitive function, memory, alertness, learning abilities, and comprehension.
There is no one best nootropic for memory, but the compounds with the greatest amount of evidence-based research include:
● Bacopa monnieri
Many of the nootropics in this article are thought to help with focus, including:
The synthetic nootropics modafinil, piracetam, and Noopept are also known to increase focus more quickly than natural nootropics.
The most powerful nootropics will be synthetic smart drugs, but these carry a higher risk of adverse effects, which is why they often require a prescription.
Convesely, many natural nootropics also have potent effects—especially when stacked with multiple compounds—with fewer side effects.
In the short-term, caffeine combined with L-theanine can be a strong nootropic.
Over weeks or months, the nootropics Bacopa, CDP-choline, acetyl-L-carnitine, and ginkgo biloba can also provide powerful cognitive enhancements.
Yes, taking nootropics in excessively high doses can be harmful and cause adverse effects, including gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, insomnia, high blood pressure, fast heart rate, and restlessness.
Natural nootropics tend to have fewer potential side effects than synthetic smart drugs, but neither should be taken in higher-than-recommended doses.
Due to their actions on the brain and nervous system, people taking psychiatric or neurological medications like SSRIs or MAO inhibitors should not take nootropics.
Aguiar S, Borowski T. Neuropharmacological review of the nootropic herb Bacopa monnieri. Rejuvenation Res. 2013;16(4):313-326. doi:10.1089/rej.2013.1431
Baba Y, Inagaki S, Nakagawa S, Kaneko T, Kobayashi M, Takihara T. Effects of l-Theanine on Cognitive Function in Middle-Aged and Older Subjects: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Study. J Med Food. 2021;24(4):333-341. doi:10.1089/jmf.2020.4803
Chapotot F, Pigeau R, Canini F, Bourdon L, Buguet A. Distinctive effects of modafinil and d-amphetamine on the homeostatic and circadian modulation of the human waking EEG. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2003;166(2):127-138. doi:10.1007/s00213-002-1315-8
Giesbrecht T, Rycroft JA, Rowson MJ, De Bruin EA. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine improves cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness. Nutr Neurosci. 2010;13(6):283-290. doi:10.1179/147683010X12611460764840
Kato-Kataoka A, Sakai M, Ebina R, Nonaka C, Asano T, Miyamori T. Soybean-derived phosphatidylserine improves memory function of the elderly Japanese subjects with memory complaints. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2010;47(3):246-255. doi:10.3164/jcbn.10-62
McGlade E, Agoston AM, DiMuzio J, et al. The Effect of Citicoline Supplementation on Motor Speed and Attention in Adolescent Males. J Atten Disord. 2019;23(2):121-134. doi:10.1177/1087054715593633
Mix JA, Crews WD Jr. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 in a sample of cognitively intact older adults: neuropsychological findings. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2002;17(6):267-277. doi:10.1002/hup.412
Stough C, Lloyd J, Clarke J, et al. The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001;156(4):481-484. doi:10.1007/s002130100815
Winblad B. Piracetam: a review of pharmacological properties and clinical uses. CNS Drug Rev. 2005;11(2):169-182. doi:10.1111/j.1527-3458.2005.tb00268.x
Energy drinks and sugary snacks may be louder, sweeter, and faster-acting than natural sources of sugar, but rarely are those benefits conferred without some form of reckoning down the road.
Subscribe now and never miss anything about the topics important to you and your health.