Nootropics have gained notoriety across campuses and workplaces in the UK. But what exactly are smart drugs, and are they safe?

‘Nootropics’ refer to substances with the potential to improve memory and enhance cognitive abilities such as concentration. The term covers pharmaceutical drugs as well as food supplements and drinks.

In fact, one very familiar nootropic can be found in tea, coffee and energy drinks. Caffeine, often dubbed the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug, is a natural stimulant. Consumption of caffeine not only increases alertness, but evidence also suggests it can contribute to working memory. The emergence of newer, and supposedly more effective drugs, suggests the growing appetite for nootropics.

Use in the UK

Given their impact on cognition, nootropics are most popular among students and those working in high-pressure industries. Their effects on concentration and working memory allow users to work more effectively and for longer.

Other nootropics promote wakefulness and are therefore sometimes used by nightshift and emergency workers. For example, Modafinil, a popular ‘smart drug’ among students, is prescribed for ‘shift work disorder’ in the USA.

Stimulants Adderall and Ritalin, prescribed for ADHD, are less commonly used. Their addictive nature and potential side effects have led them to be classed controlled substances in the UK.

Modafinil, and closely related armodafinil, is by far the most common pharmaceutical nootropic in the UK. A fifth of UK students confessed to using the drug in 2014. The drug, however, is illegal to sell without a prescription.

The growing familiarity with nootropics among the British public may be attributed to increasing pressures on students and workers. Competition for graduate jobs, promotions and ever-bigger workloads are leading to an epidemic of stress and anxiety. As a result, the promise of productivity and motivation make nootropic an alluring antidote to a high-stress world.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Side effects

Despite the popularity of pharmaceutical nootropics and the legitimate reasons for using them, drugs such as Modafinil and Adderall have long lists of side effects, including headaches, insomnia and the potential to worsen mental illnesses.

Amphetamine-based Adderall is often linked to anxiety and panic attacks. In addition, in rare cases, Adderall and Ritalin can cause cardiovascular problems. While such consequences are uncommon, experts fear that young people are unaware of these side effects as the drugs are purchased without medical advice and often without labelling. More worryingly, since drugs sold illegally online and on the streets lack regulation, it is difficult for users to identify genuine pills from fakes.


Natural nootropics, on the other hand, present markedly less serious side effects. Moreover, incidences of these effects, such as headaches and thirstiness, are rare. As food supplements, they are legal to buy and sell in the UK. Better still, they are subject to UK food laws and are therefore labelled adequately.

Popular natural nootropics include L-theanine, which studies suggest can help attention span and alleviate anxiety. Similarly, the herb Panax Ginseng is renowned for its potential to aid concentration.

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For those interested in nootropics, Brain Health Goals can provide a vegan and ethically sourced alternative. It’s packed with ingredients that may contribute to mental wellbeing and reduce stress.