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Are Nootropics Ethical? (The Morality of Smart Drugs)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 28, 2023
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Some people dub nootropics as steroids of the mind. At first glance, it’s easy to see why.

People who take nootropics (natural or synthetic) experience cognitive improvements and enhanced brain function. So the question arises: Are nootropics ethical?

To answer this, I spent a few weeks reviewing numerous studies on the effects of various nootropics, and I discussed my findings with a dietician. I also spoke to a doctor about the medical ethics of taking nootropics for work and studying.

I condensed all my research into this article, so let’s dive in.

Quick Summary

  • Nootropics are used by both healthy people and those with certain medical conditions to improve cognitive function, which makes them potentially unethical in certain use cases.
  • Certain synthetic nootropics — prescription medications — are used for treating genuine mental health issues and require a doctor’s prescription.
  • Natural nootropics — either foods or supplements — are safe and legal and do not need a prescription for use.

Is Taking Nootropics Ethical?

Giving a thumbs up while holding nootropics supplements

Yes, taking nootropics is ethical, provided they are natural or if you have a prescription. In any context where they are not officially forbidden, there’s no reason to think of them as unethical.

Think about it this way: if there was a safe and legal substance that could boost your cognitive ability with little to no side effects, wouldn’t you take it?

Taking natural nootropics (either food or supplements) before an exam, study session or work is like taking a pre-workout before exercising: it hardly counts as cheating. It’s akin to drinking water or eating the right foods to stay healthy.

These supplements can improve cognition, but they’re not going to give you an unfair advantage over everyone else or turn you into an Einstein.

Rather, they naturally boost your cognition, so you’re able to get the most out of your natural cognitive abilities.

While natural nootropics have been used by many cultures for centuries, the problem with nootropics and ethics lies in the misuse of prescription nootropics.

To better understand the ethical concerns of taking cognitive enhancers, we need to clearly distinguish between natural nootropics and prescription medications.

Natural Nootropics vs. Prescription Stimulants

Comparison between natural nootropics and prescription stimulants

Organic nootropics are any foods, plants, or organic matter that improve cognition. Natural nootropics, by definition, should be safe and free of side effects under normal circumstances.

Prescription stimulants are synthetically made nootropics designed to mimic and heighten the effects of natural nootropics.

They’re made for people who suffer from certain mental and brain-related disorders (like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease) and aren’t generally meant for healthy people.

Both natural and prescription nootropics are referred to as smart drugs, but natural nootropics aren’t drugs in the strict sense.

So, when we talk about smart drugs or cognitive-enhancing drugs in this article, we’re referring to prescription drugs. The term “nootropics” will apply to both.

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Why Is Cognitive Enhancement Deemed Unacceptable?

Cognitive enhancement is deemed unacceptable because it gives people an unfair advantage over other people. The term refers to taking smart drugs without a prescription.

Technically speaking, it’s deemed unacceptable when certain things are at stake.

For example, taking smart drugs without a prescription before an exam or any competition that requires the full use of your mental faculties would be unfair.

Taking nootropic drugs for your brain can be thought of as taking steroids for your muscles.

Firstly, it’s only legal for medical purposes. Secondly, taking it before a competition where all competitors are expected to be natural gives you a highly unfair advantage.

“In addition to their rampant use in Silicon Valley, nootropics are also becoming increasingly common on college campuses, where students use (or misuse) substances like the prescription ADHD medication Adderall to help them study.”

- Dr. Myles Spar, MD, Clinician

Commonly Used Nootropics

These are some of the most commonly used cognitive-enhancing drugs.

Natural Nootropics

Ginkgo Biloba leaves with Nootropics on top
  • Bacopa monnieri: This herbal nootropic is known for speeding up information processing in your brain, reducing reaction times, and improving memory [1].
  • Caffeine: Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain, making you feel less tired and more mentally alert [2].
  • L-Theanine: This is a naturally-occurring amino acid that can enhance creativity [3].
  • Creatine: This is an organic compound naturally found in muscle cells. It may improve short-term memory and reasoning skills [4].
  • Ashwagandha: This natural testosterone booster can improve learning and memory, reduce anxiety, and boost motivation [5].
  • Ginkgo biloba: Ginkgo biloba extract has several cognitive benefits, which may be due to its ability to increase blood flow to the brain [6].
  • Saffron: This spice is used as an antidepressant, sedative, and anxiolytic (medication to treat anxiety) [7].
  • Lemon balm: This ancient herb is known for its anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects [8].
  • Maritime pine bark: This nootropic encourages blood flow to your brain and relaxes your blood vessels [9].
  • Lion's mane mushroom: This mushroom is known to treat sleep disorders, enhance memory, and improve overall mental function [10].
  • Panax ginseng: This herbal nootropic has strong anti-inflammatory effects, which can protect your brain from oxidative stress, thereby enhancing its functioning [11].
  • Rhodiola rosea: This herb is known to reduce mental fatigue and increase feelings of wellness under stressful situations [12].
  • Gotu kola: Nicknamed the "student herb," this nootropic can enhance memory, learning, and cognition [13].

Note that organic nootropics are natural, and therefore they don’t alter your cognitive levels to a very high degree, especially when compared to smart drugs.

Cognitive Enhancing Drugs

Spilled cognitive enhancing drugs
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin): Methylphenidate improves information-processing speed, attention span, and short-term memory [14]. It’s often abused by people between the ages of 18–25 [15].
  • Amphetamines (Adderall): This is one of the most commonly-prescribed smart drugs for people with ADHD and narcolepsy, and it helps healthy adults improve attention and focus [16].
  • Modafinil (Provigil): Healthy individuals take modafinil to improve attention and working memory, especially when they’re fatigued [17].
  • Piracetam: This smart drug is similar to Noopept in structure and has been shown to improve memory in people who suffer from age-related mental decline [18].
  • Noopept: Animal studies on this synthetic nootropic found that it speeds up how the brain processes and retrieves memories [19].

With enhancers, there are higher instances of abuse and addiction than in natural nootropics. Healthy adults who take them usually do so without a doctor’s prescription, making it a dangerous habit.

Why Do People Take Synthetic Nootropics?

A woman taking synthetic nootropics

People take synthetic nootropics to improve their baseline cognitive functions or remedy cognitive impairment.

College students especially take cognitive enhancers to clear brain fog, enhance their focus on studies, and improve their overall academic performance.

Here are some of the benefits of taking cognitive performance-enhancing drugs:

  • Helps control symptoms of disorders like ADHD, sleep narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Improves memory, attention, and focus.
  • Reduces stress and mental fatigue.
  • Allows users to enhance their cognitive ability despite fatigue.
  • Speeds up information-processing abilities.

These benefits apply to both healthy people and those who take these drugs to treat disorders. But always keep in mind that since they are synthetic drugs, they come with some potentially severe side effects.

“[Prescription nootropics] work by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline in the part of the brain responsible for focus and memory, which improves your concentration.”

- Dr. Neeraj Gandotra, MD, Instructor of Psychiatry

People who are prescribed these drugs weigh the benefits against the risks, but for healthy individuals who do not actually need these for medical reasons, potential side effects are just not worth it.

Side Effects

A man having an upset stomach while slowly laying down the sofa

Both natural and prescription nootropics can cause side effects when consumed irresponsibly.

While side effects from natural nootropics are extremely rare, overdosing on them or using them irresponsibly could lead to side effects.

While there aren’t any studies that show the side effects of natural nootropics, here are ones that I’ve noticed from personal experience:

  • Brain fog
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Insomnia

Side effects from prescription nootropics are quite common and are mostly a result of misuse or overuse (usually from addiction) [20].

Common side effects include:

  • Insomnia
  • Blurry vision
  • High blood pressure
  • Fast heart rate
  • Circulation problems
  • Addiction

Ethical and Pragmatic Considerations of Using Smart Drugs

Top view of smart drugs and holding water

Taking prescription smart drugs to enhance your cognitive abilities for work or school has certain ethical considerations.

Firstly, it gives people an unfair cognitive advantage (much like steroids give users a physical advantage). Secondly, there’s the possibility of falling into addiction.

Let’s look at both of them in more detail.

Unfair Advantage

When healthy people take drugs to enhance their cognition in the context of a competitive environment, it’s unfair to those involved.

If there are no official rules forbidding the use of certain nootropic substances in some competitions or exam rooms, then it’s not technically unfair, and the only factor is your personal ethics.

I personally have no problem with using natural nootropics, which are not strictly forbidden, to get the most out of my cognitive abilities and get ahead in life, but in the end, it's a matter of each person’s individual attitude.

Possible Addiction

Because of their potent effects, it’s easier to become dependent on synthetic cognitive enhancers.

Dependence and overuse can often lead to tolerance which makes users overdose on the drug, leading to a host of negative side effects.

Safe Alternatives

Berries and nuts top view with a woman holding a tea

Since smart drugs for cognitive enhancement are more commonly associated with side effects and addiction in healthy people, it’s better to stay safe and consume nootropics from natural sources.

Based on our research, here are some safe cognitive enhancer options you should consider first before prescription medication:

Nootropic foods: Here’s a list of nootropic foods linked to brain power [21]. You can incorporate them into your diet:

  • Green, leafy vegetables: Kale, spinach, collard greens, and broccoli are dense in brain-healthy nutrients like folate, beta carotene, lutein, and vitamin K. They may also help slow down cognitive decline.
  • Berries: These contain flavonoids that help improve memory.
  • Walnuts: Walnuts can improve memory and lower blood pressure (which is good for the heart and brain).
  • Tea and coffee: The caffeine in these drinks can help with short-term concentration and solidify the memory.
  • Fatty fish: This is a dense source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to fighting age-related brain decline like Alzheimer's disease.

Herbal nootropics: Herbal nootropics or nootropic plants are the herbs, leaves, stems, and seeds of cognitive-enhancing plants. They’re mostly safe and only dangerous when heavily overdosed.

Exercise: Research shows that exercising for 30 minutes or more every day for 3–5 days a week may improve symptoms of depression and anxiety [22]. Regular exercise can also reduce your risk of succumbing to cognitive decline and increase performance in working memory and cognitive flexibility [23] [24].

Natural nootropic supplements: They contain a clinically relevant dose of the best nootropics so you can naturally boost your cognitive abilities.

Dr. Victoria Chan, an integrative mental health doctor, says that a smart drug can either be a wonderfully helpful tool to improve the quality of life or it could pose a great danger to one's health.

This is why it's essential to consult a doctor who is well-versed in how the many body systems interact, someone who will take the time to investigate all areas of your health, and someone who will take the time to explain all the benefits and dangers of each of your treatment choices.

Using Natural Nootropics for Cognitive Improvement

Taking natural nootropics to enhance cognitive skills for your daily tasks shouldn’t be a problem, provided you stick with the recommended dosage and don’t misuse them.

At TotalShape, we encourage all our clients and readers to take safe, natural, and clinically-tested nootropic supplements.

We personally tested all these supplements and found that they improve cognitive performance in younger and older adults.

They contain only natural ingredients, so you don’t have to worry about negative side effects.


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