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What is Nootropic Coffee? Health Facts & Popular Options

stirring coffee in cup with spoon

Most people start their day with a cup of coffee. There is just something about the slightly bitter yet rich flavor of a good cup of coffee that wakes you up and can help you face the day.

For millions of people around the world, it feels nearly impossible to focus and begin the workday without a cup of coffee. In America alone, an estimated 64 percent of the population drinks at least one cup each day – according to results of a survey commissioned by the National Coffee Association – which explains why retail coffee is a $36 billion industry.1

But sometimes coffee alone is just not enough and we need a little extra boost to stay focused and to get stuff done effectively. A more and more discussed addition to the daily cup of joe is nootropics. And no, don’t worry, nootropics are not a dangerous drug, they are not more dangerous than coffee.

Combining nootropics with coffee can benefit you on multiple levels. It can reduce or eliminate some of the side effects of caffeine, the active compound in coffee can enhance some of the caffeine benefits by working synergistically, and it can provide its separate benefits.

Let’s dive a little deeper and see what are the nootropics, and how and why adding them to your daily cup of coffee is so great.

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What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that can range from supplements to administered drugs that help with improving cognition. Colloquially referred to as “smart drugs,” they are intended to enhance executive functions like memory, motivation, and creativity in otherwise healthy people. The word nootropic is derived from Ancient Greek: nóos meaning “mind” and tropḗ meaning “turning”, and the term was coined in 1972 by Corneliu Giurgea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist.

To be classified as a nootropic, a substance should safely support and improve cognitive performance.

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Image credit: Unsplash

They have been around for thousands of years even if you haven’t heard of them before. Smart drugs are classified as a supplement, they are safe to consume, have no side effects and are not addictive. Quite the contrary, they help to protect your brain.

What’s best though, is that you can enhance your coffee with nootropics, and the result is a synergistic combination that gives you an even better boost to your cognitive skills.

Nootropics can be natural, such as tea, or a herbal supplement, or synthetic. Prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall are described by some as nootropics, but these are very addictive, and they can cause serious crashes if abused.

Examples of natural nootropics include: L-Theanine, Ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea, Maca, Bacopa Monieri, Gingko Biloba, taurine, and mushroom extract such as Lions Mane (Hericeum erinaceus), Chaga (Inotus obliquus), Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinenis).

Synthetic nootropics are very debatable, and the safest and the most researched are piracetam. Note that all racetams – aniracetam, piracetam, oxiracetam, pramiracetam, and phenylpiracetam – are classified as unapproved new drugs by the FDA. They are not illegal, but may not be sold as dietary supplements. In fact, Corneliu Giurgea penned the word nootropic when piracetam was found to exhibit cognitive enhancement properties in clinical trials in the seventies.

You can buy synthetic piracetam online, but they can have a lot of side effects, and you need to thoroughly research if you absolutely need to try them. Results vary, and for some, the side effects are more serious than for others. Racetams are usually combined with other nootropics such as choline, for both enhancing the benefits, and mitigating the side effects.

Furthermore, makers combine various substances in a nootropic stack and pack them in a supplement form, to make them more powerful and complete.

All nootropics are legal, by the way, they are considered supplements, and since they are supposed to be safe and non-addictive, they can be bought over the counter. Sounds like something you need? I thought so. Let’s see now how nootropics can help your productivity and mood.

Is Coffee a Nootropic?

Many sources consider coffee a nootropic, and let’s be honest, it is a pretty amazing drink. Tons of antioxidants, and the amazing boost from caffeine, it sounds like there is no question about it. But let’s dig a little deeper and see if our intuition is right.

Corneliu E. Giurgea, who coined the term nootropic, outlined the following requirements for substances to be considered nootropics.

As described by Giurgea, a nootropic must:

  • Enhance the memory and learning process
  • Enhance resistance of learned behaviors to conditions with the tendency to disrupt them
  • Protect the brain from physical or chemical damage
  • Increasing the effectiveness of the tonic cortical and subcortical control mechanisms
  • Be non-sedating, have minimal side effects, or none at all, and be non-toxic

You’ve probably come to the conclusion by now: caffeine is not a nootropic, and, by extension, coffee is not a nootropic. Here is a bit of explanation on that.

Caffeine doesn’t improve memory or learning consistently. Additionally, it does not protect the brain from injury. It is also toxic at high doses, as shown in a few cases of badly measured homemade caffeine pills resulting in acute toxicity and even death.

The counterargument might be that it’s the dose that makes it poison, and it would be partly true. However, good nootropics are way more efficient than caffeine, and the side effects of caffeine, such as sleep disruptionstress increase, and other effects on mental health.

Should we stop drinking coffee then? No, absolutely not, but we need to understand that after a tough deadline, met only with the grace of coffee, we cannot jump on the next one with the same amount of caffeine and hope that we’ll get the same great productivity.

While coffee might help us meet our deadlines, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on our body and mind, and we simply need to break the cycle. Taking a break from time to time is absolutely amazing for our productivity, but more importantly, is great for our health.

The other great thing we could do, if we mainly use coffee as a day-to-day fuel, is to combine it with a nootropic. The most common example is the synergistic action between coffee and L-Theanine.

man drinking a cup of coffee
Image Credit: Chris Benson, Unsplash

Nootropics Benefits

Here is a list of potential nootropics benefits, in a random order, just so we have an idea of what nootropics can do. Note that a particular nootropic will only have some of the listed benefits, the idea is to combine coffee and one or more nootropics, in order to get most of the benefits from the list.

  • Enhance your memory
  • Enhance your productivity by increasing your concentration and attention
  • Accelerate the learning process
  • Boost your mood
  • Adaptogenic qualities
  • Boost creativity
  • Increase motivation and focus while exercising
  • Combat the effects of physical and mental stress
  • Regulate brain chemicals
  • Induce focused relaxation
  • Increase cerebral blood flow
  • Support the regeneration of brain cells
  • Increase brain performance
  • Boost energy levels

Short-term benefits

Nootropics can benefit you just like coffee, immediately. And this is very rewarding and encouraging for most people because they need immediate results. What university students would care about long-term benefits, when they have lined up 4 exams and they only have time to study for 3, and they have a couple of parties to attend to because social life is important too.

So for exam studying, or deadline crunching here are the benefits of nootropics.

Improves focus, short-term memory, stress resistance, and other factors that assist in productivity, competition, exams, deadlines, and other things that require immediate attention.

how to fall asleep after drinking coffee
Image credit: Unsplash

Long-term benefits

For those who look at long term benefits, realizing that crunching deadlines and heavy partying is not going to last forever, there is good news too. Nootropics can help your brain stay young longer, and here is how it helps.

Supports brain structure and function throughout aging, including memory, age-related cognitive decline, mood, and mental clarity.

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Coffee Benefits

  • Boost your brain’s energy
  • Improve cognitive function,
  • Improve mood and memory
  • Modulate neurotransmitters
  • Control cerebral blood flow
  • Enhance physical performance
  • Enhance antioxidant activity
  • Reduce mental fatigue
  • Analgesic effects
  • Potential crashes
  • Caffeine dependence or addiction
  • Cognition is influenced indirectly
  • If you drink too much coffee, you may experience tachycardia, palpitations, and elevated blood pressure
  • Withdrawal symptoms (tiredness, apathy, weakness, drowsiness, headaches, anxiety, decreased motor behavior, increased heart rate, increased muscle tension, and occasionally, tremor, nausea, vomiting, and flu-like symptoms)
  • Coffee consumption may negatively affect sleep
  • Increase the risk of acute coronary events

Coffee vs Caffeine

Let me start by saying, that even though I mention caffeine throughout the article as a stimulant, I would never recommend the use of caffeine tablets, or caffeine powder. And not because as a former barista I am forever in love with the black nectar of gods. But also because coffee is so much more than a single compound, we cannot reduce it to that. Coffee is the main source of antioxidants in many people’s diets. Caffeine is just a stimulant.

As a stimulant, is added in energy drinks and sodas for the extra kick. However, all of the benefits of the other amazing compounds are not there when you isolate caffeine only. Not only the antioxidants but even the two controversial terpenes, kahweol and cafestol, are beneficial for you if you don’t have underlying health problems.

If you absolutely hate coffee, a smart entrepreneur created a smart nootropic stack with a special form of caffeine, that also contains antioxidants, adaptogens, and hydration. The stack is called Club Early Bird Morning Cocktail, and people love it. That’s a smart concept, and it’s way better than the caffeine pill.

pouring coffee from percolator
Image Credit: Aleksey Boyko, Shutterstock

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Most Popular Nootropic Coffee Stacks – Combining Coffee and Nootropics

So we saw how nootropics and coffee are beneficial on their own; let’s see now how they can interact and produce that synergistic effect that we mentioned at the beginning of the article.

Coffee is a stimulant, and as with any stimulant, there is a fine line between consumption and abuse. You always reach out for that last cup of the day, and that proves to be too much. The problem with caffeine is that the tolerance is variable, and it depends on many factors, including the amount of sleep you had the night before.

As a stimulant, it can affect your sleep pattern, and if you think that you can override a sleepless night with another round of coffee, that’s not going to work. Firstly, with continuous consumption, you build a tolerance to caffeine, so it won’t be as effective, and you will need to increase the dose. That means less sleep. Secondly, without good sleep, your body will not recover properly and the regimen is not sustainable.

woman drinking coffee
Image Credit: Crystal Shaw, Unsplash

Both nootropics and coffee can enhance the different aspects of cognition. By combining coffee and nootropics, we are not only getting more aspects of our mental processing boosted, but we also enhance the effects of coffee.

By combining caffeine with a mild nootropic that is a relaxant, (such as L-Theanine), you can mitigate the sleep issues. The combination of caffeine and L-theanine is maybe the most popular nootropic combination. It provides the mental benefits that caffeine is supposed to provide, mitigates sleep loss, and eliminates the jitteriness caused by caffeine. L-Theanine is an amino acid found in tea, this amino acid is the reason black tea doesn’t give you jitters and doesn’t disrupt your sleep pattern. Just be aware that for a small number of people, L-Theanine can cause dizziness.

Another very popular caffeine stack is MCT oil and coffee. The combo was popularized by Dave Asprey as the Bulletproof coffee. The bulletproof coffee is not a nootropic stack in the strict sense, but it does provide mental clarity and energy. MCT oil is a fatty acid extracted from coconut oil and the non-abbreviated name is medium-chain triglycerides. People with persistent brain fog report that the fog suddenly lifts after getting bulletproof coffee. This is not so much the effect of the nootropic, but the effect of being in ketosis. The bulletproof method requires only getting the coffee and the MCT oil and nothing else for the whole morning, which induces ketosis. The other advantage of MCT oil and coffee is that the fat slows down the absorption of caffeine, and this is almost like a slow-release. This mitigates the jitters and the afternoon crash. Anyway, it’s not the right place to discuss this in too much detail.

Another amazing nootropic stack, is caffeine, L-tyrosine, and B vitamins, (B12 and B6). This combo is part of the 5 Hour Energy formulation, a popular energy drink. While I despise most energy drinks because some of them are plainly evil, this is one of the good ones. 5 Hour Energy contains more nootropics than the above, but in real life, the above should be just fine, and the advantage is that you can keep drinking your coffee, you don’t replace it with caffeine.

Another popular stack is the CILTEP, an all-natural formula created by Abelard Lindsay, a renowned biohacker. The formula is composed of forskolin, acetyl-l-carnitine, l-phenylalanine, and vitamin B6. The CILTEP formula is designed to improve mental performance, by inducing Long-Term Potentiation. Long-term potentiation is a long-lasting strengthening of synapses based on recent patterns of activity. In other words, it helps us learn better. Because it improves signaling between brain cells, it helps your brain in more areas than memory, such as improved focus and deep concentration. CILTEP works greatly as an addition to coffee and is conveniently packaged in capsules by Natural Stacks in their product Neurofuel.

The last popular nootropic stack in our review is mushroom coffee. As an anecdote, for a long time, I absolutely despised the idea of mushroom coffee. I didn’t know what it was, I never did any research on it, but I hated the idea because of the aggressive marketing. I came across the mushroom coffee from a different angle and eventually accepted it.

The idea of mushroom coffee is to combine the benefits of coffee with mushroom extract in order to mitigate the caffeine negative side effects: anxiety, jitteriness, restlessness, or an accelerated heart rate. The mushroom extracts also have their own cognitive enhancing properties, so they complement caffeine. The result is a boosted focus and memory, and a lot of energy, with a grounded attitude and no sleeping issues.

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Final Thoughts On Nootropics

Should you drink nootropics all the time? Absolutely not. I personally do not recommend using nootropics, even natural ones, on a regular basis. Our bodies are meant to take a break, and they cannot sustain this fast pace for a long time.

Even if nootropics are not illegal, and you can buy them online, it doesn’t mean they are 100% safe. Medical advice is always recommended with new substances, especially when we are pushing boundaries.

I personally take a break from coffee from time to time, this helps me enjoy it more in the long run.

And don’t forget, coffee is not only a vehicle for caffeine, coffee is a culinary experience.

Featured image credit: Unsplash


Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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