Are Nootropics Legal?

Nootropics are a class of drugs, supplements, and other substances that people use to enhance their cognitive abilities, including memory, focus, and attention. They are also sometimes called "smart drugs" or "brain boosters." These substances can include synthetic chemicals like Modafinil and Adderall, as well as natural compounds, such as herbs and vitamins.

Over the past few years, nootropics have become increasingly popular among people who want to improve their mental performance for school, work, or other activities. Many people believe that these drugs or supplements can help them stay focused and alert for longer periods than they would be able to otherwise.

However, while many people may benefit from using nootropics, there are concerns about their legality. Some nootropics are classified as prescription-only drugs, while others are not regulated at all. This raises questions about their safety and effectiveness.

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that are used for cognitive enhancement purposes. They are also referred to as "smart drugs" or "brain boosters." Nootropics can be natural compounds, synthetic chemicals or a combination of both. They work by altering the levels or production of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain to improve cognitive function and enhance mood.

Definition and types

There are different classifications of nootropics, but they generally fall into two categories: prescription drugs and supplements.

  • Prescription drugs: These are regulated substances that require a doctor's prescription to use. Most of them are stimulants and have potential side effects. Examples include Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinil.
  • Supplements: These are over-the-counter products that do not require a prescription. They usually contain natural compounds such as vitamins, minerals and herbs. Examples include Bacopa Monnieri, Ginkgo Biloba and Creatine.

It is important to note that not all substances marketed as nootropics are safe or effective. Before taking any nootropic, it is recommended to do thorough research or speak to a healthcare professional.

Different uses of nootropics

Nootropics can be used for different purposes, including:

  • Studying and productivity: Many college students and professionals use nootropics to enhance focus and concentration during long study or work sessions. They claim that nootropics make them more productive, alert, and efficient.
  • Athletics: Some athletes use nootropics to enhance their mental performance during competitions. For example, they may use caffeine or other stimulants to increase their energy and focus.
  • Mood enhancement: Some nootropics are believed to have mood-enhancing effects. For example, St. John's Wort is said to have anti-depressant properties and can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Age-related cognitive decline: Some nootropics, such as theanine and creatine, may have potential benefits for older adults who experience memory loss or other cognitive issues associated with aging.

Keep in mind that the effectiveness and safety of using nootropics for these purposes have not been extensively researched, and more studies are needed to evaluate their long-term effects.

Are Nootropics Legal?

The legality of nootropics varies by country and substance. In most countries, natural nootropics that are sold as supplements are legal and do not require a prescription. However, some synthetic nootropics, especially those that fall under the category of prescription drugs, are highly regulated and require a prescription from a licensed healthcare provider.

Legal Status of Nootropics by Country

Now let's explore the legal status of Nootropics in several countries, focusing initially on the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. If you reside in a country or territory not mentioned here, please feel free to leave a comment, and we will do our best to provide you with relevant information.

United States

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of nootropics. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, nootropics are considered dietary supplements if they contain at least one ingredient that is derived from food. These types of supplements do not require FDA approval before they are marketed and sold to the public. However, the FDA can take action against manufacturers of dietary supplements if they are found to be misbranded or adulterated.

On the other hand, synthetic nootropics that are classified as prescription drugs are highly regulated. They are subject to the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the distribution, possession, and use of illegal drugs. Examples of nootropics that fall under this category include Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinil, which are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and excessive sleepiness.

Are Nootropics legal in the United States? YES

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom provides an interesting case study, as many highly regarded Nootropic supplements are manufactured there. In the UK, as long as a supplement avoids promising to cure any disease and steers clear of banned substances, it is generally considered legal. Although occasional incidents of illegal substances being found in OTC supplements do occur, the UK allows supplement manufacturers considerable latitude similar to that of the United States.

Are Nootropics legal in the United Kingdom? YES


Australia offers clear guidelines for determining the legality of Nootropic supplements. The country maintains a comprehensive list, managed by a government administration, which advises on banned substances and their corresponding schedules. As mentioned earlier, it is essential to avoid substances ending in *racetam and consult the full list provided by the Australian government. However, most modern Nootropic supplements, including those we have reviewed, do not contain these substances.

Are Nootropics legal in Australia? YES


In Europe, Germany shares a similar perspective to the United States regarding Nootropic supplements. Officially, any "supplement" is categorized as a "food." While supplement manufacturers are not mandated to report regular verification of their products, they are subject to random checks by Health Authorities to ensure the product matches the label's ingredients. Similar to the United States, German authorities take strict action against supplements found to be misleading regarding their use as actual medications. To avoid any legal complications, it is advisable to purchase supplements from reputable manufacturers.

Are Nootropics legal in Germany? YES

Risks of Using Nootropics

Short-Term Effects

Nootropics have become increasingly popular due to their purported cognitive-enhancing effects. However, they also come with their fair share of short-term risks and side effects.

Side Effects

Some common side effects that have been reported with nootropics include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increased heart rate
  • Blood pressure changes

While these side effects are generally mild, they can be more severe depending on the individual and the type of nootropic being used. Some synthetic nootropics, such as Adderall and Ritalin, can cause more severe side effects such as heart palpitations, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Safety Concerns

Another risk associated with nootropics is the potential for drug interactions. Some nootropics can interact with other medications or supplements that a person may be taking, which can lead to unintended side effects. It is important to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement or medication to ensure that there are no potential drug interactions.

Long-Term Effects

While the short-term risks of nootropics are generally mild, there is less research available on the long-term effects of nootropic use. However, as with any substance that affects the brain and central nervous system, there is a potential for long-term risks and side effects.


One of the potential long-term risks associated with nootropics is the risk of developing dependence. Some synthetic nootropics, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are classified as Schedule II drugs, which means they have a high risk of addiction and dependence. Even natural nootropics can be habit-forming if used excessively or inappropriately.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Another potential long-term risk of nootropics is the development of withdrawal symptoms if use is stopped abruptly. Some people may experience symptoms such as headaches, irritability, and difficulty sleeping if they stop using nootropics after long-term use.

It is important to remember that the risks and side effects of nootropics can vary significantly based on the individual, the type of supplement being used, and the dosage. If you are considering using nootropics, it is important to do your research and consult with a licensed healthcare provider to ensure that you are using them safely and appropriately.

Alternatives to Nootropics

While nootropics may seem like a quick fix for cognitive enhancement, there are many healthier options available that can offer comparable benefits without the risks and side effects. Here are some alternatives:

Healthier Options for Cognitive Enhancement

Natural Supplements

There are several natural supplements that have been shown to enhance cognitive function, some of which have been used for centuries in traditional medicine. Here are a few examples:

  • Ginkgo Biloba: This herb has been used for thousands of years to improve memory and concentration. It works by increasing blood flow to the brain and improving oxygenation.
  • Bacopa Monnieri: This herb has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to enhance memory and cognitive function. It has been shown to improve memory retention and reduce anxiety.
  • Fish Oil: Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain health. Studies have shown that increasing omega-3 intake can improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of dementia, and improve mood.

Lifestyle Choices

In addition to natural supplements, there are several lifestyle choices you can make to enhance cognitive function:

  • Exercise: Regular physical activity has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and promote the growth of new brain cells. It can also reduce stress and anxiety, which can improve cognitive function.
  • Sleep: Getting enough sleep is essential for proper cognitive function. Sleep deprivation can lead to impaired memory, reduced concentration, and a host of other problems.
  • Meditation: Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus and concentration, and promote feelings of well-being.

Comparable Prescription Alternatives


Modafinil is a prescription medication that is often used to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. It is also sometimes used off-label as a cognitive enhancer. Modafinil works by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which can improve alertness and focus. However, it can also have side effects such as headaches, nausea, and anxiety.


Adderall is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine that is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It works by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which can improve focus and concentration. However, it is a controlled substance with a high potential for addiction and abuse.

While these prescription alternatives may offer similar benefits to nootropics, it is important to note that they also come with their own risks and side effects. It is important to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new medication or supplement to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for you.


Recap of Nootropics and Legality

Nootropics are supplements or substances that are used to enhance cognitive function. While some nootropics can be effective in improving memory, increasing focus, and boosting mood, they also come with potential risks and side effects. It is important to note that the legality of nootropics varies depending on the country and the specific substance. In the United States, for example, some nootropics are considered controlled substances and require a prescription, while others are available over-the-counter.

Recommendations for Healthy Cognitive Enhancement

While nootropics may seem like an attractive option for cognitive enhancement, there are several healthier alternatives available. Here are some recommendations for promoting healthy cognitive function:

  • Maintain a healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can support brain function and overall health.
  • Stay physically active: Regular exercise can promote blood flow to the brain, reduce stress, and boost mood.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Getting enough sleep is essential for cognitive function. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night and establish a regular sleep routine.
  • Engage in mental stimulation: Keeping the brain stimulated with mentally challenging activities like reading, puzzles, or learning a new skill can help improve cognitive function.
  • Consider natural supplements: Natural supplements like ginkgo biloba, bacopa monnieri, and fish oil can offer cognitive benefits without the risks associated with prescription drugs.

Final Thoughts and Future Considerations

While maintaining cognitive function is an important aspect of overall health, it is important to prioritize safety and caution in choosing methods of improvement. As more research is done on the efficacy and safety of nootropics and other cognitive enhancers, it is important for individuals to stay informed and make choices that align with their personal health goals and values. Ultimately, the best way to promote long-term cognitive health is through a holistic approach that includes healthy lifestyle choices and natural supplements.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top