Nootropics & Smart Drugs: Risks For Those in Recovery

Jun 19, 2024 | Addiction, Substance Abuse

Nootropics and smart drugs have gained popularity in recent years as people look for ways to enhance their cognitive abilities and improve mental performance. These substances, ranging from prescription medications to over-the-counter supplements, promise a wide range of cognitive benefits. Even so, their use is not without risks, particularly for those in recovery from substance abuse or addiction. In this blog, we explore the risks associated with nootropics and smart drugs for those in recovery and offer insights into making informed decisions about their use.

Understanding Nootropics and Smart Drugs

Nootropics, also known as “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers,” are believed to enhance cognitive functions such as memory, focus, creativity, and motivation. These substances encompass many compounds, including prescription medications, over-the-counter supplements, and synthetic chemicals. Here is a detailed overview of the main types of nootropics:

Prescription Nootropics

These medications are primarily prescribed for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Examples include:

  • Adderall: A stimulant that increases the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, improving focus and attention.
  • Ritalin: Another stimulant used to treat ADHD, which works similarly to Adderall.
  • Modafinil: Used to treat narcolepsy, this drug promotes wakefulness and is believed to enhance cognitive function.
Over-the-Counter Nootropics

These are readily available without a prescription and often include herbal supplements, vitamins, and minerals thought to support cognitive function. Examples include:

  • Ginkgo Biloba: An herbal supplement believed to enhance memory and cognitive speed by improving blood flow to the brain.
  • Bacopa Monnieri: This herb is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine and is thought to improve memory and reduce anxiety.
  • L-Theanine: An amino acid found in tea leaves known for its calming effects and ability to enhance focus when taken with caffeine.
Synthetic Nootropics

These are chemical compounds specifically designed to enhance cognitive abilities. They often lack extensive research and safety data for prescription medications and natural supplements. Examples include:

  • Piracetam: One of the first synthetic nootropics developed, believed to improve memory and cognitive function.
  • Noopept: A potent synthetic compound thought to enhance memory and learning capacity more effectively than other nootropics.
The Science Behind Cognitive Enhancers

Nootropics are believed to work through various mechanisms that enhance cognitive functions and protect brain health. Here are some key ways they are thought to operate:

  1. Increasing blood flow to the brain: Some nootropics, like Ginkgo Biloba, improve cerebral circulation, enhancing oxygen and nutrient delivery to brain cells.
  2. Modulating neurotransmitters: Prescription nootropics often work by altering the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which play crucial roles in attention and cognitive function.
  3. Protecting brain cells: Certain nootropics have neuroprotective properties that help protect brain cells from damage and promote their survival and growth.
The Appeal of Nootropics in Recovery

Nootropics like methylphenidate and modafinil have effectively improved concentration, alertness, and memory. These enhancements, particularly the over-the-counter supplements that do not require a prescription can appear especially valuable for those in early recovery, who often face challenges such as:

  • Memory problems
  • Decreased focus
  • Irritability
  • Reduced motivation

For individuals in recovery who spend significant portions of their time in high-stress environments like school or work, the motivation to use these enhancers may be even higher. 

Research demonstrates that social and environmental factors, such as peer pressure and the desire to perform well academically or professionally, are significant motivators for using nootropics. By addressing cognitive challenges and improving mental functions, nootropics may appear to be a solution with the capacity to help individuals in recovery feel more capable and motivated, aiding them in their overall recovery and daily functioning. However, the use of these performance-enhancing drugs is not without risk.

Risks of Nootropics For Individuals in Recovery

While nootropics may seem like a promising solution, there is no shortage of risks associated with their use for people in recovery:

  • Relapse triggers: The use of cognitive enhancers or similar medications like nootropics can be psychologically triggering for those in recovery, as they might mimic the effects of previously abused substances, leading to cravings and a heightened risk of relapse.
  • Unregulated supplements: Over-the-counter and synthetic nootropics are not subject to the same level of regulation and oversight as prescription medications. This lack of quality control can lead to safety concerns, as the actual ingredients and dosages may not match what is listed on the label.
  • Interactions with medications: Individuals in recovery often take mental health medications like antidepressants to manage co-occurring mental health disorders or withdrawal symptoms. The use of nootropics can lead to harmful interactions with these medications, potentially jeopardizing one’s recovery.
  • Unproven efficacy: Many nootropics lack robust scientific evidence to support their cognitive-enhancing claims. Individuals may invest time and money into substances that offer little to no real benefit.
  • Dependence and tolerance: Just like with substance abuse, the use of nootropics can lead to dependence and tolerance, where users require increasing doses to achieve the desired effects. This can potentially lead to a cycle of increased substance use.
  • Side effects: Nootropics, even natural supplements, can have side effects and adverse reactions, especially when misused or in high doses. These side effects can worsen existing health conditions and hinder the recovery process.
  • Legal and ethical issues: The use of prescription nootropics without a legitimate medical need can be illegal, potentially leading to legal consequences. Moreover, the moral implications of obtaining and using these substances without a prescription should not be overlooked. 
Alternatives to Nootropics in Recovery

For people in recovery looking to enhance cognitive function without resorting to nootropics, several alternative approaches can be both effective and health-promoting:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT is an evidence-based therapeutic approach that helps individuals with substance use disorder (SUD) develop healthier thought patterns, improve concentration, and manage cravings. CBT can significantly enhance cognitive function and emotional well-being by addressing negative thinking and behavior patterns.


Physical activity is a natural way to improve mood and increase cognitive function. Regular exercise promotes the release of endorphins, which is proven effective in reducing co-morbid risk factors for substance use relapse, such as stress, depression, and anxiety. Activities like aerobic exercise, yoga, and strength training can be particularly beneficial in aiding recovery.


Meditation can help individuals stay focused and improve their emotional state while lowering stress levels. Practices such as mindfulness meditation have been shown to enhance attention, memory, and emotional regulation, making them valuable tools for cognitive enhancement and overall mental health.


A well-balanced diet with brain-boosting nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins naturally supports cognitive health. Foods rich in these nutrients, such as fatty fish, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, can enhance brain function and improve mental clarity.


High-quality sleep is essential for cognitive performance and emotional stability. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule and creating a restful sleep environment can significantly improve mental abilities. Adequate sleep helps consolidate memories, process information, and maintain emotional balance.

Final Thoughts

Nootropics and smart drugs might seem like a shortcut to improved cognitive function, but their use comes with a host of risks for those in recovery. The potential for relapse, unregulated supplements, interactions with medications, and other adverse effects make their use a precarious choice. 

It is of the utmost importance for those in recovery to consider alternative, evidence-based strategies to support cognitive function and overall well-being. Prioritizing proven, natural methods will help with recovery and eliminate the risk of exposing oneself to unnecessary risks.

New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions Day Treatment Centers specialize in helping adolescents and adults overcome alcoholism, substance abuse, and other addictions. Our partial-day hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs assist clients in overcoming addictive behaviors.  If you or a family member need treatment for addiction or an intervention to help your loved one start the process of recovery, call 800-685-9796


To learn more about our treatment programs, visit our website at New Dimensions Day Treatment Centers offers a free initial assessment to help you get started on recovery.


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