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15 January 2020
When Bradley Cooper took a brain-enhancing drug called NZT-48 in Limitless, his entire lifestyle improved — he was smarter, more efficient, more likeable, earned more money, and generally just became a better version of himself. Maybe it’s this idea — that there’s a better version of you, and all that’s separating you from it is a pill — that has made nootropics such a buzzword nowadays.
Nootropics is an umbrella term for a range of chemicals that improve or enhance the human brain’s cognitive abilities. These include better executive function, increased memory retention and focus, and even increased motivation in people. Some nootropics can be naturally occurring in food substances, like chocolate and green tea, which contain phenethylamine and L-Theanine, or caffeine and turmeric. Other nootropics are naturally found in stimulants like cocaine and nicotine and can be dangerous. However, a new wave of ‘smart drugs’ that are industrially produced and marketed as health supplements, have begun to flood drug store aisles and online stores.
Many of these supplements are a mixture of lipids, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and food-derived vitamins. Since the ‘smart drugs’ are seen as dietary supplements, the regulations around manufacturing and advertising are less strict than around prescription medication. Test trials on humans, and placebo-controlled research don’t need to be done for a company to state their product will actually do what it says it will.
So, nootropics may not live up to the grandiose claims on the bottle, promising to increase creativity, concentration, or productivity. But rather than being dissuaded by this, consumers who believe in the power of nootropics have come up with the concept of ‘stacking’ — curating and taking a unique combination of different supplements that will work for the person in question. Many companies offer starter packs that offer a combination of pills, promising a number of different effects that improve memory, focus and keep energy levels high — usually helpful with someone who has a big meeting or needs to pull an all-nighter.
Perhaps, in part, thanks to the Silicon Valley culture of revving up workers’ productivity, these supplements are getting increasingly popular especially with university students, company executives, and gamers. But most doctors and researchers point out the lack of well-researched studies supporting these supplements’ use or clarifying their possible long-term side effects. The existing studies that have been conducted are on a small scale, and often done without a control group, which means that participants may have just been experiencing a placebo effect from taking the drugs. The only chemically produced nootropics that have been proven to work are some ADHD medications and Modafinil, a medicine used to treat certain sleep disorders, both of which need a prescription to consume, since they can be abused by healthy people.
And here’s where the danger of nootropics comes in — while the abuse of ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall is well-known, Modafinil can actually be misused a lot. In India, most chemists will give customers Modafinil without asking for prescriptions. It’s proven to ensure alertness, energy, focus, and an increased decision-making in people, by enhancing brain connectivity. The side effects, however, include anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and headaches, since it affects the brain’s levels of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters. Like most nootropics, the long-term effects of taking Modafinil are unknown; in a country where it’s so easily available, that is a cause for concern.
Board-certified neuropsychologist Brian Lebowitz, PhD and associate clinical professor of neurology at Stony Brook University, explains to MensHealth.com that the term “encompasses so many things,” including prescription medications. Brain enhancers fall into two different categories: naturally occurring substances like Ginkgo biloba, creatine and phenibut; and manmade prescription drugs, like Adderall, and over-the-counter supplements such as Noopept.Brain hackers gather on the Nootropics reddit to ask questions, share the latest research (a recent post shares a study concluding that walnuts keep brains young) and product reviews.
-Red Reishi mushrooms
According to Lebowitz, certain brain supplements and or prescription medications like Modafinil and Adderall are the only nootropics that are scientifically proven to improve cognitive ability.
For example, caffeine works by improving your attention span, which helps you retain information when you’re not fatigued. Medications like Adderall can help you control your attention span by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters in your brain, which help neurons communicate.
It’s been widely reported that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and college students turn to Adderall (without a prescription) to work late through the night. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of American College Health, showed that roughly two-thirds of undergraduate students were offered prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes by senior year. Although they may help users focus, Lebowitz says taking prescription drugs can be dangerous without a doctor’s supervision.
“We know that these medications are very powerful,” Lebowitz warns. In high doses, they could cause cardiac issues, high blood pressure, anxiety and psychosis, he says. Even caffeine can cause some alarming side effects, like anxiety, hallucinations and dizziness. “And that’s something we know a lot about,” Lebowitz says. Other naturally occurring and lab-created nootropics have little research supporting their use or side effects. Existing studies are often small and poorly executed.
“The common problem is that these studies are done without a control group,” he says. This means there is no way of knowing whether the substances worked, or if study participants simply believed they experienced positive effects (a term known as the “placebo effect”).
How can you enhance mental performance?
Lebowitz says your best bet is to focus on the basics of improving your overall health, because our brains suffer if our bodies aren’t in good shape. If you want to focus on boosting your brain power, Lebowitz says you should primarily focus on improving your cardiovascular health, which is “the key to good thinking.” For example, high blood pressure and cholesterol, which raise the risk of heart disease, can cause arteries to harden, which can decrease blood flow to the brain. The brain relies on blood to function normally. “Everything that’s good for your heart is good for the brain,” Lebowitz claims.
Lebowitz recommends eating heart-healthy foods, like those found in the MIND diet. Created by researchers at Rush University, MIND combines the Mediterranean and DASH eating plans, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart problems. Fish, nuts, berries, green leafy vegetables and whole grains are MIND diet staples. Lebowitz says these foods likely improve your cognitive health by keeping your heart healthy.
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
Bottom line: Nootropics ostensibly work by protecting neurons in your brain from becoming damaged by toxins and aging. The theory is that they stimulate neurons and increase blood and oxygen flow to your brain, which supposedly leads to improvements in your attention span and other areas of cognitive functioning.