These Pills Promise to Make You Smarter But Do They Really Work?

Updated 04/30/19
nootropics: hand full of pills

How's that presentation going? What about the impending inbox of doom? If only there was something that could help you focus and help you focus fast. Well, maybe nootropics are the answer.

Born out of Silicon Valley, nootropics, so-called "smart drugs", are gaining serious traction amongst the tech-set, as those in high-pressure careers turn to these self-prescribed "medications" to help them rattle through their to-do lists and wrap their minds around the minute details of their data-driven jobs. But as the rest of the world starts to take brain health as seriously as the rest of their bodies, it's likely the trend will travel further afield, too.

Like a supplement for the brain, nootropics utilize a variety of chemicals intended to enhance cognitive performance. Cleverer than the Red Bulls you likely relied on throughout University, these new-age pills contain a variety of substances from L-theanine (naturally occurring in black and green tea), which aids relaxation of the mind and alertness, to substances like racetams, which have loose connections to increased cognitive performance. You'll also find some adaptogens in certain nootropics, such as bacopa, a small water plant native to India.

It helps the body adapt better to stress, helping you work your way through a high-pressure situation without flapping.

But wait up: We obviously have some questions. Firstly, are nootropics safe, and secondly, do they actually work? To help settle our minds, we turned to Tara Swart, resident neuroscientist at London's Corinthia hotel, for the 411.

So what's the deal with nootropics?

"A nootropic is any active substance that can enhance your brain power by increasing wakefulness and therefore attention and focus," explains Swart.

And you might have already been taking one without realising: "They range from caffeine (short-term effect) to B vitamins or omega oils (long-term effect) to natural supplements like the Chinese moss huperzine and medium-chain triglycerides, as in coconut oil, all the way up to drugs like Modafinil and Ritalin, which have traditionally been used to treat diseases like narcolepsy, dementia or ADD. Trans-cranial electrical and magnetic stimulation can also produce brain-boosting effects."

So even though students use them to study, they're not just improving your memory?

"They do not improve memory. They increase wakefulness, and this boosts attention and focus," Swart explains. "They provide a short-term boost to the brain for the duration of the active substance of the drug in your bloodstream (half-life) but do not actually increase cognitive power. They do not make you smarter, nor do they have long-lasting beneficial effects." So they might help you focus to finish that urgent presentation, but they're not going to be a magic pill that will make you ace any kind of exam.

What's the catch?

Of course, as with taking most ingestible substances, there's a downside. "The most common short-term side-effect is sleep disturbance," warns Swart, so if you already struggle with getting to sleep or staying there, they might not be something you want to dabble with.

"We do not know what the long-term effects of usage of these drugs will be because most of them were designed for a specific disease and are now being used by people with no known brain pathology. We do know that a large proportion of people who used Ecstasy (a psychoactive substance) in the 1980s developed depression about 10 years later, as their serotonin receptors had been over-used," she adds.

And if you didn't want to take nootropics, what's the alternative for optimal brain health?

Of course, we wouldn't advocate taking any form of substance without consulting your GP first—that's of the utmost importance. But if these brain pills aren't for you anyway, there are plenty of other ways you can increase your brain health and capacity—they might just take a little more time.

"The top one would be aerobic exercise, but also very important are adequate length and quality of sleep; regular meals, including brain foods such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut oil, berries and plenty of water, and hydrating foods such as melon or cucumber; minimise alcohol and caffeine; 12 to 30 minutes of meditation most days of the week and supplementation as recommended by a doctor or nutritionist," reveals Swart. "Next would be to take on some new learning a a form of brain training to improve neuroplasticity.

However, all these things are time-consuming and require discipline, hence the growing interest in nootropics."

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