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

Nootropics woman at desk

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How's that presentation going? What about the impending inbox of doom? If only there was something that could help you focus, increase your attentiveness, and give you a mental boost. Well, maybe nootropics are the answer.

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics, or “smart drugs,” are natural or synthetic substances taken to improve cognitive performance, typically by increasing alertness and focus.

Born out of Silicon Valley, nootropics 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.

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 a neuroscientist for the 411.

Read on for the scoop on nootropics, why people are using them, and whether they might be safe and effective for you.

Meet the Expert

Tara Swart is the resident neuroscientist at London's Corinthia hotel and a best-selling author.

What are Nootropics?

"A nootropic is any active substance that can enhance your brainpower by increasing wakefulness, and therefore attention and focus," explains Swart. And you might have already been taking one without realizing: "They range from caffeine (short-term effects) to B vitamins or omega oils (long-term effects) to natural supplements like the Chinese moss huperzine and medium-chain triglycerides 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.”

Let's look at a few of these more closely.

Prescription Nootropics

  • Modafinil, which is typically prescribed for narcolepsy, can improve memory and attention, and reduce feelings of fatigue.
  • Amphetamines, like Adderall, are often prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADD) because they increase the activity of certain neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline in the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain that is involved in planning and memory. Research has demonstrated that they can improve focus and attentional control, particularly over sustained tasks, and may help with short-term memory.
  • Methylphenidate, Ritalin, which has a similar mechanism of action and usage as an amphetamine, has been shown to improve working memory, processing speed, and attention.

Over-the-Counter Nootropics

Over-the-counter nootropics contain a variety of substances such as racetams, which have loose connections to increased cognitive performance. Swart says 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 stay calm through a high-pressure situation. Here are a few other common ones:

  • Caffeine increases alertness and decreases fatigue and reaction time by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain.
  • Ginkgo Biloba may improve memory or slow the decline of brain function and memory loss in those with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Nicotine can be highly addictive and does have adverse effects, but some evidence suggests it can improve learning and memory.
  • “Trans-cranial electrical and magnetic stimulation can also produce brain-boosting effects,” notes Swart.
  • L-theanine, a compound found in green and black tea, is reported to increase mental arousal, alertness, and alpha wave activity, which is linked with creative thinking.

How Do Nootropics Work?

Like a supplement for the brain, nootropics utilize a variety of chemicals intended to enhance cognitive performance. In general, they increase blood flow—and thus oxygenation and nutrient availability—to the brain by dilating small arteries. This improves alertness and cognitive function. There is also some evidence to suggest that some natural nootropics have an anti-aging effect on the brain. Because neurons are the only cells in the body that cannot replicate, their ability to repair and regenerate is crucial. Certain natural nootropics appear to aid in this repair process, as well as reduce inflammation in the brain and protect against toxins.

What You Should Know About Using Nootropics

Since nootropics act upon the brain, it’s especially important to be aware of their safety and efficacy before emptying the shelves of your local health food store.

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.

Who Can Benefit from Them?

If you’re looking for an acute boost of alertness, focus, and productivity—perhaps to get your taxes done or to put together meeting notes for your presentation—a nootropic may be worth a try. "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,” notes Swart. "They increase wakefulness, and this boosts attention and focus.”

Can They Improve Your Memory?

"They do not improve memory,” Swart explains. "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 are Alternatives 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; minimize 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 form of brain training to improve neuroplasticity. However, all these things are time-consuming and require discipline, hence the growing interest in nootropics."

Article Sources
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