Whether you’re a student hoping to pass exams, a busy professional striving for a promotion, or a senior concerned about dementia, the idea of popping a pill that boosts your brain might sound quite appealing. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the use of nootropics – that is, cognitive enhancers or smart drugs – is on the rise. But do they work? And are they safe?
The term “nootropics” first referred to chemicals that met specific criteria. But now it is used to refer to any natural or synthetic substance that can have a positive impact on mental abilities. In general, nootropics fall into three general categories: food supplementssynthetic compounds and prescription drugs.
While health experts generally agree that taking a prescription nootropic for FDA-approved purposes (such as a stimulant drug if you have ADHD Where donepezil if you have Alzheimer’s disease) may be helpful, the use of any type of cognitive enhancer in healthy people is much more controversial.
What the researchers say
Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the division of cognitive neurology/neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says there is “no solid evidence” that any of the supplements now sold for their supposed memory-boosting powers are useful. “It’s not clear that they’re working and that they’re safe,” he says. He is also skeptical of the basic principle behind nootropics.
“The circuits involved in human cognition are very complicated and not fully understood,” he says. “You can’t just ‘turn up the dial’ that easily.” He notes that people who think their mental performance has increased from nootropics are largely influenced by a placebo effect. “If you’re more confident and think you’ll do better, you will be do better.”
Chris D’Adamo, PhD, director of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, has a different view. Like Gordon, he doesn’t think nootropics will give you superhuman mental abilities, but he does think they have the potential to offer some people a benefit.
“Most people looking to optimize their cognitive functions would be better off focusing on getting enough sleepeat nutrient-dense food dietand the management of their stress“, he says. But once you master these basics, the right nootropics can serve as a bonus, helping you think more clearly and sharply or reducing your risk of cognitive decline as you age, he says.
Types of Nootropics
Almost everyone uses a nootropic, whether they know it or not, says D’Adamo. He’s talking about caffeine, and while it may pose health risks if you overdo it, this natural stimulant has been shown to improve thinking skills. It doesn’t just make you more alert, says D’Adamo: Caffeine also gives you better access to several chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your body. your brain like acetylcholine, which helps with short-term memory and learning.
But most people interested in nootropics don’t stop at coffee Where tea. They turn to dietary supplements. Some, like ginseng and gingko, have not stood up to scientific scrutiny. Still others, including CDP-choline, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, Bacopa monnierihuperzine A and vinpocetine – may still show promise.
Racetams, such as piracetam, are another type of nootropic. You can get these synthetic compounds over-the-counter in the United States, but they are considered prescription drugs in some other countries. D’Adamo says these chemicals, which act on neurotransmitters including acetylcholine, have been studied in older people who have declining thinking skills. He doesn’t recommend them for most younger, healthy people.
Prescription nootropics consist largely of stimulants such as those in some Medications for ADHD. Although these work well for many people with ADHD, they are not recommended for others who simply want to improve their focus and attention. Many students obtain these types of drugs illegally, and while they may seem to help in the short term, there are serious risks. Side effects may include insomnia, blurry vision, high blood pressurea young heartbeattraffic problems and addiction.
Another type of nootropic prescription is modafinil (Provigil). It is FDA approved to treat narcolepsy, Sleep Apnea, and shift work disorder, but some studies suggest it may help learning and memory in healthy people. Modafinil appears to be safer than other types of stimulants, but more research is needed.
Most Promising Options
If you are considering trying nootropic supplements, you should speak with your doctor first. As with all supplements, you will want your doctor to tell you about any health risks, such as effects on conditions you have or medications you are taking.
Keep in mind that although there are some studies on the subject, they tend to be small or limited to the impact on older adults. Plus, everyone’s brain chemistry is unique, so what works for one person may not work for another, D’Adamo says. That said, these four types could hold promise:
L-theanine: This supplement appears to enhance the mental effects of caffeine and counter caffeine– the induced nervousness, says D’Adamo. Research has shown that the combination of caffeine and L-theanine can help you multitask better. The surest way to get this combo is to drink neat green teawhich contains both caffeine and L-theanine, but it is also possible to combine your coffee or tea with an L-theanine supplement.
Don’t take caffeine in pill or powder form, as it’s too easy to overdo it. Caffeine, in excess, can be toxic, causing rapid heart rate and even leading to seizures or death. Just one teaspoon of pure caffeine powder can contain as much caffeine as 28 cups of coffee. The FDA, which has cracked down on makers of pure, highly concentrated caffeine products, notes that the difference between a safe amount and a toxic amount is very small.
CDP-choline: Often prescribed in Europe as a drug, CDP-choline has been shown to help memory, at least in people with dementia caused by vascular problems in the brain. There are no known side effects, so it’s generally considered safe to try.
Creatine Monohydrate: Commonly found in bodybuilding supplements, creatine helps build muscle mass. But studies have also shown that it can improve reasoning skills and short-term memory in healthy people. It increases levels of a molecule called ATP, which leads to more cellular energy, D’Adamo says. “I take it regularly just for energy. It’s very safe.”
Bacopa monnieri: A traditional Indian herb (Ayurvedic), Bacopa monnieri – also known as brahmi – has been suggested by some to help the brain process information faster. It causes the branches of nerve cells (dendrites) to grow, says D’Adamo. He says this process takes some time; expect to wait 4-6 weeks for results.
While combining several of these supplements might seem like a good idea — and many formulas on the market do just that — D’Adamo doesn’t recommend it because most combos haven’t been well-researched. Instead, he suggests trying one or two for a few months, then taking a month off before resuming them or moving on to others. His worry is that you could become tolerant to nootropics (including caffeine), which means you’ll need more and more of them for them to work for you.
As with any dietary supplement, you should also keep in mind that the FDA does not tightly regulate nootropic supplements like it does prescription drugs. Look for reputable brands and trust your body: if you notice any side effects or don’t see improvement within the expected time frame, it’s wise to stop.