We are constantly told that we shouldn’t chase a pill or single solution to make us healthier and that sustainable, long-term health outcomes come from a solid diet, regular exercise, and managing our stress levels.
But that’s not entirely true, is it? Antibiotics come in pill form and help us fight off diseases that might otherwise become much more serious. Travel vaccines prevent disease before they begin. So what if there was a class of substances that could unlock the secrets to higher brain performance, increased productivity and mental agility? Turns out, there might already be.
Nootropics, depending on who you talk to, are either a wonder drug able to unlock the potential of our minds or an unproven fad that have no medical benefit. We thought the topic was worth investigating further.
Brain Enhancers Over Time
Memory enhancers are not a new concept. At various times in history, LSD, cocaine/ and nicotine have all been touted as the keys to help the human brain operate at peak performance. In 2018 millions of employees turn daily to a commonly available neural supplement to ward off tiredness, improve mental acuity and increase productivity in the form of caffeine. The term nootropic is sort of an umbrella term to refer to any mind-enhancing (as opposed to mind-altering) substance.
What Are They?
The most basic definition would be that nootropics are brain enhancing “smart-drugs”. Just as caffeine keeps you awake or the way sugar gives you a temporary energy boost, nootropics are intended as an aid to natural biological processes to achieve the desired result. The key is that they are not naturally occurring in the biological world and are created from other sources through chemical processes.
The first well-documented nootropic was a compound called paracetam, created in Europe in 1964. Since then there have been many similar compounds that have sought to extend on the concept. Some of these are the work of companies that have modern facilities, labs and staff, while others are created by hobbyists and home-based experimenters.
The more common and widely used version of nootropic supplements is amino acids like peptides and supplements like creatine monohydrate which aid memory and brain function. These are widely accepted and included in many vitamin supplements and dietary powders that are available in health food stores and pharmacies without a prescription. The broad explanation is that taking complex amino acids as well as vitamins is like putting higher-octane petrol in your car. It’s the same basic material as you might get from a varied diet, but higher quality and density than is available just through eating.
How Does the Body Work With Them?
The wide range of products now available that are under the umbrella term of “nootropic” makes this question a little tricky to answer. Various therapeutic drug administrations and pharmaceutical regulators have not yet classed nootropics as a separate category of product. The effects on biological processes by these stimulants occur in three primary ways.
The first is by changing how many chemicals the brain has available to use. Put simply, it can be compared with increasing the flow of water through a tap to fill a glass more quickly, with the drug loosening the tap, and the increased flow being “turned off” when the effects wear off.
The second way in which this class of drugs work is by increasing the brain’s supply of oxygen. In many ways the brain is similar to the lungs and heart; more oxygen means higher and longer peak performance.
The final way in which nootropics is alleged to enhance brain function (and the one with the least scientific evidence) is by stimulating new nerve growth. This principle is akin to the process that bodybuilders use to grow muscle, with the protein and carbohydrate supplements they take as aids to increase muscle fibre repair and growth. However, the brain is a much more complex organ than say, a bicep, and as such the stimulation of its nerves using external supplements is yet to be proven in any peer-reviewed (gold standard) study in a recognised academic journal.
Why Aren’t They Common?
Chances are that you have heard of a drug or complex that belongs to the nootropic family, if not the specific term itself. The most well-known portrayal of the concept was in the 2011 Hollywood take on the topic in the Bradley Cooper movie, Limitless, which has since spun off into its own TV show. The fictional drug in that storyline that completely changed the life of its users (for good and bad) was called NZT.
That media attention resulted in numerous feature stories by several well-known magazines, including Rolling Stone, offering different takes on the effects and benefits of using the drugs.
The (Claimed) Benefits
The nootropic family of best supplements share some common characteristics. The first and most sought-after benefit is the twin increases in learning ability and the capacity to recall that learned information when using nootropics. These benefits have led to the drugs being variously referred to as “smart drugs” or “anti-procrastination drugs”. The benefit is especially sought after as it doesn’t change the basic capacity of the individual using it. It merely unlocks the potential brain power and focus that the person already possesses.
The next benefit is directly related to the earlier one, in that the drugs enhance learned behaviours in cases where distractions are known. Take this example. You decide that you will go to the gym and work out four times a week. However, at the end of the first month, you have only gone about half of the time because tiredness, laziness, and a lack of motivation all got in the way. The following month you decide to get a wake-up call, a training partner, and a personal trainer to improve your performance. The result is that you attend and swim your laps over 95% of the time. The nootropic effect is akin to the scenario in the second month. Your learned behaviours are enhanced and supported by the function of the drug to the benefit of the goal that requires your mental energy.
The third broad benefit is the increase in the quality of the tasks that can be produced when the drug is used to supplement natural ability. This refers back to the old maxim that results from equal effort multiplied by ability. If your effort remains constant, the corresponding increase in ability that is provided by nootropic drugs would therefore increase your results.
The fourth advantage gained from the use of nootropic drugs is the quantity of work that can be achieved when using the medication. While many supplements for men including caffeine, sugar, taurine, and guarana can keep a user awake, the benefit of nootropic drugs is that they achieve this goal while leaving the user mentally clear and alert, unlike the other supplements which can result in jitteriness, confusion, and sudden drop-offs in effect. It is for this reason that certain types of nootropic agents may have been used as supplements for military personnel.
The final effect that is associated with nootropics that is an undoubted benefit, both in a standalone sense and in comparison with other mental enhancers, is that by and large, they are non-toxic and non-addictive. The non-toxicity should be qualified by stating that all inputs into the body have some level of toxicity, and therefore nootropics can be understood as being on the very low end of the toxicity spectrum. This is related to the fact that unlike other pharmacological agents that produce the same effects, nootropics are not psychotropic, meaning that they do not result in the same side effects of overactive motor stimulation of the eyes, limbs and brain as well as the “come down” effects of sedation. Also related to the pharmacological effects is the low addiction rate of the supplements when compared to other pharmaceutical agents and illicit drugs.
Risks and Downsides
One of the main unknowns in relation to nootropic use is the light regulation that is associated with it. This stems from the term nootropic actually referring to a wide range of memory and cognitive enhancers, rather than a class of drugs with a similar origin. Because of this, drugs regulators place rules on some nootropics but not others, depending on what drug family they belong to.
For example, the drug Modanifil is a prescription-only medication that is given to narcoleptics (a disorder where a person falls asleep without having any control over it), as well as military pilots flying long-haul missions that require them to be both awake and alert for 12-18 hour stretches. On the other end of the spectrum, basic amino acid nootropics, as well as more “garden variety” supplements such as iodine and creatine, occur naturally in food, and more concentrated forms can be obtained in powder and tablet form over the counter at health food shops and nutrition websites.
Another risk associated with nootropic use is the interaction with other medications. All inputs into the body will have different influences, and the pathways and organs which they affect to achieve their goals are complex. For this reason, nootropic use in conjunction with other prescription drug use, supplements, or illicit drugs should be highly cautionary as the complex interactions can have serious side effects on health.
As with all things that seem too good to be true, chances are nootropics are not the sure-fire shortcut to a sharper, healthier you. The lack of regulation and lack of high-quality research on the topic seems to tend toward the conclusion that the class of enhancers are either overhyped or largely ineffective. The biggest turnoff to their use though is the fact that the gains are not sustainable and rely on constant supplementation to maintain the effects.