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Nootropics 101: Are they Actually Worth it?

Photo of man with a pill on his tongue

On the surface, nootropics– also called smart drugs– sound like something out of a science fiction movie. They are drugs designed to improve creativity, focus, energy, alertness, and problem-solving skills without any medical indication (meaning, without being prescribed for a specific medical condition). The concept is alluring: you take a pill and suddenly you're able to think clearer and accomplish more. It sounds too good to be true, but is it?

In pop-culture, these drugs are often associated with tech entrepreneurs and students. It's not uncommon, especially on college campuses, to hear about folks illegally abusing medications like Adderall during exam season, but that's not necessarily what we're talking about. Adderall is a prescription drug designed to treat ADHD, meaning that it's created with an intended medical indication. Instead, let's take a look at drugs like Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Lion's Mane, and Huperzine A. These are readily available for purchase and are often branded as substances you can take to increase your alertness and other mental faculties.

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Nootropics comprise a billion-dollar industry in the United States as folks are quick to try to increase their productivity and output while decreasing their effort. Even though some folks swear by them, research is a bit mixed. For starters, very few nootropics have been approved by the FDA as substances that are shown to increase mental acuity. Research around the efficacy of nootropics shows mixed results at best, making it difficult to validate whether or not they're entirely effective. 

So, let's start by taking a look at what we do know about nootropics.

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics, also called smart drugs, are drugs, substances, or medicines created with the aim to improve the cognitive functions of healthy subjects in particular memory, attention, creativity, and intelligence (intended as problem-solving ability) in the absence of any medical indication (Frati, Kyriakou, et al 2015).

Common over-the-counter nootropics include Aniracetam, Oxiracetam, Lion's Mane, and Huperzine A. While there is some evidence to indicate that these substances have a positive effect no mental faculties, they are not approved by the FDA and most studies promoting their functionality are not controlled, double-blind tests. 

What do Nootropics do?

Nootropics are designed to stimulate your brain's production, uptake, and release of key neurotransmitters that are associated with learning, memory, focus, and mood. 

As explained by Suliman, Taib, et al.

Natural nootropics have been disclosed to stimulate the release of dopamine, uptake of choline, cholinergic transmission, function of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionate (AMPA) receptor, turnover of phosphatidylinositol, and activity of phosphatase A2 []. Some of the natural nootropics act as a positive allosteric modulator for acetylcholine or glutamate receptor []. The release of neurotransmitter [] and the increase activity of neurotransmitter [] induced by natural nootropics facilitate the long-term potential (LTP) and improve synaptic transmission.

What are the Side Effects of Nootropics?

Nootropics come with a plethora of possible side effects. Most commonly, nootropics can cause elevated heart rate, insomnia or trouble sleeping, elevated blood pressure, and blurry vision. 

In a 2017 article for Vice, writer Sam Nichols tested five of the internet's most commonly promoted nootropics and compared them against his baseline mental performance. While his results did little to affirm the effectiveness of nootropics, he did point out that the side effects aren't discussed enough and the negative effects outweighed some of the benefits that he experienced. Chief among his concerns with the side effects was the fact that most of the substances he tested made it difficult for him to sleep at night when following the recommended dosage. Additionally, some of the substances tested left him feeling hungover the next day– if you've ever tried to focus or work while hungover, you know that that's the exact opposite of "increased mental acuity." 

Are Nootropics Worth It? 

In my opinion, no. 

Based upon the research available to us, it seems that the positive effects of nootropics are somewhat minimal. On top of that, because nootropics aren't regulated and approved by the FDA, it can be difficult to know for-sure what you're actually buying. Brands love to embrace "proprietary blends" that mask compound ratios and leverage the placebo effect. Many of the readily available nootropic substances on the market are just caffeine that is fortified with proprietary herbal or chemical blends. 

For better and more sustainable results, try getting adequate rest, being hydrated, practicing mindfulness, and having a good ol' cup of coffee. You may respond well to nootropics or be particularly susceptible to the power of suggestion, but given the side effects, the cons seem to outweigh the benefits. 

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I see focus and personal development as being similar to getting in shape. While you may be able to medicate or leverage supplements to shortcut some of your progress, if you want sustainable, long-term results, there's no alternative to putting in the work. You can't abuse your body and mind repeatedly and then expect a pill to remedy your shortcomings. 


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