Ask Keri: Do Nootropics Really Work to Boost Mental Health and Performance?
Keri says: Nootropics are substances that supposedly give your brain a boost. An umbrella noun, nootropic covers a wide range of substances, from caffeine (which, of course, occurs naturally in coffee and tea) to prescription medications, some of which come with a long list of side effects. Depending on the individual nootropic, it might allegedly improve focus, creativity, memory, alertness, or even intelligence. They became super popular in the last decade.
While some of the substances have been associated with specific results via scientific research, others are promoted for benefits that are largely unproven. In fact, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) coordinated a warning in 2019 to three companies manufacturing nootropics that the agencies believed may have made false or unsubstantiated health claims.
The truth is: Nootropics are a really tricky category to evaluate because they comprise a wide, often unregulated range of substances, from naturally occurring antioxidants to amino acids to prescription drugs. People take them in endless combinations that haven’t been tested.
Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Nootropics, and Who’s Taking Them?
The term refers to any substance that changes your brain function in a way that provides a benefit.
Something as prevalent as caffeine, then, is considered a nootropic, as is L-theanine, a compound in green tea. Herbs like ginkgo biloba qualify, so do adaptogens like ashwagandha.
There are synthetic nootropics like noopept, piracetam and phenotropil. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are also in the mix.
Many nootropic enthusiasts are Silicon Valley biohackers, like Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey. They take various combinations of nootropics to increase their performance at work, experimenting to tighten focus, stay awake and alert, or get creative juices flowing.
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HVMN, a major player in the nootropics market, makes a few different supplements, like Sprint, that promises to put you in “the ideal mental flow state to get the job done.”And of course there’s Moon Juice’s famous Brain Dust.
Do Nootropics Work?
Is there one substance you can start taking tomorrow that research has proven will make your brain work better? Neurology experts who comment on the efficacy of nootropics generally say no.
Instead, there are small bits of information that research has gleaned about each of these substances, but applying limited results to more general outcomes isn’t reliable science. For instance, studies have shown piracetam may improve memory in older patients with cognitive decline, but its effect on young, healthy brains is unknown. In animal studies, noopept has been shown to boost levels of BDNF, a compound that helps with brain cell growth, but again, what that means for healthy human brains isn’t established.
With its supplements, HVMN provides links to studies that back up claims for each ingredient. Ginseng, for example, “helps cognitive performance by reducing the impact of fatigue.” But the effect of taking all these nootropics together or “stacked” is totally unclear. In one leaked study the company commissioned for a formula it was testing, researchers found the formula was “no better than caffeine” at improving cognitive function, although it did make people slightly less jittery.
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Committed nootropic users tell you to keep “stacking” the substances, trying them in different combos in order to figure out what works for you. The idea is that the nootropics accumulate in your system—but all the while, your bank-account balance is depleting.
Meanwhile, some research suggests that cognitive enhancers come with trade-offs, such as affecting learning and memory circuits, especially in young, developing brains. Another study from the National Institutes of Health documented adverse effects in individuals, including two teenagers, with a history of mental challenges, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD.
Boost Brain Power with Natural Nootropics
Bottom line: All of this might make your head hurt more than it helps, just because it’s so complicated. If you’re into biohacking and want to experiment, I don’t see a huge risk, although I’d recommend doing your homework on each substance and consulting with your physician about any supplements you’re interested in trying.
You could easily stick to tried-and-true nootropics like caffeine (in moderate consumption!) and L-theanine (naturally occurring in green tea, which also contains healthy antioxidants!). Another natural option is ginkgo biloba, also called ginkgo leaf (it’s made from dried leaves of the ginkgo tree). A traditional Chinese medicine, the extract has been shown to improve cognition in older adults, according to studies from both the U.S. and Europe.
Above all, don’t forget: Other simpler, less expensive habits are well-established for keeping your brain in tip-top shape: Work on maintaining a healthy gut, eat healthy brain foods, get more sleep, and exercise often.