Nootropics vs. Smart Drugs: Brain Boosting Supplements?
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Seems humans have always been in a constant search for the silver bullet or magic pill to make us faster, stronger, and smarter. Sure, there are more difficult and time-consuming ways of getting these things done, usually with training and education. But people are fascinated (and dare I say obsessed?) with the search for a substance or “hack” that will make it easier.
While this is an age-old search, today we have different options that are gaining popularity. Smart drugs and nootropics, as they’re called, are still widely unknown to the general population. That includes both benefits (and risks) that they may have.
The movie “Limitless” drew interest in these types of substances because the main character finds a smart drug that allows him to have a superhuman brain. But then he goes on to face the unintended consequences of the drug.
Do you want to be “limitless?” Well, let’s explore the ups and downs of these nootropic supplements and cognitive enhancers.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics and smart drugs are substances that enhance cognitive performance in some way. They can be herbs, higher-dose vitamins or minerals, food-derived, or manmade. Nootropics can come in many forms, including:
- Nootropic supplements (such as ginkgo biloba, B vitamins, rhodiola rosea, and l-theanine)
- Prescription “smart drugs” (including Adderall, Ritalin, Selegeline, and other amphetamines)
- Foods (like coffee, coconut oil, MCT oil, green tea, and omega-3 fatty acids)
To be considered a nootropic (which “smart drugs” fall under), a substance must fulfill five criteria. Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, a psychologist and chemist, is the first who coined the term. His criteria are:
- The substance should enhance the brain in some way.
- It should improve cognitive performance under stress (such as electrical shock or oxygen deprivation).
- Have protective properties that defend the brain against other harmful substances.
- It should increase the way that the brain’s neurons and neurotransmitters communicate and act in the cortical and subcortical regions.
- It should be non-toxic and have no harmful side effects.
Seems like a tall order, huh?
Weighing the Options
As you can imagine, this limits the number of substances that technically meet the definition of “nootropics.” As Bradley Cooper’s character found in the movie “Limitless,” substances that offer incredible benefit and seem too good to be true often are.
The terms “nootropic” and “smart drug” are often used to refer to any substance, supplement, or chemical that improves cognitive performance in some way. But many of these substances do have side effects. That means they do not meet all of the technical criteria for being a nootropic.
The two terms—nootropics and smart drugs—are often used interchangeably. But there are important differences in their mechanisms and safety.
What Are Smart Drugs?
Smart drugs are typically prescription drugs that are used to improve mental sharpness or brain function in some way. They may be prescribed medications for a certain condition, like ADHD, or they may be used for off-label purposes.
- Adderall (amphetamines) and Ritalin (methylphenidate) are both psychotropic medications that are used for ADD or ADHD to improve cognitive performance by regulating neurotransmitter functions. They may also be used in people who do not have these specific diagnoses, but feel they need support for clearer thinking and better brain organization.
- Piracetam, a type of racetam substance, is another example that may be used for cognitive enhancement. It is typically used to treat muscle spasms, but has also found use as a smart drug since it is available over-the-counter in the U.S. as a compound—not a supplement, but not a drug either. In many other countries, it requires a prescription.
- Provigil (modafinil) is a stimulant drug that is typically used for treating narcolepsy or sleep apnea, but may also have off-label use for cognitive impairment. Ben Greenfield talked about this in one of his podcasts, and noted that even if a smart drug can improve brain function, if it has side effects (as nearly every smart drug does) it’s not actually a nootropic.
I saw firsthand how these types of prescription medications could be abused when I was in a highly competitive honors program in college. Students weren’t just trying to improve cognition, they were trying to be smarter and more focused while also sleeping less. I also saw how these could affect people with misuse and as the drugs wore off, with insomnia, irritability, and even dependence.
I’ve always stayed away from smart drugs because while they offer some potentially impressive benefits, they also tend to come with side effects. I have always preferred natural options whenever possible. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve also always assumed the best way to improve my cognitive performance is to regularly challenge my mind—without the need for pharmaceutical assistance!
Benefits of Nootropics
I can honestly say that I’m excited about what nootropics can offer based on the thorough and promising scientific research available. We can all use a leg up in life (moms especially!) so as the research develops I’ve become more and more open to nootropics as a health tool.
Many of us moms use substances that affect the brain daily anyway, especially caffeine and sugar. I wanted to see if there were other natural ways to improve energy and brain performance.
Natural nootropics work to boost brain function and also improve your brain’s health. So you’re not sacrificing better function now for consequences later. They actually work by dilating the small arteries and veins in the brain. This leads to increased circulation, nutrient delivery, and oxygen flow in the brain. All of these are important to promote anti-aging benefits, too.
Note that even natural substances that improve cognition do have an effect on the brain. While there isn’t a single way that they work, most affect the brain by changing the neurotransmitters or hormones in the brain. It goes without saying that it is vitally important to ensure the safety of any substance and check with a doctor before using anything that may affect the mind in this way.
Deciding Which Nootropics to Try
I stuck to substances that seemed to meet the actual definition of “nootropics.” I wanted benefits and cognitive protection without the negative side effects. I found several that seemed to be very effective.
Types of Nootropics
Many types of substances get lumped into the broad category of “nootropics” or “smart drugs,” though not all of them technically meet the criteria. That said, there are several classes of herbs, supplements, and even foods that seem to improve cognition.
These are natural substances that help the body handle stress. They may also:
- Help improve cognition
- Reduce fatigue
- Increase memory
Examples include herbs like ginseng, maca, ginkgo biloba, and cordyceps.
Adaptogens have a balancing effect on the brain. They are not stimulants and they don’t induce sleep, but they can have those effects depending on what your brain needs. Some people take ashwagandha, an herb that is both a nootropic and an adaptogen, and it can make them sleepy—if they’ve been too stressed to relax enough to rest. Others could take it and feel more alert if their stress has been making their brain feel tired and sluggish.
Also, adaptogens literally help the body to adapt to the circumstances at hand. Since stress and exhaustion are two factors that can greatly decrease cognitive ability, it makes sense that adaptogens may improve brain performance by balancing the body and reducing stress.
Some of the most common adaptogens are:
Keep in mind that some adaptogens, like ashwagandha, are not recommended for people with Hashimotos. This is because they can stimulate the immune system enough to potentially worsen antibody levels.
What I did: I personally tried maca and cordyceps (when I wasn’t pregnant or nursing) with good results. I drank a coffee that contained cordyceps extract and used a maca and greens powder.
Nature provides many natural foods and herbs that support the body in various ways, including supporting brain health (with or without side effects). Popular substances that we know affect the brain include caffeine and high doses of certain amino acids or herbs.
These are my go-to brain boosters, as most foods are generally considered safe (even while pregnant/nursing). They support and nourish the body in other ways as well. The best option for ensuring optimal brain performance and overall health is to consume a nourishing and varied diet. When I need a brain boost, I am more intentional about adding these foods:
A Note on Coffee
Coffee is the only nootropic food that is essentially dose-dependent. In smaller amounts, it can lead to increased focus and optimized brain function. But if you take in too much caffeine, you may get jittery, feel anxious, or experience other side effects. This would negate the nootropic benefit.
Caffeine as a supplement is also risky and not considered to be a nootropic. It would be classed as a psychoactive substance with too many potential risks since they are not dose-regulated.
Nootropic Supplement Blends
Much less often, I’ve used specific nootropic supplements designed to improve mental performance. I tried quite a few and only saw results without side effects from a couple of them.
The first is called Alpha Brain, an herbal nootropic supplement designed to increase focus and concentration. I noticed that it helped my energy and focus much more than coffee without making me jittery as coffee can at times.
Dave Asprey introduced me to this supplement and I was amazed at how effective it was for me. It is essentially a “nootropic stack” meaning a combination of herbs that are designed specifically to support the brain. I would take this supplement on days that I needed to be able to concentrate on writing or meet deadlines. I noticed a big difference in focus and concentration.
When I wasn’t pregnant or nursing, I would often alternate these supplements a couple of times a week with good results.
This supplement increases cerebral blood flow, thus enhancing nutrient delivery. It is made from the Periwinkle plant and without side effects. Vinpocetine is most effective when taken on an empty stomach. I haven’t tried this one personally.
This substance, derived from Chinese Club Moss, raises acetylcholine levels. Acetylcholine serves as a major neurotransmitter and cellular communication molecule. It is important for muscular contractions to occur as well. This is another one I don’t have personal experience with.
Should You Try Nootropics?
The answer depends on what you’re looking for and your stage of life. Smart drugs aside (since you can’t or shouldn’t get these without your doctor’s approval), most nootropic supplementation won’t be considered safe in the context of trying to conceive, pregnancy, or breastfeeding. If that’s where you are, best to save the idea for a different stage of life.
While most people assume that supplements are “safe” because they’re natural, most medications and supplements use the same pathway in the body to be metabolized and put to use. So, if you’re taking several different supplements, or some supplements with medications, it’s a good idea to run it by your provider. Some supplement combinations can have some potentially serious risks for liver or kidney health.
If you have none of the above concerns, healthy individuals should still remember that the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements for effectiveness. Ask your healthcare provider or alternative medicine specialist for trusted brand recommendations. You can also use ConsumerLab.com or look for other third-party certifications and testing to verify which supplements are high-quality.
The Bottom Line
Nootropics aren’t a magic bullet and they won’t create superhuman abilities as they seem to in movies. There are some natural substances that may help improve brain performance.
Smart drugs, on the other hand, have potentially dangerous side effects (especially when used off-label or by someone they were not prescribed to) and should generally be avoided, especially without the oversight of a trained doctor or medical professional.
If you’re ready to keep learning more, I highly recommend this podcast I recorded with Dr. Ted Achacoso.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Ernesto “E” Gutierrez. Dr. E is a physician by training and an educator by choice. His training background includes an MD degree and additional degrees in Age Management and Regenerative Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Ever tried any nootropics or smart drugs? What did you think? Share below!
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