Smart Drugs: What Are Nootropics?
As you can probably tell from the title of this piece, this article will tackle the subject of nootropics – a topic that appears to be hot on the lips of all and sundry given their purported ability to make you smart.
But are these’ smart drugs’ actually capable of boosting your intelligence? Is there any scientific evidence to back up the claims of nootropic dietary supplements? And what type of nootropics are currently on the market?
Well, in the proceeding information, we’ll answer all the above question and explore nootropics aka ‘smart drugs’ using scientific evidence as a basis for this discussion.
Nootropics: A Brief Introduction
Often referred to as cognitive enhancers or memory-boosting substances, nootropics aka ‘smart drugs’ are a class of prescription or non-prescription compounds that can boost brain performance.
The former (prescription) nootropics are typically medications that have stimulant-like effects and are used to counteract the symptoms of conditions such as Alzheimer’s diseases, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and narcolepsy.
The latter (non-prescription) are substances that may boost cognitive function, performance or focus, examples of which are creatine, caffeine and omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds do not treat the aforementioned conditions but may induce positive effects where memory, thinking and general brain performance is concerned.
Prescription’ Smart Drugs’
As mentioned above, doctors prescribe nootropics to treat a plethora of medical conditions. Typically, the compound found in prescription nootropics is a form of stimulant, such as an amphetamine, which are used commonly used to treat neurodegenerative disease such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, in addition to other brain-related conditions such as narcolepsy and ADHD.
Examples of the most commonly prescribed are:
Adderall – a form of amphetamine used to treat ADHD.
Modafinil – a form of stimulant used to counteract narcolepsy-induced drowsiness.
Ritalin (methylphenidate) – another form of stimulant used to treat both ADHD and narcolepsy.
As is the case with any prescription medication, there is a risk of side effects and, therefore, prescription nootropics should never be consumed without a prescription and should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Potential side effects include:
– Ocular and vision problems.
– Increased heart rate.
– Increased blood pressure.
Furthermore, research indicates that people using prescription nootropics to enhance cognitive function (without a prescription) have an increased risk of impulsive behaviours1. The extent of the risk will depend on the compound(s) ingested and individual tolerance to said compounds, but it is imperative that those taking ‘smart drugs’ off prescription are aware of the dangers they face.
Natural/Over-the-Counter’ Smart Drugs’
Given the rise in popularity of prescription nootropics over the last five years, it is no surprise that a slew of over-the-counter and natural ‘smart drugs’ have entered the market and become easily accessible to everyone. Therefore, it is crucial to discuss the most commonly available and used nootropics to give you a clear indication of what they can and can’t do.
Natural or synthetic over-the-counter products do not require a prescription and are typically described as supplements that can help to enhance cognitive performance. Let’s take a look at eight readily available ‘smart drugs’ and delve into the science behind them.
By far and away, the most popular nootropic is caffeine, which is consumed by millions upon millions of people across the globe every day for its stimulant effects. Research has indicated that daily consumption of caffeine I safe for the majority of people provided that is ingested in low to moderate quantities2.
However, consuming high levels of caffeine may pose certain risks and will increase the risk of caffeine-related side effects, such as increased heart rate and insomnia. According to the FDA, 400mg of caffeine is the recommended upper limit for caffeine consumption, which is around five cups of coffee. Supplements that contain caffeine either as the sole ingredient or as a blend of ingredients, often include excessive amounts of this potent stimulant, and, therefore, caution is advised when consuming any supplement that contains caffeine.
Furthermore, pregnant women should decrease their consumption of caffeine or avoid it entirely. Research has shown that consumption of four or more servings of caffeine per day is associated with a higher risk of miscarriage3.
A nootropic that isn’t well-known, but one that many of us will consume on a daily basis without realising. L-theanine is a non-essential amino acid that is most commonly found in both green and black teas, as well as a myriad of health supplements.
Research has indicated that L-theanine may boost alpha waves in the brain, which induce a relaxed and calm, yet alert state of mind4. In addition, further studies have found that combining l-theanine with caffeine can help to enhance levels of alertness and cognitive performance5. However, if consuming l-theanine alongside caffeine, always ensure that caffeine dosing guidelines are followed (as per the above section on caffeine). At this time, there are no official guidelines for l-theanine dosing; however, most experts recommend between 75m-450mg per day.
If there’s one supplement that is synonymous with health, it’s omega-3. Long have we know about the myriad of overall health benefits that omega-3 fatty acids offer, but do they have any impact on brain health, performance and mental state?
A review published in 2015 found that omega-3 fatty acids can help to protect the brain against ageing6, with additional research suggesting omega-3 fatty acids are also vital for building membranes around cells (which helps to protect, repair and renew brain cells) and overall brain function7.
On the flip-side, however, a large analyst of studies into the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive function found that “Direct evidence is lacking on the effect of omega-3 PUFAs on incident dementia… Available trials showed no benefit of omega-3 PUFA supplementation on cognitive function in healthy older people.”. However, researchers did state that further long-term studies were needed to identify a greater chance in cognitive function8.
A tree native to several countries in Asia, including Korea, China and Japan, Gingko Biloba is a herbal supplement that has been for centuries across many parts of Asia and more recently the Western world.
Research into the effects of Gingko Biloba is limited, but a handful of studies do exist.
A study published in 2016 concluded that “Ginkgo Biloba’s potentially beneficial for the improvement of cognitive function, activities of daily living, and global clinical assessment in patients with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. However…more research is warranted to the effectiveness and safety of Ginkgo Biloba in treating mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”9.
A review of studies published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2017 concluded that “GbE [Ginkgo Biloba extract] has potentially beneficial effects for people with dementia when it administered at doses greater than 200mg/day for at least five months.”10. However, the authors of the review did state that further research is required to certain the long-term safety and efficacy of Ginkgo Biloba.
Akin to Ginkgo Biloba, panel ginseng – or ginseng for short (although it should not be confused with other types of ginseng) – is a herbal supplement of Asian-origin that has been used in China and across Siberia for many centuries for its purported medicinal effects.
Research published in 2018 in the Journal of Ginseng Research discovered that consumption of Panax ginseng may help to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s diseases and Huntingdon’s disease, and may also enhance record after a stroke11.
If you’re at all au fait with the world of bodybuilding, weightlifting or athletic performance enhancement, you’ll be aware of creatine and how effective it is at boosting muscle strength and promoting the accrual of lean muscle mass. However, this potent performance-enhancing amino acid may also have a positive effect on cognitive function.
A review of creatine studies published in 2018 in the Experimental Gerontology journal concluded that “Oral creatine administration may improve short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning of healthy individuals, but its effect on other cognitive domains remains unclear.”12.
If you are considering taking creatine as a nootropic, the International Society of Sports Nutrition has deemed that creatine supplementation of 25 grams per day for five years is safe in healthy people13. However, a further review has noted that there is limited research into the effects of creatine supplementation on adolescents14.
Smart Drugs: Are Nootropics Effective at Boosting Cognitive Function?
From the above evidence, it is clear that there is a small amount of research that suggests over-the-counter nootropics may have a positive effect on cognition and brain health. However, it is also evident that prescription’ smart drugs’ shouldn’t be unless prescribed by a doctor, and that any form of nootropic should not be solely relied upon for cognitive health and function. Instead, a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutrient-rich diet, frequent exercise, as little stress as possible and a consistent sleeping pattern, is the best way to stave of neurological decline.
Always consult a healthcare professional prior to beginning supplementation with an over-the-counter nootropic.
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