What's The Deal With Nootropics?

In 2021, a worldwide Gallup poll found that four in 10 adults experienced high stress. According to American Addiction Centers, 88% of college students described their school life as stressful, citing exams and tuition fees as the biggest stressors. On the work front, more than four out of 10 workers said their work anxiety has hiked due to pandemic-related stress, per a 2022 EU-OSHA workers' survey. Obviously, stress is becoming a global pandemic.

Stress is a common reaction in the face of a new or challenging situation. But when your stress is out of control, your cognition, attention, and memory can take a hit, says Professor Jill Goldstein from Harvard Medical School. When you're under more mental and emotional strain than you can handle, you'll often feel forgetful, tired, and unproductive. While there are methods to help people cope with day-to-day stress long-term — say meditation and therapies — most people still prefer a quick fix for reducing drowsiness and delivering an instant boost in brain power. That's probably why nootropics, also known as brain boosters or smart drugs, are all the rage for teenagers and adults. Commonly found in the form of dietary supplements, energy beverages, and nutraceuticals, these substances claim to enhance mental alertness and energy quickly to help you keep up with intense cognitive demands at hand. 

Here's what to know about nootropics and whether they really live up to their claims. 

What are nootropics?

According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, nootropics are an assorted group of substances that positively impact cognitive functions and are thus predominantly used for treating conditions related to mental deficits. Etymology-wise, nootropics is derived from two Greek words: "nóos" and "tropéō," which essentially mean "mind" and "bend or turn," respectively.

Nootropics are available in two forms: natural and synthetic. These compounds keep the mind sharp by enhancing the oxygen and glycogen supply within the brain to counter hypoxia and protect the organ from neurotoxicity. Prescription nootropics are often used for treating acute or subacute conditions such as first-stage brain damage, memory loss, inadequate intellectual and adaptive functioning, and qualitative changes in consciousness. In many instances, they are proven effective in warding off age-related mental declines. Prescription nootropics are often found in medications for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer's.

To college students, athletes, or professionals working in creative or mentally taxing jobs, non-prescription nootropics are the go-to "smart drugs" for an instant boost in brain power and competitive cognition to power through heavy workloads and stressful situations. Most nootropics are usually well-tolerated and might require a prolonged period of use to produce results.  

Types of nootropics

Available by prescription and over the counter, nootropics can be divided into three main types: prescription medications, synthetic compounds, and dietary supplements, according to WebMD

Prescription nootropics help manage the symptoms of mental health conditions such as ADHD, narcolepsy, and dementia. According to Medical News Today, some examples of prescription nootropics include Adderal — an amphetamine that helps manage symptoms of ADHD; Ritalin (methylphenidate) — a stimulant commonly used in the treatment of ADHD and Alzheimer's; Memantine — a widely prescribed medication for moderate to severe Alzheimer's conditions; and Provigil (modafinil) — a stimulant that aids in the reduction of drowsiness in sleep-deprived patients.

Created in a lab, synthetic nootropics are more tightly regulated and have more targeted effects than natural nootropics like caffeine or Panax ginseng, per Neuropedia. In the U.S., over-the-counter nootropics target particular cognitive benefits, including improved focus, memory, and attention. TeaCrine®, AlphaGrain®, Dynamine®, and Sucrisomial Zinc® are some examples of synthetic nootropics. 

Dietary supplements are commonly understood as natural supplements that boast nootropic effects. They can be found in the food and beverages you use daily. For instance, caffeine is considered a natural nootropic that boosts alertness. Herbal ginkgo biloba is well-known for enhancing brain health and negating brain fog symptoms, per Australian Natural Drinks Co. Due to their benefits for the brain, Omega-3s have also been considered a type of nootropics. L-theanine in green or black teas and creatine are also effective cognitive enhancers.

Benefits of nootropics

There's evidence that nootropics can support work productivity and boost memory. For instance, a 2014 study published in The Journal of Neurology and Neurophysiology found that ginkgo biloba, when used in combination with piracetam, has a significant effect on boosting working memory, which is the short-term memory that allows our brain to retain a small amount of information to be used in the execution of cognitive tasks.

Certain nootropics are also shown to improve athletic performance. According to MindLabPro, many athletes are starved of sleep, which takes a toll on their energy levels and compromises athletic performances. What's terrific about nootropics is that they don't just spike energy quickly; they also safely augment stamina and support a healthy anabolic metabolism. By modulating the stress hormone response and lessening the damaging effects of oxidative stress, adaptogen and antioxidant nootropics may aid in reducing stress in athletes. Natural nootropics are generally acceptable for athletes to use as performance boosters, but lab-created stimulants, especially those that require a prescription, are typically prohibited for usage during competition.

Also, several studies revealed that specific nootropics enhance creativity and reduce anxiety. A single dose of AlphaWave® L-Theanine, for instance, could dramatically improve alpha activity in frontal brain regions — which is linked to creativity — compared to a placebo in reaction to acute stress, according to a randomized 2021 study published in the journal Neurology and Therapy. These changes are also suggestive of nootropics' brain-relaxing power.

The relation between nootropics and weight loss

If you've been trying to shed some pounds but you're constantly struggling to stay on track with your goals, nootropics can help. Although nootropics cannot impact your metabolism in a way that causes you to lose weight instantly, they can give you the internal motivation, alertness, and attention you need to get excited about working out again, according to Performance Lab®.

For those on a diet, consider making nootropics your next best friend. Nootropics can decrease food cravings by boosting serotonin levels, which enhance the sensation of fullness and inhibit hunger hormones, according to Nootropicology. Some of the most popular and well-researched nootropics for appetite suppression are 5-hTP, vinpocetine, and huperzine A, available as over-the-counter supplements.

One recommended way to diet on nootropics is to take them 30 to 60 minutes before meals, on an empty stomach, with lots of water. If you're taking a mixture of nootropics, take them at various intervals throughout the day. For instance, huperzine A can be taken in the evening, and 5-hTP and vinpocetine can be taken together in the morning.

Although over-the-counter nootropics are generally well-tolerated, more large-scale research must confirm their long-term benefits. If you take nootropic supplements, consult your doctor first to minimize hazardous side effects. This is especially important if you're on certain medications; some substances can cause unwanted side effects when used together. 

Potential risks of nootropics

Although nootropics promise an easy way to regain laser focus and boost productivity, they are not without potential side effects. According to ADDitude, nootropics for treating ADHD, such as Adderall and Ritalin, can lead to sleep disorders, loss of appetite, and involuntary muscular contractions.

According to a 2018 study published in ​The Journal of Addiction Medicine, non-medical use of prescription stimulants, which is prevalent among young adults, might lead to an increase in impulsive behaviors, such as drug use, gambling, anxiety,  post-traumatic stress disorder, poor academic performance, and potentially risky sexual behaviors.

Panax ginseng, a popular adaptogen with nootropic effect, is possibly unsafe when taken for more than six months and is not recommended for pregnant women and little children, according to WebMD. Some reactions to watch out for include sleeping disturbances, severe rash, liver damage, and allergies.

Despite their usefulness in improving mental conditions, nootropics should not be used indiscriminately. If you are pregnant or you have an existing mental health condition, it is best to consult a physician or other healthcare professional beforehand to get expert advice on a drug's potential side effects and safer alternatives in the long run. Even when using an over-the-counter nootropic, err on the side of caution and only ingest the recommended dose as stated on the product's packaging to avoid encountering unwanted side effects.