Enter any supplement store today and you’ll likely find an array of nootropics or "smart drugs" filling the shelves and promising to fire up your brain cells. And if you haven’t seen ads for them yet, you’re sure to be bombarded soon - a report from earlier this year says people around the world spent $1.3 billion on nootropics in 2017 and that number is expected to jump to nearly $6 billion in 2024.
But as with any supplement, it’s best to check in with your doctor before jumping on the bandwagon and stocking your medicine cabinet. So we asked Rahul Jandial M.D., Ph.D., a dual-trained brain surgeon and neuroscientist at City of Hope in Los Angeles and the author of Neurofitness, to give us the scoop on these trendy supplements and tell us if these “smart drugs” are the miracle brain drug we want them to be.
What exactly are nootropics?
Nootropics are commonly referred to as "smart drugs" because they boost brainpower. However, more than 80 different substances can fall under this broad category and they are wildly different and mostly ineffective. They include Adderall for ADHD, psychedelics, and even coffee.
Okay, do nootropics actually work?
Choosing one as a supplement is a muddy picture, but a few nootropics DO work. Most "smart drugs" are stimulants - short-acting chemicals that give you a boost in focus and attention for a few hours.
The nootropics that we have good evidence for, such as Adderall and Modafinil (sometimes used to help people recover from a coma), are prescription drugs. The "smart drugs" that are not prescription-based or illegal have very little evidence suggesting they work.
So will nootropics give me better long-term brainpower?
Improving brain health has only been shown to happen with three things:
Exercise. Cross-train with cardio to get your heart rate up and throw in some light weights for strength-training.
Thinking. Attempt challenging tasks at work or at home and do difficult puzzles or use rigorous brain-training apps.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows getting omega-3s from fish is better than just taking pills, but if fish is too hard to get, prepare, or eat, then the pills are a good second option. Omega-3s are the real "smart drugs" in that you may not feel the effects the day you eat them, but you will be in much better cognitive shape a few years from now than if you had never added them to your diet.
Are nootropics safe?
Any chemical, be it from a plant or made in a laboratory, that changes your brain chemistry can be dangerous - from simple jitters, to outright psychosis from excessive use and the insomnia that comes with it.
What else should people know about "smart drugs"?
The idea of taking something to make us smarter is not new and will only become increasingly relevant as the American population ages. What is new are the medicines we are making in the laboratory that someday may help people with dementia and other brain disorders. What would happen if healthy people took Alzheimer’s medicines (such as when a student studying for a college test illegally takes Adderall)? It is a provocative question and the concept has been highlighted in movies such as Unlimited and Lucy.
Despite the appeal of a shortcut to becoming smarter, the drug already exists inside your skull. The brain is filled with smart chemicals that it releases when the body exercises, the stomach digests healthy food in limited quantity, and when the mind is put to good work. The pharmacy in your mind is the most abundant and safe trove of smart drugs so why not tap into that first and often?
The bottom line: Stick with the time-tested cup of coffee or tea for a short-term boost to your attention, memory, and focus. And eat fish a couple of times a week for those omega-3 fats that help keep your brain connections insulating and firing at youthful speed.
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