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Nootropics — the facts

13 October 2020 in Health

Contents

Written by: Alex Bussey
Edited by: Meera Senthilingam
Reviewed by the Your.MD medical team

Nootropics are natural or man-made substances that are supposed to boost your brain power.

Sometimes called ‘smart drugs’, you may have heard that taking nootropics can help you focus or improve your memory, creativity or motivation.

They’re becoming increasingly popular as people try to better themselves, but do they actually work? And what’s the evidence to support their use?

What are nootropics?

There are 3 main types of nootropic:

1. Supplements

These often contain mushroom extracts, omega-3 fish oils, B vitamins or herbs that are supposed to improve the way your brain works. They’re often sold as tablets, but you may also see nootropic powders or drinks for sale online.

2. Prescription medications

These include drugs like methylphenidate, which is normally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or modafinil, which is designed to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy. Some people think that taking these drugs will improve their focus or make them more intelligent.

3. Caffeine

Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in tea and coffee. You can also buy caffeine pills or energy drinks that provide a higher concentration of caffeine. People take caffeine because it makes them feel more alert and active, but some people also believe that taking large amounts will increase their concentration or improve their memory.

Tired woman sitting at a laptop and rubbing her eyes

Do nootropics work — and are they safe?

Prescription medications

Prescription medications like modafinil and methylphenidate are generally good at treating the conditions they were developed for. But it’s harder to say whether they can help healthy people to think faster or focus better.

There’s some (limited) evidence that taking modafinil can make you feel more alert given it’s a treatment for narcolepsy. But most studies are small, which means that it’s difficult to say whether their results are accurate or reliable.

These medications are also known to cause a range of negative side effects.

Medications like methylphenidate improve concentration in people who have a pre-existing condition like ADHD. But there’s no evidence to suggest that they can help healthy people in the same way.

The American Medical Association also warns that prescription medications can have serious side effects if they’re not used correctly. Some of them force your brain to release too much dopamine, which can make you distractible or lead to long-term problems with addictive behaviours.

Are ADHD medications safe?

Most of the medication-based nootropics are safe if they are used to treat the conditions they’re intended for and under a doctor’s supervision. But using them without a prescription could be dangerous.

Man with insomnia and trouble sleeping sitting up in bed underneath a sheet

Common side effects of ADHD medications like methylphenidate include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • increased blood pressure
  • headaches
  • stomach aches
  • loss of appetite
  • mood swings

Less common side effects include chest pain, fatigue, muscle spasms, hallucinations, tremors and psychosis.

These drugs can also be addictive and some experts worry that long-term use could permanently change your brain chemistry.

Are narcolepsy medications safe?

Research into the long-term side effects of narcolepsy medications like modafinil is still limited and experts warn that it’s unsafe to take them unless you’re being supervised by a doctor.

Short-term side effects of modafinil are known to include:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • chest pains
  • nervousness
  • insomnia
  • nausea

nootropic mushroom tea or coffee in a glass mug

Nootropic supplements

Nootropic supplements often contain ingredients like L-theanine, which is a natural amino acid found in tea and some mushrooms. Other popular examples include omega-3 fish oils and herbs like ginkgo biloba or Brahmi.

Some of these ingredients are thought to increase blood flow to the brain, which may allow your brain to use more oxygen.

Others are thought to increase your body’s adrenaline levels, or promote the release of dopamine — a feel-good chemical that can make you feel motivated and happy.

There’s some (limited) research to support these ideas, but research into nootropic supplements is relatively new. Most studies are small and more structured research is needed to understand how effective they may be.

This makes it difficult to say whether these supplements will actually make you feel more motivated, creative or focused.

Are supplements safe?

Experts say that nootropic supplements aren’t regulated in the same way that most medications are, which means their safety hasn’t been examined properly.

If you’re thinking of taking a nootropic substance, it’s best to talk with a doctor first.

Close-up of coffee being poured from mocha pot into mug

Caffeine

Caffeine can make you feel more alert or wake you up if you’re feeling drowsy. But there’s less evidence to support the idea that caffeine can improve your memory — or help you concentrate on complicated tasks.

Experts also warn that having more than 600mg of coffee a day can increase your risk of:

  • insomnia
  • nervousness
  • irritability
  • high blood pressure

Is caffeine safe?

Caffeine is generally safe, but drinking a lot of caffeine every day can cause long-term complications like high blood pressure.

Caffeine can also suppress your appetite and experts warn that mixing it with other stimulant drugs can increase your risk of heart problems.

You normally need a prescription to buy medications like modafinil or methylphenidate. Taking them without a prescription may be dangerous.

Herbal supplements are legal in many countries, but it’s important to remember that they’re often unregulated. This means that you can’t be 100% sure what you’re buying.

If you’re struggling to concentrate or you feel tired a lot of the time, speak to a doctor. They'll be able to rule out an underlying medical condition, and talk to you about safe ways to boost your energy.

Key points

  • there are 3 main types of nootropic; herbal supplements, prescription medicines like modafinil, and caffeine
  • small studies show that some nootropics can make you feel more alert, but there isn’t much evidence that they boost your brain or make you more intelligent
  • some nootropics can have dangerous side effects and could become addictive
  • nootropic supplements are often unregulated, which means they might not have been tested properly
  • speak to a doctor before taking a nootropic, they will be able to advise you about any safety risks
Article Sources

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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