What are nootropics?
Nootropics are typically supplements that aim to assist with cognitive function, focus, memory, relaxation or mood. They vary widely in makeup from brand-to-brand and accordingly, their purported effects can vary.
The most commonly consumed nootropic is probably one you are already using – caffeine! But the term is usually associated with modern, synthetic drugs that combine various chemicals to produce the aforementioned effects.
Who created nootropics?
The term nootropic was created by Dr Corneliu Giurgea in 1972 to describe a new class of drugs. Giuregea outlines certain criteria that must be met in order for something to be classified as a nootropic (Giugea, 1972).
- It should aid with improvement in working memory and learning.
- Supports brain function under hypoxic conditions or after electroconvulsive therapy.
- Protection of the brain from physical or chemical toxicity.
- Natural cognitive functions are enhanced.
- It requires to be non-toxic to humans, without depression or stimulation of the brain
In recent years, they have been popularized by figures such as Joe Rogan and his company Onnit, with its flagship product being Alpha BRAIN. Heavy marketing has pushed nootropics into the spotlight and changed the perception of the results they ostensibly provide.
What does the research say?
The two contentious issues in nootropics are around safety and effectiveness.
The FDA has been critical of unproven marketing claims being rampant in the industry, and proactive in addressing such false advertising (FDA, 2019a, FDA, 2019b). Many nootropics on the market are unproven to be safe or effective.
Having said that, they have also given GRAS status (generally recognized as safe) to some nootropics such as Suntheanine (Food Navigator, 2007). The substance supposedly has been shown in clinical studies to reduce stress, promote relaxation, improve sleep quality, diminish PMS symptoms improve concentration and even reduce the negative side effects of caffeine!
It is these ‘wonder drug’ claims from company-funded studies that naturally invites skepticism. One of the more prominent drugs as mentioned above is Alpha Brain. Their success is in the wide reach of their effective marketing, but is underpinned by compelling, legitimate research. A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study of Alpha brain summarized:
Compared with placebo, Alpha BRAIN® significantly improved on tasks of delayed verbal recall and executive functioning. Results also indicated significant time-by-group interaction in delayed verbal recall for the Alpha BRAIN® group. (Solomon et. al, 2016)
But equally, a more recent study investigating the purported impact of Alpha Brain on mood, stress and marksmanship performance in soldiers found the opposite. Though admittedly it is a questionable use-case for a nootropic!
There was no statistically significant difference between Treatment and Placebo for hits […], initial reaction time in seconds […], mean reaction time in seconds […], or distance from center mass in centimeters. (Barringer, Crombie & Kotwal, 2018)
Despite some reported success and badges of safety, concerns over the adverse effects of nootropics remain. Headaches, nausea, insomnia, and anxiety are just some of the possible Alpha Brain side effects (Wholistic Research, 2022) and the science is unsettled regarding neurotoxicity.
Real experiences of Nootropics
My experience of nootropics was largely positive.
I tried Alpha Brain for 30 days (this is not an ad) and felt a difference during this period when compared with before and after. I consciously tried to not alter my routine, diet, sleep schedule or anything else that could elicit the same benefit.
Despite my skepticism and trepidation about any possible neurotoxicity, I found my mental acuity increased, I had focus, better recall, motivation and energy. I’m extremely mindful that placebo could, and probably did, have at least some influence on this perception.
After comparing my before/during/after state, I ultimately decided not to continue the journey. Some of my thinking:
- The effect was noticeable but not significant enough for me to label it groundbreaking
- The cost varies, but it is not insignificant. I didn’t feel a net benefit.
- I dislike daily supplementation generally; I didn’t feel compelled change my daily routine
Conclusion – Should you take Nootropics?
As long as you are aware of the above, including possible placebo effects, I would advocate at least trying new-wave nootropics. The effects are highly variable and it may or may not have any significant impact on you. But I believe that the some of the mainstream supplements are fundamentally safe for you to experiment with and come to your own conclusion.