Picture this: You’re sitting down to your desk at work—calm and collected—until you open your inbox to see 97 emails greeting you, your phone alarm goes off signaling a conference call in 15 minutes, you get a text from a client asking if that lunch is still on, and you’re supposed to leave work early that day for a dentist appointment across town.
For a lot of us, days like this aren’t uncommon, but they aren’t a breeze, either. Typically, those are the types of days when you’re ready to throw in the towel before lunch. To get through this sort of non-stop-hustle-workday, many individuals have turned to excessive amounts of caffeine, recreational Adderall, energy drinks, and a slew of other tactics and techniques to enhance focus and performance throughout busy workdays.
However, one of the latest trends meant to help improve cognitive function and alertness throughout the day is through taking nootropics.
What are Nootropics?
Also known as “smart drugs," nootropics are natural substances that offer cognitive benefits to the human brain. If you walk into any supplement store today you’re likely to find a nootropics section, with bottles boasting their ability to help you focus, stay energized, increase creativity, enhance memory, improve your ability to learn and absorb information, and in turn, make you more productive.
There are two different types of nootropics generally available on the market: ones that are synthetic, lab created compounds like Piracetam, or naturally occurring herbal nootropics like gingnko and ginseng. To get technical, nootropics can act as a vasodilator against the small arteries and veins in the brain. Once nootropics are in your system, your body increases blood circulation to the brain as well as an uptick in nutrients that increase energy and oxygen flow to the brain, giving you focused, streamlined energy.
Though the effect of nootropics might sound intense, nootropics themselves (and their effects) aren’t like taking prescribed medication to help improve focus like Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil. The nootropics you see at supplement stores are often naturally occurring extracts like L-theanine and creatine, which are meant to give you a more natural focus, not a medicated one. Some other common and natural-leaning nootropics you’ll find on the shelves of your vitamin store are Bacopa monnieri, Rhodiola rosea, and Panax ginseng. All of these tout the same cognitive benefits, but are naturally found on earth and compounded into supplements.
The Benefits of Nootropics
One thing to know as you browse your local vitamin store is that not all nootropics are created equal. Lots of the products in this space—including the harsher medically prescribed pills like Adderall and Ritalin—are all about the short-term gains. They will boost energy and focus for a short stretch of time but will leave you crashing by the end of the day and don’t do anything to improve the overall vitality and function of your brain in the long term.
Even caffeine can have this effect on our bodies if we drink too much in the morning! Users who take nootropics correctly and seek out supplements packed with a combination of natural-leaning components like ginseng, creatine, and rhodiola, experience an elevated level of focus without the hard crash later on.
Nootropics, whether you’re taking them in supplement form or drinking coffee and brewing teas that contain L-theanine, should be taken daily for maximum benefits. With regular use of nootropics, ATP levels (Adenosine Triphosphate, the compound that fuels the cells in our brains) are said to increase, which helps to improve short-term memory, reasoning skills, and creates a sense of productivity, creativity, and an easier ability to focus on tasks throughout the day.
But Do They Really Work?
There has been quite a bit of back-and-forth on the effectiveness of nootropics, with many Silicon Valley “biohacker” types claiming nootropics have completely transformed the way they work and their ability to focus and think. One quick search results in a wide range of sites including forums that sing the praises of nootropics and sites that completely negate any benefits of taking them at all.
While most everyone agrees that naturally derived food and plant components often found in nootropics do have memory and cognition improving benefits, most research and data has resulted in no strong answer in regard to the efficacy of nootropics. In a Time article published this past January, it was found that while there’s no hard evidence claiming that over-the-counter nootropics don’t work, there’s no compelling evidence at the moment that all of their cognition enhancing benefits do work.
Peter Morgan, a psychiatrist at Yale University’s School of Medicine, explains that the two most commonly used neurocognitive enhancers are caffeine and nicotine.
When you consume caffeine, it stimulates your body to release extra doses of noradrenaline and dopamine, and nicotine mimics the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine, which affects memory and learning.
While we don’t condone excessive use of caffeine or any use of nicotine, we know of one other totally healthy way to boost energy and improve memory function: exercising! Regular aerobic exercise, according to a study done by The University of British Columbia, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area responsible for verbal memory and learning.
So What Should You Do?
Even if you don’t experience the game-changing effects of nootropics that others have sworn by (or like Bradley Cooper did in Limitless—sorry readers, this won’t happen to you with a cup of ginseng tea), implementing natural-leaning nootropics derived from food and plants into your vitamin regimen is still beneficial to your overall health.
Start by looking into nootropic ingredients that already exist in food, and then explore nootropic supplements if you feel coffee isn’t cutting it anymore. This list features explanations of some of the most popular nootropics available now and is a good place to start if you are interested in trying nootropics for the first time.
Keep in mind that a jog, a filling and nutritious snack, and a cup of coffee each morning might be the very thing that helps you focus and stay alert throughout the day, so it’s important to first pay attention to what your body responds to before buying one of each supplement at the health food store!
Emma Trevino is a freelance writer who splits her time between Los Angeles and Wimberley, a small town situated on the Blanco River just outside of Austin. She's combined her passion for wellness and beauty with her knack for telling stories to help brands communicate their narrative in an honest way. When she's not writing, you can find her swimming in the river, growing veggies in her garden, finding tasty natural wines, and reading on her porch.