Nootropics: Brain boost or snake oil?

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We’ve all had days when brain fog hits and we can’t seem to gather the concentration necessary to do our jobs as well as we’d like. We often turn to sugar and caffeine to combat this fuzziness, even though we are warned frequently of the dangers of too much of either.

One of the alternative strategies that many people are considering is the use of “nootropics,” which are natural and artificial compounds that improve cognitive function. Many of us already use one or two nootropics: caffeine has been well studied for its role in increasing alertness and concentration, for example, while omega-3 supplements often are recommended for improved brain function. Both of these substances are standard in nootropic mixes.

But the difference with serious nootropics users – there are reports of the Silicon Valley set being particularly enamoured with the concept – is that these substances stack a number of compounds together in order to get the best cognitive bang for their buck. Typically, these stacks are made up of various herb and other plant compounds (e.g., caffeine, kava, St. John’s wort), nutrients (magnesium, carnitine) and chemical substances few of us would recognize, such as racetams (some of which fall into a class of stimulants), that are reputed to improve cognitive function although scientific data is often lacking. These stacks are sold in packages from nootropic retailers (and health-food stores), but some adherents to the concept of nootropics prepare their own.

Echoing what university students have been doing for years to help them focus on a deadline (calling them “study drugs”), many nootropic users also will throw in one or two prescription medications designed to help people with attention deficit disorder, such as Adderall and Ritalin, in an effort to improve their concentration and executive functioning skills. Even Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy medications are used by some nootropic proponents.

This approach might seem predictable in a culture that embraces fads related to self-improvement: that is, big promises with little real effort. After all, the basic principles of good brain health – diet, exercise and sleep – take time and effort to improve your cognitive function.

Paul Zickler, a family doctor with more than 40 years of experience who is a medical consultant for Planet Earth Healthcare Inc. in Surrey, B.C. (which sells nootropics through an online shop; www.yeswellness.com), says that some doctors who support nootropics are just as guilty of hype as their prescription-happy peers.

While Zickler is a big believer in the benefits of nootropics as part of a health plan, he cautions against focusing exclusively on the latest trend in this area without paying attention to basic healthy choices. Too often, he says, people believe that pills and powders will make up for bad habits – they won’t.

But controversy over nootropics runs deeper. Regardless of how much research you do (online message boards seem to be a popular way of seeking out the opinions of amateurs in the nootropic community), anticipating how your body is going to react to mixing a number of compounds is almost impossible, especially when other medications are thrown into the fray.

As well, keeping in mind that the supplement market is not regulated in Canada also is important: there are no guarantees that a package contains precisely what the label promises. “You don’t know what you’re getting,” says Sheena Josselyn, senior scientist, in the neuroscience and mental health department at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “If you eat broccoli, you pretty much know what’s in there and your body wants that.”

Although maintaining brain function is a laudable goal, nootropics aren’t the route to take, Josselyn says: “The evidence is certainly not convincing that they do anything.” She adds that the studies cited by firms that produce these supplements often are done by those with a financial interest in the outcome – and that’s not good science. Notes Josselyn: “A lot of [nootropics] end up looking like snake oil at the end of the day.”

Although, the advice your parents probably gave you regarding good health – eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, don’t multi-task, take breaks (preferably outdoors) and keep your stress down – may not be as sexy as stacking nootropic compounds, that advice still is the best for brain health, Josselyn says: “I study memory, and I take nothing at all.”

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