‘Smart drugs’ are real — here’s what’s scientifically proven and how to tell if nootropics are right for you

'Smart drugs' are real — here's what's scientifically proven and how to tell if nootropics are right for you

zhangshuang/Getty Images Green tea contains L-theanine, a natural nootropic that may boost serotonin and dopamine levels. Nootropics are cognitive enhancers that may help boost energy, focus, and memory.

They aren’t a cure-all and most work best if you have some symptoms of decreased mental clarity.

Some natural nootropics are caffeine, ginkgo biloba, creatine, omega-3s, and L-theanine.

Whether you’re a student cramming for finals, an employee on a project deadline, or your mind just isn’t as clear as it once was, you might wish there was a magic pill you could take that would supercharge your brain and make everything a little easier.

Nootropics aren’t magic pills, and they won’t supercharge your brain, but they do have the potential to improve your cognitive functioning under the right circumstances.

Here’s more about nootropics as well as specific types that have been proven to provide some level of cognitive enhancement. What are nootropics?

Nootropics are colloquially called “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers” due to the fact that they might theoretically boost brain function — especially regarding energy, focus, and memory.

Natural nootropics may also increase blood circulation and oxygen flow to the brain, according to a 2016 study . This is beneficial for brain health, since the brain depends on a continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients to function properly.

But nootropics likely won’t provide you much benefit if you’re not already experiencing symptoms such as trouble focusing or poor memory, says David A. Merrill, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

There are a number of factors that can affect your cognitive performance such as your sleep , stress levels , diet , and exercise regimen . You should try to improve these factors rather than simply relying on nootropics, as this will be much more beneficial in the long run, Merrill says. Natural nootropics

There are various natural, over-the-counter, nootropics to choose from that are available in supplement form. You can usually find them at your local grocery or online. Here are five common nootropics as well as how they work. 1. Caffeine

Caffeine — in the form of coffee, tea, energy drinks, supplements, and more — is the most commonly used nootropic worldwide.

It works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain that make you feel tired. That’s why caffeine often makes people feel less tired and more alert and focused .

However, Merrill notes that there are two problems with caffeine. First, if you consume it often, you will become tolerant to it, meaning that you will require more and more caffeine to feel a boost. Secondly, if you overdo your caffeine consumption, it can lead to side effects like anxiety, insomnia, and tremors. 2. Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba is a plant, and you can find its extract in supplement form. Merrill says ginkgo biloba extract works by increasing blood flow to the brain, or cerebral blood flow. In theory, this can be beneficial because it prevents decreased cerebral blood flow, which can result in cognitive decline .

Much of the research surrounding ginkgo biloba is in regards to Alzheimer’s. For example, a 2020 review of 28 studies found that taking 240 milligrams of ginkgo biloba daily had a positive impact on cognitive function — including reaction time and memory — in adults with mild Alzheimer’s.

However, if you’re not already suffering from cognitive decline, Merrill says you may not experience any kind of boost from ginkgo biloba. 3. L-theanine

L-theanine is found naturally in green tea and black tea , but it can also be taken as a supplement. Merrill says it tends to have a calming, relaxing effect while also boosting alertness—which is why it’s categorized as a nootropic.

L-theanine works by boosting serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels . GABA are neurotransmitters that play a part in mood and stress regulation.

A 2019 study found that participants who took 200 milligrams of L-theanine tablets for four weeks experienced reduced stress and improved executive functioning. 4. Omega-3s

“Omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of brain cell membranes, increasing cell membrane fluidity, which is important for the functioning of each brain cell,” says Merrill.

A 2012 analysis showed that adults with a mild form of cognitive impairment who took omega-3 supplements saw an improvement in cognitive function.

But while some research has been promising, other studies found that omega-3s had no effect on cognition for a sample of healthy adults aged 18-35. Therefore, omega-3 supplements may be most beneficial for people who are already experiencing some form of cognitive decline. 5. Creatine

Creatine is an amino acid that may benefit cognitive function due to the way it interacts with brain cells .

“Brain cells require high amounts of energy to function, and creatine can help brain cells continue to produce the energy needed to think,” says Merrill.

A 2018 systematic review found that taking creatine supplements can improve short-term memory in healthy individuals. Prescription nootropics Those who have a condition that severely impairs their cognitive function may benefit from more potent, prescription nootropics. Here are two common prescription nootropics and how they work. Amphetamines (Adderall) Adderall is a prescription drug commonly prescribed to people with ADHD but it may also be prescribed for narcolepsy. Merrill says Adderall is a stimulant that works by increasing your levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals can improve your focus and concentration.Additionally, Adderall has been shown to boost alertness, energy levels, and attention span in people with ADHD or narcolepsy.”There appears to be a ceiling effect with stimulants like Adderall, so they can reduce attention deficits, but they won’t make individuals with already normal levels of attention super-smart,” says Merrill. Modafinil Modafinil is a prescription drug that promotes wakefulness , and it’s prescribed to people who have narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, or shift work sleep disorder .The way modafinil works is mostly to increase dopamine levels . These increased dopamine levels may help concentration, memory, and motivation,, says Merrill. A 2020 study found that modafinil improves cognitive function in […]

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