Can nootropics actually boost brain power, or are they wishful thinking?

You know those days when you’re on a go-slow: forgotten passcodes, vocabulary that’s just out of reach, missed punchlines and the general feeling that, mentally, you’re wading through treacle?

Well, there’s a pill for that, apparently. Nootropics is an umbrella term for any substance that has mentally stimulating effects.

Some are prescribed and counter the symptoms of serious medical conditions including ADHD and Alzheimer’s. Others contain amphetamines, making them easily abused by gamers or high-achievers with deadlines to meet.

Others still – and these are the type that are becoming increasingly popular – are non-prescribed and contain natural ingredients. These are taken for their ability to increase focus and enhance other mental function. Your morning Americano or afternoon Earl Grey? Both are considered nootropics thanks to their caffeine content.

‘Nootropics is a term that is generally used to refer to substances that can boost brain performance,’ says professor Ian Boardley from Birmingham University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences. ‘They are sometimes referred to as cognition enhancers or “smart drugs”.

‘The term is sometimes used to refer exclusively to controlled substances such as Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall but it is also used to refer to non-controlled substances such as caffeine, ginkgo biloba and ginseng.’

The nootropic food supplements that are hitting the market in their droves can contain caffeine, L-theanine, B vitamins and citicoline – all of which aim to offer more than a burst of energy. They make various claims, including (but not limited to) sharper focus, improved memory, reduced stress, deeper sleep and long-term brain health.

Nootropic supplement brands are predicted to rake in profits over the years, with one report suggesting the market will mushroom by 17.5 per cent between 2021 and 2022. There is a perception that nootropics are used as rocket fuel for a specific sort of brain task, such as revising for finals or pulling an all-nighter at work to complete a project by deadline.

Damien Byrne, co-founder of food supplements brand HUX, which includes a nootropic supplement, explains that good cognitive function is about more than one-off high-pressure challenges.

‘We rely on cognitive processes to guide us through life,’ he says. ‘While we drive or ride the Tube to work, we remember the dentist appointment we have next week or the fact we need to buy a present for our partner.

‘The cognitive abilities that allow us to perform these and other daily activities involve attention, memory, executive planning and social cognition, among others.’

Byrne explains that when these are out of whack, ‘our ability to autonomously navigate daily activities is put at risk’.

‘When brain neurons are healthy and functioning properly, you have a higher ability to focus and less cognitive stress,’ he adds.

Alice, 37, from London, has been 
using a nootropic supplement for two months on the recommendation of 
a friend, having felt exhausted and unable to focus at work.

‘I’m really cynical but what I can say is that since I started taking nootropics, my “to do” list is shorter and a lot less intimidating,’ she says. ‘I feel more able to cope.’

However, as with any new ingestible substance, questions are rightly raised over efficacy and safety. It’s hard for experts to give a blanket response to broad questions such as ‘do nootropics work? or ‘are nootropics dangerous?’ because there are so many products existing under the title.

‘On the whole, though, their effectiveness is probably much lower than people believe it to be,’ says 
Dr Boardley.

In terms of danger, it is worth remembering that any nootropics company making claims about 
its products cannot simply do so 
at will.

‘To make a claim that something enhances brain power, it needs to go through rigorous training,’ says Dr Emma Wightman of Northumbria University’s Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre (BPNRC).

When you see claims written on packaging, the product has gone through a rigorous verification process within at least two places like the BPNRC.

‘If you buy a product in the UK market that makes a claim, it has to be predicated by evidence,’ says Wightman. ‘Brands strive to be collaborating with academia to show [their product] is academically rigorous.’

However, Wightman warns against believing that all natural products are good for you.

‘Because it’s from a plant doesn’t make it automatically safe,’ she says. ‘You could say sage is safe but if you alter quantity or [take it] in combination with other things it might not be.’

Wightman is at pains to point out the dangers of buying nootropic or any other supplements online.

‘The internet is a lawless land, so always be super-careful,’ she warns.

Whether or not we embrace nootropics, their existence and the rigorous testing behind them gives us choice – so use your brains to decide.

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