Is better brainpower simply a food, pill, vitamin, or supplement away? We introduce you to the world of nootropics—a world that’s still very much a work in progress.
You know about the supplements that can make you bigger, faster, and stronger. But what about ones that can make you smarter and sharper?
They’re called nootropics—also known as smart drugs— and they include vitamins, herbs, prescription pills, and foods all intended to enhance brain function. Some you’ll recognize: coffee, Adderall, MCT oil. But others—Cordyceps to improve alertness; acetyl-L-carnitine for better memory and learning; Rhodiola rosea for better mood and cognitive processing—you’re probably less familiar with.
Some people reach for them preemptively to protect their brains over the long haul, keeping them neurologically nimble into old age. But most are stacking supplements to make their brains work better now—to improve focus, sharpen memory, speed up processing and recall, and increase learning retention, says Cady Block, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
In 2017, nearly 30% of Americans had admitted to using pharmacological cognitive enhancements (PCE) at least once in the past year. This number is up 20% from 2015, according to the Global Drug Survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Adderall and Ritalin (prescribed to improve focus) were the most recognizable names from the study, but drugs like modafinil (sold under the brand name Provigil and prescribed to improve alertness) were also referenced among the most popular choices.
HOW SMART DRUGS WORK
Countless types of nootropics means countless mechanisms. Some play on how your brain sends and receives chemical and electrical signals, while others are far more simplistic: Certain substances, like caffeine, increase cerebral blood flow; more blood means more oxygen coming to your brain tissue and more cellular waste being carried out, so your brain increases inefficiency.
Meanwhile, some herbs and vitamins help protect your mitochondria against damage from inflammation and oxidative stress so they can produce the main energy currency in the body, ATP. “Anytime you use your brain—to focus on a task, to form a new memory—you need ATP to fuel the process,” says Ai-Ling Lin, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences at the University of Kentucky.
Nootropics aren’t necessarily delivering something new to our brains—they’re often just allowing us to produce the energy and signals our brains need to fire optimally.
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