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, and 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 percent of Americans admitted to using pharmacological cognitive enhancements (PCE) at least once in the past year. This number is up 20 percent 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.
This all sounds great, right? Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to show nootropics actually boost your brainpower.
“Nootropics research is plagued by small sample sizes and a lack of an adequate control sample,” Block says. Add in the fact that dietary supplements aren’t well-regulated by the FDA and that most people are buying their smart drugs online, and we’re left without a solid sense of what’s really in a supplement blend or the quality (and safety) of the ingredients.
Some studies actually disprove nootropics, especially the over-the-counter variety: A 2015 study review found the purported brain boosters omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin E all had no effect on cognition. And another study last year in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported soldiers saw no improvements in their marks-manship or reaction time after 31 days of taking a popular nootropics blend that included Bacopa monniera and Huperzia serrata (both thought to improve memory) and oat straw (thought to reduce stress).
Right now, we don’t know which nootropics actually help improve attention, focus, and energy—but we do know more sleep and exercise do.
Not surprisingly, skimping on sleep makes you less able to pay attention and more mentally exhausted. And it’s cyclical: Using your brain makes you more tired but keeps you from being able to fall asleep, but not getting enough restorative sleep then makes your brain more sluggish. Meanwhile, studies have shown a quick nap can boost learning, memory, and creative problem-solving.
As for exercise, regular moderate to vigorous workouts reduce your risk of age-related cognitive decline and improve your memory and behavior control, says a 2016 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. And new research reports just a single light to moderate workout improves brain connectivity and cognition. That’s because getting your heart rate up not only increases blood flow and oxygen to your brain but also actually changes gene expression and increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning.
Here’s what else you should know about nootropics, and four that you should become familiar with: