If you’ve been in tune with Silicon Valley trends recently, you’ve probably heard of the supposed brain-boosting powers of nootropics. It’s an easy sell: one pill, or a combination of pills and supplements, to give you superhuman focus, awareness, and decision-making abilities.
It’s a major profit, too. As reported by the New York Post, the nootropic supplement industry is expected to be worth $6 billion by 2024, when it was worth $1.3 billion four years ago.
As demand has grown, the market has been sure to supply an abundance of options when it comes to ingredients. You can find supplements containing anything from ginseng root & royal jelly, to herbs like bacopa & Rhodiola rosea.
While many contain natural ingredients, some like N-Phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester, more commonly known as Noopept, are made of synthetic molecules.
With all this in mind, there’s one question: Do they work? Can these plants & chemicals safely unlock our cognitive potential?
The science behind them is shaky. Many of the studies that have shown results were poorly conducted or only tested animals, and research showing long-term effects has yet to be completed.
That being said, people have taken to the Internet in the search for answers, forming communities based around supplements to compare combinations & discuss their experiences. Reddit has become home to one of the largest.
Along with people telling their stories online, some journalists have put the onus on themselves to test them out and report their results in detail.
One such journalist is Jay Willis, a GQ writer who tested various combinations after combing the Reddit forum r/Nootropics. After trials with sets of natural & synthetic supplements, he felt no significant changes in his cognitive abilities or his focus.
After his study, he spoke with Jesse Lawler, the host of the neuroscience podcast “Smart Drugs Smarts,” and he was unsurprised with Willis’ results. According to him, nootropics are meant to build up over time before there are noticeable effects.
But even over time, as noted by Barry Gordon, neurology professor at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results in the long term don’t prove any medical benefit.
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he says to Willis. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.”
Another writer by the name of Emily Laurence gave it a try for an article she wrote for Well+Good. For her experiment, she took Beekeeper’s Naturals B.LXR, a royal jelly-loaded supplement, and another called “HVMN’s Rise, made with alpha-GPC (or a-GPC), a high-potency precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential for learning and memory.”
Speaking with Laurence, Carly Stein, the CEO of Beekeeper’s natural, touts royal jelly as a powerful superfood. She suggests increased consumption of acetylcholine, for which royal jelly is a natural precursor, helps prevent cognitive decline.
Laurence goes on: “Other power players in the B.LXR include ginkgo (a natural brain booster) and bacopa (an adaptogen linked to supporting brain health and lowering anxiety). Stein also mentions that bacopa specifically combats brain fog caused by mold and other pollutants.
It’s also a main ingredient in Rise, along with Rhodiola rosea, which HVMN CEO Geoff Woo says has been proven to help people perform better in cognitive tests.
In the beginning of her test, when she took B.LXR first thing in the morning, there were no visible results. After giving some to her friends, who had eaten & drank coffee beforehand, they reported increased focus without noticeable side effects.
Wanting those results, she took it 30 minutes after coffee & breakfast the next day. She reported higher energy, increased focus, and a disappearance of her typical afternoon slump.
She continued the experiment with Rise and noticed an even stronger effect, especially taking note of her heightened awareness. At the end of the article, she mentioned she now takes them on an as-needed basis.
There are a few things those looking to conduct their own personal experiments should keep in mind.
1. A Lack of Evidence
As Erica Julson, MS, RDN, CLT notes in her article for Healthline, drugs like Noopept, Phenotropil & Piracetam need to be researched heavily in order to determine their effects.
In the case of Piracetam, data from recent studies merely supports the need for further research, showing no proof of clinical benefit. The only other studies were done on small groups and showed no significant outcomes.
Clinical studies of the popular stimulant modafinil, reported by Science-Based Medicine, showed that it provides a net benefit for people with ADHD, while healthy individuals experience a cognitive slowdown with no improvement in accuracy.
2. More Harm than Good
Building on these findings, Time reported on studies that found the drug could potentially cause headaches, anxiety, insomnia, and poorer cognitive function.
As reported by Reuters, other nootropics sold as recently as 2015 contained dimethylbutylamine, or DMBA, and β-Methylphenethylamine, or BMPEA, which are both synthetic stimulants that weren’t proven safe for consumption by the FDA.
They’re both similar to 1,3-dimethylamylamine, or DMAA, which was already banned by the FDA due to adverse health effects.
Speaking on the ban, synthetic stimulant researcher Dr. Pieter Cohen said, “Rather than waiting until heart attacks, strokes or deaths are definitely linked to this new designer stimulant, the FDA has now made it extremely clear to manufacturers that there is no justification to sell DMBA in supplements.”
3. Effective Alternatives Already Exist
Science-Based Medicine provides a succinct list of routines that are sure to enhance your cognitive function
- Get enough sleep
- Get regular exercise
- Keep mentally active
- Do not skip meals
- Avoid alcohol or other recreational drugs
The second point might be one of the most important, no matter how dreadful the idea might be.
Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha puts it bluntly: out of all the things that have been hailed as good for the brain, exercise is the most evidence-backed.
You heard her: put down the royal jelly & take a walk.