Brain supplements are taking the world by storm. Are they miracle pills, or something else? Photo by Vinh Dao.

On the market today, there are medicines, pills, extracts, that one can take to make their brain more powerful. Supplements that can increase the brain’s memory, ability to solve complex problems, and cause an increase in energy and productivity. Or at least that is the idea.

Nootropics, this new line of “smart drugs” have been dubbed, and it seems all the proponents are spending a lot of time figuring out the best “stack”, or combination and dosage, to get that extra boost to start firing on all cylinders, more consistently. Through online communities, these new wonder substances are being touted as a revolutionary new way to gain an edge, and overclock the brain and other body processes to get the most out of life.

These supplements have promising benefits. There’s even research to back up many of the health claims, and cause to reason for specialised usage, targeting certain areas of the brain and body. There are a few select nootropics that are leading the pack as far their efficacy: Modafinil, being one of the most highly touted.

Recreational use of nootropics is a hotly-debated topic amongst doctors and medical researchers, and many show an interest at the possibility of negative side effects, as well as the potential of long-term adverse effects. It’s not as simple as just popping a few brain pills to get a better score on your exam, to boost your energy for your weekly game of footy, or to just a get a head start on the work you have been procrastinating on for the past few days.

So, what exactly are nootropics?

Nootropics are supplements, drugs, or functional foods, that enhance cognitive functions such as intelligence, memory, and focus.

Nootropics, colloquially referred to as “smart drugs,” have seen a huge influx of interest over the last several years as people search for ways to maximize their brain’s potential. The word itself, coined by the Romanian psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea who synthesized the first nootropic, piracetam, over 50 years ago, is a combination of the Greek words nous (mind) and trepein (to bend or turn).

The two most popular nootropics are compounds everyone has probably ingested on more than one occasion: caffeine and L-theanine. Both are found in coffee and green tea, but in small amounts when compared to the nootropic doses available.

The nootropic context for caffeine is that it can improve motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as one begins to build up a tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system.

Biological Psychology, a scientific journal, published a study in which its results found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. More often than not caffeine is paired with L-theanine for this very reason. A 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention.

A 100mg dose of caffeine (a cup of strong coffee) with 200mg of L-theanine is the general advised dose one might find while sleuthing for information on the internet. The funny thing about this is, most people in Vietnam start their day off with both of these things every morning.

L-theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in teas, and caffeine, is found in both teas and coffee. Has everybody been taking “nootropics” for all these years, or have they just been drinking coffee and tea? Is there good reason for all of the re-definition? Couldn’t we just take B-vitamins, our daily caffeine routine, and call it what it is?

This combination has the most supporting evidence to back up the “smart drug” argument’s claims. Which isn’t saying much, but it is something.

Racetams, specifically Piracetam, an ingredient popular in over-the-counter nootropics, are synthetic stimulants designed to improve brain function. Piracetam is the origin of all the other racetams being used for brain stimulation, and the term “nootropic” was originally coined to describe its effects.

However, despite its popularity and how long it’s been around and in use, researchers still have no idea what the mechanisms of action are for racetams. Apparently, piracetam enhances neuronal function by increasing membrane fluidity in the brain, but that hasn’t been confirmed by the scientific method.

There is a lot of information floating around that these substances do, in fact, have an effect on cognitive functions. The issue is that nobody has been able to figure out how the improvements are made. For all we know, it could be a mechanism completely reliant on the placebo effect.

Until more data is churned out of laboratories doing great scientific work, the best, and only, way to test if these racetams will work for you, is to try them yourself. There are a bevy of resources online to find the nootropics that interest you.

The best guideline to follow to insure your own safety, and that you aren’t putting anything dangerous into your body are as follows: nootropics must help protect the brain and keep it safe from both physical and chemical injuries. A nootropic must enhance the cognitive abilities of the brain and prevent these abilities from being disrupted by certain health conditions. Nootropics must help enhance the brain’s memory, concentration, and ability to efficiently learn. They must not be toxic, and must have very few potential side effects, if any. Lastly, a nootropic must also enhance both the cortical and subcortical control mechanisms that are within the brain.

In a certain sense, it’s a bit like the Wild West out in brain and body supplementation world. In an age where we can have any powder or pill shipped to our doors, it’s a great time to read up and study the minutiae of the various health fads that are cycling in and out of our newsfeeds. Be smart, and do your homework.

Always check with your doctor before embarking on any self study with substances that could affect your health.