Nootropics are popular drugs and supplements that claim to reduce stress, help you focus, become more productive and even reduce anxiety.
While it’s easy to think that a smart pill will make you feel better, nootropics may not live up to all the hype. This guide sheds some light on what nootropics are, an in-depth look behind the advertising, and how likely they are to help you.
What are nootropics?
Nootropics are natural and synthetic substances as cognitive enhancers. They are often called smart pills and brain boosters. And many natural types have been used as medicine for centuries. Most nootropics claim to improve attention span, memory, and alertness. Others are used for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms.
Many people use nootropics as alternatives to standard prescription drugs. Nootropics companies tout their products as effective and safe despite little verified evidence. Medical professionals usually advise people to use tried-and-true methods supported by science. Exercise, improving one’s diet, and counseling therapy can all help with mental and emotional issues. Yet, the appeal of getting immediate benefits from a pill is strong. And the nootropic market is booming right now.
These substances are rarely regulated or standardized. Some versions of the same substance may be more effective than others, but it’s hard to know. The lack of oversight means that companies have the freedom to make custom blends. But this makes it challenging to understand safety and effectiveness.
More researchers are looking into the value and safety of nootropics. But there are concerns within the medical community. Evidence is scattered, and studies often use small groups of people. There’s not enough evidence yet to form a reliable knowledge base. The future may hold promise for nootropics. But right now, most medical experts are skeptical.
Overhyped and illegal marketing claims
Some companies selling nootropics have boosted sales with big promises. In recent years, overhyped and illegal marketing claims caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. The agencies jointly sent warning letters to these companies about their exaggerated claims.
Their marketing materials claimed that their nootropic supplements could cure or prevent serious illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, heart conditions, and cancer. The FTC and FDA do not support any of these claims. These businesses had 15 days to respond or face legal actions and product seizure.
These supplements might do something helpful for some people. But many health professionals are still uncertain they provide much real benefit. And safety concerns remain with little to no regulation.
Here’s a shortlist of the concerns:
- Results can vary from person to person, even with the same substance.
- Some benefits may be more anecdotal than evidence-based.
- Some nootropics can be harmful when taken with other medications.
- Many claims are unproven and are not supported by the FDA.
- Most nootropics are not regulated in any way for safety.
- Dosing recommendations are not standardized.
- Information can be confusing and is not standardized. The information that’s easiest to find is often from the nootropics companies themselves.
Can nootropics relieve anxiety and stress?
Many nootropics are said to have mild effects at most. And it often comes down to an oversimplified idea of how nootropics might affect the body. Research shows that lower levels of the body chemical GABA are connected with depression and anxiety symptoms. Nootropics can influence GABA levels. But just adding more GABA into the body doesn’t make symptoms better.
One challenge with nootropics is the low volume of research available. Studies show mixed results for a substance called L-theanine. In one study from 2012, researchers concluded that L-theanine helped with anxiety. It also kept blood pressure from rising and was considered helpful.
And another study from 2007 showed a reduction in heart rate and possible anti-stress effects. But in a study from 2019, L-theanine did very little to improve anxiety disorder symptoms. Many people in the study did report better sleep. It appears L-theanine may be worth studying in more depth.
Side-effects of nootropics
Many nootropics appear to be non-harmful in small doses when taken alone. However, some have known side effects. A few can even be unsafe when combined with certain medications. But most nootropics are not regulated and everyone reacts differently. Because of this, there are no known safe doses. This problem concerns many health professionals, mainly because long-term effects are not well understood.
When taking nootropics, you may experience some of these common side effects:
- Increased anxiety
- Digestive upset
- Faster heart rate
- Some can be habit-forming
It’s essential to speak to your doctor before considering a specific nootropic. You must use more caution if you’ve had a stroke, used blood thinners, or have a history of mental health or substance use disorders. Depending on your health history, you may need to avoid certain types of nootropics entirely.
Stacking is the practice of using several nootropics at once to create custom combinations. However, this approach also increases the chance of feeling side effects.
Nootropics as drugs
Some of the following nootropics require a prescription, and others can be purchased over-the-counter. Their status as a drug can also vary by country.
- Noopept - Noopept requires a prescription in Russia and is used to treat mild cognitive disorders. The main benefit is to provide a protective effect for neurons. However, the substance stays in the body for a very short time, and a higher dose may not help.
- Pramiracetam - Pramiracetam belongs to the racetam family of nootropic drugs. It is a stimulant for the central nervous system and may improve cognitive functioning, memory, and alertness.
- Phenibut: Phenibut primarily affects the GABA neurotransmitter. It is commonly used in Russia to relieve tension, anxiety, and to improve sleep.
- 5-HTP - 5-HTP is available without a prescription and is often used for depression. Its use is based on an oversimplified concept of how 5-HTP could help. At the moment, science doesn’t support this claim.
- SAMe - SAMe is a supplement that might be effective in treating depression and osteoarthritis. However, SAMe can also have harmful interactions with antidepressants.
- Alpha GPC - Alpha GPC is a supplement used to support learning, memory, and physical performance in athletes. Alpha GPC may help improve physical and mental activities. But some studies don’t see any positive effect on learning and memory.
Nutrients, dietary supplements, and herbs
These supplements are used to treat mental health issues and improve brain functioning. Because they are natural supplements, they are more widely available.
- Vitamin B6 and B12 - Both vitamins are used to support cognitive functioning and help with depression. Vitamin B12 can improve cognitive function, but only with people who were vitamin-deficient before the study. And Vitamin B6 showed no helpful effect for cognitive functioning or depression.
- Vitamin E - Lower Vitamin E levels have been connected with cognitive decline. However, most research doesn’t find Vitamin E to be effective as a treatment.
- Omega-3 fatty acids - Some studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids to protect cognitive functioning. But this was only for adults with slight impairment. Evidence is inconsistent and more studies are needed.
- Valerian Root - This is primarily used as a sleep aid. It does have a few mild side effects and is considered safe for most people. But valerian root can interfere with other medications. And anyone with liver disease should avoid it.
- Folate - Folate has been studied as a treatment for cognitive decline and depression. A few studies showed limited improvements. But overall, research has not shown much measurable benefit.
- Kava Kava - The people of the Hawai’ian islands have used Kava Kava for centuries to help anxiety. Research shows a small improvement in anxiety symptoms. But not enough is known about whether it can help other conditions. It’s also linked to possible liver injury.
- Ashwagandha - This substance originates from the ginseng family of plants. It may have positive effects on cognitive disorders. But its effectiveness is poorly understood.
- L-Theanine (Green Tea) - Research shows that green tea can promote a relaxed feeling. It may also help with attention, memory, and managing distractions.
Nootropics - Consider safety before trying
Despite a lack of solid scientific evidence, nootropics are more popular than ever. If you’re considering using a nootropic to address a mental or emotional issue, talk to your doctor first. There are some risks with some nootropics. Get reliable, unbiased information from someone you trust before making a decision.