Nootropics – mind-bending chemicals or natural brain boosts?

I was asked to write this post by the boys at Motion Nutrition, a brand that focuses on the science backing each and every one of their products. I’ve been using them for around two years now because of this, and thought it’d be really interesting to do my own research into these new products called nootropics, two of which Motion Nutrition sell – Power Up and Unplug. Below you’ll see what I found!

There has been a swathe of articles recently on ‘smart drugs’ – drugs taken to increase alertness, productivity and performance, with concerns that teens and adults are relying on these to perform effectively at work/uni/school. In reality, ‘smart drugs’ can incorporate a wide variety of drugs, from amphetamines to coffee, meaning they can hardly all be painted with the same brush.

So what are they exactly? Smart drugs, also known as nootropics – from the greek ‘nous’ (mind) and trepein (to bend or turn) – are substances that improve cognitive function, for example memory, creativity and/or motivation. Their appeal is obvious – imagine how much we could do if we never procrastinated, never got distracted. And so, more and more people are turning to nootropics of various forms to improve themselves. The question then arises: is it wrong/dangerous for people with no medical reason (such as ADHD) to take such substances? Are there any that can be taken safely and effectively by anyone or should there be a blanket ban for those without a prescription?

Nootropics come in various forms and include caffeine, which the majority of adults take in some form on a day to day basis. Caffeine (a xanthine and stimulant) has been shown to improve alertness and performance for many tasks, but has the obvious negative effects when taken in excess. Amphetamines, also stimulants, have been shown to improve a range of functions, even in people without medical need for them. As with caffeine, excessive usage can lead to detrimental effects and addiction, but this is extremely rare when used at prescribed therapeutic levels. There are other types of nootropic too, all following the same sort of pattern – all stimulants improve cognitive function in the general population when used as therapeutic (low) doses and all impair cognitive function (and have other side-effects of various forms) when taken in excess.

So why am I bringing this up now? I recently came across Motion Nutrition‘s new nootropics range (power up and unplug) and was intrigued. They’re not the first to commercialise alertness (hello red bull), but, knowing that the men behind the brand are very into their evidence-based products, I wanted to do a little more research to see the evidence behind some of the ingredients commonly found in these ‘over the counter’ nootropics. Skip to the bottom for a summary 🙂

  • L- Taurine

L- taurine, commonly written simply as taurine* is a non-essential amino acid (i.e. our bodies can produce it). Taurine can be deficient in some people, and therefore supplementation has been tentatively recommended, especially in people who do not eat meat (the main source of taurine). It has a whole host of jobs in our bodies: helping the passage of nutrients in and out of our hearts to improve cardiovascular function and acting as a potent anti-oxidant to remove free-radicals. It has also been suggested to be an anti-diabetic compound. Side effects have only been found at levels somewhere between 3000mg and 1000mg/kg body-weight.

The mental benefits of taurine are debated, but studies seem to show that it can promote brain-cell growth as we age, as well as physical performance. Taurine has also been shown act like GABA, one of our neurotransmitters, helping to decrease anxiety and improve concentration and focus. Verdict? Tentative positivity when looking for improved memory, physical performance and focus.

  • L- Tyrosine 

Tyrosine is a neurotransmitter precursor, meaning that it helps build the chemicals in our brain that relay signals. In healthy people, supplementation of tyrosine doesn’t seem to have many effects in normal situations, but does appear to improve memory when multitasking.

Multiple studies suggest that tyrosine could improve mental performance and memory under stressful conditions, although the effect is less clear in less stressful situations. It may also improve cognitive performance in sleep deprived people, helping them stay alert for longer.

  • Ginseng

Ginseng has been used historically for multiple purposes, although current literature is mixed about its efficacy. Multiple preliminary pieces of research hint at its usefulness in improving memory and fatigue reduction, with around two thirds of studies finding a cognitive enhancing effect. A lot of promise has been seen on the effects of ginsenosides (a compound that comes from ginseng), but more research needs to be done.

  • L- Theanine

A major component of black and green tea, L- theanine improves alertness and relaxation simultaneously, creating the much sought-after ‘focused’ state of mind. Some studies also suggest that it takes the edge off caffeine-induced arousal, limiting that ‘wired’ feeling. It appears that L-theanine works synergistically with caffeine (they work together) – the two together improve reaction time, memory and endurance.

  • Biotin

Biotin, a vitamin, is naturally found in some foods, such as eggs, milk and bananas. It helps make up some enzymes in our bodies that break down our food, and a deficiency can lead to things like brittle nails, exhaustion and depression. It contributes to normal functioning of the nervous system, although there has not been lots of research into biotin supplementation. If you don’t eat animal products and suffer from brittle nails, hair or any of the other above effects, you could be biotin deficient.

 

*The L- before some of the words refers to the levorotatory ‘enantiomer’ or direction of rotation of the compound. The alternative is D- (dextrorotatory, or right turning). Whilst the compounds are chemically the same, the effects in the body can be completely different. As a quick (and very interesting) aside, one of the reasons thalidomide (the pregnancy sickness drug that causes huge birth defects) took so long to come off market, was because it had 2 enantiomers (forms), one of which had no side effects, and the other of which was highly toxic. I could talk about this all day…. but I won’t! The point is, the L- is very important, but sometimes missed out in writing (as I have also done, to save time).

There are more ingredients frequently found in nootropics but these are five of the most common. I would always recommend doing your research on the constituents of a supplement before taking it – WebMD has some excellent information that makes it really easy to understand the level of research behind each ingredient and what it does 🙂

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TL;DR

So are nootropics the drugs of the future, or are they mind bending chemicals, as the papers would have us believe?

My conclusion is that whilst more research needs to be done to be 100% sure, there is some really exciting research out there to suggest that we could be fuelling our brains better. For people who struggle with concentration, memory and focus, or work in a stressful and distracting environment it might be worth playing around with the approved products on the market to see if anything works.

Of course, the majority of the differences in brain function will come from living a healthy lifestyle – nothing is going to make a bigger difference than prioritising sleep, eating well, quitting smoking (if you do) and exercising. But for those of us that do our best to do all of the above, nootropics present an exciting possibility to work at our very best. I think it’s important to remember that we’re not living the film limitless (if you haven’t watched it, it’s an easy-watching film about the development of a new drug that essentially gives you super-cognition) – we’re not (yet) able to function at levels higher than humanly capable, but wouldn’t it be nice to always be on top form, always have laser focus, always power through your work?

I think there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic with nootropics, and no doubt with the emergence of more on the market, the science will only get stronger and the supplements better. It’s important not to scare-monger about products such as this, because fear mongering will only lead to less research, which is always a bad thing! More research = knowledge, and as we all know, knowledge is power. For now, look out for ones with scientific backing and watch out for glorified caffeine pills. Happy shopping!

I’d love to know what you think, and whether you think it’s right to want to improve performance or if you think we should accept our brain’s natural limits. Comment down below or message me on Instagram!

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