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Mental Health

Nootropics: A ‘Noo’ Way of Thinking

Move over, Adderall. There is a new sheriff in town: nootropics. Many studies show that it is a safer and more effective classification of drugs than “ADHD medication.”

Whether you’re a college student prepping for exams, a busy mom, a professional surviving off little sleep, or an older adult battling dementia – a magic pill to help all of the aforementioned sounds very appealing.

Enter nootropics: a classification of drugs that enhances brain response time.

Toted as “smart pills”, nootropics supposedly increase focus, brain performance, and memory. And you can buy most of them over the counter. But are they safe?

Since their discovery, “nootropics” was originally referred to as a group of chemicals that met very specific criteria. But now it refers to any natural or synthetic substance that may have a positive impact on mental skills. In general, nootropics fall into three general categories: dietary supplements, synthetic compounds, and prescription drugs.

When prescribed by a doctor, most experts in the field of psychiatry and mental health agree that nootropics can have a positive influence on those suffering from ADHD or those suffering with senility. But when it comes to recreational use, are they safe and effective for healthy-functioning brains?

What do the experts say?

According to WebMD and Barry Gordon, director of the cognitive neurology/neuropsychology division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, there is little evidence that over-the-counter “smart pills” are helpful for healthy brains. “It’s not clear that they work and not clear that they’re safe,” Gordon says. He’s also skeptical of the basic premise behind nootropics.

“The circuits that are involved in human cognition are very complicated and not fully understood,” he says. “You can’t just ‘turn up the dial’ that easily.”

For those who swear by them, Gordon believes this could just be the result of a placebo effect.

Other experts believe they can help. Chris D’Adamo, PhD, director of research and education at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, has a different take.

“Most people seeking to optimize cognitive function would be better off focusing on getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet, and managing their stress,” he says. “But once you have those basics down, the right nootropics might serve as a bonus, helping you think more clearly and sharply or reduce your chances of cognitive decline as you age.”

In other words, nootropics aren’t medical cures, but they can help with memory retention, sharpness, and focus.

What are in nootropics?

There are different kinds of nootropics. But most people interested in nootropic use are branching out to dietary supplements that contain ginseng, gingko, CDP-choline, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, Bacopa monnieri, huperzine A, and vinpocetine.

Others include Racetams such as piracetam. You can get these synthetic compounds over the counter in the U.S. However, they are prescription drugs in some other countries. D’Adamo says these chemicals (which act on neurotransmitters including acetylcholine) have been studied in older adults who have a decline in cognition. However, there haven’t been enough tests to declare them safe for younger, healthy people.

Another type of prescription nootropic is modafinil. It is FDA-approved to treat narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work disorder. However, some studies suggest that it may also help with learning and memory in healthy people. Modafinil appears to be safer than other types of stimulants (like adderall) but more research needs to conclude this.

Bottom line: there haven’t been enough studies on most nootropics to determine A) if they actually work to improve cognitive response time in young adults and B) if most are even safe.

In other words, take at your own risk.

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