Think about an average hour in your work day. Chances are you’re bouncing between your overflowing inbox, your social media feed, several text conversations, and whatever project you’re working on at the moment. Is it any wonder we’re all burning out at a rapid clip?
And this always-on modern lifestyle is seriously taxing to our bodies and our brains. In response, a new category of functional drinks and supplements are coming to market, all promising to give you focused mental energy while decreasing stress. (Kind of like Adderall, but without the terrifying side effects.)
“There is more information available to the average high school student today than was available to the president of the United States 20 years ago, and the number of interruptions we deal with every day is greater than ever before,” proclaims Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, who’s basically the king of non-pharmaceutical mental enhancement.
“All of that information and all of those distractions require energy. It’s no wonder that people are seeking ways to improve their cognitive function—it’s a requirement if you want to have enough energy to be calm and focused in today’s environment.”
These brain-boosting aids, also known as nootropics, have found particular favor among the biohacking community (think Silicon Valley types or MBA candidates).
These brain-boosting aids, also known as nootropics, have found particular favor among the biohacking community and those in intense jobs with long hours and lots of competition (think Silicon Valley types or MBA candidates).
But given that we’re all suffering from the effects of screen overload and extreme multitasking, it’s safe to say that cognition-enhancing substances are on their way to attaining mainstream acceptance. (In some cases, they already have—just look at the rise of L-theanine, an amino acid credited with stress-reduction powers, which has been adopted by tons of mass-market supplement brands.)
Keep reading to find out which nootropics you’ll be hearing about soon—and whether they really deserve the hype they get.
What are nootropics?
According to Sumeet Sharma, one of the science leads at supplement brand Nootrobox, nootropics are broadly defined as anything that enhances your cognitive capacity, from memory to mental agility to concentration. (Even caffeine is considered part of the nootropic fam.)
But what sets these new supplements apart from your standard, jitter-inducing energy drinks is that they incorporate smart combinations of ingredients—or “stacks”—that work synergistically with each other to achieve a certain goal.
For instance, Nootrobox’s Sprint supplement uses a combination of caffeine, B vitamins, and L-theanine to create a mix designed to provide calm energy, while its Rise product reputedly allows users to overcome mental fatigue and improve memory with a blend of herbs including bacopa monnieri and rhodiola rosea.
“These [compounds] are all found in nature, but there are such trace amounts of them in foods that it wouldn’t be practical—you’d need to have 10,000 avocados to get the same [effect].”
“We’re rediscovering compounds that have been used in thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine,” explains Sharma, who says Nootrobox is going to start conducting its own research on nootropic substances in 2017. “There’s a reason people have been using them for so long and it’s because they have real effects.”
Energy for your brain?
Bulletproof has banked on another type of nutrient that has been widely studied for its brain-health properties—medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), fatty acids which are most notably found in coconut oil. The brand’s wildly popular Brain Octane oil contains a very specific type of MCTs that are said to metabolize energy most efficiently, extracted from coconut oil and bottled in a super-concentrated, ultra-pure form.
Still other products utilize substances that you won’t necessarily find on a shelf at Whole Foods. Bulletproof’s Unfair Advantage shots are made up of CoQ10 and PQQ, two co-enzymes that can help your cells create energy. “By increasing your body’s ability to make ATP [adenosine triphosphate], the energy currency of your cells, it gives you more brain energy and more body energy at the same time,” explains Asprey, whose next book, Headstrong (to be released in April), will focus on cognition. “It is a very noticeable boost.”
Another brand that promises clearer mental focus and stamina, TruBrain, calls on powerful neuropeptides like oxiracetam, piracetam, and centrophenazine for its nootropic drinks, capsules, and coffee boosters. Its products have all been evaluated by the brand’s team of in-house neuroscientists using brainwave testing.
“These [compounds] are all found in nature, but there are such trace amounts of them in foods that it wouldn’t be practical—you’d need to have 10,000 avocados to get the same [effect],” says founder Chris Thompson.
Are they too good to be true?
One thing that most nootropic makers will tell you is that their products aren’t a quick fix—both Nootrobox and TruBrain note that you need to take their supplements for at least a week, if not more, before you notice a real effect. “If people think success is being wired like crazy, this is not the right product for them,” stresses Thompson of TruBrain. “It’s about doing better creative work and not getting distracted.”
It’s also important to seek out supplements that that have strict testing protocols and legit science behind them, since the market’s rife with questionable products. “For example, there are unethical companies marketing things like lauric acid, a common component in coconut oil that is legally allowed to be sold as an MCT, even though it does not raise ketone levels the way real MCTs do,” Asprey says. “Another common cognitive enhancer is alpha-GPC, but few people know that it can harm cell membrane function.”
“If you think you’re going to be able to take a supplement to make up for your sleep deprivation, you’re sadly very wrong.”
And then there’s the even bigger question of whether we even should be pushing our brains and bodies to perform above and beyond their natural capacity. “There is no supplement that will do a better job for you in terms of cognition than getting enough sleep,” stresses BodyWise author Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD. “So if you think you’re going to be able to take a supplement to make up for your sleep deprivation, you’re sadly very wrong.” (She personally prefers proven cognition enhancers—supplements like methyl B12, methyl folate, adaptogens, and DHA-rich fish oil coupled with lots of colorful veggies—to less widely used substances whose long-term effects are still unclear.)
But for those who are doing all the right things, yet still feel like they need a little mental lift, Thompson insists nootropics are worth a try. “If we were to turn back the clock a few centuries, we wouldn’t need these products because the demands on our brain were so different,” says Thompson. “But now, in such a multi-screen world, we’re going into overdrive. We need to replenish what was already there.”
Another way to keep your brain in peak condition: meditate every day. Here’s how seven busy women make time to do it, and the coolest new places to sit in silence in NYC and LA. Not on the coasts? There’s probably still a meditation studio in your town.