What Are Nootropics?

Jack Cruz works as a trainer. And a stunt actor. And an investor. And a music promoter. Oh, and by day he’s a product specialist in the tech industry. “I don’t like monotony,” says the 43-year-old in Austin, Texas. “I like changing my day up on a daily basis.”

But how, exactly, does he do it? Sure, Cruz typically eats well, exercises regularly and tries to get sufficient sleep, and he’s no stranger to coffee. But he has another tool in his toolkit that he finds makes a noticeable difference in his ability to efficiently and effectively conquer all manner of tasks: Alpha Brain, a supplement marketed to improve memory, focus and mental quickness.

“It’s a necessity for me whether I’m talking about technology or music or investing or training someone — I need to be ready to go,” Cruz says. “My brain needs to be available and I need to be 100 percent.”

Dallas Michael Cyr, a 41-year-old life coach and business mentor in San Diego, California, also says he experienced a mental improvement when he regularly took another product called Qualia Mind, which its makers say enhances focus, energy, mental clarity, memory and even creativity and mood. “One of the biggest things I noticed was it was much more difficult to be distracted,” says Cyr, who took the supplements for about six months but felt their effects last longer. While he’s naturally great at starting projects and tasks, the product allowed him to be a “great finisher” too, he says.

Alpha Brain and Qualia are among many increasingly buzzy nootropics, or any substances — be they as seemingly benign as a spice like turmeric, as familiar as a drug like caffeine or as potentially risky as a blend of ingredients sold online — that support cognitive functions like memory, focus and alertness.

“Everyone is feeling the pressure to produce, keep up and innovate — that is real,” finds Revee “Ray” Barbour, a naturopathic doctor and life coach in Sacramento, California. “As they get older, people want to know, ‘How can I integrate things into my daily lifestyle that are safe and effective?’ I don’t see that slowing down.”

[See: 13 Ways to Boost Your Memory.]

How exactly — and if — nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow — and therefore funnel nutrients — to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer’s, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.

Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients — bacopa, cat’s claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example — that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer’s disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.

Qualia Mind, meanwhile, combines more than two dozen ingredients that may support brain and nervous system function — and even empathy, the company claims — including vitamins B, C and D, artichoke stem and leaf extract, taurine and a concentrated caffeine powder. A 2014 review of research on vitamin C, for one, suggests it may help protect against cognitive decline, while most of the research on artichoke extract seems to point to its benefits to other organs like the liver and heart. A small company-lead pilot study on the product found users experienced improvements in reasoning, memory, verbal ability and concentration five days after beginning Qualia Mind.

[See: Pharmacists’ Picks: Top Recommended Health Products.]

Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won’t necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.

“They’re not regulated by the FDA like other drugs, so safety testing isn’t required,” Kerl says. What’s more, you can’t always be sure that what’s on the ingredient label is actually in the product. Keep in mind, too, that those that contain water-soluble vitamins like B and C, she adds, aren’t going to help you if you’re already getting enough of those vitamins through diet. “If your body is getting more than you need, you’re just going to pee out the excess,” she says. “You’re paying a lot of money for these supplements; maybe just have orange juice.”

[See: Easy Ways to Protect Your Aging Brain.]

Caveats aside, if you do want to try a nootropic, consider starting with something simple and pretty much risk-free, like aromatherapy with lemon essential oil or frankincense, which can help activate your brain, Barbour says. You could also sip on “golden milk,” a sweet and anti-inflammatory beverage made with turmeric, or rosemary-infused water, she adds.

If you want to try a nootropic in supplement form, check the label to weed out products you may be allergic to and vet the company as best you can by scouring its website and research basis, and talking to other customers, Kerl recommends. “Find one that isn’t just giving you some temporary mental boost or some quick fix — that’s not what a nootropic is intended to do,” Cyr says.

Talk to your doctor, too, before diving in “to ensure that they do not conflict with current meds or cause a detrimental effect,” Hohler says. You also want to consider what you already know about your health and body — if you have anxiety or are already sensitive to caffeine, for example, you may find that some of the supplements work a little too well and just enhance anxiety or make it difficult to sleep, Barbour says. Finances matter, too, of course: The retail price for Qualia Mind is $139 for 22 seven-capsule “servings”; the suggestion is to take one serving a day, five days a week. The retail price for Alpha Brain is $79.95 for 90 capsules; adults are advised to take two a day.

All clear? Try one (not dozens) of nootropics for a few weeks and keep track of how you feel, Kerl suggests. It’s also important to begin with as low a dose as possible; when Cyr didn’t ease into his nootropic regimen, his digestion took the blow, he admits. If you don’t notice improvements, consider nixing the product altogether and focusing on what is known to boost cognitive function — eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep regularly and exercising. “Some of those lifestyle modifications,” Kerl says, “may improve memory over a supplement.”

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What Are Nootropics? originally appeared on usnews.com



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