The appeal of a drug that promises effortless and unprecedented brainpower is universal.  A drug that could lift the brain fog we didn’t even know we had, turn us into efficiency machines and eliminate sleep, depression and anxiety. We all have working memory, attention spans, moods, creativity and reasoning that could use improving.

Since binge eating all the leftover Halloween candy didn’t solve anything, I had to look elsewhere. I found the solution; it’s not just one drug, but an entire class of them.

I keep hearing how Adderall is this supposed super drug, but a double-blind cross-over placebo-controlled study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year showed that Adderall only has powerful subjective effects and actually impairs already high-performing individuals.

In my experience, the dilated pupils and incessant sweating didn’t feel like much of an advantage. This go-to study drug for college students now sounds rather useless. Although it does guarantee a clean room at the cost of what you were actually supposed to do.

It turns out that this class of drugs that enhances mental function has few side effects.  They have been shown to improve all areas of cognition. They are known as “nootropics,” and they work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals, by improving the brain’s oxygen supply or by stimulating nerve growth.

Originally, in order to be considered nootropic, a compound would need to enhance learning and memory, enhance learned behaviors under conditions that are known to disrupt them, protect the brain from physical or chemical injury, enhance the tonic cortical or subcortical control mechanisms, and exhibit few side effects and extremely low toxicity, while lacking the pharmacology of typical psychotropic drugs.

In other words, they won’t leave you in a fetal position in the corner of your kitchen, hallucinating the highlights of your life and scratching your neck wondering where your next fix is coming from.

Nootropics has gradually expanded to either be synonymous with cognitive enhancers or refer to the subset of non-stimulant cognitive enhancing compounds with few side effects and low toxicity. Nootropics are by definition cognitive enhancers, but a cognitive enhancer is not necessarily a nootropic.

Students are familiar with a white crystalline xanthine alkaloid and central nervous system stimulant – caffeine. The powerful productivity enhancer is not a nootropic because it can cause intoxication. Restlessness, fidgeting, anxiety, excitement, insomnia, flushing of the face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, irritability, irregular or rapid heart beat and psychomotor agitation are all brought to you by your study buddy caffeine.

Between 80 and 100 cups of coffee can even cause death. That is some serious studying. Then there are the withdrawal-induced headaches, irritability, inability to concentrate, drowsiness, insomnia and pain in the stomach, upper body and joints. It is interesting to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes caffeine withdrawal as a mental disorder. Yikes.

Many of these compounds are found in the foods we eat everyday. Grapefruit contains a flavanone glycoside called naringin, which inhibits some drug-metabolizing enzymes and extends the effects of caffeine. Meat contains a nootropic and so does tea. L-theanine is a nootropic that has been shown to mitigate the negative aspects of caffeine, such as anxiety, increased blood pressure and diminished sleep quality, while improving upon the positive aspects. It’s ability to enhance attention beyond that of caffeine alone has been repeatedly verified. It is actually one of the main psychoactive compounds found in tea.

There is a nootropic that is well known to the body building community. Known as “creatine,” it is the named after the Greek word for meat. Creatine is nitrogenous organic acid that occurs naturally in vertebrates. It helps to provide energy to all cells in the body, primarily muscle. The brain is an energy hog that accounts for about two percent of our body mass but uses 20 percent of our energy.

Creatine acts as an energy buffer in the brain. It is converted into high-energy phosphocreatine in the body, which helps to create the adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) to transport chemical energy within cells for metabolism. During times of activation, the brain rapidly drains phosphocreatine to keep ATP levels constant. Oral supplementation of creatine has been shown to increase brain creatine levels between 3.5 and 13.3 percent, with the average being about 8 percent. This additional buffer of energy may enhance performance on demanding tasks related to IQ. Studies show that it improves the ability to reason, reduce fatigue and increase muscle mass when taken with exercise.

Of course, the hole goes much deeper. Modafinil is a medication prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers to induce wakefulness and help forgo sleep. It has proven to eliminate the effects of short-term sleep deprivation in addition to improving memory and executive functions. It is being studied by the military to help sleep deprived soldiers.

There’s also bacopa monnieri for long-term memory, rhodiola rosea for anti-fatigue and L-DOPA for vivid dreams.

Cognitive enhancement is an area of science practiced with the objective of altering your brain’s neurochemistry. Only you are responsible for your actions, therefore, you are fully expected to research and read into this topic yourself and be prudent before you start mixing and matching drugs like they’re jelly beans. Creating accounts on the Web sites Quantified Mind or Cambridge Brain Sciences will help in tracking your cognitive function over time, but remember, no nootropic is a substitute for a good night’s sleep, a healthy and active lifestyle and learning to motivate yourself.


  1. I’ve wanted to try out nootropics for awhile now, but they’re just so expensive and I’m not sure if it’s worth it or not. A lot of my friends love them, and they’ve said that they’ve become so much more productive and happy ever since they started using them. I guess the benefits are definitely there.

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