Common supplements and medications that patients ask about these days are nootropics also known as “smart” drugs, or mind enhancing cognitive improvement drugs. Nootropic is a greek derived word meaning to bend or shape the mind. These are substances that enhance and improve brain function, usually improving memory, intelligence, increasing creativity, alertness, improve anxiety, mood and even more. These range from amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, herbs, adaptogens to synthetic medication and even psychedelic prescription drugs. They often work by enhancing or altering the neurotransmitter in the brain like dopamine and serotonin.
“Limitless” with Bradley Cooper is what comes to mind when you think of what nootropic drugs can do. The vision of being super human is what entices people to try these substances.Traditionally nootropic drugs have been used in patients with neurological or cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, narcolepsy, ADHD and more. (1,3)
An example of a nootropics type drug is one that is a stimulant or has excessive amounts of caffeine, either green tea or coffee-derived. Many adaptogens like lion’s mane, panax ginseng and rhodiola rosea are also considered in this category. Other supplements like Bacopa, phophtisyl serine, omega 3 fatty acids, and ginko balboa are also included.
Students tend to use them to improve studies, an example is a drug amphetamine (adderal, ridalin) derived often used in ADHD. A lot of high functioning executives who want to improve performance also tend to request these types of substances (ex Provigil). Athletes will use them to boost athletic performance since it is a stimulant.
These supplements are controversial. But the supplement industry continues to vastly grow steadily.
As a physician I often warn against taking them, because although patients may feel like they are altering their brain in a positive way, there are often side effects such as increasing heart rate, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and sometimes irritability. Always discuss these with your doctor before you start any over the counter supplement. Everyone has a unique and genetic makeup and metabolizes drugs and supplements differently. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another, and sometimes can negatively affect you rather than give you the positive enhancement you are looking for.
I always personally encourage lifestyle changes such as managing stress, getting more sleep, getting appropriate exercise before adding supplements and drugs into your life.