Nootropics, or so-called 'smart drugs', are the focus of a lot of discussion at the moment. As with anything that gains traction and comes to mass awareness, opinion on nootropics is sharply divided. Here at Naturopathic Alphas, we don't do black and white; our home is in the shades of grey, and our commitment is to bring you the messages that are written between the lines.
The first thing to say is that nootropics aren't “designer drugs”, and they're not, in many cases, all that 'new', either. Nootropic refers to any substance, natural, synthetic, or a blend of natural and synthetic elements, that acts on the brain in some way, usually by stimulating natural processes such as memory, learning, concentration, and decision-making.
You may already be using nootropic substances without realising it; caffeine, green tea, and matcha are all considered nootropic compounds, and all have been proven to improve cognition across the board, from information processing (learning) to information retrieval (memory.) Of the three, matcha has the highest caffeine content, and the most impact on cognitive abilities and energy levels; it also, like green tea, comes without the shakes and jitters that coffee can cause.
On the prescription side of things, certain medications approved for the management and treatment of conditions such as ADHD and dementia are being used – often illegally – as designer nootropics, while legal synthetic nootropics include supplements such as L-Theanine, a substance found in green tea that improves caffeine synthesis, CDP-Choline, which is used to treat memory loss in patients with vascular dementia, and which has been proven to work safely for healthy individuals looking for a brain boosting bio-hack, and Creatine Monohydrate, commonly found in body building supplements, and proven to improve cognitive processing and overall energy levels. With Creatine Monohydrate, it is recommended that women, particularly, take it alongside liquorice root or rosemary tea, and that pregnant and breastfeeding individuals avoid it entirely, as it does raise testosterone levels.
Do You Need Nootropics?
The answer, for most of us, is “probably not.” A purely natural, holistic approach to cognitive abilities, memory, and energy levels has been shown to work quickly, and effectively (many nootropic drugs take at least a month to show noticeable effects). Holistic cognitive enhancement includes lifestyle elements, such as appropriate exercise, a functional sleep routine, and developing good organisational habits, naturopathic nutrition, such as ensuring you're eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables – particularly dark, leafy greens, red onion, and pulses – as these provide essential vitamins and minerals, keeping topped up on quality protein (lean, grassfed beef, salmon, mackerel, or wild game meat for omnivores, shittake mushrooms, peas, red kidney beans, and red onion, dosed with turmeric and black pepper to make the plant protein more readily bio-available for vegans and vegetarians), and ensuring there's plenty of healthy fat in your diet (sources of healthy fat include avocados, nuts, particularly almonds and macadaemia nuts, eggs, and red meat), and health habits such as staying hydrated, and knowing your limits.
Limitless? You're Not
We all have natural limits, points beyond which our concentration starts to flag, we begin to feel tired, and we start looking around for distractions. These limits will differ for different tasks – I can maintain focus on reading and writing far longer than I can follow a television programme for, for example – but they are natural, normal, and healthy signs that our bodies and brains are working optimally.
If you had the kind of school experience I did, you will have no doubt encountered the kinds of PE teachers who told you that “pain is a sign that the exercise is working!” and to “push through the pain barrier!” You don't do that. Pain, whether in the form of aching muscles or flagging attention spans, is your body or brain saying “Hi, that's all we can manage for now, thanks.” Pain means you stop. You take a break, you switch to a different task, you review what you've managed to do so far. And, if it's important that you're able to keep going longer, you build that in slowly, day by day, quietly and patiently pushing your limits, without putting yourself in deficit. If you managed to run a mile today, run a mile and a bit tomorrow, a mile and a half the day after that, etc. If you were able to read two chapters of a textbook, or two full length articles today, try to read a single page extra tomorrow, or the opening paragraphs of a third article. If you started to look around for distractions after forty-five minutes, try and concentrate for forty-six tomorrow. Holistic wellbeing and naturopathic improvement are all about incremental steps, tiny tweaks, barely-there changes. Things your body doesn't notice at the time, but build up to the point that you can run 27miles, can read an entire book, can spend eight hours absorbed in tasks that would have normally had you fidgeting in well under eighty minutes. Naturopathic lifestyle management can be just as effective as supplements, invasive, expensive, time-consuming treatments, or medication with potentially life-impacting side effects.
We're not supposed to be limitless – just watch the film (Limitless, 2011, Burger) to find out why the promises of synthesised nootropics aren't so much silver bullets as cheaply coated alloys that oxidise very quickly, and very badly. A brain hack every so often isn't necessarily a bad thing – sometimes, you just don't have the luxury of giving yourself the freedom to 'get there in your own time', or wait for lifestyle management to have an impact; you need that extra energy, that improved memory, now. The exam's in an hour's time, the promotion board's this week... you can't just wait on nature to take its sweet time. The problem begins when people start to believe that more of whatever helped them will inherently be better, and make them better. They start to think they're not good enough without their particular performance enhancer of choice. This is psychological addiction, and is the first step on the road to physical addiction – where your brain and body have become so habituated to stimulants and substances that they have actually shut down their natural processes, and physically cannot operate without the substance they've come to rely on.
Are nootropics addictive? Some are, particularly those designed to manage dementia and ADHD, when taken by people without those conditions. We all enjoy feeling good, and we are all stimulated by rewards – better test scores, increased confidence in social situations, a promotion or job offer. Real life as an adult isn't easy, there's a lot of demands and challenges to be faced every day, and, in 2019, it's easier than it has ever been to compare our performance to other peoples', and find ourselves lacking. Supplements such as Creatine, L-Theanine, and CDP-Choline do not currently appear to have addictive properties, although very little research has been done on the interactions of these substances both with each other, and with other supplements and prescription medications. This lack of research raises an important point; nootropics should not be taken in combination, as the cumulative side effects, interactions, and contraindications are not currently known, meaning there may be significant health risks involved in mixing supplements, as we know there are for substances such as ginkgo biloba, and for medications like the contraceptive pill, whose effects are cancelled out by both alcohol and antibiotics.
What are the purely natural options?
At Naturopathic Alphas, we prefer food sources, herbs and spices to supplements and medication, and will always look to prescribe a “found in your local supermarket” choice first. When it comes to enhancing cognitive performance, there are plenty of good guys in the herbs and spices aisle, and in shops readily found in and around your town centre, that are primed to go to bat for you.
Energy, alertness, and faster information processing. Promotions, job interviews, social situations, and first dates: Ginger, turmeric, black pepper, and mint from the herbs and spices aisle, grapefruit, blueberries, red onion, red pepper, apples, oats, bananas, mackerel, tuna, salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds from the grocery section.
Memory: Exams, learning, new job: Saunter down the herbs and spices aisle, and pick up some rosemary, oregano, and tarragon, making sure you pick up pumpkin seeds, if you're male (to counteract the impact that all three herbs have on testosterone), before you grab some free range eggs, kale, broccoli, shittake mushrooms, and grassfed beef steaks.
Creative thinking, leaps of intellect: Job performance, school performance, being better at business: Cloves spice things up, whilst focusing neuron firing for a keen intelligence that can be precision-applied. Get some mint and fennel to go along with them, and make sure you're topped up on quality protein; game meats, lean, grassfed beef, tuna, salmon, and mackerel, for the omnivores, mushrooms (particularly shittake and chestnut), walnuts, almonds, and peppers for the vegetarians and vegans.
Hydration really helps when it comes to cognitive processing, so drink plenty of water, along with your caffeine hit from matcha, green tea, or black coffee.
Nutrition or Nootropics? It's the wrong question, because nutrition can be nootropic, if you get it right. At Naturopathic Alphas, we can help you identify where you could benefit from a bio-hack to boost cognitive performance, and tailor a lifestyle and nutrition plan that's exactly right for you. An indepth consultation, tailored recommendations, and half-hour follow up, is still cheaper than a three-month course of nootropics from MindLabs, and gives you the knowledge and skills to make lifelong performance-enhancing choices that you know are right for you, putting the power in your hands.