What should you look for in a nootropic supplement and what should you avoid?
The most important organ is the one up top, the control center, the part that makes us “us”: that’s right, the brain. It’s the organ that never shuts off, never takes a break, and is always going. Some people aren’t satisfied with their neurological functions, however. They have difficulty remembering things, problems with concentration and focus, and other problems which can pose a challenge to people in school, work, or everyday life.
That’s where nootropics come in. Nootropics, or “smart pills” are supplements that are supposed to improve or optimize your mental faculties and improve memory, problem solving, and focus. Those supplements are usually used by students, business executives, entrepreneurs or older people who want to improve mind efficiency.
But there's a problem.
Many of these smart pills are packed with fillers, low-quality ingredients, and stimulants that can not only slow down your mental performance, but even cause unpleasant side effects that leave you feeling worse than before. That's why we've compiled this little guide to help people separate the good from bad, and the healthy from the unhealthy.
How Do Smart Pills Work?
There are different types of pills that are supposed to improve the natural function of your brain, divided into two main sections: pharmaceutical nootropics and herbal nootropics.
Pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers are the result of clinical research and laboratory testing, first on animals and then on human volunteers, of chemicals that are supposed to have a definite effect on the brain and nervous system1. Many of these products work primarily by stimulating the nervous system which can cause heightened awareness and wakefulness – unfortunately, the same products can cause drastic side effects such as insomnia, nausea, and vomiting2. These products also require a prescription, as they’re considered drugs and thus not allowed to be sold over the counter.
The other type is what we’re calling herbal nootropics. They don’t necessarily have to contain literal herbs for this name to apply to them. Generally, they contain either herbs, natural extracts from plants and fruits, or otherwise natural chemicals. They are meant to work by doing a number of things, including increasing blood flow (and nutrients) to the brain, as well as to reducing inflammation and protecting cellular health in order to prevent cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s from forming3. Unlike pharmaceuticals, these natural supplements don’t require any sort of prescription to take. Unfortunately some companies oversell the benefits of their products, and they’ve gotten in trouble with the FDA for doing so4. Also, since there’s no regulation, it depends on who you buy them from. They could also end up being potent – or pointless.
Smart Pills Can Help With The Following
What To Look For In A Smart Pill
We know a lot about natural cognitive enhancement, and that’s why we've been able to assemble this list of the top things to look for in a nootropic pill.
This popular ingredient comes from the leave of the Ginkgo tree, which has been used for centuries to treat various conditions. Among its benefits are increased blood flow to the brain, something which is thought to help improve cognition.9
Ginseng is rich in ginsenoside Rb1 (Rb1), a compound shown to improve spatial learning and memory in hippocampus-dependent tasks. Rb1 was shown in rats to reduce stress-related hippocampal dysfunction, indicated by increased levels of heat shock proteins and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).10
Also known by the name "brahmi," this plant is used in traditional Ayurvedic Indian medicine. More recently, it has been tested for its effects on cognition, and has yielded some impressive results: in one double-blind study, it was shown to correlate with improved memory among participants who used it.11
Rhodiola Rosea may sustain brain chemicals including norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters in this class are critical for cognitive processing speed, concentration, mood and memory. Rhodiola may modulate the monoamine oxidase enzymes that would otherwise destroy these neurotransmitters.12
L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters, and they work in the brain to regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills.13
L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that is used to produce noradrenaline and dopamine; it appears to reduce stress during exposure to acute stressors (which tend to deplete noradrenaline) and may help to prevent stress-induced memory deficits.14
The last thing you want to do is clutter up your body with a bunch of artificial ingredients that have been associated with causing toxicity and even cancer. Natural ingredients, including the inactive parts of pills like the matrix in which the formula is delivered, ensure that your body is getting something that’s harmonious with it. It also shows the company making it is dedicated to giving you a clean product, which shows respect for the human body.
One of the only advantages a consumer can have when dealing with a business is making sure the business is held to its promises. If you pay them for a product, that product may not work, but if you can’t get your money back, what does the company care ? They have your money already, and have no reason to make a proper supplement. That’s why you should always make sure you buy from companies that offer a money-back guarantee – that means if their product doesn’t work, you can send it back for a refund. That puts the onus on them to make a pill that does what they say it will15.
GMP-Certified, Made in the USA
It’s not only important to make sure a supplement is all-natural, but to make sure it’s clean and free of impurities. The best way to ensure that is by making sure the pill is made in the USA, in a GMP-certified facility. The United States has strict regulations when it comes to manfacturing anything to do with health, and the Good Manufacturing Practices group is a third-party organization that ensures high standards of manufacturing quality16. That means you’re getting a product that isn’t tainted, fraudulent, or assembled in unsafe working conditions.
Things to Avoid
If you take a product for cognitive enhancement, you need to make sure it contains the correct level of each active ingredient. If an ingredient has been studied for a certain effect, or level of effectiveness, it’s only been studied at certain doses – to take a product that has a lower dose than that could compromise effectiveness17. It’s best to avoid products that offer less than the recommended dose of an ingredient, because while it may make for a cheaper product, it could make for an ineffective one.
Customer reviews, star ratings – these things drive serious business for online companies, and that means they’ll do anything to make sure they’re the ones who come out on top. Unfortunately it means some companies are buying reviews from paid writers18. The result? Amazon reviews aren’t worth what they used to be, and their value has been severely compromised. What this means is that you can’t just go by a product’s reviews or ratings: you have to take lots of different factors into account, meaning youn need to do lots of research.
“Free Trial” Offers
It may seem too good to be true: just enter in your credit card information (we won’t charge you, honest!) and get a month of a product to try for free. The problem? It is too good to be true. Many supplement companies out there have been offering these bogus free trials in order to boost numbers of new users, but they usually come with a catch: customers end up getting charged at the end of the trial period if they don’t “unsubscribe” in time, leading to angry customers and some lawsuits19.