If you could take vitamins that made you think faster, you’d buy them, right?
More and more people are saying yes. Nootropic supplements, also known as cognitive enhancers or simply “smart drugs,” are expected to be a $6 billion industry by 2024, up from $1.3 billion in 2015, according to market analysis firm Credence Research. But the growing popularity of nootropics doesn’t mean they’re safe — or effective.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, notes that under current law, nootropics manufacturers don’t need any evidence from human trials showing that their products improve brain function to advertise that they do.
Therefore, he says, there is “zero incentive for companies [to test on humans when they] can make millions.” His research into the “brain-boosting” supplements, which are popular in technology circles, found that there have been several contain unlabeled, untested and potentially dangerous active ingredients. Still, he says, some of the supplements could be beneficial.
“It’s absolutely possible that a combination of ingredients … could theoretically enhance one’s [brain function]” says Cohen. But, “until the laws have changed, we’ll never learn about it.”
But some nootropics users say they’re living proof of how effective they are. In 2010, Dr. James Lee, a Stanford-trained anesthesiologist, suffered from cognitive decline after undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor. His doctors said nothing could be done and that he’d just have to get used to it, telling him “You’re not going to die, welcome to your new normal.”
Lee turned to supplements to help repair his brain. Now, he says he feels better than ever.
“I’m doing things I’ve never done before,” says Lee, who, along with his wife, Dr. Tess Mauricio, recently launched his own brand of nootropics called Liveli, which contain dozens of active ingredients, such as the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid. “I’m playing the piano,” he says.
Dr. Jeff Gladd, an integrative physician and advisory member on the board of the Care/of — a supplement company that makes a nootropic formulated with citicoline, a drug sometimes used to treat Alzheimer’s — says that the potential benefits outweigh the risk.
“I don’t believe the average diet is providing enough nutrition [for the brain or body],” says Gladd. “Some level of supplementation is important.”
New York University professor of nutrition and food studies and registered dietitian Lisa R. Young is more measured when it comes to the necessity of supplements — nootropics or otherwise.
“Whether they do anything, we don’t know,” says Young. “What we do know is that [to maintain health], lifestyle and diet will always be the first line of defense.”