It’s no secret that fancy-ass vitamins are all up in your feed in 2019. But the latest bottles invading your ’gram aren’t for prettier hair, skin, and nails—they’re here to make your brain work better.
These new supplements—part of a class of drugs called nootropics (which includes prescription meds)—aim to up your focus, lift brain fog, and make you feel super motivated to, IDK, finally go through your mail or prep for a big presentation. And people are buying: The global brain health supplement market is growing at a rate of about 8 percent per year, and it’s estimated to be valued at more than $10 BILLION by 2025—the highest it’s ever been, according to a May 2019 market report by Grand View Research.
But while this might sound amazing, science and actual doctors say you should be careful before taking the Insta bait. Here’s why:
Wait, how are these “new” nootropics different from the prescription kind?
Docs actually have been prescribing stimulants, a form of nootropics, since the 1930s to treat depression and fatigue, says Neeraj Gandotra, MD, an instructor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medicine. And Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse were all approved to treat ADHD in the early 2000s. Prescription smart drugs contain stimulants like amphetamine (the active ingredient in Adderall) methylphenidate (the active ingredient in Ritalin), and Lisdexamfetamine (aka Vyvanse). They work by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline in the part of the brain responsible for focus and memory, which improves your concentration, says Dr. Gandotra. That increased dopamine can also create a feeling of euphoria (“WOO, paying bills feels so good”) and increased confidence (“Look at me paying all these bills!”). All that can make you feel smarter, even though that’s not the case, says Dr. Gandotra. “These types of substances do not actually make people more intelligent.” Womp.
While the script-only meds contain ingredients clinically proven to improve focus in people with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, the cool new supplements—with names like Nootropic Chocolates ($45 for 30 pieces), Nerd Alert ($30 for 30 pieces), and Hero Woman Think Fuel ($48 for 60 pills)—use different, magical-sounding ones. One, Lion’s Mane, is a mushroom that Sakara claims to reduce brain fog, improve memory, and have neuroprotective effects. Another popular brain-boosting ingredient is L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea and an active ingredient in smart supplements like Sakara Life’s Nootropic Chocolates, Flat Tummy Co.’s Hero Woman daily supplement, and Goop’s Nerd Alert chewable supplements.
Unlike the prescription medications, however, the effectiveness of herbal supplements is way less clear, says Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Mount Sinai. That’s mostly because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t keep an eye on powders, tablets, capsules, or other products containing vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes, per the National Institutes of Health. Meaning, companies don’t have to prove their pills or chews or whatever live up to their claims before selling them to you. And—bonus—they don’t have to ensure they actually contain what’s on the ingredients list, says Dr. Gandy.
FDA ish aside, do herbal nootropics work?
Some scientific studies have investigated the effects of allegedly nootropic supplements. Research based on animal testing suggests that L-Theanine might improve cognitive performance, especially if it’s combined with caffeine. And a 2017 study suggests that 200 mg of the amino acid (about the amount in four cups of green tea) has “a significant effect on the general state of mental alertness or arousal.” So, yeah, sounds somewhat promising. But, hi, since it occurs naturally in green and black tea, you don’t actually have to buy a bottle of supps to enjoy those perks.
As for Lion’s Mane, the mushroom may improve memory and clear thinking, according to animal and in-vitro studies. Unfortch, there are no clinical studies on humans to back up those claims.
But good news, the one ingredient proven to help you get sh*t done is something you’re already downing on the reg: caffeine. That’s why it makes sense that Goop and Sakara’s supplements (as well as countless others) include it in their swag. “Caffeine works on the brain by blocking the action of adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleep,” says Alex Anastasiou, MD, a psychiatrist in Pleasanton, California. “When you take caffeine, you reduce drowsiness and fatigue, which makes you feel more alert. This can lead to an increased sense of focus.” Hooray!
The key word here is “sense” of focus. “The caffeine buzz gives you energy and makes you feel sped up,” says Dr. Gandy. “This could result in people projecting what you expect from the supplement onto your reality.”
And…are they dangerous?
Although the efficacy of these supps is questionable, taking them probably isn’t dangerous. Animal studies on Lion’s Mane, for example, haven’t shown any adverse effects (although stay away if you have a mushroom allergy). As for L-Theanine, the latest nonclinical study on humans found no significant adverse issues when participants took 200 mg of the supplement per day. (But FWIW, this study was paid for by a company that makes these herbal pills.)
Still, you should definitely talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements since they could interfere with medications you’re already taking.
“People who use nootropics should understand that many of these ‘enhancers’ are not vigorously studied, not just in terms of their effectiveness but also in terms of their safety profile,” says Pradeep Bollu, MD, a neurologist at University of Missouri Health Care.
The bottom line
The ingredients in nootropic dietary supplements may or may not work. We just don’t have that information yet! And because they aren’t regulated the way prescription meds are, they may not contain the ingredients they claim to in the amounts listed. What’s more, there’s likely a major placebo effect at play here. All that’s to say, your money is probably better spent on a cup of coffee.