The market for these cognitive enhancers is growing like whoa. But what do they do and are they healthy?

By Kelsey Ogletree
Towfiqu Photography/Getty Images

You might have heard the word "nootropics" and thought it was just another out-there health fad. But consider this: If you're reading this while sipping a cup of coffee, chances are you have some nootropics your system right now.

What are nootropics?

At the most basic level, nootropics (pronounced new-trope-iks) are "anything that improves mental performance or brain function," says Anthony Gustin, a functional medicine practitioner and CEO of Perfect Keto based in Austin, Texas. There are many different kinds of nootropics out there, but among the most common is caffeine.

So what are nootropics, actually? "They're a group of over-the-counter supplements and prescription drugs that claim to act as cognitive enhancers, aimed at improving memory, focus, and concentration," explains Arielle Levitan, M.D., an internist and co-founder of Vous Vitamin based outside Chicago.

They come in many forms, including pills, powders, and liquids, and there are a few different types: herbal, synthetic or what Gustin calls "in-betweener" nootropics, which is where caffeine falls.

So why are nootropics suddenly buzzy? Think of them as the latest part of the biohacking trend—aka, using science, biology, and self-experimentation to take control of your body and DIY your brain health. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it; after all, who wouldn't want to boost their overall cognitive function?

"People are expected to perform more now," says Gustin. "We're in tweaking mode, wanting to optimize our lives."

And he's on to something: The global nootropics market is projected to reach more than $6 billion by 2024, up from $1.3 billion in 2015, according to a report from Credence Research.

What do nootropics do?

"There's a whole host of ways that nootropics can improve and change moods, increase focus, increase capacity for memory, help with the frequency with which you can recall things, apply stored memories, and increase motivation and drive," says Gustin.

While many nootropics are substances with proven benefits on cognitive function, others are more speculative and have less research supporting their benefits or risks, says Dr. Levitan. For example, prescription stimulant nootropics, such as Adderall and Ritalin, have been linked to better attention and improved memory, she notes; and substances like caffeine and nicotine have been shown to enhance cognitive function. But that's not to say they don't come with serious side effects and potential negative consequences.

However, the benefits of many of the supplemental nootropics out there—like those you can find at Whole Foods, for example—are not as supported by science, says Dr. Levitan. A few smaller studies exist, such as one showing the memory benefits of ginkgo biloba extract, and an animal study showing a combination of green tea extract and l-theanine improving memory and attention—but more research is needed, she says.

What are some common types of nootropics?

Gustin recommends herbal nootropics, such as lion's mane mushroom, ashwagandha, ginseng, gingko biloba, and cordyceps. If you're thinking these sound familiar (say, after reading "What Are Adaptogens and Can They Help Power Up Your Workouts?"), you're right. "Some nootropics are adaptogens and vice versa, but one is not exclusively always the other," says Gustin.

These herbal supplements work by blocking specific pathways in the brain. For example, this is why caffeine makes you feel like you have energy—it temporarily blocks neurotransmitters in your brain called adenosine receptors that signal feelings of tiredness.

Some herbal nootropics not only supply energy to your brain but your muscles and tissues, as well. For example, beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), a supplemental variation of one of three primary energy-containing ketones naturally produced by your body when you're following a ketogenic diet, can lead to a short-term increase in blood ketones, says Gustin—which may improve both cognitive and physical performance. (Gustin says this is why some of his clients take nootropics pre-workout.)

On the other hand, synthetic, chemical-based nootropics—such as Adderall and Ritalin—actually alter how the receptors in your brain function over time. "You're literally changing your brain chemistry with a foreign chemical," says Gustin. "They have their place, but to use them as a one-off to improve your mental capacity is a bad idea."

Note: While some experts believe that nootropics are more effective when taken cumulatively, there isn't much evidence to back that up. In fact, the efficacy of nootropics is a bit of a trial and error experience for every person and will depend on your brain chemistry, says Gustin.

Are there potential risks of nootropics?

The potential risk of taking synthetic nootropics is tremendous, says Dr. Levitan. "Many of these supplements contain substances such as caffeine in very high quantities, which can be quite dangerous, especially if you combine them with alcohol or other medications," she says. For example, they can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, can be addictive and can cause rebound effects (such as fatigue and depression) when you stop taking them, she adds. (Related: How Dietary Supplements Can Interact with Your Prescription Drugs)

Herbal nootropics, while less intense, come with the same risks as any supplement in that they're not regulated by the FDA, so you can never be entirely certain what's inside. Most will have GRAS status, meaning they're "generally regarded as safe," but some do not, says Gustin. "You have to be very careful, as some may not have the actual ingredients they claim to have in the product," he says. He recommends asking a company to provide a certificate of analysis, which confirms that the ingredients on the label are in the product. It's a "huge red flag" if they won't provide this, he adds.

While Dr. Levitan acknowledges that some people may benefit from herbal nootropic supplements, ensuring you're getting the right vitamins—such as vitamins D and B, magnesium, and iron—can be an alternative way to increase your energy and focus or to improve your mood and memory. "This is a more sound approach than ingesting unknown products with limited safety data available," she notes. (Related: Why B Vitamins Are the Secret to More Energy)

Before adding to or changing a supplement in your vitamin routine, talk with your doctor. If you decide you want to experiment with herbal nootropics, do your research, and be prepared for a potentially strange feeling the first time you take them, says Gustin.

"Imagine if you're driving a car and have a lot of bugs on your windshield," says Gustin, relating the analogy to the concept of brain fog. "When you wipe the windshield clean for the first time, you're going to notice a life-changing effect."

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