The network of 100 billion neurons snapping in your brain is akin to the workings of a supercomputer. It’s the same process that turned a primitive species of hunters and gatherers into a society of smartphone users and astronauts.
For decades, scientists have probed the idea of fine-tuning our brain for optimal performance. This worldwide desire to control our most complex organ is evident in heaps of scientific research on nootropics.
Natural Cognitive Enhancers vs Artificial Nootropics (Smart Drugs)
Nootropic (pronounced “no-ah-tropic”) is a category of substances, both natural and synthesized, that are believed to improve one’s focus, memory, cognition, and motivation.
In the most basic sense, they are drugs and supplements that make you smarter.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a fictional artificial nootropic called NZT 48 from the film and television series “Limitless.” This clear pill supposedly “unlocks” the brain in a miraculous way, allowing its users to perform mental feats of genius in a 12-hour time-frame.
Spoiler alert: reality-based science hasn’t produced a limitless smart drug to make you the next Einstein or Mozart, but effective nootropics are still far from science fiction.
A clinical study of the natural cognitive enhancer bacopa monniera in the international journal Psychopharmacology displayed substantial improvements in learning and memory among 46 users of the supplement. Similar findings in Drug Development Research show improvements in memory formation in users of the artificial nootropic oxiracetam, as well as, alleviation of mental roadblocks through the use of Piracetam.
Nootropics differ greatly in their complexity and effects. They are synthesized by professionals in labs, grown by farmers in gardens, and brewed in household coffee machines on a daily basis. Let’s dig a little deeper within this diverse category to learn a bit more about some of these natural cognitive enhancers, and compare them with some of the popular artificial nootropics that are currently on the market.
The following “smart drugs” matchups take popular synthetic nootropics and pair them with natural and comparatively risk free remedies that are available to the public. We’d like to note that most artificial drugs mentioned here, while considered leading nootropics for their effects on the brain, are legally limited to prescribed use due to their potential for addiction and abuse if used incorrectly.
ADHD Medications vs L-Theanine
Adderall and Ritalin are controlled substances issued by doctors for patients diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
These artificial nootropics are known to relax overactive minds to create a clear space for thinking. Despite the controlled status, nationwide surveys suggest approximately one in five college students illegally use these stimulants to increase wakefulness and focus.
How ADHD Medications Work:
Most ADHD medications create effects of clarity and focus by increasing dopamine and adrenaline levels in the brain. They do this by imitating signals sent by neurotransmitters and increasing the flow of epinephrine, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals balance reactions to increase alertness and decrease fatigue.
L-Theanine is a natural amino acid with a similar function of relaxing the brain to increase productivity. This compound is found naturally in green and black tea, but also manufactured as an extract for concentrated dosages.
Research suggests this supplement aids in improving focus and reducing stress. A study in Biological Psychology found that participants faced with a math problem experienced less stress and anxiety when they ingested theanine.
How L-Theanine Works:
L-Theanine relaxes the mind without sedating it, which is key to its nootropic use. Once consumed, it reacts in the brain to encourage a calm and aware state of mind. This natural cognitive enhancer is often paired with other nootropics that have side effects of anxiety (mainly stimulants).
Both L-Theanine and ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall help manage the mental roadblocks of stress and anxiety. ADHD medications can produce more noticeable effects, however they also can come with more risks.
Adderall and Ritalin are effective, but they are also potentially addictive, illegal for non-prescribed use, and can cause heart damage if used incorrectly. Their most prevalent and lamented side-effects include severe loss of appetite, temporary insomnia, and tolerance development. The brain adapts to these drugs after continual use, requiring a higher dose to maintain the stimulatory effects.
L-Theanine, on the other hand, is available to the public at large as a subtle and low-risk smart drug appropriate for beginners in the nootropic segment. It’s a natural doorway to a clutter-free brain, not a risky stimulant. You may even find it beneficial beyond intellectual pursuits in relieving anxiety with peace of mind.
Piracetam vs Bacopa Monnieri
Piracetam is the most popular nootropic in a category of synthetic compounds called racetams. It’s considered the most effective racetam in promoting brain function and preservation. Clinical studies focus on Piracetam’s effect of reduced cognitive decline, with some also suggesting improved cognition.
Compared to other smart drugs, Piracetam has a considerable amount of sales and studies to back its potential to preserve information observed by the conscious mind.
How Piracetem Works:
Like ADHD medications, Piracetam affects signals sent by neurotransmitters shortly after ingestion. The brain reacts by increasing efficiency in the cellular membrane and sending signals to aid in mental performance and memory preservation.
Bacopa monnieri is an herb found around the world with known medical usage dating back more than 1,000 years. It’s commonly taken by consumers in pill form and offers similar benefits as Piracetam in terms of memory preservation. This is the reason why we have Bacopa in our all natural herbal nootropic, Focusene.
Several medical journals observed greater memory capacity in users of the herb, but results often took 5 or more weeks of continued dosage to clearly observe.
How Bacopa Monnieri Works:
Bacosides are the active compound in bacopa monnieri supplements. These chemicals serve as both an antioxidant and communication agent within the brain. The brain is believed to react to the nootropic by aiding the transfer of information between brain cells.
Both of these nootropics are believed to work best for people who are susceptible to cognitive decline, such as the elderly. Studies suggest memory improvement at age groups as young as 18, but results were more consistent and significant when repeated with older demographics.
In several clinical studies, bacopa monnieri’s recurring and notable side effect was upset stomach in some users. Piracetam’s side effects include headache, anxiety, and in some cases depression.
Modafinil vs Caffeine
Modafinil is used mainly as a medical stimulant to promote wakefulness and focus in narcoleptics. It is also a controlled substance that is illegal for non-prescribed use. It is characterized as a day-long energy boost for mental productivity.
A study conducted on fatigued military workers found modafinil to be an effect agent in promoting mental performance and wakefulness.
How Modafinil Works:
Modafinil produces a blockage of neurotransmitters similar to the effect of ADHD drugs to increase levels of dopamine in the brain.
Caffeine is a compound that tea and coffee drinkers are likely already familiar with. Coffee is the world’s second-most traded commodity for good reason — it’s perhaps the cheapest and easiest way to wake yourself up. However, it wears off quicker than other stimulants (4-6 hours).
Caffeine is available in many liquid and supplemental forms.
How Caffeine Works:
Caffeine imitates a chemical in the brain called adenosine that creates mental fatigue. This imitation heightens levels of dopamine and creates a slight rise in adrenaline to keep you alert.
Once again, we see natural cognitive enhancers outplay artificial nootropics in availability and risk. Caffeine’s primary side effect is withdrawal for consistent users. Withdrawal happens to a lesser extent with Modafinil, but this medicine, like ADHD medication, is illicit for non-prescribed use for good reason.
Continued use of Modafinil can lead to increased anxiety, skin rashes, restlessness, and nausea. The less common but most feared of this drug’s side effects are hallucinations and the development of clinical depression.
The safe bet here is clearly caffeine. The majority of American adults consume it nearly every day of the week. If you’re not a coffee drinker, there are options like tea or 5 Hour Energy shots that come with whiter teeth and longer effects. If you are a coffee drinker who wants to change things up, try brewing coffee differently. Espresso and french press coffee has higher caffeine levels per fluid ounce, giving a slightly stronger kick than standard drip coffee.
These are just a few recent highlights of scientific research on this category of smart drugs. In the years to come, we’re sure to learn more and more about the effectiveness and potential of new and old compounds alike. In the meantime, for more information, a detailed list of nootropics — complete with descriptions, professional evaluations, and related clinical studies — can be found on examine.com.
Countless people are chasing the limitless mindset. Are you?