Americans are under pressure.
The American Institute of Stress reports that job stress is “far and away the major source of stress for American adults” and that it has “escalated progressively over the past few decades.”
A recent report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that three-quarters of employees believe they have more on-the-job stress than they did a generation ago, while one-quarter of them view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
Meanwhile, students are under similar pressures to succeed in school and in college. In 2013, the National College Health Assessment showed that almost half of college students said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year, with more than 30 percent of those seeking help for mental health issues reporting they had seriously considered suicide.
Students feel pressured to appear flawless not only in their schoolwork, but in athletics and social activities, too, and the stress can become overwhelming.
To cope with these stresses and to improve performance, many students and adults are turning to so-called “smart drugs” and nootropics to help boost cognitive performance and battle anxiety and fatigue.
These two types of cognitive boosters are not the same, however. One of them can even be dangerous.
The Rise of Cognitive Boosters
Over the past decade, the demand for agents that can help increase brainpower has skyrocketed. As the stressed population learns more about health and wellness in general, they have become increasingly educated about how to use various supplements to support their efforts to keep up.
In 2017, market research firm “Research & Markets” reported that the brain health supplement market, which was valued at $2.3 billion in the U.S. in 2015, would reach $11.6 billion by 2024, expanding by 19.6 percent.
“Increasing awareness among college students, scientists, entrepreneurs and investment bankers are opting for memory enhancers to sharpen their minds to gain an edge on the competition,” they stated in a press release.
They went on to acknowledge a strong desire among the adult population to enhance brain function, boost mood, improve attention and focus, reduce anxiety and depression, and speed up sleep recovery.
In 2019, Zion Market Research published a report estimating a 15.7 percent increase in the demand for nootropics—another name for brain boosters—between 2018 and 2024. The firm noted in their press release that “nootropics are also known as cognitive enhancers or smart drugs,” and that these included supplements, drugs, and other related substances that could enhance cognitive function.
Nootropics and smart drugs are actually different things, but it’s common for them to be lumped together in this way, particularly when individuals and organizations are speaking of the increased demand for brain-boosting agents.
But it’s important for individuals considering adding these to their daily supplement regime to understand the difference.
What’s the Difference Between Smart Drugs and Nootropics?
The term “smart drugs” may be used to describe any type of cognitive enhancer, but the definition for “nootropics” is actually more restrictive:
- Smart Drugs: This term typically refers to prescription medications designed to treat some kind of mental or cognitive disorder. They may be taken “off label” to help boost cognitive function. The practice is illegal but common, particularly at universities and in high-stress job positions.
- Nootropics: Non-prescription medications and supplements that enhance cognitive function while contributing to brain health in some way. Nootropics must be non-toxic.
Both of these enhance—or are believed to enhance—cognitive performance. But nootropics must meet a certain set of criteria, which includes the following:
- Enhances brain health.
- Protects the brain against harmful substances.
- Is non-toxic and has no harmful side effects.
It’s this third criterion that may provide the greatest point of difference between smart drugs and nootropics. Nootropics cannot create harmful side effects, but most smart drugs do have the potential to cause harm.
The Danger with Smart Drugs
Smart drugs, when used as they’re designed, can help people with cognitive disorders to function better in society. But when taken by healthy people to enhance cognitive function, they can cause uncomfortable and sometimes serious side effects.
Below are some of the most common smart drugs used by college students, competitive gamers, and high-achieving adults today:
These are medications that are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are stimulant drugs that work by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, and by blocking or slowing how much they are reabsorbed back into the neurons.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, memory, and attention, as well as pleasurable reward. Norepinephrine is linked with arousal and attentiveness. Together, these neurotransmitters help relieve symptoms of ADHD, improving focus and attention, increasing fine and gross motor control, and supporting impulse control.
Scientists have found that individuals with ADHD are more likely to be low in dopamine and other important neurotransmitters. Researchers theorize that certain individuals with ADHD may have higher concentrations of proteins called dopamine transporters that temporarily prevent dopamine from getting where it needs to be. This lessens the effects of this neurotransmitter.
This is likely one of the reasons why ADHD medications work for those with ADHD. But how do they act in healthy people?
Those who use these drugs for a brain boost say that they help them study longer, focus better, ward off fatigue, and avoid distractions. But these medications can cause significant side effects, including:
- Chest pain
- Increased blood pressure
- Faster heart rate
Long-term use of these drugs is also associated with other side effects, including fatigue, inability to concentrate, depression, sleeping problems, lack of motivation, mood swings, and irritability.
The most concerning side effect of stimulant drugs, however, is their potential to lead to addiction. Because they spike dopamine levels—and dopamine is a “feel good” chemical—individuals may be tempted to use more and more of them, and to take higher and higher doses. Both cocaine and methamphetamine affect the brain in the same way, although at a much greater extent.
ADHD medication Adderall, for example, is an amphetamine and is identified as a Schedule II controlled substance under the Controlled Substance Act. That means it runs a high risk of abuse and dependence. In a 2015 Johns Hopkins study, researchers found that abuse and emergency room visits associated with Adderall have risen dramatically in young adults (ages 18 to 25).
“Many of these college students think stimulants like Adderall are harmless and safe,” said study co-author Ramin Mojtabai. “But there can be serious health risks and they need to be more aware.”
Misuse of stimulants like these medications is associated with dangerous outcomes like psychosis, heart attack, and even sudden death.
ADHD drugs include Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Concerta.
These are stimulant drugs meant to treat narcolepsy, which is a sleep disorder that leads to overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep. The medications help stimulate the central nervous system to make it easier for these individuals to stay awake.
Narcolepsy drugs have become popular among students and adult high-achievers because these individuals often suffer from sleep deprivation. Because they feel they need to work long hours or study all night long, they reach for something to help them avoid feeling sleepy.
Modafinil is the most popular of these, as it is believed to provide other cognitive benefits in addition to wakefulness. In 2015, researchers at Harvard and Oxford universities found that the drug could improve decision-making, problem-solving, and perhaps even encourage creative thinking. They also noted that it seemed safe to take in the short-term, but that long-term risks were unknown.
An earlier study, however, noted that modafinil had the potential to become addictive. Researchers took brain images of men before and after taking the drug and found that modafinil boosted levels of dopamine in a certain area of the brain that is also affected by abusive agents like nicotine and heroin.
The risk of addiction with modafinil may be small, as it is not as powerful a stimulant as ADHD drugs, but dependence can occur. Other similar drugs include adrafinil and armodafinil. The drug can also create side effects similar to Ritalin and other drugs, including:
- Sleep problems
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rebound fatigue
There is also some question as to how modafinil may affect regular sleep patterns. Some research suggests that prolonged use could have a damaging effect on sleep, disrupting the ability of the body to regulate how much sleep it gets, so it never feels adequately refreshed. Long-term use could also damage memory.
How Genuine Nootropics Differ from Smart Drugs
The biggest difference between nootropics and smart drugs is that nootropics do not have the same potential for dangerous side effects as smart drugs do. In fact, to be considered a “nootropic,” a supplement has to benefit the brain without creating serious side effects. Most importantly, these substances have not been found to be addictive.
A “nootropic,” a term originally created by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea, was defined as a cognitive enhancer that improves the health of the brain without doing any harm. Giurgea also stipulated that a nootropic should not be psychoactive, and should not create feelings of being high or sedated.
Nootropics also don’t require a prescription to purchase. Though you can get some smart drugs at unregulated websites online, they are supposed to be purchased only via a prescription, while nootropics are treated more like dietary supplements and are available without a prescription. Smart drugs have also been banned from eSports and on many universities, while nootropics remain legal for use in these and other settings.
Nootropics include vitamins, herbs, other supplements, and natural or synthetic compounds that help increase and/or protect cognition in some way. Instead of being designed to treat a mental disorder, as smart drugs are, nootropics help support peak cognitive function, protect against long-term health risks to the brain, and provide a daily dose in brainpower.
There are six basic types of true nootropics.
These are synthetic nootropics that work by stimulating receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh). This neurochemical sends signals in the brain that are involved in memory, attention, logical thinking, and other vital cognitive functions.
The first racetam ever created was piracetam, sometimes called the “original smart pill.” Giurgea developed it in the 1960s when he was looking for a drug that would help induce relaxation. While researching that drug, he found that it delivered unexpected benefits, like boosting memory and enhancing learning capacity.
The Belgium company that Giurgea worked for later released the drug onto the market, and numerous studies since then have shown that it can improve memory, focus, and learning while protecting brain cells from degeneration and increasing rates of growth.
Today, there are a number of racetams available as nootropics, including pramiracetam, oxiracetam, and aniracetam. All have a similar chemical structure but with slight structural differences.
This is a natural nutrient in the body related to B vitamins that’s vital to proper brain function, particularly in supporting healthy cell structure and synthesizing neurotransmitters. It’s found in a wide variety of foods, with egg yolks being the most concentrated source in the American diet.
According to a 2009 study, mean choline intakes for older children, men, women, and pregnant women “are far below the Adequate Intake established by the IOM [Institute of Medicine].”
Choline nootropics help boost levels of choline and its derivative, acetylcholine, in the body and brain. They are associated with helping to increase energy levels, enhancing memory, and improving focus and alertness.
It’s frequently recommended that cholines be taken with racetams, as without enough choline in the brain, the acetylcholine produced by the racetams won’t be processed. Choline helps increase the availability of acetylcholine.
Examples of this type of nootropic include Citicoline, Centrophenoxine, and Alpha GPC.
These are protein-like molecules that brain neurons use to communicate with each other. In other words, they act like neurotransmitters in the brain. Some have been linked with improving cognitive function. In a 2018 study, for example, researchers identified three peptides that improved synaptic function, enhanced learning, and boosted memory in study subjects.
There are different peptide nootropics on the market, but one called “Noopept” is the most popular as it’s considered the top performing option. It’s highly bioavailable and can cross the blood-brain barrier to directly affect cognitive function.
Noopept works by stimulating receptors in the brain that encourage the release of glutamate (another neurotransmitter) while modulating the transmission of acetylcholine. It also increases nerve growth factor levels, which helps protect the health of the nerve cells.
Noocept is linked with enhancing memory, energy, alertness, logical thinking, and motivation. There has also been some research suggesting that it may help reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Vitamin B Derivatives
B vitamins are critical for proper brain function. Some nootropics mimic the effect of B vitamins and are popular for reducing fatigue and boosting energy.
Sulbutiamine is the most popular of these and is a derivative of vitamin B1 (thiamine). A synthetic, more concentrated form of thiamine, it’s used to promote enhanced concentration, memory, and cognition, and has also been reported to help encourage positive mood and motivation.
Deficiencies in vitamin B1 have been linked with poor short-term memory, irritability, and short attention span. Sulbutiamine is often described as comparable with caffeine, in helping users to “wake up” and pay attention, without the jittery side effects.
This is the most recent class of nootropics. They modulate the activity of AMPA receptors (alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid) in the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and pattern recognition.
These receptors enable rapid excitatory transmissions from one neuron to another, helping to improve communication in the brain that is facilitated by the neurotransmitter glutamate.
Studies on AMPAkines show that they help enhance memory and learning, increase alertness, and heighten attention span. The racetams are considered weak AMPAkines, while this group—which includes Sunifram and Unifram—are believed to be stronger.
Also called “natural” nootropics, these are substances that are naturally occurring or plant-based supplements that have been found to benefit cognitive function. Many of these have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years to help protect the brain and improve thinking, and they often create other health benefits as well.
These are popular with individuals who prefer natural substances and who are used to using them for other purposes, such as to improve digestion or reduce inflammation. Examples include ginseng, ginkgo biloba, Bacopa monnieri, ashwagandha, L-theanine, Rhodiola rosea, curcumin, and more. Even caffeine is considered a natural nootropic because of its effect on mental alertness and energy.
Make Well-Informed Choices for Your Brain
When making choices on your personal health and well being, it’s important to be well informed of the possible side effects associated with any drug or supplement. It’s best to avoid smart drugs and choose nootropics instead. They are safer to use and can provide the same—and often even better—mental benefits.
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With over 20 years as a professional writer/editor in the health and wellness industry, Colleen M. Story has authored thousands of articles for publications like “Healthline” and “Women’s Health;” worked with high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products and Kellogg’s; and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, healthy diet, and cancer recovery. She’s also an award-winning author of both novels and non-fiction books, and a frequent motivational speaker inspiring people from all walks of life to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment. Find more at her author website and her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.