MedShadow Blog

Need To Know: Nootropics

If you haven't heard this buzzword yet, you will. Nootropics are becoming increasing popular among students, athletes and execs as 'brain drugs.'
By Dan Vitetta
Published: September 12, 2016
Last updated: September 14, 2016

Nootropics is an umbrella term that can refer to anything from a prescription drug, supplement or other substances that enhances a substance that enhances cognition function, particularly memory. They are often referred to as “brain drugs.” They are most often used by students, as well as business professionals and athletes. More than 130 substances are considered nootropics.

While they may seem like a sort of “fountain of youth,” they could be more of a “Pandora’s Box” due to potential risks and side effects.

Common Names

Racetams: Nootropil (piracetam), Ampamet, Draganon (aniracetam) and (oxiracetam); choline; ampakines; Vitamin B derivatives; amphetamines: Adderall (dextroampetamine/amphetamine) Ritalin, Concerta (methlphenidate) Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine); wakefulness promoting drugs: Provigil (modafinil); Nuvigil (armodafinil); caffeine; ginseng; ginko biloba.


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Side Effects and What to Do About Them

Because many products that are considered nootropics are available over the counter, people sometimes incorrectly assume they are safe to take. In addition, any nootropics are passed off as dietary supplements, which are largely unregulated and often don’t have clinical testing to demonstrate their efficacy and safety.

Common side effects of using nootropics can include migraines, headaches and skin rashes. In some cases, such as when too much of a nootropic is taken or different kinds of nootropics are mixed, the results can be life-threatening.

Some people can also experience major sleep problems (especially with amphetamines and wakefulness-promoting drugs as they are stimulants), even after they stop taking nootropics. This can diminish overall sleep quality, which can negatively impact the quality of ones’ daily life.

Withdrawal symptoms are also an issue for some users of nootropics. For example, some people who took Provigil and then quit the drug showed signs of low energy, depression, concentration problems and overall fatigue.

Amphetamine-based drugs used as nootropics are normally prescribed for ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). They also lead to spikes in dopamine and epinephrine in the brain, which can lead to tolerance to the drugs and possible habit formation. They can also have impact appetite, mood swings, irritability and sleep.

Drug Interactions

While some people might take a single nootropic at a time, others like to mix them for more powerful results, a practice known as “stacking.” The problem with “stacking” nootropics is that mixing them can actually lead to potentially dangerous reactions within the body. Using a “stack” can potentially lead to heightened side effects or create new side effects and therefore make the use of nootropics that much more risky.

Effectiveness and Considerations

One thing to consider is that not all nootropics will work the way they are advertised on the label. In fact, some nootropics may have little to no effect at all since, with the exception of prescription drugs that are nootropics, they have not been subject to rigorous testing for efficacy. Much of the evidence supporting the use of nootropics has been based on anecdotal reports.

Brain scans have indicated that certain nootropics can cause alterations to brain chemistry and the way the brain works. Some research even indicates that the brain can shrink or expand depending on nootropic use. There is also no research available to determine what happens to the brain after a person takes nootropics over the long term, and then stops.

There is also a lack of research right now about the potential long-term risks of using nootropics.

Alternatives to Nootropics

If you really feel you need a boost in the area of cognitive ability, you may want to examine and adjust your existing routine and make lifestyle changes. Perhaps you are not getting enough sleep or your diet is not sufficient in providing your brain with the proper nutrition.

There is some evidence to suggest that B vitamins may help with brain cognition. Low levels of B vitamins have been associated with poor memory function and slow information processing. B vitamins are known to be crucial in converting food to fuel for cellular energy.

Many herbal supplements are also considered brain boosters. For example, turmeric, the active ingredient in the herb curcumin used in curries, works to improve blood flow to the brain, which helps improve memory and learning. It also increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Some studies have also indicated ginkgo biloba improves short-term memory and sharpens attention.

There has been an explosion in recent years of “brain games” or “brain training” apps that supporters say are a great to increase one’s cognitive abilities and memory. The scientific results, however, have been mixed. In 2014, a group of 70 cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists released a letter expressing concerns over claims made by brain training program.

How They Work (Method of Action)

Nootropics can alter the way the brain works. Some sections of the brain may increase or decrease in physical size due to use of certain nootropics. One thing that is not yet fully understood is the long term effect on the body after a person stops taking one or more nootropics. This can pose a potentially serious health risk to the user.

The conclusion is that until there is sufficient evidence to show that nootropics are not only effective, but safe, you are likely gambling with your potentially permanent changes to your brain. Making various lifestyle changes can positively impact not only the quality of your life but also your overall mental performance.

What Worked for You?

Share your experience with nootropics in the Disqus box below.

Further Reading

Nootropic Effects and Method of Action

Dan Vitetta

Dan Vitetta

Dan Vitetta is a MedShadow intern focused on digital marketing and content creation. He completed his undergraduate degree in Marketing from Springfield College in May 2016 and is currently earning his MBA.

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Last updated: September 14, 2016