Are Nootropics Legit Or Just Another Health Fad?

photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
People take supplements for all kinds of reasons: for a healthy pregnancy, for thicker hair, for fewer headaches, for stronger bones, and so on. But some health-conscious people are drawn to a type of supplement called nootropics, because they promise to improve your mental performance and make you smarter. Moon Juice sells a nootropic Reishi mushroom powder that it says is a, "powerful brain tonic, long used to energize and enhance mood, and support concentration." Sounds promising, but what even does that mean?
"Nootropic" essentially means something that enhances your cognition, says Philip Muskin, MD, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry. "There are a bunch of things that fall into that class," he says. For example, stimulant drugs like Adderall and Dexedrine are nootropics. And even things like caffeine, nicotine, and L-theanine could be considered nootropics, because they have a stimulant effect, he says. "Though, honestly there's nothing that is truly like, Wow, this will make you a genius," he says.
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Some nootropic supplements claim that they'll make you so smart that you'll have an "unfair advantage," but that is a stretch. For a quick neurology lesson, we know that memory and cognition have to do with various circuits in the brain, Dr. Muskin says. The only way to make your brain work better, so to speak, is to keep using these circuits. "The more we use circuits, the more the synapses grow, and the faster and more efficient [the brain] is," he says.
So, taking stimulant drugs or supplements can't make you smarter, but they could make you more focused, which would allow you to get more done, Dr. Muskin says. For example, lots of people assume that taking Adderall makes you better at studying, but it's really just that it helps you concentrate and stay awake or interested. This is also true for any supplement or powder that's marketed as a "nootropic": you can't expect for a powder to make you smarter, but it might energize you a little bit to do your work.
Whenever you're buying dietary supplements, it's important to take the claims about fancy-sounding ingredients with a grain of salt. Dietary supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so products are not subject to the same rigorous testing as medications. "A health food store is there to sell stuff to you," Dr. Muskin says. "Many of these claims are really kind of exaggerated." Not to mention, just picking a random supplement off the shelf of a health food store is not the same thing as going to see a doctor who knows your health history and can make suggestions accordingly. To that same point, you shouldn't take prescription nootropic drugs unless they've been prescribed to you by your doctor or healthcare provider.
In this case, "nootropic" is just the latest wellness buzzword for supplement companies to capitalize on to try sell products. If you like consuming nootropic supplements because you believe it "boosts" your brainpower somehow, that's your choice — but not buying into the claims would be the even smarter thing to do.
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