In the movie Limitless, the down-and-out main character, played by Bradley Cooper, is introduced to a drug that allows him to release the full potential of his brain. He becomes an overnight success—for better or for worse. (If you haven’t seen the movie, we won’t ruin it for you by dishing more details.)
While we’re nowhere near the magic bullet that Cooper’s character experiences, more people than ever are turning to brain boosters to help them get the edge in an overly competitive world. The market for brain-enhancing supplements is expected to hit a staggering $11.6 billion worldwide by 2024, fueled by the rise of nootropics and other brain boosters.
Here’s what you need to know about the growing demand for brain health supplements.
Are nootropics really ‘smart drugs?’
For those who think the plot of Limitless is a feasible option, rein it in. Nootropics, or smart drugs, are supplements that improve mental health. They’ve been shown effective in many cases, but they won’t make you some kind of genius overnight. Let’s take a look at what nootropics can actually do for you.
Corneliu Giurgea, a Romanian scientist, created the first nootropic, piracetam, in the mid-1960s. It’s said to help sharpen focus and improve your memory and immune system. There’s also research that piracetam could help with reducing cognitive deterioration brought on by Alzheimer’s.
Since then, the market has been flooded with a plethora of nootropics. “Stacks” are carefully synthesized formulas that often include piracetam, amino acids, herb extracts and a brain chemical called citicoline. Other nootropics products even offer coffee in a gummy form, garnering interest from consumers and Silicon Valley venture capitalists alike.
But gummy bears aside, many nootropics blends are safe alternatives to common brain-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Nootropic ingredients to look for include caffeine, which has obvious energy-boosting properties; rhodiola rosea, which helps release serotonin and other feel-good chemicals into the brain; ginkgo biloba, one of the most well-known nootropic ingredients; and beta phenylethylamine, which can trigger the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. Some nootropics contain AC-11, an extract from an Amazonian vine that has clinical evidence backing its DNA repair capabilities.
When taken in small doses, nootropics tend to be relatively safe—definitely more so than prescription drugs. Still, not all supplements are created equal, and it’s best to go with trusted nootropic supplements that contain formulas backed by research.
Other nutrients that keep the brain healthy
Aside from nootropics, there are some nutrients that assist neurochemical activities when taken in the form of single supplements. Here are a few vital nutrients that are known to keep the brain healthy. (Keep in mind that a whole-food diet alone can’t cure a mental disorder, and shouldn’t be taken along with, or instead of, your medications without talking to your doctor first).
- Omega-3 fatty acids: When you consume the right amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, your body’s inflammatory pathways operate at a peak level, which is a fancy way of saying that your central nervous system and brain are getting the support they need. While oily fish like salmon and mackerel have the right amounts, the latter contains a higher percentage of mercury. Omega-3 supplements could do the trick.
- Folate and B12: It’s interesting to note that a number of people suffering from depression have folate (B9) deficiencies. Residual symptoms of depression can be reduced with the right dosage of folate supplements. This B vitamin helps synthesize dopamine and serotonin, the so-called happy hormones. In the landmark study released last month, folic acid and the B vitamins were two of the only major vitamins shown to be clear winners. The B vitamins also appear in many effective nootropic blends.
Folate and B12 work together to maintain your nervous system. B12 is also vital for overall neurotransmitter health. It could be that a folate/B12 supplement is your new go-to morning upper instead of that cup o’ joe.
- Minerals: There’s some evidence that zinc supplements, when consumed along with anti-depressants, can help with depression. Certain anxiety symptoms have been linked to magnesium and iron deficiency. Nuts and whole grains contain good levels of zinc and magnesium. Your doctor might suggest desiccated liver tablets—long a favorite in the bodybuilding community—if you suffer from an iron deficiency.
If you do decide on a nootropic, go for one that’s extracted instead of synthesized. This way you know you’re not getting any unwanted toxins in your system. Remember that genetics and physiological changes play a massive role in how your brain functions. If you’re trying to stay alert through the day, give nootropics a shot before turning to less-natural alternatives (yes, we’re talking about Adderall).
Instead of making a decision based on blind faith—which wouldn’t be very smart—read quality, in-depth reviews of brain health supplements. After all, the term nootropic is the combination of the Greek words for “mind” and “bending,” and you don’t want to bend your mind too far from its axis like the main character in Limitless.