The Limitless Pill Doesn’t Exist

The way that our health system is built is preventing innovation in healthcare. Our health system has been designed to approve drugs that are created for treating disorders. We do not have any framework for regulating drugs or medical devices that are focused on optimizing and improving the health of the perfectly healthy. This is the fundamental reason why most health startups brand and market their products as fitness devices instead of medical devices. As startups, they need to move quickly and efficiently. They do not have the time nor the money to do years and years of testing before bringing the product to market, so their product ends up being labeled as a fitness device that “might work”.

The same applies to cognitive enhancement startups. They have to classify their products as supplements in order to be in the market despite numerous studies showing that their product improves cognitive performance. Combine that with all the “supplement scams” that are being pushed to the market and you end up with tons of skeptical customers . In this article, we will debunk the nootropic myth and explain what those “smart drugs” actually do.

Before we dive in into the topic, it is important to understand that calling a supplement a drug is in itself wrong. A drug is a substances intended to diagnose, treat or prevent disease. Medications must pass clinical trials before being released to the public and the tests need to prove each drug is safe, and that the claims are 100% accurate. It is only after the trials that the drugs can be prescribed to patients. Supplements on the other end, are products taken orally for supplementing the diet. Supplements can include minerals, vitamins or other natural biological substances. They’re available in a variety of shapes and sizes, including concentrates, extracts, capsules, tablets, liquids and powders.

A “smart drug” is not the right term for a cognitive enhancer, nootropic is the preferred term. Nootropics are a wide range of artificial and natural compounds that have shown the capability of enhancing cognitive function. Nootropics are thought to work by modulating neuronal metabolism, cerebral oxygenation, neurotransmitter availability, and increasing neurotrophic factors. The exact mechanism of action will depend on the compound. Nootropics are not like NZT- 48 from the movie Limitless, which inspired a large string of false advertising in the industry. Nootropics are of course much less powerful than what’s depicted in the movie.

You have most likely taken a nootropic before, perhaps today, and were not aware of it. Did you know that caffeine is the world’s most popular and well known psychoactive natural compound? It is so popular that many people around the globe cannot start their day without it. We simply don’t call it a nootropic, instead we have hip names like Latte, espresso, venti or McCafe…but it’s a nootropic.

Understanding how nootropics work is essential to not only your education but your overall health. At Namobrain, where I am the co-founder, we developed IGNITE, our first daily cognitive enhancer supplement. I will base this section on Ignite’s core components: Bacopa Monnieri, Ginkgo Biloba and Lion’s Mane mushroom.

Bacopa is a herb which commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. It is currently one of the most well tested nootropics. A 2012 review of 6 trials on Bacopa Monnieri noted large and statistically significant memory enhancing effects in older adults. Bacopa’s primary mechanism of action is still unclear, it seems be an antioxidant, a weak acetylcholinesterase inhibitor and a cerebral blood flow activator. In animal models, Bacopa Monnieri seems to increase cortical concentrations of acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin. Bacopa Monnieri is likely to be one of the safest and most effective memory enhancers for adults. Professor Con Stough’s, the Director of the Swinburne Centre for Neuropsychology and a leading researcher on Bacopa Monnieri, research suggests that Bacopa improves memory free recall with evidence for enhancement in other cognitive abilities. Research into the nootropic effects of Bacopa is in its infancy, with research still yet to investigate the effects of Bacopa across all human cognitive abilities. Similarly, future research should examine the nootropic effects of Bacopa at varied dosages and across different extracts.

Lion’s Mane mushroom is fungus that has a variety of active biomolecules used in nutrition and clinical therapy. Lion’s Mane was found to help regulate the development and growth of neurons and supplemental structures. It also has therapeutic capabilities for Alzheimer’s Disease-related inflammation and neurodegenerative injury. During a lab experiment, researchers found that mycelium extracts stimulated rats nerve cells and promote neuron growth. It improved modulation of abnormal proteins that can cause brain dysfunction in rats. The mushroom can also reduce the effects of depression disorder, anxiety, and cognitive impairment by coordinating neuron functions and preventing progressive function loss that causes such ailments. Anyone that witnessed the powerful effect of a relationship between plants and the human body can understand mother nature’s gift to the brain.

Ginkgo Biloba, on the other end, helps open the vessels that deliver blood to your brain and breaks up platelets to help it flow easier. The increase in blood flow to the brain helps with cognitive function. Blood delivers nutrients and oxygen, and this may be a large part of why exercise increases cognitive function.

As you can see, none of those compounds make you smart. They give your brain the nutrients needed to help you get into the “flow state” faster and focus on your work. They won’t work if you are not motivated or have unrealistic expectations. At Namobrain, we have been using IGNITE daily, whether we are programming or writing, and we do notice how focused we are, more in tune with the task in front of us.

This is what nootropics can do for you. For health reasons, you should be extremely skeptical of companies selling you the dream of becoming smart off a pill, it simply does not exist. Nootropics, the right ones, help your mind get into the zone and be less distracted. The whole process helps with learning, which also helps with memory recall. It’s the combination of all those factors that makes nootropics great and worth the try. Just like protein for muscle recovery, nootropics won’t work unless you do.

I write about my experiences, entrepreneurship and neuroscience on medium and tweet at @NedNadima.