Nootropics, “smart drugs”, or cognitive enhancers are a hugely growing segment of the supplement industry. Many of these pills or powders contain stimulants, adaptogens, and natural (and lab-made) chemicals that promise to reduce brain fog and improve clarity, memory, attention, and mood – a magic pill, perhaps, that boosts your brain power as if you had a great night’s sleep and a big cup of coffee, without actually doing those things.
I’ve tried a number of these supplements, and like any supplement, their efficacy is dependent on a wide range of factors: the quality and transparency of the company and its products, your individual physiology, goals, needs, stress levels, current state of health, the consistency with which you use the product, etc. Some nootropics may work on placebo effect; some work for some people; and some don’t work. I’m not saying they’re all garbage and they’re useless, I’m just saying – do you NEED them? This article is not meant to communicate that nootropics are bad, but rather as a reminder to be mindful of the reasons why you may want to try them, what you’re hoping to accomplish, and what concrete steps you’re already taking—or could be taking and aren’t—to meet those goals.
Here’s the thing: if you feel like you need a daily supplement to improve brain fog and mental clarity, there may be something serious going on that you may want to address with a medical professional. More likely, there are probably a bunch of other lifestyle factors to consider before you take the band-aid approach of a supplement. Things like:
- Are you reliant on coffee or caffeine to wake up and feel energy in the morning?
- Do you get enough quality sleep?
- Do you try to move during the day or are you sitting down for hours at a time?
- Do you get a chance to walk outside and exercise regularly?
- Are you eating a nourishing diet that gives you energy and results in healthy digestion? Are you aware of any possible macro or micronutrient deficiencies you may be dealing with?
- How stressed out are you about work, life, relationships, and what steps are you taking to manage that stress?
- Do you meditate?
- Do you make an effort to minimize time spent mindlessly staring at screens or consuming media (laptop, smartphone, etc.) especially in the evenings?
Of course, the list goes on. The point here is—and it’s a point also made by infamous biohacker and purveyor of nootropic supplements, Dave Asprey, at his Bulletproof Conference last year—that experimentation and supplementation and biohacking is fun, and can be helpful, but at best these are tools that should really only be made after the bigger (albeit less sexy) steps have been taken.
I get that sometimes we need a little help—we want to be extra sharp for a big presentation, maybe, or a meeting after a long day of travel—but the seemingly increasing reliance on near-constant “cognitive support” is an alarming one. What is it about our lifestyle that makes it so difficult for us to focus and think clearly? We aren’t inherently dumber or slower than our parents or our parent’s parents—so why do we need all this extra help? Perhaps because we’re inundated with so many more distractions, things that are literally designed to distract us and waste our time—and in many cases, feel badly about ourselves. But there are so many steps we can take to address these concerns, starting with the checklist above.
Once you do the difficult, tedious, and incredibly valuable work of managing stress, sleep, diet, and exercise, it can be a fun project to come up with ways to “level up” in both your physical and mental performance. But why buy the sports car when you haven’t learned to drive?
So what do you think, folks? Are you a diehard nootropic fan? Do you have any questions about how to improve your health or lifestyle? Send me a message and let’s talk!