Have you ever wished that you could take a pill and immediately become smarter? If you’ve seen the film Limitless then you’ll be familiar with the concept of simply swallowing a tablet and suddenly being able to achieve all your ambitions – and chances are that you’ll probably find the concept quite seductive. Who doesn’t wish they could achieve more and run rings around everybody they meet?
As such, there is a growing underground movement of people who are using ‘nootropics’ to try and enhance their brain power. Nootropics are also called ‘smart drugs’ and they are substances designed to try and make you smarter by encouraging or suppressing the production of specific neurotransmitters. Caffeine is actually a nootropic which works by reducing the amount of adenosine in our brains (which makes us sleepy) and increasing the amount of dopamine (which makes us motivated and helps us to learn). Meanwhile, more serious ‘smart drugs’ like Piracetam or Modafinil affect neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and norepinephrine to try and increase our ability to maintain attention and to retain new information.
The Problem With Traditional Nootropics
There are a number of problems with nootropics. For starters, we haven’t even discovered all of the neurotransmitters yet and we don’t know how many of these ‘smart drugs’ exert their effect on the brain. In other words, this is messing with unknown brain chemistry and as they haven’t been tested in the long term, that could very well prove dangerous. Likewise, it’s impossible to subtly increase one neurotransmitter without increasing another. Increase your dopamine and your brain will think something important is happening so it will increase adrenaline too and your heart will start racing.
Increasing certain neurotransmitters also can have both positive and negative effects. Dopamine for instance might actually be able to blunt your creativity even though it increases your focus – we are most creative when we are relaxed and not focused.
Then there’s the small matter of tolerance, which means that when we consume a lot of a certain neurotransmitter, we will at the same time reduce our natural production of that chemical. The end result? Our brains are less efficient by default and now need the nootropics.
Finally, changing neurotransmitters can make you less interested in what other people are saying, it can make you more or less excitable, it can make you moody or calm… basically it can affect your personality – and do you really want to change your personality with drugs?
Let’s not demonize nootropics at this point – remember that alcohol does all these same things and we’ve been using that for years. The point though is that nootropics are not a perfect science by any means…
The Alternative: Brain Energy
And really you shouldn’t need to increase the amounts of individual neurotransmitters in your brain. Your brain is actually perfectly capable of making more or less of neurotransmitters as and when it needs to and it should do this as we switch between tasks. See something interesting that you need to learn? Then your brain will increase dopamine. Relaxing and trying to come up with new ideas? They your brain should pull back. Scared and running for your life? In comes the norepinephrine. You get the idea.
The reason we don’t do this perfectly all the time though, is that it takes energy. Over time, our brain runs out of energy and this results in us becoming less able to switch our attention as necessary and to change gears to achieve maximum mental performance.
It’s when we’re low on energy that we also struggle to form new memories or to hold information in our working memories. Studies have even shown that we’re more likely to make immoral decisions later in the day because our brains are tired – and empathy requires energy (1).
If you can increase the amount of energy available to your brain, then you will be able to increase your ability to produce any given neurotransmitter as needed. Likewise, you will find you’re better at focusing on a single subject, better at remembering and better at making cognitive effort. As a result, your mood will be better because you’ll have more self-discipline, your productivity will increase and you’ll appear wittier, more focused and more on the ball. Tiredness is even linked with procrastination, so you’ll find you get down to work more quickly.
We don’t know enough about our brains to try and alter the specific chemistry then, but if we give them more energy, then they will be able to do this on their own.
How to Give Your Brain More Energy
Here’s the good bit: giving your brain more energy is relatively simple and easy to do.
One strategy is to simply get more sleep. When we don’t sleep our brain collects a neurotransmitter called ‘adenosine’ which can be considered the byproduct of energy in the brain. The more we use our brain, the more adenosine collects and the more groggy we become. But if you get longer and better sleep, you’ll find that you get rid of a greater amount of that adenosine and are more alert all day.
Don’t just focus on getting enough sleep, focus on making it count by avoiding caffeine in the evening, winding down with a good book and making sure your bedroom is dark and your bed is comfortable.
There is a class of nootropic called the ‘cognitive metabolic enhancer’. This is a nootropic which allows you to enhance your brain power by giving your cells and so your neurons more energy. This is the kind of nootropic that works in other words.
One example is creatine. This is a supplement that enables your body to make better use of its main energy source ‘ATP’. Studies show that supplementing with creatine can help you to perform better on IQ and memory tests (2). Lutein is another supplement which may be able to help your cells to become more efficient and I’ve had a lot of benefit from my own experiments with it. Note though that it must be taken with milk and that there is actually only one proper study on the effect (3). Coconut oil or ‘MCT’ oil meanwhile gives your body an alternative source of energy called ‘ketones’ which the brain is particularly fond of and which might also help.
To be at all effective at creating energy our cells need a supply of oxygen. Getting more oxygen to the brain then is one of the best ways to increase brain power.
Fortunately there are a number of ways you can do this. One is by using what is known as a vasodilator – this is a substance that causes the veins and arteries to dilate – meaning they widen so that you can pump more blood around your body. Another method is to exercise more. This will strengthen your heart and so your circulation while also improving your VO2 max. Your VO2 max measures your ability to take in oxygen while running or exerting yourself and it is one of the very best ways to ensure more air gets to your head.
In this case you want to be an air head!
Making sure to eat a diet that is high in complex carbohydrates at the start of the day is also important as it will enable you to steadily get a supply of energy rather than having a sudden peak and then trough in your blood sugar. For the best productivity at work, that means eating a fiber-packed breakfast with some bananas and other fruits or a whole grain bread with peanut butter or similar.