The wellness industry's latest obsession isn't a soothing, crystal-infused facial or a calming CBD gummy — but actually quite the opposite: Meet nootropics, a somewhat vaguely defined category of supplements created to increase cognitive function, boost energy, enhance alertness and help manage stress. During a time when most of us are always plugged in and logged on, when the notion of work/life balance is especially elusive and when the "cult of busyness" seems ever-present, the appeal of these energizing, mind-sharpening products is obvious.
"Nootropics are supplements which enhance your brain's performance output and have the potential to improve memory, focus and in turn, productivity," says Jules Miller, the founder of The Nue Co., a supplement brand which recently launched Nootro-Focus, its own nootropic supplement.
Unknowingly, plenty of people already rely on the most common, well-researched substances that fall into the category of nootropics on a daily basis — a morning cup of coffee, for example. "Currently the only scientifically proven nootropics are caffeine, nicotine, amphetamine (Adderall), methylphenidate (Ritalin) and eurogenics (wakefulness promoting drugs used for narcolepsy)," explains nutritionist Gabriela Peacock. Those substances may not seem exactly in line with the natural-obsessed wellness industry, and that's where the latest crop of alternatives to them — from brands like Plant People, Sakara and Goop — comes in.
The new nootropics are, for many in the wellness realm, more appealing than chugging coffee or taking stimulants, which Peacock notes, "are fast-acting, but as we all know, can also come with side effects." They rely on herbs like schisandra, eleuthero and goji berriesbacopa, rhodiola, L-theanine and lion's mane — many of which are also sometimes referred to as adaptogens. These ingredients supposedly have the ability to "increase the body's resistance to stress and fatigue," according to Shari Auth, who specializes in Chinese medicine, acupuncture and massage therapy. She is also the co-founder of WTHN, a New York City-based acupuncture studio that aims to democratize the practice, which recently launched its own nootropic supplement.
One example is Plant People's Stay Sharp, a perfect 2019 buzzword storm of nootropics (including cordycep, gingko and rhodiola) fortified with CBD. And while, to some, CBD might connote pure relaxation and sleep, Plant People Co-founder Gabe Kennedy explains that cannabinoids (the name for the larger group of compounds that includes CBD) have been shown to support brain health. "There were no products doubling down on this category of health. We found that as we were using other herbal nootropics in our lives, they were harmonizing really well with cannabinoids," he says. That's how Stay Sharp came to be.
Another natural nootropic supplement to have recently hit the market is WTHN Fully Charged, which includes ingredients like rhodiola, eleuthero root, ginger, pseudostellaria and goji berry to fight fatigue and enhance endurance. According to Auth, the formula was developed using this specific blend of nootropic herbs because they "increase energy overall to help with cognition."
The Nue Co.'s take on nootropics includes only six ingredients, five of which are naturally derived. The hero is the sixth: citicoline, a compound that occurs naturally in our bodies and then declines as we age. It's been shown "in human research to increase ATP, aka brain energy," says Miller. Combined with organic lion's mane mushroom, rhodiola, l-theanine, and gingko, the caffeine-free formula claims to provide sustained energy and focus. (In the case of at least one Fashionista editor who tested it, that proved to be entirely true.) Miller insists that consistency is key when it comes to getting the full results of citicoline, pointing to studies that have shown the ingredient capable of improving attention and focus within 28 days.
For those looking for a more serious (and scientifically assured) jolt, there's the tried-and-true route: caffeine. Goop's take on nootropics, Nerd Alert, is the sweetest of the bunch. The sweet, cafe au lait-flavored chews pack a nootropic blend of caffeine and L-theanine. Similarly, Sakara's Nootropic Chocolates are also both candy-fied and caffeinated: "The best supplement is the one you are actually going to take," says Sakara Co-founder Danielle DuBoise. Each chocolate's caffeine content is equivalent to half a cup of coffee, but "because of the blend of adaptogens and amino acids we included, you get a sustained alertness without any jitters," she says. The formula's nootropic blend also includes green tea, L-theanine, bacopa and lion's mane.
As with many developing facets of the wellness category, the research on nootropics — especially the natural ones — is somewhat murky as of now. "There is currently no high-quality or convincing evidence to show cognitive enhancing effects of dietary supplements like bacopa, rhodiola and lion's mane," notes Peacock, adding, "L-theanine alone has not been evidenced to produce any cognitive enhancement, but has been shown to have calming and relaxation effects." That's not to say that Peacock isn't hopeful about the possibilities natural nootropics can offer in the future: "Further nutritional interventions and studies are required... there is ongoing and exciting research currently being done," she says.
Like with most vitamins and wellness ingestibles, "the regulation landscape is cloudy; the FDA does not tightly regulate supplements, which allows companies the space to make claims that are not formally verified," says Flavia Carvalho, a manager in the consumer and retail practice at A.T. Kearney.
However, there is some solid scientific evidence to support the use of both L-theanine and caffeine when the two ingredients are combined in formulations. "It may improve cognition related to alertness and attention, to a greater extent than when caffeine is consumed alone," says Peacock.
The proven success of that ingredient combination is something Susan Beck, SVP of Science and Research at Goop, also cites: "The combination of L-theanine and caffeine has been shown in clinical studies to improve attention, accuracy and alertness on cognitive tests better than either ingredient alone," she says.
That said, the consumer demand for nootropics is certainly on the rise. Miller (of The Nue Co.) has seen shoppers' habits surrounding beauty ingestibles change over the last few years, and to her, elevating the mind through similar tactics is a natural progression. "Wellness may have started with losing weight and looking better," she says, "but now consumers are focused on ways to feel better — like reducing stress and anxiety." Carvalho credits Silicon Valley and Wall Street with contributing to the increasing popularity of nootropics; tech and finance are obvious examples of industries full of high-performing overachievers facing long hours and still looking to do even more.
The key takeaway, according to the experts? While it's possible that nootropics can help us feel focused and productive at work and beyond, they're a band-aid at best. "They're not magic — take them knowing they're meant to be a short-term solution," says Nadia Musavvir, a doctor of naturopathic medicine and holistic health specialist. "Changes should be made to address the underlying cause for needing nootropics in the first place." As for what those changes are, they're pretty much the usual suspects: "eating a healthy and well-balanced diet, getting enough sleep and exercising" are among Peacock's directives for longer-term solutions. But taking some herbs to support those efforts may be a nice assist.
In the gallery below, we've rounded up a selection of energy-boosting, focus-sharpening, mind-clearing nootropic supplements to try.
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