“Can drugs make you smarter?” - What the BBC Didn’t Tell You About Cognitive Enhancers
In a recent video, the BBC’s Earth Labs series examined the efficacy of nootropics, and whether drugs can actually make you smarter. They handily address the most popular ‘smart drugs’, including coffee and theanine, along with pharmaceuticals like racetams, Modafinil and Ritalin. Their analysis seems quite reasonable, emphasising a lack of research on the drugs and potential side effects, while also acknowledging the potential benefits they can provide.
The BBC came to the conclusion that plenty of people felt benefits, but were ultimately very conscious of the risks associated with ‘smart drugs’. Side effects, tolerance and the possibility of buying adulterated drugs online were all raised, and painted an apprehensive picture of whether ‘smart drugs’ can really make you smarter.
However, there is one field that the BBC video didn’t really touch on. While they briefly mentioned nootropic drinks such as coffee, they did not acknowledge that food, or specially-designed food supplements, can also work as a way to enhance your brain.
Food is a fundamental part of how we live, and our neurological biology is molded by the food we consume. The gut and the brain talk to each other, and this might have implications for cognitive performance and motivation. This seems to be based upon gut microbiota, so foods that impact the microbes that live in your gut could have a resulting effect on your cognition.
Furthermore, compounds found in foods are intrinsically linked to cognitive health. Vitamins and minerals, particularly B vitamins, have a definite association with psychological function according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Iron, zinc and iodine have also been found to have benefits to cognition and cognitive development. It has been found by some studies that vitamin-mineral supplementation can help ‘fluid’ intelligence and boost results in some IQ tests.
In addition to vitamins and minerals that might enhance your brain, there are also some foods that have been used throughout history for their cognitive benefits. Matcha tea is a staple in East Asia, and has been for over a thousand years, thanks to the numerous health and cognitive benefits it can provide. Guarana has been consumed by South American peoples for hundreds of years (at least) for medicinal purposes - studies have found that it can also have positive cognitive benefits, and the same study also found benefits from consumption of panax ginseng.
Foods are also much less prone to causing side-effects than the pharmaceuticals that Earth Lab focuses on. Assuming you aren’t allergic to a foodstuff you consume, there are generally no negative effects from moderated consumption. If any do arise, they tend to be very mild and transient. Thus, food-based cognitive enhancers appear to be a safer choice than many of their alternatives.
Accordingly, the beneficial effects of food-based brain supplements tend to be more subtle. Pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers can be more of a ‘slap in the face’; immediate in their impact, but sometimes overbearing and with the potential for more negative repercussions. Nutritional cognitive enhancers work less perceptibly, but create a more measured effect with fewer jitters, or other drawbacks. This can ultimately help to improve focus compared with a pharmaceutical cognitive enhancer, as one might be distracted or focus on the wrong thing (as the BBC suggests) while using pharmaceuticals. Moreover, nutritional brain supplements frequently avoid the ‘energy debt’ that might be incurred by a pharmaceutical. And, there are far fewer concerns over the purity of ingredients in a food-based cognitive enhancer, as they are largely legal in the UK.
In its final few seconds, the Earth Labs episode, also touches on an important point: what exactly it means to be ‘smarter’. What exactly intelligence is has been hotly debated for centuries, as well as how malleable it is. ‘Smart drugs’ frequently advertise themselves based upon increased focus, energy, alertness and clarity of thought. Nootropic food supplements like BrainZyme can provide many of the same benefits with fewer side effects, albeit in a more subtle way.
These benefits, that both nutritional and pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers can offer, might be considered ‘smartness’. Equally they might not - being more focused doesn’t mean you’re smarter, if what you focus on isn’t smart. It’s a very subjective matter, so your definition will most likely differ from ours.
What both of these products definitely offer, though, is the potential for more success. Working harder and longer will naturally increase your chances to succeed at something, and getting more done lends itself to reaping more benefits further down the line. If this, in your mind, equates to being ‘smarter’, then both foods and drugs can make you smarter in this respect.
To conclude: BBC’s Earth Labs episode on smart drugs was a very good introduction to the world of smart drugs. It appears fairly balanced, though slightly apprehensive thanks to a lack of research in the field. But, we feel that there was a lack of acknowledgement of food-based cognitive enhancers - they can provide similar effects, but with far fewer side effects than one may encounter from a pharmaceutical product.