“Can drugs make you smarter?” - What the BBC Didn’t Tell You About Cognitive Enhancers
This article will examine and comment on some of the ideas that the BBC presented in an episode of Earth Labs, on 'smart drugs'. We will cover areas they commented on - such as 'smart drugs' - and areas they left largely untouched - like 'natural nootropics'.
The Earth Lab Video, Can Drugs Make You Smarter?
In a recent video, the BBC’s Earth Labs series examined the efficacy of nootropics and putative smart pills, asking whether drugs can actually make you smarter. They handily address the most popular nootropics, including coffee and theanine, along with pharmaceuticals* like racetams, Modafinil and Ritalin as study drugs. Their analysis seems quite reasonable, emphasising a lack of research on the drugs and possible 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 & Cognition
Food is a fundamental part of how we live, and our neurological biology is moulded by the food we consume. The gut and the brain talk to each other, and this might have implications for cognitive performance and motivation. If true, this means that food could have a significant impact on cognition, as different foods will affect your gut in different ways.
Furthermore, many 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 also 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, and studies have found that it can also have positive cognitive benefits, and the same study also found benefits from consumption of panax ginseng.
Smart Drugs vs Cognitive-Enhancing Food
According to Earth Lab, while smart drug may have potential, they are quite under-researched and can cause some side effects. We've also looked through some of the side effects of popular smart drugs, such as Modafinil and Adderall - and they can be quite severe.
In contrast, cognitive-enhancing foods are much less prone to causing side-effects than the pharmaceuticals Earth Lab focuses on. Assuming you aren’t allergic to a food you eat, there are generally no negative effects from moderate consumption. If any side effects do arise, they tend to be mild and time-limited. Thus, food-based cognitive enhancers appear to be a safer choice than many of their alternatives.
In addition, the beneficial effects of food-based brain supplements are sometimes more subtle than their pharmaceutical counterparts. This is frequently a good thing: 'smart drugs' are a ‘slap in the face’, immediate in their impact, but sometimes too intense. The energy they give you might lead to negative effects like insomnia or restlessness.
On the other hand, natural nootropics work less perceptibly, but create a more measured effect with fewer jitters and 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 don't cause an ‘energy debt’, as one may get from a pharmaceutical smart drug. And, there are far fewer concerns over the purity of ingredients in a food supplement based cognitive enhancer, as they are largely legal in the UK, meaning they are compliant with regulations and are less likely to be adulterated. If you're interested, take a look at our favourite natural nootropic.
In its final few seconds, the Earth Labs episode also touches on an important point: what exactly it means to be ‘smarter’. What '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 similar positive effects with fewer side effects. These sorts of supplements might contain superfoods, herbals, amino As, vitamins or minerals, that can provide numerous cognitive benefits.
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 nootropics 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.
The 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 'natural nootropics' - they can provide similar effects, but with far fewer side effects than one may encounter from a pharmaceutical product.
This is both because foods tend to be quite safe if consumed in moderation, and thanks to the fact that here’s frequently a lot of research done on the superfoods, herbs and amino acids that 'natural nootropic' contain as they’ve been around for a lot longer than smart drugs. There's much less chance of running into an unforeseen side effect with a 'natural nootropic'. Moreover, most food-supplement based cognitive enhancers are legal in the UK, removing the risk of purchasing an adulterated product. This makes them much more dependable than 'smart drugs'.
Our Favourite 'Natural Nootropic'