Adaptogens are plant-derived chemicals whose activity helps the body maintain or regain homeostasis (equilibrium between the body’s metabolic processes). Almost without exception, adaptogens are available over-the-counter as dietary supplements, not controlled drugs. Well-known adaptogens include Ginseng, Kava Kava, Passion Flower, St. Johns Wort, and Gotu Kola. Many of these traditional remedies border on being “folk wisdom,” and have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years, and are used to treat everything from anxiety and mild depression to low libido. While these smart drugs work in a many different ways (their commonality is their resultant function within the body, not their chemical makeup), it can generally be said that the cognitive boost users receive is mostly a result of fixing an imbalance in people with poor diets, body toxicity, or other metabolic problems, rather than directly promoting the growth of new brain cells or neural connections.
There are a number of treatments for the last. I already use melatonin. I sort of have light therapy from a full-spectrum fluorescent desk lamp. But I get very little sunlight; the surprising thing would be if I didn’t have a vitamin D deficiency. And vitamin D deficiencies have been linked with all sorts of interesting things like near-sightedness, with time outdoors inversely correlating with myopia and not reading or near-work time. (It has been claimed that caffeine interferes with vitamin D absorption and so people like me especially need to take vitamin D, on top of the deficits caused by our vampiric habits, but I don’t think this is true34.) Unfortunately, there’s not very good evidence that vitamin D supplementation helps with mood/SAD/depression: there’s ~6 small RCTs with some findings of benefits, with their respective meta-analysis turning in a positive but currently non-statistically-significant result. Better confirmed is reducing all-cause mortality in elderly people (see, in order of increasing comprehensiveness: Evidence Syntheses 2013, Chung et al 2009, Autier & Gandini 2007, Bolland et al 2014).
In my last post, I talked about the idea that there is a resource that is necessary for self-control…I want to talk a little bit about the candidate for this resource, glucose. Could willpower fail because the brain is low on sugar? Let’s look at the numbers. A well-known statistic is that the brain, while only 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of the body’s energy. That sounds like the brain consumes a lot of calories, but if we assume a 2,400 calorie/day diet - only to make the division really easy - that’s 100 calories per hour on average, 20 of which, then, are being used by the brain. Every three minutes, then, the brain - which includes memory systems, the visual system, working memory, then emotion systems, and so on - consumes one (1) calorie. One. Yes, the brain is a greedy organ, but it’s important to keep its greediness in perspective… Suppose, for instance, that a brain in a person exerting their willpower - resisting eating brownies or what have you - used twice as many calories as a person not exerting willpower. That person would need an extra one third of a calorie per minute to make up the difference compared to someone not exerting willpower. Does exerting self control burn more calories?
Taking the tryptophan is fairly difficult. The powder as supplied by Bulk Nutrition is extraordinarily dry and fine; it seems to be positively hydrophobic. The first time I tried to swallow a teaspoon, I nearly coughed it out - the power had seemed to explode in my mouth and go down my lungs. Thenceforth I made sure to have a mouth of water first. After a while, I took a different tack: I mixed in as much Hericium as would fit in the container. The mushroom powder is wetter and chunkier than the tryptophan, and seems to reduce the problem. Combining the mix with chunks of melatonin inside a pill works even better.
AMP was first investigated as an asthma medication in the 1920s, but its psychological effects were soon noticed. These included increased feelings of energy, positive mood, and prolonged physical endurance and mental concentration. These effects have been exploited in a variety of medical and nonmedical applications in the years since they were discovered, including to treat depression, to enhance alertness in military personnel, and to provide a competitive edge in athletic competition (Rasmussen, 2008). Today, AMP remains a widely used and effective treatment for ADHD (Wilens, 2006).
White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop (2006) 2002 Large university undergraduates and graduates (N = 1,025) 16.2% (lifetime) 68.9%: improve attention; 65.2:% partying; 54.3%: improve study habits; 20%: improve grades; 9.1%: reduce hyperactivity 15.5%: 2–3 times per week; 33.9%: 2–3 times per month; 50.6%: 2–3 times per year 58%: easy or somewhat easy to obtain; write-in comments indicated many obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions
Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, doesn’t dismiss the possibility of nootropics to enhance cognitive function in healthy people. She would like to see society think about what might be considered acceptable use and where it draws the line – for example, young people whose brains are still developing. But she also points out a big problem: long-term safety studies in healthy people have never been done. Most efficacy studies have only been short-term. “Proving safety and efficacy is needed,” she says.
The ethics of cognitive enhancement have been extensively debated in the academic literature (e.g., Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009; Farah et al., 2004; Greely et al., 2008; Mehlman, 2004; Sahakian & Morein-Zamir, 2007). We do not attempt to review this aspect of the problem here. Rather, we attempt to provide a firmer empirical basis for these discussions. Despite the widespread interest in the topic and its growing public health implications, there remains much researchers do not know about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement.
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The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics. Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.