Next-Gen Nootropics: Can Brain Health Supplements Make Us Smarter?
Brain health supplements are going mainstream. What do they make of our minds?
New Zealand entrepreneur Anthony Baxter was running several companies in his 20s when two years ago, he reached a crisis point.
“I was burning the candle at both ends, living on planes, and I hit a wall.”
He realised he was driven professionally but not at the cost of his health, so he started researching, and taking, legal nootropics — supplements from up to 30 brands — to help him achieve all the things he wanted to.
“You name it, I’ve tried most of what was coming out of the US, the UK, Europe,” says Anthony, who went on to launch his company Simply Nootropics.
Nootropics is a broad term that applies to substances that enhance cognition, memory and focus. They include caffeine, nicotine, ancient medicinal herbs and extracts (ginkgo biloba, rhodiola) as well as prescription-only pharmaceuticals such as Modafinil, and amphetamines Ritalin and Adderall, “smart drugs” traditionally used to treat ADHD but taken by productivity hacks in the tech sector who swear by their brain-optimising effects.
(While you won’t find them in the nootropic products hitting the market here, there are plenty of cram-hardy New Zealand uni students abusing them, I’m told.)
In New Zealand, while our uptake of nootropics is largely confined to coffee — we’re not quite as used to popping pills as our American friends — natural brain-boosting supplements are gradually emerging into mainstream awareness.
Chances are you’ve heard of Arepa, the company that has made the biggest splash on the Aotearoa nootropics market through its blackcurrant drink, widely stocked in supermarkets. Now a small number of New Zealand companies are selling their unique blends to the world, and in the process, taking nootropics from niche to known here.
Alongside Arepa and Simply Nootropics is two-year-old Plantonin, a nootropic supplements and creams business that started as a government-funded private research organisation into cannabinoids before pivoting. Even newly listed company East Imperial, the local mixer-makers best known for its premium tonics, is developing a nootropics-inspired drinks range, due to launch early next year.
Many of the products Anthony tried were single ingredients such as lion’s mane mushroom, long-recognised for its brain-boosting properties; others were “stacks” (combinations) that had no clinical studies behind them.
“A lot had caffeine or another stimulant to give customers a buzz, and others had filler, B vitamins and stuff you’d get from a normal Western diet.”
The varying improvements he felt, coupled with his recognition of the category’s growing popularity abroad got him inspired. Earlier this month, following a two-year development period working with a neuroscientist, medical herbalist, biochemist and food technologists, he launched Simply Nootropics.
The Auckland-based company’s Elevate supplement is what he refers to as the “Rolls-Royce” of brain pills, with a price tag to match ($99 for a month’s supply). It’s aimed at high-achievers like himself wanting to get more out of their day by claiming to improve cognitive function, focus, creativity and energy, and comes with 20 well-researched natural ingredients such as ginseng and the lesser-known jyotishmati and bacopa monnieri. The product aims to generate evidence of its efficacy by undergoing clinical trials early next year.
“I do think nootropics will be a big thing in New Zealand in the near future,” says Anthony, one of several in the industry treating brain health as the last bastion of the wellness movement.
“People are taking multivitamins and protein and hitting the gym to help their body. Nootropics can help the brain short and long-term but they’re hard-to-come-by ingredients in a normal diet.”
While researchers are divided as to whether the complex human brain can be “dialled up” safely by ingesting such substances, others say that when combined with healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating a nutrient-dense diet, nootropics takers could be getting an edge.
And it’s that potential that’s driving global sales of nootropic products by eight per cent a year — the global market is expected to reach $7 billion by 2025. The industry received a boost when Covid-19 hit, as the locked-down health-conscious looked for ways to boost their immunity and wellbeing, buying up products online.
Like so many things that are stranger than fiction, brain products have pop culture to thank for igniting interest. First came the release of the 2011 film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper as a struggling author who takes a wonder pill that causes his mental agility to soar (before crashing and burning, FYI).
Silicon Valley “biohackers” were also busy experimenting; they’ve been taking brain-enhancing chemicals ever since Apple founder Steve Jobs famously dropped acid to inspire his creativity. Celebs have done their bit to promote them too. Podcaster Joe Rogan has his own blend, Onnit Alpha Brain (which includes a compound used to treat Alzheimer’s), and Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow spruiks “anti-brain-fog” chews (with a combination of caffeine and l-theanine, ingredients you can otherwise get from a cup of tea).
Nootropics-takers hoping for a superhuman high would no doubt be disappointed but it’s not hard to see why we’re buying into products that promise to boost our mental RAM. Eleven per cent of New Zealanders say increasing demands on their productivity have led to burnout. Smartphones and soaring social media use are putting greater demands on our attention.
We’re sleeping 13 per cent less than we did 70 years ago. And wellness, that blanket term that makes up a $1.5 trillion global industry, is leading people to find alternatives to pharmaceuticals.
“Who doesn’t want to be better?” says Thomas Redshaw, the founder of Vitakea, a Waikato-based nootropics distributor and sports nutrition retailer who also sells his own brand called Nice Supplement Co. Thomas says he fell down the nootropics rabbit hole several years ago in an attempt to find something that would help him get through the intensity of his electrical engineering studies. He soon discovered how expensive it was to ship these products from overseas, so set out to make it easier by setting up a business that imports them. He’s the first to point out the hype and marketing around certain products, not to mention the placebo effect that often kicks in when someone has invested in something pricey.
But Thomas says his customers are educated types seeking a healthier helping hand than uppers such as sugar, caffeine or nicotine. “We do have quite a few customers previously prescribed with ADHD medications who are looking for more sustainable options as they get older,” he says.
Elsewhere they are predominantly professional men aged 20-40 and parents of young children trying to recover focus without resorting to heavily caffeinating themselves.
As to how safe they are, it all depends on the substance and dosage, he says.
“Just like 12 cups of coffee a day has an increased risk of heart attack and isn’t good for you, so can any other substance be harmful when abused.” He recommends following product guidelines appropriately. “Like any substance, some have wide therapeutic indexes, some have narrow. Generally those legally available without a prescription in New Zealand are very forgiving and must be seriously misused to cause harm.”
There are plenty of other things that are harmful to our health, argues Simply Nootropics’ Anthony — stress being one of them, poor diets another. The nutrient value of our fruits and vegetables has decreased by up to 30 per cent since the 1960s due to mass agricultural practices, which is driving demand for supplements across the board. “The other consideration is the ‘always on’ nature of our lives,” he says. “We now work longer and are always connected, so we are using more of those nutrients than we’re replacing.”
Sugar and caffeine don’t cut it any more as energy boosters, add Angus Brown and Zachary Robinson of Arepa, the ambitious New Zealand “brain food” brand that includes their blackcurrant drink, which they sell for $7.89 a bottle at Countdown and New World (and a lite sparkling version), along with a powder and capsules.
Angus had worked for an energy drink company but started to question if he was in the right vocation when he spotted a young person emerging from a dairy with the drink in hand. After losing two grandparents to brain disease, he started on the path to create a new type of product.
“I thought, ‘why can’t we create a natural drink that makes you smarter and makes the brain healthier?’ A lot of nootropics companies are all about ‘study better, be more’. And what we are wanting to do has a higher purpose of wanting to actually delay the onset of decline.”
They took the idea to food and beverage business incubator the Foodbowl, and later approached Australian neuroscientist Professor Andrew Scholey to come up with a formula designed to enhance performance and provide long-term benefits for the brain: a mix of polyphenol-rich New Zealand-grown blackcurrants and locally sourced Enzogenol or pine bark extract, a natural therapy often given to children with ADHD and those recovering from concussion, plus l-theanine, the calming compound from tea.
They’ve even named their specially harvested blackcurrant the “Neuroberry”; the fruit has been shown to be a natural MAO-inhibitor (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) with anti-depressive effects. With both the blackcurrant growers and the pine bark suppliers investing heavily in the company, Arepa has made bold plans.
Before Covid, they were set to head to Google HQ to potentially stock Arepa in the staff fridge; nonetheless they’re now stocked in Coles supermarkets in Australia, selling into Hong Kong and direct to consumers around the world — a $5m capital raise is now on the table for further international expansion.
Competing with global brands doesn’t faze them, says Angus, as they have what many of the other brands don’t: the science to back them up. Arepa’s own double-placebo lab testing has found the product can reduce nervousness, uncertainty and stress in university students; another study found physically fatigued athletes who’d consumed the product could improve their accuracy by up to 700 per cent.
Also moving nootropics into the drinks category is East Imperial, whose impending range aims to help them break into both the US and Asian markets. New product development head Mikey Ball says the nootropic range will tap into traditional cultural recipes, using ingredients that are good for brain health, such as blueberry, green tea extracts and seaweeds.
“Western flavours are not necessarily the way forward,” he says. “They’re churning out crazy products in the US right now, with classic nootropics and sweetening agents. It’s really driving the industry. Our focus with this range is to move away from what people know as a soft drink, with a focus on wellbeing and tradition, using ingredients that have proven to be good for you in different cultures.”
While the majority of these natural supplements have years of research behind them, many clinical studies don’t extend beyond three or six months, meaning long-term effects aren’t always known. Huperzine A, a compound sourced from Chinese club moss that was recommended to me during the course of my research for focus and clarity, is one such example.
Meanwhile ancient medicinal herb ashwagandha, a popular addition to many supplements and commonly sold on its own, can increase energy, reduce stress and in rare cases, lead to liver injury. The nootropic nutrient CDP-choline may help stroke patients recover but does it help you or me? And if it does, should we rush out to self-administer it in an attempt to boost our brain function?
The New Zealand Medical Association is of the view that natural health products should fall under the regulatory scheme for all therapeutic products, such as is the case in Australia. It says they “must also be subject to evidence-based scientific testing. This includes ensuring an adequate assessment of safety, with specific consideration given to post marketing surveillance and adverse reaction monitoring.” The NZMA also encourages anyone taking any natural or complementary medicines to let their doctor know.
I’ve done my own (mostly blind) highly scientific research — namely, I’ve taken two of the products sporadically to see if they had any bearing on my productivity or creativity. Naturally the idea is to take them long-term, just as you wouldn’t hit the gym once and expect to be immediately toned, but the subject does report a subtle perceptible shift some of the time.
Twice I experienced a calm, productive effect that helped me get an enjoyable few hours of writing done, having chugged a bottle of Arepa. I can also report experiencing a buzzy, energised feeling from taking two of the Simply Nootropics pills each morning, over the course of a week — and on one occasion, better word recall during a simple, water-cooler chat.
I’ve also experienced no effect whatsoever from taking both at different times, not surprising given the number of variables involved in my study, from how much I ate or exercised to how much coffee I’d consumed.
(Plenty of nootropics users on the net report more comprehensive results. Check out Humanbenchmark.com to see how users are testing these products on themselves.)
Thomas of Vitakea says the best way to look after brain health is to take a holistic approach.
“Things like nutrition, sleep and exercise will make a bigger difference to cognition than any substance,” he says. “Equally you don’t want a crutch you have to rely on. That’s not healthy.”
And while we’re hardly discombobulated heads relying on individual compounds to remember where we left the keys, we may do well to get a boost every once in a while. I’ll keep taking the nootropics whenever I feel the need. But my nootropic of choice? Still a cuppa joe.
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