There’s a good chance you’ve heard of nootropics. Referred to as everything from smart drugs to cognitive enhancers, they’ve enjoyed growing popularity in Silicon Valley, universities and among those wishing to, among other things, combat anxiety or boost focus.
“It’s a class of cognition-enhancing chemicals, or a combination of chemicals – not to make chemicals sound like a scary word – that enhance the brain with minimal side-effects,” explains Kent Yoshimura, CEO of nootropic chewing gum suppliers NeuroGum. “So caffeine, for example, on its own I wouldn’t consider a nootropic, but caffeine and L-theanine, where they synergise together, I would,” he says. “There’s the racetam family as well, a very popular class of nootropics.”
It’s a class of cognition-enhancing chemicals that enhance the brain with minimal side-effects
There are many reasons why people turn to nootropics, but a common trend seems to be the desire to enhance cognitive performance without the crash associated with conventional energy drinks and similar products. Yoshimura, for example, began taking nootropics while balancing a college course in neuroscience and training in Muay Thai and judo.
“All these energy drinks weren’t necessarily giving me the proper performance boost that I wanted, so going into the research there was this new class of supplements called nootropics that were getting extremely popular in Silicon Valley, and among tech people to be able to enhance their work effort more than something like adderall, which just burns you out,” he says. “So I started experimenting with these different things, and fell in love with it.”
For some, nootropics has become something of a lifestyle, with high-profile members of the scene taking supplements in the triple figures.
“Dave Asprey – he’s the Bulletproof CEO – he takes, like, 200 pills a day or something,” says Yoshimura. “Raymond Kurzweil, who wrote The Singularity Is Near, he’s taking hundred of pills a day also.”
There’s also a very active online community, primarily based around the nootropics subreddit, sharing the latest research and compounds, swapping notes on the best combinations and providing advice on how to take nootropics safely.
“I think the community is so small that they band together even stronger, because with anything else, after something gets big the research gets diluted, things get less empirical,” says Yoshimura.
“They’re willing to experiment to kind of figure out what the best thing is, and for me, personally, in terms of science, that’s the best way to approach things.”
The safety aspect is also particularly important. As with many things, some nootropics can be dangerous if taken in unsafe quantities, and the community has had some scares, where unscrupulous suppliers have been selling other compounds mislabelled as certain nootropics.
“I think that’s why the community is so strong, too, because people want to be safe about it,” Yoshimura says. “I think one of the biggest issues, maybe about two, three years ago when nootropics were just becoming popular, people would be buying bulk powder and not measuring it correctly, so they wouldn’t be able to dose themselves properly.”
While the online community is exceptionally supportive, the range of options and the need for responsible dose management is always going to put some people off, no matter how interested they are in nootropics and their benefits. However, a new breed of nootropics are emerging that could make all the difference. Commercial products, with set pre-mixed doses, are becoming available, and they are likely to have far wider appeal than the conventional products.
“Andreessen Horowitz, one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley, just put in $2m into another company that does nootropic supplements called Nootrobox,” says Yoshimura. “I think is a sign that the way people consume energy in general is possibly moving towards that direction.”
Packaged as Rise, a daily use nootropic blend to boost cognitive performance, Sprint, designed to be taken as and when you need more focus and Yawn, which is intended to improve sleep, Nootrobox’s products are presented similarly to nutritional supplements, and are likely to see a positive response as they become more widely available.
That combination of the caffeine and the L-theanine working together allows you to get that zen-like focus, very little, if any at all, of the side-effects of caffeine
However, at present the consumer nootropic product leading the pack is most definitely Yoshimura’s product NeuroGum. Combining caffeine and L-theanine, it is designed to enhance focus and cognition. And having tried it, we can attest to its effectiveness.
“L-theanine is one of the main compounds in green tea, which is, when you drink a lot of green tea you get almost like a zen-like caffeine high, versus that all-of-a-sudden jittery, shoot you to the Moon caffeine high when you drink a Starbucks coffee,” explains Yoshimura.
“That combination of the caffeine and the L-theanine working together allows you to get that zen-like focus, concentrated boosts with very, very little, if any at all, of the side-effects of caffeine. You’re able to get the boost and continue to work for the entire half-life of the caffeine, which is about four hours.”
NeuroGum has been on the market in the US for around four months, and, according to Yoshimura, has “been doing extremely well”.
“We’re hoping we’re getting some funding in, we just got distribution in Canada, we’re hoping to expand in the UK next, and roll out four more flavours,” he says.
Initially launched through crowdfunding site IndieGogo, NeuroGum saw a very strong response almost immediately.
“We were freaking out, you know, in our house, just running around!” laughs Yoshimura. “The IndieGogo happened, so we got a huge surge from Reddit and then Time magazine wrote about us, and we were on Dr Oz. Just the response from the media end was overwhelming. It’s very cool.”
However, the road to NeuroGum was not a smooth one; Yoshimura and co-founder Ryan Chen went through multiple iterations over two years in a bid to find the perfect product.
“We kind of understood why no one was really doing consumer-level nootropics, because it’s so difficult to package the powders. With a pill, you just take tons and tons of pills, but to be able to compact it into something that’s consumable and enjoyable, there’s a whole other level of research and development that we weren’t prepared for initially until these past few months when we finally found the iteration we liked,” he says.
Getting a suitable flavour without resorting to sugar or aspartame was part of the challenge, but so too was the construction of the gum, without damaging the ingredients’ efficacy with heat.
“We do it with a cold compression format so there’s no heat, it’s just extreme pressure that compresses everything together, and that’s why the texture maintains itself, it doesn’t break apart, you get all the ingredients at its maximum capacity, and then it gets absorbed in three to five minutes.”
Now it is finished and proving a success, Yoshimura believes NeuroGum’s success is down to its compatibility with modern life.
“The way we see it is that people are trying to move towards smarter things, whether its cell phones and technology, or the way they try to maximise efficiency in their daily lives, and I think nootropics is absolutely that for energy, like starting from Monster, these crazy caffeinated drinks, going to the 5-Hour Energy, and then the next stage, we believe, is nootropics, so it’s great that people are responding to us so well,” he explains.
Legal threat to nootropics
While nootropics might be seeing increased interest, it’s also under threat. On 28 January, the UK government formally passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, causing outrage and deep concern among the nootropics community.
Designed to combat the ever-changing array of legal highs, the bill will come into effect on 6 April this year, after which time it will not be possible to purchase or import many substances.
Which nootropics will be affected remains unclear, however, as the bill is simultaneously extremely far-reaching and incredibly vague. It bans the manufacture, supply and import of “any substance which is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it”, unless it is a over-the-counter or prescribed medicine, a form of alcohol, a nicotine or tobacco product or a type of food.
As a result, noopept, a popular nootropic reported to increase cognition, learning and memory looks set to be banned, while nutmeg, which will have you tripping balls for several days straight if you take enough of it, remains completely legal.
Yet exactly which nootropics will be banned is very unclear. At the time of writing, just over one month prior to the bill coming into effect, no list of which substances will be affected has been produced, and many nootropics users are stocking up ‘just in case’.
NeuroGum will probably be safe, as L-theanine is found in green tea, but even then no one is quite sure at present.
Equally, how enforceable the bill is also remains to be seen; anecdotal reports of cannabis being sent from the Netherlands suggests the UK’s border controls are ill-equipped to prevent importing, and only companies operating very overtly are likely to be easy to stop.
Unsurprisingly, the law has drawn widespread criticism, including from doctors and politicians, but it hasn’t stopped members of the nootropics community from worrying that other countries, including the US, will follow suit. We can only hope that the bill proves as unworkable as it seems, and is ultimately repealed, leaving nootropics to the bright future ahead of it.