Have you ever read about a wealthy and successful entrepreneur and wondered what he’s doing that you’re not? The answer could be, well, drugs. In Silicon Valley, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a genius with a billion dollar idea, some of the best and brightest will do whatever it takes to get a leg up on their competitors—including using nootropics.

Also known as “smart drugs,” nootropics are substances that may enhance cognition. In addition to their rampant use in Silicon Valley, nootropics are also becoming increasingly common on college campuses, where students use (or misuse) substances like the prescription ADHD medication Adderall to help them study. According to a 2014 survey, nearly one in five students at Ivy League colleges admitted to deliberately misusing prescription stimulants to help them study, and one-third of students didn’t view this misuse as cheating.

It’s not surprising that if this many people are using nootropics in college, they’re probably continuing to do so when they enter the workforce. Should you be using them, too? Could smart drugs give you an edge at the office and beyond?

I obviously can’t condone inappropriate use of prescription medications, but I can tell you a little bit about some natural nootropics and what to know when using them for focus and concentration.

Caffeine

Who knew you were dosing yourself with a nootropic every time you drank a cup of coffee? This one is probably pretty obvious, but there’s no denying caffeine’s ability to improve focus. In one experiment looking at the effects of coffee consumed at different times of the day and night, caffeinated coffee had a beneficial effect on alertness and improved performance on a variety of tasks no matter when it was consumed, and “the effects were often very large.”

L-theanine

A compound found in black and green tea, L-theanine can bring about a state of calm alertness. Unlike stimulants like Adderall that may cause jittery (and potentially serious) side effects, L-theanine can help you relax and focus at the same time. One systematic review found L-theanine simultaneously reduced anxiety and increased attention.

To really boost your brain power, try taking an L-theanine supplement with your morning joe. When paired with caffeine, it works synergistically to increase memory and improve reaction time. See my list of top supplements for brain health to learn more about L-theanine.

Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is present in every one of your body’s cells and is a vital building block for your brain. Research indicates supplementing with PS derived from cows may help reduce the cognitive decline that often accompanies aging. In a study examining the effects of PS on elderly subjects with cognitive impairment, “statistically significant improvements in the phosphatidylserine-treated group compared to placebo were observed both in terms of behavioral and cognitive parameters” after 3 and 6 months.

Bacopa

Also known as Brahmi, bacopa has long been used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine, to enhance memory and learning. Modern research supports this use, making bacopa a popular nootropic herb. An extensive neuropharmacological review found bacopa “demonstrates immense potential in the amelioration of cognitive disorders, as well as…cognitive enhancement in healthy people.”

In another study conducted over 12 weeks in Australia, volunteers who took 300 mg of bacopa every day showed improvement in visual information processing, learning rate, and memory consolidation compared to those who took a placebo. Based on these findings, researchers concluded that bacopa “may improve higher order cognitive processes that are critically dependent on the input of information from our environment such as learning and memory.”

Before you order a bunch of smart drugs from Amazon, let me remind you that these are just general recommendations. Your own individual situation—your risks and goals, among other factors—may call for other interventions.

Click the link below to order the supplements above from brands Dr. Spar trusts through his online store called Fullscript. Once you click, just set up an account and pick the group called “Brain” in his favorites. 

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About Myles Spar, MD

Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

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