When starting a conversation about brain enhancing drugs it’s best to define our terms, beginning with the word “drug”.  What is a drug?  Fascinating that a simple word, one that is used almost every day has such varied meanings and connotations in our society today. 

But here we are; the word drug has been co-opted politically, socially, and culturally to mean many different things to many different people.  Of course, when that happens a word begins to all lose meaning, as meaning is simply a definition that’s agreed upon by most, and if we can’t agree on the meaning of our words, then we are lost, adrift in an ocean of babble.   

So we really should define things. 

Drugs Or Something Else? 

That fact in and of itself that the word drug has multiple meanings should give us a clue as to where we can take this discussion.   

What is a drug?  The word drug in our culture, at the moment, has two primary meanings, one is pharmaceutical medication and the other is any substance deemed illegal under the law.  Interesting that the meanings would seems so diametrically opposed to one another.  All you need do next is refer to your well-worn copy of 1984 and make a few deductions of your own.   

How can we make War on pharmaceutical medications, you may think silently to yourself and smile…or perhaps shudder? 

Do the so-called nootropic smart drugs that you have heard about fall into either one of these broad categorical definitions?  We will see that the answer is probably not surprising yes and no, and that legality and illegality as well as definitions can easily be twisted by cultural perspective and marketing guru-dom.  (That we live in such a crazy society should probably be the main take away from this exercise.) 

Prescription Drugs Used Illegally For Cognitive Enhancement 

Are the brain drugs that have recently become so popular “drugs” by either of these definitions?   

Well again, we’d have to dig down a bit deeper in the subject matter.  There are so called “brain drugs” which a lot students take to pull all-nighters, they tend to be prescription medications which are used off label and obtained illegally.  We don’t consider these nootropics at all (though many do). 

Even so these prescription medications are generally not what people mean when they haphazardly use the words brain drug, because brain drugs typically mean nootropics, and with these “brain drugs” we have access to on the market right now no prescription is necessary.  Yes, the rabbit hole does run deep and the subject is a complicated one, due to poorly defined categories and sheer sloppy thinking. 

Anyway, gone are the days when students popped down to the local Quickie Mart for a two liter of Coke and pack of smokes in hopes that these items would ease the pain of a fifteen page paper that’s due tomorrow, nowadays college campuses are awash in stimulant pharmies.  (How the pharmies magically get from the legal pharmaceutical manufacturers to the college campuses in such plentiful supply should get the old wheels turning, but that is a whole other ball of wax.) 

So, prescription drugs used off label by college kids aren’t brain enhancing drugs by our definition. 

The question is are these prescription drugs cognitively enhancing?  Well that’s the rub, because without a doubt drugs like Adderall and Ritalin used off label can have amazing cognitive benefits in the short term.  Down enough of these and that fifteen page paper will be a breeze to crank out in no time at all, in fact you might be so jacked up that it turns into a twenty pager, and now that you’re up you might as well do the dishes, clean the toilet bowl, trim your nails, groom your cat?  Who knows what you might find to do, because you’ll easily be up all night long. 

The downside to these mama’s little helpers is that if abused in the long term by people who don’t have ADD or ADHD these brain drugs can wreak absolute havoc.   We’ve seen this all before with Coke (which used to contain cocaine around the turn of the century), prescription pills for bored housewives in the 60’s, ephedrine tabs in the 90’s, diet pills in the 70’s. 

Let’s face it folks, Adderall is basically speed.  And at the end of the day it is not safe, not cognitively enhancing, highly addictive (to the wrong people), and super dangerous.  Brain drugs like these are only for people with severe disorders and taking them, though seductive, has a very steep down side. 

Alright, So More About Nootropic “Drugs”  

Nootropic drugs really aren’t drugs at all, according to our definition.  They aren’t medications, pharmaceutical companies don’t make them, and they aren’t sold in back alleys and they most definitely aren’t addictive.  If fact anything addictive won’t work as a true nootropic. 

Nootropic brain drugs are what many people would refer to as nutraceuticals.  Let’s not be fooled by the seemingly harmless slant of that word nutraceutical though.  Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs are every bit as powerful as pharmaceutical drugs and can be used therapeutically to amazing effect. 

These nootropic drugs are, for the most part, natural, meaning they aren’t synthetically assembled in a laboratory.  Herbs are a powerful class of nootropics that for some can indeed be classified as brain drugs, as they cognitively enhance brain functions in these individuals. 

In strict contrast to pharmaceutical drugs and street drugs nootropics are generally quite subtle in nature and are therefore often overlooked by the young and foolhardy. 

Who’s Using These Brain Drugs? 

Nootropic brain drugs initially came into being in the hippy 60’s so it should be no surprise that they are generally taken young, creative types.  However, the stereotype of the person interested in nootropics wouldn’t be a modern day hippy, somewhat oppositely these substances attract young venture capitalists, computer programmers, and extreme sports enthusiasts. 

Nootropics have been high lighted by popular individuals like Tim Ferriss, who isn’t a guy who’s meditating soberly on a deserted beach in Fiji all day.  Nootropics are, in part, all about unleashing productivity and creativity in order to -- make more money.  If you end up saving the world with your invention, app, or new  

Do these Nutraceutical Nootropics Work On The Brain In Isolation? 

The funny thing about nutraceutical nootropics is that they tend to affect more than one system of the body.  Sure they are excellent for the brain, but they are also excellent for the hormonal system, the endocrine system, and the nerves.  They work with the entire body in order to produce a beneficial effect, because the brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

This is how these “brain drugs” are so different from pharmaceutical medications.  All pharmaceuticals have side effects and these side effects tend to negatively affect certain systems of the body outside the brain.  For example many pharmaceutical medications will promote weight gain or gastrointestinal problems.  Well, what good is better cognition if you’re developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or ulcers?   

Because of the side effects of mainstream medications and the absence of side effects from nootropics, nootropics have a decidedly clear benefit when it comes to enhancing cognition.  They work with the body instead of against it, and that has a lot of people waking up to the idea of taking nootropics instead of popping pharmies

Are Nootropic Brain Enhancing “Drugs” Safe For Long-Term Use?   

As with most things that we do in life, there are risks.  But you’ve got to realize that the system all around you each day has risks.   

Did you know that pharmaceutical medications aren’t very rigorously tested at all and the list of major drug recalls and lawsuits with regards to so-called safe FDA approved is a very long one?  The fact is that nootropics as we have defined them, herbs (bacopa, ashwaghanda), minerals, amino acids (tyrosine, tryptophan), and such are extremely safe when contrasted with mainstream pharmaceuticals. 

Long term studies, and we mean decade long studies haven’t been done.  But, the fact is that decade long studies for almost every single pharmaceutical drug doesn’t exist either.  Pharmaceutical medications offer the illusion of safety through appealing to authority; an authority is that is more interested in short term profits than in reaping beneficial effects. 

We firmly believe that naturel nootropics in contrast the synthetic pharmaceuticals like Adderall is the wave of the future, and that is the absolute safest route.  Substances that come from nature are less dangerous than synthetics in general and as long as you don’t abuse them, keeping the dosages low and cycling on and off of them, they will be highly effective for many months and years to come.   

In some ways the increase in popularity of so-called smart drugs, or natural nootropics is like the rediscovery of ancient herbal medicine and the power that modern medicine purposefully forgot in search of bigger profits.  We whole-heartedly endorse nootropic experimentation as safe and extremely powerful when engaged with in simple common sense. 

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