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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

An overview of "smart drugs"

Brain boosters, cognitive enhancers, smart drugs — whatever you call them, you’ve probably heard of nootropics and you’ve probably even used one. Caffeine, nicotine, and amphetamines (e.g. Adderall) are among the most commonly used nootropics. It may come as no surprise that these drugs, along with other nootropics, don’t actually make you smarter. They can make you feel smarter, but really they’re just making you more alert and attentive. Such is the role of stimulants, the class of drug that includes all three aforementioned.

This is the important thing to realize when it comes to nootropics: each is capable of dialing up a knob that can enhance cognitive function temporarily. Does this mean that they have utility in specific scenarios? Absolutely. But should they be used around the clock and without limit? Absolutely not. There’s a time for being laser-focused and full of energy, but there needs to be a comparable amount of time spent allowing the mind and body to relax. This balance is actually what can be approximated by heart rate variability (HRV). If you’re constantly in sympathetic overdrive (a “fight or flight” state created by stimulants), your HRV will plummet.

Take caffeine for example. It’s an excellent tool if used sparingly. I usually allow myself a cup of coffee once or twice a week to help me avoid napping and maintain my sleep schedule. This is especially helpful on Mondays where I’m waking up a bit earlier than I have been over the weekend. There are other potentially valid scenarios for stimulant use. Modafinil has commonly been used by medical trainees and those in the military who are expected to work extensive shifts at all hours of the day. Jet lag following an overseas trip is another potential indication.

In my mind, though, it’s absolutely essential that these drugs do not become habitual, and are not used regularly as a crutch to overcome a lack of sleep or other underlying problem. This is where stimulants and other nootropics can be enormously detrimental to health. If you allow them to continually mask this problem, the consequences will eventually surface. Not to mention, people develop tolerance to many stimulants and will need to continuously increase the dose to reach the same effect. For one thing, this can become a problem financially. Even more consequential, however, is that increasing the dosage of any drug drastically increases the risk of adverse effects, which are always a possibility.

While you have to be careful with their use and should always consult with a medical professional, nootropics like caffeine and even nicotine (be sure to read our post on risks and benefits) can be valuable. The key is to treat them like a lever that can only be pulled sparingly, when the scenario calls for it. Going beyond this will simply lead to diminishing returns and increased risks to your health.


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