Big brain boost? What science says about the power of nootropics to enhance our minds

TFP Library

“The prospect of discovering compounds that improve the brain is tantalising, but does the hype match the research?”

The comedian and actor Hannah Gadsby quipped in her hit show Nanette that she identified as [pause for dramatic effect] “tired”. In a monologue that resonated with many hard truths, that one particularly struck home for me.

The common refrain is so many of us are exhausted, have trouble sleeping, can’t concentrate, and can’t seem to get even simple tasks done without a baffling amount of procrastination.


It’s hardly surprising therefore that a large and lucrative market has sprung up dealing in so-called “natural” brain boosters, or nootropics; over-the-counter supplements, drinks and other products claiming to improve brain health and cognitive performance, sharpen memory, reduce tiredness, lift mood, and even slow age-related neurodegeneration. Already valued at US$2.2bn globally, by some estimates, the market is forecast to grow to US$4.4bn by 2032.

The list of brain-boosting ingredients in these products, ranging from drinks to cookies, spans the familiar, such as caffeine, to the less well-known; products such as ayahuasca, ashwagandha, bacopa and L-theanine. Some are newly discovered, others have been used in traditional medicines for possibly thousands of years.

But, as with so many over-the-counter products, there’s a big question mark over whether any have adequate scientific evidence to back their claims.


The short answer, according to Prof Kaarin Anstey, director of the UNSW Ageing Futures Institute, is that they don’t. “There’s been a lot of work done on supplements and the conclusion is that it’s not worth investing in supplements,” Anstey says.

That doesn’t mean that nootropic chemicals and compounds found in foods or drinks don’t have effects on the brain and central nervous system, as anyone who’s ever had too much coffee or taken a guarana-based energy drink to try to pull an all-night work marathon can attest. There is growing evidence that some plant-derived compounds do affect the brain in a variety of ways. Researchers are looking more closely at these mechanisms in the hope that it could lead to better prevention or treatment of age-related neurodegeneration and diseases such as dementia. However, when it comes to improving a healthy brain with supplements, the gap between what scientific evidence hints at and what companies claim is particularly wide.


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Is there such a thing as super-food?

Dear Reader,
You will have noticed that I haven’t put many pictures of fruit and vegetables on my website. Albeit: I’ve pictures up of delicious desserts and flamboyant, fancy coffee!

Depending on the occasion, they all are superfoods! Fruit and veggies, cake and coffee. Super food can be subjective.

Yes. Of course wellness and well-being are all about eating whole foods first. The primary sources of nutrition that are always superfoods are those grown in the sun, soil and on trees; that have been made with the help of birds, butterflies and bees.

If you sign-up for coaching sessions for any of of the problems mentioned on the mind-map, natural superfoods are what you will be eating.
No doubt.

However food is medicine. The poison is in the dose. And we are more than just a body. Coaching through a Being-Well lens means knowing when to have your cake guilt-free, because I know how hard it is to make switches in your diet when you eat for health’s sake. Giving up on your daily biscuit at tea time can be depressing. It weighs on your mental health. It can even lead to a tantrum.

If you learn not to gratify your desires instantly, and know the occasions of when you can have creamy, dreamy pudding, then temptations won’t govern your mind. Our sessions together will help train your mind to be patient by recognising your triggers and eat with intention to heal.

Make sense?
Call now for your free 10 mins coaching session with me.
Sonia Salim.