'Smart drugs' inspire new breed of pill-popping executives

We have all felt the mounting exhaustion in the face of a looming work deadline, the crippling weariness that comes from too little sleep and too much stress.

But what if you could pop a pill that gives you mental clarity and focus? Well, some of your colleagues probably already are.

Nootropic thunder

Smart drugs, also known as nootropics, are not new, but their popularity is on the rise among executives, says founder of nootropics entrant Noots, John Mitchell.

"Our main markets are entrepreneurs, start-ups, athletes and high-performing students," he says. "That need for optimal performance is definitely becoming mainstream in Sydney and Melbourne."

Most of us are already using a crude form of nootropics in the stimulation we derive from our morning coffee, but serious users are also tapping into other compounds that give the brain a boost.

If you overuse these drugs then the body won't cope in the long run and you could slip into anxiety and become depressed.

Arthur Marx

Nootropics work by changing the levels of specific neurotransmitters in the brain that affect our memory, focus, motivation or concentration. The ingredient rhodiola rosea, for example, is a herb traditionally used as an anti-fatigue agent, while the amino acid L-theanine is incorporated into a nootropics pill because it acts as a relaxing agent without causing sedation.

The online scene

While you can buy some basic nootropics in stores, such as theanine via green tea, or caffeine if you consume coffee, it's very much an online game, with Noots, Bulk Nutrients, and Cerebral Supplements being among the growing list of Australian vendors.

Mitchell's online store was set up 18 months ago and sells three forms of nootropics he makes in the US: one for increased attentiveness, another for all-day concentration, and a tablet for sleep and memory. They cost between $29 and $44 a bottle, and are GRAS certified ('generally recognised as safe') by the US Food and Drug Administration.

"Smart drugs cover such a wide spectrum of compounds," Mitchell says. "Most nootropics out there are pure pharmaceuticals, and we try to limit using those kinds as much as possible and use extracts from herbs and plants."


A typical user

Sydney-based Ethan Aitchison is the quintessential nootropics user. He works in human resource management and uses smart drugs — such as Oxiracetam, Aniracetam, Noopept and Pramiracetam — three to four times a week to help him focus and give him energy.

He buys them from trusted online vendors, which is an important distinction in the nootropics community, whose members distinguish their legal use of smart drugs from those who illegally divert prescription medications.

"Noopept is very good for memorising things quickly and Oxiracetam is beneficial in the context of problem-solving," Aitchison says. "Aniracetam is most beneficial for social settings where public speaking might be required."

Aitchison first used nootropics while he was slogging his way through a law degree. "As I progressed through my years of study, the content became a lot more difficult and I started to look for subtle ways to improve my academic performance without damaging my body," he says.

Should we be concerned?

Sydney psychotherapist Arthur Marx, the author of Saving Minds: How to Have a Healthy Mind without Medication says people need to ask themselves why they are using nootropics.

"If they are using them to get through a short-term stressful period then that is very different from someone who is using them regularly to feel like superman," he says. "The latter group can end up using the drugs as a way of coping with not getting enough sleep and this is not doing anything to change the underlying issues in their life."

Users should also ask whether they have the right personality type to responsibly take the drugs, according to Marx, and be aware of their potential for allergic reactions.

"You have to know whether you are reasonably sensible and are able to use these kinds of pills without abusing them," he says. "If you overuse these drugs then the body won't cope in the long run and you could slip into anxiety and become depressed.

"The body needs food, and the body needs sleep."

Checks and balances

Mitchell argues that the right candidate for nootropics is someone who is already well balanced.

"You need a good baseline and that means you need to be sleeping well, eating well and exercising regularly to qualify," he says. "The pills are not about fixing those three crucial areas of your life."

He points out his products are not designed to chemically flood dopamine receptors, so are not addictive in their chemical composition. Nor do users build tolerance for the product, causing them to take more and more.

Marx agrees there is a place for the responsible use of nootropics among certain workers.

"Short-term use by the right candidate should be cautiously welcomed," Marx says. "I think it will be interesting to see how this whole field develops."

Have you used 'smart drugs' for better performance? Let us know in the Comments section.