When it comes to supplements, we’re spoilt for choice – whether it’s a daily multivitamin, zinc or magnesium, or even protein powders. One of the obstacles we must overcome if we choose to add any supplement to our diet is to work out which versions or brands are going to provide the most benefit, and which are simply at the behest of a genius marketing campaign. And which products we need (or don’t need) in the first place.
One buzzword that is starting to gain traction is nootropics. Also known as cognitive enhancers, nootropics are drugs, supplements, and other substances that claim to improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.
Sounds dodgy, right? Not when it’s coming through the dulcet tones of a podcaster! For me this was Joe Rogan, a curious soul/fitness freak who gets paid to shill a nootropic called Alpha Brain.
It is claimed that Rogan has been consistently using Alpha BRAIN since 2010, “taking it before every podcast, before commentating UFC fights, and before stand-up sets. He says it’s noticeably easier to recall words and form sentences when he uses Alpha BRAIN.”
Watch Joe Rogan talk about how he feels on ‘nootropics’ below
While nootropics aren’t necessarily a brand new genre of
self chemical help, recently they’ve started getting more mainstream attention – particularly the one Joe Rogan takes (and has been paid to spruik). It’s called Alpha Brain and it has been created by the company Onnit, for many years. The comedian and notorious podcast host is someone who is often more than happy to play guinea pig when it comes to futuristic methods of (potentially) improving the human body.
Speaking back in 2014, Joe says one of the first things he noticed after taking nootropics was that he had a “better recall of words” and that “forming sentences seemed smoother, it’s like I had an extra gear.” He further claims that other people he had given Alpha Brain to to try for themselves experienced some sort of “mental boost.”
Indeed, the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), describes nootropics as a “cognitive enhancer” and something people take “to improve memory, increase mental alertness and concentration, as well as boost energy levels and wakefulness.”
They could, therefore, be likened to a real-world version of the drugs Bradley Cooper’s character takes in Limitless. Ones that help us to unlock the full potential of our brain.
As with many other supplements, there are both prescription and over-the-counter versions, with the former specially designed to help treat “sleepiness and narcolepsy”, according to the ADF.
I was intrigued to find out if nootropics would have any actual benefit in my life, or if I could continue to rely on my daily dose of two large coffees to help with brain stimulation. I secured myself a sample of Alpha Brain Black Label – the same brand used by Joe Rogan himself – which claims to provide the effects of “a cold shower, meditation and a slap around the face all in one hit.”
Too good to be true? Probably. But I had to try (and ask experts if they thought I was deluding myself or if it could actually be working).
This is what I discovered.
First things first
Before trialling my sample of Alpha Brain Black Label, it’s safe to say I was a skeptic. I’ve never been someone to really dabble in supplements of any kind, other than the protein powder that I put in my smoothies. I’m unsure if even this has any monumental effect on my ability to build muscle, but given the amount of research to support it, I’m going to continue to do so.
The idea that a supplement could enhance my cognitive abilities, however, is one that I definitely took with a pinch of salt. I’m no scientist, so even the basic function of the brain and the chemicals and signals that are associated with it does go over my head a little. I definitely lean more towards the side of believing your brain is your brain, and the only way you can generate noticeable differences in your way of thinking is to do things such as meditate. This opinion is in no way the result of my moving to Byron Bay at the beginning of 2021, I’ll have it be known.
Dedication could be key…
Onnit recommends you take no more than 4 Alpha Brain Black Label supplements in a 24 hour period. I’ve personally only taken the maximum dosage of 4 in a single day once. This is mainly because I keep forgetting to take them (perhaps if I took more my memory would improve?) as opposed to just not wanting to – although, I was sick for one week during this experiment and so didn’t want to put anything in my body that didn’t need to be there.
I’ve been good at taking one each morning soon after waking up, but once I’m head down into work or heading to the gym, I’ve been forgetting to take the rest of the maximum dosage.
…to noticing an effect
Which has meant I’ve not been acutely aware of any real benefit. I wouldn’t say I’m someone who suffers from fatigue or lack of alertness on a regular basis, so taking a supplement that claims to increase these may be a little lost on me.
I’m prepared to admit that I was probably expecting some sort of ‘buzz’ after taking each serving, which I didn’t. So their effects could have gone under the radar.
Veonika Larisova, exercise physiologist and nutritionist says that you’re realistically unlikely to feel any ‘buzz’ from taking nootropics, especially from the ingredients found in Alpha Brain Black Label.
A closer look
Before I go any further, I thought it would be important to note down the ingredients that make up Onnit’s formula.
- Mucuna pruriens; also known as velvet bean, Veronika says this is “anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, and it’s being researched as a potential cure for Parkinson symptoms. Some studies also show it can improve sperm count. This is something that can potentially improve your health when taken long term, but you won’t feel any buzz from it.”
- Lion’s mane; “is great and I love taking it before sleep”, says Veronika. “It gives me the best vivid dreams.” Indeed, Joe Rogan has also mentioned the effects Alpha Brain has on his dreams, and reckons if it was marketed as a “dream enhancer”, it would appeal to an entirely new demographic.
- Citicoline; “has some neuroproactive properties and may improve cognitive function”, according to Veronika. “It won’t give you a buzz and again, is something to be taken long term. You can also get it from meat, fish and eggs.”
- Phosphatidylserine; “is required for healthy nerve cell membranes and myelin. Aging of the human brain is associated with biochemical alterations and structural deterioration that impair neurotransmission.”
It supports humans cognitive functions, including the formation of short-term memory, the consolidation of long-term memory, the ability to create new memories, the ability to retrieve memories, the ability to learn and recall information, the ability to focus attention and concentrate, the ability to reason and solve problems, language skills and the ability to communicate.”
It does a lot, then, but Veronika adds it “won’t make any difference in a young person.” Damn.
- Caffeine; which is a natural nootropic and one “I think we can all agree works.”
- L-Theanine; which “is found in green tea. It has some anti-anxiety and anti-stress properties.”
- Marigold extract; “anti-inflammatory and potentially anti-cancerous. It’s been used for wound healing, but I’m not sure if it has much effect on the brain other than reducing inflammation.”
Veronika adds that for me personally, “the ingredients can help to improve health and brain function but they will not enhance my natural capabilities.”
“For that, I would need the hardcore meds such as modafinil. What is recommended to get the extra buzz and super-efficient days is cycling coffee and non-coffee days.”
“If you get off caffeine for two weeks and then you have a strong coffee you feel like you are on speed.”
There could be hope
Taking this into account, after taking each serving, I certainly haven’t felt like I’m lagging or that I wished I had more energy to complete some work, such as writing this article.
I also completed an online short term memory test (Alpha Brain Black Label is meant to improve your brain memory, after all). And after taking two servings I scored 76% on brain recall with an average response time of 757ms. A good average response time is said to be less than 900ms, but “good performance” is rated at 90% brain recall.
I then took another two servings during the course of the day and completed the same memory test six hours later. I scored 80% brain recall (still not “good”) and an average response time of 695ms (but an improvement on my first test). Could this be as a result of taking the Alpha Brain supplement? Ultimately, it’s hard to prove, but who knows…
And there is (some) research to support their claims
Veronika adds there is in fact much “research in the pharmaceutical field, and medications such as Modafinil definitely work. However, they are addictive and have nasty side effects.” The only downside to this piece of research is that modafinil isn’t in Alpha Brain Black Label, so it is hard to distinguish whether the ingredients used do have any profound effect.
Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the cognitive neurology/neuropsychology division at Johns Hopkins Medicine adds, “The circuits that are involved in human cognition are very complicated and not fully understood.”
According to WebMD, he adds, “You can’t just ‘turn up the dial’ that easily.” He also says that people who think their mental performance has increased because of taking nootropics are largely being influenced by a placebo effect. “If you’re more confident and think you’ll do better, you will do better.”
I’m willing to continue
So while I may not have noticed any major changes in my cognitive function, I also haven’t felt addicted or noticed any real side-effects, which encourages me to continue taking them for a longer period of time to see if they can eventually generate noticeable improvements.