Otherwise known as “smart drugs,” or “that shit Bradley Cooper took in Limitless,” nootropics are a poorly defined and heavily marketed class of supplements designed to enhance cognitive function. Modafinil, phenethylamine, and an array of amphetamines are sculpted into pills purported to sharpen memory and focus while minimizing the need for sleep. A largely unregulated category, nootropics were, up until about a decade ago, purchased from European wholesalers by a small group of “Mindhackers,” who sought to create the right “stack” in order to maximize their functionality. Now, however, nootropics are “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA and mass market supplements are being sold to a rapidly expanding consumer base that increasingly includes tired parents.
“Just like people take time out of their days to exercise and eat right, now people are moving towards doing the same with their brain,” says Geoff Woo, CEO and co-founder of Nootrobox, a prominent nootropics company that researches, manufactures, and distributes stacks and supplements.
Indeed, nootropics have come a long way since 1971 when a Romanian doctor named Dr. Corneliu Giurgea discovered the first one, which is to say coined the term. Brain drugs are now a billion dollar industry driven by busy people trying to keep up. Parents who “want to get their jobs done as efficiently as possible and then go back to their families” or want to be alert when they get home fit that description so naturally that Woo doesn’t even bother to market to them. He just waits for them to come to him.
“A lot of busy moms carry our GO-CUBES, because you can’t put a cup of coffee in your purse,” Woo says.“Coffee is basically nature’s prototype for what nootropics could be. We’re applying the latest clinical data to see if caffeine can be better than caffeine.”
The GO-CUBES are by far his company’s most popular product. They contain 50mg of caffeine stacked with L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea. Clinical trials found this combination reduces reaction time and increases semantic memory. That means parents are more likely to get hit in the face with a projectile, but also more likely to learn from the experience.
Still, nootropics usage isn’t exactly common among parents. And it’s understandable why: Parents are used to parsing FDA approvals and warning labels. Though nootropics are generally regarded as safe, most of the research regarding their effects currently comes from businesses trying to sell them and many, including those from Nootrobox, are GRAS, which is not the same FDA approved, — the FDA hasn’t regulated supplements since 1994. Woo adds that skepticism also emerges from the variety of experiences users have while on nootropics. Different brains yield different results based on the same input. Side effects can range from headaches, to GI tract issues, to anxiety, which might be worth it for some but not for others.
Nootro Guide, a website set up to help potential users sort through the myriad different options, has advocated for the use of drugs by “frazzled parents,” but has also warned against use by breastfeeding women, citing a lack of research. That dearth of academic studies may be the barrier to broader adoption among parents.
For those that do try nootropics, there is generally a testing phase. Nootrobox lets users buy single items before going all in on subscriptions to their three nootropic supplements. The test-drive phase either works or doesn’t. Serious complications are rare.
“I made the nootropics I wanted to eat,” Woo explains, adding that he takes a double dose of KADO-3 (a combination of fish and krill oils) and a standard dose of RISE (a combination of herbal compounds and choline said to improve memory and counteract fatigue). He also takes Sprint (caffeine and several herbal supplements) and GO-CUBES throughout the day as a replacement for coffee.
Does Woo think that he’s really cracked the parent market? Not exactly. He’s quick to say that mothers and fathers need the energy, focus, and mental acuity he markets. He recognizes that this portion of his potential user base is highly risk averse, but he’s convinced that, over time, more parents will come to see the risk as minimal or worth it.