“The first stimulant-free universal nootropic to be listed by the TGA.”
This was the title of the press release that dropped across my desk back in February and I have to say, I was a little curious.
‘Nootropics’ — pronounced ‘new-trope-icks’ not ‘no-uh-tropics-icks’ like I, a simpleton, was doing until very recently — are a ‘class’ of drugs, supplements and other substances that claim to improve cognitive performance. In particular, they aim to make you smarter, more focused, more creative, and more motivated, not unlike the pill in the 2011 classic Limitless, although, hopefully, without all the murder and memory loss.
In reality, ‘nootropics’ is more a marketing term than a scientific classification. These things have been around for decades and often follow the somewhat logical theory that if your body needs nutrients and vitamins to perform optimally, why not your brain too? And what if we could then add chemicals that make your brain do more? They range from the benign, like caffeine, to all manner of often understudied or repurposed drug treatments for things like narcolepsy and ADHD.
This one, Yootropics, made by the bio-hacking company, BIOV8, “Australia’s most advanced Human Optimisation Clinic,” seemed different however because it claims to be “TGA listed.” The Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA, is Australia’s medicine regulator. They’re notoriously strict over health and medicines guidelines. This got me interested.
I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a sucker for supplements and pills that claim to make you harder, better, faster, stronger. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be firing on all cylinders at all times? I don’t really want to think of all the money I’ve wasted trying all sorts of dubiously acclaimed potions. This was always going to be something I wanted to give a go.
I got myself a free one-month trial, courtesy of Yootropics (like ‘nootropics’, but for ‘you’, get it?) and booked in two interviews with Ryan Morgan, a registered psychologist and specialist in cognitive performance who helped develop the supplement.
The plan was to take the pills, called ‘Brain,’ twice a day for one month, checking in with Morgan at the beginning and end, and see what effect they might have.
Here’s how that went.
‘Brain’ is the first of three nootropics made by Yootropics (the others are ‘Focus’ and ‘Calm’). It contains “a synergistic blend of 12 nootopics in one dose that work across multiple pathways” and is “scientifically proven to support energy levels, maintain focus and recall.”
Those 12 ingredients are sage, waterhyssop, co-methlycobalamin, pyridoxine hydrochloride, levomefolic acid, ginseng, rhodiola rosea, cluster pine, L-tryosine, cordyceps sinensis, ubiqinol-10, and since amino acid chelate.
I don’t have the requisite medical degree or the time to go through the scientific papers to validate the claims that these are all “scientifically proven” to do what they’re supposed to so I’m taking it a little at face value here.
Morgan describes Brain as using “non-invasive” and “natural products” to “shape behaviour in a whole-systems approach”. He balks at the term “holistic” but if that’s an easier way to understand it, it’s not far off.
“My approach is a personalised medicine approach that looks to assess each particular system, actually understand the drivers behind mental health or cognitive decline, and then target an actual treatment in each of those systems,” he says.
As to the ingredients, Morgan says that Brain tries to “improve cognitive functioning by helping some of the neurotransmitters, by helping to reset the cells in the brain itself to actually function better, and/or even repair them. Some of the compounds have that ability”.
“We know that blood flow is really important, so we wanted to make sure we can increase blood flow. We wanted to make sure that we can boost nitric oxide, which we know is helpful in the brain. We wanted to make sure that we give the brain an energy source as well, to help fuel and feed the brain.”
Morgan also speaks to including ingredients that protect the brain and that all of these have to be TGA listed. That is, products that the TGA accepts the evidence for their safety. TGA listing, as it turns out, does not mean that the product is an effective treatment for something — that’s a higher classification — but it does at least mean the product is of good quality and safe.
So, two pills a day, for thirty days. Morgan tells me that I can expect “an improvement in alertness and a slight improvement in sustained focus and attention” as well as an improvement in memory. He does say that some ingredients take a few weeks to really build up in the body and start having an effect, whereas others might be noticeable in a few hours.
Here we go.
I take my pills at around 10am, as instructed. It’s a grey, rainy day in Sydney and I’m feeling very similar to the city itself. Tired, foggy, and in need of a break. I’m not expecting to feel much but we’ll see how we go.
An hour later, I feel like a different person. Focused, sharp, energised. I don’t want to look away from my computer or stare at the clouds outside as I might do on a particularly un-motivating day.
I don’t know if I can fully put it down to the pill, the breakfast wrap, or the large cup of black tea I’ve just consumed, but something definitely feels different.
A few hours later, that feeling passes, but it does leave me with a sense of motivation and focus that I might not otherwise have. I find myself listening intently during a long afternoon meeting and decide to walk the half an hour back home instead of taking the bus as normal.
Tired this morning again after a disrupted night of sleep. I’m feeling pretty sharp though in spite of this and with a definite lean towards work that might not normally be the case on days like these.
Pills were taken at 10am again. By 12, there was no noticeable ‘rush’ like yesterday, but the ability to focus and think clearly is definitely present. Work feels more like something I’m effortlessly engaged in and not something I’m having to try and pay attention to.
Days 3 to 7
These effects, the ability to fire off sentences without revision at a fast pace and remain on one Google Chrome tab for more than 5 minutes, are noticeably pronounced during the first week. While they’re certainly a little more backgrounded — I guess as my body adjusts to the new chemicals in my system? — they are definitely there.
This seems like more than just a placebo, however, the placebo effect is famously powerful, so I remain sceptical.
Week two is a little bit harder to justify as I managed to come down with COVID after two years of dodging it.
I remembered that Morgan had mentioned the neuroprotective effects of the pills and how they might be useful in treating the symptoms of the dreaded long COVID brain fog.
Worried about the impact COVID might have on my cognitive abilities, I made sure to take the pills every day while feeling rocked by the virus.
I can’t tell if they sped up my recovery, protected against the cognitive effects of the disease, or were again a simple placebo that made me feel good. Whatever happened, I went from feeling like death to back to work after four days and managed to pump out four articles upon my return without much difficulty.
Back in the swing of things after almost a week off, I felt rejuvenated and renewed returning to work. I hadn’t taken the pills over the weekend, but on Monday after a couple of those bad boys, I felt like I was firing on all cylinders and could clearly and easily jump between the million tasks that had built up in my absence.
I felt proactive and happily cruise through the week at work. Outside of work, socialising with friends, I do feel like I’m slightly quicker to make a joke or respond to whatever’s happening around me with a little more dexterity and speed. It seems uncanny. I don’t feel overly stimulated or experience any crashes, which, as a non-coffee drinker, is a novel experience.
By week four, taking the pills every day has become a standard part of my morning routine. I feel somewhat anxious about missing a dose, not wanting to lose out on the benefits that they appear to bring and I make sure they’re right on my desk so I don’t forget them.
The feelings of alertness and focus have almost become normal and it’s easy to forget that this is not a state of mind that I’m always operating in. I also feel, weirdly, calmer than usual, and difficult situations don’t seem to phase me as much as they normally might.
I have to say that I’m a little sad when the final two pills rattle out of the bottle. Is Brain something that I’m now going to have to take every day or suffer the debilitating crash back to normality like Bradley Cooper’s character Eddie? At around $100 a pop for a monthly supply, they’re more expensive than some prescribed medications and, given I’m not using them to treat any particular condition, other than mediocrity, is that something that I can justify? I speak with Morgan again to talk through the details.
I have to say, after a month of these things, I do feel better. Not a totally different person, not suddenly able to speak five languages, but there’s at least a good 5% improvement in how I’m operating. I do feel clearer, sharper, and more focused while my memory recall seems improved. This does somewhat fluctuate throughout the month, no doubt influenced by other factors like sleep, but it’s certainly noticeable.
Morgan seems keen not to oversell the product or promise too much with it, although he does say they do a lot of things that sound like great benefits to have.
“The best outcome is a subtle shift,” he says. “A noticeable but a subtle shift, where you feel more alert, a little bit more concentration, more being able to make it through the day without being as fatigued mentally.”
As for the sudden effects of the pills on the first day, and the subsequent tapering off of the effects through the month, Morgan puts that down to my lack of these chemicals in my system to start with.
“It’s not uncommon because it’s effectively your baseline. Depending on where you’re starting from, having something that could be treating vitamin B 12 deficiency, or even just the Coenzyme Q-10 on its own when you bring those levels up with a decent dose, you’ll often get that kind of energy boost or that kind of rush.
“Now, what happens is, physiologically you adjust it a little bit. That can explain why the subsequent ones tend not to be as prominent. When you now take another pill, you might get a 10% or 20% increase, so it’s not going to be as noticeable as when you take that first pill.”
I questioned the neuroprotective effects of the pills and whether that might have played any role in my recovery from COVID as well as the absence of brain fog after a few days, to which Morgan says “absolutely.”
COVID causes inflammation in the brain and affects blood flow. Having a bunch of chemicals that counter inflammation and increase blood flow is likely to have aided in my recovery – I will say here that I’m also putting my money on my three vaccines, but Brain can’t have hurt. Morgan is also keen not to sell his product as a COVID treatment.
“It probably gave you a level of protection that maybe others wouldn’t have had. Had there not been on it. Not that we promote it that way,” he says.
So, with all that said, will I continue with Brain? Now that I have to pay for it, I’m not so sure. Morgan counters my queries over cost with the fact that the supplements in the product, when purchased individually, would come at a much greater expense. This is true, if you’re the supplementing kind (which I am). Given it’s been a week without Brain and I’m starting to miss the pick-me-up in a pill, my hand is hovering over that buy button.
Morgan recommends anyone continuing with Brain to cycle the product, however, which would be useful at cutting costs as well as improving the effects.
“You’ve effectively built up your levels. To avoid getting used to having this kind of supplement in your system, it is better to cycle it,” he says.
Whether that’s every weekday, every other day, or some other combination, is down to personal preference. Personally, while remaining sceptical, I can’t say the product hasn’t been useful. If you’re the supplementing kind, you could probably do worse than Brain.