Can Nootropics Improve Your Performance at Work?

People are always looking for ways to get ahead in their careers. For the most part, this boils down to an investment of time and/or money; for example, you might go back to school to earn a master’s degree, or you might attend a series of classes and workshops to improve your skills in one particular area. It doesn’t seem like there are any legitimate “shortcuts,” per se, but there is a class of nutritional supplements that are claimed to have the power to improve your capacity to think, concentrate, and mentally perform.

Enter Nootropics

Nootropics are a category of drugs and supplements that claim to have the power to boost cognitive abilities, representing a $1 billion industry in 2015 alone. Derived from a variety of different sources (usually plants), there are thousands of different supplements available, each affecting a different area of cognitive performance (or a combination of areas) such as alertness, concentration, memory, creative thinking, thinking speed, or even the feeling of energy. Some authorities even recommend “stacking” these supplements by combining their complementary qualities, such as using a fast-acting energy supplement in the morning and a stress reliever and sleep aid at night.

In theory, nootropics work by improving how neurotransmitters “talk” to one another. Neurotransmitters are pathways in the brain that send and receive information, resulting in our thoughts, memories, emotions, and behaviors. They may also change metabolic pathways, which affect how we process, store, and use energy in the brain and other organs.

Nootropics for Work

Based on these suggested functions, nootropics should be able to improve your performance in almost any career. For example, being more alert and better able to concentrate could help anyone from an air traffic controller to an actuary-after all, it’s the main reason why people drink coffee in the morning. Improved memory, faster thinking, and more creative output would also be hypothetically beneficial in any workplace environment-even if the boost is only slight.

What Evidence Is There?

Before you get too excited about nootropics, you need to understand the importance of verifying effects with scientific research. Anecdotal evidence-people claiming to have experienced the effects of nootropics-isn’t enough because the placebo effect can trick you into thinking you’re experiencing benefits that aren’t really there. Instead, we must rely on hard, scientific evidence to determine whether or not nootropics are effective.

So far, the scientific evidence confirming or denying nootropics’ potential role in improving cognitive function is limited. Nootropics are still relatively new, so there aren’t many full-scale formal studies to document their effectiveness. There is some evidence that suggests potential promise-such as a 2012 study on piracetam that suggested further inquiry-but there isn’t any hard evidence for any type of nootropic verifiably boosting cognitive performance or staving off cognitive illnesses, such as dementia.

There are a handful of other problems making it difficult to understand how and why nootropics work-or if they do at all. Metabolic pathways and neurotransmitters are highly complex systems that we still don’t fully understand, so our supplement products are only tenuously based. Plus, many supplements include stimulant ingredients, like caffeine, which make it hard to pinpoint the supplement’s overall effectiveness.

It’s also important to realize there are thousands of different types of nootropics on the market. Scientific inquiry has only investigated a handful of these sources, and new products are arriving almost daily with the promise of boosting cognitive performance-and some of these products come with people who swear by the supplements’ effects.

The Bottom Line

Based on the way they’re claimed to function, nootropics could feasibly boost your cognitive performance at work. However, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to say for sure whether any individual supplement actually functions this way. Anecdotal evidence of people who have tried nootropics is probably your best tool for assessing the performance of individual drugs and supplements-but you also need to be wary of the placebo effect.

Ultimately, your best career path is probably serious study, practice, and professional development, so your time and money is best spent there-investing in nootropics may or may not be worth it to you.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.