From nootropics to no sleep

Picture to test chemicals
By Alex Burden, Student Blog

5 October 2017

Cognitive-enhancing drugs have hit the headlines as the new way to tackle work and study with an unstoppable zest. But what are they, and what do they do?

Nootropics are the collection of chemicals known as cognitive-enhancing drugs or supplements that can help improve memory, creativity and the ability to concentrate. Ginseng (pictured below) and B12 are in fact classed a nootropic because of their effects on the body. 

Natural nootropics differ from other ‘smart drugs’ however, as they are not addictive with limited side-effects, and can have a positive effect on the brain and body. The nootropics classification can include prescription-only drugs, however, as well some man-made substances that are not approved for human consumption. 

One 'popular' drug is Modafinil, which is normally prescribed for narcolepsy treatment to enable suffers to stay awake and alert for longer periods of time.

Consuming vitamins, green tea and natural supplements on a regular basis will definitely not do extraordinary damage, but increasingly, addictive prescription drugs are being lumped in with nootropics, despite the potential for ill-health. One 'popular' drug is Modafinil, which is normally prescribed for narcolepsy treatment to enable suffers to stay awake and alert for longer periods of time.  

The drug is now available online at minimal cost. With side effects such as fever, rash, severe blistering, vomiting, numbness, bleeding, and muscle weakness, the long-term impact on an individual without narcolepsy is an unknown quantity.

Usage amongst students and professionals

Science news website EurekAlert! reported that almost one-fifth of Ivy League College students described use of prescription stimulants to enhance their studying sessions: 69% used them to write an essay, 66% to study, and 27% to sit an exam.

Some UK university students have asked that their peers are drug-tested before an exam, in what would be the first case of checking for ‘exam doping’. We’re used to hearing about ‘doping’ in sports to improve performance, but not about drugs that enable learning and retention of information.

Usage of the drug is not confined to study or exam time, however. An increasing number of professionals are taking the drugs to deliver and maintain high-performance in the office, as well as enhanced focus abilities.

Workforces and individuals should be aware of the potential impact on employee health. Otherwise, we could be non-sleeping into a wide-scale problem.

The FT and Harvard Business Review reported that non-nootropic ‘smart drugs’ are becoming popular with lawyers, bankers and professionals. Methylphenidate drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall are enjoying a ‘boom’ among people under pressure – the ADHD drug also helps to focus the mind and maintain longer working periods without the need for sleep.

Central nervous system stimulants such as these will modify impulse control and hyperactivity to instil a sense of ‘calm’: but the drug may be habit-forming, and should not be given to someone with a history of drug abuse. 

The human body doesn’t last for long without regular sleep patterns; sleep is the brain’s way of shedding toxins and dead cells. It’s understandable to be tempted by a magic pill that takes away anxiety, the need for sleep and any brain ‘fogginess’ in a world that requires consistent, strong performance, but workforces and individuals should be aware of the potential impact on employee health. Otherwise, we could be non-sleeping into a wide-scale problem.


If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, you can speak with your GP about any concerns, or anonymously at www.talktofrank.com, Drugsline (0808 1 606 606) or Action on Addiction (0300 330 0659), for example.

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