Brain Boosting Pills Probably Don’t Work (Sorry Joe Rogan Fans)

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Hey, are you dumb? Would you like to be SMART? Well, allow me to sell you some pills with no scientific evidence that they will help you at all! I know you’ll buy them. Because, well.

For real, selling “brain-boosting” supplements has to be the easiest job in the Greater Snake Oil Industry, because you’re targeting people who by their own admission aren’t the sharpest crayons in the box. When it comes to people like Joe Rogan, and Joe Rogan fans, I have, well, not the most sympathy, because they’re awful people. But unfortunately supplement companies also target decent people with actual disorders of the brain, like Alzheimer’s, which is why it’s nice to see new research definitively stating that a lot of this shit just does not work.

The Global Council on Brain Health is a group of brain experts gathered by AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, one of the largest special interest groups in the country that does loads of good things to protect the health and safety of older people.

The Global Council produced a meta analysis of research on supplements and how they related to brain health. They specifically looked at B, D, and E vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, coconut oil, huperzine-A, caffeine, nicotinamide riboside, phosphatidylserine, curcumin, flavanols, coenzyme Q10, ginkgo biloba, and apoaequorin, a protein derived from jellyfish. You know who doesn’t get alzheimer’s? That’s right, jellyfish. Makes sense but unfortunately, the Council found that “Buying supplements to benefit your brain health is likely a waste of your money.”

One huge problem was that many supplements had little to no scientific research to back them up at all. This is because companies realize they don’t need to do it — the FDA doesn’t care if a supplement does what it says on the bottle. They only care that it’s not going to directly kill you, though half of all Americans surveyed by AARP didn’t know that. So why do the research if you don’t have to back up what you’re saying? You’re just wasting money AND you might be leaving a paper trail that proves your supplement doesn’t actually do anything at all.

When research has been done on these supplements, it is by and large inconclusive. This is precisely what a Cochran Review found last December: Though decent studies were hard to find, they “did not find evidence that any vitamin or mineral supplementation strategy for cognitively healthy adults in mid or late life has a meaningful effect on cognitive decline or dementia”.

“But Rebecca,” I hear you complain, “I am a Redditor and I take Joe Rogan’s nootropics to maintain my superintelligence. These studies didn’t look at nootropics!”

First of all, why are you watching my videos? I mean, I’m proud of you but usually your kind just stops in to call me a cunt in comments and then leave. Maaaybe stick around long enough for a downvote. Anyway, good job, you.

Second of all, you’re wrong! The Council did study a nootropic, which I will get to in a moment.

First, what are nootropics? A nootropic is any substance (drug or otherwise) that may improve cognition in humans. It’s a big umbrella term that can include just about anything, and there’s no legal limit on its use so anybody can call their supplement a nootropic for any reason.

In fact, vitamins B, D, and E and Omega-3s are all falsely sold as nootropics despite the mounting evidence that they do nothing for healthy people.

And it’s the “for healthy people” that I want to focus on next. There’s a difference between taking a substance to fix something that’s wrong with you and taking it to boost your already healthy body, and people get this shit confused all the time. Vitamins are great, easy examples. When I spent a winter in Buffalo, NY my doctor ran some tests and found that I was severely lacking in vitamin D. Please, hold your sex jokes. But yes, he did prescribe me the D. It immensely helped my mood and my energy levels, and that’s also what people find happens when they are low on B12 and then get an injection. Instantly they can think more clearly, they’re happier, they have more energy.

So healthy people think, “Well if it helped that much when you were sick, it’s going to launch me into the stratosphere!” So they buy B12 shots and Vitamin D supplements. But that’s not how the body works — humans have huge brains and they use up a LOT of energy. When you’re sick, your body redirects energy to where it’s needed most, which can leave you feeling slow and confused. Once that sickness is fixed, by, say, getting a B12 shot, your body says “Okay, let’s get the brain back to normal.” Getting more B12 isn’t going to make your body start pumping more energy into your brain. That’s not how it works. A crutch can help you move more quickly when your leg is broken, but using a crutch when you have two perfectly good legs is just going to slow you down, and that’s actually what a lot of research shows about some supplements — they can in fact have the opposite of the intended effect.

So yes, anyway, the Council DID look at “nootropics,” but they did not look at literally every possible thing that has been sold as such because that would be impossible. For instance, they didn’t go into racetams, which are a type of drug often sold as nootropics. The science on them is nowhere near to being settled, but drugs like piracetam might hold a key toward preventing dementia (though it doesn’t seem to help people who already have it). As an aside, the Cognitive Vitality website is run by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation as a resource for collecting information on science-based research done on a lot of nootropics.

The Council also didn’t examine Joe Rogan’s favorite “nootropic,” Alpha Brain. Rogan is part-owner of Onnit, the multi-million dollar company that produces Alpha Brain, a supplement that costs about 90 cents a pill and contains bacopa, cat’s claw, huperzia serrata, and oat straw. Joe has gone on the record saying that Alpha Brain “helps me form sentences better.” Huh. What was he like before?

Anyway, none of those ingredients will boost your brain, unless you are in recovery for a stroke. Again, what’s good for a sick person is not necessarily good for a healthy person. And research looking at healthy people taking these supplements is pretty scarce — oh, except for the double-blinded clinical trial that Alpha Brain touts on its sales page. I took a look and it’s not terribly impressive. It only had 63 people, total, meaning only 30 people took Alpha Brain. (By the way, I’m pretty sure I get a little stupider every time I have to say “Alpha Brain,” Jesus Christ.) And the result? Those 30 people just barely were able to remember some words they were told by researchers, which is just one of the many tests they tried on the subjects. It’s too small a sample size with too small of an effect on one random test to say anything about this study except “go back and do more research.”

It’s interesting, because in looking at reviews of Alpha Brain I saw a lot of “nerds” playing at science, looking for the most effective “stack” of pills to achieve the best result. They’ve all been fooled by the old alternative health industry that used to prey upon women. It’s the same sort of ingredients — “cat’s claw,” for fuck’s sake, and claims of ancient cure-alls — but it’s been repackaged in a “manly” container, and with the whiff of scientific respectability.

Might “Alpha Brain” make you feel…something? Sure. It’s not homeopathic — it DOES have active ingredients. But just like that bottle of ginkgo biloba, no one is overseeing what is inside it and whether it’s going to really do anything. 

Meanwhile, there are nootropics that actually are scientifically proven to work. Caffeine, for example. Caffeine has loads of positive side effects, including giving your brain a boost so long as you’re taking more than your body is accustomed to. In fact, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that caffeine was better at improving cognitive abilities than CAF+, a mix of three “nootropics” that were being sold mixed with caffeine.

Here’s another thing you can do to improve your cognitive abilities: work out. Go for a long walk. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a healthy diet with not a lot of meat and sugar. 

I know, that’s insane. Who has the time for that? Let’s just drop $80 on a bottle of pills.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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