Are your smart drugs working?

Yet another deadline is looming and you have a raft of other things to do today, what do you do when you sit down tonight to finish that funding proposal on an already exhausted brain? Do you reach for the coffee? Tea? Packet of cigarettes? Or is it something else that you reach for to fuel and focus your mind?

‘Smart’ drugs or ‘nootropic supplements’ are gaining ground among students and researchers looking to boost intellectual capacity. One of the best-researched compounds to emerge recently in the race for academic performance is derived from the complex compound that has run many research units, and industrial organisations a like… tea.  Here in the GA Jobs office we punctuate the steady stream of tea with coffee and the occasional late afternoon ’emergency chocolate’ ration. It seems our happy, productive team is unknowingly reflecting recent neuroscientific research.

Tea contains L-Theanine which is why, unlike coffee, it tends not to produce the tense, jittery feelings and sleeplessness common with over-consumption of coffee.  This also explains why green tea is the brew of choice for so many, focussed, health consious individuals.  Green tea contains more L-Theanine than black tea and some even reaches the magical 2:1 ratio of L-Theanine to Caffeine that has been found to provide maximum ‘alertness’ benefit.

But sometimes tea and coffee are just not enough to keep a clear and focused mind, which you need to produce a focused piece of work. Your body and mind need rest and so you may well have considered something more to keep you going. Perhaps you have considered taking a nootropic like Modafinil to help your tired mind to focus on getting something done with a very tight deadline?

Modafinil was developed by Michel Jouvet a Neurobiologist who discovered Rapid Eye Movement and is considered one of the world’s experts on sleep. Modafinil is a derivative of Adrafinil and is classed world-wide as a prescription drug used in the treatment of narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder and other sleep disorders. Modafinil, basically increases the user’s cognition, energy levels and wakefulness. This wonder drug is reputably meant also have little to no side effects and has not yet been proven to be addictive.

Nootropics, also known as smart drugs, cover everything from nutrient supplements to specifically formulated drugs, to enhance brain function. Modafinil is meant to be prescribed, but you can very easily buy it online. Use of these drugs without medical supervision is obviously dangerous – there are better ways to meet deadlines and maintain your focus. But it seems to be a fairly common practice by undergraduates, financiers and others who need to maintain focus to get large amounts of work done in intense time blocks. Journalists have documented their experiences of smart drugs such as Modafinil and Retinal. Essentially what they found is that initially their productivity and focus excelled but tailed off. Their bodies and mind then had to play catch up with sleep that they lacked when they had taken the smart drug. These journalistic pieces also were for specific tasks and were not taken for extended periods of time. You are indeed able to focus the mind and concentrate intensely on the task in hand. However, if you decide to watch videos on how to build a model plane you may end up watching those videos for hours and end up researching how to build a model plane. You may even become an expert on how to do build a model plane but not have completed your funding proposal. Your motivation and focus when you take an unprescribed drug also influences how successful you are in completing a piece of work on a tired brain.

So how do you get hold of prescription only drugs? Nootropics as a label covers both vitamin supplements that purport to enhance cognitive function and the synthetic specifically formulated drugs. These synthetic smart drugs come under the umbrella of nootropics and are also sold on many of the nootropic sites. There are various nootropics discussion boards, most of which suggest that good sleep habits, exercise and even meditation can help you stay focussed without the potential problems that inevitably come with unreliably sourced drugs and supplements.

How well you perform in your work is not just about juggling and managing time to get as many tasks completed as you can in your waking hours. It is also about your life style choices. Being able to get good quality sleep to enhance your academic performance is important. Richard Wiseman’s night school provides an excellent, readable, overview of recent sleep research alongside routines you can use to improve your own sleep patterns.

To help manage feelings of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work you need to complete can also be helped by practicing mindfulness. Learning basic meditation skills does not take long and you can even use your phone to get guidance from Andy Puddicome and the great team at Headspace. Scientists are also using the Headspace app to learn more about how meditation changes our brains.

Finally, food and exercise also influence how well your brain performs. At a very basic level physical exercise “affects the brain on multiple fronts. It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also aids the bodily release of a plethora of hormones, all of which participate in aiding and providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.” So, making time do something as simple as walking instead of taking the bus or taking the stairs instead of the lift, although tiny steps, will be beneficial to your physical health. Having an active lifestyle in which you make time for swimming, dancing, rock climbing, anything that you enjoy, also has the added benefit of positive social interaction with others.

Sadly, none of these powerful techniques will provide a magic bullet when a deadline looms and you need your tired brain to deliver several more hours work when it is running on empty. The only way to avoid this situation is good forward planning and time management . . . and we already talked about that in your last Global Academy Jobs bulletin.

Diana Hayes
A key part of the team, Diana is achievement-oriented, forward-thinking and strategic in creating a high-yielding network of interested academics, universities and related associations. Her research and content have created genuine engagement amongst both candidates and employers resulting in a network of 250,000 academics. Diana’s experience is in sales, marketing, event management and business development.

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