I’m not sure what I intend for this picture to indicate:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- A conversation on smart drugs.
The ambiguity is ironic: Smart drugs are intended to treat ADHD, and they do a rather good job at it, but they replace the attention deficiency with hyperattentive I-need-to-tell-everyone-everything-at-once-RIGHT-NOW!
Of course, I’m exaggerating, but for some this is an issue: Treating inattention with risky substances that may bring issues of their own. Fortunately, we have healthy alternatives to smart drugs, and they’re called (you frickin’ guessed it) nootropics.
While nootropics may not be an exact swap for smart drugs, some seem to possess significant therapeutic potential with regards to ADHD.
Attention: Smart Drugs
I feel like I cover this topic a lot: Smart Drugs vs. Nootropics–because there remains plenty of misconceptions surrounding nootropics due to their nefarious cousins, the quote-unquote “smart drugs.”
Or would the smart drug be the nootropic’s evil twin?
Let’s not get hung up on the metaphor.
One such misconception is that smart drugs (i.e. amphetamines, methylphenidate) are nootropics. This conception is a mis because smart drugs are in fact not nootropics:
Nootropics are required to be side effect free, whereas most smart drugs possess significant levels of risk abuse.
I bring this all up because, in case everyone forgot, most smart drugs are primarily designed & prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) & ADD (essentially ADHD without the H–hyperactivity), disorders characterized by the inability to focus, concentrate, sit still, etc., the former (ADHD) marked by extreme levels of distracting energy.
Smart drugs alleviate ADHD symptoms by stimulating the central & peripheral nervous systems and flushing the brain with high levels of dopamine. Unfortunately, this dopamine rush feels good, and “feeling good” is essentially the Sparknotes description of “how to get addicted.” This explains why “non-prescriptive” smart drug usage is viewed as substance abuse, with most national governments illegalizing these substances as “scheduled drugs.” More on Nootropic Legality.
Due to the growing concern of ADHD med abuse running rampant in schools & workplaces, many health officials & enthusiasts have been searching for healthier means to alleviate ADHD symptoms and/or promote recreational focus & energy. But to do this, we need to understand the basis of ADHD & inattention, one such hypothesis being:
The Catecholamine Hypothesis
Quick reminder: Hypotheses are not concrete facts.
A hypothesis is a supposition made on the basis of limited evidence, calling for further investigation into the subject being hypothesized. As such the Catecholamine Hypothesis is not exactly law, but it does propose an identifiable theory on why ADHD happens, that theory being that:
ADHD may occur when catecholamine imbalance arises due to any number of physiological factors.
The catecholamines in question:
- Dopamine – Motivational “pleasure-reward” neurotransmitter.
- Epinephrine – Fight-or-fight chemical, a.k.a. adrenaline.
- Norepinephrine – Sleep-wake cycle regulator, attention compound.
ADHD drugs operate based on this hypothesis, given their intention to boost dopamine & norepinephrine, stimulating a temporary, synthetic brain state of intense focus & attention.
Of course, “temporary, synthetic” states of anything aren’t entirely sustainable in the long run, and may induce harsh side effects–in the case of ADHD drugs, those side effects include: anxiety, insomnia, irritation, aggression, and the inevitable CRASH, marked by subsequent states of depression & foggy cognition.
Taking Nootropics for ADHD
Similar to ADHD drugs, nootropics engage the catecholamine system as well.
Except whereas smart drugs flush the brain with inordinate amounts of catecholamine neurotransmitters, nootropics bolster & optimize the catecholamine pathways to enhanced states of self-sufficient functionality.
This is the perfect moment for an age-old cliché:
Smart drugs provide the fish. Nootropics teach to fish.
Does this mean that nootropics adequately substitute the effects of smart drugs?
Not at all. The only substances that can match the brain-pulsing focus brought by smart drugs are other smart drugs. But that’s sort of the point: It takes an unnatural substance to acquire unnaturally high levels of psychostimulation. Nootropics are generally natural substances, or are at least substances that engage with natural pathways to healthier, enhanced cognition.
They’re not intended to blow your mind beyond its limits.
While some nootropic users remain in search of the mythological perfect nootropic stack that provides the effects of smart drugs minus the adverse effects, many take a more moderate approach: Supplementing nootropics to reduce ADHD symptoms, thus reducing the need for smart drugs.
And here are a few that may do just that:
List of ADHD Nootropics
For some, inattention is an annoyance.
For others, it’s a clinical disorder.
Because of this latter group, I’ve added a second list containing a few non-nootropic drugs that reduce ADHD symptoms with less risk of side effect than traditional ADHD pharmaceuticals. However, I recommend consulting with a physician before jumping onto this drugs, considering that they are still somewhat risky substances.
Even so, for either degree of inattention, these nootropics may help:
Nootropics for ADD/ADHD
If you’ve ever wondered why chewing on French maritime bark gets you so dialed-in, well… I don’t know what to say to you. That’s just sort of weird… Do you actually do that?
Regardless, supplementing Pycnogenol, the U.S. registered form of French maritime bark extract, does seem to serve a multitude of health benefits, of which includes: Reduced hyperactivity–believed to be an effect of Pycnogenol decreasing urinary excretion of dopamine, epinephrine, & norepinephrine. One placebo-controlled, double-blind study in particular demonstrated a 4-week administration of Pycnogenol causing a significant:
- reduction in hyperactivity
- improvement on attention
- improvement on visual-motoric coordination
on children diagnosed with ADHD. Relapse of symptoms were noted following one month of terminating Pycnogenol supplementation.
While Semax is commonly prescribed in Russia for a range of cognitive conditions, the rest of the world has yet to fully latch onto this neuroprotective nootropic drug. Likewise, the drug has undergone extensive research in Russia, demonstrating significant benefits on depression, anxiety, & ADHD with low-to-no risk of side effect (indicated by a lack of hormonal activity).
So what’s the catch??
The research is strong in suggesting there is no catch: Semax seems to reliably alleviate ADHD & neurodevelopmental issues, giving it immense therapeutic potential. Yet, anecdotally, the cognitive effects seem to be short-lived, at least when taken alone. As such, Semax may operate as an as-needed nootropic for quick boosts on mood, focus, & concentration. Conversely, there doesn’t seem to be much of a tolerance build up, so no need to worry about having to suck up a serving of Semax every 3 minutes further down the road.
Racetams + Choline
This is a great starter stack for nootropic initiates: The classic racetam + choline duo.
There are a number of racetams to choose from, ranging from the most basic racetam (Piracetam) to the WADA banned stimulant Phenylpiracetam. Personally, I require something heftier than piracetam to feel any noticeable boosts on cognition, but it isn’t a bad idea to start there, or even aniracetam, before moving up the racetam chain.
For choline donors, I have two suggestions with one preferred option: Alpha-GPC & Citicoline–my preferences leaning towards Citicoline. While Alpha-GPC supplies more nootropic choline, Citicoline provides choline and cytidine, which converts to uridine. Rat research suggesting of the choline + uridine combo may alleviate hyperactivity, attention, & spatial learning.
Racetams on the other hand promote neurotransmitter acetylcholine production, which requires raw choline material for synthesis. This is why racetams + choline donors are often taken together. More on racetams.
What about Noopept?
Noopept often gets lumped with racetams, despite not being a true racetam. However, its similar structure to piracetam & aniracetam gives it racetam-like effects, only more potent & psychostimulatory. Essentially, Noopept overrides the long-term requirement of piracetam supplementation, enacting its benefits immediately. As such it may help with ADHD–however, it’d be nice to see more research on the long-term safety side of this substance. More on Noopept.
L-Theanine + Caffeine
This is an easy addition: Caffeine for the cheap stimulation, L-Theanine for the non-sedative focus & relaxation. If pharmaceutical ADHD therapy is all about huge spikes of neurostimulation for focus & attention, the Caffeine + L-Theanine duo is the low-grade “coffee shop” version of this–except with the added dimension of L-Theanine’s green tea neuroprotection & relaxation.
Even if you’re not big on the caffeine, L-Theanine still makes for a solid anti-ADHD agent, namely for its alpha brain wave boosts–which place the mind in a “free-flow” state of focus–and its benefits on sleep. One study showing 400 mg L-Theanine daily to have a significant improvement on sleep quality & ADHD. This is great given that ADHD may disrupt healthy sleep patterns, which may exacerbate ADHD issues. L-Theanine prevents this vicious circle from spiraling. More on L-Theanine.
L-Tyrosine, or rather N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine (the preferred form), is one of my favorite “raw material” nootropics for its precursor status to to key catecholamines dopamine & norepinephrine. And due to its importance to these neurotransmitters, it’s no wonder focus tanks when stress is engaged: The brain burns tyrosine reserves during conditions of stress & anxiety.
With that in mind, L-Tyrosine is great for in-the-moment boosts on focus & attention during otherwise stressful situations.
This is relevant to ADHD considering the role of stress in worsening ADHD conditions, as well as the underlying biomechanics of ADHD as they relate to the Catecholamine Hypothesis. However, there is one issue involved with long-term Tyrosine supplementation: Over time the brain builds a tolerance to Tyrosine supplements.
Thus, N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine isn’t a viable long-term option for treating ADHD but rather an occasional boost on focus, mood, etc. when it matters most. More on Tyrosine.
Another nootropic compound linked to dopamine & norepinephrine, Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a key component to brain cell membrane health, commonly associated with memory & long-term neuroprotection. In fact, this is one of the few nootropics recognized by the FDA for its awesomeness, a rare event in the realm of cognitive enhancers.
While researchers can’t quite pin down how PS helps ADHD, one small, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study demonstrated 2 months of 200 mg PS administration having significant improvements on ADHD symptoms & auditory memory among school-age children. It’s high safety rating allows PS to be taken long-term.
TAKE NOTE: Not all PS is the same. Most PS supplements opt for the soy-derived stuff, but I prefer the sunflower extracted PS, due to soy’s negative association with ADHD. More on Phosphatidylserine.
Omega-3 Fish Oil
Fish oil supplements don’t outright qualify as nootropics, given their equivocal status as “cognitive enhancers.” Yet, their status as brain healthy nutrition is inarguable, given the importance of omega-3 fatties (DHA & EPA) to brain development & health–and, consequently, cognition.
While I don’t view fish oil as the ultimate solution to attention deficit disorders, one review of several studies found Omega-3 to have a “small but significant effect in improving ADHD”–which seems worth the typically cheap price of fish oil supplements.
When it comes to ADHD therapy, EPA is more important to DHA, which is why you need to look for Omega-3 supplements that hold a higher ratio of EPA to DHA. Additionally, stacking fish oil with phosphatidylserine may help increase absorption of the former into the brain. A double-whammy against ADHD iffen you ask me.
Non-Nootropic Drugs for ADD/ADHD
Marketed under the brand names Namenda, Auxura, & Ebixa, Memantine is a non-nootropic drug that acts on the glutamatergic system through blocking NMDA receptors. I reiterate: I say “non-nootropic” based on these drugs’ risk of side effect, a disqualifying attribute according to the traditional definition of nootropics.
Even so, Memantine deserves special attention for the high number of research that validates Memantine’s use as an Adderall alternative therapy to ADHD (study, study, review). Unlike the nootropics covered thus far, Memantine isn’t recommended for recreational boosts on cognition, as consuming beyond therapeutic measures of Memantine has been linked to adverse effects.
Although, in general Memantine is well-tolerated & rarely abused. Even so, here are a few adverse effects to look out for–particularly among younger users:
Common Side Effects of Memantine
- Brain fog
The reviews are mixed on Selegiline. Based on the anecdotal reports & preliminary science, reactions to this drug vary based on dose & personal neurochemistry. I recommend supplementing Selegiline at the behest of a physician while closely monitoring your health & cognitive functionality.
Caution aside, there are a couple studies that deliver divisive reports:
- Study 1 – selegiline administration on ADHD children demonstrated “advantages in the treatment of ADHD” to the degree that it may be considered as a safer alternative to methylphenidate (i.e. Ritalin).
- Study 2 – 6-week treatment of selegiline in ADHD adults did not prove to be more effective than placebo, with high-dose selegiline possessing a higher risk of side effects.
Bear in mind that supplementing Selegiline (as well as Memantine) alongside pharmaceutical smart drugs has been linked to severe side effects as well.
Modafinil or Adrafinil
Wake-promoting drugs Modafinil and, to a lesser extent, Adrafinil are viewed by many as viable alternatives to ADHD stimulant drugs, despite the fact that they are unapproved as a medication to treat ADHD. Instead, they’re prescribed namely for narcolepsy & other sleep disorders.
In terms of treating ADHD, Modafinil has been observed in preliminary research to “be a viable alternative to conventional stimulants for the treatment of adults with ADHD.” The drug was generally well-tolerated by the 22 adults who partook in the study. This may be due to the fact that Modafinil doesn’t alter dopamine levels but rather inhibits dopamine transporters–thus leaving dopamine in a normal state after Modafinil wears off.
Personally, I’m not too big on Modafinil (nor Adrafinil, which converts to Modafinil in the body) given its non-nootropic push on focus–however, as a less risky, non-stimulant “wake-promoter” for serious cases of ADHD, it’s worth checking out.
Are these the only methods to reducing ADHD symptoms in a healthy manner?
No. More & more research is discovering nootropic & non-nootropic substances that may help alleviate issues with focus, attention, & energy. Additionally, lifestyle habits such as meditation, exercise (HUGE emphasis on exercise), and elimination of artificial foods may come a long way in terms of ADHD, not to mention the various other health benefits that come with these practices.
In case you didn’t know: I’m no doctor.
I realize there’s a trend of misattributing ADHD to common symptoms of malaise restlessness, that could likely be “treated” with something as simple as getting outside more. I don’t wish to contribute to this trend, nor am I prescribing anything here to anyone with actual factual ADHD.
I’m just doing what I do: Geeking out on nootropics–and these nootropics seem particularly good for inattention (which, by the way, can’t be that big of an issue seeing that you made it to the end of this article!).
For more on the subject of nootropics that are particularly good, check out my Best Nootropic Supplements to Buy in 2017 list. And be sure to comment any thoughts, questions, personal anecdotes, haikus, snafus, etc. down below!