Can These Pills Make You a Better Employee?

May 24, 2016

How far would you go to give yourself an extra mental edge in the workplace?

While caffeine has long been the stimulant of choice for many workers seeking to power through slow moments, afternoon crashes and late night productivity crunches, an increasing number of people appear to be turning to non-prescription supplements known as nootropics to find that edge instead.

In the following video from Bloomberg, Geoffrey Woo and Michael Brandt, co-founders of a startup called Nootrobox, discuss their products, and the ways in which they believe it helps them to be more alert and focused throughout the day. And they're not short on hyperbole when doing so: Woo notes that he sees the focus on improving brain performance as "almost like arming humanity against AI and robots from taking everything over."

High stakes and haughty claims, indeed. But is there anything to them?

Nootrobox claims that all of its ingredients are FDA approved, it's not clear whether there's any hard evidence that the company's products actually work. The sales pitch on the firm's site is a little breezy and, while it promises that its "stacks" of supplements are designed following reviews of "all the scientific literature out there," it doesn't actually provide any data related to efficacy.

 That chimes with a 2015 report on nootropics over at Science-Based Medicine, which found that "[m]any of the cognition-enhancing 'supplements' on the market make all the usual claims about 'natural' enhancement – meanwhile they predictably contain just vitamins, herbs which have not been shown effective, perhaps nootropics […] and often a stimulant, like caffeine. The only drug in the mix which is likely to have a noticeable effect by the user is the stimulant."

As a result, the site's conclusion was that "current non-stimulant nootropics are likely useless in healthy individuals," and recommended taking steps such as sleeping enough and eating and exercising regularly instead.

Among those who have tried them, meanwhile, the jury is out: Business Insider reporter Dylan Love reported feeling "a good deal sharper and focused than I'm accustomed to" following a trial in 2014. But when Fusion's Kevin Roose tested them in 2015, he confessed to being "not 100 percent sure that they're working", and raised the possibility that he could be "placebo-ing myself into thinking I'm working harder and focusing better than I typically do."

The bottom line: the jury seems to be out on whether nootropics genuinely live up to the benefits the people selling them claim they provide. As something of a skeptic, I'm inclined to take claims of "bio-hacking" success with just as much salt as I would "one weird trick to burn fat" or many of the other pseudo-scientific claims that decorate so many corners of the internet.

But I'm also open to persuasion: if you've tried nootropics, or know someone who has, or are thinking about it, I'd love to hear your experiences. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter, or use the comment box below to share your opinion.

by Phil Stott

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