Nootropics: The new adaptogens

By Renee Davis of

Here to fill this niche are the nootropics, or substances that increase cognitive function. Far from being neutral tools of self-development, these are politically-charged substances embedded in a cultural context of obsession with productivity. To ignore the cultural context of nootropics’ surge in popularity would deprive us of some of their richest offerings. Greater productivity equals greater value and, therefore, success. This aligns with the greater goals and ideals of capitalism and the free market economy: maximum value and efficacy. However, it’s hard to retrofit biology into economic ideals.

The rise of nootropics closely parallels the development of adaptogens in the Soviet Union following WWII. Soviet physician and scientist Nikolai Lazarev created the word ‘adaptogen’ in 1947, derived from the Latinadaptare (to adjust or adapt). Adaptogen substances were developed to specifically meet the performance needs of athletes, military personnel, and government officials. The intention was to expand the working capacity of the state and buttress military strength. First, synthetic compounds were investigated. Then Israel Berhkam joined Lazarev and investigated the first botanical for adaptogenic abilities: Panax ginseng, followed by Siberian ginseng or Eleuthrococcus. (The latter was a local genus and bared less import expense.) By the 1960’s, the Soviet medical establishment was transfixed by the prospect of adaptogens. The team of adaptogen researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences grew to 1200, generating nearly 3000 trials and studies on the subject. Following the Cold War in the late 1980’s, adaptogens plummeted in priority amid economic upheaval.


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