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Work Smart

Do These Stimulants Actually Improve Focus?

From Red Bull to Ritalin and nicotine to natural herbs, here's one reporter's quest for the ideal substance to enhance his productivity.

Do These Stimulants Actually Improve Focus?

[Photos: Flickr users Matthias, Dinesh Valke; Cigarette: gregorylime via Pixabay; Ritalin: via Wikimedia Commons]

Looking for a way to beat the afternoon slump? I tried out seven different stimulants to find the one that gave me the best productivity boost. Here’s what I found:

Coffee

The claim. The caffeine in coffee has been found to improve memory, energy levels, and general cognitive function because it blocks a neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine that makes us feel sleepy.

My results. I drink several cups of coffee a day (one cup of coffee has about 80 milligrams of caffeine), and each makes me feel more focused by giving me a clear burst of energy, thus sweeping away any sluggishness. However, after about 90 minutes, I feel like I’m crashing and returning quickly to those pre-coffee lows.

Related: What Happened When We Let Science Dictate How We Drank Coffee

Tea

The claim. Like coffee, tea gives you a stimulant kick, thanks to the caffeine it contains, yet unlike coffee it also has a unique amino acid called theanine that makes you feel relaxed. Together, science says this lets you stay focused for an extended period of time.

My results. After swapping coffee for tea for a few days, I realized tea worked better for continual alertness. It didn’t bring on a jolt of energy as quickly as coffee did—tea took longer to get me to that focused stage—but it also didn’t send me crashing every 90 minutes.

Related: Will This Mysterious, Magical Tea Make Coffee Lovers Change Habits?

Red Bull

The claim. Red Bull, like many energy drinks, claims to give you a huge boost of energy within a short amount of time.

My results. Red Bull definitely does give you the pick-me-up it claims. Within 20 minutes of downing a can I felt wired but not focused. That’s because while Red Bull contains about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, it also contains an insane 37 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can. This combination stimulates the brain and nervous system, shocking the body into alertness. I felt hyperaware of everything and couldn’t focus on anything. My body quickly used up the sugar and I crashed harder than I did while drinking coffee. In the end, Red Bull left me feeling more tired and run down than I was before I drank it.

Related: The Truth About 5 Hour Energy, And All The Other Questionable Supplements You Take

Brahmi

The claim. There are many natural herbs that are said to improve focus and concentration. The latest one to get the spotlight is brahmi (also known as bacopa). Research has suggested that the compounds in brahmi repair damaged neurons, making it easier to focus and concentrate.

My results. I noticed nothing over the three days that I took a brahmi supplement. However, as with most supplements, the lack of results could be because I didn’t take it long enough. Some research suggests you’ll only notice the benefits of brahmi after 12 weeks of use, which means it’s another stimulant that won’t quickly replace your cup of coffee.

Cigarettes

The claim. The nicotine in cigarettes enhances memory and learning by increasing the brain chemical acetylcholine that helps you focus.

My results. I’m not a smoker, but I did have three cigarettes a day for two days instead of my cups of coffee and felt more alert for several hours after each one. That alertness matched the stimulation I got from coffee. But while nicotine’s brain benefits have been proven, the drawbacks of cancer and death far outweigh any short-term brain boost.

Related: The Creative Way Public Health Advocates Are Trying To Get Hipsters To Quit Smoking

Adderall/Ritalin

The claim. The popular ADHD drugs are believed to increase the activity of natural chemicals in the brain, called dopamine and noradrenaline, leading to increased focus and memory retention.

My results. Of course, this is a drug that should only be taken under a doctor’s prescription for a legitimate chemical imbalance. I took Ritalin for 10 years from the age of 15, and it literally changed my life. I went from being a "D" student to an "A" student. In the years since I regularly took it, ADD/ADHD diagnosis and Ritalin have gotten a bad rap for being overdiagnosed and overprescribed.

Ritalin works best taken regularly at timed intervals over the long term. However, it's a powerful drug, and in the short term, it works quickly. Within 20 minutes of popping a pill, you become acutely focused on your work. That focus effect is maintained for about four hours or longer—enough to get you to the next dosage, which is usually prescribed to be taken three times a day.

The Perk Caffeine Patch

The claim. Perk is the first ever caffeine-administering bracelet using FDA-approved patches. The company says it contains a transdermal caffeine patch that can be worn for up to four hours of alertness. Additionally, the bracelet can be used in conjunction with regular caffeine consumption and during daily activities to heighten mental acuity and athletic performance, all while eliminating the jitters and crashes that many caffeine drinkers experience.

My results. I really liked the Perk patch. My first day was a bit rough, as I applied two patches because I didn’t have much faith that a patch could deliver a significant amount of caffeine. As a result, I ended up with a bit of a headache. When I cut back to one the next day, I felt the energy rush I usually experienced after a cup of coffee, but it lasted for about three hours—almost double what a coffee gives me. It definitely made me more alert. Plus, the Perk didn’t leave me smarting from a sharp energy drop the way coffee does. It’s more of a gradual wind-down, with more than enough time to apply another patch.

This Reporter's Verdict

Keeping in mind that my personal experiment here is anecdotal and not a proper scientific endeavor, I found that the most useful stimulant for me was Ritalin. As I said, it literally changed my life when I was younger. However, no one should use Ritalin without consulting a doctor first.

For non-prescription stimulants, I found the most benefit in tea. It didn’t stimulate me as quickly as coffee did, but tea made me feel focused for longer, and without feeling like my energy dropped off a cliff as that effect wore off. I would avoid cigarettes and Red Bull at all costs. While they do a good job of giving an energy boost, the side effects of of tobacco and sugar can greatly harm your health.

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