Speaking of addictive substances, some people might have considered cocaine a nootropic (think: the finance industry in Wall Street in the 1980s). The incredible damage this drug can do is clear, but the plant from which it comes has been used to make people feel more energetic and less hungry, and to counteract altitude sickness in Andean South American cultures for 5,000 years, according to an opinion piece that Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales Ayma, wrote for the New York Times.
He first took up the game in 1995, when he was in college. He recalled: "It was very mathematical, but you could also inject yourself into the game and manipulate the other guy with words" - more so than in a game like chess. Phillips soon felt that he had mastered the strategic aspects of poker. The key variable was execution. At tournaments he needed to be able to stay focused for 14 hours at a stretch, often for several days, but he found it difficult to do so. In 2003, a doctor gave him a diagnosis of ADHD and he began taking Adderall. Within six months, he had won $1.6m at poker - far more than he'd won in the previous four years. Adderall not only helped him concentrate, it also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing losing hands out of boredom. In 2004, Phillips asked his doctor to give him a prescription for Provigil, which he added to his Adderall regimen. He took 200-300mg of Provigil a day, which he felt helped him settle into an even more serene and objective state of mindfulness; as he put it, he felt "less like a participant than an observer - and a very effective one". Though Phillips sees neuroenhancers as essentially steroids for the brain, they haven't yet been banned from poker competitions.
There are many more steps to help support the optimal functioning of the brain and therefore encourage improved learning and development. However, another key strategy to support brain health is to increase intake of omega 3, an essential fatty acid, that is most abundantly found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. Be sure to choose salmon that has had less exposure to polluted water - visit the Seafood Watch web page to find the best sources. Omega 3 is vital for the brain’s function, particularly one of its components called DHA. This is a key building block for the brain and is what keeps neurons (brain cells) working well and supports proper signalling via neurotransmitters.
Obviously, as you can see, there are a host of benefits to the better living through science to be had through optimizing your brain with specific compounds. So, putting aside the intriguing topic of psychedelics for the moment (yes, yes, I know you probably want to know how to microdose with LSD or psilocybin), what’s the difference between a smart drug and a nootropic, and how do you choose which to take? You’re about to find out.
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.
Dr. Mosconi’s book is keystone book for advancing the dialogue and practice of integrative brain health. This is the book I’ve been waiting for. As someone who is obsessed with nutrition, it’s very hard to find REAL research and sound logic. There’s a lot of people who proclaim to be health experts, but few people who can say they are trained in both scientific and holistic approaches. Dr. Mosconi’s book FINALLY gets to the bottom of what we all need to know to take care of our brains.
One thing I notice looking at the data is that the red magnesium-free days seem to dominate the upper ranks towards the end, and blues appear mostly at the bottom, although this is a little hard to see because good days in general start to become sparse towards the end. Now, why would days start to be worse towards the end, and magnesium-dose days in particular? The grim surmise is: an accumulating overdose - no immediate acute effect, but the magnesium builds up, dragging down all days, but especially magnesium-dose days. The generally recognized symptoms of hypermagnesemia don’t include effect on mood or cognition, aside from muscle weakness, confusion, and decreased reflexes…poor appetite that does not improve, but it seems plausible that below medically-recognizable levels of distress like hypermagnesemia might still cause mental changes, and I wouldn’t expect any psychological research to have been done on this topic.
Noopept is a Russian stimulant sometimes suggested for nootropics use as it may be more effective than piracetam or other -racetams, and its smaller doses make it more convenient & possibly safer. Following up on a pilot study, I ran a well-powered blind randomized self-experiment between September 2013 and August 2014 using doses of 12-60mg Noopept & pairs of 3-day blocks to investigate the impact of Noopept on self-ratings of daily functioning in addition to my existing supplementation regimen involving small-to-moderate doses of piracetam. A linear regression, which included other concurrent experiments as covariates & used multiple imputation for missing data, indicates a small benefit to the lower dose levels and harm from the highest 60mg dose level, but no dose nor Noopept as a whole was statistically-significant. It seems Noopept’s effects are too subtle to easily notice if they exist, but if one uses it, one should probably avoid 60mg+.
Is lifestyle truly important, though? According to Dr. Lisa, "genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger." As someone who grew up very aware of my genetic predisposition (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer — you name it and someone in my family has it), I always thought that this weighed heavily on whether or not someone manifests an illness. But, groundbreaking research on epigenetics actually states the contrary.
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
Vitamin D is probably the most important supplement you can take, and one of the best brain food. It acts on more than over 1,000 different genes and is a substrate for testosterone, progesterone, estradiol, and other hormones. It also influences inflammation and brain calcium absorption. No surprise that optimal vitamin D levels are linked to stronger cognitive function and slower brain aging.
In my last post, I talked about the idea that there is a resource that is necessary for self-control…I want to talk a little bit about the candidate for this resource, glucose. Could willpower fail because the brain is low on sugar? Let’s look at the numbers. A well-known statistic is that the brain, while only 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of the body’s energy. That sounds like the brain consumes a lot of calories, but if we assume a 2,400 calorie/day diet - only to make the division really easy - that’s 100 calories per hour on average, 20 of which, then, are being used by the brain. Every three minutes, then, the brain - which includes memory systems, the visual system, working memory, then emotion systems, and so on - consumes one (1) calorie. One. Yes, the brain is a greedy organ, but it’s important to keep its greediness in perspective… Suppose, for instance, that a brain in a person exerting their willpower - resisting eating brownies or what have you - used twice as many calories as a person not exerting willpower. That person would need an extra one third of a calorie per minute to make up the difference compared to someone not exerting willpower. Does exerting self control burn more calories?
Looking at the prices, the overwhelming expense is for modafinil. It’s a powerful stimulant - possibly the single most effective ingredient in the list - but dang expensive. Worse, there’s anecdotal evidence that one can develop tolerance to modafinil, so we might be wasting a great deal of money on it. (And for me, modafinil isn’t even very useful in the daytime: I can’t even notice it.) If we drop it, the cost drops by a full $800 from $1761 to $961 (almost halving) and to $0.96 per day. A remarkable difference, and if one were genetically insensitive to modafinil, one would definitely want to remove it.
In her new book, Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power (Avery/ Penguin Random House), Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD, INHC, Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, highlights the connection between diet and brain function and shares approachable, actionable tips to put that research into practice.
Talk to your doctor, too, before diving in "to ensure that they do not conflict with current meds or cause a detrimental effect," Hohler says. You also want to consider what you already know about your health and body – if you have anxiety or are already sensitive to caffeine, for example, you may find that some of the supplements work a little too well and just enhance anxiety or make it difficult to sleep, Barbour says. Finances matter, too, of course: The retail price for Qualia Mind is $139 for 22 seven-capsule "servings"; the suggestion is to take one serving a day, five days a week. The retail price for Alpha Brain is $79.95 for 90 capsules; adults are advised to take two a day.
Dr Hart explained how communication between the gut and the brain is controlled via our immune system, our endocrine system (hormones) and our central nervous system, which are all under the influence of the bacteria in our gut. The types and amount of these bacteria, known as our gut microbiome, can be directly impacted by factors such as diet, stress, pollution and medications (2) and the composition of the microbiome is also understood to affect one’s susceptibility to food sensitivities and intolerances (3).
Apart from the risks that accompany drugs with dopaminergic effects, amphetamines, even when used to treat neurological disorders like ADHD, have been known to frequently and predictably cause anorexia, weight loss and insomnia. High doses can cause psychotic behavior, and even normal doses have been known to produce psychosis that ranged from the loss of short-term memory to horrific visual and auditory hallucinations. Are you getting the impression that using synthetic stimulants to flood your brain short-term with excessive or unnaturally high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters may not be a good idea, especially when done frequently or in excess?
Last winter, I spoke again with Alex, the Harvard graduate, and found that, after a break of several months, he had gone back to taking Adderall - a small dose every day. He felt that he was learning to use the drug in a more "disciplined" manner. Now, he said, it was less about staying up late to finish work he should have done earlier, and more "about staying focused on work, which makes me want to work longer hours". What employer would object to that?
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A third of participants in clinical trials on Modafinil have reported crippling headaches. An additional 11% experienced nausea, while others reported an array of other side-effects ranging from nervousness to diarrhea. Dizziness and insomnia may also result from Modafinil use. I can attest that the side effects are very real. In fact, I had to stop using Modafinil after 2 days when my headaches became so intense I ended up at the ER.
But Baldino may have been overly modest. In 2002, researchers at Cambridge University gave 60 healthy young male volunteers a battery of standard cognitive tests. One group received modafinil, the other a placebo. The modafinil group performed better on several tasks, such as the "digit span" test, in which subjects are asked to repeat increasingly longer strings of numbers forwards, then backwards. They also did better in recognising repeated visual patterns and at a spatial-planning challenge known as the Tower of London task. (It's not nearly as fun as it sounds.) Writing in the journal Psychopharmacology, the study's authors said the results suggested that "modafinil offers significant potential as a cognitive enhancer".
I have no particularly compelling story for why this might be a correlation and not causation. It could be placebo, but I wasn’t expecting that. It could be selection effect (days on which I bothered to use the annoying LED set are better days) but then I’d expect the off-days to be below-average and compared to the 2 years of trendline before, there doesn’t seem like much of a fall.
l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching; these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose. However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.