After a month of testing nootropics, I’m not ready to commit to them permanently. They’re simply too untested, and while “move fast and break things” might be a good approach to building software, it’s not what I want for my brain. Still, I think we’ll likely hear more about nootropics, especially as recreational users of more powerful prescription drugs like Adderall and modafinil look for less harsh alternatives. Sometimes, when you’re working, you don’t want to put your brain on jet fuel—a little unleaded gas will do. And for those moments, nootropics could be a fertile testing ground for the intrepid body-hacker.
Of course, as you can probably imagine, the antioxidant content of coffee (which you’ll learn how to maximize below) may not be the only smoking savior here. And no, it’s not the tobacco and nasty chemicals in a cigarette that’s working the magic: as other studies have gone on to prove, it’s the nicotine folks – and the nicotine is pretty powerful stuff, not only enhancing locomotor and cognitive performance when combined with coffee but also ramping up exercise performance by 18-21% all on its own!
"They're not regulated by the FDA like other drugs, so safety testing isn't required," Kerl says. What's more, you can't always be sure that what's on the ingredient label is actually in the product. Keep in mind, too, that those that contain water-soluble vitamins like B and C, she adds, aren't going to help you if you're already getting enough of those vitamins through diet. "If your body is getting more than you need, you're just going to pee out the excess," she says. "You're paying a lot of money for these supplements; maybe just have orange juice."
Provigil may well confer a temporary advantage on healthy people, but this doesn't mean that it's ready to replace your morning espresso. Anjan Chatterjee told me that there "just aren't enough studies of these drugs in normal people". One study, published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that Provigil can be habit-forming. A group led by Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, scanned the brains of 10 men after they had been given a placebo, and also after they had been given a dose of modafinil. The modafinil appeared to lead to an increase in the brain chemical dopamine. "Because drugs that increase dopamine have the potential for abuse," Volkow's report concluded, "these results suggest that risk for addiction in vulnerable persons merits heightened awareness." (Cephalon, in a response to the report, notes that Provigil's label urges physicians to monitor patients closely, especially those with a history of drug abuse.) On the website Erowid, where people vividly and anonymously report their experiences with legal and illegal drugs, some modafinil users have described a dependency on the drug. One man, who identified himself as a former biochemistry student, said that he had succeeded in kicking cocaine and opiate habits but couldn't stop using modafinil. Whenever he ran out of the drug, he said, "I start to freak out." After "four to five days" without it, "the head fog starts to come back".
During pregnancy and after pregnancy there is often a concern for the potential depletion of the maternal nutrient reservoir due to the needs of the growing foetus. A nutrient that is particularly important for mental wellbeing and is also essential for the growth of the foetus’s brain, is DHA. This is an omega 3 fatty acid that is found in oily fish and is the primary structural component of brain tissue, as well as playing a crucial role in the maintenance of brain cells and neurotransmitter metabolism (our body can also convert plant sources of omegas 3’s into DHA, such as those found in flaxseeds or chia seeds into DHA, but the conversion can often very poor). Deficiency in this nutrient during pregnancy is common, namely because of lack of seafood intake (the most bioavailable source of DHA) due to poor eating habits and concerns of mercury levels in fish during pregnancy, as well as higher requirements during foetal growth, which can lead to depletion. Due to the role that DHA plays in neurotransmitter metabolism, deficiency in this nutrient has been correlated to symptoms of depression during pregnancy (7). In order, to support your intake of omega 3, aim to have 3 portions of oily fish a week from sources that are low in mercury. These are mainly small fish that have a short life-span such as sardines, mackerel and herring. If you are vegetarian or vegan, although omega 3 is less readily available, it is still possible to get this nutrient from your diet through flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and seaweed. If you feel you may not be getting enough through your diet, you may want to consider using a good quality fish oil supplement (or algae based supplement if vegan) as an option. With fish oils, aim to choose a supplement that has been filtered for heavy metals and other pollutants to make sure you're getting the full benefits of the omega 3 oils.
Bacopa Monnieri: Also known as “waterhyssop,” this herb grows in wetlands around the world. It has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a powerful antioxidant which had demonstrated protective effects on cells. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is believed to play a major role in the development of dementia. Additionally, this herb boosts blood flow to the brain and activates choline acetyltransferase, a key enzyme which is necessary to synthesize the neurotransmitter cetylcholine.
This product is a miracle! I have purchased it TWICE because it is so helpful with my memory and cognition. I bought this product because I needed to strengthen my memory and focus, and I wanted to be awake when I did it! I had just switched to a job that is second shift (2PM-11PM) and it was very difficult to adjust to those hours AND learn all of the new technical systems required for my new job. But after taking this supplement, I noticed a HUGE difference in a few days! I was awake and alert like it was 11AM everyday. But it wasn’t like the jolt you sometimes get from caffeine, more like an alertness after a good night’s sleep. No jitters, no headaches, no stomach upset. Just energy and the feeling of being AWAKE. I am now telling all of my co-workers about it!
It’s a frosty Monday evening in March, but in the back of Idea Coffee, a dingy café near the Empire State Building, things are heating up. A group huddles around a small black box—the $160 ApeX Type A brain stimulator, with its retro-looking meter and dial and two electrodes. It’s supposed to bolster learning by delivering a mild electric current to the brain. The guy who’s been experimenting with it for a week notes that the only thing he’s noticed so far is a metallic taste in his mouth.
This is a small water plant native to India. Bacopa is an adaptogen – it helps your body adapt to stress. It also improves memory in healthy adults and enhances attention and mood in people over 65.  Scientists still don’t fully understand how Bacopa works, but they do know it takes time to work; study participants didn’t feel its memory-enhancing effects until they’d been supplementing with it daily for 4 weeks, so if you try Bacopa, stick with it for a month before you give up on it.
This research is in contrast to the other substances I like, such as piracetam or fish oil. I knew about withdrawal of course, but it was not so bad when I was drinking only tea. And the side-effects like jitteriness are worse on caffeine without tea; I chalk this up to the lack of theanine. (My later experiences with theanine seems to confirm this.) These negative effects mean that caffeine doesn’t satisfy the strictest definition of nootropic (having no negative effects), but is merely a cognitive enhancer (with both benefits & costs). One might wonder why I use caffeine anyway if I am so concerned with mental ability.
Qualia: Like TianChi, the nootropic blend Qualia is a “shotgun” approach, providing over forty-two different ingredients, including a host of herbal adaptogens, brain vitamins, amino acids, choline donors, anti-inflammatories and antioxidants too long to list here (you can view the full ingredient profile here). Unlike TianChi, it also contains synthetic nootropic “noopept”, which has about 1,000 times the potency of piracetam, along with a few other helpful ingredients, including curcumin and bioperine, and slightly higher amounts of caffeine. It also requires two daily dosing protocols: with the first dose taken on an empty stomach and the second with a meal (for those compounds better absorbed with food). For those who prefer to skip on the synthetic nootropic, get most of the compounds at slightly lower price point (Qualia is admittedly quite expensive at $150 for the two dosing bottles), and also get the addition of the Indian plant you learned about earlier called “Celastrus paniculatus”, there is a very similar supplement made by the same manufacturer called “Qualia Mind”.
People with failing memory and worried about Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes seduced by advertisements for Huperzine A, extracted from a type of moss. Some studies have shown that it increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is in short supply in Alzheimer’s. But despite increasing acetylcholine, aside from a few questionable studies in China, there is no evidence that it improves memory. Unfortunately when it comes to memory pills, they are best forgotten. There is, however, hope that a nasal spray containing insulin can increase the absorption of glucose into brain cells and improve cognitive function. But in the meantime, the best bet to maintain good brain function is to monitor blood glucose and blood pressure, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in simple carbs and saturated fat. And don’t forget that physical exercise also exercises your brain.
Jump up ^ Greely, Henry; Sahakian, Barbara; Harris, John; Kessler, Ronald C.; Gazzaniga, Michael; Campbell, Philip; Farah, Martha J. (December 10, 2008). "Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy". Nature. Nature Publishing Group. 456 (7223): 702–705. Bibcode:2008Natur.456..702G. doi:10.1038/456702a. ISSN 1476-4687. OCLC 01586310. PMID 19060880. Retrieved March 25, 2014. (Subscription required (help)).