Nootropic (new-tro-pik) is the term for supplements, also known as smart drugs, that improve brain function. They can be food substances like phenethylamine and L-Theanine, found in chocolate and green tea, respectively. Nootropics also include extracted and purified components of medicinal plants, as well as substances synthesized from chemical precursors, such as piracetam, the world's first official nootropic (piracetam was created in 1964 in Belgium by a team of scientists whose leader, Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, coined the term). Since then piracetam has been widely used as a cognitive enhancer and to treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
The evidence? In small studies, healthy people taking modafinil showed improved planning and working memory, and better reaction time, spatial planning, and visual pattern recognition. A 2015 meta-analysis claimed that “when more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning” without affecting a user’s mood. In a study from earlier this year involving 39 male chess players, subjects taking modafinil were found to perform better in chess games played against a computer.
If Alex, the Harvard student, and Paul Phillips, the poker player, consider their use of neuroenhancers a private act, Nicholas Seltzer sees his habit as a pursuit that aligns him with a larger movement for improving humanity. Seltzer's job as a researcher at a defence-oriented thinktank in northern Virginia has not left him feeling as intellectually alive as he would like. To compensate, he writes papers in his spare time on subjects like "human biological evolution and warfare". Seltzer, 30, told me he worried that he "didn't have the mental energy, the endurance, the... the sponginess that I seem to recall having when I was younger".
Kratom (Erowid, Reddit) is a tree leaf from Southeast Asia; it’s addictive to some degree (like caffeine and nicotine), and so it is regulated/banned in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bhutan among others - but not the USA. (One might think that kratom’s common use there indicates how very addictive it must be, except it literally grows on trees so it can’t be too hard to get.) Kratom is not particularly well-studied (and what has been studied is not necessarily relevant - I’m not addicted to any opiates!), and it suffers the usual herbal problem of being an endlessly variable food product and not a specific chemical with the fun risks of perhaps being poisonous, but in my reading it doesn’t seem to be particularly dangerous or have serious side-effects.
While you may not find yourself mixing an LSD homebrew in your kitchen anytime soon, a bit of better living through science may be exactly what you need to upgrade your productivity, creativity and overall cognitive performance. You’re now equipped with every shred of knowledge necessary to do so, whether you choose a risky smart drug approach, a natural nootropic approach, a synthetic nootropic approach, or a blend of all three.
Brain consumption can result in contracting fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and other prion diseases in humans and mad cow disease in cattle. Another prion disease called kuru has been traced to a funerary ritual among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in which those close to the dead would eat the brain of the deceased to create a sense of immortality.
Because it’s so nutrient-dense — packing loads of vitamins, minerals and nutrients with very little calories — it’s a great snack option if you’re looking to shed pounds. And while we often eat celery stalks, don’t skip the seeds and leaves; both provide extra health benefits and taste great in things like stir fries and soups. Not sure where to begin with eating more celery? Try my easy Ants on a Log or refreshing Super Hydrator Juice recipes.
Burke says he definitely got the glow. “The first time I took it, I was working on a business plan. I had to juggle multiple contingencies in my head, and for some reason a tree with branches jumped into my head. I was able to place each contingency on a branch, retract and go back to the trunk, and in this visual way I was able to juggle more information.”
10:30 AM; no major effect that I notice throughout the day - it’s neither good nor bad. This smells like placebo (and part of my mind is going how unlikely is it to get placebo 3 times in a row!, which is just the Gambler’s fallacy talking inasmuch as this is sampling with replacement). I give it 60% placebo; I check the next day right before taking, and it is. Man!
Chatterjee told me that many people who come to his clinic are cognitively preoccupied versions of what doctors call the "worried well". He had just seen a middle-aged woman, a successful Philadelphia lawyer, who mentioned having to struggle a bit to come up with certain names. "Here's an example of someone who by most measures is doing perfectly fine," Chatterjee said. "She's not having any trouble at work. But she notices she's having some problems, and it's very hard to know how much of that is just getting older." Of course, people in her position could strive to get regular exercise and plenty of intellectual stimulation, both of which have been shown to help maintain cognitive function. But maybe they're already doing so and want a bigger mental rev-up, or maybe they want something easier than sweaty workouts and Russian novels: they want a pill.
Nootroo and Nootrobox are two San Francisco nootropics startups that launched last year. Their founders come from the tech scene and their products are squarely aimed at the tech crowd seeking the convenience of not having to build their own combinations. Each claims big-name Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors among their users, though neither will name them.
The first night I was eating some coconut oil, I did my n-backing past 11 PM; normally that damages my scores, but instead I got 66/66/75/88/77% (▁▁▂▇▃) on D4B and did not feel mentally exhausted by the end. The next day, I performed well on the Cambridge mental rotations test. An anecdote, of course, and it may be due to the vitamin D I simultaneously started. Or another day, I was slumped under apathy after a promising start to the day; a dose of fish & coconut oil, and 1 last vitamin D, and I was back to feeling chipper and optimist. Unfortunately I haven’t been testing out coconut oil & vitamin D separately, so who knows which is to thank. But still interesting.
It all comes down to my personal investigation and exploration into how one can use a variety of compounds to enhance the mind, all while combining ancestral wisdom and herbs such as bacopa and gingko with modern science and tactics such as LSD and racetams. The fact is, I’ve taken a deep dive in the wonderful world of smart drugs, nootropics and psychedelics, and have had the opportunity to interview some of the brightest minds in this unique field of brain enhancement on my podcast. So in this article, I’ll spill the beans on it all, including how to navigate the oft-confusing world of smart drugs and nootropics, the best brain supplement stacks I’ve discovered and experimented with, how to procure and microdose psychedelics and much more.
The fact is, many of these compounds in small amounts and less frequent use can be relatively safe, but as you’re probably not surprised to hear, I’m not 100% convinced of the overall long-term safety or efficacy of most smart drugs used frequently or in moderate to high dosages for the reasons stated above. It is true that some are slightly less risky than others and are increasing in popularity among biohackers and medical professionals. They’re also becoming used with high frequency by students, athletes and e-gamers, three populations for which smart drug “doping control” is becoming more frequently banned and considered to be illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, “brain doping” and “brain PED’s” (brain Performance Enhancing Drugs) are now a thing. But I’d consider carefully the use of smart drugs as daily go-to brain enhancing supplements, especially in light of the safer alternative you’re about to discover: the entire category of natural and synthetic nootropic compounds.
Cephalon executives have repeatedly said that they do not condone off-label use of Provigil, but in 2002 the company was reprimanded by the FDA for distributing marketing materials that presented the drug as a remedy for tiredness, "decreased activity" and other supposed ailments. And in 2008 Cephalon paid $425m and pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge relating to its promotion of off-label uses for Provigil and two other drugs. Later this year, Cephalon plans to introduce Nuvigil, a longer-lasting variant of Provigil. Candace Steele, a spokesperson, said: "We're exploring its possibilities to treat excessive sleepiness associated with schizophrenia, bipolar depression, traumatic injury and jet lag." Though she emphasised that Cephalon was not developing Nuvigil as a neuroenhancer, she noted: "As part of the preparation for some of these diseases, we're looking to see if there's improvement in cognition."
Alex's sense of who uses stimulants for so-called "non-medical" purposes is borne out by two dozen or so scientific studies. In 2005 a team led by Sean Esteban McCabe, a professor at the University of Michigan, reported that in the previous year 4.1% of American undergraduates had taken prescription stimulants for off-label use - at one school the figure was 25%, while a 2002 study at a small college found that more than 35% of the students had used prescription stimulants non-medically in the previous year.
Along with a great formula, Brainol offers real value in their package deals. Brainol extends discounts of $280 if you order 6 bottles, this is an incredible, sensible, cost saving option. Positive customer feedback and testimonials demonstrate the huge numbers of satisfied customers. Consumers can feel very confident in this brain boosting product as it offers a 100% money-back guarantee. Brainol is formulated in a laboratory that is GMP certified. This means that the company is held to very strict standards and high-quality assurance.
Took full pill at 10:21 PM when I started feeling a bit tired. Around 11:30, I noticed my head feeling fuzzy but my reading seemed to still be up to snuff. I would eventually finish the science book around 9 AM the next day, taking some very long breaks to walk the dog, write some poems, write a program, do Mnemosyne review (memory performance: subjectively below average, but not as bad as I would have expected from staying up all night), and some other things. Around 4 AM, I reflected that I felt much as I had during my nightwatch job at the same hour of the day - except I had switched sleep schedules for the job. The tiredness continued to build and my willpower weakened so the morning wasn’t as productive as it could have been - but my actual performance when I could be bothered was still pretty normal. That struck me as kind of interesting that I can feel very tired and not act tired, in line with the anecdotes.
Our #5 pick is BriteSmart which has a long list of ingredients, which look good on the bottle, but when we actually visited each one, we were left wondering about why some of them had been included. We did like the fact that it contained Vinpocetine and Huperzine A. We felt that this was a good product, but missing some key ingredients such as a supportive vitamin blend.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD, INHC, is the associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC)/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where she was recruited as an associate professor of Neuroscience in Neurology. She also is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, in the Department of Nutrition at NYU Steinhardt School of Nutrition and Public Health, and in the Departments of Neurology and Nuclear Medicine at the University of Florence (Italy). Formerly, Dr. Mosconi founded and was the director of the Nutrition & Brain Fitness Lab at New York University School of Medicine (NYU), and an assistant professor in the NYU Department of Psychiatry, where she served as the director of the Family History of Alzheimer's disease research program. Dr. Mosconi holds a dual PhD degree in Neuroscience and Nuclear Medicine from the University of Florence, Italy, and is a board certified integrative nutritionist and holistic healthcare practitioner. She is well known for her research on the early detection of Alzheimer's disease and is passionately interested in the mitigation and prevention of memory loss through lifestyle modifications including diet, nutrition, and physical and intellectual fitness.
All of the coefficients are positive, as one would hope, and one specific factor (MR7) squeaks in at d=0.34 (p=0.05). The graph is much less impressive than the graph for just MP, suggesting that the correlation may be spread out over a lot of factors, the current dataset isn’t doing a good job of capturing the effect compared to the MP self-rating, or it really was a placebo effect:
The general cost of fish oil made me interested in possible substitutes. Seth Roberts uses exclusively flaxseed oil or flaxseed meal, and this seems to work well for him with subjective effects (eg. noticing his Chinese brands seemed to not work, possibly because they were unrefrigerated and slightly rancid). It’s been studied much less than fish oil, but omega acids are confusing enough in general (is there a right ratio? McCluskey’s roundup gives the impression claims about ratios may have been overstated) that I’m not convinced ALA is a much inferior replacement for fish oil’s mixes of EPA & DHA.
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.
My first impression of ~1g around 12:30PM was that while I do not feel like running around, within an hour I did feel like the brain fog was lighter than before. The effect wasn’t dramatic, so I can’t be very confident. Operationalizing brain fog for an experiment might be hard: it doesn’t necessarily feel like I would do better on dual n-back. I took 2 smaller doses 3 and 6 hours later, to no further effect. Over the following weeks and months, I continued to randomly alternate between potassium & non-potassium days. I noticed no effects other than sleep problems.
When it comes to brain power, greens should be on your plate (and cover a lot of that plate) every meal. “Leafy greens are a great base. You swap out a lot of the empty carbohydrates you get from things like pastas or breads, and you can use some leafy greens,” says Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, author of The Happiness Diet and Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients That Fuel Brainpower, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health. “Again, just lots of nutrient density.”
The acid is also known to restore the vitamin C and E levels in the body. Alpha Lipoic Acid’s efficient antioxidant property protects brain cells from damage during any injury. This helps in making sure that your brain functions normally even if there is any external or internal brain injury. OptiMind, one of the best nootropic supplements that you can find today contains Alpha Lipoic Acid that can help in enhancing your brain’s capabilities.
Dallas Michael Cyr, a 41-year-old life coach and business mentor in San Diego, California, also says he experienced a mental improvement when he regularly took another product called Qualia Mind, which its makers say enhances focus, energy, mental clarity, memory and even creativity and mood. "One of the biggest things I noticed was it was much more difficult to be distracted," says Cyr, who took the supplements for about six months but felt their effects last longer. While he's naturally great at starting projects and tasks, the product allowed him to be a "great finisher" too, he says.
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After trying out 2 6lb packs between 12 September & 25 November 2012, and 20 March & 20 August 2013, I have given up on flaxseed meal. They did not seem to go bad in the refrigerator or freezer, and tasted OK, but I had difficulty working them into my usual recipes: it doesn’t combine well with hot or cold oatmeal, and when I tried using flaxseed meal in soups I learned flaxseed is a thickener which can give soup the consistency of snot. It’s easier to use fish oil on a daily basis.
Blinding stymied me for a few months since the nasty taste was unmistakable and I couldn’t think of any gums with a similar flavor to serve as placebo. (The nasty taste does not seem to be due to the nicotine despite what one might expect; Vaniver plausibly suggested the bad taste might be intended to prevent over-consumption, but nothing in the Habitrol ingredient list seemed to be noted for its bad taste, and a number of ingredients were sweetening sugars of various sorts. So I couldn’t simply flavor some gum.)
Ginkgo Biloba, Bacopa Monnieri, and Lion’s Mane: This particular unique blend boosts mental focus, memory, learning, and cognitive performance while reducing anxiety and depression, and I’ve found that it can significantly boost mental alertness for around six hours at a time without any jitteriness or irritability – or any significant amounts of caffeine. It’s important to allow for a grace period of about 12 weeks before you feel the stack’s full potential, so don’t expect immediate results with this combination.
Armodafinil is sort of a purified modafinil which Cephalon sells under the brand-name Nuvigil (and Sun under Waklert21). Armodafinil acts much the same way (see the ADS Drug Profile) but the modafinil variant filtered out are the faster-acting molecules22. Hence, it is supposed to last longer. as studies like Pharmacodynamic effects on alertness of single doses of armodafinil in healthy subjects during a nocturnal period of acute sleep loss seem to bear out; anecdotally, it’s also more powerful, with Cephalon offering pills with doses as low as 50mg. (To be technical, modafinil is racemic: it comes in two forms which are rotations, mirror-images of each other. The rotation usually doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters tremendously - for example, one form of thalidomide stops morning sickness, and the other rotation causes hideous birth defects.)
Factor analysis. The strategy: read in the data, drop unnecessary data, impute missing variables (data is too heterogeneous and collected starting at varying intervals to be clean), estimate how many factors would fit best, factor analyze, pick the ones which look like they match best my ideas of what productive is, extract per-day estimates, and finally regress LLLT usage on the selected factors to look for increases.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)
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.
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My worry about the MP variable is that, plausible or not, it does seem relatively weak against manipulation; other variables I could look at, like arbtt window-tracking of how I spend my computer time, # or size of edits to my files, or spaced repetition performance, would be harder to manipulate. If it’s all due to MP, then if I remove the MP and LLLT variables, and summarize all the other variables with factor analysis into 2 or 3 variables, then I should see no increases in them when I put LLLT back in and look for a correlation between the factors & LLLT with a multivariate regression.
Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
Freshly brewed tea. Two to three cups a day of freshly brewed tea -- hot or iced -- contains a modest amount of caffeine which, when used "judiciously," says Kulze -- can boost brain power by enhancing memory, focus, and mood. Tea also has potent antioxidants, especially the class known as catechines, which promotes healthy blood flow. Bottled or powdered teas don't do the trick, however, says Kulze. "It has to be freshly brewed." Tea bags do count, however.
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?
Some nootropics are more commonly used than others. These include nutrients like Alpha GPC, huperzine A, L-Theanine, bacopa monnieri, and vinpocetine. Other types of nootropics are still gaining traction. With all that in mind, to claim there is a “best” nootropic for everyone would be the wrong approach since every person is unique and looking for different benefits.