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But there’s a surprising lack of skepticism in the room. That’s because this is a weekly meetup of amateur biohackers. In fact, positivity is one of their ground rules. Members share experiences with ketogenic diets, biofeedback apps, sensory-deprivation tanks, and, lately, a class of smart drugs known as “nootropics.” Their primary obsession is brain enhancement.
Alex was eager to dispel the notion that students who took Adderall were "academic automatons who are using it in order to be first in their class". In fact, he said, "it's often people" - mainly guys - "who are looking in some way to compensate for activities that are detrimental to their performance". He explained, "At Harvard, at the most basic level, they aim to do better than they would have otherwise. Everyone is aware that if you were up at 3am writing this paper it isn't going to be as good as it could have been. The fact that you were partying all weekend, or spent the last week being high, watching Lost - that's going to take a toll."
One fairly powerful nootropic substance that, appropriately, has fallen out of favor is nicotine. It’s the chemical that gives tobacco products their stimulating kick. It isn’t what makes them so deadly, but it does make smoking very addictive. When Europeans learned about tobacco’s use from indigenous tribes they encountered in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they got hooked on its mood-altering effects right away and even believed it could cure joint pain, epilepsy, and the plague. Recently, researchers have been testing the effects of nicotine that’s been removed from tobacco, and they believe that it might help treat neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia; it may also improve attention and focus. But, please, don’t start smoking or vaping. Check out these 14 weird brain exercises that make you smarter.
A big part is that we are finally starting to apply complex systems science to psycho-neuro-pharmacology and a nootropic approach. The neural system is awesomely complex and old-fashioned reductionist science has a really hard time with complexity. Big companies spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to separate the effects of just a single molecule from placebo – and nootropics invariably show up as “stacks” of many different ingredients (ours, Qualia , currently has 42 separate synergistic nootropics ingredients from alpha GPC to bacopa monnieri and L-theanine). That kind of complex, multi pathway input requires a different methodology to understand well that goes beyond simply what’s put in capsules.
Tuesday: I went to bed at 1am, and first woke up at 6am, and I wrote down a dream; the lucid dreaming book I was reading advised that waking up in the morning and then going back for a short nap often causes lucid dreams, so I tried that - and wound up waking up at 10am with no dreams at all. Oops. I take a pill, but the whole day I don’t feel so hot, although my conversation and arguments seem as cogent as ever. I’m also having a terrible time focusing on any actual work. At 8 I take another; I’m behind on too many things, and it looks like I need an all-nighter to catch up. The dose is no good; at 11, I still feel like at 8, possibly worse, and I take another along with the choline+piracetam (which makes a total of 600mg for the day). Come 12:30, and I disconsolately note that I don’t seem any better, although I still seem to understand the IQ essays I am reading. I wonder if this is tolerance to modafinil, or perhaps sleep catching up to me? Possibly it’s just that I don’t remember what the quasi-light-headedness of modafinil felt like. I feel this sort of zombie-like state without change to 4am, so it must be doing something, when I give up and go to bed, getting up at 7:30 without too much trouble. Some N-backing at 9am gives me some low scores but also some pretty high scores (38/43/66/40/24/67/60/71/54 or ▂▂▆▂▁▆▅▇▄), which suggests I can perform normally if I concentrate. I take another pill and am fine the rest of the day, going to bed at 1am as usual.
Finding a usable product on Amazon caused me some difficulties. I wanted a 500mg magnesium-citrate-only product at <$20 for 120 doses, but I discovered most of the selection for magnesium citrate had sub-500mg doses, involved calcium citrate or other substances like zinc (not necessarily a bad thing, but would confound an experiment), were mostly magnesium oxide rather than citrate, or some still other problem. Ultimately I settled on Solgar’s $13 120x400mg magnesium citrate as acceptable. (To compare with the bulkiness of the LEF vitamin D+l-threonate powder, the Office of Dietary Supplements says magnesium citrate is 16% magnesium, so to get 400mg of magnesium as claimed, would take 2.5g of material, rather than 7g for 200mg; even if l-threonate is absorbed 100% and citrate 50%, the citrate is ahead. The pills turn out to be wider and longer than my 00 pills; if I want to get them into my gel capsules, I have to crush them into fine powder. The powder from one pill turns out to take up 2 00 pills.)
But before you go lock yourself in a dark, quiet room in order to prevent this overburden on your brain, you should know that there are scientifically researched compounds designed to amplify cognitive function and help your brain deal with this excess load, or simply get you through a period of sleep deprivation, increased creativity or work demands, the need to pull an all-nighter or an intense bout of work or study.
It is important that this type of approach is discussed with a qualified health professional, such as a registered nutritional therapist, to ensure it is an appropriate strategy for you, as well as to help you avoid missing out on vital nutrients, whilst eliminating certain foods. They can also provide advice on improving your longer term health, which over time may allow for foods to be reintroduced without negative symptoms occurring.
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Racetams, such as piracetam, oxiracetam, and aniracetam, which are often marketed as cognitive enhancers and sold over-the-counter. Racetams are often referred to as nootropics, but this property is not well established. The racetams have poorly understood mechanisms, although piracetam and aniracetam are known to act as positive allosteric modulators of AMPA receptors and appear to modulate cholinergic systems.