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.
The Nootroo arrives in a shiny gold envelope with the words “proprietary blend” and “intended for use only in neuroscience research” written on the tin. It has been designed, says Matzner, for “hours of enhanced learning and memory”. The capsules contain either Phenylpiracetam or Noopept (a peptide with similar effects and similarly uncategorised) and are distinguished by real flakes of either edible silver or gold. They are to be alternated between daily, allowing about two weeks for the full effect to be felt. Also in the capsules are L-Theanine, a form of choline, and a types of caffeine which it is claimed has longer lasting effects.
Hericium erinaceus (Examine.com) was recommended strongly by several on the ImmInst.org forums for its long-term benefits to learning, apparently linked to Nerve growth factor. Highly speculative stuff, and it’s unclear whether the mushroom powder I bought was the right form to take (ImmInst.org discussions seem to universally assume one is taking an alcohol or hotwater extract). It tasted nice, though, and I mixed it into my sleeping pills (which contain melatonin & tryptophan). I’ll probably never know whether the $30 for 0.5lb was well-spent or not.
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.
Those bright, round yolks are rich in choline, a B vitamin-like nutrient. When you eat eggs, your brain uses choline to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that may be important for maintaining memory and communication among brain cells. Boston University researchers tracked the eating habits of nearly 1,400 healthy adults for 10 years and found that choline intake correlated positively with better performance on certain types of memory tests. These simple brain exercises will help you get smarter.
Clinical psychiatrist Emily Deans has a private practice in Massachusetts and teaches at Harvard Medical School. She told me by phone that, in principle, there's "probably nothing dangerous" about the occasional course of nootropics for a hunting trip, finals week, or some big project. Beyond that, she suggests considering that it's possible to build up a tolerance to many neuroactive products if you use them often enough.
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.
In general, I feel a little bit less alert, but still close to normal. By 6PM, I have a mild headache, but I try out 30 rounds of gbrainy (haven’t played it in months) and am surprised to find that I reach an all-time high; no idea whether this is due to DNB or not, since Gbrainy is very heavily crystallized (half the challenge disappears as you learn how the problems work), but it does indicate I’m not deluding myself about mental ability. (To give a figure: my last score well before I did any DNB was 64, and I was doing well that day; on modafinil, I had a 77.) I figure the headache might be food related, eat, and by 7:30 the headache is pretty much gone and I’m fine up to midnight.
On 8 April 2011, I purchased from Smart Powders (20g for $8); as before, some light searching seemed to turn up SP as the best seller given shipping overhead; it was on sale and I planned to cap it so I got 80g. This may seem like a lot, but I was highly confident that theanine and I would get along since I already drink so much tea and was a tad annoyed at the edge I got with straight caffeine. So far I’m pretty happy with it. My goal was to eliminate the physical & mental twitchiness of caffeine, which subjectively it seems to do.
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Began double-blind trial. Today I took one pill blindly at 1:53 PM. at the end of the day when I have written down my impressions and guess whether it was one of the Adderall pills, then I can look in the baggy and count and see whether it was. there are many other procedures one can take to blind oneself (have an accomplice mix up a sequence of pills and record what the sequence was; don’t count & see but blindly take a photograph of the pill each day, etc.) Around 3, I begin to wonder whether it was Adderall because I am arguing more than usual on IRC and my heart rate seems a bit high just sitting down. 6 PM: I’ve started to think it was a placebo. My heart rate is back to normal, I am having difficulty concentrating on long text, and my appetite has shown up for dinner (although I didn’t have lunch, I don’t think I had lunch yesterday and yesterday the hunger didn’t show up until past 7). Productivity wise, it has been a normal day. All in all, I’m not too sure, but I think I’d guess it was Adderall with 40% confidence (another way of saying placebo with 60% confidence). When I go to examine the baggie at 8:20 PM, I find out… it was an Adderall pill after all. Oh dear. One little strike against Adderall that I guessed wrong. It may be that the problem is that I am intrinsically a little worse today (normal variation? come down from Adderall?).
Perhaps the most well-known natural nootropic stimulant and neuroenhancer is caffeine. Caffeine has been shown to prevent memory deficits in experimental models of Alzheimer’s disease and may even restore memory following impairment. In studies performed with college students, caffeine was shown to have particularly potent effects on memory improvement during students’ non-optimal time of day, in this case, early in the morning. Caffeine’s benefits go even further because it’s never found in an isolated vacuum in nature, meaning that it’s always located in some kind of plant such as green tea or bean such as coffee that carry additional beneficial compounds which often enhance the effects of caffeine, including, most notably, certain cholesterols, polyphenols and antioxidants. In fact, one study determined that caffeine alone does not account for the benefits caused by coffee consumption. Rather, the phytochemical content of coffee (coffee contains over 1,000 different natural chemicals!) gives it potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that complement the neuroprotective effects of caffeine on the central nervous system.
After I ran out of creatine, I noticed the increased difficulty, and resolved to buy it again at some point; many months later, there was a Smart Powders sale so bought it in my batch order, $12 for 1000g. As before, it made Taekwondo classes a bit easier. I paid closer attention this second time around and noticed that as one would expect, it only helped with muscular fatigue and did nothing for my aerobic issues. (I hate aerobic exercise, so it’s always been a weak point.) I eventually capped it as part of a sulbutiamine-DMAE-creatine-theanine mix. This ran out 1 May 2013. In March 2014, I spent $19 for 1kg of micronized creatine monohydrate to resume creatine use and also to use it as a placebo in a honey-sleep experiment testing Seth Roberts’s claim that a few grams of honey before bedtime would improve sleep quality: my usual flour placebo being unusable because the mechanism might be through simple sugars, which flour would digest into. (I did not do the experiment: it was going to be a fair amount of messy work capping the honey and creatine, and I didn’t believe Roberts’s claims for a second - my only reason to do it would be to prove the claim wrong but he’d just ignore me and no one else cares.) I didn’t try measuring out exact doses but just put a spoonful in my tea each morning (creatine is tasteless). The 1kg lasted from 25 March to 18 September or 178 days, so ~5.6g & $0.11 per day.
I took the pill at 11 PM the evening of (technically, the day before); that day was a little low on sleep than usual, since I had woken up an hour or half-hour early. I didn’t yawn at all during the movie (merely mediocre to my eyes with some questionable parts)23. It worked much the same as it did the previous time - as I walked around at 5 AM or so, I felt perfectly alert. I made good use of the hours and wrote up my memories of ICON 2011.
A key area that has been widely researched is the link between the microbiome (bacteria) in the gut and the brain. The hypothesis is that alterations in bacteria due to changes in our environment such as increased hygiene, increased exposure to antibiotics, refined and processed foods and stress have led to disturbances in short-chain fatty acids (SFCAs), which are byproducts of fermentation in the gut when bacteria come into contact with indigestible fibre found in food.
along with the previous bit of globalization is an important factor: shipping is ridiculously cheap. The most expensive S&H in my modafinil price table is ~$15 (and most are international). To put this in perspective, I remember in the 90s you could easily pay $15 for domestic S&H when you ordered online - but it’s 2013, and the dollar has lost at least half its value, so in real terms, ordering from abroad may be like a quarter of what it used to cost, which makes a big difference to people dipping their toes in and contemplating a small order to try out this ’nootropics thing they’ve heard about.
The AC-11 that Marcus mentioned for health is an extract from the Amazon jungle vine una de gato, and has been shown in laboratory and clinical trials to encourage DNA repair. The Mucuna pruriens he named for motivation is a legume that's a concentrated source of L-Dopa, which the body converts to the neurotransmitter dopamine. The Huperzia serrata Marcus selected for hunting is the same substance that induces lucid dreaming. This seems appropriate. While I felt the Alpha Brain helped my hunting, maybe I was dreaming. Or maybe a dream state of mind is good for hunting.
To understand further about how food intolerances can impact our mental health, it is important to explain the relationship between our gut microbiome, the immune system and our brain in a little more detail. The walls of our digestive tract provide a barrier between what we eat and the rest of our body and an unhealthy gut microbiome can lead to increased levels of inflammation, leaving the walls vulnerable to structural damage (4). Our intestinal wall is composed of cell junctions that prevent bacteria and large food molecules from entering the bloodstream, however, if these become damaged, proteins from foods that should not be circulating in our bloodstream can enter and an immune response is mounted as a reaction. This response is mediated by IgG, an antibody, that helps to protect against bacterial and viral infections as well as food antigens and is the most abundant immune cell in the body. Whilst food antigens are usually quickly cleared by an intelligent system called the reticuloendothelial system, with structural damage and a poor gut microbiome, this immune response can keep reoccurring. It is suggested that a chronic immune response such as this can have a negative impact on the brain, damaging its own structural barrier, called the Blood Brain Barrier (5).
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The basic idea is to remedy a deficiency (not look for acute stimulant effects) and magnesium has a slow excretion rate18, so week-long blocks seem appropriate. I can reuse the same methodology as the lithium self-experiment. The response variables will be the usual mood/productivity self-rating and, since I was originally interested in magnesium for possible sleep quality improvements, a standardized score of sleep latency + # of awakenings + time spent awake (the same variable as my potassium sleep experiment).
Encouraged by TruBrain’s magnesium & my magnesium l-threonate use, I design and run a blind random self-experiment to see whether magnesium citrate supplementation would improve my mood or productivity. I collected ~200 days of data at two dose levels. The analysis finds that the net effect was negative, but a more detailed look shows time-varying effects with a large initial benefit negated by an increasingly-negative effect. Combined with my expectations, the long half-life, and the higher-than-intended dosage, I infer that I overdosed on the magnesium. To verify this, I will be running a followup experiment with a much smaller dose.
TianChi Chinese Adaptogenic Herb Complex: The list of herbs and ingredients in the supplement TianChi is far too long to include here, but in short, it contains nearly every natural Chinese adaptogen and natural nootropic you’ve read about so far in this article. So when it comes to a purely non-synthetic approach to mental enhancement, this blend tops the totem pole. All of the herbs in TianChi are wildcrafted (gathering of plants from their native “wild” environment) or organic, non-GMO, Kosher Certified, non-irradiated and pesticide free, then formulated in small batches by a Chinese herbal medicine practitioner in Oregon. The herbs are extracted in purified water and test free of heavy metals. Most adaptogens purchased in today’s market are standardized 5:1 extract; meaning that it takes five pounds of herb to make one pound of extract. This is not always effective as some herbs may have to extract out at 10:1 in order to gain their natural strength. In contrast, the adaptogens in TianChi are extracted at a 45:1 ratio, making this one of the more potent blends out there. Strangely enough, I’ve found the brain-boosting effects of TianChi to be even more enhanced when consumed with beet juice or beet powder, probably due to the vasodilation effect of the beets. This is one of my favorite blends to mix up on a mid-morning or mid-afternoon an empty stomach for a very clear-headed cognitive high.
I was contacted by the Longecity user lostfalco, and read through some of his writings on the topic. I had never heard of LLLT before, but the mitochondria mechanism didn’t sound impossible (although I wondered whether it made sense at a quantity level14151617), and there was at least some research backing it; more importantly, lostfalco had discovered that devices for LLLT could be obtained as cheap as $15. (Clearly no one will be getting rich off LLLT or affiliate revenue any time soon.) Nor could I think of any way the LLLT could be easily harmful: there were no drugs involved, physical contact was unnecessary, power output was too low to directly damage through heating, and if it had no LLLT-style effect but some sort of circadian effect through hitting photoreceptors, using it in the morning wouldn’t seem to interfere with sleep.
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.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
According to the US Food and Drug Administration, "Piracetam is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. Further, piracetam is not a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any such dietary ingredient. [...] Accordingly, these products are drugs, under section 201(g)(1)(C) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(C), because they are not foods and they are intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. Moreover, these products are new drugs as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in their labeling."