I’ve spent over a million dollars hacking my own biology. The lion’s share has gone to making my brain produce as much energy as it can. I even wrote a book, Head Strong, about neurofeedback, oxygen deprivation, supplements, deeper sleep, meditation, cold exposure, and about a dozen other brain hacks, and how you can use them to make your brain stronger than you thought possible.
How exactly – and if – nootropics work varies widely. Some may work, for example, by strengthening certain brain pathways for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is involved in motivation, Barbour says. Others aim to boost blood flow – and therefore funnel nutrients – to the brain to support cell growth and regeneration. Others protect brain cells and connections from inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in conditions like Alzheimer's, Barbour explains. Still others boost metabolism or pack in vitamins that may help protect the brain and the rest of the nervous system, explains Dr. Anna Hohler, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
Nootropics aren’t new—the word was coined in 1972 by a Romanian doctor, Corneliu E. Giurgea—but the Silicon Valley-led body-hacking movement, epitomized by food replacements like Soylent and specialized supplements like Bulletproof Coffee, seems to have given them new life. There are dozens of online forums, including an active subreddit, where nootropics users gather to exchange stack recipes and discuss the effects of various combinations of compounds. And although their "brain-enhancing" effects are still generally unproven, nootropics proponents point to clinical studies showing that certain compounds can increase short-term memory, reduce reaction time, and improve spatial awareness.
Your brain is essentially a network of billions of neurons connected by synapses. These neurons communicate and work together through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. When neurotransmitters are able to send signals more efficiently, you experience improved concentration, better memory, mood elevation, increased processing ability for mental work, and longer attention spans.
As mentioned above, eating foods that are rich in indigestible fibre such as vegetables and fruits, as well as eating good fats that are found in grass-fed butter, nuts and seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and avocado, provide bacteria with prebiotics that help to produce the ‘friendly’ short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate. Avoiding processed foods that contain calcium propionate, which lead to higher levels of propionic acid - the not so friendly short-chain fatty acid - is also another key strategy to support the gut-brain link.
Traditional Chinese medicine also has a long, well-established relationship with nootropic herbs and plants. One of the most popular and well-known is ginkgo biloba, derived from the Chinese maidenhair tree, a relic of the ancient world. The maidenhair tree is the last living species of the division Ginkgophyta>. Some believe that the name ginkgo is a misspelling of the original Japanese gin kyo, meaning “silver apricot”. It’s seen as a symbol of longevity and vitality and is known to be effective at stimulating the growth of new neurons. Researchers have demonstrated that ginkgo flavonoids, the main constituents in ginkgo extract, provide potent anti-Alzheimer’s effects via antioxidant activity in the brains of mice and also stabilize and improve the cognitive performance of Alzheimer patients for 6 months to 1 year. Effective doses range from 120 to 240 mg one to four hours before performance, and for older adults, doses range from 40 to 120 mg three times a day.
I’m sure your office already has a coffee maker, but if you’re in the mood for a refreshing coffee twist at the office, try this cold brew option from Chameleon Cold Brew. They use a highly select blend of 100% organic, fair trade certified Arabica coffee beans and filtered Texas Hill Country water. The result is a super smooth, less acidic and highly caffeinated coffee, which can be enjoyed hot or cold.
That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:
I asked him if piracetam made him feel smarter, or just more alert and confident - a little better equipped to marshal the resources he naturally had. "Maybe," he said. "I'm not sure what being smarter means, entirely. It's a difficult quality to measure. It's the Gestalt factor, all these qualities coming together - not only your ability to crunch some numbers, or remember some figures or a sequence of numbers, but also your ability to maintain a certain emotional state that is conducive to productive intellectual work. I do feel I'm more intelligent with the drugs, but I can't give you a number of IQ points."
Farah told me: "These drugs will definitely help some technically normal people - that is, people who don't meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD or any kind of cognitive impairment." But, she emphasised, "They will help people in the lower end of the ability range more than in the higher end." One explanation for this phenomenon might be that the more adept you are at a given task, the less room you have to improve. Farah has a hunch that there may be another reason that existing drugs - so far, at least - don't offer as much help to people with greater intellectual abilities. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall work in part by elevating the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is something you want just enough of: too little, and you may not be as alert and motivated as you need to be; too much, and you may feel overstimulated. Neuroscientists have discovered that some people have a gene that leads the brain to break down dopamine faster, leaving less of it available; such people are generally a little worse at certain cognitive tasks. People with more available dopamine are generally somewhat better at the same tasks. It makes sense, then, that people with naturally low dopamine would benefit more from an artificial boost.
And yet when enthusiasts share their vision of our neuroenhanced future it can sound dystopian. Zack Lynch, of NeuroInsights, gave me a rationale for smart pills that I found particularly grim. "If you're a 55-year-old in Boston, you have to compete with a 26-year-old from Mumbai now, and those kinds of pressures are only going to grow," he began. Countries other than the US might tend to be a little looser with their regulations and offer approval of new cognitive enhancers first. "And if you're a company that's got 47 offices worldwide, and all of a sudden your Singapore office is using cognitive enablers, and you're saying to Congress: 'I'm moving all my financial operations to Singapore and Taiwan, because it's legal to use those there', you bet that Congress is going to say: 'Well, OK.' It will be a moot question then.
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.
Supplements, medications, and coffee certainly might play a role in keeping our brains running smoothly at work or when we’re trying to remember where we left our keys. But the long-term effects of basic lifestyle practices can’t be ignored. “For good brain health across the life span, you should keep your brain active,” Sahakian says. “There is good evidence for ‘use it or lose it.’” She suggests brain-training apps to improve memory, as well as physical exercise. “You should ensure you have a healthy diet and not overeat. It is also important to have good-quality sleep. Finally, having a good work-life balance is important for well-being.” Try these 8 ways to get smarter while you sleep.
Some people warn of the dangers of modafinil. There are anecdotal personal accounts online of people becoming dependent on this drug. Modafinil is the generic of the brand Provigil, a nootropic. Provigil is FDA-approved to stimulate wakefulness in people suffering from sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea. Initially, Provigil was thought to have a benign, non-addiction-forming profile. As such, the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies Provigil as a Schedule IV drug, a category reserved for drugs with low abuse potential; however, recent research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found that Provigil may in fact be addictive.
The blood half-life is 12-36 hours; hence two or three days ought to be enough to build up and wash out. A week-long block is reasonable since that gives 5 days for effects to manifest, although month-long blocks would not be a bad choice either. (I prefer blocks which fit in round periods because it makes self-experiments easier to run if the blocks fit in normal time-cycles like day/week/month. The most useless self-experiment is the one abandoned halfway.)
An unusual intervention is infrared/near-infrared light of particular wavelengths (LLLT), theorized to assist mitochondrial respiration and yielding a variety of therapeutic benefits. Some have suggested it may have cognitive benefits. LLLT sounds strange but it’s simple, easy, cheap, and just plausible enough it might work. I tried out LLLT treatment on a sporadic basis 2013-2014, and statistically, usage correlated strongly & statistically-significantly with increases in my daily self-ratings, and not with any sleep disturbances. Excited by that result, I did a randomized self-experiment 2014-2015 with the same procedure, only to find that the causal effect was weak or non-existent. I have stopped using LLLT as likely not worth the inconvenience.
Similarly, Mehta et al 2000 noted that the positive effects of methylphenidate (40 mg) on spatial working memory performance were greatest in those volunteers with lower baseline working memory capacity. In a study of the effects of ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults, Stough et al 2001 found improved performance in the Trail-Making Test A only in the half with the lower verbal IQ.
Of course, before wrapping up this section on psychedelics, I’ll address the topics of where to actually buy the stuff. There are a variety of websites that sell psychedelics, but not all ingredient, chemical or quality sourcing is created equal, nor is there any guarantee that any substance you are purchasing is not laced with undesirable compounds. Heck, I get my psilocybin from a farmer in Wisconsin who is a personal friend, and other ingredients from close acquaintances who have their own sources. I know it may seem unfair, but sometimes sourcing comes down to “who ya know” and doing your own due diligence on that person’s source.
Our current natural brain health formula contains Cordyceps-Sinensis Extract as well as the complete balance of brain health supporting nutrients that work perfectly together to help your body elevate essential acetylcholine levels while increasing the neurological components (neurotransmitters) needed to help you stay alert, focused, mentally driven and calm.
Another factor to consider is whether the nootropic is natural or synthetic. Natural nootropics generally have effects which are a bit more subtle, while synthetic nootropics can have more pronounced effects. It’s also important to note that there are natural and synthetic nootropics. Some natural nootropics include Ginkgo biloba and ginseng. One benefit to using natural nootropics is they boost brain function and support brain health. They do this by increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the arteries and veins in the brain.
By the way, before we move on, allow me to clarify what I mean by “slow caffeine metabolizer”. Ever wondered why your co-worker can slam four giant mugs of coffee during a brief morning of work, while one shot of espresso leaves you jittery and irritated? Turns out that not everyone metabolizes caffeine the same. Generally speaking, in healthy adults, caffeine has a half-life that ranges from about 3 to 7 hours. For example, if the half-life of caffeine in your blood is 5 hours, that means that it takes 5 hours for caffeine levels to be reduced by 50%. Then it takes another 5 hours for that amount to be reduced by 50%. While caffeine metabolism time also depends upon age and environmental factors, a big influence on varying caffeine half-life times is your genetic makeup.
The advantage of adrafinil is that it is legal & over-the-counter in the USA, so one removes the small legal risk of ordering & possessing modafinil without a prescription, and the retailers may be more reliable because they are not operating in a niche of dubious legality. Based on comments from others, the liver problem may have been overblown, and modafinil vendors post-2012 seem to have become more unstable, so I may give adrafinil (from another source than Antiaging Central) a shot when my modafinil/armodafinil run out.
I asked Marcus which nootropic he would want if he were stranded on a desert island. "I guess it would depend on the challenges I was facing on the island. If staying healthy was the biggest challenge, then I'd choose AC-11," he said. "If I needed to stay motivated to rebuild the village, I would choose Mucuna [pruriens]. If I was hunting, I'd choose Huperzia serrata, for mental acuity and speed."
Adaptogens are also known to participate in regulating homeostasis through helping to beneficially regulate the mechanisms of action associated with the HPA-axis (think back to the importance of proper HPA-axis function which you learned about in my last article on breathwork), including cortisol regulation and nitric oxide regulation. Through these mechanisms, they can protect against chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative cognitive impairment, metabolic disorders, cancer and other aging-related diseases. There are plenty of adaptogens with potent benefits, but the ones you learn about in this article are an excellent start to begin building or expanding your stress-adaptation toolbox.
One reason I like modafinil is that it enhances dopamine release, but it binds to your dopamine receptors differently than addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines do, which may be part of the reason modafinil shares many of the benefits of other stimulants but doesn’t cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms.   It does increase focus, problem-solving abilities, and wakefulness, but it is not in the same class of drugs as Adderall, and it is not a classical stimulant. Modafinil is off of patent, so you can get it generically, or order it from India. It’s a prescription drug, so you need to talk to a physician.
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."