Lucas Baker, a Switzerland-based software engineer with a large tech company, takes nootropics every day. He says it helps him maintain focus, especially on projects he might otherwise put off. “When I find an unpleasant task, I can just power through it,” he says. Baker also makes the coffee comparison: “There’s already a universally-embraced nootropic called caffeine,” he says. “It’s just about making it more widely researched.”
Before you try nootropics, I suggest you start with the basics: get rid of the things in your diet and life that reduce cognitive performance first. That is easiest. Then, add in energizers like Brain Octane and clean up your diet. Then, go for the herbals and the natural nootropics. Use the pharmaceuticals selectively only after you’ve figured out your basics.
The fact of the matter is, though, that the phrase ‘best brain pill’ doesn’t cover any of the bases you’d want an informative article to cover. The human brain is a large and complex thing, and there are many different kinds of pills, supplements, and medications that you can take to improve or affect different areas and functions. Many more of those pills, supplements and medications you take when it breaks down or glitches, to help control harmful or disorienting symptoms of various mental diseases.
According to Dr. Cohen, there’s no incentive for these companies to conduct trials to determine if their products actually do anything, so few of them do. In fact, he says he isn’t aware of any studies on nootropics that meet the research gold standard: double-blind, placebo-controlled, comparing meaningful numbers of healthy adults (not laboratory mice or rats) in terms of relevant measures of cognitive enhancement.
“In an era of confusion about what we should eat, Brain Food is a shining light. This is the straight story about ‘neuro-nutrition’ firmly rooted in research by a neuroscientist who has a deep understanding of how food affects our cognitive health. Dr. Mosconi gives us advice we can easily implement into our lives and a story about the science behind it that is both delightful and accessible. A must read!”
Capsule Connection sells 1000 00 pills (the largest pills) for $9. I already have a pill machine, so that doesn’t count (a sunk cost). If we sum the grams per day column from the first table, we get 9.75 grams a day. Each 00 pill can take around 0.75 grams, so we need 13 pills. (Creatine is very bulky, alas.) 13 pills per day for 1000 days is 13,000 pills, and 1,000 pills is $9 so we need 13 units and 13 times 9 is $117.
A passionate singer, yogi, and vegan baker, you can usually count on Jessica to be writing songs, inventing recipes, or doing handstands. Most notably, Jessica is recognized (by her parents) for a 3 minute vocal solo at Carnegie Hall (at 13), by her friends for her amazing Raw Vegan Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, and also by her yogi friends for her recent mastery of Camel Pose. In all seriousness, Jessica is beyond excited to write for SnackNation, and to share her passion for health, wellness, and delicious foods.
We started hearing the buzz when Daytime TV Doctors, started touting these new pills that improve concentration, memory recall, focus, mental clarity and energy. And though we love the good Doctor and his purple gloves, we don’t love the droves of hucksters who prey on his loyal viewers trying to make a quick buck, often selling low-grade versions of his medical discoveries.
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.
This tendency is exacerbated by general inefficiencies in the nootropics market - they are manufactured for vastly less than they sell for, although the margins aren’t as high as they are in other supplement markets, and not nearly as comical as illegal recreational drugs. (Global Price Fixing: Our Customers are the Enemy (Connor 2001) briefly covers the vitamin cartel that operated for most of the 20th century, forcing food-grade vitamins prices up to well over 100x the manufacturing cost.) For example, the notorious Timothy Ferriss (of The Four-hour Work Week) advises imitators to find a niche market with very high margins which they can insert themselves into as middlemen and reap the profits; one of his first businesses specialized in… nootropics & bodybuilding. Or, when Smart Powders - usually one of the cheapest suppliers - was dumping its piracetam in a fire sale of half-off after the FDA warning, its owner mentioned on forums that the piracetam was still profitable (and that he didn’t really care because selling to bodybuilders was so lucrative); this was because while SP was selling 2kg of piracetam for ~$90, Chinese suppliers were offering piracetam on AliBaba for $30 a kilogram or a third of that in bulk. (Of course, you need to order in quantities like 30kg - this is more or less the only problem the middlemen retailers solve.) It goes without saying that premixed pills or products are even more expensive than the powders.
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.
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).
Nootropics still exist largely in an unregulated gray area, which makes users somewhat hesitant to discuss their regimens. But I did speak to several people who told tales of increased productivity and sharpened focus. Bob Carter, a financial analyst for a start-up called LendingHome, says that nootropics have replaced his other morning stimulant. “I basically think of it as a substitute for coffee,” he says. “I think the problem with a cappuccino from Starbucks is that it gives you the feeling of being jittery. Whereas with this particular supplement, I feel more calm.”
“By drawing on more than fifteen years of scientific research and experience, Dr. Mosconi provides expert advice to prevent medical decline and sharpen memory. Her brain healthy recipes will help you maintain peak cognitive performance well into old age and therefore delay and may even prevent the appearance of debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s.”
If this is the case, this suggests some thoughtfulness about my use of nicotine: there are times when use of nicotine will not be helpful, but times where it will be helpful. I don’t know what makes the difference, but I can guess it relates to over-stimulation: on some nights during the experiment, I had difficult concentrating on n-backing because it was boring and I was thinking about the other things I was interested in or working on - in retrospect, I wonder if those instances were nicotine nights.
I bought 500g of piracetam (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) from Smart Powders (piracetam is one of the cheapest nootropics and SP was one of the cheapest suppliers; the others were much more expensive as of October 2010), and I’ve tried it out for several days (started on 7 September 2009, and used it steadily up to mid-December). I’ve varied my dose from 3 grams to 12 grams (at least, I think the little scoop measures in grams), taking them in my tea or bitter fruit juice. Cranberry worked the best, although orange juice masks the taste pretty well; I also accidentally learned that piracetam stings horribly when I got some on a cat scratch. 3 grams (alone) didn’t seem to do much of anything while 12 grams gave me a nasty headache. I also ate 2 or 3 eggs a day.
Similarly, we could try applying Nick Bostrom’s reversal test and ask ourselves, how would we react to a virus which had no effect but to eliminate sleep from alternating nights and double sleep in the intervening nights? We would probably grouch about it for a while and then adapt to our new hedonistic lifestyle of partying or working hard. On the other hand, imagine the virus had the effect of eliminating normal sleep but instead, every 2 minutes, a person would fall asleep for a minute. This would be disastrous! Besides the most immediate problems like safely driving vehicles, how would anything get done? You would hold a meeting and at any point, a third of the participants would be asleep. If the virus made it instead 2 hours on, one hour off, that would be better but still problematic: there would be constant interruptions. And so on, until we reach our present state of 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Given that we rejected all the earlier buffer sizes, one wonders if 16:8 can be defended as uniquely suited to circumstances. Is that optimal? It may be, given the synchronization with the night-day cycle, but I wonder; rush hour alone stands as an argument against synchronized sleep - wouldn’t our infrastructure would be much cheaper if it only had to handle the average daily load rather than cope with the projected peak loads? Might not a longer cycle be better? The longer the day, the less we are interrupted by sleep; it’s a hoary cliche about programmers that they prefer to work in long sustained marathons during long nights rather than sprint occasionally during a distraction-filled day, to the point where some famously adopt a 28 hour day (which evenly divides a week into 6 days). Are there other occupations which would benefit from a 20 hour waking period? Or 24 hour waking period? We might not know because without chemical assistance, circadian rhythms would overpower anyone attempting such schedules. It certainly would be nice if one had long time chunks in which could read a challenging book in one sitting, without heroic arrangements.↩
Lebowitz says that if you're purchasing supplements to improve your brain power, you're probably wasting your money. "There is nothing you can buy at your local health food store that will improve your thinking skills," Lebowitz says. So that turmeric latte you've been drinking everyday has no additional brain benefits compared to a regular cup of java.
Common issues such as poor sleep during pregnancy and sleep deprivation following the birth can often heighten cravings for stimulants and sugary foods, which may seem like a good option for quick sources of energy, however, these foods can often cause further issues with energy and lead to fatigue and low mood. Eating foods that are high in refined sugar and refined grains such as commercial white bread, pastries, cakes and biscuits, give us an unsustainable source of energy. The brain is a very metabolically active organ; despite it only being 7% of the body’s weight, it can take up to 20% of the body’s metabolic needs (2), meaning that it is very energy hungry. This is why it is important to nourish the brain with foods that are nutrient rich, providing the body the building blocks to produce neurotransmitters, as well as a sustainable source of energy. The best options are fresh, unprocessed foods such as wholegrains (brown bread, brown rice, quinoa, rye and oats), pulses, vegetables, good quality sources of protein (meat, poultry and fish) and healthy fats such as those found in olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and oily fish.
A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
[…] The verdict is out on brain health and aging. Scientists now know that memory loss and cognitive decline are not an inevitable part of growing older. In fact, the research proves quite the contrary. You can keep your mind sharp well into old age with a strategy that combines a healthy, active lifestyle with a brain-protecting diet and brain-boosting supplements. […]
When many of us think of memory enhancers, we think of ginkgo biloba, the herb that now generates more than $240 million in sales a year worldwide. The October 22-29, 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Alzheimer's patients who took 120 mg of ginkgo showed small improvements in tests designed to measure mental performance.
Brain Awake is produced by Irwin Naturals. The ingredients are natural and include some key ingredients. However, it also contained several other inactive ingredients that raised some concerns - namely, beeswax and silicone dioxide. We were not sure why these ingredients are included, and could not find any real explanation as to why they are contained within this product. That said, when we tested the ingredients in this product, they were as reported on the bottle.
"Over the years, I have learned so much from the work of Dr. Mosconi, whose accomplished credentials spanning both neuroscience and nutrition are wholly unique. This book represents the first time her studies on the interaction between food and long-term cognitive function reach a general audience. Dr. Mosconi always makes the point that we would eat differently and treat our brains better if only we could see what we are doing to them. From the lab to the kitchen, this is extremely valuable and urgent advice, complete with recommendations that any one of us can take."
As a general class, nootropics are not usually addiction-forming. Two of the strongest hallmarks of addiction-forming drugs is that they cause users to develop dependency and experience withdrawal when the drug use is eliminated or reduced. While there are some reports of nootropic users experiencing brain fog after use is discontinued, these side effects are not considered to be akin to withdrawal effects of addiction-forming drugs.
I noticed what may have been an effect on my dual n-back scores; the difference is not large (▃▆▃▃▂▂▂▂▄▅▂▄▂▃▅▃▄ vs ▃▄▂▂▃▅▂▂▄▁▄▃▅▂▃▂▄▂▁▇▃▂▂▄▄▃▃▂▃▂▂▂▃▄▄▃▆▄▄▂▃▄▃▁▂▂▂▃▂▄▂▁▁▂▄▁▃▂▄) and appears mostly in the averages - Toomim’s quick two-sample t-test gave p=0.23, although a another analysis gives p=0.138112. One issue with this before-after quasi-experiment is that one would expect my scores to slowly rise over time and hence a fish oil after would yield a score increase - the 3.2 point difference could be attributable to that, placebo effect, or random variation etc. But an accidentally noticed effect (d=0.28) is a promising start. An experiment may be worth doing given that fish oil does cost a fair bit each year: randomized blocks permitting an fish-oil-then-placebo comparison would take care of the first issue, and then blinding (olive oil capsules versus fish oil capsules?) would take care of the placebo worry.
Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
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"More and more of our young people are using these drugs to help them work. They've got their laptop, their iPhone, and their Adderall. This rising generation of workers and leaders may have a subtly different style of thinking and working, because they're using these drugs or because they learned to work using these drugs, so that even if you take the drugs away they'll still have a certain approach. I'm a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focused accountants."
Pomegranate juice. Pomegranate juice (you can eat the fruit itself but with its many tiny seeds, it's not nearly as convenient) offers potent antioxidant benefits, says Kulze, which protect the brain from the damage of free radicals. "Probably no part of the body is more sensitive to the damage from free radicals as the brain," says board-certified neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of The Better Brain Book. Citrus fruits and colorful vegetables are also high on Perlmutter's list of "brainy" foods because of their antioxidant properties -- "the more colorful the better," he says. Because pomegranate juice has added sugar (to counteract its natural tartness), you don't want to go overboard, says Kulze; she recommends approximately 2 ounces a day, diluted with spring water or seltzer.
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).
The abuse liability of caffeine has been evaluated.147,148 Tolerance development to the subjective effects of caffeine was shown in a study in which caffeine was administered at 300 mg twice each day for 18 days.148 Tolerance to the daytime alerting effects of caffeine, as measured by the MSLT, was shown over 2 days on which 250 g of caffeine was given twice each day48 and to the sleep-disruptive effects (but not REM percentage) over 7 days of 400 mg of caffeine given 3 times each day.7 In humans, placebo-controlled caffeine-discontinuation studies have shown physical dependence on caffeine, as evidenced by a withdrawal syndrome.147 The most frequently observed withdrawal symptom is headache, but daytime sleepiness and fatigue are also often reported. The withdrawal-syndrome severity is a function of the dose and duration of prior caffeine use…At higher doses, negative effects such as dysphoria, anxiety, and nervousness are experienced. The subjective-effect profile of caffeine is similar to that of amphetamine,147 with the exception that dysphoria/anxiety is more likely to occur with higher caffeine doses than with higher amphetamine doses. Caffeine can be discriminated from placebo by the majority of participants, and correct caffeine identification increases with dose.147 Caffeine is self-administered by about 50% of normal subjects who report moderate to heavy caffeine use. In post-hoc analyses of the subjective effects reported by caffeine choosers versus nonchoosers, the choosers report positive effects and the nonchoosers report negative effects. Interestingly, choosers also report negative effects such as headache and fatigue with placebo, and this suggests that caffeine-withdrawal syndrome, secondary to placebo choice, contributes to the likelihood of caffeine self-administration. This implies that physical dependence potentiates behavioral dependence to caffeine.
In this large population-based cohort, we saw consistent robust associations between cola consumption and low BMD in women. The consistency of pattern across cola types and after adjustment for potential confounding variables, including calcium intake, supports the likelihood that this is not due to displacement of milk or other healthy beverages in the diet. The major differences between cola and other carbonated beverages are caffeine, phosphoric acid, and cola extract. Although caffeine likely contributes to lower BMD, the result also observed for decaffeinated cola, the lack of difference in total caffeine intake across cola intake groups, and the lack of attenuation after adjustment for caffeine content suggest that caffeine does not explain these results. A deleterious effect of phosphoric acid has been proposed (26). Cola beverages contain phosphoric acid, whereas other carbonated soft drinks (with some exceptions) do not.
I decided to try out day-time usage on 2 consecutive days, taking the 100mg at noon or 1 PM. On both days, I thought I did feel more energetic but nothing extraordinary (maybe not even as strong as the nicotine), and I had trouble falling asleep on Halloween, thinking about the meta-ethics essay I had been writing diligently on both days. Not a good use compared to staying up a night.
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.
With just 16 predictions, I can’t simply bin the predictions and say yep, that looks good. Instead, we can treat each prediction as equivalent to a bet and see what my winnings (or losses) were; the standard such proper scoring rule is the logarithmic rule which pretty simple: you earn the logarithm of the probability if you were right, and the logarithm of the negation if you were wrong; he who racks up the fewest negative points wins. We feed in a list and get back a number:
Beans. Beans are "under-recognized" and "economical," says Kulze. They also stabilize glucose (blood sugar) levels. The brain is dependent on glucose for fuel, Kulze explains, and since it can't store the glucose, it relies on a steady stream of energy -- which beans can provide. Any beans will do, says Kulze, but she is especially partial to lentils and black beans and recommends 1/2 cup every day.
2ml is supposed to translate to 24mg, which is a big dose. I do not believe any of the commercial patches go much past that. I asked Wedrifid, whose notes inspired my initial interest, and he was taking perhaps 2-4mg, and expressed astonishment that I might be taking 24mg. (2mg is in line with what I am told by another person - that 2mg was so much that they actually felt a little sick. On the other hand, in one study, the subjects could not reliably distinguish between 1mg and placebo25.) 24mg is particularly troubling in that I weigh ~68kg, and nicotine poisoning and the nicotine LD50 start, for me, at around 68mg of nicotine. (I reflected that the entire jar could be a useful murder weapon, although nicotine presumably would be caught in an autopsy’s toxicology screen; I later learned nicotine was an infamous weapon in the 1800s before any test was developed. It doesn’t seem used anymore, but there are still fatal accidents due to dissolved nicotine.) The upper end of the range, 10mg/kg or 680mg for me, is calculated based on experienced smokers. Something is wrong here - I can’t see why I would have nicotine tolerance comparable to a hardened smoker, inasmuch as my maximum prior exposure was second-hand smoke once in a blue moon. More likely is that either the syringe is misleading me or the seller NicVape sold me something more dilute than 12mg/ml. (I am sure that it’s not simply plain water; when I mix the drops with regular water, I can feel the propylene glycol burning as it goes down.) I would rather not accuse an established and apparently well-liked supplier of fraud, nor would I like to simply shrug and say I have a mysterious tolerance and must experiment with doses closer to the LD50, so the most likely problem is a problem with the syringe. The next day I altered the procedure to sucking up 8ml, squirting out enough fluid to move the meniscus down to 7ml, and then ejecting the rest back into the container. The result was another mild clean stimulation comparable to the previous 1ml days. The next step is to try a completely different measuring device, which doesn’t change either.
“Over the years, I have learned so much from the work of Dr. Mosconi, whose accomplished credentials spanning both neuroscience and nutrition are wholly unique. This book represents the first time her studies on the interaction between food and long-term cognitive function reach a general audience. Dr. Mosconi always makes the point that we would eat differently and treat our brains better if only we could see what we are doing to them. From the lab to the kitchen, this is extremely valuable and urgent advice, complete with recommendations that any one of us can take.”
To make things more interesting, I think I would like to try randomizing different dosages as well: 12mg, 24mg, and 36mg (1-3 pills); on 5 May 2014, because I wanted to finish up the experiment earlier, I decided to add 2 larger doses of 48 & 60mg (4-5 pills) as options. Then I can include the previous pilot study as 10mg doses, and regress over dose amount.
For now, instead of reaching for a designer supplement, you're better off taking a multivitamin, according to some experts. It's well known that antioxidants like vitamins C and E protect cells from damage by disarming free radicals. Brain cells are especially vulnerable to these troublemakers because the brain generates more free radicals per gram of tissue than any other organ. Antioxidants also protect neurons by keeping blood vessels supple and open, ensuring the flow of nutrients to the brain.
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.