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.
There is an ancient precedent to humans using natural compounds to elevate cognitive performance. Incan warriors in the 15th century would ingest coca leaves (the basis for cocaine) before battle. Ethiopian hunters in the 10th century developed coffee bean paste to improve hunting stamina. Modern athletes ubiquitously consume protein powders and hormones to enhance their training, recovery, and performance. The most widely consumed psychoactive compound today is caffeine. Millions of people use coffee and tea to be more alert and focused.
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
This mental stimulation is what increases focus and attention span in the user. The FDA permitted treatments for Modafinil include extreme sleepiness and shift work disorder. It can also get prescribed for narcolepsy, and obstructive sleep apnea. Modafinil is not FDA approved for the treatment of ADHD. Yet, many medical professionals feel it is a suitable Adderall alternative.

the larger size of the community enables economies of scale and increases the peak sophistication possible. In a small nootropics community, there is likely to be no one knowledgeable about statistics/experimentation/biochemistry/neuroscience/whatever-you-need-for-a-particular-discussion, and the available funds increase: consider /r/Nootropics’s testing program, which is doable only because it’s a large lucrative community to sell to so the sellers are willing to donate funds for independent lab tests/Certificates of Analysis (COAs) to be done. If there were 1000 readers rather than 23,295, how could this ever happen short of one of those 1000 readers being very altruistic?
Using prescription ADHD medications, racetams, and other synthetic nootropics can boost brain power. Yes, they can work. Even so, we advise against using them long-term since the research on their safety is still new. Use them at your own risk. For the majority of users, stick with all natural brain supplements for best results. What is your favorite smart pill for increasing focus and mental energy? Tell us about your favorite cognitive enhancer in the comments below.
One study of helicopter pilots suggested that 600 mg of modafinil given in three doses can be used to keep pilots alert and maintain their accuracy at pre-deprivation levels for 40 hours without sleep.[60] However, significant levels of nausea and vertigo were observed. Another study of fighter pilots showed that modafinil given in three divided 100 mg doses sustained the flight control accuracy of sleep-deprived F-117 pilots to within about 27% of baseline levels for 37 hours, without any considerable side effects.[61] In an 88-hour sleep loss study of simulated military grounds operations, 400 mg/day doses were mildly helpful at maintaining alertness and performance of subjects compared to placebo, but the researchers concluded that this dose was not high enough to compensate for most of the effects of complete sleep loss.
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.
The next morning, four giant pills’ worth of the popular piracetam-and-choline stack made me... a smidge more alert, maybe? (Or maybe that was just the fact that I had slept pretty well the night before. It was hard to tell.) Modafinil, which many militaries use as their “fatigue management” pill of choice, boasts glowing reviews from satisfied users. But in the United States, civilians need a prescription to get it; without one, they are stuck using adrafinil, a precursor substance that the body metabolizes into modafinil after ingestion. Taking adrafinil in lieu of coffee just made me keenly aware that I hadn’t had coffee.

Manually mixing powders is too annoying, and pre-mixed pills are expensive in bulk. So if I’m not actively experimenting with something, and not yet rich, the best thing is to make my own pills, and if I’m making my own pills, I might as well make a custom formulation using the ones I’ve found personally effective. And since making pills is tedious, I want to not have to do it again for years. 3 years seems like a good interval - 1095 days. Since one is often busy and mayn’t take that day’s pills (there are enough ingredients it has to be multiple pills), it’s safe to round it down to a nice even 1000 days. What sort of hypothetical stack could I make? What do the prices come out to be, and what might we omit in the interests of protecting our pocketbook?
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
“My husband and I (Ryan Cedermark) are so impressed with the research Cavin did when writing this book. If you, a family member or friend has suffered a TBI, concussion or are just looking to be nicer to your brain, then we highly recommend this book! Your brain is only as good as the body’s internal environment and Cavin has done an amazing job on providing the information needed to obtain such!”

One should note the serious caveats here: it is a small in vitro study of a single category of human cells with an effect size that is not clear on a protein which feeds into who-knows-what pathways. It is not a result in a whole organism on any clinically meaningful endpoint, even if we take it at face-value (many results never replicate). A look at followup work citing Rapuri et al 2007 is not encouraging: Google Scholar lists no human studies of any kind, much less high-quality studies like RCTs; just some rat followups on the calcium effect. This is not to say Rapuri et al 2007 is a bad study, just that it doesn’t bear the weight people are putting on it: if you enjoy caffeine, this is close to zero evidence that you should reduce or drop caffeine consumption; if you’re taking too much caffeine, you already have plenty of reasons to reduce; if you’re drinking lots of coffee, you already have plenty of reasons to switch to tea; etc.
Modafinil is a eugeroic, or ‘wakefulness promoting agent’, intended to help people with narcolepsy. It was invented in the 1970s, but was first approved by the American FDA in 1998 for medical use. Recent years have seen its off-label use as a ‘smart drug’ grow. It’s not known exactly how Modafinil works, but scientists believe it may increase levels of histamines in the brain, which can keep you awake. It might also inhibit the dissipation of dopamine, again helping wakefulness, and it may help alertness by boosting norepinephrine levels, contributing to its reputation as a drug to help focus and concentration.

“I have a bachelors degree in Nutrition Science. Cavin’s Balaster’s How to Feed a Brain is one the best written health nutrition books that I have ever read. It is evident that through his personal journey with a TBI and many years of research Cavin has gained a great depth of understanding on the biomechanics of nutrition has how it relates to the structure of the brain and nervous system, as well as how all of the body systems intercommunicate with one another. He then takes this complicated knowledge and breaks it down into a concise and comprehensive book. If you or your loved one is suffering from ANY neurological disorder or TBI please read this book.”
But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
We’ve talk about how caffeine affects the body in great detail, but the basic idea is that it can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signaling. Its effects can be dampened over time, however, as you start to build a caffeine tolerance. Research on L-theanine, a common amino acid, suggests it promotes neuronal health and can decrease the incidence of cold and flu symptoms by strengthening the immune system. And one study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, found that L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses—which is why it’s often taken with caffeine. In fact, in a 2014 systematic review of 11 different studies, published in the journal Nutrition Review, researchers found that use of caffeine in combination with L-theanine promoted alertness, task switching, and attention. The reviewers note the effects are most pronounced during the first two hours post-dose, and they also point out that caffeine is the major player here, since larger caffeine doses were found to have more of an effect than larger doses of L-theanine.
As shown in Table 6, two of these are fluency tasks, which require the generation of as large a set of unique responses as possible that meet the criteria given in the instructions. Fluency tasks are often considered tests of executive function because they require flexibility and the avoidance of perseveration and because they are often impaired along with other executive functions after prefrontal damage. In verbal fluency, subjects are asked to generate as many words that begin with a specific letter as possible. Neither Fleming et al. (1995), who administered d-AMP, nor Elliott et al. (1997), who administered MPH, found enhancement of verbal fluency. However, Elliott et al. found enhancement on a more complex nonverbal fluency task, the sequence generation task. Subjects were able to touch four squares in more unique orders with MPH than with placebo.
That said, there are plenty of studies out there that point to its benefits. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, suggests brain function in elderly patients can be greatly improved after regular dosing with Piracetam. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that Piracetam improved memory in most adult volunteers. And another, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, suggests it can help students, especially dyslexic students, improve their nonverbal learning skills, like reading ability and reading comprehension. Basically, researchers know it has an effect, but they don’t know what or how, and pinning it down requires additional research.
…It is without activity in man! Certainly not for the lack of trying, as some of the dosage trials that are tucked away in the literature (as abstracted in the Qualitative Comments given above) are pretty heavy duty. Actually, I truly doubt that all of the experimenters used exactly that phrase, No effects, but it is patently obvious that no effects were found. It happened to be the phrase I had used in my own notes.
Does little alone, but absolutely necessary in conjunction with piracetam. (Bought from Smart Powders.) When turning my 3kg of piracetam into pills, I decided to avoid the fishy-smelling choline and go with 500g of DMAE (Examine.com); it seemed to work well when I used it before with oxiracetam & piracetam, since I had no piracetam headaches, and be considerably less bulky.
l-theanine (Examine.com) is occasionally mentioned on Reddit or Imminst or LessWrong32 but is rarely a top-level post or article; this is probably because theanine was discovered a very long time ago (>61 years ago), and it’s a pretty straightforward substance. It’s a weak relaxant/anxiolytic (Google Scholar) which is possibly responsible for a few of the health benefits of tea, and which works synergistically with caffeine (and is probably why caffeine delivered through coffee feels different from the same amount consumed in tea - in one study, separate caffeine and theanine were a mixed bag, but the combination beat placebo on all measurements). The half-life in humans seems to be pretty short, with van der Pijl 2010 putting it ~60 minutes. This suggests to me that regular tea consumption over a day is best, or at least that one should lower caffeine use - combining caffeine and theanine into a single-dose pill has the problem of caffeine’s half-life being much longer so the caffeine will be acting after the theanine has been largely eliminated. The problem with getting it via tea is that teas can vary widely in their theanine levels and the variations don’t seem to be consistent either, nor is it clear how to estimate them. (If you take a large dose in theanine like 400mg in water, you can taste the sweetness, but it’s subtle enough I doubt anyone can actually distinguish the theanine levels of tea; incidentally, r-theanine - the useless racemic other version - anecdotally tastes weaker and less sweet than l-theanine.)
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:
How much of the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants documented by these studies was for cognitive enhancement? Prescription stimulants could be used for purposes other than cognitive enhancement, including for feelings of euphoria or energy, to stay awake, or to curb appetite. Were they being used by students as smart pills or as “fun pills,” “awake pills,” or “diet pills”? Of course, some of these categories are not entirely distinct. For example, by increasing the wakefulness of a sleep-deprived person or by lifting the mood or boosting the motivation of an apathetic person, stimulants are likely to have the secondary effect of improving cognitive performance. Whether and when such effects should be classified as cognitive enhancement is a question to which different answers are possible, and none of the studies reviewed here presupposed an answer. Instead, they show how the respondents themselves classified their reasons for nonmedical stimulant use.
Your mileage will vary. There are so many parameters and interactions in the brain that any of them could be the bottleneck or responsible pathway, and one could fall prey to the common U-shaped dose-response curve (eg. Yerkes-Dodson law; see also Chemistry of the adaptive mind & de Jongh et al 2007) which may imply that the smartest are those who benefit least23 but ultimately they all cash out in a very few subjective assessments like energetic or motivated, with even apparently precise descriptions like working memory or verbal fluency not telling you much about what the nootropic actually did. It’s tempting to list the nootropics that worked for you and tell everyone to go use them, but that is merely generalizing from one example (and the more nootropics - or meditation styles, or self-help books, or getting things done systems - you try, the stronger the temptation is to evangelize). The best you can do is read all the testimonials and studies and use that to prioritize your list of nootropics to try. You don’t know in advance which ones will pay off and which will be wasted. You can’t know in advance. And wasted some must be; to coin a Umeshism: if all your experiments work, you’re just fooling yourself. (And the corollary - if someone else’s experiments always work, they’re not telling you everything.)
“Love this book! Still reading and can’t wait to see what else I learn…and I am not brain injured! Cavin has already helped me to take steps to address my food sensitivity…seems to be helping and I am only on day 5! He has also helped me to help a family member who has suffered a stroke. Thank you Cavin, for sharing all your knowledge and hard work with us! This book is for anyone that wants to understand and implement good nutrition with all the latest research to back it up. Highly recommend!”
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Does little alone, but absolutely necessary in conjunction with piracetam. (Bought from Smart Powders.) When turning my 3kg of piracetam into pills, I decided to avoid the fishy-smelling choline and go with 500g of DMAE (Examine.com); it seemed to work well when I used it before with oxiracetam & piracetam, since I had no piracetam headaches, and be considerably less bulky.
Because executive functions tend to work in concert with one another, these three categories are somewhat overlapping. For example, tasks that require working memory also require a degree of cognitive control to prevent current stimuli from interfering with the contents of working memory, and tasks that require planning, fluency, and reasoning require working memory to hold the task goals in mind. The assignment of studies to sections was based on best fit, according to the aspects of executive function most heavily taxed by the task, rather than exclusive category membership. Within each section, studies are further grouped according to the type of task and specific type of learning, working memory, cognitive control, or other executive function being assessed.
Many of the most popular “smart drugs” (Piracetam, Sulbutiamine, Ginkgo Biloba, etc.) have been around for decades or even millenia but are still known only in medical circles or among esoteric practicioners of herbal medicine. Why is this? If these compounds have proven cognitive benefits, why are they not ubiquitous? How come every grade-school child gets fluoride for the development of their teeth (despite fluoride’s being a known neurotoxin) but not, say, Piracetam for the development of their brains? Why does the nightly news slant stories to appeal more to a fear-of-change than the promise of a richer cognitive future?
But when aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes.
Now, what is the expected value (EV) of simply taking iodine, without the additional work of the experiment? 4 cans of 0.15mg x 200 is $20 for 2.1 years’ worth or ~$10 a year or a NPV cost of $205 (\frac{10}{\ln 1.05}) versus a 20% chance of $2000 or $400. So the expected value is greater than the NPV cost of taking it, so I should start taking iodine.
Another ingredient used in this formula is GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric acid; it’s the second most common neurotransmitter found in the human brain. Being an inhibitory neurotransmitter it helps calm and reduce neuronal activity; this calming effect makes GABA an excellent ingredient in anti-anxiety medication. Lecithin is another ingredient found in Smart Pill and is a basic compound found in every cell of the body, with cardiovascular benefits it can also help restore the liver. Another effect is that it works with neurological functions such as memory or attention, thus improving brain Effectiveness.
I have also tried to get in contact with senior executives who have experience with these drugs (either themselves or in their firms), but without success. I have to wonder: Are they completely unaware of the drugs’ existence? Or are they actively suppressing the issue? For now, companies can ignore the use of smart drugs. And executives can pretend as if these drugs don’t exist in their workplaces. But they can’t do it forever.
Despite some positive findings, a lot of studies find no effects of enhancers in healthy subjects. For instance, although some studies suggest moderate enhancing effects in well-rested subjects, modafinil mostly shows enhancing effects in cases of sleep deprivation. A recent study by Martha Farah and colleagues found that Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) had only small effects on cognition but users believed that their performance was enhanced when compared to placebo.
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
Many studies suggest that Creatine helps in treating cognitive decline in individuals when combined with other therapies. It also helps people suffering from Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. Though there are minimal side effects associated with creatine, pretty much like any nootropic, it is not entirely free of side-effects. An overdose of creatine can lead to gastrointestinal issues, weight gain, stress, and anxiety.
There are a number of treatments for the last. I already use melatonin. I sort of have light therapy from a full-spectrum fluorescent desk lamp. But I get very little sunlight; the surprising thing would be if I didn’t have a vitamin D deficiency. And vitamin D deficiencies have been linked with all sorts of interesting things like near-sightedness, with time outdoors inversely correlating with myopia and not reading or near-work time. (It has been claimed that caffeine interferes with vitamin D absorption and so people like me especially need to take vitamin D, on top of the deficits caused by our vampiric habits, but I don’t think this is true34.) Unfortunately, there’s not very good evidence that vitamin D supplementation helps with mood/SAD/depression: there’s ~6 small RCTs with some findings of benefits, with their respective meta-analysis turning in a positive but currently non-statistically-significant result. Better confirmed is reducing all-cause mortality in elderly people (see, in order of increasing comprehensiveness: Evidence Syntheses 2013, Chung et al 2009, Autier & Gandini 2007, Bolland et al 2014).
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.
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