If you could pop a pill and instantly feel sharper, clearer and more creative, would you? Since we first ran this piece on nootropics a few years back with the “father of biohacking” Dave Asprey, this wide-ranging class of drugs, herbs and supplements have reached peak popularity.
The challenges of working from home and the related lift in Adderall sales, plus the overall surge in interest around wellness means there are more nootropic options available than ever before, but they are far from equal.
Remember, this category of substances designed to enhance cognitive function are not without controversy. Dave’s biohacking insights dive deep, but before trying these substances on your own, consider talking with your doctor to learn more. Want to keep up-to-date with the absolute latest on this topic? Subscribe to Asprey’s podcast here.
A Biohacker’s Guide to the Most Popular Nootropics
From tame to trippy, natural to not, here are ten of the most common nootropics and everything you need to know about using them..
Nootropics – sometimes called smart drugs – are compounds that enhance brain function. They’re becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost. According to one Telegraph report, up to 25% of students at leading UK universities have taken the prescription smart drug modafinil, and California tech startup employees are trying everything from Adderall to LSD to push their brains into a higher gear.
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain. They did, and I’ve been a big fan of certain cognitive enhancers ever since.
I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 10 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each:
The 10 Top Nootropics + What They Can Do
for calm alertness, reaction time, mental endurance
L-theanine is a major component of black and green tea. On its own, theanine promotes relaxation, alertness, and arousal. Theanine also works synergistically with caffeine. Together, the two increase reaction time, memory, and mental endurance.
You can get your theanine from a capsule, or you can drink a cup or two of green tea. If you decide to do the green tea, look for tea that’s grown in the shade, because shade-grown green tea typically has much higher levels of theanine.
L-theanine dose: 200 mg. You can take it with your morning coffee, or you can take it at night, like me.
for attention, mood, stress, memory
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.
Bacopa suppresses sperm production in male mice, so you may want to skip it if you’re trying to conceive. It didn’t affect the mice’s testosterone or sex drive, though.
A lot of nootropic companies include Bacopa in their stacks, but they often don’t use enough to give you real benefits. You want at least 750 mg daily. Take Bacopa with a fat source to increase its absorption.
Bacopa monnieri dose: At least 750 mg daily, taken with a source of fat
Forskolin + artichoke extract
for memory, focus, learning
Forskolin has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation.
I have used forskolin for more than a decade.
Forskolin is especially effective if you combine it with artichoke extract. Artichoke extract inhibits PDE4, an enzyme that breaks down cAMP. PDE4 inhibitors make cAMP more available, and when you add in artichoke extract’s cAMP-enhancing effects, you get a significant boost to learning, memory, and motivation.
Or you get a headache and an energy crash when you “come down.” That may be because upping cAMP uses more dopamine than your brain usually would. It affects different people differently. You only know if you try it.
CILTEP is the first commercial combination of artichoke extract and forskolin.
Modafinil (Provigil), armodafinil (Nuvigil) + adrafinil
for focus, motivation, clarity, memory
I started taking modafinil while getting my MBA at Wharton. At the same time, I was also working at a start-up that later sold for $600 million in value, so you can imagine how busy I was. I wanted a way to keep my brain running.
When I first started taking modafinil, I felt more like myself than I had in years. I took it just about every day in varying doses for 8 years (with a physician’s prescription). It gave me energy and changed my life. I would not be the biohacker I am today without modafinil.
When I worked on the Bulletproof Diet book, I wanted to verify that the effects I was getting from Bulletproof Coffee were not coming from modafinil, so I stopped using it and measured my cognitive performance while I was off of it. What I found was that on the Bulletproof Diet, my mental performance was almost identical to my performance on modafinil. I still travel with modafinil, and I’ll take it on occasion, but while living a Bulletproof lifestyle I rarely feel the need.
There’s a slight risk (about 5 in a million people) of having a life-threatening immune reaction to modafinil. It’s the same reaction that happens with ibuprofen and other NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), so if you know you don’t react well to NSAIDs, talk to your doctor before taking modafinil.
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.
You can also try armodafinil, which is a more purified form of modafinil with only biologically identical molecules in it. It has nearly identical and sometimes stronger effects. It’s very expensive without insurance.
If you don’t want to get a prescription, there’s adrafinil, which your liver converts to modafinil in about 45-60 minutes. You can buy adrafinil without a prescription, and in my experience it feels very similar to modafinil, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it regularly because it stresses your liver a lot.
Normally prescribed modafinil dose: 50-200 mg, taken in the morning (unless you want to be awake all night)
Normally prescribed armodafinil dose: 100-200 mg, taken in the morning
Adrafinil dose: 300 mg, taken in the morning
for mental turnover, public speaking, learning, memory
The racetam family contains dozens of related compounds, including a few well-known nootropics. The best studied one is piracetam, but the most effective nootropics are aniracetam and phenylpiracetam, so you’ll read about those here.
There was an explosion of racetam research between 1968 and 1972, but many of the racetams are off patents, so pharmaceutical companies are studying racetam analogs that they can patent and sell. We still don’t fully understand how racetams work, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that they’re excellent nootropics. The best studied racetam is piracetam, and its analogs work well too.
400 mg phenylpiracetam taken daily for a year significantly improved brain function and cognition in people recovering from a stroke. 200 mg phenylpiracetam taken for 30 days improved neurological function by 7% in people with brain damage, and by 12% in people with epilepsy. Aniracetam improves memory and counters depression in rats. A single, small study of piracetam in healthy adults found that after 14 days it significantly improved verbal learning.
I like aniracetam more than piracetam because it’s the only member of the racetam that has a stress-lowering effect and also increase memory IO (getting memories in and out of your mind). It’s one I take aniracetam every day, as well as for public speaking. I find I speak more fluently (no “ums” or “ahs”) and I don’t have to grasp for words. Phenylpiracetam improves my learning, memory, and energy, too.
I don’t use piracetam or oxiracetam because they’re weaker forms of phenylpiracetam and aniracetam. I suggest you try racetams alone at first – not in a pre-made stack – because ones that work for other people may not work for you. For example, I feel nothing from noopept (a very strong derivative of piracetam), but I know plenty of people for whom it works very well.
Racetams are very bitter, so it’s best to get them in capsules. In some people they deplete acetylcholine, which can cause headaches. If that happens, try adding in a raw pastured egg yolk to give your body the materials to make more acetylcholine. You can also try lowering doses; too much can make you irritable.
These nootropics sound a little unusual, but I’ve been on them every day since 1997 and they’re a core part of my nootropic stack. It irritates me that they’re in a regulatory gray zone.
One last thing: these phenylpiracetam, aniracetam, and noopept are all fat soluble, so take them with a meal or a fat source to increase their absorption.
Phenylpiracetam dose: 100 mg, 1-4 times daily
Aniracetam dose: 750 mg, 1-2 times daily
Noopept dose: 30 mg, 1-2 times daily
for focus…but with high risk and several drawbacks
Big Pharma has recommended amphetamine (Adderall) for ADHD sufferers for years now. It’s also popular on college campuses around exam time. Too bad, because there are much better choices.
Amphetamine has substantial risks. In healthy adults, it improves attention, focus, motivation to work, and short-term memory, all by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine release in your prefrontal cortex. Amphetamine also decreases fatigue, but it makes you jittery and can increase anxiety.
What worries me about amphetamine is its addictive potential, and the fact that it can cause stress and anxiety. Research says it’s only slightly likely to cause addiction in people with ADHD, but we don’t know much about its addictive potential in healthy adults. We all know the addictive potential of methamphetamine, and amphetamine is closely related enough to make me nervous about so many people giving it to their children. Amphetamines cause withdrawal symptoms, so the potential for addiction is there.
If you want a stimulant, drink coffee. For something stronger, try a racetam or talk to your doctor about modafinil. If you do decide to take Adderall, you’ll need a prescription – but I really recommend avoiding it. There are many better options out there.
for creativity, mood, empathy, focus
Yes, we’re talking 1960s, Jimi Hendrix, psychedelic LSD. Dr. Rick Doblin and I have discussed the use of psychedelic medicine on my podcast before. Now, Silicon Valley tech employees are reporting benefits from using LSD as a nootropic, but it has a history of being misused by both governments and partiers. (In fact, podcast guest Jan Irwin has published lots of research showing that much of the psychedelic movement is at least partly the result of government initiatives.)
The key to using LSD as a nootropic, according to the Silicon Valley techies, is getting the right dose. They say that when they take microdoses – about 1/10th of a recreational dose – they experience increased positivity, creativity, focus, and empathy.
LSD as a nootropic may not be as crazy as it sounds. It’s certainly a mind-expanding drug, and studies suggest that it’s less risky than its reputation suggests. Even at a full dose (again, 10 times a microdose), researchers ranked LSD the 4th least dangerous common recreational drug – far below alcohol and nicotine – and historically not a single person has died from LSD overdose. It’s possible to react poorly to LSD’s psychological effects, but microdoses are below the dose that usually causes hallucinations. LSD does increase your suggestibility, so you should be extra aware of making big decisions if you are using it as a nootropic.
LSD dose: 10 micrograms, taken in the morning, every 3 days. (This is probably illegal where you live. It’s experimental but shows great promise from anecdotal reports. I look forward to the day when it’s legal for researchers to actually determine how impactful this is. Until the government allows this kind of research in your country, the only option is to wait, or to be your own guinea pig. Be safe if you experiment with anything.)
Bulletproof ‘Unfair Advantage’
for energy, clarity
Unfair Advantage supports your mitochondria, the power plants of your cells, with two different ingredients:
CoQ10 enhances cellular energy production in your mitochondria, giving you both a mental and physical boost. (The dose of CoQ10 is low, but it’s in a colloidal form which potentiates delivery of the PQQ). ActivePQQ™ is a novel form of PQQ that does not get inactivated by stomach acid. PQQ promotes the growth of new mitochondria and also helps your body clear out and replace old mitochondria.
You have the highest density of mitochondria in your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps to explain why I feel Unfair Advantage in my head first. You have the second highest density in your heart, which is probably why I feel it in the center of my chest next. Mitochondrial energizers can have profound nootropic effects! At higher doses mitochondrial energizers also make for an excellent pre-workout supplements.
Unfair Advantage dose: 1-4 ampules, taken any time
for energy, stress
KetoPrime is another powerful nootropic. It contains oxaloacetate, a neuroprotective agent that can shield your brain from environmental toxins. Oxaloacetate also decreases brain inflammation.
Common environmental toxins – pesticides, for example – cause your brain to release glutamate (a neurotransmitter). Your brain needs glutamate to function, but when you create too much of it it becomes toxic and starts killing neurons. The oxaloacetate in KetoPrime protects rodents from glutamate-induced brain damage. Oxaloacetate also promotes brain recovery after stress or trauma.
KetoPrime is a great way to give your brain a little extra protection from stress and toxins. In animal studies, it also modifies the Krebs Cycle, shifting the ratio of NADH to NAD+, which makes mitochondrial energy production more efficient.
KetoPrime dose: 1 lozenge, taken in the morning
for memory and focus
Neuromaster is a supplement I helped formulate when I learned about the power of coffee fruit extract. This stuff significantly increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels – even more than exercise. BDNF is a crucial neuroprotein that helps increase neuroplasticity and create new neurons, resulting in better memory and focus.
This is important for the short-term, and essential for the long-term because you naturally lose BDNF as you age. Lower BDNF levels are associated with age-related hippocampal shrinkage and memory decline.
100 mg of extract of coffee fruit (the red fruit surrounding coffee beans) raised BDNF by about 140% in several studies. The boost lasted for a few hours.
Neuromaster dose: 1 cap, taken in the morning with or without food
Things You Should Know
When you first start taking nootropics, sometimes you’ll feel like nothing is happening. That’s what I experienced. Then, a week later, I quit taking them, and noticed their absence immediately. This is because when your brain works better, it feels so natural that it’s hard to notice unless you have a great degree of self-awareness.
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.
You can also get profoundly depressed. One of the nootropics I did not write about here, Lucidril, has superb anti-aging and cognitive benefits for some people, but others get deeply sad after taking it. After three days on Lucidril I felt entirely hopeless about my life. Fortunately, I’d done my research and I stopped taking it immediately.
There is inherent risk in experimenting with pharmaceuticals, or illegal drugs like LSD. The risk is greater than it is with most natural substances. You can have a psychotic experience if you take too much LSD; you’re more likely to get a big headache if you take too much of a choline-stimulating herbal substance.
It also pays to check the purity of your nootropics. I’ve seen some companies promoting pre-made nootropic stacks that contain ingredients like blue agave (fructose!), food coloring – even pieces of metal. Read your labels!
I have great hope that medicine will wake up to the amazing benefits of nootropics and begin to incorporate them into society. Many of them not only increase your quality of life, they make your brain more resilient to the environment around you. We could all use a little more that.
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 truth is that, almost 20 years ago when my brain was failing and I was fat and tired, I did not know to follow this advice. I bought $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe, took them all at once out of desperation, and got enough cognitive function to save my career and tackle my metabolic problems. With the information we have now, you don’t need to do that. Please learn from my mistakes!
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