When it comes to my cognitive health, I’m of the opinion that a healthy diet, lifestyle choices like intermittent fasting, cold showers, and avoiding alcohol will optimize your brain alone. Most people can see tremendous benefits with a few of these lifestyle hacks.
For those “next level” junkies (myself included), sometimes getting an added boost can come through nootropics / smart drugs. These are compounds that vary in efficacy to improve mood, memory, focus, alertness, motivation, and general cognitive abilities.
You Already Use Cognitive Enhancers
Most of my audience already used cognitive enhancing nootropics before they even knew what it was. When I was introduced to the concept of “smart drugs”, I was a little skeptical. Then I realized both caffeine and omega-3s were considered to be in that category.
One of the most popular nootropic “stacks” includes a combination of caffeine and L-theanine, which is a natural compound often extracted from green tea. I was glad to see natural compounds utilized in optimized quantities. Even the best creatine supplement can be considered a neuro enhancing smart drug.
Ease into Nootropic Drugs
A lot of the people that get started with nootropic drugs are attached to a specific outcome. They hope to use the pill to answer their problems with anxiety, focusing on work, studying for school – whatever the case may be. Taking this approach often leads to excessive consumption at the start, but beginning with the recommended dosage is definitely the safer bet.
In reality, you may not need to take any higher level nootropics at all. With modern diets deficient in organ meat, you may just need more choline for cognitive enhancement. Before you start keep some of these ideas in mind:
Goals – make sure that you have clearly defined goals when you are taking any drug. Just because someone else said that it was a cognitive enhancer doesn’t mean it is useful for you. A lot of people in the nootropic community ironically mix compounds that promote opposite neurotransmitter / hormones.
For college students a combination of memory enhancement and alertness might be useful. There are many students that already take amphetamines like Ritalin and Adderall (yes, you read that right – they are amphetamines). Once you learn about nootropics, you will see there are alternatives that are just as effective, but safer.
Product Quality – as with anything that you are ingesting or eating, the quality needs to be as high as possible. There are also a few worthwhile nootropic drugs that are not regulated by the FDA, which means that it is up to the buyer (and seller) to be transparent and honest. Look for independent third party testing where it is applicable and do the proper research.
There are ample resources for finding high quality smart drugs. You can use a forum called Longecity, which has a long history of nootropic usage. The subreddits for nootropics are also great for getting feedback on the quality of different vendors.
Tracking Changes – this is one of the most important aspects of nootropic drugs. Any smart drug requires ample evidence before I test it, but continued usage only comes after verifying enhanced cognitive performance through various self-tracking methods.
There are so many tools to test and track cognitive enhancement so this is a no-brainer (pun intended). If you are not tracking any changes that you make, you are going to end up overworking your organs and altering neurotransmitter and hormone function for no reason. There are disadvantages of supplementing with nootropics so little to no improvements warrant discontinuing the drugs.
Recommendations – there are a lot of recommendations on the internet about dosing. Some are scientific and some are arbitrary. There is a lot of individuality, but a good rule of thumb when starting out with nootropics is to start with a dosage that is at or below recommendations. Rarely should you try a higher dose than is recommended. Again, some great sources for recommendations are community-based portals like Reddit (see their FAQ / getting started page).
Where to Start
Before discussing some of the nootropic compounds you can utilize for enhanced cognition, I should note that pre-made drug combinations are not created equal. As much as I believe in Onnit’s goals and respect Aubrey Marcus and Joe Rogan, a lot of the products seem to have low doses of ingredients with some unnecessary filler.
Perhaps it is just me (this is a distinct possibility), but scientifically Alpha Brain seems to be lacking. If it works for you – great, but don’t count on all of these being optimized for cognitive enhancement. On the flip side, some of the products from Natural Stacks (CILTEP for example – more on that in next week’s podcast) are formulated with studies and effective doses in mind.
Now, let’s get into some of the specific compounds:
Racetams – I’m a fan of Bulletproof coffee so when I heard that Dave Asprey had “…used piracetam and aniracetam for years…” My ears perked up. As soon as I heard that Tim Ferriss utilized piracetam and even phenylpiracetam, I was really intreagued.
It turns out, the racetam line of smart drugs is the oldest and most well-studied since the term “nootropics” has been around. The grand-daddy, piracetam, is a cognitive enhancer that improves memory retention and has neuro protective properties. Double-blind, placebo controlled studies on college studies proved the efficacy of piracetam.
Other potent analogues include aniracetam and oxiracetam, which are equally appealing for different reasons. They can act faster, promote stimulating effects, and even improve anxiety and nervousness. When you get really brave, there are also analogues like pramiracetam, phenylpiracetam, and colouracetam, but they are not for the feint at heart.
The racetams also work extremely well with choline supplementation according to numerous human and animal studies done over the past 40 years. See Reddit for good starting dosages on the racetams. You can usually get them in powder of capsule form from a few vendors online .
Caffeine + L-Theanine – This is a great beginner stack that utilizes natural compounds found in coffee and green tea. Many of us have experience utilizing them, but with the most effective doses they can optimize further. The evidence indicates a ratio of 1 part caffeine to 2 parts L-theanine works best. Your toleration of caffeine will determine the best starting point, but 50-100mg will be effective for most people.
The caffeine will help to promote alertness, attention and wakefulness, but the L-theanine helps to mitigate many of the negative side effects of caffeine. More importantly, there seems to be a synergy that allows you to focus on your tasks a lot better.
Traditional Chinese Compounds – even though nootropics and smart drugs are modern concepts, traditional Chinese medicinal practices have existed with these compounds for thousands of years. Many of them are still being used in rural Chinese villages even as Wall Street financial traders find them.
- Asian ginseng (panax) – this drug has a relaxing / calming effect, which can improve learning capabilities. It can also reduce stress and anxiety. Look for extract from the berries (highest ginsenoside content, which is the active ingredient) and then the root. The seed has the least.
- Ginkgo biloba – this has antioxident properties and can also reduce stress / anxiety. The quality of memory is improved and well-studied
- Polygala – there is only one modern study proving neuro protection and enhanced memory, but polygala is one of the “Yuan Zhi” 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine
Ayurvedic Compounds – as with the traditional Chinese medicine, the Ayurvedic Indian cultures were ahead of their time with nootropics. Their contributions include:
- Bacopa monniera – this herb helps improve cognition by reducing anxiety. It is fat soluble, which is why traditional Indian families take this with ghee even in rural villages.
- Ashwagandha – also known a Indian ginseng, this ayurvedic herb can reduce anxiety and improve concentration and focus.
Nutrients – you can use all of the supplements in the world, but if you don’t have the right nutrients you aren’t going to get very far! Certain things, such as DHA / EPA, are important for brain health. Krill oil is a good source of DHA that is well-absorbed. Other things like magnesium and zinc can be particularly useful if you are deficient.
Parting Words and Caution
Recently a friend of mine published a study that involved mitochondrial function and enhanced cognitive abilities. Many in the nootropic community jumped to what were, in his mind, highly unsafe conclusions about supplementation. It brought home to me how uncharted many of the smart drug waters really are.
Of course, there are plenty of pre-made stacks available, which completely change the landscape of nootropics and supplementation. Those using pre-made stacks (like the Neurohacker Qualia supplement) might find that there are many ingredients and it is hard to pinpoint what makes the most impact.
Another important factor to consider is that many of the prescription drugs that could be considered nootropic / cognitive enhancers are actually amphetamine derivatives. Some of the compounds are effective for a reason and as Tim Ferriss mentioned, “there is no such thing as a free lunch with nootropics.”
Overall, if you take nootropic usage seriously and adequately research and track your data, there are plenty of benefits to be had. If you are eating poorly and have poor lifestyle habits, you will probably see more advantages by changing those first. It may not be as easy as popping a pill, but it will be longer-lasting.
Whatever you decide to do – track, track, and track.
This is a post by Mansal Denton who is the primary writer for The Hacked Mind.