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 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 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 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
1) Modafinil (Provigil), armodafinil (Nuvigil), and adrafinil – 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 Bulletproof Coffee and 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 has similarities, 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