Improve your life or die trying, part 2: Idealog starts taking smart drugs

Image by Rupal Hira

Read part one here.

“One pill makes you larger,” said a possibly under-the-influence Grace Slick back in 1967. “And one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all”.

When it comes to that last part, truer words have never been spoken. If you’re going to overhaul your life in a perhaps dangerously narrow timeframe – as I intend to – a mother’s well-meaning but overly prudent rule-of-thumb is unlikely to get the job done.

But neither is that a green light to start snorting Ritalin, I suppose. It’s all about balance.  

So was my thinking as I ventured, several weeks ago, into the wild and jargon-heavy world of online brain supplement retail.

Supplements for your noggin, smart drugs, or ‘nootropics’ if you‘re fancy, are something of the rage with high-performing, entrepreneurially-minded, alpha male types these days. Bulletproof Executive high-flyer Dave Asprey swears by them, as does UFC commentator and intermittently amusing comedian Joe Rogan.

If you’re not familiar with the term, absorb this:  

The term ‘nootropics’ was first coined by psychologist and chemist Corneliu Giurgea in 1972. Giurgea had synthesised Piracetam, a compound that can be useful in depression, anxiety and cerebral trauma several years earlier. In that time he developed some principles around what a nootropic was (or at least should be), including the prerequisites that they should enhance learning and memory, protect the brain against various physical or chemical injuries, and they should lack the downsides associated with other psychotropic drugs (such as sedation or stimulation for example), all while possessing very few side effects and being of low toxicity.

Giurgea also had some pretty sexy ideas about the role these compounds might play in the evolution of humankind:



These days, nootropics are the hack-of-the moment for successful entrepreneurs and the wannabe minions that follow them on Twitter, and the big cocktail on that block is currently the masculinely-monikered and ridiculously expensive Alpha Brain, flagship product of self-improvement supplement store/pseudo cult Onnit.com.

So what is Alpha Brain? It’s a supplement that, using language that sounds like it was written by a lawyer, can “help” healthy individuals with “memory, focus and processing speed”.

Looks cool, right? So what about the actual science?

Well, Alpha Brain does contain compounds that have been well-researched and shown to be helpful for the old grey matter, such as alpha GPC, bacopa monnieri, huperzine A, and l-tyrosine.

But the evidence behind Alpha Brain specifically? That’s a little more problematic. A clinical trial (paid for by the company) found only slight improvements against a placebo, and that test used a laughably small sample size (17 participants), so the science is still very much out on this one.

Still, Onnit specialises in marketing to the slightly eccentric, manly-man end of the self-improvement spectrum (a part of the spectrum to which I am most certainly a card-carrying member), so, two weeks and NZ$114 later, a month’s worth of Alpha Brain has arrived at my door and at 9am this morning I swallowed the first dose*.

*Apparently, if you take Alpha Brain a few hours before bed, rather than first thing in the morning, it can produce lucid dreaming states. Idealog shall investigate and report back. 

But it’s not just about achieving Stephen Hawking levels of mental acuity. In this experiment we’re trying to improve everything, not just cognition, so, in addition to the Alpha Brains, I’m choking down a raft of other pills to make sure nothing is left to chance, including the granddaddy of them all, fish oil.

Simply put, fish oil does it all. It’s been shown to have a positive effect on arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, anxiety, depression, high cholesterol, inflamed bowels, eczema, diabetes, cancer, poor immunity, autoimmune disease and eye problems. It’s also proven to help with weight loss, fertility and increasing your energy.

About three grams of oil is the standard dose, though I’m open to the idea of mega-dosing if I can find some literature to back up the idea. This morning I’ve just taken thee grams.

I’m also hitting the ginkgos. There’s been plenty of studies done on ginkgo and it’s pretty well recognised as having a positive effect on a range of brain issues, including improving thinking, learning and memory in people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, improving blood flow, eye issues and perhaps anxiety, memory and thinking in the healthy population. The one I’m taking includes ginkgo Biloba leaf extract, gotu Kola, and huperzine.

Next up is Sleep from Swisse. Early to bed, early to rise, rah-rah-rah, so this supplement is a no-brainer. It’s full of sleep friendly stuff – hops, poria cocos and valerian, among other things – but also contains a decent amount of magnesium, which I’m interested in, as it’s a common deficiency in frequent drinkers. 

In addition to the above, I’ll be sporadically taking a multivitamin and a B vitamin should I feel so inclined.

Given the mysterious and perhaps liver-testing cocktail I’m now imbibing, it would make sense to get a base line measurement of my general brain power before things get too serious, so I’m going to take a couple of online Mensa tests this afternoon. Now I’m not entirely sold on those IQ tests – I’ve done a few before and received results ranging from a very robust 128, to a cousin-marrying 80, so I’ll do several and we’ll take the mean average. 

So, here I sit with a belly full of the pills, the first day of my new hyper-supplemented life. How do I feel? Excellent, actually. My fingers are a blur on the keyboard and the ideas are hitting me at lightning speed. I have about forty tabs open in Chrome and the only downside was that my spelling has completely turned to shit.

Will these smart drugs actually make me smarter, better and more capable at my job? Will the fish oil lubricate my shrieking joints and maybe even stave off dementia for an extra year or two? Will I figure out the grand meaning of it all, only to suffer acute liver failure and a fatal heart attack simultaneously?

Let’s find out!

Read part 1 here

What have we missed here? What supplements would you recommend for maximum results? What would you do differently? How much of the above has the potential to render my life insurance plan void? Let us know is the comments below!