Idealog on (smart) drugs

Our ex-resident 'jonzo'-journalist Jonathan Cotton tries all the legal nootropics he can so you don't have to.

There’s a certain breed of young business professional out there at the moment. You’ll know who I’m talking about: young, alpha-(fe)male, entrepreneurial types who spend as much time in the gym as they do at the office. They’re drinking Bulletproof Coffee while listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast. They’re superbly groomed, aggressively motivated and view high-performance as the penultimate ideal, second only to self-aggrandisement and the worship of Mammon, presumably. They call themselves ‘biohackers’ and they’re pretty sure they’re going to inherit the world. And just how do these alphas-in-waiting plan to do that? 

It may have  something to do with the emergence of ‘nootropics’, more commonly known as ‘smart drugs’, a range of supposedly powerful lifestyle supplements, of varying degrees of legality and toxicity, which promise laser-like mental focus, machine-like stamina and unheard-of computational power (among other things). And all in a little, but expensive, pill.

What steroids are to your body, nootropics are to your brain (according to the people selling them), and rather than treating some illness, these drugs are designed to improve the functioning of already healthy individuals. There’s some crossover between medicine and these mysterious drugs, of course. Adventurous students, curious innernauts and productivity-obsessed businesspeople have been taking substances designed for mental deficits ever since they appeared.  

Those people owe a debt to one Corneliu Giurgea, the Timothy Leary of the Nootropics set. Giurgea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist, synthesised a little drug known as Piracetam in 1964. Piracetam was the first of a family of drugs known as a prototype for Racetams, a class of drugs that appear to provide cognitive improvements, even in healthy individuals. The actual mechanism by which Piracetam works still isn’t really understood, but the upshot is this: Piracetam seems to make brains work better with only minor side-effects. 

Giurgea himself was struck by this fact and developed something of a philosophy around the idea of better thinking through chemistry and, in the process, coined the term ‘nootropics’. 

Piracetam is now the widest used nootropic in the world, but only available in this country with a prescription. For those looking to turbo-charge their noodle, however, there are plenty of alternatives, each one with its own peculiar benefits, risks and legal implications.  

Looking to improve your memory? Huperzine A and Vinpocetine are options. Improve your focus? Mucuna Pruriens or Noopept. Improve that mood? L-Lysine, L-Tryptophan, Centrophenoxine. Sleep and recovery? GABA, Phenibut, Melatonin. Live forever? NAC (N-Acetyl-Cysteine), R-Lipoic Acid or Vinpocetine.*

But taking these things is weird, niche behaviour, right? Maybe not. According to the Open Access journal, PLOS ONE, up to 4.5% of German students have used cognitive enhancers in their lifetime. 

More startlingly, US National Library of Medicine says that, based upon studies of self-reported illicit stimulant use, 5–35% of college students have used some kind of ADHD stimulant for performance enhancement rather than as recreational drugs.

Though these sorts of drugs may carry something of an under-the-counter illicitness about them, nootropics are, in fact, big business. 

Obviously titled companies such as truBrain, Nootrobrain and Nootroo promise big benefits to wannabe savants, but the highest profile brand in the market is Onnit.com, maker of Alpha Brain, a company catering specifically to those described in the first paragraph and partly owned by Fear Factor frontman turned podcast king and lifestyle guru, Joe Rogan.

Part of that success surely comes down to some pretty spectacular marketing – from the looks of the website, the only thing standing in the way of who I am now and a new version of myself where I wear one of those glider suits and dominate MMA is about $200 worth of pills a month. But what does the science say?

That’s a tough call. The term ‘nootropics’ covers a vast array of substances, after all, each with their own functions, contraindications and research histories. When marketers combine several of these substances in a ‘stack’, that complexity grows exponentially.

AlphaBrain, for example, contains L-Tyrosine, L-Theanind, Phosphatidylserine, L-Alpha Glycerylphosphorylcholine, Hupererzia serrata extract, L-Leucine, Vinpocetine, Pterostilbene, and Vitamin B6, among other things. See? It’s complicated. 

So, taking into account both the dodgy science and the cost of these sorts of drugs (a standard dose of AlphaBrain costs a little over NZ$100 per month) the cost/benefit analysis begins to look problematic.

Then again – science schmience. What kind of Idealog story would this be if we didn't put our money where our mouth is?

One month ago I started taking Alpha Brain. Actually, I started taking a cocktail of supplements. After all, I’m not trying to prove what doesn’t work, rather, I’m trying to catch a productivity buzz, so, for the last month I've been downing Onnit’s top seller, Alpha Brain, along with ginkgo, fish oil, gotu kola, magnesium and vitamin B.

So how do I feel? 

Well. 

Day one, 9am, I sat down at my desk, downed a fistful of pills and by lunchtime I was rolling. My fingers were flying, the ideas were flowing and I had easily the most productive day of the year. The only complaint was that my typing is so scattered that I couldn't really keep pace with the dialogue in my head. The speed that felt most comfortable – around 110% – was simply too fast for either my typing or, strangely, my spelling. I looked at the clock and it was 6pm. The day had passed in a blur.  

A few nights later I noticed I was having a little trouble sleeping, but still, I was charging through life, feeling better and better as each day passed, so it was time to conduct an experiment. 

Obviously, something was working – presumably the Alpha Brain – but how to be sure? I decided to exclude a different supplement every couple of days to see what was doing what. 

The first was Alpha Brain. Two days later, my productivity remained as supercharged as ever. Perhaps the active ingredients accumulate in your system and remain there, I thought, even if you miss a day or two? 

But two days later I stopped taking the ginkgo pills and that’s when all the positive effects I’d been enjoying deserted me. No more flying fingers. No more bubbling enthusiasm for everything and everyone. And no one was more surprised than I. Having shelled out $110 for the Alpha Brain, I wanted them to work, damn it. 

Now, a month later, and having cycled on and off them twice more, I think I've confirmed it. The Alpha Brains make little, if any difference in temperament or productivity, for me at least, as far as I can tell.

The good news is, of course, that those humble ginkgos, the ones I bought from the supermarket for just $11, work like crazy and I'm still taking them now.

*Easy there, tiger. Only a fool would take medical advice from Idealog writer, Jonathan Cotton. If you're really interested in improving your own cognitive function via drugs, talk to your doctor, do your own research and for goodness’ sake be careful. A mind is a terrible thing to waste