Fiction has a way of sensationalizing real issues. It was this sensationalization in the 2011 Bradley Cooper movie Limitless that seemed to cause a sudden, widespread interest in smart drugs and substances known as nootropics. I, however, was already invested in them.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has gotten a bit of a stigma in the past decade. The age of blameless parenting has led to a nearly-desperate search for a third-party culprit when our children misbehave or don’t perform to expected standards. This has led to a miscategorization of drugs like Ritalin and Adderall as miracle cures, handed out like candy.
I was one of those children. Easily distracted, I always had a hard time staying focused growing up. Grasping and maintaining a single thought was like trying to grab a dollar in one of those cash booths: try as you might to snatch one, it seems to evade you, even as dozens of others fly by in your peripheral awareness. As a teen, I was prescribed Ritalin to help control it.
As I grew up, however, I began to learn more about my body and brain and how they worked together. I learned about how my body processed dopamine and how this dopamine reaction could seemingly control my lack of attention. I spent a lot of time studying the impact of dopamine-based daily habits (such as sugar, television, shopping, alcohol, etc), to better understand my body’s reaction to certain stimuli.
I began to understand the problems were of my own design. Technology and social media had allowed me to disconnect from my community and my environment. The screens, phones, TVs, and computers around me as I got older, combined with regular fast food and sugar-loaded-junk food intake, disrupted my biofeedback loop and created my distractibility.
Once I realized my problem, I set about finding a solution. I studied even harder to understand how the human brain worked and the energy it required, as well as the brain’s own survival mechanisms. My search eventually led me to the biohacking community, where I first learned about nootropics.
Smart Drugs vs. Nootropics
To understand what nootropics are, I had to first understand smart drugs. Smart drugs are prescription drugs that are used to treat a mental or cognitive disorder. Whether they are prescribed for that purpose or used as off-label drugs (used for something other than their FDA-approved purpose), many believe these drugs are over-prescribed and are often habit-forming.
Many times, smart drugs come with a plethora of side effects, including undesired effects on appetite, mood stability, and cardiac function. More troubling is the mentality that these are super pills that enable users to become mentally superhuman.
This has led to many people taking the pills when they are unprescribed, simply because the user needs to focus. As many as 38% of college students have admitted to taking these types of medications without a prescription. This is not without risk. Taking Ritalin if you don’t have a prescription can cause long-lasting damage to your brain chemistry.
Nootropics are the other side of the coin. Professor Corneliu E. Giurgea first coined the term “nootropic” in his 1982 research paper entitled “The nootropic concept and its prospective implications.” In this piece, Giurgea described nootropics as follows:
A nootropic drug is characterized by a direct functional activation of the higher integrative brain mechanisms that enhances cortical vigilance, a telencephalic functional selectivity, and a particular efficiency in restoring deficient higher nervous activity.
In other words, a pill that boosts the functionality of your brain and nervous system.
As time passed, however, the modern definition of a nootropic evolved; now it is something taken which does not require a prescription, and that shows some positive effect on cognition. They are generally vitamins, herbs, or other natural or synthetic supplements.
Despite the natural aspect of nootropics, they are not without dangers. These dangers include:
- Risk of Overdose – Because they are not approved by the FDA or prescribed by a doctor, there’s no recommended dose. Even when there is a label, over-the-counter availability leads to a casual approach, leading many to abuse them. Even the most common nootropic, caffeine, can have fatal results when abused.
- Brain Impairment – The human brain does not fully develop before the age of 25. Many people – mainly college students – use nootropics before this age. Using anything that affects your brain functions before this age could cause lasting damage.
- Unknown Side Effects – Because nootropics are not regulated, they have not been through the rigorous testing most prescription pills are put through. This lack of testing means the possible side effects are not known. As time passes and use increases, we may find side effects that were unintended.
After researching nootropics, I decided it was time to try them. After dealing with ADHD for all of my life, the prospect of a non-prescription, more natural solution appealed to me. Especially if they would have the same effect of helping me to focus on individual tasks with clarity.
My other motivation was to further my own understanding of my body. I felt nootropics might be able to help me detect and study my own dopamine cravings and, perhaps, study what my natural response was.
At this point, I simply had to choose the nootropics I would try. With my new-found understanding of my own brain chemistry I had gained from my research, I studied the different product options and their contents to determine which was best for me.
My first choice was CILTEP (use coupon code CIBTRIBE at checkout to save on your first order*). CILTEP, which stands for “Chemically Induced Long-Term Potentiation,” is a stack nootropic, meaning it combines several nootropic substances into one dose. Each of its ingredients serves a specific purpose:
- Artichoke Extract – PDE4 inhibitor. PDE4 is a chemical in our bodies that degrades the cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate) in our bodies. Slowing this degradation enhances our cells’ ability to communicate with each other.
- Forskolin – Used in Indian medicine for years, forskolin is one of the only supplements known to increase cAMP levels naturally.
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine, L-Phenylalanine, Vitamin B6 – All of these ingredients are used to assist in the metabolic cycle of dopamine creation and processing. To understand more about dopamine and its processes, read our article on modern society and our biology, where we break it down.
LTP, or long-term potentiation, is the enhancement of signal strength between our synapses, considered to be one of the main processes involved with learning and memory.
The other nootropic I tried was Qualia. Much like CILTEP, Qualia is designed to help mental performance and brain health, by promoting focus, energy, mental clarity, mood, memory, and creativity. Like CILTEP, Qualia contains supplements aimed at achieving LTP and optimizing dopamine metabolization, but it also features caffeine, DHA, and many vitamins. As someone who actively avoids excess caffeine, I chose to stick with CILTEP over Qualia.
Being on nootropics was life-altering for me. I was able to achieve a level of mental focus and clarity I didn’t even know existed, let alone one I was capable of reaching myself. Completing tasks before was like trying to catch water with a sieve; now, they were finished easily.
However, despite my in-depth research of nootropics, and despite the positive effects I was experiencing, I felt I was taking too many. I wanted to find a way to maintain the positive effects while scaling back on the number of pills I was taking each week.
After all, I am often referred to as a nutrition expert. I am hyper-aware of what I put into my body, and how my metabolism reacts to it. So now that I had discovered the great effects CILTEP was having on me, I wanted to find exactly the right dosage for myself.
The Solution: Biohacking
I was no stranger to biohacking. At this point I had already researched many different aspects of the practice, which involves using your understanding of your body and physiology to “hack” your mind and body in order to perform better. And so I incorporated biohacking in understanding my need for the nootropics. To get started, I did a little more digging into ADHD and its treatment.
I was struck that the number of women prescribed ADHD medications increased 700 percent between 2003 and 2015. What about our culture suddenly increased the diagnosis of ADHD? What had changed to cause people to lose focus so entirely?
I found two main culprits behind the attention reduction amongst the general population:
Look at your phone. How many apps do you have that focus on quick bursts of activity? How many encourage you to scroll quickly through status updates and videos, often auto-playing the next selection without any interaction from you? Games are designed to allow users to pick up and play them in short bursts, with little gained from any in-depth interaction.
Our attention span has shortened over the past decade, and content is being designed to meet that change. In an interesting cause-effect-cause loop, this shortened content has only served to further decrease our already-waning attention spans.
I felt that, in some cases, we were medicating a symptom of our culture, not an actual neurological issue.
Losing Touch with Nature
For millions of years, humans lived outside. Our ability to construct and live in shelters only emerged in the past few tens of thousands of years. Even with that adjustment, we were still inside only at night.
Over the past century, however, as the creature comforts available to the majority of people increased, so did the time spent inside, taking advantage of them. Americans, according to the EPA, spend 87% of their lives indoors. Factor in time spent in cars, and the number climbs to 93% of time spent separated from nature. Isn’t that one of the saddest statistics you’ve ever read?
Humans evolved outside, and our bodies were designed to take advantage of certain things available to use only from exposure to the great outdoors.
When these two factors are combined, we see a generation of people suffering from cultural shifts being at odds with our biology. Unfortunately, our society is now content to simply medicate away the symptoms, regardless of the possible long-term implications this practice has. Medication is seen as an easy fix, as opposed to treating the underlying issues.
I began to examine my lifestyle closely. I examined the ways the nootropics made me feel, then set out to recreate those feelings naturally, through biohacks. The nootropics served a purpose, of course: by showing me how I could feel when it came to the clarity and focus that I had never previously had, I knew what my goal was.
It’s like the nootropics opened up a door in my mind, and all I had to do now was find a way to get back to it and keep it open more often.
Supplementing Nootropics with Biohacks
I never felt that nootropics where a bad thing or the enemy. But, using some well-thought-out biohacks at home and at work, I was able to recreate the feeling, without all of the supplements and financial cost associated with them.
There’s nothing wrong with taking nootropics, as long as you do it wisely and put in the research. I still take CILTEP, but at a lower dosage than when I first started experimenting with it and not as often. Through mindful biohacking, I’m still able to get the same results as with my previous dose. As a simple way of getting started, try my Adam’s Morning Biostack:
Drink a glass of water
Being properly hydrated is obviously good for a number of reasons, but one which people may not consider is the effect it has on your brain function. Dehydration levels of only 1% may already adversely affect cognitive performance. The same study goes on to point to detrimental short-term memory and attention span effects when the dehydration level reached 2%
Being dehydrated also affects serotonin production, an important neurotransmitter linked to depression. In darkness, the opposite hormone, melatonin, is produced. As you may know, melatonin is the hormone responsible for people feeling tired.
After thousands of years of being not only outside but strictly diurnal, our body’s endocrine system developed these hormones and their triggers to help us sleep at night and focus during the day. Without the proper amounts of sunlight, our bodies will not produce the proper amounts of serotonin, leaving us tired and groggy all day.
For these reasons, I begin each day with a large (12 to 16 ounce) glass of water. Over the course of the day, women should consume an average of 91 ounces of water, and men should consume 125 ounces (according to the National Academy of Medicine). Note that these amounts include water contained in the foods you eat, not just what you drink out of the glass. Keeping to these levels will keep you hydrated and stave off any cognition issues that could stem from dehydration.
Go Outside and Face the Sun
We’ve already touched on the importance our evolution poses in our daily lives, even now. And our relationship with the sun played a huge role in our evolution. Those who practice Yoga may be aware of the phrase atapa snana, which stands for the healing science of sunbathing. Well guess what—it turns out that facing the sun can offer surprising benefits even to those who have never set foot in a Yoga studio.
We all know sunlight increases vitamin D levels, which helps to support our immune system, protect against brain aging, and even decrease the symptoms of asthma. Sunlight can also help with depression. Seasonal depression affects people during the winter months, but even in the summer, when people work in office buildings and spend about 90% of their lives indoors, a lack of sunlight can affect them.
Studies have even shown an increase in cognitive function related to higher levels of sun exposure. Because of this relationship, I make facing the sun part of my morning Biostack. I’ll let the sunlight hit my face and get into my eyes—just remember to never look directly into the sun, however, in order to protect your eyes!
Grounding refers to literally getting in contact with the ground. Remove your shoes and stand, barefoot, with nothing between you and the ground. Stand long enough, and you’ll feel a sense of calm, as a settled energy seemingly travels up your legs.
While that sounds relaxing, grounding (or Earthing) has other benefits as well:
- Earthing can improve inflammation and blood flow, according to a study in Scientific Research.
- A 2014 study showed that Earthing can also help in wound healing and prevention, as well as the treatment of autoimmune diseases.
- A study in Integrative Medicine showed grounding helped with emotional stress, as well as heart rate vulnerability.
When I perform my Morning Biostack, I do it with my feet bare and against the earth. This way, I can get the effects of grounding and facing the sun at the same time (even hacking the Biohack). I many cases, doing my morning biostack, I actually feel the same as when I’m on nootropics, I just have to get barefoot for five minutes!”
Remember to Breathe
While we don’t actually think you’ll forget to breathe, it’s something many of us could do with more intention. During your morning routine, try some heart rate variability (HRV) breathing. While facing the sun and feeling the grass between your toes, regulate your breathing. HRV breathing is the practice of inhaling and exhaling for a specific duration of time, regulating your HRV.
Studies have shown that a high HRV is associated with a healthy heart and nervous system. Finding your optimal frequency can be done using apps like HeartRate+, which can measure your HRV while you breathe.
Try my Adam’s Morning Biostack and tell me what you think, either in the comments below or on my Facebook page. How does it compare with common nootropics you’ve tried?
The workplace is a notorious place for feeling a need for nootropics (or a good stack of biohacks). Whether your job is mentally or physically demanding, it is common for people to start to feel a lag in the middle of the day. Instead of grabbing that third cup of coffee or the insanely popular 5-Hour Energy drinks, try a variation of my morning biostack.
Of course, you can’t exactly run around the office in your bare feet, but you can still practice some of these methods during your workday. If you can leave your office during lunch, find a park. Not only will the walk there help get your blood pumping, but once there, you can kick off your shoes for some much-needed grounding.
If you can’t get out of the office to practice grounding in a park, you can still stack together some biohacks to make you feel better. For instance:
- Try some HRV breathing while sitting at your desk.
- Find a window facing the sun, open the window and get some rays.
- Drink plenty of water, to stay hydrated.
If you need more inspiration for office-friendly biohacks, check out this article for some further suggestions. And if you have some biohacks that already help you get through your workday, by all means let me know in the comments or in my Facebook group!
At the end of my foray into nootropics, I did not walk away with a sour taste in my mouth. They gave me the awareness of my own potential and insight into how I could feel, if I was able to find the right combination of biohacks.
Nootropics and smart drugs are not the enemies, and each has a place in our modern society. People with actual neurological medical conditions benefit from smart drugs and nootropics. Even those without conditions can use nootropics safely, without fear of unintended side effects—if they approach them with the proper knowledge.
The key, I found, is being mindful. Be aware of not only how you feel, but, more importantly, of why you feel that way. When you can identify the reason behind your mood and cognitive ability, you can change those things that are affecting you from unintended consequences to tools in your biohacking arsenal.
*If you buy something through our posts, we may get a small share of the sale. Don’t forget to use the coupon code CIBTRIBE at checkout to save on your first order!