An introduction to using supplements for productivity, learning, and stress reduction
In the movie Limitless, Bradley Cooper attains superhuman intelligence and productivity after he begins taking a cutting-edge “smart drug.” In real life, nothing nearly that powerful exists.
However, a wide variety of smart drugs do exist. They’re called nootropics, and while none of them are magic pills, many of them can be quite effective for specific purposes, ranging from improving working memory, providing stimulation while reducing stress, and enhancing motivation.
The whole subject can be bewildering if you’re unfamiliar with it. There are literally hundreds of nootropics, many of which are either dangerous, ineffective, prescription-only, or just not well-tested.
I’ve been cautious about using nootropics myself, and in recommending them for clients. It’s important to balance promising results with an understanding of potential side effects, including whether a substance can become addictive. I’m not a doctor, and it’s a good idea to discuss nootropic use with your own physician if you decide to try them. In this article, I’ll introduce a few of the best nootropics for beginners to start with, and explain how to optimize the use of them for productivity, learning, relaxation, and socialization.
Before we dive into discussing specific nootropics for specific purposes, there are a few things that need to be made clear about how nootropics work, how the human brain works, and what you can realistically expect from nootropics.
The Yerkes–Dodson Law
Nootropics work via a wide variety of mechanisms, but a plurality of them– if not an outright majority — are either stimulants or depressants, even if that isn’t their only mechanism of action. One of your primary aims in using nootropics should be to reach the optimal level of psychological arousal for a given purpose.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law describes the relationship between psychological arousal (what most people colloquially refer to as their “energy level”) and performance for a given task.
If your level arousal is too low, you will lack the energy and motivation to fully apply yourself to a task. Either you won’t feel like starting the task at all, or you’ll perform it very slowly, or you’ll take frequent breaks due to lack of energy — or some combination of all of those.
On the other hand, excessive arousal causes a whole different set of problems. If you’re too hyped up, you can suffer from anxiety. You might become restless, impairing your focus. You may suffer from cognitive impairments such as muddled thinking, poor memory, or tunnel vision.
The optimal level of arousal is different for different tasks. In general, it’s higher for simple, straightforward and repetitive tasks, and lower for more complex or difficult tasks. It’s also higher for physical vs. purely mental tasks.
As a guideline, task types — from lowest to highest optimal level of arousal — go something like this:
- Complex mental tasks, like writing this article.
- Simple mental tasks, like filling out a big stack of paperwork.
- Social tasks, or mental tasks with minor physical components, such as making sales calls or walking through a building doing a safety inspection.
- Physical tasks with significant mental aspects, such as playing sports. Also social-physical tasks, such as dancing.
- Purely physical tasks, such as running or weightlifting.
The optimal level of arousal for simply relaxing without performing a “task” would be even lower than a 1 on that scale. That is, complex mental tasks still require some arousal, just not too much.
It should be obvious why physical tasks require more energy than sitting at a computer, but why the distinction between 1 and 2, or 4 and 5? Because they have different mental requirements.
Complex mental tasks require a fair amount of thinking, and excessive mental arousal can cause racing thoughts that only slow your work. Anxiety from heightened arousal can also cause writer’s block or similar issues of that nature.
On the other hand, simple and repetitive mental tasks are largely a matter of speed, so more energy can be more helpful there. But too much energy, and it’s hard to sit still doing purely mental work. If I have too much caffeine while I’m working at my desk, for instance, I get an overwhelming urge to go for a walk, or at least to get up and pace around.
As for physical tasks, the distinction there has to do with the need for situational awareness and the need to react to external events. Things like running and weightlifting don’t require this of you, so you can single-mindedly focus on what you’re doing. But with sports or other mentally demanding physical tasks, the tunnel vision and brain fog from excessive arousal can become an issue.
A few years ago, I experimented with caffeine dosing and found the optimal dosage for working out to be higher than for playing dodgeball. Specifically, if I took too much caffeine before a dodgeball game, I would have tremendous energy and confidence and a berserker-like mentality, but that hardly helped when my tunnel vision caused me to constantly get hit by balls coming from off to the side.
A common mistake with nootropics is to find an “optimal dose” and assume that it’s optimal for everything. Keep the Yerkes-Dodson Law in mind and always think about which category a given task would fall into.
Also bear in mind that even low doses of caffeine, and most other stimulants, can impair sleep or lead to long-term dependency. So with stimulants, it’s best to err on the side of too little rather than too much.
Nootropics produce mental states/capabilities, not results
You’ll see nootropics being advertised for a variety of purposes: memory, reducing anxiety, productivity, socializing, motivation. But if you think about it, these really fall into two distinct groups. Memory, mood, and motivation are all purely mental states or capacities, while productivity or socializing are things you do.
The whole notion of a “nootropic for productivity” or a “nootropic for socializing” is a bit off-base. Nootropics don’t directly make you do anything. Rather, they help put you into a mental state that would be more conducive to doing something.
After learning about the Yerkes-Dodson Law, you can see how different people might need different nootropics to reach the optimal mental state for a certain function; they might be coming at it from opposite directions. A naturally relaxed person, or a tired one, might need a stimulant to become optimally productive. A naturally hyperactive person, or one who has had a lot of caffeine, may instead need to lower their level of arousal.
And of course, some nootropics work via means other than raising or lowering your overall level of arousal.
It’s important, therefore, to think beyond “I want to be more productive,” and consider what mental capacity you want to boost, or what mental state you need to achieve. Do you need a stronger working memory? Do you need to be less distractible? More confident, or more relaxed?
Once you view nootropics as tools to get you into a certain headspace rather than simply tools to make X happen, you can formulate a clear idea of what you need them to do for you.
Nootropics should be combined with other approaches
This should go without saying, but nootropics should not be seen as a magic pill or a self-contained solution to your problems. To get the best results, you should combined nootropic use with non-drug approaches, which will have a synergistic effect.
While the focus of this article is on nootropics, it’s worth mentioning a few basic habits that you can combine with nootropics for maximum effect.
- Sleep 7–9 hours a night on a regular schedule to make yourself healthier and better at everything.
- Work in a quiet space without distractions
- Practice a morning routine that gets you off to a running start every morning.
- Have an evening routine that helps you unwind before bed, including a “no screens” policy for the last hour before bed.
- Use dual n-back software to train and test your memory and mental performance.
- Listen to algorithmic music while working to help you focus.
- Build a daily meditation habit to reduce stress and improve focus. Also try flotation therapy, which is essentially a supercharged form of meditation.
- Follow these productivity habits.
- Use structured note-taking to aid your memory, and keep a calendar.
- Take daily walks and get plenty of sunlight.
- Stay hydrated.
- Eat low-carb, high-protein meals to produce more dopamine when you want more energy, and high-carb meals to produce more serotonin when you want to relax (serotonin is a precursor to melatonin).
- Eat slow-digesting meals (protein, fruits, vegetables, few or no processed carbohydrates) for steady energy levels.
Above all, you nootropics should have a similar place in your mental performance strategy to the one dietary supplements have in your fitness strategy: they’re a supplement to a good lifestyle and good habits, not something that will bring you results all by themselves.
All-Around Nootropics to Start With
The following are the first three nootropics I recommend for anyone who wants to try them, regardless of their specific goal. For ease of reading, the name of each nootropic will be bolded the first time it is mentioned.
Caffeine plus L-theanine
Sometimes referred to as the everyman stack, the combination of caffeine and L-theanine is almost universally recommended as the first thing people try. Why? Because it works for almost everyone, is readily available, and has few side effects.
Caffeine, of course, is the stimulant we all know and love. It gives you more energy, keeps you alert, and provides a sense of motivation.
L-theanine is an amino acid that has calming effects. In this case, it “smooths over” the negative side effects of caffeine, hopefully allowing you to get the alertness and motivation without the jitters or anxiety.
The “standard” dosing here is 100 mg of caffeine and 200 mg of theanine. Note that while theanine is found in tea, particularly green tea, the ratio is nowhere near as high (as in, there’s less theanine) as what’s recommended for nootropic use.
I agree with that 1:2 ratio as a starting dose. However, after reading about the Yerkes-Dodson law, you can see why this ratio is not set in stone. You’ll want a lower theanine-to-caffeine ratio if you’re tired, doing a high-energy task, or are a naturally low-energy person. You’ll want a higher ratio if you’re doing something that requires relaxation, if you suffer from anxiety, or if you’re combining this with any other stimulants.
In order to adjust the ratio, you should buy theanine in either powder form or in 50 mg pills. Caffeine, for its part, is usually either in liquid form or in tablets that can be easily broken up. Find your optimal ratio for a given type of task in a given situation, then use that as a baseline from which to adjust your dosing depending on task and context.
You may also wish to time the caffeine and theanine separately. For instance, in the common scenario in which you’re taking this combination first thing in the morning, you may want the caffeine first, and the theanine an hour later after you’ve fully woken up.
Take regular tolerance breaks from caffeine in order to avoid addiction; 3–7 days a month without caffeine is a good guideline. Remember that theanine doesn’t actually neutralize caffeine or help your body eliminate it faster, so it won’t prevent caffeine’s effects on sleep. When in doubt, err on the side of taking less.
Another amino acid, creatine is known primarily for being a staple muscle-building supplement used by bodybuilders. However, there is a growing body of research to suggest that creatine has a variety of neuroprotective effects.
Creatine can reduce mental fatigue as well as symptoms of sleep deprivation. Multiple studies have shown small improvements in subjective well-being. It even reduces symptoms of depression and shows a synergistic effect with SSRI’s in doing so.
Creatine is cheap and has no side effects other than some gastrointestinal discomfort if you take too much at once. It is best taken in powder form — five grams in the morning and five grams in the evening.
Due to the myriad of both physical and mental benefits, the low cost, and the lack of side effects, creatine just seems like one of those things that’s worth trying. The benefits are long-term rather than acute and take a few weeks to show up.
Applied Nootropics for Beginners
Nootropics are most often used for productivity. As mentioned earlier, however, “productivity” as a goal needs to be translated into a mental state that you want to create.
Nootropics improve productivity mainly by one of five routes: increasing arousal so you work faster, decreasing arousal to reduce distractibility or writer’s block, increasing wakefulness without otherwise majorly increasing overall arousal, improving working memory, or enhancing motivation.
The second-most-common use case for nootropics is to support learning. This has similar requirements as productivity, except that memory becomes much more important, and long-term memory becomes more important than short-term or working memory.
The third-most-common use case is socialization. Most nootropics users are not natural social butterflies, and they use nootropics to either reduce social anxiety, enhance social motivation, or improve overall social fluency.
Increased arousal, aka high energy
The following substances will raise your energy level and make you feel like you’re on stimulants.
Caffeine is the obvious default choice here, and it has the advantages of being cheap, readily available, and familiar. If you haven’t done so already, calculate how much caffeine it usually takes to put you into an optimal (in your estimation) state of mind, and figure out how that translates into a quantity of your beverage of choice.
As mentioned in my article on caffeine addiction, intake should be limited to around 100 mg a day, or 1.5 mg per kg of bodyweight.
It can also be beneficial to rotate between different stimulants in order to avoid tolerance. There are many different stimulants, some of which are either too powerful or whose half-lives are too short or too long to substitute for caffeine. But two, in particular, can fill a similar role to caffeine.
Theacrine is a close relative of caffeine, sharing the same basic structure with the addition of a methyl group and a ketone group. It seems to act like a milder version of caffeine, produces a calmer and less intense stimulation, and has a longer half-life.
One industry-sponsored study found that theacrine did not produce habituation at doses of up to 300 mg/day. However, it works via the same mechanisms as caffeine, which means it would theoretically be expected to show cross-tolerance with caffeine, so take that with a grain of salt.
Overall, studies find relatively few cognitive benefits from theacrine; it seems to be like caffeine, only weaker. The effects also seem to be almost entirely mental, with less physical stimulation than caffeine. A typical dose of theacrine is 100–300 mg, taken early in the morning.
Rhodiola rosea is an herbal supplement that appears to act as both a mild stimulant and a mild stress reducer. It has been shown to reduce fatigue. The effects take a half-hour to kick in and last 4–6 hours. In other words, it has similar stimulant properties to caffeine but doesn’t seem to have cross-tolerance with caffeine.
Rhodiola rosea is a good option if you want a less jittery stimulant, and is particularly good for those suffering from stress-related fatigue. It shouldn’t be taken in the evenings since it can disrupt sleep.
Wakefulness without high arousal
The substances from the last section all aid wakefulness. However, they will make you feel noticeably stimulated in all but the lowest doses. So what about if you want to just be more awake without otherwise having too much energy?
The most popular option here is modafinil, a prescription drug that enhances wakefulness and has a whopping 15-hour half-life. Rather than trying to get your hands on a prescription drug, I recommend using adrafinil, an OTC prodrug of modafinil — meaning it gets converted to modafinil in your body.
Adrafinil itself has a one-hour half-life, after which you have the 15-hour half-life of modafinil. That means it will severely impair sleep in all but the smallest doses, but there’s a way to make it work. Take a small dose of adrafinil — around 100–300 mg — first thing in the morning. This is lower than the 600-1200 mg typical dosage.
Then, combine adrafinil with one of the other stimulants listed here that has a much shorter half-life, like caffeine. Cut that stimulant out after around noon or so, and they’ll both be largely out of your system by bedtime. Even so, only use adrafinil 1–2 days a week, and only when you’re very tired and/or plan to be awake for around 17–20 hours that day.
Adrafinil also has a few other side effects which make it a good idea to limit your usage; Jonothan Roseland explains them in this interview.
The other drug that aids wakefulness with minimal noticeable stimulation is nicotine. However, this is only true at small doses, taken in an extended-release form — in other words, using nicotine patches rather than gum or liquid nicotine (never mind cigarettes, which I hope I don’t need to warn you against). Nicotine is addictive—do not use it if you have ever been addicted to or are currently using tobacco. In fact, don’t use it if you feel you are prone to addiction at all.
ALL nicotine patches are dosed too high for nootropic use. If you decide to try this, look at the total dosage of the patch you are using and cut it into strips that equate to 1 to 3 mg and use those. The effects will take an hour to kick in and last most of the day. While nicotine has a half-life of 1–2 hours, it’s active metabolite has a 20-hour half-life. Nicotine doesn’t impair sleep as much as other stimulants, but it does impair sleep at higher doses; it also seems to induce vivid dreams when you do sleep on it, which some people enjoy.
Regardless, make sure to take the patch off and wash the area of skin it was on several hours before bed.
Memory and learning
The most popular nootropic for improving memory is probably piracetam. Studies show that piracetam improves both long-term and working memory; however, the effects may be quite minor in healthy individuals. The main clinical finding about piracetam is that it slows cognitive decline.
It is possible, however, that many studies underrate piracetam because it needs to be taken for longer periods than the duration of the studies. The most positive findings generally came from studies lasting six weeks or more.
The mechanism behind piracetam is still unclear, though the leading theory right now is that it increases the permeability of brain cell membranes. Dosing is typically 1200–4800 mg a day, divided into three doses.
Rhodiola rosea also improves working memory, in addition to the previously mentioned effects. It is not entirely clear what the mechanism behind this is, and whether the effects are acute or long-term.
Alpha-GPC is a modified form of the neurotransmitter choline. It has been shown to reduce cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s symptoms in humans. Alpha-GPC also improves memory and learning in rats, though the effect hasn’t been demonstrated in humans yet.
Studies almost always use a dose of 400 mg, three times a day. Anecdotally, many people report benefits at half that dose, but 1200 mg is the dose scientifically associated with consistent effects.
Motivation—wanting to do something — generally comes from two sources.
First, a higher overall level of arousal makes people more motivated in general. That means that any stimulant can effectively act as a motivator.
Second, motivation comes from associating a reward with a given action. Thus, you can build motivation for a given behavior by pairing that behavior with a drug that makes you feel good.
Nicotine is a feasible choice here (albeit with all of the caveats mentioned in the section on nicotine above), as it produces a strong and well-established motivation towards engaging behaviors associated with it.
The exact form of nicotine to use for this depends on how long you’ll be engaging in the desired activity. If it’s a few hours or more, use a patch. If it’s two hours or less, nicotine gum or liquid nicotine might be preferable since they kick in faster and don’t last as long. However, be extremely conservative with the dosage; it’s easy to take too much and make yourself sick with oral nicotine. 1 mg is more than enough for most people.
Relaxation, or decreased arousal
Theanine, as mentioned, is a great choice for relaxation without sedation. The effects are very mild, however, and simply taking more of it produces diminishing returns.
Rhodiola rosea, as mentioned, mildly reduces stress. However, it also acts as a stimulant, so it’s most appropriate for alleviating stress-induced fatigue. It’s not a good choice for pure relaxation.
Ashwaghanda is the most popular and well-supported pure stress reduction nootropic. Studies consistently find moderate stress reduction with it, and it has a good side effect profile. It’s also been reported to be useful for stress-related insomnia. A typical dose is 300–500 mg, once or twice a day, with food.
Phenibut is another powerful stress reducer. A modified form of GABA, it is widely used in Russia as an anxiolytic and sleep aid. While highly effective for those purposes, it is also habit-forming, and higher dosages can lead to oversleeping and grogginess that extends into the next day. Be aware that phenibut also has a powerful synergistic effect with alcohol; do not combine it with alcohol.
Dosing should be limited to 500 mg a day, three days a week, to avoid tolerance. It can take 2–4 hours for it to take effect. While phenibut has a plasma half-life of five hours, the effects last much longer.
As a final note, phenibut is excellent for reducing social anxiety and enhancing socialization. In combination with a mild stimulant like caffeine, it makes an ideal “social nootropic.”
The Smart Approach to Nootropics
Nootropics can be amazing, but you have to resist the temptation to dive right into the deep end of the pool and start trying everything at once.
That means avoid the more exotic stuff for now. No LSD micro-dosing, no semax, no noopept or oxiracetam. That can come later, if you choose to do so, but it’s best to stick to safe and well-tested supplements when you’re starting out.
In most cases, I recommend that you try just one thing at a time. You can try two things if you’re combining a stimulant and a relaxant for synergistic effects, like caffeine and theanine—what’s called a nootropic “stack”. By systematically running self-experiments, you can figure out exactly which nootropics help you in which scenarios. Over time you can make your experiments more sophisticated, testing stacks of two or more nootropics.
Most of all, remember that the effects of nootropics are synergistic with non-drug approaches. By practicing proper productivity habits, building relaxation into your daily routine, and the like, you can both minimize your need for nootropics and maximize the effects you get when you do use them.
Source : Medium