Best supplements: The best supplements for boosting the brain’s function and staying alert!
10 August 2019
When they work, nootropics can make you more productive, happier, more alert, and can help you build better habits. When they don’t work, they can keep you up all night, make you tired, give you a headache, or even cause a potentially dangerous overdose.
I’ve experimented with nootropics for years, but I don’t consider myself an expert on them. That’s why I brought in two people who are experts.
Mike (he prefers to go by his first name only) is the owner, editor and primary writer at Nootropics Zone, a popular nootropics blog. He is also the author of Nootropics: Unlocking your true potential with smart drugs.
Marius van Voorden is the owner of Nootropics.com, an online nootropics store which also publishes in-depth articles and guides on specific nootropics.
Notice that both of them work in the nootropics industry. Marius sells nootropics under the Nootropics.com brand. Mike doesn’t sell his own branded nootropics, but he sells a book on nootropics and acts as an affiliate for nootropics companies.
That said, I have found them to be knowledgeable, honest and credible; their advice aligns with what I’ve learned in my own reading and research. They are candid about the dangers and limits of nootropics. Perhaps more importantly, they both stress the use of nootropics as an addition to, not as a replacement for, living a healthy lifestyle.
What follows is a transcript of the interviews I did with each of them, annotated with my own comments to add clarity or context. I’ve provided a wrap-up at the end to summarize major points and provide direction for you to get started with nootropics yourself.
Mike: I’ve always had trouble focusing. When I was an undergraduate almost twenty years ago, I first started experimenting with nootropics. I didn’t know they were called nootropics at the time, but I started researching and trying different substances. Within a semester, my grades improved significantly. Since then, I’ve been researching, trying, and writing about nootropics.
Marius: I got into it as an aspect of transhumanism, which for me means the idea that humans, as we currently are, are not the best we could be. That naturally leads me to be interested in ways of being better, of improving ourselves. The range of tools for that is pretty broad — from therapy and coaching to meditation, and having a life schedule and to-do strategies, exercise, and proper sleep — for me, nootropics are another tool in the toolbox of things to try out and use.
In general, how useful do you think nootropics are for productivity, compared to other productivity strategies?
Mike: The most important things you can do for productivity are to eat properly, get plenty of exercise, and get plenty of high-quality sleep. Most people don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth. Nootropics come second. That being said, nootropics can be incredibly useful for boosting productivity. As long as you’re eating well, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep, nootropics can significantly improve your mood, reduce anxiety, and boost productivity. But if you’re not taking care of these three basic things, nootropics aren’t going to work nearly as well as they could.
Marius: It varies a lot per person and per life situation. Productivity can get blocked because of various things, and it varies just as much if nootropics help with that. Ideally, we’d have perfect information about how we work and why we work, and a perfect life schedule with a good balance of motivation and discipline rooted in long term goals. From there, it would be easier to see how and where nootropics could improve things. Realistically we’re just trying to make our life work the best as we can, and figure out for which bits nootropics can help on an experimental basis.
Marius: Most consistently, I use Melatonin. It lets me get a full night’s sleep in 7 hours instead of 8, waking up naturally without an alarm. I quite like that. Take note of the dosage considerations, though.
I use Tianeptine occasionally for a better mood, Phenylpiracetam because (for me) it reduces the activation energy to get started on things, and Adrafinil in addition to my morning caffeine if I need a lot of attention/alertness that day.
Author’s Note: The melatonin dosing is super important, and adrafinil and caffeine need to be used with restraint to avoid causing insomnia later that night. I explain this in more detail in my guide to overcoming insomnia.
Mike: I’ve tried them all. Okay, maybe not all. But I have tried dozens of different nootropics over the years. The ones that I keep coming back to, the ones that I use somewhat regularly, are some of the most common nootropics. Modafinil, caffeine and L-theanine, and ashwagandha are three that I use the most. The first two are for focus, and ashwagandha is to reduce stress and anxiety.
Author’s Note: Mike is referring to caffeine and L-theanine in combination as a single “nootropic,” as they’re commonly taken together. More detail on that in the final section.
Marius: I quite Melatonin as a way of improving sleep, making your daytime more useful. It’s not always regarded as a nootropic, but I think a lot of the less-than-positive experiences can be ascribed to having a dosage that’s too high.
Mike: I don’t know if I’d call it underrated, but: caffeine and L-theanine. Since caffeine is so common, I think a lot of people overlook it as a nootropic. This simple nootropic stack, when dosed properly, can significantly boost productivity. The L-theanine cancels out the negative effects of caffeine (jitters, anxiety, crash a few hours later), leaving the user with a calm sense of focus.
Mike: Most of the nootropic blends out there that contain a bunch of different substances. You’re better off buying individual nootropics and combining them yourself. Not only will it be cheaper, but you won’t be taking extra stuff that you don’t need.
Marius: I always have major question marks with blended products, especially proprietary blends. I understand the appeal of a blend aimed at a specific effect, but in my experience the same nootropic affects different people differently, so you can’t make a general “perfect blend” anyway. And then as a consumer, you get a blend with lots of different things in it — it may have some positive and negative results, and you don’t know what caused what and how much of it caused it.
Mostly in life, I look for “gears-level understanding,” or understanding of the mechanisms that make something work. With regards to nootropics, that means trying out individual nootropics that aren’t blended, so that I can find out what effects a specific nootropic has. You see that idea reflected in our products, too — everything we sell at the moment is an individual nootropic.
Author’s note: I’m really impressed with both of their answers here.While I’m not always against blended supplements, more often than not they’re just a way for companies to pad the perceived value of an item by adding in a bunch of extra ingredients that either don’t do anything or are included in insignificantly small doses. This is particularly true when products include a “proprietary blend,” the label for which doesn’t have to state how much of each ingredient is included.
Anyone who’s big into nootropics and dietary supplements is aware of this issue, but it’s truly rare to see someone who sells nootropics for a living being this honest about it. Which productivity supplements do you consider the most dangerous?
Mike: The ones that say “proprietary blend” on them. What this means is that, while they have to list the individual ingredients, they don’t have to list the dosages. You always want to know not only what you’re putting into your body, but how much.
Marius: Not a specific supplement, but in general I’m wary of some things being sold in bulk powder amounts. Not everyone has a microgram scale, and even then, some products can be quite risky if you misread the display. I’ve personally seen people misplace a comma on things that you really shouldn’t take 10 times more of it than they’d planned. This too shows up in our products: we sell capsules with predefined dosages for convenience, but also for safety considerations.
Caffeine (It has a really low lethal dose, riskier than most nootropics. Be very careful with caffeine powder.)
Tianeptine Sodium (The more common but less safe and less convenient variant of Tianeptine Sulfate. High amounts can lead to euphoria, which can be risky and even addicting.)
Any choline source (It can trigger depressive episodes in people prone to that. High amounts might trigger worse episodes, I reckon.)
I’m not a medical professional though, so this isn’t medical advice, just my best understanding of the general state of knowledge. Obviously, it’s best not to miss-measure anything in the first place.
Author’s notes: I’m not familiar with Tianeptine so I’ll defer to Marius on this one. Regarding caffeine — the lethal dose is around 5–15 grams, caffeine pills are normally around 200 mg, and most caffeinated beverages are 50–150 mg, with a few energy drinks going as high as 300 mg. So, I agree with him on not using powdered caffeine — and caffeine pills are very cheap anyway — but caffeine is very unlikely to cause a dangerous acute overdose in any other form. I would keep the dosage below 200 mg out of concern for sleep and addiction though.
Because bulk powders are the cheapest form in which to buy any dietary supplement, I do recommend them for safer supplements. Before buying a bulk powder, do your research and find out a) how easily you can overdose on a supplement (is it 5x the normal dose? 20x? 100x?) b) how dangerous is an overdose (can it kill you or will it just make you throw up?) and c) how easily the supplement can actually be consumed as a powder — does it taste okay? Does it dissolve in water? In general, I consume ketones and amino acids in powder form, but most other things in pill form.
Mike: The first thing I would recommend is that you’re eating well, sleeping well, and exercising. The first supplement I’d recommend for boosting productivity would be Modafinil. Many people find it to be effective and it’s generally pretty safe. Either that or caffeine and L-theanine.
Marius: Adrafinil is the most well-known one. It’s fairly noticeable for most people, which makes it easy to tell what it’s doing and if it’s doing anything.
Author’s notes: I definitely agree with Mike—handle the fundamentals first before getting into nootropics. Regarding Adrafinil: it’s less well-known than Modafinil, but it’s also sold online, while Modafinil requires a prescription. Since Adrafinil converts to Modafinil in the body, it’s the more accessible alternative.
Marius: Any kind of nootropic, really. I’d love it if the idea of nootropics became more normalized. Currently, you only take things if you have some kind of issue. Taking something is supposed to bring you back to your baseline, but if you’re already at your baseline, then according to society, any further improvement has to come out of thin air, or through pure body and mind. But who’s to say what my baseline is, anyway? And what my best sustainable state is? And why would I not use all the tools I can find to get there?
Mike: LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) microdosing. Unfortunately, due to the ridiculous drug laws in the U.S., it’s incredibly difficult to do scientific research on these substances. There are a lot of anecdotal reports that indicate microdosing can be incredibly effective at increasing productivity.
Author’s note: I agree with both of them. Currently, there is some promising research being done on psychedelics.
There are literally hundreds of nootropics out there—more than I could hope to cover in one article. Here’s some info on the few that Marius and Mike mentioned in their interviews.
The combination of caffeine and L-Theanine (often simply referred to as theanine) is one of the most popular nootropics- as well as one of the safest and most well-studied. It is widely recommended (and I concur) as the first nootropic that most people should try.
You know what caffeine is. L-Theanine is an amino acid analog of L-glutamine and L-glutamate, and is mainly known as one of the constituents of green tea. It contributes to the savory flavor of green tea (caffeine alone is very bitter) and exerts a calming effect on the brain. This calming effect mitigates the mental side effects of caffeine, such as anxiety and jitteriness, and is the reason why the effects of green tea are commonly felt as milder or more mellow than the effects of a normal caffeine buzz.
This combination is typically taken in a 1:2 ratio of caffeine to theanine, with the most common dosage being 100 mg of caffeine and 200 mg of theanine. Note that this is much more theanine than you’d get from simply drinking tea, as tea typically has 2–10 times as much caffeine as theanine. Theanine must be consumed as a supplement, though you can certainly get your caffeine from tea if you want. (Green tea typically contains between 30 and 50 mg per 8-ounce serving.)
Since caffeine tolerance can start building up with as little as 100 mg a day of intake, I would treat this dosage as a maximum, not a minimum. I suggest starting at half of that: 50 mg caffeine and 100 mg theanine, early in the morning.
Marius van Voorden: Good combination. Everyone is familiar with caffeine, and L-Theanine just improves the experience. Nice and understandable for people new to nootropics, too.
Melatonin is the primary hormone responsible for sleep onset. It is produced naturally by the brain in response to fatigue and low environmental light (particularly blue light) level. It’s also available as a pill — over the counter in the U.S. and some other countries, or by prescription in other countries, including most of the E.U.
As a supplement, melatonin is typically taken 30–60 minutes before bedtime to induce sleep. Melatonin supplements are usually dosed at 3, 5, 10, or occasionally 1 mg, but these dosages are likely excessive. As little as .1 mg can induce drowsiness, .3 mg can induce sleep, and .5 mg can effectively shift your circadian rhythm. Some people, like Marius, report that melatonin also helps them to get more refreshing sleep in less time — whether this is due to sleeping more deeply or simply getting to sleep faster is unclear.
Melatonin is very safe, with side effects no worse than placebo. This holds true even at higher dosages; while there’s little reason to use a high dose, there also seems to be little risk in doing so. Some individuals do report needing a higher dose for it to be effective, but this seems to be rare based on the research.
The optimal way to use melatonin seems to be to take between .3 and 1 mg, 30–60 minutes before you want to go to sleep.
Marius: It lets me get a full night’s sleep in 7 hours instead of 8, waking up naturally without an alarm.
Piracetam is the granddaddy of all nootropics, and probably the only one that can compete with the caffeine + theanine combo for sheer popularity. It belongs to a class of related nootropics called racetams, and despite having been around since the 1950’s, it is still poorly understood.
Studies on Piracetam have found mixed results. The most-supported use is in the prevention of cognitive decline—so much so that studies of other anti-dementia drugs will sometimes compare the effectiveness of the studied drug to that of piracetam.
Other than that, there are some studies which find that Piracetam improves memory. The effects are long-term rather than acute; it takes at least 2 weeks of continuous daily usage to experience benefits, and most users take piracetam for at least a few months at a time.
Anecdotally, many users report improvements in mood, cognition and the ability to focus, but these are not supported by research at this time. Many other users report no effect at all. Response to Piracetam seems to be highly individual.
Piracetam is typically dosed between 1200 and 4800 mg/day, split into two or three (ideally three) doses. Based on the research, 400 mg three times a day is a good starting point. After the first two weeks, this dosage can be gradually increased to 800 mg three times a day — the highest dosage to have strong support in the research.
Marius: Useful, depending on the person. The various racetams affect different people differently, which makes it hard to make general statements. Some experimentation required to see if it works for you.
Mike: It didn’t do much for me. I don’t seem to respond to many of the racetams.
Another member of the racetam group, Phenylpiracetam hasn’t been studied as much as Piracetam. It seems to have similar effects as Piracetam, but the required dosage is several times lower. Like Piracetam, Phenylpiracetam seems to aid in preventing or slowing cognitive decline, particularly in stroke survivors. It has also been shown to reduce depression and anxiety…again, in stroke patients. Unfortunately, the research on it has mostly been confined to stroke patients.
That said, widespread anecdotal reports suggest that it has similar effects to Piracetam, but with more of a stimulant effect. At least one study has found that rats move around more, and faster, after taking Phenylpiracetam. This has lead to it becoming modestly popular for athletic enhancement, and being banned as a doping agent in many athletic organizations.
The typical dosage is 100–200 mg, taken 2–3 times a day, for a total daily dosage of 200–600 mg.
Marius: For me, it reduces the activation energy to get started on things.
Choline is not a drug, per se, but a naturally occurring essential nutrient. It is water-soluble, vitamin-like, and occurs naturally in many food sources — most notably in egg yolks.
Its use as a nootropic stems from the fact that Choline is the primary building block of Acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter responsible for learning. In addition, since a Choline deficiency can cause fat accumulation in the liver, Choline is sometimes used to help treat fatty liver.
Choline is one of the more popular nootropic supplements. It’s safe, affordable, and usually used in stacks with other supplements that act on the cholinergic system — as Choline can, at least in theory, potentiate anything else that promotes the production of Acetylcholine.
Research is sparse on Choline — the one study I could find found no effect from it. That said, the study had a small sample size and short duration, and its design bears little resemblance to how choline is used in practice.
If you want to try a Choline supplement, they come in several forms. CDP-choline and alpha-GPC are the two forms thought to be most active in the brain. Daily dosages range from 200 mg once a day, up to 1500 mg divided into several daily doses. I’d recommend staying near the lower end of that range, personally.
As always, start low and gradually raise it over the course of several weeks, and be especially conservative if stacking it with other nootropics. To avoid overdosing, take Choline in pill form, not powder form.
Ashwaghanda is an herb known in ayurvedic (Indian) medicine for its ability to reduce anxiety and allegedly help the body adapt to stressors. It is well-established as an anxiolytic—multiple studies have found that Ashwaghanda is effective at reducing stress and anxiety. It has also been shown to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and c-reactive protein (a measure of inflammation).
The typical dosage is 300–500 mg per day, either divided or taken with breakfast. Lower doses, around 100 mg per day, may be preferable if combining it with other anti-anxiety agents. There’s a lack of data on how Ashwaghanda interacts with other anti-anxiety agents, so don’t combine it with prescription anti-anxiety drugs (at least without talking to your doctor first).
Mike: Ashwagandha (is one of the) three (nootropics) that I use the most…to reduce stress and anxiety.
Over the past few years, Modafinil has become one of the most popular well-known nootropics. It has been the subject of many mainstream media articles- and arguably a bit of a fad.
So what is Modafinil? It’s a prescription drug for keeping narcoleptics awake, and it’s very effective at what it does. It’s prescription-only in the U.S. and Canada. Adrafinil, on the other hand, is available over the internet, and it’s a prodrug of Modafinil — that is, it converts to Modafinil in the body.
There can be no doubt at this point that Modafinil reduces fatigue and enhances wakefulness. It has also been shown in several studies that Modafinil improves cognition, working memory, motivation, and subjective well-being in healthy subjects. That said, studies find more pronounced benefits in sleep-deprived subjects or those with sleep disorders. In healthy, well-rested subjects, the benefits are still there, but fairly minor.
While it is often compared to amphetamines, the effects are markedly different. Modafinil only slightly increases blood pressure and reaction time; overall, its effects seem to be less physical and more purely mental compared to most stimulants.
Modafinil is typically dosed at 100–200 mg per day. It has a very long half-life — around 15 hours — so it should only be taken first thing in the morning, before breakfast, unless you want to stay up very, very late that night.
Adrafinil converts to Modafinil at somewhere between a 3:2 and 3:1 basis. That is, 300 mg of Adrafinil converts to somewhere between 100 and 200 mg of Modafinil, so the starting dosage should be around 200 mg. Since Adrafinil itself has a half-life of one hour, the effects last even a little bit longer than Modafinil. Again, only take it first thing in the morning.
Mike: The first supplement I’d recommend for boosting productivity would be Modafinil. Many people find it to be effective and it’s generally pretty safe. Either that or caffeine and L-theanine. Modafinil…can cause insomnia when dosed too late in the day. If you need to pull an all-nighter, though, Modafinil will absolutely help you get through the night.
Marius: Useful for most people. The effect is similar to caffeine, but without the jitteriness/anxiety that can come with it. Adrafinil gets converted to Modrafinil in the body. Adrafinil will keep you awake if you take it too late: it gets converted to Modafinil in the body, and Modafinil is also used as an anti-narcolepsy medicine. That’s gonna keep you awake.
Some people do say that they feel more tired the day after they use Adrafinil, but if you see that coming ahead of time you can factor that into your plans. Adrafinil can then still be a nice option to intensify one day, and then rest the next day. You’d have to try it out to see if that applies to you as well.
Author’s thoughts: I like both of these but I use them very sparingly and at low dosages- like 50–100 mg, not 100–200, because of the long half-life. You can take a little caffeine with it in the morning, then have a tiny bit more caffeine around noon, to benefit from the synergistic effect. Since caffeine has a shorter half-life than Modafinil, that doesn’t keep me from sleeping the way a higher dose of Modafinil would. Regardless, I’d limit this one to 1–2 days a week, only on days when you want to work really late.
LSD microdosing is currently growing in popularity as a way to improve productivity, mood, creativity, and overall well-being. Due to its legal status, research on LSD microdosing has been nonexistent until recently. While studies are now starting to be performed, the results aren’t out yet. That said, many individuals have found LSD microdosing to be highly effective, even life-changing.
So what is microdosing? A typical dose of LSD is around 100 micrograms — most blotters are dosed at that level, and that’s the typical “party dose” that will make you hallucinate a bit, but not completely lose your mind and forget where you are. People who want to “trip out” might take several times that much.
A microdose, by contrast, is around 10–20 micrograms. This dose doesn’t cause hallucinations, and in fact, the effects tend to be very subtle. Mostly, it just makes you have a really good day. People who microdose typically take this dosage in the morning once every 3–4 days, and usually find that it doesn’t cause a tolerance at this level.
For more information, read this complete guide to microdosing by Janet L. Chang. One thing I will add that she doesn’t mention: there is a legal alternative to LSD, called 1-propionyl-LSD. Google ‘1P-LSD’; it’s sold legally as a designer drug on a few websites, at least for the time being.
Mike: [I’d like to see more research on] LSD and psilocin microdosing. Unfortunately, due to the ridiculous drug laws in the U.S., it’s incredibly difficult to do scientific research on these substances. There are a lot of anecdotal reports that indicate microdosing can be incredibly effective at increasing productivity.
Marius: Haven’t tried this either. It seems interesting, but I’m a little worried about research that claims LSD permanently increases how open-minded you are.
Yes, nicotine, the main ingredient in cigarettes. Surprisingly, nicotine in isolation seems to be far safer and less addictive than tobacco products, and is fairly popular as a nootropic. Part of this may be because cigarettes have other chemicals besides nicotine, but the rate of delivery is important too. Nicotine patches seem to be less addictive than other forms of nicotine, such as gums and inhalers — researchers attribute this to the slower rate of nicotine delivery in patches, which avoids any euphoria-inducing peaks.
Studies on nicotine’s mental effects in non-smokers are few and far between right now. One study found improvements in cognition and memory, another found that nicotine combined with caffeine synergistically increased energy levels and calorie expenditure, and a third found that nicotine may mildly improve focus.
Effects on anxiety are mixed — nicotine may increase or decrease anxiety.
Anecdotally, nicotine is usually used for focus, and to suppress hunger while working. For non-smokers, the dosage is usually 1 mg or less of nicotine gum, or 1–4 mg of a nicotine patch. Nicotine patches are the preferred method due to their sustained release. Since patches are dosed at 7, 14 or 21 mg in the U.S., users typically cut them up to reduce the dosage.
Marius: It’s interesting for habit formation. I reckon it can be tricky to use for people who want to see effects the first time you use something; that’s not really what nicotine is for.
Mike: I can definitely say that it increases focus.
Author’s notes: I’ve found low doses to be good for mood and focus, but they mainly enhance productivity for non-creative work. For creative work like writing, this stuff sometimes gives me writer’s block or otherwise makes me get stuck and unproductive.