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Cognitive Enhancers: How to Use Nootropics To Supercharge Your Brain

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In this article I want to go a little bit outside of my discussion related directly to testosterone enhancement and talk about one of my other interests, cognitive enhancers.  You see, being a competitive guy that likes to push things pretty close to the limit, I started to get serious about academics while still in high school.

In college I was fortunate enough to attend a really high quality undergraduate program where I completed a degree in neuroscience in less then 3/4 of the time it normally takes.  The reason I mention this is that it lends credibility to my level of experience in pushing myself mentally.  My undergraduate experience taught me how to push past my pre-conceived limits to really get shit done.

At times, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from drilling down my ability to execute that maximum amount of cognitive work for extended periods of time.  In order to do this I have experienced a multitude of different compounds that fall into the cognitive enhancement or nootropic category.

Additionally I have many friends who are successful at the highest level of academics or entrepreneurship who at one point or another have been heavily involved with this corner of the performance enhancement arena.  While I hesitate to do so, I feel I have reached a point where I am more then qualified to give my opinion in the hope that it will serve you guys and give you a good base of knowledge as far as cognitive enhancement is concerned.  So, before we start I need to give you guys the bottom line of what you need to know when trying to decide which compounds to use.

I’ve Been At This For a While….

Some compounds are absolutely inappropriate for daily use. When deciding which compounds to use, you first have to decide if you are going to be using them to boost your performance over the long term to increase work output, or to enhance performance for a short term, event based project.  For example if you have a deadline coming up such as a very important piece of content, code or editing to do and you have a specific timeline it needs to be completed in, it may be appropriate to use synthetic or more crude cognitive enhancers (discussed later in the article).  If you are looking to improve your ability to do the above mentioned tasks over the course of X number of weeks, months or years, you certainly are going to want to look at some natural alternatives that you respond well to.

I can tell you from experience, that any time I attempted to use a stronger synthetic compound over an extended period of time, I ran into serious trouble with allergies, side effects or mood swings.  After months and in some cases years of going back and forth I settled on the fact that I could not take synthetic compounds over an extended period of time.  Given my experience I would recommend first and foremost taking breaks from all compounds, synthetic or natural, at set times throughout the year.  Next I would come up with a few natural compounds that work well with your body that you can cycle when you are trying to enhance your day to day work output.  Finally, and optionally, you can have 1-2 synthetic compounds you use as a short term enhancement tool.

In the case of short term synthetic compound use, it should be substances you have used that you have had good results with, are legal for you to use, and in the case of prescription based drugs have been authorized for your use by a licensed physician.  Now that we have that somewhat generic warning out of the way, I want to go over some of the pros and cons of synthetic cognitive enhancers.

Synthetic Cognitive Enhancers: Some Pros & Cons

First off are the synthetic cognitive enhancers.  This is a short list of some of the more popular drugs that fall into the category of synthetic cognitive enhancers:

  • Vyvase
  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Metadate
  • Concerta
  • Methylin
  • Modafinil
  • Clonidine

These types of synthetic compounds have been used to treat a number of cognitive disorders as well as to alleviate the symptoms of some sub-clinical level disorders.  Often times these drugs are used recreationally for their potential performance enhancing affects during mentally taxing work such as studying.  For those of you who have never eperienced some of the affects of these drugs, you should consider the following subjectively reported benefits of the popular ADHD drug Concerta:

“I was prescribed 18mg of Concerta. I tried it for about a month, and noticed significant results. I am able to focus on tasks, stay organized, and (a big deal for me) I am able to process what people were saying to me. I have received a lot of positive remarks on my job performance, and am being considered for a position that a year ago, would not have even been a possibility.

I was told that a side effect of Concerta was a loss of appetite, and I have noticed that, but it has turned out to be a positive side effect. I am not eating the junk food that I used to nibble on throughout the day, but instead have  3 healthy meals. I have lost almost sixty pounds since going on the drug. ( I was obese and had terrible eating and exercising habits). Due to the increased level of energy that I now have, I have started a rigorous training regiment, and have signed up for a Spartan obstacle race 9 months from now.”

The above is a good example as it hits on many common themes reported from users of synthetic cognitive enhancers.  While some of the effects such as energy an a loss of appetite are specific to stimulant based cognitive enhancers, many of the other benefits such as focus and the ability to concentrate are central to most cognitive enhancers.  While this is a good thing, it is naive to think that such dramatic benefits, such as those described in the above user testimonial, come at no cost to the body.  For example even Modafinil, which is considered less severe then stimulant based cognitive enhancers causes all of the following subjectively reported side effects:

“headache, drowsiness, back pain, nervousness, stuffy nose, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. In some cases, there are serious potential side effects like rash, allergic reactions, mouth sores, hives, peeling or blistering skin, swelling of the face or legs, trouble swallowing or breathing, fever, and shortness of breath.”

Make no mistake, these side effects do not apply to everyone.  The majority of people who take an FDA certified substance will experience very few serious side effects.  However, for every drug, a minority of the users will experience more severe side effects along with those less noticeable more benign ones.  A good example is the rare case of Stevens Johnson’s Syndrom (SJS).  This rare condition causes a dangerous, often life threatening, skin rash in people who have a genetic susceptibility to the disease.  In most cases this skin rash is the by-product of a sever autoimmune response.  Usually SJS is caused by antibiotics, but it has been known to be caused by Modafinil use as well.

Keep in mind, this is one of the more serious conditions associated with a relatively mild cognitive enhancer.  Have you ever wondered what the most serious conditions are that are associated with the strongest stimulant based amphetamines?  Well, as with most drugs, the worst case scenario is death as a side effect of use.  This is of course very uncommon especially with any drug that is regulated by the FDA.  What is more important is what can happen to a reasonably large percentage of users under normal conditions.  In the case of amphetamine based cognitive enhancers, improper usage and addiction is probably the most serious concern.  According to a research paper published by University Medical Center, Mainz Germany, a full 5th of surveyed ADHD sufferers reported misusing their prescription for reasons other then ADHD treatment.  The paper determined that cognitive enhancement was one of the more likely reasons for misuse.

” The number of patients with ADHD misusing their prescribed ADHD medication (prescription stimulants) in the USA for different purposes was estimated to be 22 % [31] . Compared to estimated prevalence rates of using prescription stimulants in healthy subjects (5 % ) this number is very high [31] . In our study, we excluded subjects with ADHD. This may be one reason for the lower prevalence rate in our study.”

While many people who are using some of the more powerful prescription cognitive enhancers begin using with a genuine need, many dovetail their use into a recreational amphetamine habit.  This is one of the main reasons I suggest knowing how your body reacts to various compounds and only using the stronger ones if you absolutely need to.  Ultimately this comes down to knowing yourself.  Unfortunately, for many people they start down the slippery slope towards classically conditioning themselves into a serious amphetamine/stimulant/cognitive enhancer habit.

Anyone unfamiliar with classic conditioning can check out a description of this landmark study in the field of behavioral psychology.  This is a  short summary courtesy of Simplypsychology.

“In his experiment, Pavlov used a bell as his neutral stimulus. Whenever he gave food to his dogs, he also rang a bell. After a number of repeats of this procedure, he tried the bell on its own. As you might expect, the bell on its own now caused an increase in salivation.

So the dog had learned an association between the bell and the food and a new behavior had been learnt. Because this response was learned (or conditioned), it is called a conditioned response. The neutral stimulus has become a conditioned stimulus.

Pavlov discovered that any object or event which the dogs learnt to associate with food (such as the lab assistant) would trigger the same response”

A scenario I have seen played out over and over is in students who are looking to increase their effectiveness in school.  They turn to the use of synthetic cognitive enhancers of the stimulant based variety.  The student will learn to study using the cognitive enhancers and be impressed with their performance.  The student will then begin to associate the cognitive enhancers use with studying and vice versa.  All of the activities and behaviors that go along with studying, subconsciously, begin to be associated with amphetamine use in the students minds.  The students will then find themselves more interested in “studying”.  They will naturally want to engage in studying and all those things that are related.  This is fantastic in terms of absolute performance.  Test scores, grade point averages and interest in school all go up. As the students interest in and time spent studying increases, all too often their frequency of use and dosages increase as well.  The danger is, this can all happen subconsciously with out the students really noticing.

An important thing to keep in mind is that it is possible to get addicted to almost anything.  The problem with stimulant based amphetamines is that they are much more likely to lead to addiction then non-stimulant or natural cognitive enhancers.  For anyone who is still unsure about the dangers of prescription drugs consider this description of what it is like to use the highly illegal drug methamphetamine (Schedule II, U.S.).

“The rush is followed by a high, sometimes called “the shoulder.” During the high, the abuser often feels aggressively smarter and becomes argumentative, often interrupting other people and finishing their sentences. The delusional effects can result in a user becoming intensely focused on an insignificant item, such as repeatedly cleaning the same window for several hours. The high can last four to sixteen hours.”

What’s interesting about the above quote is that it’s from drugfreeworld.org, a clearly one sided website who’s sole purpose is to dismiss any type of drug use as life ending and morally wrong.  Personally I dont agree with this.  While I certainly would never recommend recreational methamphetamine use, I believe in distilling the facts and presenting them in as concise a manner as possible.  In this case however, even this very one sided website’s description of methamphetamine use shares an eerily large amount of similarities with the self reported experience of a Concerta user I  quoted at the top of this article.  While most Concerta or Adderall users probably wouldn’t say they are aggressively smarter or interrupt people, they would probably agree to a less severe version of the same description.

The Many Benefits of Synthetic Cognitive Enhancers

While it is worth reporting on some of the negative side effects of synthetic cognitive enhancers, they are not without their benefits.  One of the most alluring side effects of these drugs is there ability to enhance concentration and seemingly magnify creative ability.  Drugs like Modafinil and stimulant based cogntive enhancers such as Adderall are especially popular with people performing intensive mental work such as coding and creative writing.

Dave Asprey of Bulletproofexec writes about how his early support for modafinil use made him something of a sounding board for his friends who were starting to experiment with the drug.  After a few friends opened up to him about their use he realized how many of them had used the drug to push through plateaus in their own careers and creative endeavors.  One important thing to keep in mind is that most of the highly successful friends he talks about use the drug in a very strategic manner.  Among Dave’s friends there appears to be no instances of the haphazard or habitual use you see among many of the casual drug users who post on the average ADHD or nootropic drug forums.  Dave’s friends seem to be using these drugs in a manner that is far more calculated then the average drug user.  These guys are using drugs to push through specific pre-planned plateaus, not to enhance their lifestyle or for fun.

Not your “average” drug user

Not many regular guys here either……….

In regards to the mainstream use of modafinil Dave writes:

“I’m not shy about the fact that I use smart drugs and have for years. I used Modafinil (aka Provigil) when I got my Wharton MBA while working full time at a startup that sold for $600 million. I even hazard to mentioned it in my LinkedIn profile which made more than a few Silicon Valley exec friends open up to me that they had used it, at least on occasion.  More and more people arebecoming aware of the positive effects Modafinil can have on their cognitive performance and overall wellbeing.  Students are starting to hack their intelligence too.  There are numerous storiesabout college students using Modafinil to get an edge on their schoolmates. It worked for me as a student.”

Clearly there are some fantastic benefits of the use of these cognitive enhancers.  In the first video Dave mentions talking about his doctor assuming he would want Adderall, but him wanting Modafinil instead.  He mentions that he feels Modafinil is more mild while still being upfront about its many side effects.  In the second video Tim Ferris discusses why he doesn’t use Modafinil very often and some of the downsides he has noticed.  He even goes as far as to say that he would use anabolic steroids regularly before he would use Modafinil regularly.  Tim throws on his sports supplement hat and talks about why strong physiological effects are related to strong and sometimes negative side-effects.  Therefore he says that simply due to the strength of Modafinil, he uses it very sparingly.  This is pretty much the same reason I would not recommend synthetic cognitive enhancers for long term regular use.

“Its extremely hard to get a free lunch with biochemical enhancement”
-Tim Ferris

The Limited History of Synthetic Cognitive Enhancers

So if these drugs are so popular and so effective, why haven’t more people been dissuaded from use by all these horrible side effects.  Well for one, these drugs have not been around for a very long time.  There is not much history to go off of.  For example, Modafinil was developed in the late 70s and was not marketed for mainstream use until it found success being promoted to narcoleptics.  Most of the popular ADHD medications were not widely used in the U.S. until the late 80s when the American Psychological Association changed their definition of ADHD as part of the DSM-III revision, 1987.  They grouped many symptoms together that had been associated with ADD, ADHD and related cognitive disorders.  Not only did this revision bring light to a number of mental health issues, it made the use of related medications more widespread.  The point of this short history lesson is that there are not many sources to look at when deciding the long term effects of taking these drugs.

Scientists and physicians are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence and conjecture in their recommendations and admonitions related to long term use.  As an example, Dr. Peter Morgan of Yale University had the following to say in regards to what he thought was possible with long term Modafinil use:

“If somebody takes modafinil long-term, they may develop some of the same deficits in slow-wave sleep as cocaine users,” he says. “Slow-wave sleep is the deep sleep that we tend to get early in the night. But by taking a stimulant that forces the body to be awake more than it wants to be, you’re disrupting its ability to regulate how much sleep it gets and the kind of sleep it gets, so it never feels properly refreshed.”

If you are interested in enhancing your day to day performance and nourishing your body in the process it is best to look for drugs that have little to no potential for abuse as well as an absolute minimum of side effects.  Personally, I have found a number of compounds that fit the bill.  I share as many of these as possible on the podcast and as part of the TestShock course.  However, I want to talk about why I decided to focus on natural cognitive enhancers before I get into specific recommendations.

Natural Cognitive Enhancers: Some Pros & Cons

When you hear people discussing natural vs. synthetic cognitive enhancers they will usually refer to them as nootropics and smart drugs.  The term nootropic is ascribed to the Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneliu E. Giurgea.  He originally meant for the word to be associated with only those compounds that enhanced brain health and functioning.  Over time the term became synonymous with any type of compound that had the potential to enhance brain functioning.

For the purpose of this article I will use natural cognitive enhancers to discuss only those nootropics that are derived from a specific supplement and were not exclusively developed in a laboratory environment.  The type of natural cognitive enhancers I am interested in are the ones that do in fact increase cognitive performance while enhancing brain health.  good examples are Omega 3 fatty acids, Choline and Ginko Biloba.  These are three compounds that have a large body of research supporting their ability to enhance long term brain health.  While these are three of the more mild brain enhancers, I will use them as examples to discuss some of the benefits of these types of compounds.  I will then give some of my recommendations for stronger natural cognitive enhancers.

Ginko Biloba is a cognitive enhancer that assists in proper brain function in a number of ways.  Most of the performance enhancement benefits of Ginko are a result of its ability to increase blood flow to the brain.  In multiple studies Ginko Biloba has been shown to increase memory, performance on cognitive tests as well as subjectively reported mood. While the mechanisms of action for these changes are beyond the scope of this article, the basic premise is that they facilitate different aspects of brain function.  This is the opposite of most synthetic cognitive enhancers that often provide a large amount of a substance that the body naturally regulates or circumvent the bodies normal regulatory processes in order to force an increase in production or uptake of various substrates.

Choline, like Ginko Biloba, enhances the brain’s performance by facilitating its natural processes.  Choline has been shown to enhance the structure and function of brain cell membranes.  This enhances the ability of the brain’s cells to guard against foreign toxins and pathogens.  Choline also works by normalizing the levels of the nervous system’s substrate components.  This means that choline can increase the efficiency of the nervous system.

Finally Omega-3 Fatty acids are important in reducing inflammation in the brain, building cell membranes and in promoting new brain cell formation.  This is primarily because one of the two fatty components of Omega-3s,  docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is a key structural component of the cerebral cortex.  Omega-3s have been shown to enhance cognitive performance, elevate mood, and protect against the onset of alzheimer’s.

One way to think about the benefits of natural vs. synthetic cognitive enhancers is to look at the way Creatine helps the body to build muscle vs. the way anabolic steroids help the body to build muscle.  Creatine provides the energy substrate, ATP, that is used to power the bodies muscles.  This increases performance and allows users to train harder.  This in turn allows for a greater training effect over time.  The body is able to function at an above average level because it has been provided with a consistently large supply of the basic building blocks for its energy substrates. Anabolic Steroids on the other hand force the body to function abnormally by introducing unnaturally high levels of key hormones.  This circumvents the bodies ability to naturally regulate its own hormone levels.  The main problems with this is that this can blunt the bodies sensitivity to these hormones over time.  This is similar to the problem long term users of synthetic cognitive enhancers have.  Synthetic cognitive enhancers can throw off the bodies regulation of many important chemicals.  Instead of loosing some muscle, as is the case when getting of anabolic steroids, you might experience a loss in your ability to concentrate or even your good mood when getting off of potent cognitive enhancers.

My Favorite Natural Cognitive Enhancers

As I mentioned in the introduction, I have come to rely more heavily on natural cognitive enhancers that are safe for day to day use.  After trying a number of different compounds, two stand out as being the most noticeably effective.

Ashwagandha is one of these two compounds.  Ashwagandha has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety and slash circulating cortisol levels.  Depending on the study, Corisol levels have been shown to decrease up to 32% with regular Ashwaghanda supplementation.  Ashwaganha has even been shown to enhance HDL cholesterol levels, reduce LDL cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation.  Finally it has been shown to increase sperm motility and health.

Ashwagandha’s ability to increase testosterone makes it one of the foundational supplements for TestShock users wishing to enhance themselves once their nutrition is dialed in.  As part of my TestShock program I recommend its near continuous use as it is one of the only research backed compound that has a consistently positive effect on the cortisol to testosterone ratio.  Beyond its testosterone enhancing benefits, Ashwagandha is a fantastic sleep promoting agent.  One of the effects I have noticed and have consistently gotten comments about is Ashwagandha’s ability to improve quality of sleep.  There is research backed as well as anecdotal evidence that shows that Ashwagandha can enhance sleep.

Beyond Ashwagandha’s direct effect on the cortisol to testosterone ratio, it indirectly effects it due to the enhanced quality of sleep it promotes.  The enhanced sleep I experience while using Ashwagandha has helped me to reduce my stress levels, train harder and remain calm throughout the day.  Nearly everyone I have recommended try this compound has experienced noticeable physical and psychological effects.

The second standout natural cognitive enhancer and my absolute favorite compound overall is phosphatidylserine (PS).  phosphatidylserine (PS) is used by the body to transport molecules in and out of cells, protect cell membranes from oxidative stress and improve signaling between cells.  In addition to PS’s ability to enhance testosterone, it has been shown to have numerous benefits of cognitive performance and mood.  PS has been shown to improve processing speed and accuracy, memory and concentration. PS has even been shown to have positive effects on the immune system following intense exercise.  PS’s ability to enhance memory is attenuated by omega-3’s and is one of the reasons I usually choose to supplement the two together.  One of the best parts about PS supplementation is the pervasive sense of calm that accompanies its use.  100-200mg of supplemental PS can provide hours of calm focused concentration.  For this reason I have chosen PS as my personal day to day replacement for more crude synthetic cognitive enhancers.

My Cognitive Enhancement Supplement Routine

After experimenting with various compounds I settled on a few that my friends and I were experiencing the greatest amount of benefits from with the lowest amount of side effects. The most common supplemental cognitive enhancers I used during the last 18 months were as follows:

  • Inositol: 500mg with my coffee, generally I would use this on days I was preforming heavy cognitive tasks in the morning such as writing blog posts.
  • Phosphatidylserine: 100mg 1-2 times a day.  Most weeks I use this every day.  Every couple of months I take a week or so off as I feel its good to cycle and supplements.
  • Omega-3s: I take 2-6 capsules a day.  The amount you take varies by the EPA and DHA concentraion.  Generally I try to get about 2000mg / day combine EPA & DHA.
  • Ginkgo Biloba: 120mg 1-2 times per day.  I use this for its its effect on mood and its the affect it has on my ability to concentrate.  This one is the same as PS, I take it daily most weeks of the year.

There you have it.  For the last 18 months or so this has been my nearly continuous supplement regiment.  While there are other supplements that can be beneficial, these are the ones I have been the most consistent with.  This probably has to do with the fact that these are the ones you will notice the most while you are taking them.  You will definitely feel it when you take any of the above 4.  However, there are many other supplements I would recommend.  Many of you know that I have included other compounds in my cognitive enhancer Cortigon.  One of the main compounds I included was L-carnitine as it has multiple studies to support its use.  It is one of the supplements I should have been taking consistently but never seemed to get around to it, probably because of its more subtle effects.

Keep in mind, these are the supplements I used as cognitive enhancers.  There are many others that I would experiment with or take on a regular basis for their physical effects.  Two of my favorite supplements that I used primarily for their effects on my testosterone levels and my physique were creatine and Ashwagandha.  While both of these compounds have proven effects on mental as well as physical performance, there affects on the physique are definitely more dramatic.  For this reason I have chosen to group the supplements I take into two categories.  First, the supplements that primarily effect my mood and cognitive abilities.  Second, the supplements that primarily effect my hormone levels and physique.  There is definitely some overlap, but most of the supplements I have taken are relatively more effective at one or the other.


Alright, I know that was a lot of information, but I wanted to take some time to lay out my detailed opinion on cognitive enhancers.  In addition to my interest in physical performance, “nootropics,” cognitive enhancers, or smart drugs have been a pet interest of mine for some time.  While not all of them will have as dramatic an effect on your testosterone as some of the other supplements I recommend, their effects on your ability to stay calm and get shit done are dramatic.  Since living a more productive life will improve your mood, reduce stress and make you more successful, the indirect effect on your hormone levels could potentially be huge.  If anything, they just make getting things done more enjoyable while avoiding many of the serious dangers associated with the more crude synthetic compounds.


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Hennessy, A. (2013, July 2013). Adderall Can Really F*** You Up. Retrieved from Vice: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/adderall-can-really-fuck-you-up

Myself, I. M. (2008, July 22). I’m100% Positive Adderall Ruined My Life. Retrieved from Drugs: http://www.drugs.com/forum/need-talk/im-100-positive-adderall-ruined-my-life-49091.html







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Christopher Walker

Christopher Walker is a co-founder of UMZU and creator of the Thermo Diet. He is the first person to get a Duke Neuroscience degree in 3 years. After naturally solving his own health complications with a brain tumor as a teenager, he has devoted his life to creating all-natural products and education to help men, women, children and pets to improve their own health naturally using science-backed research.
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