Remember the movie Limitless, where the guy went from broke, depressed bum to playboy genius within minutes of popping a pill?
According to the movie’s plot, we only use 10% of our brain capacity in our everyday lives. But a novel designer drug “NZT-48” now enabled users to access their full potential. Very intriguing.
Could there really be such a pill?
In an effort to find the real world NZT-48, I started looking into different brain-boosting compounds. From various herbal extracts, vitamin and mineral formulations to prescription meds, I tried a good amount of products geared towards enhancing mental output.
While some of the stuff was (somewhat) effective, I’ll tell you this right out the gate: None worked better than a strong black coffee consumed on an empty stomach (caffeine is the world’s most widely abused drug for a reason).
So no, I’m not “taking anything” currently. But I frequently get questions regarding brain performance, and if there’s anything out there worth looking into. In this article, we’ll check out some popular “smart drugs” and cognitive enhancers and see which ones warrant a closer look.
1. Modafinil: Silicon Valley’s secret
Modafinil is a narcolepsy (sleep-disorder) drug frequently used by military forces, athletes and high-performance individuals for its fatigue-fighting properties. In the US, it is also prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
But does it work? Yes. To an extent.
If you have monotonous chores lined up like computer work, doing taxes or chopping wood in your backyard, Modafinil will help you get ’em done with ease. This stuff turns you into a workhorse (if that horse suffered from a severe case of tunnel vision). While on it, you simply want, no, you need to get shit done. And you will stop at nothing until everything on your to-do list is checked off.
Now, now. Don’t get too excited. Modafinil is no miracle drug. It won’t make you better at what you do, it’ll just help you do more of it. Modafinil doesn’t help with creative work at all (i.e. writing). In fact, I felt like a dumbed-down version of myself with an infinite gas tank (effects last 10+ hours) while on it.
You can go forever. But you can’t really go anywhere good. It’s actually the opposite of a “smart drug”.
I’ve read reports of god-like workouts on this stuff (you’re going to find a bunch of modafinil love letters online. If anything, take them with a grain of salt). But, again, my experience was nothing like that.
While it seemed to me like I couldn’t burn out mentally on Modafinil, my muscles would give out faster during high-intensity exercise. Strength and endurance were noticeably decreased on the day of dosing. Very rarely have I seen anything actively weaken my muscles. Modafinil does just that for me.
Another issue I sometimes faced was diminished sleep quality and feeling run down the next day. Granted, this didn’t always happen but it was noticeable on occasion. Oh, and don’t combine this stuff with alcohol.
Modafinil’s minor performance benefits come with several shortcomings that ultimately make it useless for my purposes.
2. Adderall: The OG of ADHD
Adderall is a prescription drug used for treating attention deficit disorder and, again, narcolepsy. This blend of amphetamine salts increases neurotransmitter activity in the brain and thus improves motivation, focus, cognitive and even athletic performance (Adderall is banned by most sports organizations).
I’ve used Adderall on a handful of occasions over the years. But I’m not a fan.
It’s a harsh drug with a laundry list of side-effects. And the effects it had on my mind were unsettling. I was wired like a crackhead after dosing and couldn’t focus on any one thing.
Buzzing with no self-control might make for a fun night out, but it’s not something I have any use for. It’s hard to believe they have kids taking this stuff at a young age.
3. Choline: I’m an egghead
Choline might sound like some designer drug fresh off the streets. But in reality, it’s simply a member of the B-vitamin family, naturally produced in your liver and found in high amounts in egg yolks, beef liver, cruciferous vegetables and shellfish.
Choline is the precursor of acetylcholine, which is heavily involved in brain performance and muscle control. Furthermore, choline is necessary for proper fat metabolism in the body and has shown promising effects as a fat-burner in female athletes.
Choline is good for you, yes. But that’s not why it made the list.
Choline promotes cerebral blood flow and the production of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine (= motivation chemicals). Used as a supplement, it has shown to boost memory, focus and attention.
I’ve used various forms of choline (it is a common ingredient in sports supplements) from choline bitartrate to citicoline and alpha- GPC choline. Citicoline (aka CDP-choline), however, was the only one delivering on its promises. Used by itself or in combination with caffeine (recommended), it is a very effective pick-me-up with an interesting health profile.
Don’t expect a powerful energy rush. This is not a stimulant. The effects are much more subtle than what you’d get from a monster energy drink. But in contrast to the latter, it might provide some actual health and brain benefits.
4. Theobromine: I’m in love with the coco
I always feel a noticeable rise in mood and motivation after eating some quality dark chocolate. Turns out, cocoa or cacao is a micronutrient powerhouse.
Grown on the theobroma tree (Greek: theo= God, broma= food), cacao is an excellent source of flavonoids and alkaloids (happy chemicals) such as theobromine, phenylethylamine and our good friend, caffeine. Cacao is also one of the most potent antioxidant foods you can consume.
Theobromine is responsible for a large part of chocolate’s effects on mood and mental performance. This cocoa extract has mild stimulating effects, improving mood, focus and mental acuity. Supplement manufacturers have long since isolated this bitter alkaloid and added it to various energy drinks and other nutritional products.
Best taken on an empty stomach with a cup of coffee (rocket fuel), theobromine is on my very short list of recommended performance enhancers. Instead of wasting money on over-priced supplements, however, I recommend you get your hands on some high-quality dark chocolate or cacao powder.
5. Adaptogens: Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, Ginseng
Adaptogens like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea and Ginseng have very intriguing effects on the body and brain.
Unlike most supplements or drugs, adaptogens support your body in stressful situations. As the name implies, they help your body adapt to environmental stressors.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) for instance, has a proven track-record for: lowering stress and anxiety, reducing inflammation and even improving sexual function. Interestingly, this Ayurvedic herb has also shown promising effects on brain performance.
The adaptogens Ginseng (Panax Ginseng or Korean Ginseng) and Rhodiola have also proven beneficial to brain health and cognitive function.
So yes, there are definitely some decent options out there, just don’t expect any miracles. Nothing will grant you to the ability to learn a new language in a couple of hours or turn you into a lean mean money-makin’ machine overnight.
If you truly want next level performance you have to start at the source.
A Better Option: Get Lean and Mean
I remember the first time I used Modafinil.
I popped a pill early morning on an empty stomach and went about my business. An hour later I was buzzing, wired and ready to get stuff done. But it wasn’t the pill. That’s me every morning after a cup of coffee.
With modafinil, I barely felt an improvement in cognitive function. And I was thinking to myself, the people raving about these drugs must be out of shape, eating a shit diet and sitting on their ass all day (aka average Joe).
Obviously, these pills provide some benefits to those people. Because in the short-term, the drugs mask the imbalances in their bodies. They make you feel like you’re energized, wide awake and focused, even when you’re in a state of decay.
But I’m running like a perfectly oiled machine. My mind is razor-sharp every day. Stimulants, as much as I enjoy ’em, don’t do much for me. They get me wired. But they don’t make me better. Not at all.
I’m already operating at a different level. Through years of optimizing my diet, training and lifestyle, I’ve maximized my God-given potential. And I want you to operate from that same level.
Razor-sharp focus and mental acuity should be the standard. It shouldn’t require drugs or supplements (unless you have an actual deficiency). Being high-energy and ready to take on the world should be the name of the game. Every day.
A pill won’t get the job done, however. Build your body and you will build your brain. It’s as simple as that.
Thank you for reading
Elsawy, Gehan, Osama Abdelrahman, and Amr Hamza. “Effect of Choline Supplementation on Rapid Weight Loss and Biochemical Variables Among Female Taekwondo and Judo Athletes.” Journal of Human Kinetics 40.1 (2014): 77-82.
Zeisel, S. H. (2012). Dietary Choline Deficiency causes DNA Strand Breaks and Alters Epigenetic Marks on DNA and Histones. Mutation Research, 733(1-2), 34–38.