Experimenting With Nootropics to Increase Mental Capacity, Clarity

These smart drugs, made up of food substances and purified components of medicinal plants, help to improve brain function.

These smart drugs, made up of a combination of food substances and purified components of medicinal plants, help to improve brain function.


Hunters will go to great lengths to gain an edge over their prey. You never know where the margin between success and failure may lie, so you wake up extra early, say a prayer, spray bottled deer piss on your boots, and do whatever else you think might increase your odds. My schedule recently got more demanding thanks to a new baby. With less time to kill and another mouth to feed, I've had to step up my game.

Hunting can be physically demanding but, assuming that you're prepared, it's mostly mental. Staying sharp is how opportunities are created. I ordered a bottle of nootropic pills, in case it might help.

Nootropic (new-tro-pik) is the term for supplements, also known as smart drugs, that improve brain function. They can be food substances like phenethylamine and L-Theanine, found in chocolate and green tea, respectively. Nootropics also include extracted and purified components of medicinal plants, as well as substances synthesized from chemical precursors, such as piracetam, the world's first official nootropic (piracetam was created in 1964 in Belgium by a team of scientists whose leader, Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, coined the term). Since then piracetam has been widely used as a cognitive enhancer and to treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.

Some people consider stimulants to be a form of nootropic, while others distinguish them from the likes of caffeine, and Adderall -- of which there's currently a nationwide shortage. Most legal users of this attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug are children; it's prescribed sparingly in adults for fear of abuse. The FDA caused the shortage by halting delivery to drug manufacturers of the drug's active ingredient, an amphetamine, for months, arguing that enough Adderall had already been produced to satisfy all legal demand. The agency argued that abusers of Adderall are responsible for the shortage. That's a group that includes students and professionals using Adderall to help boost productivity during stressful times.

I chose the nootropic pills I ordered, a formulation called Alpha Brain, mainly because their ingredients are extracted rather than synthesized. I swallowed some the day they arrived, and waited to become mentally sharp. I wanted fireworks bright enough to eliminate all doubt about whether they worked.

Nothing happened until I was falling asleep, when I became distinctly aware that I was falling asleep. I monitored the entire process and remained lucid, with a measure of free will, as I dreamed, and woke up surprisingly refreshed. While I remembered many of my dreams, some of which were quite long, I couldn't recall how my underpants ended up around my ankles.

I bought the pills hoping they might make a difference in the one hunting trip I had time for last season. I was headed for an area so populated with deer that I could legally shoot several. But even when animals are abundant they don't exactly dive eagerly into your rig. You still have to go get them.

Alpha Brain's most noticeable impact on hunting was making it easier to wake up early. Since I'm typically not a morning person, this was striking, and helpful. I also felt slightly more organized, and a curious sense of emotional stability. These changes could also be attributed to parenthood, and my determination to do the deed and get home as soon as possible.

For whatever reason, it was a good hunt. I got my allotted four deer, and was able to convince a trophy hunter to give me the body of a monster buck we both knew he wasn't going to eat.

Back home, I contacted Aubrey Marcus, whose company Onnit Labs produces Alpha Brain. He attributed my lucid dreaming to increased levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which enhances REM dreaming. Alpha Brain has two ingredients that boost acetylcholine levels: GPC choline, which the body converts to acetylcholine, and Huperzine A, an alkaloid derived from Chinese club moss, also known as Huperzia serrata. "Huperzine A disarms the enzyme that naturally breaks down acetylcholine," Marcus said. "So while the GPC choline is being converted to acetylcholine, the Huperzine A is keeping it from disappearing. It's like plugging the drain and turning on the faucet."

I asked Marcus which nootropic he would want if he were stranded on a desert island. "I guess it would depend on the challenges I was facing on the island. If staying healthy was the biggest challenge, then I'd choose AC-11," he said. "If I needed to stay motivated to rebuild the village, I would choose Mucuna [pruriens]. If I was hunting, I'd choose Huperzia serrata, for mental acuity and speed."

The AC-11 that Marcus mentioned for health is an extract from the Amazon jungle vine una de gato, and has been shown in laboratory and clinical trials to encourage DNA repair. The Mucuna pruriens he named for motivation is a legume that's a concentrated source of L-Dopa, which the body converts to the neurotransmitter dopamine. The Huperzia serrata Marcus selected for hunting is the same substance that induces lucid dreaming. This seems appropriate. While I felt the Alpha Brain helped my hunting, maybe I was dreaming. Or maybe a dream state of mind is good for hunting.

Clinical psychiatrist Emily Deans has a private practice in Massachusetts and teaches at Harvard Medical School. She told me by phone that, in principle, there's "probably nothing dangerous" about the occasional course of nootropics for a hunting trip, finals week, or some big project. Beyond that, she suggests considering that it's possible to build up a tolerance to many neuroactive products if you use them often enough.

She recommends seeking pharmaceutical-grade products if possible, which are more accurate regarding dosage and less likely to be contaminated. In various preparations of the herbal antidepressant St. John's Wort, for example, dosages of the active ingredients are all over the map, she said.

Deans cautioned that in high-enough doses, acetylcholine affects your autonomic nervous system, influencing your temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. So increasing the dosages to chase better dreams could be dangerous.

In fact, many nerve gas agents act similarly to Huperzia serrata by blocking the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. But research has shown that in smaller doses, Huperzine A, the extract of Huperzia serrata used in nootropics, would likely offer some protection against damage from nerve agents. That the same substance can act as a nerve agent, protect against nerve agents, and give you crazy dreams, underscores how important it is to stay within the recommended doses.

The ingredients used in Alpha Brain are pharmaceutical grade when possible, according to Marcus, who told me via email "There are numerous double-blind studies on all of the ingredients in our product that demonstrate safety in higher doses than we are using, which you can see [online]."

He added: "Many of these studies also demonstrate facets of efficacy. However, until we complete our own clinical trial (six to nine months from now) there will be no clinical evidence on the effectiveness of our own concentration."

The ingredients in Alpha Brain are available separately, over the counter. So in buying Alpha Brain, or any other commercially available nootropic concoction, you're paying the brand to do the shopping and mixing for you, like paying a chef to prepare ingredients you could have acquired and cooked yourself.

The number of neuroactive products being studied and brought to market today is unprecedented, and it's tempting to think some of these might make you a more effective person. Explore carefully. With nootropics, due diligence is in order.

Image: Spectral-Design/Shutterstock.