Breathing carefully, I clutched the Costco special edition family size 1.5-liter glass bottle of vodka and carefully extracted 10 milliliters with a miniature glass pipette, which I then transferred into a small amber glass bottle. Then, with my nine-year-old son’s tiny set of school scissors, I snipped exactly 1/10 of LSD from the blotter square I’d ordered from a psychedelic research chemical supplier website the week prior, with a cloaked browser, of course, so the feds didn’t come knocking at my door. I dropped the LSD into the bottle, gave it a thirty-second shake, then placed the bottle in the pantry, next to my protein powder and creatine. I smiled. Within 24 hours, I’d be ready to sample my first homemade, volumetric “microdose” of a drug reported to increase lateral thinking patterns, improve creativity, massively boost productivity and much, much more.
So why do I, a good Christian kid from the backwoods of Idaho, spend time in my kitchen mixing up LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, ibogaine, synthetic DMT tabs and beyond – all while my children munch away at their scrambled eggs in the breakfast nook?
And why do I, on especially cognitively demanding days, stir my cup of coffee with a nicotine-coated toothpick, sneak a heaping spoonful of Lion’s Mane mushroom into a morning smoothie, or dump a packet of Chinese adaptogenic herbs into the pouches of my cheeks?
It all comes down to my personal investigation and exploration into how one can use a variety of compounds to enhance the mind, all while combining ancestral wisdom and herbs such as bacopa and gingko with modern science and tactics such as LSD and racetams. The fact is, I’ve taken a deep dive in the wonderful world of smart drugs, nootropics and psychedelics, and have had the opportunity to interview some of the brightest minds in this unique field of brain enhancement on my podcast. So in this article, I’ll spill the beans on it all, including how to navigate the oft-confusing world of smart drugs and nootropics, the best brain supplement stacks I’ve discovered and experimented with, how to procure and microdose psychedelics and much more.
Smart Drugs 101
Your co-worker in the cubicle next to you could now very likely be achieving his or her hyperfocus via a touch of microdosed LSD, a hit of huperzine or a nicotine-infused arm patch. The fact is, concepts such as microdosing, along with words like “nootropic” and “smart drug” (yes, there’s a difference between the two, as you’re about to discover) are quickly becoming household terms, especially due to all the recent media hype that has disclosed how popular compounds such as smart drugs and psychedelics are among Silicon Valley CEOs and college students, along with the smart drug movies “Limitless” and “Lucy“ and popular TV shows like “Limitless”, “Wormwood” and “Hamilton's Pharmacopeia”.
Why? Just think for a moment how much visual, auditory, and sensory information you’re exposed to and required to process every day. From constant background sounds to big city noise pollution, the phone ringing, artificial lighting, chemical-laden air fresheners circulating smells of fresh linen, electromagnetic fields piercing through your brain, the new procedure you have to learn at work, and a host of other sensory stimuli, the human brain has to organize and deal with this information all while keeping you upright and going. Although the brain has incredible skills and unimaginable capabilities, modern living creates unprecedented stress and sensory overload from all of the information that must be processed every single day. Sensory overload has even been shown to cause irritability, anxiety, mood swings, depression, ADHD, fibromyalgia, PTSD and chronic fatigue syndrome. The ability of your brain to continue learning, processing, and forming new neural connections is key to maintaining optimal brain health and longevity.
But before you go lock yourself in a dark, quiet room in order to prevent this overburden on your brain, you should know that there are scientifically researched compounds designed to amplify cognitive function and help your brain deal with this excess load, or simply get you through a period of sleep deprivation, increased creativity or work demands, the need to pull an all-nighter or an intense bout of work or study.
In fact, when combined into a variety of different supplement “stacks” and taken in the correct dosage, these compounds – usually referred to as either smart drugs or nootropics (but now also including the category of psychedelics) – can completely change how your brain performs, including impacting receptor sites for neurotransmitters, altering levels of enzymes that break down specific neurotransmitters, changing cell membrane structures and thus controlling the movement of molecules inside and outside of the cell, increasing cerebral perfusion, which improves blood flow to the brain, affecting what are called “biogenic processes”, including neuronal cell creation or “neurogenesis”, and neuroendocrine regulation, regulating hormonal processes of the body specifically related to cognition (See additional studies here, here, here and here.).
Obviously, as you can see, there are a host of benefits to the better living through science to be had through optimizing your brain with specific compounds. So, putting aside the intriguing topic of psychedelics for the moment (yes, yes, I know you probably want to know how to microdose with LSD or psilocybin), what’s the difference between a smart drug and a nootropic, and how do you choose which to take? You’re about to find out.
Smart Drugs 101
There are a number of smart drugs on the market, the most well-known of which are probably Adderall and Ritalin. Both are technically known as psychostimulants, which means that they stimulate increased activity of the central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord. There are also two other common smart drugs, specifically Modafinil and a class of something called “ampakines”. You’re about to learn how each of them works and the benefits and potential risks therein.
Methylphenidate was accepted into medical practice in 1960 as a way to treat narcolepsy and ADHD. It works by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine into the nervous system, causing a flooding of dopamine and norepinephrine in the synapse between the nerves, which in turn leads to amplified signaling between neurons. It’s been said that these effects are basically the same as those of amphetamines (see more details below), which are synthetic, addictive, mood-altering drugs, used illegally in sports as a stimulant and also legally as a prescription drug – like Ritalin – to treat children with ADD and adults with narcolepsy.
It is incredibly easy to abuse and become addicted to methylphenidate, and misuse is shockingly prevalent, even among so-called “non-affected” users: with students, biohackers, soccer moms and busy executives popping it – and many of the other smart drugs below – like candy. It’s also not all it’s cracked up to be. Side effects include insomnia, stomach ache, headache and anorexia. Overdoses (which may occur easily as it can be difficult to estimate and regulate dosage) can lead to agitation, hallucinations, psychosis, lethargy, seizures, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), dysrhythmia (irregular heart rhythms), hypertension and hyperthermia. Methylphenidate is particularly hazardous to developing brains, especially those of younger students who are frequently prescribed the drug or who – often in high school and college – use it without a prescription. The prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, is responsible for cognition, personality-expression and decision-making, and develops well into the mid-20s, at which point it takes over as the “rational” part of the brain. In the central nervous system, and particularly in the prefrontal cortex, dopamine levels must have a natural rise and fall in order for healthy rational processes (executive control) to develop. By influencing dopamine levels, methylphenidate can negatively impact this healthy cognitive development, especially when it is abused or used too frequently.
Modafinil (e.g., Provigil):
Modafinil is a stimulant specifically designed to reduce fatigue and sleepiness. It was approved for treatment of narcolepsy in 1998, and although the exact mechanism behind its effects is not fully understood, most research indicates that modafinil also works by inhibiting reuptake of dopamine, which produces effects similar to those of methylphenidate. It’s also believed that by inhibiting dopamine uptake, more acetylcholine (another neurotransmitter) is released by the hippocampus, which leads to improved cognitive performance, specifically memory.
Because modafinil works in a manner similar to methylphenidate, it also bears similar risks. The improper dosage or abuse of modafinil may lead to the disrupted development of executive controls like decision-making and working memory. Modafinil’s effects may also depend upon the IQ of the taker. Two university studies determined that in a test of sustained attention, modafinil only improved cognition in the group with “lower” IQs. Although safer than other stimulants due to its milder effect on neurotransmitter levels, there are still risks associated with any kind of drug that affects dopaminergic neurotransmission, mostly because this can lead to addiction and, similar to a pornography user who needs increasingly fringe porn to achieve the same effect, can produce a resistance or lowered sensitivity to dopamine.
Amphetamines (e.g., Adderall)
Amphetamines are synthetic stimulants and were first created in 1887. These are among the most powerful stimulant-based smart drugs in use and work primarily by targeting dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline/norepinephrine. Given what you’ve already learned about the dopaminergic effects of modafinil and methylphenidate, you should already be wary of amphetamines’ targeting of dopamine. Hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and histamine are known as monoamines, and amphetamines block their uptake by being taken up instead themselves by monoamine transporters. This leads to higher levels of monoamines in synapses, and consequently to the psychostimulant effects characteristic of drugs like Adderall.
Apart from the risks that accompany drugs with dopaminergic effects, amphetamines, even when used to treat neurological disorders like ADHD, have been known to frequently and predictably cause anorexia, weight loss and insomnia. High doses can cause psychotic behavior, and even normal doses have been known to produce psychosis that ranged from the loss of short-term memory to horrific visual and auditory hallucinations. Are you getting the impression that using synthetic stimulants to flood your brain short-term with excessive or unnaturally high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters may not be a good idea, especially when done frequently or in excess?
Ampakines (e.g., Alzheimer’s drugs)
Ampakines are structurally derived from a popular nootropic called “aniracetam”. Their basic function is to activate AMPA glutamate receptors (AMPARs). Glutamate (a neurotransmitter) is the primary mediator of excitatory synaptic transmission in mammalian brains, which makes it crucial for synaptic plasticity (the adaptation of synapses, the space between neurons across which information is sent), learning and memory, so when you activate or stimulate glutamate receptors, you can trigger many of these functions. AMPARs are distributed across the central nervous system and are stimulated by incoming glutamate to begin the neuroenhancing benefits they’re often used for. But it is possible to have too much glutamate activity. When excess glutamate is produced, accumulates and binds to AMPARs, the result is excitotoxicity, which is a state of cell death (in the case of the central nervous system and your brain, neuron death) resulting from the toxic levels of excitatory amino acids. Excitotoxicity is believed to play a major role in the development of various degenerative neurological conditions such as schizophrenia, delirium and dementia.
Ampakines bind to AMPARs to block uptake of glutamate, thereby increasing synaptic responses, and this has indeed been shown to minimize the effects of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Ampakines are also being studied as possible treatments for schizophrenia, depression, ADHD and more. But there is a huge risk associated with ampakine consumption. They are now tightly regulated because if you exceed a safe dosage, you will begin to suffer neuronal damage from glutamate toxicity, which leads to some of the very conditions that ampakines are thought to attenuate. Ampakine consumption can also lead to a decrease in long-term synaptic depression (LTD), a process by which specific synapses (the space between neurons across which information is sent) are intentionally weakened in order to avoid a plateau in the efficiency of your synapses. In other words, it allows your neurons and their connections to continue growing in efficiency. LTD is believed to be necessary for healthy synaptic plasticity (the adaptability of synapses), memory function and motor skills. To be honest, there is debate over whether cognitive functions like motor learning are truly dependent upon LTD, but it is possible that if you were to take a higher-than-recommended dose of an ampakine, the overstimulation that would result may lead to suppressed LTD and consequently to poor memory and motor function.
The fact is, many of these compounds in small amounts and less frequent use can be relatively safe, but as you’re probably not surprised to hear, I’m not 100% convinced of the overall long-term safety or efficacy of most smart drugs used frequently or in moderate to high dosages for the reasons stated above. It is true that some are slightly less risky than others and are increasing in popularity among biohackers and medical professionals. They’re also becoming used with high frequency by students, athletes and e-gamers, three populations for which smart drug “doping control” is becoming more frequently banned and considered to be illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, “brain doping” and “brain PED’s” (brain Performance Enhancing Drugs) are now a thing. But I’d consider carefully the use of smart drugs as daily go-to brain enhancing supplements, especially in light of the safer alternative you’re about to discover: the entire category of natural and synthetic nootropic compounds.
While I would consider the smart drugs above to be a modern, scientific, largely synthetic and somewhat risky strategy to boost brain function, I classify nootropics as the complete opposite: a blend of ancestral wisdom and time-honored traditional herbs and extracts for cognitive enhancement.
Sure, you could certainly swallow too much St. John’s Wort and create the same type of serotonin or neurotransmitter issues you could create with a synthetic smart drug, but it’s far more difficult to harm yourself with a nootropic compared to a synthetic smart drug. Although synthetic, laboratory-designed nootropics do indeed exist, even those are not as harsh on the biology as a smart drug and have a mechanism of action that is a bit more natural. Let’s begin with the more natural nootropics.
Herbs and plants have been used for cognitive enhancement for at least 5,000 years in Indian and Chinese medicine, long before the first synthetic nootropic was created. The practice of Indian Ayurvedic medicine includes the use of a group of nootropic plants known as Medhya Rasayana, the four primary plants of which are Mandukaparni, Yastimadhu, Duduchi and Shankhapushpi, though other lesser known plants are also used. One of the most common supplements in Ayurvedic medicine is Brahmi, known scientifically as “Bacopa monnieri” or “B. monnieri “ and more commonly as water hyssop, Thyme-leaved Gratiola, herb of grace or Indian pennywort. It is named after Lord Brahma, the creator God and originator of Ayurveda, and has been used for centuries to treat disorders ranging from pain and epilepsy to inflammation and memory dysfunction. The exact mechanism behind its action is not fully understood, but it is believed to promote antioxidant activity as well as protect neurons in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and corpus striatum against cytotoxicity and DNA damage associated with Alzheimer’s. The prefrontal cortex is critical in rational, social and personality behavior, the hippocampus is believed to be the seat of memory and the autonomic nervous system and the striatum play a role in the reward system of action, so the protection Brahmi provides is extremely helpful in preventing the degeneration of many important cognitive faculties. An effective dose ranges from 300 to 450 mg per day. Winter cherry (ashwagandha) is another well-known Ayurvedic supplement that can promote improved cognitive development, memory and intelligence and reduce the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. The optimal dose is 6,000 mg per day divided into three 2,000 mg doses. Aloeweed (shankhpushpi) is also used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory and intellect as well as treat hypertension, epilepsy and diabetes. Effective doses for most neuroenhancing benefits range as high as 40 g per day.
Celastrus paniculatus, also known as the Intellect Tree, is perhaps one of the more interesting Ayurvedic medicinal plants that has been used for thousands of years, and one that I personally use quite frequently as part of the supplement “Qualia Mind”. In the Ayurvedic tradition, oil derived from C. paniculatus (Malkanguni oil) is used to enhance memory and intellectual capacity, as well as to improve dream recall and induce lucid dreams. In a study performed on healthy rats, the oil was shown to improve 24-hour memory retention after a single dose, an effect accompanied by a reduction in monoamines like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, indicating a decreased turnover of these neurotransmitters which, in turn, may aid in reducing conditions like depression. In another study with rats, C. paniculatus oil administered for 14 days reversed stress-induced spatial learning and memory impairment and restored working memory. In mice with scopolamine-induced memory deficits, the oil has been shown to improve both spatial and fear memory (a type of fear conditioning through which an organism learns to avoid detrimental situations or events). Traditionally, is taken in seed form, starting with 10 seeds and working up to 15 and finally 20 seeds.
Traditional Chinese medicine also has a long, well-established relationship with nootropic herbs and plants. One of the most popular and well-known is ginkgo biloba, derived from the Chinese maidenhair tree, a relic of the ancient world. The maidenhair tree is the last living species of the division Ginkgophyta>. Some believe that the name ginkgo is a misspelling of the original Japanese gin kyo, meaning “silver apricot”. It’s seen as a symbol of longevity and vitality and is known to be effective at stimulating the growth of new neurons. Researchers have demonstrated that ginkgo flavonoids, the main constituents in ginkgo extract, provide potent anti-Alzheimer’s effects via antioxidant activity in the brains of mice and also stabilize and improve the cognitive performance of Alzheimer patients for 6 months to 1 year. Effective doses range from 120 to 240 mg one to four hours before performance, and for older adults, doses range from 40 to 120 mg three times a day.
Another traditional Chinese brain booster is Danggui-Shaoyao-San (DSS). It has been suggested that DSS has potent beneficial angiogenesis and neurogenesis effects that may make it a potential treatment for ischemic stroke therapy. DSS is also known to beneficially impact free radical-mediated neurological diseases, exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities and reduce cell death in the hippocampus, thereby promoting greater emotional, memory-related and autonomic nervous system function. Currently, there is limited research on proper dosage, but you can learn more about DSS in this fantastic summary article on it's interplay with Alzheimer's.
Other Traditional Nootropics From Around the World
Much to the chagrin of folks who argue that our ancestors would never have taken a supplement, especially one that affects cognition, the fact is many other cultures from around the world have traditionally used nootropic plants as well. Here a few examples:
- Maca root has been used by indigenous people groups in South America for thousands of years. It’s part of the mustard family found primarily in Andean regions and some of its primary uses include improving sexual function, memory and learning as well as reducing the effects of osteoporosis. The standard effective dose ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 mg.
- Yerba mate is a tea made from a plant of the holly family and is consumed by many tribes across South America. It has been shown to improve cholesterol, protect the liver and stimulate great central nervous system activity. Typical doses range from 990 mL to 1.5 L of tea per day.
- Green tea is widely drunk in many cultures, especially in Asia, and is known to have potent health benefits. These benefits are attributed to its polyphenol content (particularly the flavanols and flavonols). In cell cultures and animal studies, the polyphenols have been proven to prevent neurotoxin-induced cell injury. Green tea also has anti-inflammatory properties and, according to a study performed on aged mice, may delay memory regression. It’s safe to drink several cups of green tea per day, though it may be more efficacious to take a green tea extract supplement to reach a daily dose of 400 to 500 mg of EGCG, one of the main active components of green tea.
Perhaps the most well-known natural nootropic stimulant and neuroenhancer is caffeine. Caffeine has been shown to prevent memory deficits in experimental models of Alzheimer’s disease and may even restore memory following impairment. In studies performed with college students, caffeine was shown to have particularly potent effects on memory improvement during students’ non-optimal time of day, in this case, early in the morning. Caffeine’s benefits go even further because it’s never found in an isolated vacuum in nature, meaning that it’s always located in some kind of plant such as green tea or bean such as coffee that carry additional beneficial compounds which often enhance the effects of caffeine, including, most notably, certain cholesterols, polyphenols and antioxidants. In fact, one study determined that caffeine alone does not account for the benefits caused by coffee consumption. Rather, the phytochemical content of coffee (coffee contains over 1,000 different natural chemicals!) gives it potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that complement the neuroprotective effects of caffeine on the central nervous system.
When dosing caffeine, there are a couple factors to consider. First, some people are slow caffeine metabolizers. Slow caffeine metabolizers have difficulty handling caffeine, and often it’s better for them not to consume caffeine at all. But generally speaking, effective doses range from 60 to 100 mg.
By the way, before we move on, allow me to clarify what I mean by “slow caffeine metabolizer”. Ever wondered why your co-worker can slam four giant mugs of coffee during a brief morning of work, while one shot of espresso leaves you jittery and irritated? Turns out that not everyone metabolizes caffeine the same. Generally speaking, in healthy adults, caffeine has a half-life that ranges from about 3 to 7 hours. For example, if the half-life of caffeine in your blood is 5 hours, that means that it takes 5 hours for caffeine levels to be reduced by 50%. Then it takes another 5 hours for that amount to be reduced by 50%. While caffeine metabolism time also depends upon age and environmental factors, a big influence on varying caffeine half-life times is your genetic makeup.
Caffeine metabolism is primarily determined by the cytochrome enzyme P-450 1A2 (CYP1A2), and studies have shown that different ethnic populations exhibit widely varying expressions of the gene responsible for CYP1A2. Evidence suggests that a particular CYP1A2 impacts caffeine consumption by modifying the risks of certain diseases that are associated with caffeine consumption. It has also been shown that variations in the expression of genes that code for adenosine and dopamine receptors play a role in mediating your response to caffeine. For example, in Caucasians, the presence of certain genetic expressions for both adenosine and dopamine receptors is associated with caffeine-induced anxiety. Variations in CYP1A2 are also responsible for the speed at which different people metabolize caffeine.
If you are a slow caffeine metabolizer and consume too much caffeine, you run the risk of mild to severe complications, such as cardiovascular disease. There’s also the sleep disruption problem of having too much caffeine left in your bloodstream late in the day as a result of a longer caffeine half-life, a problem not faced by fast caffeine metabolizers (it’s so unfair if you love your cup of joe, right?). In addition, fast caffeine metabolizers actually run a reduced risk of cardiovascular complications if they consume at least one cup of coffee per day. While anyone can be a slow caffeine metabolizer, there are certain ethnic backgrounds that are indeed associated with slower and faster caffeine metabolisms. For example, it’s known that people with Asian and African ethnic backgrounds generally have slower rates of caffeine metabolism. To find out if you’re a fast or slow caffeine metabolizer, you can have a relatively inexpensive salivary genetic test performed by a company like 23andme and then use the online dashboard to jump straight to your CYP1A2 gene. When you’re there, you type into the search bar “rs762551”. If your rs762551 SNP variant is AA, then you’re a fast caffeine metabolizer, but if your variant is AC or CC, you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer. Fortunately, many genetic testing companies will now simply report directly on your results whether you’re a slow or fast metabolizer, without you needing to go through the SNP searching trouble.
Nicotine has been shown to improve working memory, and research has also demonstrated that oral consumption of nicotine enhances memory consolidation in perceptual learning by enhancing the efficacy of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and thereby enhancing the overall cholinergic system, which modulates memory formation. In other words, nicotine consumption improves the efficiency of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter) receptors and, thus, improves the part of the nervous system that regulates healthy memory function. Some research also indicates that psychiatric populations suffering from cognitive deficits (such as patients suffering from schizophrenia) may enjoy even greater neuroprotection from nicotine consumption than healthy individuals. You may be concerned about using nicotine given its potential as an addictive substance. Well, nicotine plays a dual role in the brain by simultaneously promoting addiction and enhancing cognition. In fact, the processes are closely linked through the pathways by which they work. That means that when it comes to dosing nicotine, it’s all about moderation. Because nicotine can be easily abused and has high addictive potential, when using nicotine for cognitive enhancement, you must be precise with dosage and conscious of the amount you use. Studies have shown that moderate doses of nicotine typically produce cognitive enhancement, but very high doses can actually impair cognitive performance. A moderate dose would look something like 2-4 milligrams administered over 20-30 minutes, a dose easily available in the form of nicotine gum or spray. Later in this article, I’ll fill you in on my own personal dosage and use of nicotine.
The realm of natural nootropics is also accompanied by a family of synthetic nootropics called racetams, most notably piracetam and aniracetam. Piracetam is known to directly enhance learning, memory and attention and, with no observed adverse side effects, can restore cognitive performance in patients who have suffered cranial trauma, inflammation, strokes and ischemic complications following coronary bypass surgery. It can also improve symptoms of delirium and reduce depression and anxiety. In adults, the standard dose of piracetam ranges from 1,200 to 4,800 mg, often broken up into three smaller doses throughout the day. Aniracetam has been shown to concentration-dependently counteract cell death induced by excitotoxicity caused by glutamate, resulting in an overall neuroprotective effect. While you may not be shoveling mouthfuls of glutamate down your hatch or eating cartonsful of MSG-containing Chinese food each night, the same mechanism of action can help protect your brain from excitotoxicity or inflammation caused by other central nervous system irritants, such as toxins, chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, rancid oils, etc. Effective doses of aniracetam range from a single 400 mg dose to two doses per day between 500 and 750 mg, taken with meals.
Other somewhat popular synthetic nootropics include:
–Noopept, which has the ability to increase memory and attention, protect the brain, and reduce depression and anxiety. Noopept also acts similarly to Racetam to improve overall brain function. The standard dose is 10 to 30 mg per day.
-Phenylethylamine, which regulates neurons that improve mood and cognition and also increases attention and concentration. Also known as the “love drug,” it has been shown to heighten feelings of arousal, excitement, and euphoria. There is little research on a recommended dose, but some sources recommend from 300 to 1,000 mg.
-Uridine Monophosphate, which enhances learning, memory and overall cognitive function. Effective doses range from 500 to 1,000 mg per day.
-Phosphatidylserine, which occurs naturally in high concentrations in the brain and has been shown to lower stress, cortisol and physical fatigue, improve attention-deficit and forgetfulness and increase mental processing and memory. Research indicates an effective dose of 100 mg three times daily, but anything over that may lead to adverse side effects like insomnia.
-Hordenine HCl, which occurs in high amounts in different plants such as barley grass and is known for its fat-burning effects, increased energy, alertness, concentration, and metabolism. There is currently insufficient evidence to make any claim about proper dosage.
-Vinpocetine, which has the ability to protect the brain against toxins, increases blood flow in the brain, reduces inflammation, increases attention, memory, and alertness, and decreases fatigue. It has a daily dosage range of 15 to 60 mg per day, divided into three doses taken with meals.
Understanding when and how to use these synthetic nootropics can get confusing, and for these reasons, I recommend sticking to the research-proven “stacks” and supplements you’ll learn about later in this article, which elegantly combines many of these nootropics in the proper amounts and ratios.
The Best Brain-Boosting Stacks
There are over a thousand websites and hundreds of reference guides chock full of complicated methods for combining many of the compounds you’ve just discovered. There’s a reason for this: the practice of “stacking” nootropics and smart drugs into specific combinations can be far more powerful and efficacious than consuming a single, lonely compound in isolation. For example, dosing choline sources with your morning coffee can make your brain feel fresh for hours or mixing curcumin with black pepper can dramatically amp up the neural anti-inflammatory effects of both compounds. Ultimately, a teaspoon of lion’s mane extract just isn’t as titillating as lion’s mane blended with caffeine, theanine, nicotine and a touch of vinpocetine.
Take the synthetic nootropic piracetam, for example. Since piracetam has been shown to improve cell membrane function and cause a host of neuroprotective effects, when combined with other cell membrane stabilizing supplements such as choline and DHA, the brain cells on piracetam can better signal and relay messages to each other for a longer period of time, which improves cognition and brain activity and decreases risk of a crash. So one example of an intelligent “stack” is piracetam taken with choline and DHA.
However, as a result of the efficacy of this type of stacking, the supplement world is saturated with brain-boosting blends, and it can be difficult to cut through the confusion and figure out what really works and what could be a waste of time and money, or downright dangerous. The fact is, when creating your own stack, you must carefully think about your specific needs and goals. For example, if you want to reduce anxiety and depression, but don’t necessarily care to enhance your cognitive performance or get through a day of work in a sleep-deprived state, you could just stick to a single nootropic that increases dopamine levels, such as Mucuna pruriens or tryptophan. Or if you wanted to reduce anxiety and depression while simultaneously improving your memory because you’re studying for a school or work exam, you could add Bacopa monnieri to the mucuna or tryptophan. Then, let’s say you want long-term cognitive performance to the mix that lasts an entire day: in this case, you’d add a racetam, and to avoid an end of day crash, a touch of choline or DHA. It’s a bit like cooking in the kitchen, isn’t it?
But if experimentation and using your nogging as an N=1 isn’t your thing, I’m going to spill the beans on the best stacks and done-for-you supplement blend I’ve personally used: the tried-and-true mixes that combine the ultimate in efficacy and safety with no nasty crashes or excess jitters, and specifically, the blends I’ve personally used.
Caffeine + Nicotine:
As you are no doubt well aware, coffee and cigarettes have long been a popular combination. Ah, nostalgia. Just think back to the 1950's and the man in the suit perfectly pairing his black brew with a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth as he enjoyed the Sunday paper or rocked on a lazy afternoon out on the family patio. Heck, there's even a movie called “Coffee and Cigarettes” and a song called “Cigarettes & Coffee” (in the former, you can see Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and Cate Blanchett partaking in their fair share of smoking and sipping).
Aside from the obvious pleasure some derive from this traditional combo, are there any actual benefits to simultaneously smoking and drinking coffee? One study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health definitely concludes that the answer is yes. In the study, researchers analyzed 497 men and women with confirmed cases of papilloma, carcinoma and polyps of the bladder. All study participants, along with 1,113 control cases, were interviewed to determine the use of tobacco, exposure to secondhand smoke and coffee drinking.
Turns out, when compared with smokers who drank coffee regularly, non-coffee drinkers had twice as much of the cell damage associated with tobacco use. In addition, the smokers who didn’t consume coffee were up to seven times more likely to be affected by the same cancer as nonsmokers. Regular smokers who drank coffee fewer than two times each week had double the chances of developing cancer compared to those who drank coffee frequently. So ultimately, coffee-drinking cigarette-puffers have some kind of health advantage over their smoking counterparts who don't drink coffee.
Of course, as you can probably imagine, the antioxidant content of coffee (which you'll learn how to maximize below) may not be the only smoking savior here. And no, it's not the tobacco and nasty chemicals in a cigarette that's working the magic: as other studies have gone on to prove, it's the nicotine folks – and the nicotine is pretty powerful stuff, not only enhancing locomotor and cognitive performance when combined with coffee but also ramping up exercise performance by 18-21% all on its own!
So how do I pull off this stack? It’s quite simple, really. I order 1-milligram nicotine toothpicks on Amazon that I suck on when I’m downing a cup of coffee (the cinnamon flavor blends quite nicely with a cup o’ joe) and I also keep a dispenser of 1.5-milligram nicotine mints in my office. Warning: nicotine can be addictive. I recommend limiting yourself to no more than 1-2 toothpicks and 1-2 mints per day, and only using on more cognitively demanding days. As a bonus, both caffeine and nicotine are potent ergogenic, physical performance-enhancing aids (albeit in higher amounts, closer to 100+ milligrams for caffeine and 2.5+ milligrams for nicotine).
Caffeine + L-Theanine: Since caffeine can produce unwanted side effects in high amounts (such as jitteriness and headaches), most people, and especially “slow caffeine oxidizers” find that by adding L-Theanine to a caffeine source such as coffee, any negative side effects of caffeine can be controlled. Caffeine and L-Theanine in combination have been researched and proven to boost concentration, attention, and energy while reducing anxiety. For this stack, use a ratio of four parts L-Theanine to one part caffeine, such as 400 milligrams of L-Theanine along with 100 milligrams of caffeine. You may want to start out with a smaller dose such as 200 milligrams of L-Theanine and 50 milligrams of caffeine and work your way up to find the best dose for you (the average cup of coffee has about 100mg of caffeine).
The beauty of this stack is that nature has already given us a perfectly packaged combination of caffeine and theanine in the form of green tea, whether a cup of green tea, a bowl of matcha tea, or even a green tea extract supplement as a substitute for a cup of coffee. This is an especially convenient stack to use during a time when you don’t want the excess stimulation of coffee or caffeine in isolation, such as during an evening dinner at a restaurant or in the latter stages of a workday when a cup of coffee might keep you awake too late into the night.
Caffeine, Tulsi and Astragalus: Tulsi is one of the greatest calming adaptogens that exists, trusted and revered for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine and culture. Tulsi has been researched and shown to uplift mood, support digestion, and promote balanced energy. Because it’s also an anxiolytic (causes anti-anxiety effects) tulsi, similar to coffee with L-theanine, does a good job balancing out any over-stimulating effects of the caffeine in coffee. But you can also take things one step further and blend in astragalus, which, in Chinese medicine, is considered a “strong” Ki invigorating herb that provides a stable source of non-crashing energy. Astragalus also contains an enormous variety of saponins, flavonoids, and polysaccharides, and is considered to be a “longevity adaptogen”. Pairing with antioxidant-rich coffee and tulsi produces a match made in longevity heaven. For this blend, which I often use if drinking coffee in the afternoon, I’m a fan of the Four Sigmatic Adaptogen Blend, which contains coffee, astragalus, tulsi and cinnamon.
By the way, since I'll throw around the term a few more times in this article, I should probably clarify what an adaptogen actually is. The actual name adaptogen gives some hint as to what these fascinating compounds do: they help you to adapt, specifically by stimulating a physiological adaptive response to some mild, hormesis-like stressor. A process known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS) was first described by the 20th-century physician and organic chemist Hans Selye, who defined GAS as the body’s response to the demands placed upon it. When these demands are excessive and consistent, it can result in the common deleterious symptoms now associated with long-term exposure to chronic stress. GAS is comprised of an alarm stage (characterized by a burst of energy), a resistance stage (characterized by resistance or adaptation to the stressor), and – in the case of excessive and chronic stress – an exhaustion stage (characterized by energy depletion). Adaptogens are plant-derived compounds capable of modulating these phases of GAS by either downregulating stress reactions in the alarm phase or inhibiting the onset of the exhaustion phase, thus providing some degree of protection against damage from stress.
Adaptogens are also known to participate in regulating homeostasis through helping to beneficially regulate the mechanisms of action associated with the HPA-axis (think back to the importance of proper HPA-axis function which you learned about in my last article on breathwork), including cortisol regulation and nitric oxide regulation. Through these mechanisms, they can protect against chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative cognitive impairment, metabolic disorders, cancer and other aging-related diseases. There are plenty of adaptogens with potent benefits, but the ones you learn about in this article are an excellent start to begin building or expanding your stress-adaptation toolbox.
Ginkgo Biloba, Bacopa Monnieri, and Lion’s Mane: This particular unique blend boosts mental focus, memory, learning, and cognitive performance while reducing anxiety and depression, and I’ve found that it can significantly boost mental alertness for around six hours at a time without any jitteriness or irritability – or any significant amounts of caffeine. It’s important to allow for a grace period of about 12 weeks before you feel the stack’s full potential, so don’t expect immediate results with this combination.
A common dose for this combination is 500 milligrams per day of Lion’s Mane, 240 milligrams per day of Ginkgo Biloba, and 100 milligrams twice per day of Bacopa Monnieri. Consider buying each ingredient in bulk to have stock and experiment with. If you are not experiencing positive results after 12 weeks, try adjusting the dosages in small increments. For example, you can start by adjusting Bacopa Monnieri to 150 milligrams twice per day for a couple weeks. Be patient: the end result is worth the trial and error.
Artichoke + Forskolin: There is plenty of evidence that suggests artichoke extract supplements (made from the leaves of artichokes) offer strong neural antioxidant properties. Additionally, Forskolin (Coleus forskohlii) is one of the few studied compounds known to naturally boost cAMP (Cyclic Adenosine Monophosphate) in your brain and is also important for neural signaling within brain cells (291m 292). I’ve experienced noticeably enhanced memory and word recall when consuming this combo. Tim Ferriss talked about this one a bit in my podcast with him, particularly referencing its presence in the somewhat popular cognition supplement “CILTEP”. Made primarily from artichoke extracts and forskolin, CILTEP is a stack that also contains vitamin B6, L-phenylalanine and acetyl-L-carnitine. It is recommended to take two to three capsules at the beginning of each day and to skip dosage one or two days per week to achieve optimal results.
Alpha GPC + AC-11 + Bacopa Monniera + Huperzine: This combination is found in the supplement Alpha Brain, created by the company Onnit. According to a clinical trial that was conducted by the Boston Center for Memory, this combination has demonstrated a notable increase in cognitive performance for healthy individuals and shows particular potential to boost the memory and learning capacity of users. AC-11 is derived from a rainforest herb, and studies have found that it may be able to help people in a variety of ways such as slowing the growth of cancer due to its DNA repairing antioxidant properties. This stack seems to work best if you take it daily for at about two weeks. After that, effects become more pronounced over time, so, similar to the Gingko, Bacopa, Lion’s Mane stack above you need to allow this blend to build up in your system before you judge its overall effectiveness.
TianChi Chinese Adaptogenic Herb Complex: The list of herbs and ingredients in the supplement TianChi is far too long to include here, but in short, it contains nearly every natural Chinese adaptogen and natural nootropic you’ve read about so far in this article. So when it comes to a purely non-synthetic approach to mental enhancement, this blend tops the totem pole. All of the herbs in TianChi are wildcrafted (gathering of plants from their native “wild” environment) or organic, non-GMO, Kosher Certified, non-irradiated and pesticide free, then formulated in small batches by a Chinese herbal medicine practitioner in Oregon. The herbs are extracted in purified water and test free of heavy metals. Most adaptogens purchased in today’s market are standardized 5:1 extract; meaning that it takes five pounds of herb to make one pound of extract. This is not always effective as some herbs may have to extract out at 10:1 in order to gain their natural strength. In contrast, the adaptogens in TianChi are extracted at a 45:1 ratio, making this one of the more potent blends out there. Strangely enough, I’ve found the brain-boosting effects of TianChi to be even more enhanced when consumed with beet juice or beet powder, probably due to the vasodilation effect of the beets. This is one of my favorite blends to mix up on a mid-morning or mid-afternoon an empty stomach for a very clear-headed cognitive high.
Qualia: Like TianChi, the nootropic blend Qualia is a “shotgun” approach, providing over forty-two different ingredients, including a host of herbal adaptogens, brain vitamins, amino acids, choline donors, anti-inflammatories and antioxidants too long to list here (you can view the full ingredient profile here). Unlike TianChi, it also contains synthetic nootropic “noopept”, which has about 1,000 times the potency of piracetam, along with a few other helpful ingredients, including curcumin and bioperine, and slightly higher amounts of caffeine. It also requires two daily dosing protocols: with the first dose taken on an empty stomach and the second with a meal (for those compounds better absorbed with food). For those who prefer to skip on the synthetic nootropic, get most of the compounds at slightly lower price point (Qualia is admittedly quite expensive at $150 for the two dosing bottles), and also get the addition of the Indian plant you learned about earlier called “Celastrus paniculatus”, there is a very similar supplement made by the same manufacturer called “Qualia Mind”.
Feeling overwhelmed? It’s not as complex as you might think. At the end of this chapter, I’ll reveal a sample week in my life of implementing these types of supplements in a simple and sustainable way. But first: I’d be remiss not to mention the latest darlings on the mind-enhancing industry: psychedelics.
You’ve no doubt heard that we’re now entering a new golden age of psychedelics, and microdosing with LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and other compounds previously placed in the realm of party animals and rave enthusiasts is now commonplace for CEO’s, the Navy SEALs, famous authors and beyond. You no longer have to be a tree-hugging, anti-war rebel to achieve the many positive health benefits of psychedelics. My own personal experience with these compounds has spanned several years of quarterly heavy psilocybin and DMT dosages for personal self-discovery, weekly LSD microdoses for creativity and productivity, and iboga microdosing for a pre-workout boost.
Microdosing involves ingesting small amounts of psychedelics to induce a very subtle physical and mental effect accompanied by a very noticeable, overall positive, health effect. When you take a microdose of a psychedelic, it is typically referred to as a sub-perceptual dose. A sub-perceptual dose will not have a major impact on your ability to function normally, but the effect will definitely be present in your mood and behavior. The microdose of a particular psychedelic is correlated to the lowest dose that will produce a noticeable effect, which is also known as the threshold dose. Since the goal is not to get a hallucinogenic effect, a microdose can be well below the psychedelics threshold dose. By integrating the correct doses of psychedelics into your weekly routine, you can achieve higher creativity levels, more energy, improved mood, increased focus, and better relational skills. There is a growing body of research that shows microdosing to improve depression, anxiety, PTSD, and emotional imbalance, help with alcohol and tobacco addiction, and decrease ADD and ADHD behaviors.
Microdosing With Psilocybin: Psilocybin, AKA “magic mushrooms”, are naturally occurring fungi, with over 180 different species and research from archaeologist evidence has shown that humans have been using psilocybin mushrooms for over 7,000 years. I’ve personally found microdoses of psilocybin, AKA “magic mushrooms”, to be best for nature immersions, hiking, journaling or self-discovery. Psilocybin primarily interacts with the serotonin receptors in the brain and has been used in therapeutic settings to treat disorders such as headaches, anxiety, depression, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorders (See additional studies here, here, here and here). There is limited data to show any adverse drug interactions with the use of psilocybin, and liver function, blood sugar, and hormonal regulation all appear to be unaffected during consumption (although it is best to avoid alcohol and any serotonin-based antidepressants while taking any psychedelics) (See studies here, here and here). A microdose of psilocybin is generally between 0.2 grams and .5 grams, and I’d highly recommend you start on the low end of the dosage range with these or any of the psychedelics mentioned here.
Microdosing with LSD: LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is derived from a chemical in rye fungus. It was originally synthesized in 1938 to aid in childbirth and is widely known for its powerful hallucinogenic effects, but less well known for what I personally use it for: inducing intense sparks of creativity when a merging of the left and right brain hemispheres is the desired goal, such as a day on which I need to do a great deal of creative writing or copywriting. It also works quite well for keeping you “chugging along” on a sleep deprived or jet-lagged day. Similar to psilocybin, LSD affects serotonin levels in the body. By deactivating serotonin mechanisms, brain levels of serotonin are dramatically increased after a dose of LSD, which also causes a “feel good” dopamine release. It is thought that LSD may reduce the blood flow to the control centers of the brain, which weaken their activity, allowing for a heightened brain connection. This enhancement in brain connectivity is most likely why users experience increased creativity and unique thought patterns. Therapeutic effects of LSD include treating addiction, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches, end-of-life anxiety, resistant behavior change, and increase reaction time, concentration, balance, mood, and pain perception (See additional studies here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). A typical microdose of LSD is between 5 and 20 micrograms. My own approach for using LSD is quite simple and is called the “volumetric dosing” method. I purchase a blotter paper of LSD or P-LSD, then cut out 100 micrograms with scissors and drop one square tab into a 10-milliliter dropper bottle of vodka. I then know that a single drop of the liquid contains a neat 10 micrograms of LSD, and don’t risk the inaccurate dosing so notoriously associated with simply cutting out and placing the blotter paper into the mouth. Interestingly, I’ve found that if you take slightly too much LSD, a small dose of CBD (e.g. 10-20 milligrams) seems to knock the edge off.
Microdosing with Iboga: Native to the rainforests in Central Africa, Iboga is an evergreen shrub, with high concentrations found in the root bark. It has a rich history amongst practitioners in the indigenous Bwiti religion in Africa and has recently found its way into Western practices, primarily for extremely effective therapy for drug addictions, but also for physical energy, cognitive performance in smaller microdoses, and a surge in positive emotions (See additional studies here and here.). To microdose with Iboga, you will want to find it in tincture or root bark form (the root bark form is typically encapsulated). If using a tincture, find a source that has the root bark extracted into its purest form, combined with Iboga alkaloids, which keeps the full spectrum of the plant untouched. Just a single drop of an Iboga tincture equates to about 0.5 milligrams and suffices as a microdose. For the root bark of Iboga, a dose of 300-500 milligrams is also an effective dose. I’ve personally found Iboga to be most useful prior to a workout or an effort that combines both brain and body demands, such as tennis or basketball – but it makes you hyperactive and jittery if taken prior to a day of desk work. This makes sense when you consider that African tribes traditionally whipped themselves into a frenzied pre-battle state on Iboga.
Microdosing with Ketamine: Ketamine is a general anesthetic that is most commonly used on animals but ironically was originally devised for and tested on humans. Users of ketamine have claimed increased compassion and sensitivity to others, an increase in joy of life, and a reduced fear around death. Finding your ideal microdose of ketamine can be tricky, so it is important to start just a bit below the recommended doses. Taking ketamine sublingually (under the tongue) is the most effective and direct route of administration, and a sublingual microdose is about .75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, although you can get a significant mood enhancement with as little as 0.2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. I’d recommend that you never mix ketamine with any drugs that depress breathing such as alcohol, opioids, and tramadol, as it is an extremely calming agent that can produce a heavy sedative effect if you’re not careful or if you combine it with other sedative-like compounds. I’ve found a microdose of ketamine to be best combined with a trip to a float tank, or any other environment that involves sensory deprivation and introspection.
Of course, before wrapping up this section on psychedelics, I'll address the topics of where to actually buy the stuff. There are a variety of websites that sell psychedelics, but not all ingredient, chemical or quality sourcing is created equal, nor is there any guarantee that any substance you are purchasing is not laced with undesirable compounds. Heck, I get my psilocybin from a farmer in Wisconsin who is a personal friend, and other ingredients from close acquaintances who have their own sources. I know it may seem unfair, but sometimes sourcing comes down to “who ya know” and doing your own due diligence on that person's source.
However, I've personally found the following three resources to be quite helpful when selecting a source for psychedelics:
1) The Third Wave website. At TheThirdWave.co/psychedelics/, you can find a host of valuable information on dosing, sourcing, safety, best practices and an entire instructional course on microdosing. Incidentally, here is my very recent podcast with the folks at Third Wave.
2) Reddit. The Reddit thread on sourcing psychedelics can be found at DiscoverKi.com/RedditPsychedelics.
3) Lysergi.com. A play on the term used for LSD like compounds called “lysergamides”, Lysergi is a fantastic website for sourcing synthetic versions of 1P-LSD, ALD-52, ETH-LAD, AL-LAD, 4-AcO-DMT and many other “research chemicals” that are “not sold for human consumption” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
For most of the psychedelic purchases you make online, you'll need some form of cryptocurrency such Bitcoin and, in most cases, if you want to remain anonymous, a cloaked or “tor” browser.
Summary & A Sample Week
Feeling a bit of paralysis by analysis with all these different mind-altering methods? Seem like too many choices? Fear not: here's a simple example of how I personally weave all these compounds together into a week:
Every day: Cup of black coffee in the morning. Any coffee consumed after noon has either tulsi and astragalus or L-theanine added to it. If I’m using coffee to plow through a very demanding day or a period of sleep deprivation, I occasionally combine it with nicotine.
M/T/W: I’ll often dose with Qualia for these busier days of the week during which intense work demands arise, especially if I need faster word recall or brain processing speed (e.g. I’m being interviewed for a podcast, speaking on stage, etc.)
Th/S: These tend to be less busy days. I take TianChi if I need a gentle boost of blood flow, along with a bit of brain TLC to keep neural inflammation at bay. If I’m doing more intense studying, reading or memorizing, I’ll often mix Lion's Mane into my coffee, or drink it straight with hot water or green tea.
F: This is a creative writing, problem-solving and brainstorming day for which I often microdose with 10-20 micrograms of LSD in the morning to enhance my left and right brain hemispheric coordination.
Sat: This is my “off-day”: no stimulants aside from a nice hot cup of coffee.
Sun: This is a day I devote to spiritual disciplines and deep personal exploration, along with a hefty dose of neurogenesis, and for a day such as this, I’ll use a more potent neuron sprouting and ego-dissolving mix – most notably a blend of psilocybin microdose with Lion’s Mane extract and niacin (if the skin flush and increased blood flow from niacin tends to be too much for you, you can also use “nicotinamide riboside”, a form of vitamin B3 that has similar effects without the flushing).
While you may not find yourself mixing an LSD homebrew in your kitchen anytime soon, a bit of better living through science may be exactly what you need to upgrade your productivity, creativity and overall cognitive performance. You’re now equipped with every shred of knowledge necessary to do so, whether you choose a risky smart drug approach, a natural nootropic approach, a synthetic nootropic approach, or a blend of all three.
Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for me about smart drugs or nootropics? Leave your comments below and I will reply!