EAT: Nootropics

GarpenBrain*Hack your brain for improved performance in the gym.

Photo by Garpenholm

*Throughout law school, I experimented with different methods for improving performance on exams.  I used standard memory hacks like mnemonics.  But, I also recorded outlines for courses, then played them back while isolated in a tanning booth (exposure to high levels of light during the winter months is a mood enhancer).  Immediately before an exam, I would do handstand pushups to get blood flowing to my brain.  When studying for the Texas bar, I took 500 mg of Niacin before each morning study session.  Before each afternoon study session, I drank a cup of brain tea (a blend of tea with ginkgo biloba).

*Did these efforts to hack my mental performance work…was I overclocking my brain…maybe.  My study partner Jay and I worked for hours before exams and the Texas bar.  We did not just review the material, we studied actively by taking practice exams under exam conditions, using a timer and when available, the classroom the exam would be given in.  Niacin and gingko biloba were not substitutes for hard work.

*Nootropics are substances which enhance memory and cognition.  Improvements in brain performance are derived from increased availability of neurochemicals, improved flow of oxygen to the brain, or by stimulating nerve growth.  In the example above, gingko biloba and niacin are both vasodilators, which increase oxygen flow to the brain (500 mg of niacin has my face tingling and flushed as the blood vessels in my head open up).  The most famous nootropics are the racetam family of drugs, which improve the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Piracetam is the best known and most tested of these.  It is available for purchase as a supplement.

*The nervous system is a key component in physical performance.  Improved concentration helps you focus on the skill portion of your workout.  Elevated mood means greater effort.  A healthy nervous system strengthens the connection between nerves and muscles and improves the flow of information necessary for muscle growth.

*Meditating before a race or getting fired up with your team before heading onto the field are designed to improve physical performance by focusing concentration or elevating mood.  Nootropics can have similar effects.  Of course, the benefits gained must be measured against the side effects.  Thus, where some people swear by a jolt of caffeine before a workout, too much caffeine leaves me a jangly mess and would ruin my exercise session.

*Recently, prior to workouts, I have been experimenting with the following stack: B-6 (neurotransmitter synthesis), B-12 (energy production), soy lecithin (choline source – precursor to acetylcholine), and gingko biloba (vasodilator).  I had also included ginseng, but like caffeine, it had a strong impact on my nervous system and I have discontinued its use.

*My anecdotal results have been positive.  I have noticed greater concentration during exercise and improved anticipation, and planning during sparring.  Could this be my imagination…of course.  As with exam performance, hard work is the key…but little tweaks can make a difference.

*What are your best mind hacks for improved mental performance?

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9 responses to “EAT: Nootropics

  1. i experimented with a few mind drugs. Are Adderall and Ritalin Nootropics?

    They work really well, but the side effects are not worth it in the long run. If I take it now-a-days I have bad tension pains.

    But that stuff is like magic pills.

    • stoffainkorea


      *Your report about the effectiveness of Adderall seems right on with its reputation as a mental steroid.

      *Adderall is a mixture of amphetamine salts. Amphetamines work on dopamine receptors, whereas the racetams are associated with acetylcholine receptors.

      *Amphetamines have a long history of being used to stimulate productivity and enhance concentration…just ask the Air Force. Also, check out this article in Slate about creative types that have succumbed to the allure of amphetamines. Seeing Paul Erdos on that list was a bit of a surprise. Then again, he was all over the map (literally), see N is a Number.

      *The positive effects of amphetamines are counterbalanced by their addictive nature, negative side effects during use, and physical and mental difficulties during withdrawal. Your conclusion about the long term risks of these negative aspects of Adderall is well founded.

      *The racetam family of drugs do not have those negative effects associated with them, but they do not have the great bursts of focus and productivity either. Reports are that there are mild increases in cognitive abilities, with regular use, but no Aha moment for when they kick in.

      *Down regulation of receptors may be a concern as the body builds up tolerance. In general, cycling or taking a break from drugs and supplements can be a good idea.


    • It’s impivatere that more people make this exact point.

    • An intriguing dialogue is value comment. I believe that it’s best to write a lot more on this matter, it could not be a taboo subject but typically persons are not enough to speak on such topics. Towards the next. Cheers

  2. I like to listen to some kickin’ music during my workouts (cardio and weight lifting). It helps me to find a song with a rhythm I can either run, walk or lift in time with (reps or steps with the beat of the music). Works for me! Keeps my brain engaged!

  3. Where can I read more about racetams? Do you think they are right for me?

    How can I create an exercise and supplement program that is a good fit for my mind type combines with my body type, climate of my location, and season? I am a big picture thinker, prone to physically manifested exhaustion correlated to overclocking my brain (worry), not my body. My body seems to prefer any kind of extreme endurance challenge, like an all day hike. This exercise preference never seems to be a good fit with the typical prescriptions for daily exercise. Wouldn’t it be ideal to do stationary work three days a week and go on all day hikes for three days a week and rest for one day a week? I bet I’d get a lot more done if I consistently gave my mind space to process physically like that. Will racetams motivate me to give my brain the physical processing time it craves?

    • stoffainkorea


      *Wow…lots of great questions here.

      *First, your spirit of experimentation will help you explore and find what works for you.

      *Rather than a reductionist approach, differentiating between mind and body, my preference is a unified view. Mind and body are united, if not always in sync.

      *Also, I prefer trying things out that allow for adjustments and tweaks based on feedback. A helpful analogy may be to think of adjusting the temperature of the water for your shower. Impossible to get the settings for hot and cold perfect on the first approach. So, you add a little hot, take a way a little cold, and continue to adjust until you get the right temperature for that day (in the summer cooler temps may be in order whereas winter showers may run hotter).

      *One other background idea, it is my opinion that too much emphasis is placed on following schedules, routines, or a set recipe designed to achieve particular results. There is a lot to be said, for irregularity. Too rigid a plan, makes enjoyable activities drudgery. Additionally, it is my view that it is natural for their to be short intense bursts of activity, followed by longer periods of recovery. We are evolved for periods of plenty and periods of scarcity.

      *Now to some of your specifics. Your overclocking issue, which you also describe as worry, if I understand correctly, could also be described as anxiety or perhaps rumination, that internal voice that keeps going over past situations and potential future problems. In Exercise: A Social Activity, I briefly mention how exercise can pause rumination. It is hard to think about anything else, when you are kicking a 50m sprint, struggling for that last pullup, or working with challenging weights. Also, for endurance athletes, there is the endorphin effect, which could help take the edges off of anxiety.

      *With regard to your comment about being prone to exhaustion, I would say listen to your body. In my opinion, rest and recovery are not given the attention and focus that they deserve. After a particularly grueling project, your mind and body need time to recover. This is seldom appreciated, but without recovery periods, there can be no growth. Rather, you enter periods of deficit. Athletes incur injuries from over training. Then, they lose training time, while they are recovering from the injury. So do we all. For example, sleep deficits are well chronicled. Trying to do more, often means less sleep. Less sleep means decreased performance. Decreased performance means that less work is getting accomplished. This is just one aspect of the downward spiral we can fall into. Another aspect is that sleep is necessary to allow for physical and mental recovery. Without adequate sleep, at some point, the system crashes.

      *Your desire to go for hikes, strikes me as a signal that you should heed. Getting outside in our natural environment, helps to trigger mechanisms that are trumped by our modern environment. Everything from temperature to light is controllable in our offices and homes, but this is not the environment that we evolved for. We are built for varying temperature and light throughout the day. Please listen to this podcast at Neuroscene. Dr. Stephen Ilardi from the University of Kansas discusses evolutionary psychology and how being part of our natural environment helps protect against depression.

      *One thing that I have experimented with since listening to the podcast is spending some time outside in the sunlight during the day. During the work week, I purposefully take a walk out of doors or find a bench in the sun, while I read. I have found that even a short period of time dedicated to being in natural light has a tremendous positive impact. Also, coming in from the bright sun drives home the point of how poorly lit our offices and homes tend to be.

      *Hiking will take you out into the light and away from the sharp right angles to smoother shapes, which you may find soothing. Check out this New York Times article on the impact of recess and exposure to nature on students and their classroom performance.

      *Another experiment that I have had positive results with at work is to play sounds of nature. Babbling brooks, ocean waves, songbirds…these natural sounds have a positive impact on my work environment both from a productivity standpoint and a stress management standpoint. There is lots of information on the effects of sound and music, but you may want to look at the work of Dr. Andrew Weil and Kimba Arem. It is a little new-agey, but the basic points are worth considering.

      *I am not sure that I could handle three days of stationary / sedentary work. Our bodies were built to move. Sitting still all day seems unnatural to me. To see a humorous discussion of this issue, watch this video of a talk by Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal. I try to do small bits of stretching and exercising throughout the day. Nothing that would constitute a workout, but just enough to get the blood flowing again. I plan to write a future post about these breaks, so stay tuned for that one.

      *I think that 20m of intense exercise, can be enough. I prefer four days per week. With two days back to back on the weekend and Tuesday and Thursday during the week. But, I also allow this schedule to fluctuate, to mix up the periods between exercise and rest. Your suggestion of incorporating a long hike or similar would seem to be beneficial. Again, experiment and see what works for you.

      *Also, while you are hiking or exercising, your mind will still be working in the background. Keep a pad and pencil with you, when you have one of those unexpected A-Ha moments in the middle of a workout about some creative project you are working on, you will have a way to record the solution. This happens all of the time. I have had to pause a workout or climb out of the pool to write more than one idea down.

      *I doubt that racetams will help motivate you to experiment and explore the changes discussed above. But, as I reported, nootropics can help improve performance and concentration during a workout.

      *Good luck with your experiments! Don’t forget to report back. Let us no what worked and what didn’t.


    • stoffainkorea

      *Here is a link to a New Yorker article on neuroenhancers, including adderall, provogil, modafinil, and piracetam.

      *Unfortunately, the recent Nature article on this topic is behind a pay wall, but the opinion forum for the article is accessible.

      *WebMD has this article: Can a Pill Make You Smarter?

      *PubMed has several articles on Piracetam and nootropics. See: Piracetam–an old drug with novel properties?, Piracetam and other structurally related nootropics, The effects of nootropics on memory: new aspects for basic research, Pre-clinical evaluation of cognition enhancing drugs.

      *There is always Wikipedia for basic info on racetams.

      *If you want to get out on the edge, you can visit the Immortality Institute.


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