nootropics

Basic Nootropics: One Girl’s Super Non-Scientific Review

I’m used to pills. I take a lot of them, for medical reasons. As far as I’m concerned, my body is an experiment zone for my doctors to tweak at will to fix me, though as an adult, fixed is less the goal than is fixed enough.

Nootropics aren’t that. And I’m a supplement cynic, in regards using special diets and nutrients as a cure to neurological faults (been there, done that, too nervous to try it again). But nootropics are radical in that they aren’t treatment — they’re mind hacks: natural boosters for the brain.

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People take nootropics not to fix what’s broken, but to optimize what’s already running. (For more info, see my explainer here). To exploit their neurological potential, such people conduct individualized experiments and record what improves memory, focus, concentration, creativity, what have you.

So, I very briefly tried some of the very most basic (and safest) stacks, straight from Amazon. For a week. Without the scientific method, and without controls, because I’m a busy woman with a hectic schedule and not a lab rat. But the experiment, if imperfect, was not without insight.

My Experiments

Experiment 1

Nootropic: Caffeine + L Theanine: This is the most basic nootropic stack there is, and one that comes highly recommended to beginners. You know what caffeine is: the compound that makes coffee so potent. Well, L theanine is the main compound in tea. Together, this is essentially green tea, in which the L-theanine mitigates the negative effects (jitteriness, eventual crash) of caffeine. Many studies have shown that together, these compounds improve attention and focus.

Is there anything more basic than green tea, besides pumpkin spice lattes?

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[contextly_sidebar id=”UnGcI8Or9x1de78XsbrvUWEUXgLxXZsv”]Observations: Nothing, at first. In fact, when I decided to forgo my morning coffee in favor of the pills, I felt irritable. I think this is because the taste and routine of hot coffee acts as a helpful placebo in the same way the action of smoking eases smokers. Likely, the absence of the action itself downplayed the actual result.

There are also so many other factors at play, as always: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, mood. Alcohol. Technology overload, midnight snacks, and the list goes on. My habits aren’t always consistent, so any number of these things in combination could diminish or heighten my focus and productivity.

My colleague thought that after my experiment began, my writing was better: “I note heightened concept development accompanied by fresh sentence architecture,” he said. “It is as though the work is arriving effortlessly to my mind. A balanced symphonic synthesis of thought.”

But this was on a day that I hadn’t yet taken the caffeine pills — which means my colleague’s interpretation was a result of the placebo effect, not the nootropics.

Overall, I’m hesitant to say these supplements alone made much of a difference in the admittedly short time (four days) I tested them alone. But I can say that though I didn’t feel less tired than usual, I also didn’t feel worse.

Experiment 2

Nootropic: MagTech: MagTech is another Amazon natural stack, consisting of magnesium L-threonate. Magnesium is an essential nutrient found in food like nuts and kale, a deficiency of which causes irritability, fatigue, muscle tremors and twitching. Ironically, all things I have issues with.

Research suggests magnesium increases memory, promotes relaxation, enhances cognition, and improves sleep quality.

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Observations: Prior to starting this nootropic, I’d been sleeping horribly, with and without the caffeine supplement, which I only took in the morning and afternoon. My sleep issues had to do with a number of things: an ongoing epileptic spell, late-night bus trips, a fiance working until  3am. A cat that doesn’t respect the one pillow per-person rule.

I take an emergency medication (lorazepam) along with my regular medications (levetiracetam, vimpat, folic acid) when partial seizures occur with frequency, as they sometimes do at night. The next-day fatigue is powerful, so this drug isn’t preferable. Nor is it really effective in stopping partial seizures for me; it simply knocks me out.

Because lorazepam can be so debilitating, I tried the magnesium at night instead. It did nothing for the seizures either, but I slept better and woke up alert. Could this be because that’s what the MagTech purports to do, and I willed it to work? Of course. Regardless, during the day I wasn’t nearly as sleepy. I felt more focused and driven.

Experiment 3

Both stacks together

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Observations: After taking the caffeine supplements for four days and magnesium for two, I took the two together. Just for one day as of this write-up.

Again, there are many obvious and nonobvious factors at play. Even so, I find myself eating nuts and fruits instead of a bagel, for breakfast. I find myself doing errands willingly and optimistically. I find myself extremely focused on what needs to get done.

I’m also a bit jittery and restless, though. I feel a little bit numb, but at the same time sharp and alert. A slight bit dizzy, even. I don’t know how much of this is actual, how much psychological, or if there’s a difference — after all, this is the brain we’re playing with: the most mysterious organ in the body. Placebo or not, something is happening.

Conclusions

Before starting these supplements, I took a couple of tests using Cambridge Brain Sciences website. I took four: one for reasoning, one for memory, one for concentration, and one for planning. I took these just twice before my experiment, and just once after, while on both stacks.

It’s not saying much, but I improved slightly in memory and concentration, and did slightly worse in planning and reasoning. Considering memory and concentration were the supposed targets of both supplements, this could be a telling result. I don’t suppose, however, these limited trials are enough to hold weight.

All in all, the experience has been more mystifying than clarifying — which is a good thing, I believe. I’m thinking more about what’s boosting or weighing on my cognition, and what I’m putting in my body. Is a pill much different than a run in the sun, or a beet/kale smoothie? Am I damaged more by excess chemicals and sugar, a coffee overdose, or a sedentary Netflix binge? It’s exhausting to track; I couldn’t if I tried.

My conclusions are that our brains and bodies are both sensitive and resilient. Mine is utterly dependent on drugs to function; I resent those that are not. So perhaps I’m biased when I say that if you can optimize your brain without supplements, you’re better off.

Those with the will power and extreme care to track and tweak cognitive performance — requiring a diligence and precision I did not actualize in my own stint — should knock themselves out. Though not literally, of course. There are more potent drugs for that.

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Jennifer Markert