If you stripped your [nootropic stack] down to the skeleton, what would be left? For me, modafinil is the foundation.
Prior to experimenting with modafinil, my intellectual potential was completely unrealized. I was brain fogged and simply lacked the cognitive flexibility to grapple with complex problems.
If US customs cracked down today and started confiscating my orders from AfinilExpress, I'd probably revert back to my baseline state. My baseline is unmotivated, unproductive, and task avoidant.
My nootropic stacks have evolved a lot over the years. When I first started researching nootropics, I was experimenting with basic stacks like caffeine plus l-theanine. I found that these more user-friendly combinations weren’t delivering the results that I wanted.
Throughout endless revisions to my nootropic regimen, modafinil has always been an important constant.
But why modafinil? What does modafinil specifically bring to the table? The answer lurks somewhere in modafinil's enhancement of neuronal connectivity.1
Nootropics That Deliver A Punch
I’ve tested over 50 nootropics on myself. And I’ve read hundreds of PubMed journal articles on the subject of cognitive enhancement.
Early on in my research, I began making a distinction between two types of nootropics: (1) slow-acting and (2) fasting-acting.
The distinction is mostly self-explanatory. Fast-acting nootropics have immediate, unmistakable effects. These fast-acting nootropics are heavy-hitters like modafinil. This distinction isn’t rigorous, but it’s a helpful heuristic.
But slow-acting nootropics aren’t any less important. These tend to be neuroprotective compounds that promote general brain health or take 4-6 weeks for cognitive enhancing effects to manifest. One example is Bacopa monnieri, which promotes dendrite branching2 and has other beneficial effects on brain morphology that only become apparent after chronic dosing.
But let’s not derail this post, because today I want to talk about how modafinil transformed my ADHD tendencies into strengths.
How I Stumbled On Modafinil
I'm groggy when I first wake up in the morning. I’m more apathetic and unmotivated than the average person.
Since my baseline state was never very goal-oriented or driven, I was never very productive in school. I excelled at underachievement. I always felt like I wasn’t reaching my intellectual potential. These traits are all probably different manifestations of ADHD.
In undergrad, a psychiatrist prescribed Adderall for my inattention. There’s no question that Adderall was effective at improving motivation and productivity.
This was the first time I’d ever taken a psychiatric drug. It dawned on me how focus, drive, ambition – all these dimensions can be manufactured. Some of us have constitutionally low drive. Not all of us can be hyperdopaminergic people. But it doesn’t have to be that way, because dopaminergic drugs, supplements, and nutraceuticals powerfully modulate that sense of reward we get from accomplishments.
After starting Adderall, I also experienced firsthand some of its serious downsides. If you’ve ever taken Adderall for any length of time, you’ll probably know where I’m headed next.
Adderall made me irritable, insomnia-prone, and gave me headaches. It also seemed to make me more socially awkward. I always crashed at the end of a day of Adderall use. I’m not talking about a nice kind of crash, where you collapse into bed, melt into your pillow, and instantly fall asleep. I’m talking about crashing with intractable insomnia.
For a while, I renounced psychostimulants and tried a more wholesome approach. I improved my diet, ate more brain foods, exercised regularly and reduced my overall stress level.
But eventually, I was forced to confront the fact that we live in a world that rewards type-A temperaments. White-collar office work requires a responsive, souped up reward system. Otherwise, there’s just no way you’re going to be able to stay focused on that Excel spreadsheet you’ve been working on for the last eight hours at your desk job.
I eventually began experimenting with Adderall alternatives, which is the original context for my interest in nootropics.
The Quest For The Adderall Killer
I was looking for the holy grail of smart drugs: a safe, effective Adderall alternative with more tolerable side effects. Surprisingly, it exits: it’s called modafinil.
Before trying modafinil, I’d tried other prescription ADHD medications like Strattera (atomoxetine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate). Strattera had more tolerable side effects but was ineffective. Conversely, Ritalin was effective but carried just as serious side effects as Adderall.
I first ordered modafinil from ModafinilCat sometime in early 2013, and instantly fell in love. My first experience with modafinil was taking it a few hours before my organic chemistry final. It brightened my mood and provided very clean, lucid mental stimulation. I felt like I had more cognitive horsepower at my disposal.
The more modafinil improved my quality of life, the more interested I became in researching nootropics. Here are some findings about modafinil that you might find interesting (I certainly did):
Modafinil Enhances the Communication of Gap Junctions
In general, most psychoactive drugs work by binding a receptor in the brain or by influencing a neurotransmitter (like how Adderall is a dopamine-releasing agent). Modafinil does modulate neurotransmitters and various receptors, but it also enhances gap junctional communication.3
When neuroscientists are talking about synapses, they’re mostly referring to chemical synapses. The chemical synapse is just a gap that neurotransmitters randomly diffuse across to send a signal in the nervous system. Compared with electrical signals, the diffusion of neurotransmitters is a slow process.
But gap junctions are specialized connections between two cells, where the inside of one cell is directly coupled to another. It turns out that modafinil increases the expression of connexin 30, a gap junction protein, which enhances the connectivity between brain cells.
Modafinil Has Cognitive Enhancing Effects in Healthy Volunteers
That’s the title of a paper published in the journal Pyschopharmacology by Turner DC et. al.4 The authors recruited 60 healthy young adult male volunteers, and gave one group modafinil and the other a placebo prior to a battery of tasks that test memory and attention. The outcome? "Modafinil significantly enhanced performance on tests of digit span, visual pattern recognition memory, spatial planning and stop-signal reaction time."
Schmaal L, Goudriaan AE, Joos L, et al. Neural substrates of impulsive decision making modulated by modafinil in alcohol-dependent patients. Psychol Med. 2014;44(13):2787-98. ↩
Vollala VR, Upadhya S, Nayak S. Enhanced dendritic arborization of hippocampal CA3 neurons by Bacopa monniera extract treatment in adult rats. Rom J Morphol Embryol. 2011;52(3):879-86. ↩
Liu X, Petit JM, Ezan P, Gyger J, Magistretti P, Giaume C. The psychostimulant modafinil enhances gap junctional communication in cortical astrocytes. Neuropharmacology. 2013;75:533-8. ↩
Turner DC, Robbins TW, Clark L, Aron AR, Dowson J, Sahakian BJ. Cognitive enhancing effects of modafinil in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2003;165(3):260-9. ↩