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“For Research Purposes Only”: Meet The Hardcore Nootropics Users Obsessed With Doing Pharmacological Experiments On Themselves

I have been experimenting with nootropics for about six years. I took two courses of BPC-157 over the past two years. Oral administration. Specifically noting it because of angiogenesis...

I was diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer this month. My family has no history of either. Both are of an aggressive grade and my doctors are surprised by how fast it is growing.

My supps and BPC intake could have no connection. Could be a direct correlation. We won’t know. But if you are taking peptides that cause angiogenesis…get checked frequently and regularly.

Redditor u/CuteNoot8, in r/Nootropics

Back in the 1960s, just having a high school education was enough to get you a decent career. Then in the 90s, a college degree was the standard.  

But now? Grad school helps, depending on your career. But many people are becoming increasingly convinced that if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you have to be superhuman.

On top of that, mental health problems have been growing more prevalent for years, if not decades–and many people who have failed to see improvements from traditional healthcare are turning to supplements in an effort to self-medicate.  

An ever-growing number of people are turning to nootropics–a bewildering array of dietary supplements, prescription drugs, and chemicals of dubious legality–both to treat their mental health problems as well as help them excel in their careers, in school, and even in their personal lives. And in many cases, it works.

We’ve published quite a few articles about the specific nootropics people take, but what about the people taking them? To learn more about what drives this community and how its most hardcore members think, I spoke with two professional nootropics bloggers as well as three of the most active members of reddit’s r/nootropics, one of the most influential online nootropics communities.  

Each of them got into nootropics for their own reasons. Mike from Nootropics Zone started in college: I’ve always had trouble focusing. When I was an undergraduate almost twenty years ago, I first started experimenting with nootropics. I didn’t know they were called nootropics at the time, but I started researching and trying different substances. Within a semester, my grades improved significantly. Since then, I’ve been researching, trying, and writing about nootropics.

Another nootropics blogger, Marius of Nootropics.com, says: I got into it as an aspect of transhumanism, which for me means the idea that humans, as we currently are, are not the best we could be. That naturally leads me to be interested in ways of being better, of improving ourselves. The range of tools for that is pretty broad—from therapy and coaching to meditation, and having a life schedule and to-do strategies, exercise, and proper sleep—for me, nootropics are another tool in the toolbox of things to try out and use.

Like many people, Redditor u/sirsadalot begins his day with a cup of coffee. Unlike most, he adds a personalized dopamine stack which he developed himself. He says he has always struggled with a lack of motivation, so he uses nootropics primarily to boost dopamine, as a way to boost his motivation, confidence and energy level.  

Finally, redditor u/vengeancefit says: What first got me into nootropics? Well… it was a multitude of things. I guess you could say it was a concoction of puberty, a 1 month long Accutane (isotretinoin) treatment, 2 bad LSD trips and me turning into a rebellious high-school teenager. However, if I’d have to point my finger at one particular thing it would probably be the Accutane. I recall quite vividly how instantaneously the dysthymia showed up after cessation of the acne-treatment. Initially it went undiagnosed, but after 2 years I ended up with diagnosed cyclical mild/moderate-depression.

My final interview subject chose not to be directly quoted.  

What I learned from the five of them–and from following online nootropics communities–changed the way I think about smart drugs and the people who use them.  

Modafinil makes me not feel the orgasm as much. Only a little or nothing tbh.

Redditor u/lilreezy97, in r/modafinil

It Starts In College

If you’ve spent much time following nootropics communities, you’ll have a general sense that users tend to be male, usually young adults, and with above-average income and education. Mike from Nootropics Zone was able to elaborate on this with very specific demographic numbers, based on his web analytics:

While men and women of all ages can and do use nootropics, the average user is a young-adult, city-dwelling male. This isn’t just my observation–I’ve got the stats to prove it. Looking at Nootropics Zone’s analytics, I can tell you that 65.3% of my readers are male and 34.7% are female. About 35% fall between the ages of 25-34. Roughly 20% are between 18-24, 18% between 35-44, 12% between 45-54, 9% between 55-64, and 6% of my readers are 65 or older. And the vast majority live in urban or suburban areas.

Demographics of NootropicsZone.com
Demographics of NootropicsZone.com

These numbers are consistent with the people I typically see in social media groups, message boards, and other places online where people meet to discuss nootropics. As far as particular fields/jobs/groups, there are a handful that I see more than others. Perhaps the most common are college students. Lots of students use nootropics to help them study, write papers, etc. The most common fields I see tend to be highly competitive and (unsurprisingly) involve intense mental work: computer programmers, financial analysts, accountants, doctors–stuff like that.

As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the average hardcore user and the average casual one. Although, I’d say that the more hardcore you get, the more it skews male.

This last bit is in line with general research findings that men have higher risk tolerance than women–which in this case, translates into a greater willingness to put potentially sketchy chemicals into their bodies.  

I’ve also noted a very disproportionate number of tech-savvy people participating in nootropics communities. In fact, two out of three redditors who I contacted for interviews have programmed their own apps for tracking nootropics use. I was aware that one of them had done so before contacting him; the other one I only learned of during our interview.  

On the other hand, herbal medicine expert Christopher Kilham notes that online communities are not very representative of nootropics users as a whole. “The nootropics community is a small tent– a self-selected group of enthusiasts who aren’t the majority of people using these things. At retail you’ll see broader demographics, more women, more older people, less interest in neurological mechanisms as opposed to just wanting to see results.”  

Supplement Stacks and Neurochemical Mechanisms

In general, nootropics users are looking for better cognitive performance. Sometimes they’re also looking for improvements in sleep, motivation, social skills or emotional regulation.

There are two important differences here between casual and hardcore users: specificity and time frame.  

Casual nootropics users are usually looking for something that will produce an immediate effect–and often also something that they’ll be able to feel, subjectively.  As such they tend to favor nootropics with acute stimulant or depressant effects over those with more subtle benefits, or anything that takes weeks to take full effect.

Hardcore users are usually more willing to explore long-term benefits, even if it means delaying gratification. They often experiment with nootropics which take several weeks to work, such as those which purportedly increase neurogenesis. Hardcore nootropics users are also more concerned with sustainability; they’re mindful of tolerance build-up and want to use something that, if it works for them, can be continued long-term.

As for specificity, casual users tend to have a very specific benefit in mind, such as wanting a nootropic that will help them study, or keep working for longer. They tend to frame their desired benefits in terms of what external effect a nootropic will have.

Hardcore users are often looking for more general benefits, and will often frame those benefits in terms of what’s happening inside their brains. For instance, they might want a nootropic to increase GABA levels, or boost neurogenesis, or lower cortisol. Experienced users are typically able to explain how these neurochemical effects will translate into more tangible benefits.    

As an example, one redditor I interviewed, who goes by Sirsadalot, said that the main benefit he looks for is increased dopamine. He went on to say that this is because he wants more energy and, particularly, more motivation, but he expressed it in terms of dopamine. He also was able to break down his supplement stack in terms of those which increase dopamine production, and those which sensitive the D1 dopamine receptor, making dopamine more effective.  

This sort of framing is typical of hardcore users. Casual users tend to bring up neurochemical mechanisms as afterthoughts if they bring them up at all. For instance, a casual user is more likely to say something like “I want to be able to remember what I study better, so I take huperzine and bacopa monieri. I think they work partly by increasing acetylcholine, not totally sure about that though.”  

I’ve been diagnosed with Aspergers… On oxiracetam+zinc… I can just sit still and feel calm, and feel satisfied just resting and thinking, not feeling like the people in the room are obstacles my eyes need to avoid. It’s actually a powerful feeling of calm.

Redditor u/Dextrophik, in r/Nootropics

Self Experimenting 101 To PhD-Level… With Unknown Risks

The level of knowledge of nootropics users is all over the place. There is no particular education program or “nootropics course” that people can take to learn everything they need to know; instead, users have to self-educate. There are a variety of resources available to do so, including Examine.com, various wikis on nootropics sites such as BlueLight and the nootropics subreddit, and a variety of nootropics websites like Nootropics Zone.  

Users invariably start out not very knowledgeable, knowing about a few common nootropics and what they’re good for, but not fully understanding how they work. Over time their level of knowledge increases, often to an impressive level. As an example, every hardcore nootropics user I spoke to was able to explain how the nootropics they use act on different receptors in the brain. 

The good news is, most users are cautious and tend to match their experimentation to their level of knowledge. 

How Smart Are Nootropics Users About Self-Experimenting?

This is really two questions–how smart are they about safety, and how smart are they about accurately measuring the results of their nootropics experiments?

When it comes to safety, both casual and hardcore users are good about matching their appetite for risk to their level of knowledge. Newcomers to the nootropics scene usually don’t know very much, but they stick to tried and true, low-risk nootropics like piracetam, modafinil, or the caffeine / theanine combo.

Hardcore users will take more risks, but they have the knowledge to understand and minimize those risks. Most also tend to favor nootropics that are at least related to well-known nootropics over totally novel ones–such as how hydrafinil, while not well-studied, is nonetheless a close relative of modafinil.  

Overall the hardcore users do put themselves in somewhat more danger despite their knowledge, but they’re willing to accept that as a trade-off for greater possible benefits, and able to do quite a bit to minimize the risk. They’re also smarter about monitoring side effects so that they can quickly terminate an experiment if it seems to be harming them.  

When it comes to tracking and measuring, hardcore users are better than casual users, plain and simple. They know how to run proper self-experiments with controlled variables, and some hardcore users even blind and placebo control their self-experiments with the aid of a partner.

Hardcore users frequently make use of apps such as Dalio to measure the results of their nootropics experiments, or use self-designed spreadsheets. In fact, a surprising number program their own apps. Two of the three redditors I spoke with have programmed their own nootropics apps–u/Hewlbern programmed an app to track his ADHD meds, while u/vengeancefit is finishing up an AI for categorizing nootropics.  

That said, there is one major pitfall that even hardcore users sometimes fall into: nootropics blends. If you try a product with many different ingredients, you may be able to assess its effects, but you won’t know which ingredient did what. Most knowledgable users eschew supplement blends unless they’ve already tested the individual ingredients separately, but some hardcore nootropics lovers still fall into this trap.  

Fish oil gives me brain fog, low mood, fatigue and sexual dysfunction (male). You could definitely call the effects anti-anxiety because of how slow and tired it makes me feel haha, but not anti-depressive. 

Redditor u/scary__canary, in r/Nootropics

Nootropics, Quantified Self, And Biohacking 

Unsurprisingly, there is heavy overlap between nootropics communities and the quantified self and biohacking movements.  

Nootropics communities also tend to overlap with communities related to the goals of nootropics users–particularly productivity groups, but also groups related to learning social skills and anti-aging communities.

Finally, there is a decent amount of overlap between nootropics users and steroid/PED users. From my limited observation, steroid users tend to have a similar mentality to nootropics users–highly knowledgable about how drugs work, and able to perform smartly-designed self-experiments.  

From Casual To Hardcore Users

Hardcore and casual users mostly use the same drugs and supplements. However, as Mike notes, casual users tend to stick with well-known and heavily-studied nootropics like piracetam or modafinil.  

Hardcore users are more likely to use novel, lesser-known nootropics. However, if a nootropic hasn’t been well-studied itself, hardcore users tend to favor nootropics which are at least related to ones which are well-known. For instance, hydrafinil per se isn’t well-studied, but it is a close relative of modafinil, so one can reasonably expect it to have similar effects. 

Finally, hardcore users are more likely to stack nootropics with particular synergies in mind. As an example, one user I interviewed, redditor u/Sirsadalot, has spent years developing a dopamine stack. It contains several nootropics which either boost dopamine production or sensitive the D1 dopamine receptors, acting synergistically to increase not just dopamine levels, but the effects of dopamine.  

According to Kilham, the nootropics category has expanded, and sales have increased, during the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are interested in nootropics due to Covid fog, due to productivity concerns about working from home, forgetfulness, etc. A lot of people want to control cortisol for cognitive, mental clarity purposes, or to deal with stress. Adaptogens like ashwagandha (insert a link to one of our ashwagandha articles here, maybe the upcoming one) have gone way up in sales.”

I used [dihexa] for a few months, the reason I stopped was because of skin spots and moles. Suddenly I started having small black spots around my body, I wasn’t sunbathing or using anything else and since c-MET is expressed in epithelial cells dihexa would be a plausible source of them, so I stopped it. 

Redditor u/meowchemy, in r/Nootropics

“For Research Use Only”: Where Nootropics Come From

Nootropics can come from one of three distinct types of sources.First off, some nootropics are fairly mainstream supplements, such as L-theanine, creatine, ashwagandha, caffeine, rhodiola rosea, and so on. These are available all over the place, including at drug stores and on Amazon.

At the other extreme, some people use prescription drugs such as modafinil, Adderall or dihexa as nootropics. Some people get prescriptions, but many just order them from overseas– usually India.

In the middle we have grey market nootropics. These are often quasi-legal substances which are only supposed to be sold for research purposes, not to be used as supplements by consumers (wink wink). Most websites specializing in nootropics carry some kind of boilerplate to the effect that their products are only meant to be used for research– but most make no effort to verify that their buyers are actually following this.

This carries an additional risk that their products may be made in low-quality labs, may contain impurities, be over- or under-dosed, or may simply not contain what they say they do at all. Sometimes this is the nootropics website deliberately deceiving its customers, sometimes it’s just sloppiness, and sometimes it’s the website buying bunk raw materials and not testing them properly.  

The federal government has progressively cracked down on this over the past few years, most recently targeting several companies selling nootropics, kratom, and bodybuilding chemicals such as selective androgen receptor modulators. Speaking of which, there’s a lot of overlap between nootropics sellers and bodybuilding research chem sellers, with some companies doing both under different brand names.

Note that since none of these drugs are strictly illegal, sellers are not punished purely for selling them. They’re punished either for mislabelling their products, or for knowingly selling “research chemicals” to people who aren’t really using them for research. In some cases this involves criminal punishment, as in the recent case of a North Carolina man who sold bodybuilding supplements. In other cases, the government action is purely civil, as when federal prosecutors seized the assets of seven “research chemical” and kratom sellers last month.

Non-Nootropic Things That Nootropic Users Love

Most nootropics users are not solely focused on chemical solutions to their problems–rather, they view nootropics as one set of tools in a toolkit that also includes non-drug solutions.

Some non-chemical tools that many nootropics lovers use include:

  • Meditation and yoga
  • EEG headsets for neurofeedback and enhanced meditation
  • Algorithmic music–this is music designed to put the mind into either a focused state for productivity, or a relaxed state for sleep 
  • Productivity and habit-building apps 
  • Productivity habits such as the pomodoro technique
  • Float therapy–a form of sensory deprivation that aids in reaching a deep meditative state
  • Supplements and drugs for physical enhancement such as creatine, beta-alanine, and yes, occasionally steroids
  • Sleep hacking
  • Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation
  • Blood tests for nutrient deficiencies and hormones such as testosterone and cortisol
  • Diets, especially highly-focused diets designed to maximize specific nutrients that individuals feel they are lacking–b12 is a common one
  • Apps for tracking nootropic use or overall well-being, such as Daylio

According to Wade Lightheart, biohacking coach and CEO of BiOptimizers (maybe also link to the article where we quoted I’m before?), “Real pros/scientists/athletes/executives usually head in this direction” of adding non-drug approaches to their nootropics regimen. “TMS, dTMS and biofeedback are common. They often combine the regenerative power of nootropics to augment or recover from hard-core Biofeedback exercises. Dual-N-Back tests are often another popular mental testing/exercise process to augment and monitor cognitive performance. Think Sudoku but with more specific outcomes. Many also augment with Isolation “Float Tanks” for recovery.”

What’s Next? Neuroregeneration And CRISPR, Or Just Better Experiments?

There are already a lot of great nootropics out there, and I’ve seen mixed opinions on what the next big thing will be.  

Anti-aging or brain rejuvenation drugs are a common answer. In particular, some users are starting to become interested in a Russian drug called epithalon which is purportedly able to regenerate telomeres and clear plaque from the brain.

On the other hand, many users including Mike from The Nootropics Zone anticipate that interest will, in the next ten years, move on from drugs to other forms of human enhancement which sound straight out of a cyberpunk novel: genetic manipulation and brain-machine interfaces.

Interest is growing in the use of CRISPR for human gene-editing, and it’s already widely suspected that some athletes have used it for gene-doping.  

However, CRISPR comes with two big limitations. First, we still don’t fully understand what genes do–most likely have some functions beyond the ones we already know about, so gene hacking may have very unpredictable effects.

Second, CRISPR might just not work on most people. It uses the Cas9 protein, which is derived from streptococcus bacteria, as a delivery mechanism to “infect” subjects with gene alterations. But since strep throat is so common, most people have some degree of immunity to this protein.  

Brain-machine interfaces are already in the works, and are starting to be used in experiments and disability treatments. As Mike notes, in some respects they’re just the next step in a process we’ve already begun–we all have phones, and putting them in our heads is simply a logical next step.

However, we’re still a long way from neural implants being widely available for human enhancement rather than disability correction, affordable, and notably more effective than simply carrying a phone around. That’s probably at least ten years off, and will probably be more like twenty years when you take what’s likely to be a long and arduous FDA approval process into account.

All of the above are likely to be “big things” in the medium to long-term, but in my opinion, the next big thing will be far more mundane, and something I’ve already written a lot about in this article: better tracking and self-experimentation.  

As I’ve said, people understand the importance of running proper self-experiments, but nonetheless they don’t do so with anywhere near the methodological rigor of a proper scientific experiment. In all likelihood, the next big thing won’t be new drugs or other forms of enhancement, but rather new tool and methods for testing the tools we already have.  

That will include better apps for tracking nootropics use and self-experiments. It may also include a system for partnering up with other people, so that “nootropics buddies” can blind and placebo control each other’s experiments. And it may include blood tests and genetic testing–not genetic manipulation–to find out which nootropics are likely to work best for you.  

People get widely varying results from nootropics–some find them life-changing while others find them to be a complete bust. Right now, the low-hanging fruit is simply finding better ways to find out what works best for you–not just which drugs, but the exact doses, dosing schedules and use cases to maximize their effectiveness.  

I made myself a test subject! In mid-April I started a course of epitalon, ordering from ceretropic. I shot up a 100mg vial of Epitalon, injected subcutaneously 10mg a day for 10 days. I took a week off and did 100mg of N-Acetyl Epitalon the same way. Repeated with N-Acetyl Epitalon Amidate (which was really hard to inject) then another course of N-Acetyl Epitalon and Epitalon.

I didn’t notice anything significantly different about myself at all during the treatment. At the end of June I submitted another test, and the results just came back. My telomere length is up by 1,000 base pairs, and titanovo now says I have the telemore length of a … ten year old boy. Am I reading that right? See graphs linked below. I feel exactly the same, though.

[from a follow-up post the next year]

Several people asked me to get tested again to see if my results were stable over time. So, I did. Hopefully there is no reason to be alarmed that they indicate my telomere length as “CAUTION: POSSIBLY TOO LONG.” What could possibly be bad about that? So far I have not sprouted tentacles or a prehensile tail or noticed anything out of the ordinary. I reckon we’ll see in a few years.

Redditor u/telemerotica, in r/Nootropics
About the author

John Fawkes is the Managing Editor of The Unwinder. John is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition-certified nutritional counselor who has been featured on over two dozen websites and podcasts. He works with clients in Los Angeles and online, and can be reached on Instagram and Twitter.

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