They could replace your morning coffee, so the saying goes on morning show broadcasts. Nootropics, sometimes called smart drugs, are a class of performance-enhancing supplements that are seeing widespread use in the tech and crypto sectors, and prompting much skepticism everywhere else.
The thousands of chemicals that could conceivably fall under the category are bought and sold online and in stores – coming in a pharmacopoeia of varicolored powders, pills and drinks – and are marketed by their ability to improve memory, mental acuity, boost energy and help users enter flow states. Though the term nootropics literally means "mind-bending," the point is less about discovering untapped reserves of creative potential or losing inhibitions than to impose focus.
“For most of nootropic history, it's just been drug nerds sharing ideas, science and experiences with one another as a community,” CryptoDog, a crypto consultant popular on CryptoTwitter, said. But increased marketing, media reports, late-night advertising, Gwyneth Paltrow’s line of luxury Goop and an active internet subculture are thrusting these supplements into the spotlight.
Apart from college-aged students looking to balance curriculum and social life, CryptoDog thinks it’s a class of drugs designed for the modern, ultra-competitive corporate landscape. “If you don't work extremely hard, you won't make it into the top 1%. And as the world becomes increasingly less easy in comparison for the 99%, there's more pressure,” he said.
High-achieving executives, developers and traders in the crypto industry take these neuroenhancing drugs to achieve more, process more information and work longer hours. It’s become part and parcel to an industry that seeks the disruption of all others.
“Being in frontier tech means you’re (a) more exposed to new ideas and tools, (b) in a community where experimentation is normalized and widely and openly discussed and often encouraged, and (c) more willing to try new things,” Meltem Demirors, CEO of CoinShares, said in an email. “And so many investors and entrepreneurs dabble with new tools like nootropics.”
CryptoDog was first exposed to nootropics about a decade ago through online forums, and since taking time off from a pharmacy PhD program – at a leading, though unnamed U.S. university – has started his own nootropics and wellness business.
“I split my time between crypto and my nootropics startup,” he said, calling from Hong Kong at 1 a.m. his time. In addition to managing the U.S.-based nootropics startup, CryptoDog said he has done consultancy work for data analytics firm Glassnode as well as the crypto exchange OSL, among others.
It’s a hustle that probably wouldn’t be possible without his “stack,” or personalized cocktail of nootropics, which includes L-theanine, alpha GPC, huperzine A, theacrine, beta-hydroxybutyrate and caffeine. “I think everyone is trying to get ahead because we all constantly feel behind,” he said.
CryptoDog’s interest in nootropics and crypto pair well, and not just because he discovered both at about the same time in his life. “We’re tinkerers. Biology is just the living version of computer science, DNA is just code.” Like the hacker ethos that runs through crypto, nootropics users believe that the human brain is a piece of software that can be improved upon through chemical upgrades.
“The body is just a really complex computer that we’re writing code for, writing molecules that can come in and change how it operates,” he said.
Taking this metaphor further, the key to both industries is to do your own research, or DYOR. Different people will respond in different ways to different substances, to say nothing of the rampant scams – from miracle pills to get-rich schemes – that pop up in any emergent field.
“You read as much as you can, figure out as much as you can, and if you are brave, you try it out and see if it works for you,” CryptoDog said.
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The science around nootropics is murky, though a number of studies, looking at a range of substances, have come out indicating the industry is likely on the right track. While some experts point to potential toxicity, many worst-case scenarios more often involve head-aches or no effects at all. And, considering the other activities that fall under the biohacking umbrella – from sleep deprivation to editing genes in vivo – nootropics are relatively safe.
The popular drug modafinil, for instance, prescribed under the brand name Provigil for people suffering from narcolepsy, has been linked to improved alertness, energy, focus and decision-making in healthy adults. It also shows signs of improving brain plasticity.
Another formerly obscure substance, Creatine, has entered the public conversation as a helpful body-building supplement that could also improve mental acuity. While Phenylpiracetam has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, part of the Olympics Committee, for its ability to increase stamina and resistance to cold temperatures.
Meanwhile, anecdotal and scientific evidence shows that microdosing psychedelics – like LSD or psilocybin – could increase one’s creativity. Speaking with someone who works in the “Bitcoin space in a primarily creative role for two different startups” and who called himself SWIM, a messaging board acronym for “Someone Who Isn't Me,” said they occasionally microdose when “creativity and out of the box thinking is needed.”
“You could view microdosing or nootropics as an edge if you want, but it’s probably more accurate to describe it as a tool. Use that tool… get an effect. It’s not a panacea,” he said. As with most novel technologies, bio or not, your mileage may vary.
A former mining company executive, who requested anonymity, said he experimented with nootropics to improve mental acuity, but found a regime of diet and exercise was more effective.
"Based on my experience I have some resistance to these substances in general," he said over Telegram. He qualified later his trials likely were too sporadic to get meaningful results.
Demirors, too, who has experimented since she was a teenager with “different practices… to alter performance” – including yoga, dieting, exposure to extreme temperatures, journaling and “ingesting various things” – no longer keeps track of the nootropics industry.
Read more: Meltem Demirors Is Having Fun, and Tells It Like It Is
“Nootropics is one I've stopped paying attention to because it's a lot of ‘hustle-porn’ and it fetishizes quantification of everything,” she said.
Historically, CryptoDog said, curiosity and interest drove the industry to find better and safer supplements. But as it becomes more commercialized, producers may begin synthesizing “for optimal sales rather than just trying to create something awesome.”
To date, there are approximately 80,000 products sold in the U.S. that promise some sort of mental or physical enhancement. And venture capitalists are eyeing this $40 billion industry for its explosive growth potential.
“You used to have to hack your own and order stuff from dodgy websites abroad. Now you can easily purchase them on the internet or in your local Whole Foods or health store,” Demirors said.
All the same, “nootropics can be a difficult space for consumers to navigate as these products, while often labeled for similar purposes, encompass a wide range of ingredients,” Andrea Wong, senior vice president of scientific & regulatory affairs at Council for Responsible Nutrition, a pro-supplement nonprofit, said.
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Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the FDA has to prove a vitamin, mineral or herb is unsafe before taking it off the shelves. It’s this requirement that enables scam-products to run on late night television, or for Alex Jones to fund his media empire through the sale of Brain Force pills.
(For what it’s worth, CryptoDog took a look at Jones’ nootropic formulation and said, “It’s actually not the worst...[H]e has a decent blend.” Though it’s not the direction he would have gone in.)
“A major problem with the supplements industry as a whole is that preys on people,” CryptoDog said. “I know there are efficacious supplements but you'll find a lot of people selling [defective products] or people just selling caffeine bombs.”
While he supports increased regulations, he doesn’t think the FDA is the agency to do it. And he definitely doesn’t want to stymie the development of novel drugs, new analogues and potentially more efficacious supplements that’s occurring today.
“My vision is, by 2050 nootropics in some form and fashion, they may not look like what they do now, will be a common part of daily life. We can create things better than coffee, which is already the most popular nootropic. If you can be better, at an affordable price, then you’ll take it,” he said.
Then again, maybe – like the popping of the crypto bubble – we’ve already hit peak nootropics.
“I would argue nootropics are a bit passe. The new trend is entheogens and magick,” Demirors said.