How to Get the Most out of Modafinil
There’s a lot of hype surrounding modafinil. For those who are unfamiliar, modafinil is a nonstimulant wakefulness-enhancer used to treat disorders like narcolepsy. This post is about how to use modafinil in the most productive, safe way possible. My recommendations are
- don’t use modafinil as an excuse to sleep less
- don’t let yourself become overstimulated
- take stimulant holidays
- try stacking nicotine with modafinil (potentially high-risk)
- make sure to protect your brain while on modafinil
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Modafinil Use is Growing: Why?
Modafinil is increasingly being used by nootropics users and students to increase productivity. A quick Google trends search reveals increased interest in modafinil since about 2013:
In terms of wakefulness enhancement, modafinil gets the job done. But you’ll probably be disappointed if you were looking for something with NZT-like effects. (NZT was the drug from Limitless – the fictional show/movie about smart drugs).
My experience with modafinil is that it reliably improves motivation and task salience. What’s task salience? Well, enhancing task salience can make certain tasks that you were avoiding seem more important and urgent. It’s like manufacturing a sense of urgency for stuff that under normal circumstances would seem like a chore.
If you struggled academically, one reason could be hypofunction of the dopamine system. Too little dopamine will make certain kinds of tasks (like your homework) seem less salient to you.
There are some interesting evolutionary tradeoffs at work here. If stimuli appear to be too salient, then you might start to see patterns in a random series of numbers that aren’t meaningful. Like John Nash, you might start to think that the radio host is specifically addressing you. In other words, psychosis becomes a risk.
Who Benefits from Modafinil?
The effect of modafinil is more pronounced if your baseline level of motivation tends to be low. But modafinil probably won’t increase your IQ if you’re already high-functioning.
Just like any drug, modafinil has side effects. This post is about how to mitigate the side effects of modafinil and get the most out of the drug.
Common modafinil side effects include:
These side effects are pronounced if you’re already predisposed to anxiety or hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is related to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This is the arm of the nervous system that promotes the fight-or-flight behavioral response in threatening scenarios.
#1 Don’t use modafinil as an excuse to sleep less
Sleep is important. Like really, really important.
When you’re older, you’ll probably wish you could sleep more. Sleep quality deteriorates as we age. The notion that you should try to sleep less to get more done is a crazy dystopian adolescent fantasy.
You want your sleep to be as deep and restorative as possible. During slow wave sleep, your brain is clearing neurotoxic metabolites and consolidating memories. Skeptical? See this article published by NPR, Brains Sweep Themselves Clean Of Toxins During Sleep (http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/10/18/236211811/brains-sweep-themselves-clean-of-toxins-during-sleep)
Impaired sleep quality is one of the earliest and most sensitive signs of ensuing Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep too little, and your cognitive performance will be impaired, whether you’re taking modafinil or not. (Actually, a few people have a specific phenotype that makes them less susceptible to sleep deprivation-induced cognitive impairment.)
#2 Don’t let yourself become overstimulated
There’s this idea in neuroscience that an optimal level of arousal exists to facilitate learning and memory. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson law. See the following graph (it’s pretty self-explanatory):
Modafinil promotes wakefulness and increases arousal. That’s why modafinil tends to be more effective if your baseline state is a little fatigued or unmotivated.
But if you take too much modafinil – or you’re already hyper-aroused or anxious to begin with – there’s a good chance that modafinil will actually impair your functioning. Optimal functioning arises from a state of relaxed concentration. Relating this to the Yerkes-Dodson law, modafinil causes a “right shift” along the x-axis.
Ideas to make sure you don’t become “overstimulated”
- Decrease your dose. Sometimes I take as little as 50mg of modafinil, which is ¼ the typical prescribed dose.
- Co-ingest nootropics like l-theanine, lavender, or magnesium, which can help promote a relaxed state without sedation.
- Take frequent breaks and create a relaxing atmosphere.
#3 Stimulant holidays are highly recommended
Some people are wound a little too tight. If you’re an entrepreneur, growing your business is ultimately your responsibility. It’s not like being an employee, where you’ll still get paid even if business is slow.
But resist the temptation to become a workaholic, and make time for yourself. I’m not talking about carving out extra time to binge watch netflix. I’m talking about wholesome activities like spending more time in nature, calling up a friend, hanging out in a hottub, and listening to music while not doing anything else. You get the idea. There are so many ways to unwind. If you can only unwind in front of a screen, you’re missing out! Exercise is also a great way to reset your stress levels and the neurochemical milieu in your brain. See this article about exercise and emotional resilience to stress: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24822048
#4 Modafinil has a synergistic effect with nicotine
This suggestion is experimental, high-risk, and certainly not for everyone. If you’re nursing or pregnant, or your brain is still developing, I would avoid nicotine like the plague.
But nicotine is one of the most robust nootropics. It also stacks remarkably well with modafinil. That’s why both drugs are at the top of my list of the best nootropics (http://www.brainprotips.com/best-nootropics-2016).
Here’s what one researcher has to say about nicotine:
“To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have, bizarrely,” said Jennifer Rusted, professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University in Britain when we spoke. “The cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine in a normal population are more robust than you get with any other agent. With Provigil, for instance, the evidence for cognitive benefits is nowhere near as strong as it is for nicotine.”
Why does nicotine work so well? It’s a potent nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist. Nicotinic acetylcholine activation suppresses GABAergic inputs to dopaminergic neurons, which elicits dopamine release in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Nicotine decreases the risk of parkinson’s disease, markedly improves working memory, and is underutilized due to its association with tobacco smoking.
Nicotine’s pharmacodynamics are unique. It’s one of the few drugs that elicits dopamine release while also putatively protecting dopaminergic neurons. Most other dopamine releasing agents are ultimately neurotoxic. This neurotoxicity only manifests after chronic, high doses of drugs of abuse like methamphetamine.
Take a gander at an excerpt from this abstract about nicotine’s peculiar ability to protect the dopaminergic system.
Current evidence for neuroprotective effects of nicotine and caffeine against Parkinson’s disease (2011)
…Both retrospective and prospective epidemiological studies have consistently demonstrated an inverse association between cigarette smoking and PD, leading to theories that smoking in general and nicotine in particular might be neuroprotective. Nicotine has been shown in animals to stimulate the release of dopamine in the striatum, and to preserve nigral neurons and striatal dopamine levels in laboratory animals with lesioned nigrostriatal pathways. Coffee and caffeine consumption have also been shown in epidemiological studies to be inversely related to PD risk. Caffeine is an adenosine A(2A) receptor antagonist that enhances locomotor activity in animal models of parkinsonism. Theophylline, a related compound that has A(2A) receptor blocking properties, has been shown in one small trial to improve motor function in patients with PD. Recently, potent and highly selective A(2A) receptor antagonists have been developed that have demonstrated improvement in motor function in animal models of parkinsonism. Exciting findings are emerging that demonstrate attenuation of dopaminergic neurotoxicity with caffeine and other adenosine receptor antagonists in mice given the neurotoxin 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP), suggesting that these compounds may be neuroprotective..,
If you want to try stacking nicotine with modafinil, start with the lowest possible doses, e.g., 1mg nicotine plus 50mg modafinil. Note that nicotine has a very narrow therapeutic range. Slapping fifteen nicotine patches on your back is a bizarrely popular suicide method precisely because it’s so lethal in overdose. As far as nootropics go, nicotine is probably the most dangerous if you’re not careful.
#5 Protecting Your Brain on Modafinil
Modafinil is a widely-prescribed wakefulness promoting agent that is generally safe and well-tolerated at prescribed dosages.
But the theoretical possibility of tipping the balance toward excitotoxicity exists. Since modafinil enhances extracellular glutamate release in hypothalamic regions with concomitant decrements in GABA. This two-pronged action, whereby excitatory signaling is enhanced and GABA is suppressed raises questions about the potential neurotoxicity of modafinil in combination with other allosteric modulators of glutamate receptors, such as the racetams.
This line of thinking is highly speculative. There’s also evidence to the country, that modafinil has antioxidant and neuroprotective properties – like increasing the cortical phosphocreatine pool. But we can hedge our bets with common supplements like magnesium or vitamin D, green tea and foods like blueberries, cacao, curcumin and coconut oil. These are just examples of neuroprotective compounds.
Let’s quickly summarize how to get the most out of modafinil.
- Make sure to get the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours); don’t use modafinil as an excuse to sleep less
- Modafinil is most beneficial if your baseline level of energy, motivation, and anxiety is low. Modafinil can impair functioning in anxious people with naturally high arousal (see the Yerkes-Dodson law figure for evidence of this)
- Take breaks from modafinil use and give your central nervous system a chance to recuperate.
If you found this discussion interesting, see my vendor comparison post about where to buy modafinil (http://www.brainprotips.com/buy-modafinil/).