Nootropics are trending right now in Silicon Valley.

A crop of new companies are selling these so-called productivity pills to “biohackers” looking to get an edge in work and life.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a biohacker or have never even heard the word before, chances are you already take a nootropic. Caffeine. That’s right. Your cup of coffee or tea isn’t just a hot beverage you drink because it tastes nice. It’s a vehicle for a productivity-increasing, brain-boosting substance some are now calling a nootropic.

The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist. It refers to substances thought to improve cognitive function, like caffeine. But the term also includes things you probably haven’t heard of, like piracetam, a substance concocted in a lab, and Rhodiola rosea, an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Once a little-used piece of scientific jargon, the word “nootropic” has become a big-time marketing term. Companies are using it to sell all kinds of substances. There are claims of raised IQs and increased amounts of productive hours. Venture capitalist firms like Andreessen Horowitz are funding nootropics ventures. And business analysts are predicting the industry is going to skyrocket.

An avid internet subculture lies at the root of the movement. Nootropic users have a lively subreddit with around 75,000 readers. And to get advice you can watch any number of self-proclaimed experts on outlets like YouTube. Many, like this guy Steve Cronin, are psyched about nootropics.

Cronin lists all kinds of substances, including drugs like Adderall and Modafinil, which is prescribed for people suffering from sleep disorders. But for most nootropics you don’t need a prescription. You can buy the supplements online from a growing number of nootropic startups. Many have been founded by aspiring tech entrepreneurs like Eric Matzner.

Matzner has a company based in San Francisco called Nootroo that sells two pills — one gold, one silver. They both have caffeine, along with less-known substances like Noopept. KQED Future of You spoke with Matzner about his products and what’s in them for this story on the science behind nootropics. Matzner is proud of his formulas. He wears one of each pill in a necklace.

Eric Matzner wants more people to take a daily nootropic pill.
Eric Matzner, founder of Nootroo, wants more people to take a daily nootropic pill. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Research Purposes Only

Matzner encourages people to take his pills daily, but he says they are not dietary supplements. On the pill bottles, it says they are “for use in neuroscience research only.” Matzner says that’s to protect himself legally because there is not an FDA “category for substances that enhance the brains of healthy people.” The nootropics pills are not tested and reviewed by the FDA, and they wouldn’t be even if he sold them as supplements.

The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements the same way it does drugs. Back in the ’90s the supplement industry fought off moves for closer oversight. They ran TV ads like the one below. It shows a SWAT team breaking into a man’s house to arrest him and take away his vitamins.

[Spoiler alert: The man in the house is Mel Gibson. He delivers a line that became famous in the battle to deregulate supplements.]

Today, if a substance is generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, it’s relatively easy for a company to start selling it, says UC Berkeley nutritional scientist Marc Hellerstein. He thinks the brain-boosting benefits of most nootropics are totally unfounded.

“All you got to do is make a claim, read a few rat studies, and you can market stuff on shelves and make a lot of money,” Hellerstein says. “There is almost never a proper study that anyone in real medicine would accept as showing efficacy or benefit in human beings.”

Not Just for Biohackers

Many in the nootropics community would dispute the assessment that there’s no science behind their supplements. They arm themselves with studies and anecdotal evidence about the substances they take.

The fledgling nootropics companies are spurring the charge for legitimization. One San Francisco company called Nootrobox says it’s planning to do some testing on its products with a university in Europe. It’s part of the company’s push to make its products mainstream and reach more customers outside Silicon Valley’s biohacking community.

Nootrobox doesn’t just make and sell pills. It now has consumer-friendly chewable cubes with a familiar coffee taste. They’ve got three flavors: latte, mocha and drip. Geoff Woo, one of Nootrobox’s co-founders, says he hopes the cubes will one day be on sale near the cash registers at convenience stores.

Woo and his co-founder, Michael Brandt, are both Stanford computer science grads. They have a few million dollars in venture funding and grand ambitions.

Brandt says the company wants to rebrand work as something fun. Nootropics, Brandt says, can help people feel good on the job and make the daily grind more fulfilling and less grinding.

“I think if you actually flip the frame and think about work being incredible and you’re writing the next great American novel or you’re designing some app,” Brandt says, “then it’s very fun. You want to dig in more to it.”

But most workers aren’t writing the next great American novel or developing world-changing apps. They’re working to earn a living. Still, Brandt thinks his company can help make work fun and that everyday folks will add nootropics to their vocabulary and daily routine.

Beyond Nootropics

Companies like Nootrobox and Nootroo draw many of their customers from Silicon Valley’s community of biohackers. This is a group of people that does far more than pop nootropics to achieve maximum productivity. Take the case of Dan Wiggins.

Dan Wiggins has done far more than drink coffee to try and increase his productivity levels.
Dan Wiggins has done far more than drink coffee to try and increase his productivity levels. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

I spoke with Wiggins at a weekly meetup of biohackers at a cafe in San Francisco. They come to trade tips and find solidarity as they try to hack their bodies. Many are fasting, which they say helps improves focus. Others, like Stephanie Haughey, are taking dozens of daily supplements — between 50 or 60 a day in her case. That’s known as a “stack” in biohacker lingo.

Biohacking has a range of definitions and includes a variety of activities. There is a more extreme wing where people are actually trying to augment their body with hardware. Some have implanted magnets and LED lights under their skin, and these will probably be some of the first images to pop up if you type biohacking into a search engine. Be prepared for glowing human body parts.

But Wiggins and the other self-described biohackers at this breakfast are not implanting hardware so they can glow in the dark or whatever it is that people want to do with magnets under their skin. No, people like Wiggins are trying to become more effective, especially at work. For Wiggins, the impetus to optimize came from the hypercompetitive tech startup world.

“It started about nine months ago when I was working on my own startup,” says Wiggins. “I was trying to figure out how do I get 10, 12, 14, 16 hours of productivity per day.”

How it Begins

Wiggins started with some measures that might seem familiar to anyone wanting to make a life change. First he altered his diet, exercise and sleep routines. Then he began taking supplements and experimented with prescription drugs like Adderall and Modafinil.

Modafinil, by the way, has become a hot drug in the tech world. There’s a whole subsection of the nootropics subreddit where people share questions and experiences about this drug. See in the photo below. Also, notice the pill-shaped “i” in the nootropics subreddit title — it’s a little testament to the group’s interest in capsulated compounds.

Directions for posting on the nootropics Subreddit
Directions for posting on the nootropics Subreddit (Screenshot)

Biohacking can be a slippery slope. Just ask Dan Walsh. He works in marketing and started taking some nootropics in the morning a few years ago. “Then a heart rate monitor got involved,” Walsh says, “then different supplements started slipping in, and before you know it I was electrocuting myself.”

He means that literally. He hooks up electrodes to his head and shocks his brain.

Now we are not talking electroshock therapy here. It’s just a tiny 9-volt battery, very subtle. This is a thing. You can buy kits online to do it. Walsh says the kick is the same as eating a whole bar of dark chocolate. Although you aren’t eating chocolate. You’re jolting your brain.

“I approach it from a kind of kick in the pants kind of way,” Walsh says, “like I am really stuck on this creative problem and then zzzz, and let’s see what happens. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t.”

Help With Hacking

For extra help sorting out their different body hacks, some go to doctors like Vinh Ngo.

Dr. Vinh Ngo helps patients get prescription drugs to try and increase their productivity.
Dr. Vinh Ngo helps patients get prescription drugs to try and increase their productivity. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Biohackers come to Ngo’s San Francisco office looking for an edge — an edge most doctors won’t give. “They’re coming in asking like, ‘Hey I am a CEO of this company, I sleep like 4 hours or less,’ ” Ngo says.

Ngo helps them get prescription drugs like Adderall and Albuterol, which is used for asthma. Ngo has some patients sign waivers acknowledging their behavior could be dangerous. Sometimes people lie to him to get drugs they think will make them more productive.

“So I’ll be like, ‘Look, you can be honest with me,’ ” Ngo says. “You can say, ‘I’m here to get ‘X’ drug and I’m doing it for this purpose.’ Then I can say, ‘OK, I’ve worked with people like this. Let’s do this safely.’ ”

Next-Generation Coffee

Most people who take nootropics aren’t going this far. Many, like Dawn Currin, just wanted to be a little more productive and feel a bit better at work. She’s a 33-year-old business analyst for an IT company in Washington, D.C. She doesn’t consider herself a biohacker, but she does takes nootropics every day. She thinks of them as her generation’s coffee.

“We went as far as we could with caffeine,” Currin says. “Everyone was getting tired of Red Bull. And we started drinking yerba mate. And someone was like, ‘Hey, nootropics. Let’s check what that’s all about.’ ”

This is the kind of insatiable quest for productivity-inducing substances that new nootropics companies are banking on. If all goes their way, in a not too distant future we’ll all be waking up in the morning and popping a few pills before we head off to work.

Nootropics, Biohacking and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Productivity 6 September,2016Sam Harnett
  • BAG510

    There is nothing good in this.

  • cwestsf

    I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for 15 years. Back in the early 00’s, there was the same nonsense going around, they were called “smart drugs” or something else, and became popular with ravers who were willing to shell out $10 a pop for “smart drug shakes” (containing things like the amino acid Tryptophan, today taken as 5HTP) in lieu of alcohol at events. That didn’t last too long, people soon realized they were expensive and did nothing. And now it’s back!

    You can pop stimulants and your “focus” and energy will improve for a while. But you can only do speed (or some variant) of that for so long, before you crash. I think there’s this belief among many 20’s somethings that their brains just need X or Y or Z to get “upgraded”. Well, no, neither God nor nature ever really wanted you to get “upgraded”. Overclocking your computer isn’t good for it (to borrow from the computer analogy that is totally absurd), and overclocking your brain isn’t either. There are probably enough guys in Silicon Valley with bipolar disorder (or just plain drug addiction) who promote this notion of “your best self” and their ideas of how to become that person. But these people aren’t around during their “down time”, recovering from their delusions of grandeur and working their way through the depression that follows.

    There is nothing new under the sun, and this generation has just picked up the same myths that the previous one debunked. But I have no doubt that there are wealthy people willing to throw money at promises of a chemically upgraded life.

    • nhr215

      You also have a massive Autism-Aspergers population in Silicon Valley. These guys don’t care about relationships, personal life, family, children, hobbies, etc. Their only drive in life is to work in front of a computer screen for as long as possible to solve whatever puzzle or coding challenge in front of them. Naturally, taking supplements to make them better at this makes perfect sense to them.

      • Ms. T

        Excellent summary of the situation. Very few of these supplements do anything useful except increase focus and attention to detail. For those of us who seek the opposite lifestyle, and are finished with being stimulated 24/7 and have chosen to reconnect with the world that these worker bees have left behind, I highly recommend cutting down on caffeine, increasing your green tea intake, and supplementing with L-theanine while maintaining a disciplined mindfulness meditation practice combined with an exercise regimen.

  • Professor of Economics

    Where can I find the link to the broadcast of the second part in this series?

  • Paul

    L theanine is marvelous. Combined with espressos, adeno b12 and methyl folate – wa lah! improvements for all my friends!

    • Ms. T

      L-theanine actually works, unlike most of the other drugs, and has the least side effects.

  • Jack Oswald

    “Biohacking” could also be renamed “Executive Doping”…just had to get that out there. Here’s a better tip. Get the human body to work at its best normal state per our evolutionary biology without “tweaking or cheating the system”. All biohackers will be amazed at how much more mentally alert, energetic and capable they will become. The real secret is in the gut and its not about probiotics. As one reporter mentioned to me recently, we have achieved “peak probiotic”. They are generally a waste of money. What hasn’t been talked enough about is the fact that your commensal bacteria, the one’s you already have, need resources to function properly so YOU can function properly. Think of the community of bacteria as a manufacturing supply chain/ecosystem. Each factory needs raw materials and energy. Some factories make finished products like the short chain fatty acid (SCFA) butyrate (which provides the majority of the energy your colonic cells need to function) while others make intermediate products that are then “finished” in yet other bacterial factories. Each bacterial species has its own carbohydrate preference profile. A plant-based diet will only feed a portion of our bacterial factory ecosystem. The balance of the organisms need a type of carbohydrate that is only manufactured by other bacteria. These are called maltosyl-isomatlo-oligosaccharides (MIMO) and not to be confused with IMO which is “fake fiber” and to be avoided. It’s bad stuff. The MIMO sources of energy are found in traditionally fermented/preserved foods like sauerkraut as well as sourdough bread made using heirloom wheat (or other whole grains) and slowly fermented over 24 hours. Biohackers…listen up…if you don’t eat prodigious amounts of these types of foods, your gut cannot work correctly. You need to get MIMO into your diet daily. (Once source is ISOThrive http://isot.us/jo). Taking “hacks” is a folly without getting the full system of what we call a “human” working correctly. It’s equivalent to having a sputtering engine, which is primarily caused by a faulty fuel pump, and replacing the spark plugs with super high end plugs. You might notice some minimal improvements but you haven’t addressed the fundamental problem with the system. the engine is eventually going to fail. Biohacks could likely lead to the same bad end. Most people who take MIMO daily experience better sustained energy throughout the day, improved mental clarity, as well as better and deeper sleep, among other general health improvements. Go ahead, hack away, but if you really want to be a “super” human…feed your gut factory supply chain what it needs most, the one source of energy that is missing from just about everyone’s diet…MIMO.

    • nhr215

      Are all the traders on wall-street pounding cocaine using nootropics then? Wow! This scene is a lot bigger than we thought! Looks like the Medellin Cartel is the #1 Nootropics vendor on the planet

    • Ms. T

      Actually, probiotics work and there’s a lot of recent science on it.

      • Jack Oswald

        Please share links to such science. We follow this topic rigorously and have not seen anything other than anecdotal evidence…not real science.

        • Ms. T

          I’m sorry, are you serious? Probiotics is one of the hottest research areas in medical science. Have you checked the voluminous number of papers published just this year? PubMed has many online for free.

          • Jack Oswald

            Yes, I have. Please share…in the absence of evidence…I am not convinced. Pubmed is fine… please point me to specific evidence of your claims…I have not found them.

          • Ms. T

            Gastroenterology uses probiotics and recommend their use based on solid empirical evidence. I haven’t a clue what you are talking about.

          • Jack Oswald

            In fact I was speaking this morning with one of the leading GI docs at Stanford Medical School about this very topic. He was lamenting the dearth of such evidence. That is why I am requesting that you prove your point with actual references.

          • Ms. T
          • Jack Oswald

            That piece is all opinion and the citations are fairly weak. Please refer to this article from the NYT citing studies that how lack of effectiveness. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/03/probiotics-are-common-in-hospitals-but-evidence-is-lacking/?_r=0

          • Ms. T

            You’re mistaken. That piece is a brief review of the best evidence directly cited to the best sources in the medical literature.

  • nhr215

    Nootropics, what a nice self-serving ego-gratifying re-definition of the word “supplement.” The article is about a bunch of millennial in the tech scene in SF taking lots of supplements. Of course, since there is no way to prove efficacy, its a great business for people who have no scruples. In the old days, this was called “snake oil salesmen.” But with where we are in newspeak in 2016, we call them entrepreneurs and they get a nice little ego boost. In reality they are selling crap, they know it, and they are doing it solely because it makes money. Basically, they have no scruples, no morals. These are the yuppies of this era.

  • Shane McNamara

    Check out BrainNerd www.
    BrainNerdpill.com

Author

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech, capital and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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