Episode highlights

0:02:42 – Greg studied nutritional and medical anthropology after a career in the Navy

0:06:15 – Why the rise of nootropics and what are its benefits?

0:11:45 – Improving the body’s brain and muscle performance in a healthy way

0:17:55 – There is science behind different nootropic compounds

0:21:27 – How to use “stacks” to make up for deficiencies 

0:25:31 – Neurohacker adheres to the dietary supplement industry regulations

0:30:09 – Can nootropics help in up-regulating the immune system?

0:35:54 – Neurohacker has different products for different functions

0:41:14 – Mileage may vary: variations and contraindications 

0:46:27 – What to look out for in a nootropic product

0:49:28 – For better exercise results, invest in mental energy capacity


Fitness Guide





Welcome to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast where you can learn how to improve your diet, lose fat and get fitter in a sustainable and fun way, without spending hours in the gym. Here is your host, Darren Kirby.

Darren: Welcome back to the podcast, guys. This is the #1 podcast for dads in their 40s who want to improve their health and fitness. This is Episode 40 and joining me on today’s show is Gregory Kelly from the Neurohacker Collective. The Neurohacker Collective has a mission of creating best in class well-being products. The scientific approach focuses on supporting the body’s ability to self-regulate rather than overriding regulatory systems with chemicals designed to move a biomarker in a particular direction. The company began with focus on cognitive products with the launch of its Qualia nootropic line and will continue to provide comprehensive products for overall peak performance. Hi, Greg, thanks very much for joining me on the podcast today. How are you?

Greg: Doing fantastic. It’s a pleasure to be on your show. 

Darren: Thanks for taking the time. At the time we’re recording this, we are right in the midst of this global epidemic of Coronavirus, so before we start with the podcast, Greg, how are things with you guys over there? How are you coping with it?

Greg: I’m in California. I live in the San Diego area and California has a state-wide stay at home mandate so I’m working at home. We are allowed to go out for exercise, walk dogs, shopping, things like that, but I’m fortunate I live right by the ocean, so I can walk along the beachwalk. I live right by a footpath. Overall, I feel like I’m doing really solid with it and I feel like, compared to the average person, I have a lot of resources to keep myself both intellectually engaged and motivated to exercise during this time.

Darren: Perfect, good stuff. I think now it is more important than ever to, where we are able, to stay a little bit active, get some fresh air, get outside in some sunlight. It’s very good for our complete wellness right now. Greg, you are the lead formulator at the Neurohacker Collective, but before we understand what that is, can you give us a bit of background on you and your medical background and how you came to work at Neurohacker?

Greg: Sure, it’s been a long journey. I’m in my late 50s and my original degree was as an engineer and then I was an officer in the Navy during the Reagan timeframe in the US–mid to late 80s. After the Navy, one of my ambitions at that point after essentially having not much flexibility in my decisions over those five to six years, was just to travel a lot. I realised to get the most out of that, I had to be both healthy and able to take care of myself in a pinch. So I started studying things to do with self-help and came upon herbs, homeopathy, acupuncture, really the whole gamut. Started taking some classes that ended up turning into a major in nutritional and medical anthropology at the University of Hawaii and ultimately stumbled on what we call naturopathic medicine in the US, which is a small medical profession in the bigger picture, but it’s one that focuses largely on those modalities. 

I went to school, became a naturopathic doctor. During that time period, one of the big US supplement companies that at that point sold only into the health professional market, it’s called Thorne. Thorne Research was their name back then, and they wanted to hire student reps and it just so turned I was the one they picked. As a naturopathic student, I was actually going to trade shows, representing them, talking to health professionals about supplements, and then worked full time for them when I graduated. 

About a year into that, I wanted to start seeing patients and at that point in time (it was the ‘96-‘97 time period) the person that wrote Eat Right For your Type, the blood type diet, was also a naturopath. He had a year and a half waiting list because of the popularity of his book and I encountered him a few times at different conventions and the gist of it is he said something like, “You know, I don’t like many people, but I seem to like you. What do you think about moving to Greenwich, Connecticut?” So I did.

I practiced with him for a handful of years and then after that taught at a naturopathic university for a while, saw patients on my own and have stayed in the nutritional supplement world. A few years back, I really liked what Neurohacker was doing and so it seemed like a great fit. I have had lots of different weaves in and out of things, but big picture background is that I have a really strong anchoring in dietary supplementation and almost anything that would be in the alternative medical medicine space with, at this point, 25-plus years in that space.

Darren: It’s interesting. The alternative medicine space is something that I’ve only really been aware of for about 18 months to two years, but it does really feel like it’s starting to gain some more momentum and a lot of a more wider exposure. Why do you think that is, Greg? I might not be correct, but what do you think has led to the rise of nootropics and alternative medicines now?

Greg: I think there’s lots of things going on but I think one is in a lot of areas and I think the internet and everything that evolved out of that, has made it so that people are less reliant on so-called experts and more reliant on what happens if I self-experiment. The whole biohacker movement you could say evolved out of the quantified self and the self-experimentation movement of 10 or 15 years ago. And so now it’s just so easy to access communities of people that, unlike maybe my mom’s generation that would look to a so-called expert to what to do, people now don’t need the credentials to get it. I think the barriers more than anything have been disintegrated and there’s a lot more curiosity in all areas. 

My background would be Irish Catholic so all my ancestors came from different counties in Ireland, but there’s been a resurgence in speaking Gaelic there. I’m a big Barcelona soccer fan and in that part of Spain, there’s been a resurgence of their language. What I mentioned early on, my pre going to naturopathic school, it was University of Hawaii that I was studying at which also had re-embraced the Hawaiian language. So I think what we’re seeing is re-embracing a lot of things that would have been historic but got marginalised.

Darren: That all kind of makes sense. I think, particularly from my perspective, I would say that social media and the internet and YouTube and all the rest of it, we have way more access to information now than we perhaps have over the last kind of 10 years. Therefore, it’s much, much easier for us to research these things and there’s some amazing content out there online that you can find out if you are so desired, if you’re that way inclined to research and find out a little bit more about alternative types of medicine. With regards to nootropics, though, Greg, for people that are listening to this, how would you describe nootropics? What are they and how can they really benefit us?

Greg: What nootropics and really often you’ll hear words like either smart drugs or brain boosters, cognitive enhancers, they really the category of anything that can make our brain perform better. Here in the States, I think they caught on before becoming more mainstream in the biohacker world even, in Silicon Valley and high performance people, then I think university students started to embrace some of them. But really, what’s happened over even the last couple of years is nootropics are definitely going much more mainstream. 

A nootropic can be something as simple as a cup of coffee. I would think of coffee as literally the most used and studied nootropic and sports performance enhancing product with the caffeine that exists. And then Michael Pollan, he’s an author in Northern California, he wrote lots of excellent books, but he just did, on Audible, essentially a mini book on caffeine which was super interesting.

To wrap it up, there’s a huge range of things that fit in the nootropics space and one of the things that I’ve seen that I find really interesting is a lot of things that have classically been thought of as ergogenic. So ergogenics would be the category of things like your creatines, HMBs, etc., that improve essentially sports performance or muscle performance. What they’ve been finding over the last few years is a lot of the ergogenics actually are nootropics and some of the things that previously were thought of as nootropics, like some cholines and some of the adaptogens, are actually ergogenic. So there’s a real blurring of those two categories and I think in part it’s because our brain is our most active muscle.

Darren: Yeah, that kind of makes sense and I think the other side to it with the biohacking community, that has obviously highlighted the fact of nootropics. And I think the high performance around athletes looking to get improvements, whether it be performance, whether it be mental ability, I think that’s how I’ve come to start learning about nootropics, it’s through sport. I think for me, the attraction to nootropics is the fact that (and you can correct me if I’m wrong) it’s the ability to enhance in a healthy way the body’s natural resources that it has. I see it as an option to switch on or enhance various different functions to make me perform better.

Greg: Absolutely. There was actually a study I wanted to just mention. I get a daily digest from Science Daily, it’s essentially like a curated listing of new research in life sciences. One of the articles on March 24th was titled Brain or muscles, what do we lose first? The idea is we know that by the time we hit 50, both brain and muscle performance tends to just gradually decline. And we also know that there’s a strong relationship between doing physical activity and keeping a healthier brain longer. So it’s always been generally thought that the relationship was that the physical activity keeps the brain healthy, which makes sense. 

What this new research showed, and I’ll just quote from it: “Contrary to what was previously thought, cognitive abilities ward off inactivity much more than physical activity prevents the decline in cognitive abilities.” Which is like a super cool finding, but very consistent with a lot of other things in terms of like my framework for how I think about things. When I think of, say, like high level physical activity performance, at one point it was thought that the limiting factor was running out of physical energy. What science is really clear on is it’s actually mental energy that gets depleted, that then prevents us from doing more. So if we go into an exercise session with more mental energy, we’ll both perform better and be able to, instead of essentially zoning out towards the end, stay tuned in and be able to perform at our best through the entire session. 

In a real world, how that can manifest is that you go to your workout at the end of the day and find yourself just kind of going through the paces or less mentally focused through it, and maybe even disengaged towards the end. Which can mean like: “Oh jeez, I planned on doing 10 exercises, three sets each. I’m two thirds of the way through, I think I’m just going to call it a day.” That’s a mental energy thing and if we have more mental energy, we’re much more likely to be able to turn those good intentions into reality.

Darren: I can definitely relate to that, and I was talking to somebody else today, funnily enough, because of the sport of Iron Man that I do. I was saying that it gets to a point where you realise that, physically, your body’s pretty much capable of anything if you reach a certain level of fitness. Where you start to fall down is the mind, is the decline in your mental capacity to be able to tell your body to keep going. And so I can definitely relate to that. That’s super interesting, I’ll have to have a look at that article because I think that’s definitely valid. 

Greg: I will send you a link to it then we can put it in the show notes. Another thing, this was probably like six months ago, someone writing an article for a blog post or it could have been a newspaper here. She essentially called me and the premise of her article was that there would be some types of exercise that would benefit from being tuned in and others that would benefit from being on autopilot. And she’d already interviewed a few different people and they’d essentially agreed with her. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t disagree more strongly. There’s literally no form of exercise I know that benefits from being on autopilot. And she goes what about running? And I go, well, the difference between excellent runners and mediocre runners is that towards the end of the race, the excellent runners get even more focused and the mediocre ones are more zoned out. 

Even if we take something like meditation, good meditators aren’t zoned out. They’re actually really in the zone, their brain is working really hard. If we were to look at their brainwaves, we’d see really high amplitude waves. So sports, I think, is the classic example that we really need our brain if we’re going to perform at our best.

Darren: Yeah, definitely. I definitely agree with that. I think the more you’re able to have that mental capacity at certain elements, whether that’s when you’re training or in the race, you can make way more informed decisions. And I know this, I experimented with something a few years ago and this was taking MCT gels during the race. MCT is just fats really at the end of the day, but I found that because taking the MCT oil really kind of switched on my cognitive ability, I was able to control my race in a much more intelligent way. In a sense that I knew my performance was dropping off and so I was able to consciously make that decision to pick it back up instead of, like the lady said to you, you can just be unconscious. 

If you’re just unconscious, you would just let happen what’s happening, you won’t make the important decisions you need to make in order to pick the race back up or change your pace or whatever it is. So yeah, I think that’s very important. So, Greg, with regards to the science behind the supplements and how they work, can you just explain briefly how they work, how nootropics work? Exactly what are they doing when we are taking them and for what functions are they?

Greg: Within the category of nootropics is a huge range of things. The original nootropics were what are called racetams that in the US would be more in the medicine world as opposed to dietary supplements. But in the dietary supplement world, what you have are amino acids, herbs, nutrients, plant compounds like polyphenols. And depending on the individual ingredients, their mechanism could be vastly different. Let’s just essentially amino acids as a good place to begin. Our brain, one of the main things that uses energy in our brain is signaling and signaling starts with building a neurotransmitter. Key ones end up being acetylcholine which is made from cholines, dopamine which is made from tyrosine or phenylalanine, serotonin and melatonin which both start with tryptophan, the GABA glutamate pathway which starts with glutamine. 

In a sense, those building blocks are needed to be able at a most fundamental level to make these molecules that then are used to signal. And, at least in the US, choline ends up being something that most adults have a relative deficiency in, so essentially are not meeting the dietary intake needed to optimise choline levels. What I’ve seen our Institute of Medicine suggests at least four out of five adults don’t get enough choline. We don’t want huge excesses of choline but we definitely need enough to be able to make the acetylcholine molecule and acetylcholine also is super important for muscle contraction. And so it’s why things like Alpha GPC, which is a really bioavailable form of choline that can get into the brain, acts as both a nootropic and an ergogenic. For that one, the mechanism is that.

For something like caffeine, the mechanism would be completely different and would have to do with really overcoming the sleep homeostatic system, in essence, enhancing alertness. And so there’s science behind all kinds of different nootropic compounds and some have more… Especially when you get into herbs, the same herb might work on the acetylcholine system and the dopamine system, some things will work more for long term, some things will be like caffeine, much more of something you would notice in the moment. But what’s come out of the interest in both alternative medicine and nootropics is that some of these compounds just have a lot of scientific study behind them now.

Darren: Right, that makes sense. Essentially, what we’re saying is that the various different elements or what is commonly known as the stacks that we can use can be used to make up deficiencies that we have generally, but also can be used to enhance various different functions of the brain that we maybe want to increase or up-regulate. Is that fair to say?

Greg: I think, absolutely. And that idea of stacks I think is super important. Getting back to caffeine, whether it’s in coffee, teas, or it’s super common in pre workout energy drinks or pre workout powders, caffeine is really good. I tend to think of a pyramid, and this is how I would explain it so let me know if it’s not super relevant. 

The baseline of cognitive performance, we need to be awake. More than any other over the counter thing, caffeine promotes that vigilance, that wakefulness. And because of that, it helps with reaction times, processing speeds, but mostly it is because it helps us amplify that. Most compounds follow a Goldilocks rule where there’s one amount that’s just right and then too little or too much is not so good. Caffeine is one of those: too little, we won’t have the wakefulness potentially, especially if we’re sleep deprived, but too much and performance actually suffers because we get symptoms of being caffeinated or over caffeinated. 

I would say the nootropics zone for caffeine is usually thought of as anywhere from 50 to about 200 milligrams and for sports performance, you can go higher. But if you wanted to get more cognitive benefits than just that, doing more caffeine won’t; it will probably start to take away. To continue with your boost is when you start stacking things, so L-theanine or theanine, it’s pronounced by different people differently, is an amino acid-like compound found in green tea that stacks super well with caffeine and the combination gives much more what would be thought of as calm energy. What theanine does is it really dampens down stress but helps with some of the things higher up the pyramid than caffeine alone would do.

To finish this stacking analogy off, when I was in middle school and high school, I was one of those kids that did everything really fast but I also made lots of mistakes so I would have been classically thought of as clumsy. So being fast is important, but begin fast and accurate is obviously more important, especially when it comes to sports. So stacking choline with caffeine adds that accuracy piece and so you start to see those relationships as you stack different building blocks of individual nootropics together; you can get brain benefits that you wouldn’t get from any on its own.

Darren: And I think, to kind of really distil it down even further to keep it simple, what I like about these nootropics is it’s all through naturally occurring functions and chemicals that are in the body anyway, and we’re just picking the ones out where we want to get the most benefit from for a certain type of function or the tasks that we’re doing. And for me, I think from a longer term health perspective, that’s what attracts me to nootropics.

In terms of the different types, I know that when you talk about supplements, the supplement industry is more what I mean, it can be seen as kind of a bit darker in terms of how they’re produced, where they come from, and so you’ve got man made and then you’ve got naturally derived nootropics. From a Neurohacker perspective, where do you guys sit with that? Is it all naturally derived nootropics that you’re producing?

Greg: Since we’re a dietary supplement in the US, we have to follow all the dietary supplement industry laws. So, yeah, our products are made from amino acids, vitamins, minerals, herbs, food extracts and sometimes specific polyphenols extracted from a plant like a resveratrol or a quercetin. Most biohackers aren’t opposed to some of the manmade nootropic compounds, but it’s not something that we as a company can make ourselves. 

So like one of the founders, Daniel Schmachtenberger, if it was up to him, if we could get away with putting racetams in our product, we probably would. But when you do more powerful compounds, I guess my analogy is exactly in the exercise metaphor. I think how we think about things, our mental models, is super important. When I think of exercise, I think of adaptation. If we don’t take the time to recover, to alter our routines, to do the common sense things good athletes know that have to be done in order to continue to improve our performance, we’ll just plateau. 

That same analogy of adaptation I think happens with anything. To caffeine for sure: if we keep drinking coffee, what typically happens is over time, people need more and more to get the same benefit. But if we take short breaks from caffeine, then the system essentially recovers and the same low dose of caffeine can keep providing us the boost we need. 

So one of the things with nootropics, and we were one of the first companies, if not the first that focused on this, is that it’s really important to take periodic breaks. Our baseline recommendation is do our nootropic stack Monday through Friday or five days a week, whatever those work out for you, take two days off to recover. Just like you wouldn’t want to do the same exercise routine day in day out, recovery is an important part of continuing to improve. And then periodically maybe take a longer break just like you would have a deloading week built into your long term exercise routine. That mental model, that idea of adaptation, to me is super important. 

The way I think of adaptation with exercise is if I said, I want you to go out and do yoga for the rest of your life probably with very little days off, it’s not going to harm you. You might even continue benefit. But if I said go out and run a marathon every weekend, we’d probably cook you pretty quickly. So that idea of intensity and time is super important when you think of adaptation. 

The more intense something is, the time horizon where you’re going to overtrain to it is going to crunch down. Whether it’s a drug or supplement world, the equivalent of intensity is dose, so the higher the dose you do on something or the more drug you do, the more likely that over a short period of time, you’re essentially going to plateau and overtrain from it. One of the advantages to doing more of the natural things, especially if the doses are crazy high, is you’re going to spread out that benefit over a long period of time. Does that make sense?

Darren: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I think the analogy of the caffeine, that makes perfect sense if people can listen and understand that. Because whilst you might like coffee, it’s the same with everything. If you give something to your body, give it consistently enough, your body adapts and then it becomes the new normal, if that makes sense. To give your body a rest or relax from whatever it is you’re giving it, it’s the same with food, it gives the body time to change and adapt again. So yeah, that makes perfect sense. 

Obviously, in the time when we’re recording this, we’ve got COVID-19 and all the rest of it, but is there anything around the virus where nootropics could help? Could up regulate our immune systems or anything like that? Or is that completely off on a tangent?

Greg: I think we just don’t know enough about that specific virus to have great answers. But in a general sense, if you think about immunity, we have the immune system (and) usually the immune system is broken into two different parts: innate and adaptive. Innate, essentially, is all the things that would be nonspecific: our skin, our mucosal barriers, the gut microbiome, parts of the immune system like NK cells or dendritic cells that don’t have to have been exposed to something in the past to mount some kind of a defence against it. And then the adaptive would be more the learned immune system. 

That, I think of as our global immune system but then each cell has its own way that it defends itself against whether it’s viruses, cancer, being senescent, and the mitochondria actually play a huge role in that process called autophagy. I don’t know if that’s something that your audience would know about. That’s something like another internal process that cells use. When a cell is invaded by a virus, one of the things it does is it releases a lot of ATP, which is our energy currency of cells, into the space outside it and that acts as almost a warning system to other cells that hey, you better ramp up your defences. 

So, in a general sense, things that improve how our cells can function, improve how they can make energy, would allow them to defend themselves better against all challenges, so that’s really nonspecific general advice. In terms of this specific virus, it’s impossible to know which mechanisms are more or less important, if there’s any compound that’s more or less detrimental. But my intuition is what we would see is similar to something like the influenza which also strongly affects the oldest and weakest in the population, which is what this virus is doing. It’s no surprise that it’s essentially having the worst impact on the people whose cells would be the last able to make energy, to have a healthy mitochondrial network, to have these internal defences.

Darren: That does make sense and I think that whole autophagy thing and mitochondria, just in general outside of the virus, is so important to make sure that we pay attention to that and our cellular health. And I think there’s more and more stuff coming out about mitochondria now and it seems to me it’s becoming more of a mainstream topic of conversation. And a lot of people are talking about the gut microbiome, but the mitochondria, which is the energy in our cells, is super important. So, I think just from a general health perspective, exercise and all the rest of it helps with creating or recreating that. 

Around autophagy, I’ve been doing intermittent fasting and longer fasts probably for the last six months to use that process in order to regenerate energy and remove old cells. That’s what I understand autophagy to be doing.

Greg: Autophagy is essentially like a recycling process that happens in cells. What happens in mitochondria would be called mitophagy, the mitochondrial equivalent. What happens is a lot of the proteins in our cells and inside mitochondria have to get folded, unfolded, moved in and out of compartments. And over time, they just kind of get gunked up, that’s the whole idea of plaques that you hear about with dementia. And so autophagy would be a way to essentially target those and recycle them and turn those individual components–amino acids in those proteins–into new, better working versions of whatever that protein was. 

As you mentioned, fasting related behaviours, because we’re not bringing protein in, the wisdom of our body seems to disproportionately potentially target damaged proteins and recycle those when we’re not bringing proteins in. And you don’t have to have a long fast to boost autophagy. Valter Longo who wrote, I think Longevity Diet is the name of his book: he’s been a big researcher here in the US, fasting mimicking diet is his particular lingo for immunity, for different diseases. Just a short period of low protein–it doesn’t have to be a water fast–will boost some degree of autophagy and one of the first things that are essentially recycled are defective immune cells.

Darren: Yeah, that makes sense. In terms of the nootropics that Neurohacker produces, you’ve got various different products which provide various different functions. Can you go over those in a little bit more detail as to what they are and why you’ve created these certain categories?

Greg: Sure, I’d love to. I think the unifying principle behind all of them is the idea of energy. 

As we mentioned, our original product is Qualia Mind is the name of it, was a nootropic stack for the brain. But as it turns out, estimates are that the brain uses about 20% of all the energy our body produces in a day. We’ve talked about the importance of energy for everything from cognitive function to sports function. 

Our next product is called Eternus. My understanding is we’re going to be renaming these in the not too distant future, but Eternus is all about the mitochondrial network and cellular energy. So it was more a global product but one of the interesting things we’ve seen is that most people that have been on Eternus comment about a range of things from better sleep to exercise performance, but productivity tends to be a really common piece of feedback. People will tell me that I was taking this for my cell energy but it feels like, over time, it’s having a nootropic effect. 

Recently, I’ve been doing cognitive testing on a group of about 14 people taking Eternus over three months and very routinely, those have been improving, the tasks we’ve been doing. Which makes sense because if you’re improving global cell energy, the brain ends up using it, so there’s some nootropic benefit there. What I would say is the big differentiator is the Qualia product you’ll feel in a day and the Eternus we designed so it would be for most people something that would be more subtle and that they would notice over a month. And they are completely different in terms of what they go after. Like I said, Qualia is mostly a nootropic stack and cell energy is really geared towards supporting all the things that help our mitochondria perform at their best. 

And then our most recently launched product is a liquid, it’s a shot that we call a Nootropic Energy but it would be more in the Qualia line. I think of it to me as the perfect thing to take before a workout because it has quicker onset than the Qualia capsules and I designed it… I always have a working name for things when I’m developing them and testing them out individually, personally and with our team, and mine was “personal best” for that. Because it seemed like every time I took it, I would go to the gym for my weight workout and set a new personal best that day. 

And that’s that idea that you talked about with mental energy and how important that is especially towards the end when it’s easier to disengage or zone out. So those are our three main products and we’ll be launching a product that’s in the evening sleep category. Right now, we’re looking towards June for that launch.

Darren: Okay, that’d be interesting. The Nootropic, the energy drink, I’ve been experimenting with that and I’ve been taking it before doing long runs. What I will say is that I don’t necessarily feel any performance but again, I just feel a lot less mentally fatigued towards the end of a long run. A long run, I’m talking about an hour and a half to two hours. It’s not like I’m really struggling to finish the last part of the run; I can still feel it from a physical perspective, but from a mental perspective I’m way more alert.

Greg: One other thing too, it does have some creatine. Not a lot, like we didn’t go anywhere near the dose that bodybuilders or people that are focusing on building muscle mass would use for creatine. But creatine is one of the compounds our body makes that buffers ATP, so especially more for like high intensity things, the Nootropic Energy shot, I would notice personally more. For the long endurance things, creatine tends to bring moisture into cells, so it’s just important to stay really hydrated if you are doing creatine before a long workout.

Darren: Okay. We’ve talked about the fact that the way that your products have been designed is that you do them on a cyclical basis, so you will do it for five days and then you have two days off and we’ve talked around the benefits about that. But are there any other kind of side effects that people that haven’t taken nootropics before need to be aware of? And is it a case of if you are on medication, for example, for a long term illness or whatever, that you shouldn’t do nootropics?

Greg: With certain medications, for any of what I think of as the mood category of medications–antidepressants, anti-anxiety–we just wouldn’t have enough data on the individual ingredients to be able to make good recommendations, so we would typically default to saying these are largely for healthy people. That said, I do have doctor friends that use our products with their patients. 

In the biohacking community, there’s this acronym you’ll sometimes see, it’s an abbreviation for your mileage may vary, so YMMV. The idea is, and I think this goes back to the exercise community, they would definitely understand this, when I was in the Navy, I was on deployment for six months–left Hawaii, went to the Indian Ocean–and one of the people on my ship had been a weightlifter before. He was at the time, roughly my height and build and I weighed about 150 (I’m a 5’7” guy so not a huge guy) and he said he’d been up close to 180. And at the time, when we started our deployment, he was probably 140-ish, a little smaller than me, and we lifted together pretty much six months, and by the end, he looked like Superman and I’d gained maybe a pound of muscle. So he was a super responder and part of that was muscle memory.

I was a responder but what you’ll see in exercises is very relatively few super responders. There’s always a big group of good responders, like exercise benefits them. There’ll be often a small subset that for a particular type of exercise, it’s just not going to work for them. And then a subset that’s going to get hurt–the negative responders. My mental model anyways, is that those groups tend to occur in everything, whether it was a medication in a nootropic stack, a pre workout product: that you’re going to have always a subset of super responders, some good responders, some people that don’t notice anything, and some people that it’s not good for.

And the not good, often the same things you would see with placebos. The headaches, GI disturbances, they’re called nocebo responses in medicine. They’re the classic grouping of things that just happen when you introduce anything new. One of the things we do at Neurohacker and it is honestly one the main reasons that I came to work for Neurohacker, is instead of just putting together good ideas, putting it in a capsule and start selling it, we test all our products out with biohackers first and if it’s successful in that small population, then we’ll do a much bigger, essentially citizen science approach, and give it to a lot of people in our community and get their feedback. So by the time we launch a product, we have a good sense of what the proportion of super responders and good responders and even maybe non or negative responders is going to be.

In a big picture sense, what I would say is, our products don’t work for everyone but I’ve never seen any products that do. Our products work really well for in excess of four out of five people and we have never been able to get rid of all of the people that would essentially not experience something. Our kind of baseline or my baseline is that no matter what product you take, especially if it’s a nootropic stack, you should feel something very quickly if it’s going to work for you. And then don’t assume just because it worked for you for a couple of days that it’s going to keep working for you over weeks or months, because of what you mentioned earlier, that idea of adaptation. And with our products, we now have people that have been on our nootropic stack for years, taking it with that cycling protocol I’ve talked about and so we know for those people it’s continued to work well when dosed in that smart way.

Darren: That makes completely logical sense to me. There are obviously quite a lot of companies out there on the market now that are offering various different types of nootropics. What should us as consumers, as customers, look out for when we’re looking at a product? Because I’m assuming that not all products are produced how Neurohacker produces their products. For you guys, you’d like everybody to buy your product but the reality is people are going to go out there and look at other things in the market. From your knowledge and experience, what would you say are the things people should look out for when they’re looking at a nootropic product?

Greg: I would say the first one would be the amount of caffeine. Most nootropic stacks, at least dietary supplement ones, will have caffeine which is fine, but you want to make sure it’s in that nootropic zone–somewhere between 50 to maybe definitely no more than 200. If it’s more than 200, it’s pushing one pathway way too hard for most people. Somewhere closer to like 50 to 100 is probably going to be a good sweet spot, especially if someone’s also doing caffeine somewhere else, whether coffee or tea. That’s a good quick look. I would say anytime there’s caffeine, there should be that compound I mentioned earlier L-theanine, because they play really well together. When you see that stack, you know at a bare minimum, someone’s thinking of trying to get a better response for the caffeine in a product. 

The next would be cholines. Cholines end up being super important, as I mentioned, as both nootropics and ergogenics but they’re again not a “more is better.” The two most available cholines are Alpha GPC and Citicoline which often goes under a brand name… Cognizin is one of the more studied, but there are some other studied citicolines. Either of those or both would be really important because the less expensive cholines just don’t really get to the brain. Our brain’s a pretty picky eater in terms of what it lets in. 

Again, choline has to do like it’s not “more is better.” I would tend to think somewhere in the range of 100 to 400 or so milligrams of these nootropic forms of choline is going to be in the sweet spot to make up the gap between what people get in their diet and what they need. So those are like three simple things. 

Then there’s a range of herbs but in general, I always like to see that there’s at least one herb that’s put in there that would be classically thought of as an adaptogen–rhodiola, some form of ginseng, are often the most well known–because higher cognition does not work or gets sacrificed when we’re stressed out. Something to help with that stress component, I think, really adds nicely into any of these nootropic stacks. So those would be a couple of the core things I would always look for.

Darren: Awesome. I think that’s really sound advice. Before we wrap up then, Greg, what didn’t I ask you that I should have asked you which would benefit the listeners?

Greg: We did talk a bit about exercise and mental energy and focus. There was one study, I think I can pull it up here really quickly to share. This was one I shared when I was interviewed for that article about are there some exercises that benefit from essentially being zoned out. The title of the study was: The Level of Effort Rather than Muscle Exercise Intensity Determines Strength Gain Following a Six-Week Training. The gist of this study was it was a small study, just 18 volunteers, fairly young, and it was over six weeks. What they had them do was essentially a curling motion, like a biceps exercise, at very low weight, so about 30% of max, so super low intensity. 

What they did is they had three groups: one was a control group that didn’t do any exercise, one, they said do the muscle movement, but when they were doing it, they didn’t give them any extra guidance and they had a TV on in the background. So they were kind of the definition of less-focused on the actual movement. And then the third group, they said while you’re doing this, focus as much as you can on the actual movement that your arm is making. Again, this was super lightweight. 

At the end of the six weeks, no surprise, the people that did nothing, their strength was a little bit worse. The group that did the movement but didn’t focus had essentially no improvements in strength and the group that did this really lightweight and actually mentally focused on it, improved strength by 20%. Literally, almost all of the improvements occur through our ability to mentally focus. With heavier weight, it’s going to be a little different but that’s why I can’t really emphasise strongly enough how important it is to invest in our mental energy capacities when we’re doing exercise, if we want to get the most out of that time spent. 

Darren: I think that’s super fascinating because that just goes to show that it is a lot about focus and being present when you’re doing whatever activity it is you’re doing. You get the results; it’s not necessarily about the brute force of effort, is it? To come back to the person you mentioned earlier on in the podcast who was around “you just need to essentially do the activity and that’s all you need,” you can do it unconsciously–well, that just goes to show that that’s not the case, doesn’t it?

Greg: Absolutely. And then the last thing, your audience is about getting dads to commit to being healthier. I did a lot of research into weight and wrote a book about 10 years ago on weight, and a lot of the way we think about weight is just wrongheaded. But in a general sense, the idea of willpower, the analogy I like is thinking of willpower as a reservoir and so we only have a finite amount. Any new behaviour is going to deplete that reservoir: the more we ask someone to do, the more it’s going to get depleted and mental energy fits in very much with that. So when we’re asking someone to change their habits or to do new things, we actually need more mental energy than we even normally would because there’s a cognitive domain called executive function. But it’s essentially the part of thinking that allows us to do more of what’s good for us and less of what’s bad for us and that’s a really energy-intensive system.

So on that pyramid I talked about earlier, with caffeine being in the base and above that is your attentional level, that would be your cholines and theanines. Above that is executive function and if we don’t have those base levels of the pyramid taken care of, we’re just not going to get to the higher order executive functions that we need more of when we’re trying to become healthier. So I think nootropics really help with that. 

And then I tend to think of the top layer personally as social cognition: your empathy, your getting along with others, your emotional resilience, all of those things. What I’ve routinely seen in my life with friends and family is often we’ll leave the best social part of us at the office because by the time we get back home, we’ve essentially exhausted our mental energy. And the people that are more important to us get kind of the worst social version of us. Part of what I noticed most strongly for me with nootropics… and this wasn’t the immediate. The immediate effects were the things like focus, alertness, memory. But over weeks, to months, I started noticing that driving home at the end of the day in traffic, I was more unflappable, I wasn’t as irritated with traffic. And the same when I would get home at night, that I was just a better social version of myself. 

I think that all has to do with this idea of mental energy. When we have more of it, we’re less likely to draining the tank and especially if we’re doing our workout at the end of the day. I mean, I can remember times in my earlier life, having good intentions about working out and then driving right past the gym on my way home. All of those things to me are signs that we didn’t have enough mental energy to invest in all the things that were important to us that day.

Darren: Definitely, I think mental energy is something which is overlooked and sometimes we beat ourselves up about the fact that we don’t necessarily recognise that we don’t have enough mental energy. We’ll put it down to motivation and things like that, which I guess is part of mental energy, but being able to have more of that as a function, more of that in the tank, so to speak, enables us to be like you say, better versions of ourselves when we need to be in all the right areas. It’s super interesting, Greg. I’m trying out the Qualia Mind at the moment and I can say that it’s having a very good impact on my mental energy and my focus. So yeah, it’s a great product. 

Thanks very much for your time today, Greg. How can people connect with Neurohacker? How can they connect with you? What’s the best profiles and platforms?

Greg: Our website is Neurohacker.com. From there, there’s links to us on Facebook, Instagram, other social media, and we try to maintain a big presence, especially on those platforms and have way more of a community than we actually have in terms of customers. And then I fairly frequently write blog posts on the Neurohacker website; I’ve actually done a series on the more self-help things that would be general strategies for this COVID virus. Like the science behind washing hands as an example, the Japanese habit of ugai, which we would translate as gargling and the science behind that as something that reduces maybe cold or flu type virus symptoms. 

So anyways, the best way really is to follow us, I would say, on Facebook and Instagram, because we often will give out lots of what I would think of as content to our audience. Like I said, whether you want to buy a product from us or not, there’s a lot of great people that, because of the collective component of Neurohacker Collective, share their expertise. One area we also do that is on our own Collective Insights podcast.

Darren: Awesome. Check it out, guys. Check out the Collective Insights podcast, head over to Neurohacker.com, check out the blog posts, check out the products. I highly recommend it. We’re going to be doing a series with Neurohacker; this podcast is one of them and we’re going to be putting some videos out on our YouTube channel around the Neurohacker products as well. Greg, thanks very much for your time today and I look forward to speaking to you again soon.

Greg: Awesome. Thanks so much for having me.

Darren: Thanks for listening to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please hit subscribe and I would really appreciate it if you could leave a review on iTunes. All the links mentioned in the episode will be in the show notes and a full transcription is over at FitterHealthierDad.com.