How a podcast host and a former NFL player, among others, created a market for pills that claim to boost brain function.
I'm sitting with a man named Gordon Cady and getting ready to swallow 700 milligrams of polyrhachis ants.
"They can lift 60 times their body weight, drag 100 times their body weight, and it used to be only available to Chinese emperors and whatnot," he says. "It was the cream of the crop." He tells me they'll provide us ginseng, protein, vitamin B, and a shitload of zinc. They taste like warm, spicy dirt.
Cady is in the business of selling nootropics, an amorphous classification of pills and powders that users say improve memory, focus, coordination, and spatial awareness. Still unregulated by the FDA, these products supposedly stimulate the production of the neurotransmitters choline and acetylcholine. Some products Cady sells, like phenibut, promise to reduce anxiety in users. Others, such as piracetem, noopept, and synephrine, are supposed to boost your mental capacity. Others still, such as adrafinil, are analogs of prescription drugs (in adrafinil's case, the wakefulness-promoting agent modafinil, sold in the US as Alertec), meaning that they have the same or nearly the same effects as their prescription equivalent.
Legally, these "smart drugs" are sold as "nutritional supplements" and can't claim to provide the same benefits as FDA-approved medicine. But, from personal experience, nootropics can definitely max you out. The ants, technically a "natural vitamin complex," give me the macho feeling of a fresh pump at the gym.
Many nootropic users are meticulous about the contents and qualities of the things they put into their bodies—they treat these substances like power-ups that can push their existence to some higher plane. Nootropic blends are called "stacks" and users on the nootropics Reddit forum are obsessive about cataloging stacks, down to the milligram.
The FDA's official stance on unregulated "supplements" is this: "Manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded. That means that these firms are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products before marketing to ensure that they meet all the requirements of DSHEA and FDA regulations." In other words, when it comes to supplements, buyer beware. (On Crystal Clear Supplements' online shop, many products carry the disclaimer that they're "for research purposes only.")
Cady sells nootropics online and out of his alternative-medicine storefront in Portland, Oregon. He calls his business Crystal Clear Supplements. He works from a small lab behind the kitchen, scooping and weighing and measuring and packaging. On a recent Tuesday, an old-school LG flip phone pings on his desk constantly with inquiries. Two impeccably clean fishtanks—one saltwater, one fresh—add a bubble of comfort. There's a red-footed tortoise named Obi walking around the house. Cady lives in an adjoining room, as does his roommate/employee, a 31-year-old named Austin Cook who goes by "Skwerel."
"I don't care about the hippie woo-woo shit," says Cook, referring to the immense network of mythology, pseudoscience, anecdotes, and the rare peer-reviewed trial, all of which make up the bulk of readily accessible nootropics information. "I'm not going to say something that can't be factually proven." He tells me this as he's barefoot, parting the tie-dye curtains that separate the house from the shop.
Over my three days with Cady, I take monster quantities of nootropics and botanical supplements off him: hundreds of milligrams of adrafinil and phenylpiracetam and noopept (for increased spatial awareness, mental acuity, focus, and anxiety); powdered deer antler (to improve eyesight and relieve stress); kratom (an organic opiate substitute).
Cady's journey to peddling alternative medicine began with an addiction to Adderall. At 13, the now-29-year-old was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed 40 milligrams of the stimulant a day. Ten years later, he found himself about to "successfully drop out of college" for the first of four times, unable to get out of bed if he didn't get a dose. "I found myself having to medicate to go to sleep: I would just drink excessively. From that fostered an alcohol addiction, alcoholism surfaces, and it's not funny, man," he says. "I was pretty well resigned to do that for the rest of my life, because I couldn't find any alternative or way to switch off it."
To quit Adderall while keeping his mental health under control, he decided to seek alternative treatment. But, lacking guidance on how to wean off the ADHD medicine, and now wary of the pharmaceutical world, he turned to the internet. After a tip from a friend and some research, he decided to replace his Adderall intake with adrafinil. Once ingested, the drug metabolizes into its chemical analog, the similarly named modafinil. Unlike Adderall, which messes with your dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin neurotransmitters to allow you to achieve a sense of focus (not to mention very possibly putting you in a euphoric state), adrafinil/modafinil stimulates several areas of the brain, leading, Cady says, to a more balanced sense of focus and wakefulness.
"It was only when I could slow down the rate of my lifestyle to a more healthy pace I realized that I'd been jumped up on speed all the time," he says.
I should note here that outside of the nootropic community itself, there are a lot of doubters. A psychiatrist who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subjects told me he was skeptical of the entire endeavor, and doesn't see Cady's story as particularly revolutionary. "In the case of addiction replacement, it's certainly not a departure from technology. It's just substituting one compound for another."
Though hard data and reputable trials are hard to come by, if you look around the web you'll find nootropic users documenting their courses. Despite Cady's reassurances that nootropics aren't addictive, some users on Reddit say they've developed dependencies to piracetam, a nootropic said to improve memory and help with depression. Others claim that while piracetam helped them feel happier, those feelings of well-being came with "brain fog" and exhaustion. Furthermore, no one knows exactly how these substances interact with FDA-approved prescription drugs.
The products that Crystal Clear Supplements and other nootropic merchants discussed in this piece sell are generally proprietary blends of different compounds. If you put enough stuff in your blends, you can get away with selling substances that might be illegal under other circumstances.
When I try the nootropics Cady gives me, however, I feel great. It's late afternoon and the world seems brighter, the air sharper, colors and sounds more distinct. I find that my thoughts are coming quicker, my social neuroses have oozed off, and I feel as confident as I can recall being as of late. Is this how Cady feels all the time? To what end can I push my potential?
"Substances, whether it be food that we eat or medications that we take, are tools for self-enlightenment," is how Monday Tammi puts it. Tammi is 38, lives in Cady's basement, and occasionally helps in the shop. She's a former electrical engineer for Intel's R&D department and her preferred nootropic is phenibut, which, she says, helps alleviate her fibromyalgia, as well as PTSD she incurred from an abusive relationship.
Throughout the week, I connect with at least a half-dozen additional nootropics users who say their use of the stuff has only led to positive results. One uses phenibut and adrafinil to keep focused. Another uses adrafinil to stay away from alcohol. One uses phenibut to stave anxiety and the desire for other illicit substances.
Later, while researching this article, I talk to dozens more nootropic users, from civil engineers in Denver to project managers in Seattle to writers in New York. Every time I met a nootropic fan, I'd ask how they heard about these things, and nearly every one of their answers (including Cady's) led back to the same place: a Feburary, 2012 episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Rogan, of course, is the standup comedian, martial artist, and former Fear Factor host who has become famous as one of the most successful podcasters in the country. He's also a "big fan" of nootropics. "I went down the rabbit hole a bit and became really fascinated by the subject," Rogan tells me. "Basically," he says, nootropics are "nutrients that supply the building blocks for human neurotransmitters."
Along with friend Aubrey Marcus, Rogan is an investor in the supplement company Onnit, which manufacturers the nootropic-heavy dietary supplement Alpha Brain. It contains nootropics such as vinpocetine, choline, and the herb bacopa.
When I asked Marcus about Alpha Brain, and how it might help people with certain medical conditions, he says: "You can't talk about any substance like that until it's approved for use by the FDA. A pharmaceutical drug is not a nutritional supplement."
Onnit went to the lengths of funding a clinical trial meant to show their product was not snake oil. The lead author of the study, Todd Solomon, is a neural investigator at the Boston School of Medicine, as well as a clinical neuropsychologist at the Boston Center for Memory. He says his team conducted the same sort of trial the FDA requires to approve a drug, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Alpha Brain was found to give a "mild" benefit to verbal memory, executive function, decision making, and impulsivity.
"This is really on the cutting edge," Solomon says of the field. "I've not been aware of any drug that's been developed for cognitive enhancement and approved by the FDA. The supplement world, because it's much less regulated, they can make claims and they aren't required to back it up."
But how did Rogan catch the body-hacking bug? When I ask, he points me to DJ No Name, a.k.a. Mike Nelson, a Bay Area radio personality currently at KFOG and previously of LIVE 105 and AC KLLC. And Nelson, in turn, told me about his nootropic evangelist: Bill Romanowski, the four-time Super Bowl champion and former NFL linebacker who was tied to the illegal steroid ring run by BALCO CEO Victor Conte.
"About the time Bill was promoting his book [ Romo: My Life on the Edge: Living Dreams and Slaying Dragons]," Nelson tells me, "he came into the studio with a signed copy and a Raiders jersey for my 30th birthday, about 12 years ago. We hit it off and he offered to start training me, which is when he started giving me the supplements. I talked to Joe about it, and, being Joe, [and being] into all things brain enhancement, he started getting into it."
But the former NFLer wasn't just a fan of nootropics, he was also apparently an amateur chemist himself: "Romanowski created his formula to help himself with the effects of concussions," Rogan says.
"I had 20 concussions documented, and another, you can probably say, 200 that were undocumented," Romanowski tells me. Nootropics, he said, "have literally been a lifesaver for me."
Romanowski couldn't find a supplement that helped his deteriorating mental condition resulting from those concussions, so he decided to concoct his own. He went to pharmaceutical scientists in Arizona to guide him. And that's where he heard about nootropics.
In 2003, right after his last year in the NFL, Romanowski moved to commercialize a combination of supplements that resulted in Neuro1, his commercially available product that claims to "support better memory, longer concentration, improved mood and sharper focus for physical energy and long-term brain health."
Sure enough, the ingredients of Neuro1 include a handful of nootropics, including piracetam and choline, significant substances in Cady's own stacks.
Romanowski also saw the burgeoning market for anything that could give people a mental edge. "I knew executives were taking ADD medication," he says, referring to the cabal of tech bros who take Adderall to get ahead of the competition. "I marketed Neuro1 for executives. I built it for myself."
"I wish I had this my last year (in the NFL)," Romanowski says. "Because I could have probably squeezed out another two seasons. I really do believe it does that much for the brain." Though he claims to know a handful of NFL players who currently use nootropics (he declined to name them) he says it is not a common practice. "It should be, but it's not."
"I'm just sharper, more on, more with it when I take them," Romanowski, who regularly appears on Bay Area radio programs, tells me. "When I don't, I feel lethargic, I feel punch-drunk." He says it would be disastrous for his broadcast career if he didn't take them: "If I don't take my stuff, it's literally like going into a football game taking downers—you're not going to play very well. For me, I'm not going to sound very good, I'm not going to come across with energy. I need to project the message that I want to get out there."
He also claims his supplement helped Tiger Woods on the golf course. "When he was winning in golf, he was taking Neuro1," he tells me. "That was after his dad passed. He was going through a real bad slump. I then started sending him Neuro1, a big supply every month, and literally he started taking off and winning every tournament for about two years."
(VICE attempted to verify this claim. In an email, Tiger's agent, Mark Sternberg, said: "Regarding your inquiry on Tiger, we are unaware of what you are asking." When I followed up with more specific details, Sternberg did not respond.)
Romanowski is into modafinil, too, though he can't remember who introduced him to the stuff. "Believe it or not, I'm not sure if it was Victor [Conte]," Romanowski says. "I may have been the one that turned Victor onto it. Because they used to give it fighter pilots, to keep them up. I was like, This is not on the NFL ban list, I think I'm gonna try it. I used it for at least two years." (Though the prescription drug wasn't on the NFL's banned substances list at the time, it is now.)
On my way out of Portland, I'm eating a capsule of phenibut every hour. Phenibut is commonly used in Russia, and was once used to help Soviet cosmonauts stay calm in space. Since nootropics aren't FDA-approved, there's no real guidance on how much—or even what—to take and when. So I'm experimenting.
What I feel is nothing like a high. I don't grind my teeth. I don't crave food, nor am I repulsed by it. It is a feeling that could only be described as close to precognition.
Hours later, I felt nauseous but couldn't keep my eyes open. I texted Cady: "Can you overdose on phenibut?" No, he reassured me, it won't harm you, you'll just fall asleep. And then I did fall asleep, but awoke in the middle of the night—14 hours later—to horrible stomach pain. All at the same moment, I dictated a nonsense email of absence to Siri, vomited full-force into the toilet, and told my girlfriend the cause of this was raw salmon I ate, not the mounds of nootropics I'd swallowed.
Then there was the clarity I'd been promised: To me, getting fucked up no longer seems responsible, sexy, fun, productive, or revolutionary. But neither does pushing yourself towards acuity to the point you end up covered in puke. But still, who wouldn't be entranced by the prospect of a permanently lucid existence? Why not try to move through life at our most effective, even if that involves taking chemicals of uncertain provenance? It is, in the most literal sense, the American Dream realized: a great experiment, a technocratic walking reverie. There is no great secret, no technological hurdle to overcome. It starts with a handful of ants.
Follow Dale Eisinger on Twitter.