How a smart drug helped me evade sleep and gave me superpowers. Well, almost
Here’s a confession: I’ve been trying out a popular nootropic or smart drug over the last few weeks. And the results have been surprising to say the least.
It literally blew my mind — in a good way. It allowed me to: go without sleep when I couldn’t afford to or didn’t want to; stay awake for long hours and yet function with crystal-clear clarity; get through meetings without dozing off. It also charged me with a bolt of energy and helped me think with astounding coherence (yes, in that sleep-deprived state). It almost made me feel like Superman, or at least like like his alter ego, Clark Kent’s super-journalist.
Kind of like in the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra goes from being a struggling writer to a financial wizard — and is propelled into a new world with danger lurking round every corner — with the help of a mysterious neural stimulant called NZT-48 (purportedly fictitious). The drug enables him to access 100 percent of his brain’s abilities and gives him astonishing mental clarity. Popular science would have us believe we use only 10% of our brain, which scientists say is a myth.
More about my experience with the smart drug a little later. First, let me cover some basics. Nootropics are drugs, supplements or substances that improve and enhance cognitive function, especially executive functions, memory or motivation in people. Some of them let you work more, focus hard and sleep less; at least, that’s the promise.
Nootropics are gaining popularity among professional gamers, college-goers and top company executives in the west. If you’ve been part of a startup, pulling all-nighters and chugging on Redbull, you’ve probably thought of trying them out! Back in 2008, when Michael Arrington ran TechCrunch, he wrote a piece on Provigil (also known as Modafinil) which called it the “entrepreneurs’ drug of choice.”
The most popular smart drugs are Adderall (a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate), both central nervous system stimulants, often prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Then there’s Modafinil — which is what yours truly tripped on for a few days — for narcoleptics or people who have trouble controlling sleep.
Some of these are prescribed to patients with diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. To be sure, not all nootropics are scary chemically synthesised drugs. Caffeine, fish oil and Ginseng can also be called nootropics.
You name it, we’ve done it
So, in the glorious tradition of trying out things early at FactorDaily, we decided to give this one a shot (hey, we’ve tried audio drugs, anti-hangover medicine, meal replacements and the Keto diet!).
The tablet that I tried is called Modalert (Modafinil), nicknamed Moda. It promotes wakefulness and is usually prescribed to patients who have narcolepsy, a long-term neurological disorder that decreases the ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. The drug is sold under various names such as Alertec, Modavigil, Modalert and Provigil.
Now, Modalert is a prescription drug. Which means you can’t get it from a pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription. But, in India, that’s not a problem. Just walk into any medical store and if they have it in stock, they’ll give you some. I bought a strip of Modalert’s 100mg tablets for an affordable Rs 122 from a local medical store. He’d have sold me more if I’d asked.
The tablet I tried is called Modalert (Modafinil), nicknamed Moda. It promotes wakefulness and is prescribed to patients who have narcolepsy, or trouble with sleeping
Since I was testing it, I kept detailed notes and observed myself closely from Day 2 of starting on Modalert. On the first day of the trial, August 31, 2016, I took only half a pill around 2pm. I topped it up with coffee an hour later, and it worked — I’d slept quite late the previous night (1am) and the pill helped me stay awake and alert throughout the day. That night, around 11pm as I was finally hitting bed, I was pretty convinced I could’ve spent a couple of more hours at my laptop, but decided to call it a night.
The next day, I woke up around 6.30am, as usual, and got to work around 10am. Kali, our tea and coffee supplier, turned up at 11.45am and I had my first cup of coffee followed by half a tablet of Modalert. I had an important meeting coming up.
The meeting went well, although I was feeling a little on the edge, like I might snap at people (it is reported to cause side effects like irritability, edginess and weight loss). I also had this inner glee you have when you know you are cheating the system. Considering the fact that I had a heavy lunch and a drink or two towards the evening, it was surprising how much I got done that day. I was still up at 11.45pm that night, although I started feeling sleepy around then.
But, the real test of the smart drug was yet to come. I’d been sitting on a story for a while and the deadline was fast approaching.
I pulled through the next few days without the pills. On the night of September 14, I popped a Moda around 11.57pm — my third one during the test — after everyone at home had gone to bed. I really need to step on the gas to finish my long overdue story. I put my phone on airplane mode to avoid distractions, turned on F.lux (a free software that warms up your computer display at night to match your indoor lighting) and switched on the soothing, red lights in the sitting room.
I was all set.
The next two hours were amazing. They were the most intense and productive two hours I’d spent while working on a story in a long time. I was writing this story about a nationwide hunt for a 13-year-old girl who had gone missing. I had earlier finished my reporting work and spent the most of the two hours listening to recordings, making notes and writing the story — which was pretty complex with many twists and turns.
On the night of September 14, I popped a Moda around 11.57pm… The next two hours were amazing— the most intense and productive hours I’d spent while working on a story in a long time
Around 1.20am, I took a break to clear my head and finished watching Jason Bourne, the fifth film from the Bourne series. Back from the break, I took a piss. (Nothing unusual about my urine, I remember thinking.)
Then, I had another five-hour go at my laptop — without a break this time. My mind was at its perceptive best, my senses alert, and I was wide awake, and thinking with absolute clarity. At around 6.30am, I’d finished writing a coherent narrative of over 2,000 words, synthesised from more than a dozen interviews, pictures and e-mails, with no small thanks to Modalert!
I sent across the story to my editor a little later in the day.
September 15, Day 4 of my nootropics test: The sun was up. I was still standing, but a little sleepy. I had a flight to catch to Goa, for the INK Conference 2016, organised by INKtalks, the next day. I slept through my cab ride to the airport. At the airport, I ran into Varun Aggarwal, the co-founder of Alma Mater, which sells custom T-shirts to colleges. We talked about startups, technology and stuff and lost track of time. It was a race to the boarding gate for me, but I somehow made it.
I slept through the flight and through my cab ride to the Goa Institute of Management campus where I was to deliver a talk on ‘Digital disruption in media.’
The next day, Day 5, I spent much of my time reporting and talking to my editor from Goa, who helped me spit and polish the story. At FactorDaily, we take this process very seriously. On 16 September, we published the article: Puujita, 13, F…Found, and it garnered many hits. Mission accomplished.
The next two days weren’t so busy. I spent my time between Goa Institute of Management and the Grand Hyatt in Goa, where the conference was held. The talks were amazing and really well curated. I didn’t have much use for Modalert.
Upon my return to Bengaluru, I tried Modalert one more time. This time, the effect was similar. I was more focussed and awake for longer. The fatigue and sleep deprivation, however, hits you the day after, so I slept it off during the weekend.
Superpowers? With some downsides
To answer the big question now: do nootropics work?
Well, they did for me. No, smart drugs don’t make you feel euphoric, like they show in Limitless, but they do help you work longer hours, and with a lot of mental clarity that the body’s need to sleep would have disrupted otherwise.
Moda helped me focus better and ward off tiredness. It increased my clarity of thought and enabled me to piece together the complex mystery of missing girl Puujita with great efficiency. It made me feel a lot more energetic too, although that lasts only a few hours the day you have the pill — the tiredness does catch on later.
Moda helped me focus better and ward off tiredness. It increased my clarity of thought and made me feel a lot more energetic. But, it also made me irritable and left me with a dry mouth
I didn’t feel any of the popular side effects associated with the drug, such as back pain, dizziness, or loss of appetite, except for minor irritability. However, I did feel that my mouth was a little dry and I was a lot more thirsty.
All in all, a performance booster. I would take it again if I had a deadline I was liable to miss because I was sleep deprived due to too much partying or too much working. But make it a habit? Probably not.
The interweb is full of loony science. Though smart drugs are known to be widely used, I don’t recommend using them unless you are willing to take a few risks. First, the long-term effects of these drugs on your mind and body aren’t well known (there have been some studies though). Second, the chances of your body starting to depend on it are also very real — a few days after I stopped taking Modalert, I recall at least three-four instances when I felt the urge to pop the pill. Also, if you end up using it too much, I’m pretty sure it will dull the effects of the drug.
Most importantly, don’t consider any of this as professional advice. I’m only a journalist trying to finish a story and not a doctor by any stretch of imagination.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.