'Biohacking' Entrepreneurs Turn to Smart Drugs to Supercharge Their Productivity
Around 7 a.m., Dave Asprey rolls over in bed and reaches for the pills on his dresser. There’s the thyroid hormone, the testosterone cream that he rubs in his armpits, and the cognitive enhancers phenylpiracetam and aniracetam. Depending on the day, he’ll pop a ciltep capsule, then take another two supplements he created himself: Glutathione Force, which, he says, "is required for the brain and helps the liver break toxins down," he says, and something called Upgraded Aging, "which changes the ratio of two things in my cellular energy." Cellular energy? "It's an alternate fuel source in my brain."
After getting up, Asprey, 41, ambles into the kitchen, where he uncaps an amber bottle and draws an extract of coconut oil, which he puts in his "lowest toxin, highest performing" Bulletproof coffee (sold on the website of his company Bulletproof Executive). He brews this in a French press, adds a tablespoon of unsalted butter from grass-fed cows, then puts the whole thing in a blender. The frothy concoction, he gushes, is magic. And it’s all he’ll be having for breakfast.
This kind of diet was unimaginable when Asprey was 20 and weighed 300 pounds, so ravenous he could hardly think. He ate to cope with emotions, which veered from clear and decisive to insecure and frozen with fear. "I would come out of a meeting and I would have no idea what happened,” he says of those years spent doing strategic planning and product development at infrastructure-as-service companies including Citrix and the now-defunct Exodus. "I didn’t have the energy or the power to do what I was capable of doing," he says. "I was scared to the point where I bought disability insurance, because I got to the point where I wouldn’t hire myself."
Asprey grew obsessed with his physicality, from the quality and duration of his sleep to the fat content of the foods he consumed. And the more he studied himself, the more he realized he wasn't just after a pick-me-up; he craved that feeling of being on, all the time, fully plugged-in. At a friend’s suggestion, the then 25-year-old took a handful of nootropics, also known as smart drugs, and everything came into focus. When he dropped 50 pounds in three months, "I fired my doctor and started taking smart drugs without supervision."
You won't find the term biohacking in a standard dictionary, but according to the entrepreneurs I spoke with, the concept entails all manner of advanced techniques aimed at turbocharging your body for work. For some that means the use of smart drugs like modafinil or armodafinil, while for others it means occasionally slapping a sensor on your chest to record biometric data for cognitive therapy, which varies from quick and relaxing to very intense. For Asprey, it means all of the above.
At first blush, some might assume the goal is to be fitter and happier. But from what Asprey and others told me, they were far more concerned with being productive and overcoming the realities of life that inhibit their progress than they are with their relationships and their personal well-being. Being a Silicon Valley outsider, it’s hard to grasp why someone would want to alter the very core of their being. But perhaps any founder trying to build a company would be willing to pop a pill that could let them clear all their hurdles.
A 'Power Through' Culture
It’s no secret the tech industry glorifies long hours and sleep deprivation. Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg is known for feeding her children dinner and then returning to work. And Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has said she only needs four hours of sleep to function normally. Even her definition of burnout differs from the norm: "I don’t think that burnout comes from not getting enough sleep or not eating enough square meals," she told BuzzFeed in 2012. "I think that burnout comes from resentment … It is possible to work ‘too hard,’ but you need to figure out what things it really is you need to stay fueled up, to stay energized, to not get resentful."
Hacker culture has also nurtured the trend, priding itself on "powering through" long sessions behind a keyboard, whether that requires a few beers to take the edge off, or popping some Ritalin or Adderall to maintain focus. "The idea of wanting to understand something, wanting to tinker, wanting to improve--I think a lot of people have that trait now, and more people will," says Robert Rhinehart, the 25-year-old founder of Soylent, the Silicon Valley firm behind the powdered drink mix. "The body is the next fascinating machine and it holds vast potential."
Rhineheart, a regular user of smart drugs, isn’t surprised by their popularity among young professionals. "There’s a lot to be said for a good work-life balance, but if you can be more productive in less time, you can have more time overall." Besides, he adds, "nootropics are safer than other things."
Mobile entrepreneur Jesse Lawler has similarly observed smart drug use becoming more common in his circle. "People using it aren’t talking about it as openly, but I hear a lot about modafinil, armodafinil, and caffeine, which is always a big one." In fact, Lawler, 37, a frequent traveler who hosts informational podcasts about smart drugs on his website SmartDrugSmarts.com, says off-label use of these wonder drugs is "massive." "One of the guys who works for me is a mobile developer and I’ll give him some," he says with a chuckle. "We’ll snicker that I’m giving him drugs, which is technically true."
Nootropics are classified Schedule IV drugs, meaning the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration claims they have low potential for abuse and risk of dependence. The drugs are legal to take in the U.S. with a prescription; it isn’t legal, however, to buy them online or to ship them without one (though websites like mymodafinil.net make it as easy to buy them as anything else available online).
This is cause for some alarm since many smart drugs were never intended to make people smarter in the first place. Modafinil, the rock star of nootropics--it may have inspired the fictional pills in the movie Limitless that allow the main character to maximize his brainpower--was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 for the treatment of narcolepsy. Some doctors prescribe it for anxiety or depression as well. Young entrepreneurs, however, are only looking for the same effect that Asprey claims to get from his coffee.
Your Brain on Smart Drugs
Modafinil often gets compared to amphetamines, but the overall consensus is that it clears your mind without speeding it up. It is this feeling of being focused and eager to work makes the drug so alluring to these entrepreneurs. The more you take, the longer it works, and any given dose can last up to 15 hours.
"I’ve never taken it myself, but apparently it’s pretty mild," says James David Adams Jr., associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy. "Probably what happens the first time you take it is you start feeling better within 10 to 20 minutes. And then if you’re a student, you’re going to start thinking, ‘I’m not afraid to take this exam! Or, 'I'm less afraid to take this exam!’ And you’re more able to study for the exam."
Lawler has been experimenting with smart drugs for so long he’s gotten the timing down to a science. "If I take modafinil in the afternoon--let’s say after lunch--I can use the extra oomph. I’ll take half a pill--say, 100 milligrams, which is on the low end--and can keep going until 2 a.m. and still be productive." He’ll wake up early the next morning and be zonked by evening, but he’s "never really suffered an issue."
When Lawler takes Aniracetam, "it's like a sort of multitasking mini-euphoria, where you get a lot of ideas, but you're always ready to move on to the next one," he says. "It makes me feel very much like what I imagine a techno deejay feels like, constantly looking for the next piece of music to cut in, find an interesting segue, then BAM! You're onto the next thing."
For Asprey, taking smart drugs was the most viable way to sustain his executive coaching business. "As a young guy, I didn't have the emotional stability that I wanted to have, and a big part of that was nutritional and was a solar energy problem," he says. "Through biohacking, I realized that by changing the environment around me, and the things that I put in my body, I could radically change the quality of my day and what I get done."
It’s a convincing argument, but Adams Jr. doesn't quite buy it. To his mind, taking smart drugs is no different than popping Adderall before an exam. "You have the sense that you’re not good enough to ace the test, so why even bother studying? But while the drugs help people feel better, it doesn’t improve their performance in the long run." Initially it helps them get over their fear, "but it’s the [drugs] talking, and then later they found out they got a B-minus on the exam."
And though they're said to be non-habit-forming, smart drugs can produce ugly side effects, including drowsiness, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and hives. "Any pill that you take, your body will adjust to it, and that includes caffeine," warns the professor. "If you’re relying on these drugs, eventually they’re going to fail you. You’re going to use them so much that your body just doesn’t respond to them."
If developing an immunity becomes an issue, there’s always sleep hacking, something Asprey has been doing a lot lately. To get to sleep faster, he's nixed ambient light from his bedroom--"if there’s even one blue light, your body won’t make melotonin"--and keeps the temperature cool. He sleeps on a firm mattress, uses an app to track his sleep quality, and wakes at the top of his cycle, when he feels most awake.
But he remains in awe of the smart drugs. "You can’t accuse me of doping when everyone knows what I’m taking and it’s not against the rules," he says. "That said, if it was against the rules, I would do it anyway."
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JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer
Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.