Nootropics: The Self-Isolator’s New Best Friend?

With months of social distancing and working from home on the horizon, how can we sustain motivation and productivity? We’re exploring the world of nootropics, the psychoactive substances designed to improve cognitive function and boost your mood.

Time was, working from home felt like a luxury. Now, it's a necessity. With two to three months of social distancing on the horizon (at least), you might be questioning just how you're going to sustain motivation and keep your head in the digital boardroom.

Enter the world of nootropics, a medical minefield of psychoactive substances designed to enhance cognitive function and boost your mood. First things first: what on earth are they? You've probably popped a few in your time; if a morning coffee is essential, you're likely a nootropics addict. The word's etymology is Greek, comprised of "noos" (mind) and trope (turning or bending). It covers everything from caffeine to CBD to modafinil - a "smart drug" commonly prescribed to adults with ADHD and used illicitly by university students hoping to pull an all-nighter.

Most interesting of all, nootropics are increasingly becoming part of the arsenal used by high-functioning wellness doyennes. Gwyneth's at it already. On you'll find "nerd alert" soft chews pumped with caffeine and L-theanine - a naturally occurring component commonly found in green tea - while Net-a-Porter's beauty department is stocked with a handful of noo-trified edibles packed with chemically complex plant extracts to "help [users] stay energised" and to "enhance mental performance".

As we enter an unprecedentedly long period of working from home, it's important to consider exactly how these circumstances might impact our mental health. Half-baked home workouts, tinned nutrition and a lack of social stimulation are a toxic recipe for sluggishness. 'Scuse my directness, but it's only been ten days and I'm officially slumping.

Could nootropics keep self-isolation scaries at bay and enable a higher level of productivity than usual? For some, ingesting these psychoactives is not only a way of life, but has provided a shortcut to success.

"I can honestly hands-down say I wouldn't be where I am now professionally without it," explains Ellen (not willing to disclose her real name), a 26-year-old professional working in education from Hampshire. "I wake up at 4, take a [modafinil] pill and then go back to sleep. I usually have a second alarm set for half 5, by which time the drug's in my system and I'm ready. It's crazy; my productivity for the next four hours is just insane." How does she take her morning coffee? "Milk, no sugar, 200mg L-theanine."

Like anything that sounds too good to be true, modafinil has its downsides. Yet there are a handful of market-ready, natural extracts which can cool quarantine cabin fever. Bulletproof coffee - a company which adds superhuman oomph (in the form of MCT coconut oil) to your standard morning cup o' joe - is having a moment, while nootropic supplement company Cogniora delivers bespoke bundles of psychoactives to your door - we're calling it the Ocado of Britain's biohacking community.

Andrius Rakovas is the co-founder of Cogniora and a biohacker extraordinaire who has dedicated the past four years of his life to self-optimisation. "Day to day, nootropics are an amazing tool to help stay productive," he says, "and people might benefit from them now more than ever, given how chaotic the environment is at the moment."

His advice for nootropics newbies? "Natural ingredients (standardised extracts at the right potency) are the way to go when it comes to sustained and safe cognitive support." For workers who struggle to maintain motivation and sustain focus, he suggests "rhodiola rosea, guarana [and] panax ginseng". Anxious types should try a cocktail of "L-theanine, gotu kola [and] bacopa monnieri" he says.

We all have our coping mechanisms. Some might pour a glass of rouge, others might stretch out that one state-sanctioned walk to a marathon and run their quarantine woes away. Here are five quarantine-friendly options which might help ease the panic, combat the sluggishness and quash the sleeplessness of self-isolation. Each of these supplements is available to buy from health food shops, but do your research before investing.

Bacopa monnieri - ancient Adderall for angsty isolators

Ancient Ayurvedic practitioners swore by this stuff back in 2983 BCE. It's a floral tropical plant, which thrives in humid environments from Australia to Africa and is often crushed into tablets or distilled to its essence. A pipette squeezed into a glass of water taken three to five times a day is said to alleviate anxiety and stress.

L-theanine - take a chill capsule

It's an amino acid which is usually extracted from tea leaves and available to purchase in tablets or powder form from health food shops. Users commonly take it with coffee a couple of times a day - it reduces caffeine jitters, apparently.

Melatonin - get your sleep patterns back on track

Top up the supplies already circulating in your brain. Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland which regulates sleep cycles. Pop a pill and wash it down with a glass of water an hour or two before bed to quell any coronavirus-induced nightmares.

Lemon balm - to supplement your evening tipple

This herbaceous plant, part of the mint family, is a natural sedative which is often dried and taken in tea to help alleviate stress.

Huperzine A - when you need to get stuff done

The parent plant of this tablet is huperzia serrata ("toothed clubmoss" in English), a herb native to India and Southeast Asia. Huperzine A is an extract used in Chinese medicine for centuries to combat the onset of Alzheimer's, but is otherwise used by healthy people to boost memory.

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