In 2016, Ryan, a 30-year-old marketing manager, fell down an internet wormhole in a desperate attempt to keep up with work. When he came out the other side, he had discovered shilajit, a black ayurvedic ooze rumored to improve immunity and memory, while also working as an anti-inflammatory and personal energy source.
He’d been taking his cues from his boss, who strongly implied to Ryan that if he really wanted to work hard and fast, he needed a little extra help. To that end, his boss handed Ryan half a pill of Modafinil, an FDA-approved nootropic used to treat narcolepsy. Whether it was the placebo effect or the fact that Modafinil does indeed stimulate the nervous system, Ryan found himself responding to emails and creating PowerPoints faster than ever before. “I definitely felt the boost in focus,” he tells me. He didn’t, however, like how agitated it made him feel or that it killed his appetite. So he stopped taking it.
But then he started to feel himself slumping, losing motivation to the point that he even considered quitting his job. He decided he still needed something to get him through the workday.
At the time, Ryan was also working closely with a programmer from Korea who suggested he try different types of loose-leaf tea that had high concentrations of two amino acids — L-arginine and L-theanine. Whether these claims are true remains unclear. A 2013 study suggested that L-arginine paired with creatine can improve memory retention. And other studies suggest L-theanine can help reduce stress and improve cognitive function in middle-age and older people. But these studies are often heavily caveated by the fact that they require more research before making any concrete claims. Nonetheless, L-arginine and L-theanine were Ryan’s maiden voyage into the grand chemistry experiment of biohacking his brain to stave off burnout.
Whether burnout is a true medical condition or simply a modern term for exhaustion doesn’t change the fact that more than three-quarters of employees in America claim to be under its grip. And save for the usual, often trite suspects — e.g., better workplace, more exercise, less screen time — there aren’t many solutions to mitigate the symptoms. Which is why Ryan took matters into his own hands. After graduating from L-arginine and L-theanine, he started experimenting with capsules of ashwagandha, an evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. “Ashwagandha felt like a breakthrough,” he tells me. Not only was he motivated to work, but he finally had the energy to do the things that he wanted to do after work, too.
He also dabbled in reishi mushrooms, cordyceps and another fungus colloquially referred to as lion’s mane. Before he knew it, Ryan’s anti-burnout regimen was a revolving door of ayurvedic powders and pills. He was spending a few hundred dollars every few months on something new he’d found on Reddit — Rhodiola rosea, maca root, turmeric, Panax ginseng, etc. Whenever the side effects got too intense — severe migraines are commonly associated with ashwagandha per Ryan and myriad anecdotal reports on the nootropics subreddit — he’d swap out one adaptogen for another and carry on with his experiment. (To give a “stack” a fair shake, the r/nootropic moderators recommend keeping the substances consistent for 30 days.) “My new thing is shilajit and mushroom pills twice a week,” Ryan says.
For his part, Dan, a 22-year-old programmer, originally attempted to biohack his burnout-induced brain fog with galantamine and memantine — two other nootropics with varying claims of being able to improve cognitive functioning in people with Alzheimer’s. He took a pill of each, but the side effects included irregular breathing and not being able to focus his eyes, which were “just like a lens of a camera,” he explains. To say nothing of how his brain was unbearably foggy for eight straight hours. In an attempt to ameliorate this, Dan tinkered with his stack and removed the galantamine. “Fast-forward three days, and I noticed something strange: I do not get micro-burnouts anymore,” Dan writes on r/nootropics, describing micro-burnouts as the inability to code for more than 20 minutes without having to take a break.
“What’s more is that I get far less mentally tired,” Dan adds. “Usually I don’t want to do any mentally intensive tasks after 6 to 7 p.m. (because I’m tired), but now it’s not the case. I can program, read books and learn languages till around 11 p.m., where I crash as expected.”
To bolster such claims, research from neurologists such as Stuart Lipton is often cited. (Lipton has studied memantine in particular.) But Lipton cautions that “you can do more harm than good” when self-medicating with so-called “brain drugs.” (Moreover, he tells me that his research being posted on r/nootropics is “scary.”) Along those lines, in a first of its kind study from 2015, researchers from the American University of Beirut Medical Center determined that the misuse of nootropics could be “deleterious to the human brain,” and especially damaging for those with a history of mental or substance-use disorders.
The researchers warned that health-care providers — specifically those in the mental health and substance-abuse fields — should keep in mind that the use of nootropics is an under-recognized and evolving problem. Complicating matters further, nootropics are unlikely to be detected on standard drug toxicology screenings. “We have very little clinical information on how nootropics may interact with psychotropics (or other medications) and potentially cause adverse physical and psychiatric side effects,” the researchers explained.
But desperation — particularly in today’s work-from-home environment where work-life imbalance is increasingly a public-health issue — can motivate people like Ryan to take risks. “I spoke to my manager about how much work I have on my plate,” he says. “One week she said she understood, and the next I had so much on my plate that I was working a 12-hour day.”
And so, for Ryan, there’s no other way. Or as he puts it, “When you’re just dragging your feet at work and someone says, ‘Here, try this all-natural pill that’s FDA-approved and it’ll help your brain’ — you’re going to try it.”