Nootropics for Productivity, Relaxation, and Social Enhancement

Self-experimenter Jonathan Roseland shares his experiences with nootropics

John Fawkes
Mar 10 · 17 min read
Photo by marchmeena29

One of the most popular articles I ever published was my interview with Mike and Marius, two of the more high-profile bloggers in the nootropics community. The two of them shared some truly incredible information about how to use commercially available dietary supplements to improve your focus and maximize productivity.

Since then, I’ve had quite a few requests for more nootropics content. And truth be told, I’ve been dying to talk to more nootropics experts myself. Today’s expert is Jonathan Roseland, the proprietor of Limitless Mindset. He has been experimenting with nootropics for nearly a decade now and has probably tried more of them than anyone else I’ve ever spoken to.

Jonathan describes himself as an adventuring philosopher, pompous pontificator, writer, K-selected biohacker, tantric husband, raconteur, and smart drug dealer. And, as I found out, he’s into quite a bit more than just nootropics.

The scope of this interview is somewhat broader than the last one — as you’ll see, Jonathan uses nootropics not only for productivity but also for sleep, relaxation, and social enhancement. He also shares a couple of little-known technological (nondrug) tools that he uses to help him focus and get the most value he possibly can out of the nootropics he uses.

Some nootropics—like caffeine—are well-studied and widely used. More research is needed on many others, and on the effects of mixing or stacking nootropics. While Jonathan’s experience is helpful in considering which nootropics might be beneficial to you, neither of us is a medical doctor. It’s always a good idea to discuss potential supplements with your own doctor.

The Interview

How did you first get into nootropics?

It was the movie “Limitless” with Bradley Cooper that came out about nine years ago. I watched that movie and was just totally inspired by the idea of a drug that could unlock your mind. And since then, I’ve dived deeply and passionately into this topic of nootropics, and I’ve tried over 100 different nootropics at this point.

Over 100 in nine years is certainly a lot — how long do you try each one for before you decide whether to keep with it or to abandon it and move on to the next one?

I give them typically at least a month, unless they are just awful. And there are a couple I’ve tried that were not good, and I had to quit early. But typically I feel like I need at least a month to really try something.

Of the ones I hated and had to stop early, Sunifiram stands out. It was really no good. There were also a couple of nootropic stacks (capsules combining multiple nootropics) I felt crappy on and had to quit after a couple of days.

As you can imagine, I now have companies emailing me all the time offering me nootropic products to try, so I’ve developed a system for filtering them to determine which ones I’m willing to even take free samples from. First and foremost, I ask the companies to send me the CoA (Certificate of Analysis) for their products so I can check for heavy-metal toxicity.

I also check if they’re using patented ingredients. If they don’t provide the CoA and they’re not using patented ingredients, I don’t trust it.

A lot of times you can tell from the label. If the label says “proprietary blend,” and it lists 10 or 20 different things but doesn’t list quantities — particularly trendy ingredients like Panax Ginseng or Gingko biloba — that’s a red flag.

Typically, if a company is going to make the effort to source high-quality ginseng and Gingko biloba and include it in significant quantities, they’re going to display the actual quantities — and maybe mention something about the derivative that they use or the concentration it’s in.

So if it’s a product that costs something like $33.99 and they have a ton of ingredients listed but not quantities and no CoAs, I’m going to pass on that.

I also look at the safety of the listed ingredients. A company emailed me recently with a stack product that contained, like, 400 micrograms (mcg) per serving of huperzine, which is just a ton of it—way too much. It’s normally 200 mcg or lower. If you’re going to have a daily stack with huperzine, I’d want like 50 mcg of it. For occasional use, 100-200 mcg is OK, but for daily use, I’d want it lower since it builds up over time.

But manufacturers love huperzine because it’s cheap — it’s one of the cheapest stimulants out there — and it gives people a buzz, so it makes it feel like the supplements are doing more. So they use huperzine to pad the perceived value of their nootropic stacks, but they don’t think enough about safety.

I also see a lot of people get into selling nootropic stacks who aren’t really experts in it. They might have a really good personal development brand, but then they dilute it by selling these crappy supplements.

I notice you have a much more negative opinion of modafinil than most people — ironic since that’s kind of what “Limitless” was based on. Can you explain your thoughts on modafinil and why you’re less enthusiastic about it?

Yeah, I have a complicated relationship with modafinil. I do use it from time to time because it is a powerful nootropic and wakefulness enhancer. But it’s far from the first thing I’d recommend to someone, especially if they’re new to nootropics, because its mechanism is something that floods your brain with a lot of histamine.

Histamine is a complicated neurotransmitter. And it’s not just a neurotransmitter — it’s also a hormone that has a lot to do with the immune system. Histamine is the reason you itch when you get bitten by a mosquito. It’s what causes allergic reactions. So because of this excessive amount of histamine, modafinil can have all sorts of (often allergylike) side effects that can be bad for people.

I do sentiment analyses where I scout the internet for anecdotal reports on a nootropic. I’ll look at Reddit, LongeCity, Blue Light — sites like that — and see what people are saying about a drug or supplement, and modafinil has a pretty high proportion of people who are responding negatively to it.

With something like piracetam, I’ll see that maybe 15-20% of people are having a negative or maybe neutral or underwhelmed response to it, but with modafinil, it’s more like 40-50% are having a negative response.

Modafinil also has a rather steep tolerance curve. That’s based on anecdote mainly — I don’t know if there are studies — but people build up a tolerance to it very quickly.

I wrote an article called “Modafinil is Problematic,” where I made the case against modafinil. It’s what I call an anti-empathy drug. It puts you into such a logical state that it makes you very odd in personal interactions. I’ve experienced this, and a lot of people around the internet have reported it too.

My wife doesn’t like when I do modafinil because our interactions are just odd. We don’t have a very nice day together — she just leaves me alone to work in my office when I’m on it.

The final reason is it can really mess with people’s sleep. It’s a powerful antinarcoleptic with a very long half-life, so I’ll advise people to take it first thing in the morning, like 6 a.m., and not redose later in the day. And I favor lower dosages.

One upside that is rarely discussed is it can make sex really great, surprisingly, because it upregulates dopamine a lot. But you have to have sex when it’s in your system in large quantities, meaning morning sex — ideally about two hours after taking modafinil. And, of course, the anti-empathy effects don’t synergize with this too well.

I don’t find that this makes sex without modafinil any less pleasurable either. Of course, I’m not using it very often.

Sounds like that would be some very logical sex. What do you do to get the benefit from modafinil without killing your sleep? I combine a lower dose of it with caffeine — is that your strategy?

Yeah, definitely. I’ll have typically like half a tab of armodafinil (that’s the stronger right-handed isomer of modafinil) first thing in the morning — and have a cup of coffee with that.

I’ll combine that with a little bit of nicotine, because I find nicotine complements modafinil pretty nicely, but it’s a much more short-burning stimulant. I can have some nicotine in the afternoon as the modafinil and caffeine start to wind down, and it’ll be gone well before bedtime.

Which nootropics have you found most effective at improving memory?

Piracetam. Often there’s an almost immediate effect with piracetam: a stimulating, cognition-enhancing effect on the first day. Not always — but often.

There’s also a more long-term effect of unlocking your long-term memory, where you start to remember stuff from years ago. That usually kicks in after two to four weeks of daily use, at around a gram and a half to three grams a day.

That sounds kind of expensive, but you can get like 500 grams of pharmaceutical-grade stuff for like $39. So it’s really not that expensive at all.

John’s note: That price would be for raw powder, not encapsulated. Piracetam doesn’t taste terrible — nor does it taste good. It’s not too hard to mix with some water, juice, or Gatorade and pound back, though. Due to the low half-life, most users divide their dose between 2-3 daily doses.

Modafinil aside, which nootropics do you find most effective for promoting wakefulness without excessive anxiety, stimulation, or sleep issues?

I like to call Rhodiola rosea an herbal alternative to modafinil. There have been some studies on it — there was a study that was with nursing students who were shift workers in a hospital, and they found that Rhodiola was a pretty good wakefulness agent.

Rhodiola kind of stands out as an adaptogen, in that it seems to adjust the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the nervous system up and down as needed. For people who are chronically stressed, it helps them adjust up and down so they can relax when they want to, but they can activate that fight-or-flight response when they need it.

Rhodiola is one of my favorite herbs, and I usually prefer it over modafinil. Modafinil does have its place, as long as you don’t have issues with histamine reactions, but Rhodiola is probably a better wakefulness promoter.

I take Rhodiola a bit differently from most people. It’s most commonly consumed it in pills, but I prefer powdered Rhodiola mixed with tea.

John’s note: The whole concept of adaptogens — chemicals that improve the body’s stress response and can have stimulant or depressant effects depending on the body’s needs — is controversial. Research evidence is mixed, and the term adaptogen is currently not widely accepted in mainstream medical practice.

I found two different studies that Jonathan might have been thinking of. One study done on physicians found significant reductions in fatigue from Rhodiola rosea.

However, another study on nursing students actually found the group that took Rhodiola suffered from worse fatigue over time than the placebo group.

The dosage used in the nursing student study was rather high, and it was taken in mornings. To me, this suggests Rhodiola acted more as a stimulant than an adaptogen, and it has a long enough half-life that a high dose taken in the morning can impair sleep that night. That would explain why it led to worse long-term fatigue. Like modafinil, it could make you less fatigued in the short term, but chronic use could make you more fatigued in the long term from lack of sleep.

This doesn’t preclude the possibility that it’s an adaptogen at lower doses, but there’s no real proof of that. For now, I could view it as a stimulant that acts like a weaker modafinil — albeit without the histamine-related side effects.

What about nootropics for productivity?

Nicotine is pretty good for that. It’s somewhat addictive. It’s an associative kind of drug that your brain learns to associate with things.

I have a morning ritual figured out where I’ll get up, walk the dog, make my coffee, and then I’ll have a drop of nicotine. I use a propenyl-glycol solution that’s, like, 5% nicotine, and I’ll put a drop underneath my tongue and wash it down with the coffee — nicotine really doesn’t taste good.

I’m not a big fan of vaping and, of course, not cigarettes because of the carcinogenic concerns and all the other chemicals in them.

By associative, do you mean nicotine conditions you to associate the pleasure from nicotine with whatever you do when you’re on it? So it makes you enjoy working more?

Yeah, exactly. Your brain associates the pleasure from the nicotine with whatever else is happening at the time. It’s not unlike how people like to have a cigarette after sex.

I used to be a smoker. Not like a pack a day — but a social smoker — and smoking socially definitely does condition people to be more social.

Since I started using the liquid nicotine, I never crave cigarettes anymore — not even when I’m at parties (which is when I used to smoke).

I’ve never used nicotine patches; I prefer the liquid solution. They’re good for lucid dreaming from what I hear, if you can sleep. Since patches hit your bloodstream slower, they’re less addictive but also less associative.

I find nicotine helps me a lot with productivity in general, but it’s even better with creative work.

Aside from Nootropics, what nondrug tools or strategies do you use to maximize your productivity? Do you use the Pomodoro technique or anything like that?

I particularly like algorithmic music. For example, the music of It’s one of the better productivity tools that I’ve found. It’s this website and app that produces really cool, algorithmic, electronic music that really puts you in a productive headspace.

The Pomodoro technique has never really made sense to me. I’ll work for like an hour — hour and a half — before taking a short break. I don’t see the need to plan on taking a break I don’t need. Maybe I haven’t experimented with it enough, but I remember trying it and not being impressed.

I do practice the 20/20/20 technique, where every 20 minutes, I look up for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away.

What about ketones and ketogenic dieting for productivity? Many people find they’re more focused when they’re in ketosis — have you found that effective?

I think I have a pretty ketogenic lifestyle because I almost always skip breakfast and do a 16-hour daily fast. And I’ve tried a few different ketone products. I’ve found the intermittent daily fasting hasn’t affected my productivity that much and neither have the ketone products.

I do the occasional 24-hour fast for health purposes, as does my wife, and I’ve started using the ketones just in the last eight hours of those fasts. Because in those last eight hours, you’re really kind of running on fumes.

I do want to experiment with ketones more — but not for productivity because I haven’t found them to make much difference there. But they help with longer fasts, to get some extra calories in that are bypassing your metabolism, without breaking ketosis.

John’s note: After asking a few clarifying questions here, I found out Jonathan doesn’t eat low-carb at all and hasn’t measured his ketone levels in any way. He’s probably not really in ketosis to any significant degree during these 16-hour fasts. Maybe he gets a little into ketosis in the 24-hour fasts.

But what he’s experiencing with the daily fasts, if anything, is simply the effects of being in a fasted state — that is, not having the sedating effect from digesting food. That’s different from ketosis, although they sometimes go hand in hand. Fasting is a useful productivity tool for some people.

What nootropics do you like for social purposes?

The one that really stands out is phenibut. It’s a higher-risk nootropic, but for a lot of people, it makes them social butterflies. It really releases them from their inhibitions. You do have to find a sweet spot with it, though — where it reduces your inhibitions, but you don’t get intoxicated.

You should stay away from alcohol when you’re on it. For social purposes, if you’re using phenibut only once or twice a week, a good dose for most people is like 750 milligrams. That’s what I would do.

I went on a vacation to the Black Sea a while ago. My wife and I would do about 500 mg each together — to take the edge off while we were hanging out on the beach. So that’s about a threshold dose.

I like the Peak Nootropics brand. They have a CoA — I’d go with anyone who offers a CoA.

Phenibut is a very pleasant nootropic. And it has kind of a tangy taste — you can mix it with fruit juice or anything fruit-flavored. I’d be comfortable mixing it with a drink at a party, instead of alcohol.

Do you find phenibut helpful for sleep too?

I’ve had conflicting experiences with this. There was a time in Berlin a few years ago when I took some phenibut, went barhopping with my roommates, and didn’t drink but just had the phenibut. And between it and the fatigue from being out, I slept in until 4 p.m. the next day.

But it’s inconsistent — there were nights when I haven’t been able to sleep, too. And it can cause hangovers into the next day and make you way oversleep like that one night in Berlin. I wouldn’t really recommend it for sleep. There are better options.

Let’s get your quick opinion on a bunch of other nootropics before we wrap up.

Racetams — other nootropics in the same family as piracetam

Oxiracetam — the discipline molecule. It helps you stay focused and disciplined for about 6-8 hours. It doesn’t really have an acute, noticeable effect like other nootropics. You’ll just notice you’re less distractible and you make better decisions on it.

What about noopept? It’s not a racetam, but it’s closely related and often gets lumped in with racetams.

Yeah, I’ve used it in stacks, but I wouldn’t use it on its own. It just doesn’t have much of an effect for me, personally.

How about kratom? That’s a big topic of discussion these days.

Oh yeah, kratom’s an interesting one. I had shied away from kratom for a long time because none of the sources were doing spectroscopy analysis, and they were all in these shady third-world countries. So that’s a recipe for toxicity.

However, there was a company that emailed me recently that sent me their certificates of analysis, and they looked pretty legit. So that makes me hopeful that you could find trustworthy kratom.

But I’m not interested in it after all because it’s opioid-adjacent — it works on the opioid receptors, and it’s addictive. I wouldn’t use it unless maybe I was recovering from PTSD or something.

John’s note: While not an opioid as such, kratom does have alkaloids that act on the opioid receptors. That makes it useful for weaning people off opioids — and as a nonpharmaceutical painkiller — but yes, it’s addictive.

Kratom lovers claim to get around this by having 7-10 different strains of kratom and rotating between them since different strains have different mixes of alkaloids. I don’t know how well this works. Personally, I’d do the rotation but also only use kratom 3-4 days a week.

How about ashwagandha?

I’m a huge fan of ashwagandha. I do it almost daily as a sleep supplement. It can help with socializing, but I think phenibut is just so much better for that.

What about Methylene blue? Is there anything to the claim that it enhances your mitochondria?

It is used as a mitochondria booster. Dave Asprey wrote about it. I used it for about a month, and I didn’t notice anything that would make me want to order it again.

John’s note: Same here. It does act as an electron donor for mitochondria, which should give you more energy, but I never noticed anything from it other than my pee turning blue. My guess is that what it aids with isn’t the rate-limiting step in mitochondrial glycolysis — in other words, it’s probably doing something but not something that matters much in practice.

Let’s hear your experiences with Alpha-GPC.

Yeah, so Alpha-GPC is the rich man’s choline precursor. It’s the most bioavailable.

As far as acetylcholine precursors go, there are two options: CDP-choline and Alpha-GPC. There are other choline precursors, but those two are the best. And the response is a little bit different between them.

Alpha-GPC is a little bit more of a classic cognitive enhancer. And then CDP-choline — that’s going to be a little bit more stimulating.

So if you want to do something like write a book or work on a website, you’d want to take some Alpha-GPC alongside your racetams. But if you were doing something more high-energy — like maybe if you’re a salesperson and you’ve got a big day of meetings and sales calls — then CDP-choline is going to serve you better.

How about the classic caffeine and theanine stack? Do you still use that or has other stuff superseded it for you? And how much caffeine do you consume?

That is still a reliable workhorse stack. I like it, and caffeinewise, I have typically one or two cups of tea or coffee a day. I don’t supplement theanine much, but I get a fair amount of it from green tea. It’s good — there’s just other stuff I use instead.

I don’t take tolerance breaks from caffeine very often. I don’t build up much of a tolerance since I’m only having a cup or two a day.

When I was in Colombia, I did go through a phase where I had about five cups of coffee a day. Coming off of that was rough.

Have you tried reishi mushrooms? Or that coffee that has reishi mushrooms in it?

Not much. Reishi is not really a classic nootropic that would stimulate you. It’s more of an anxiolytic (antianxiety) supplement. I think it’s best for helping people get to sleep when they have anxiety or are overstimulated.

I can see why people would put it in coffee — the reishi would take the edge off the caffeine. It’s doing kind of the same thing as the caffeine and theanine stack but by different mechanisms.

Reishi is also an immune enhancer. Not sure how that plays into the nootropic effects, though.

You mentioned huperzine A earlier — what do you use that for?

I only use it in stack products, not on its own. And only if the dosage is very small. Other than that, I don’t go out of my way to use it.

I haven’t experimented much with it on its own. I know there’s a number of negative side effects from it if you let it accumulate in your system. So I prefer to just avoid it.

What’s your daily stack right now?

Mainly, I’m using a stack supplement called Quantumind by Filtered Formulas. That and caffeine, of course. Other than that, there’s stuff I use occasionally — but not daily.

Last question— what’s your process for experimenting with new nootropics and testing their effects?

I start with a low, conservative dosage for a day or two. Then, I increase that to the median or recommended dosage for a few days. And if that’s not overstimulating, I’ll try a high dosage for a day or two.

As far as measuring the effects, I use Dual N-Back brain-training software for that. It’s this brain game you can play on your smartphone or computer. I think it’s the brain game that has the strongest clinical evidence for it as being something that objectively measures working memory, cognitive performance, and executive functioning. And importantly, it does have transfer effects to tasks and general intelligence outside of the brain game.

When I do the Dual N-Back on different nootropics, there’s usually a clear impact on my performance at the game. Like with modafinil, a very potent cognitive enhancer, there really does seem to be an uptick.

How to Start Experimenting With Nootropics

Like Jonathan says, really experimenting with nootropics takes time — at least a week, and probably more like a month, to test out a new supplement.

If a lot of this is new to you, the first things you should do are try out the algorithmic music and the Dual N-Back software Jonathan recommends. Truth be told, these were the most mind-blowing parts of the interview for me. I can attest the algorithmic music really works for me, even if I don’t understand how.

After that, I recommend trying out some of the more accessible, safer nootropics. That means not modafinil, which is a prescription drug and can impair sleep, and not phenibut or kratom, which are potentially addictive.

Out of what we discussed here, the best nootropics to start with, in my opinion, are the caffeine-plus-theanine combo, ashwagandha, Alpha-GPC, piracetam, oxiracetam, and Rhodiola rosea.

Personally, I’m really excited to try oxiracetam. More discipline? Sign me up!

Editor’s note: Better Humans is a publication dedicated to evidence-based advice that works, from trustworthy sources. The primary evidence in this article is a case study of personal experimentation. To learn more about how we evaluate evidence and trustworthiness, visit the Style Guide for Better Humans.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

John Fawkes

Written by

Los Angeles-based personal trainer, online fitness & nutrition coach, and health & fitness writer.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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