Can Nootropics Like Modafinil and L-Theanine Enhance Meditation?

By on June 8, 2016

Lately I’ve been experimenting with meditation. To me it seems a natural extension of my interest in improving cognitive performance. Using nootropics to try and boost focus by elevating specific neurotransmitters seems a little primitive compared with actually gaining dominium over your own mental state and emotions. Using something like modafinil to raise dopamine and focus is to me like using a hammer to try and fix a watch. The interplay of different neurotransmitters is just too complicated and delicate and there’s too much we don’t know. Through meditation though, we should be able to switch gears to enhance calm or focus and thereby enter the brain state we need and let our biology handle the chemistry.

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But what if you combine meditation with nootropics? Could there be any benefit to that? Would increasing dopamine or other neurotransmitters help to enhance the experience of meditating?

My gut impulse was ‘no’ but I thought I’d try it anyway because I though it would make a good article…

Meditation Plus Modafinil

Modafinil is the nootropic I’ve experienced that had the most ‘kick’ to it. I don’t recommend using it for the reasons described above (and in my experience, it comes with a lot of downsides – there is no ‘biological free lunch’ as Tim Ferriss would say). But for the purpose of experimentation it’s always a fun one to try.

So I gave meditation a go while on modafinil. Here are the results:

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It’s called ‘yoga’ because at this point I didn’t realise I could name my sessions…

As you can see, this is not your typical experience of meditation – my heart rate peaked at 95… I’m not great at meditation yet -I’m pretty new at it – but I’m pretty sure I’m not that bad.

Seeing as the purpose of meditation is to relax brain activity, combining that with a stimulant that increases the firing of neurons (via dopamine, norepinephrine, orexins, histamine, gluatamate and friends) would appear to be counterproductive. No shit Sherlock.

But that said, I did actually find that this was one of the most powerful meditation sessions I’ve yet to experience. I’m still very much a beginner and I’ve yet to experience anything overly profound like a loss of ego (and my ego is pretty large too…). But in this instance I found I was better able to focus and this helped me get into a much stiller state of mind.

No not THAT Stiller...

No, not THAT Stiller…

When I’ve tried using modafinil in the past, I’ve found that it’s incredibly easy to find yourself staring blankly into space. It’s very easy to tap into that ‘laser focus’ but to the point that it can make switching between tasks difficult. I’m working on a project? Then I am deathly focused on that project. I’m looking at an apple? Then I am deathly focused on that apple.

So when I tried concentrating on my breathing, I was deathly focused on my breathing. And for just a second, the world fell away. But again, if my heart rate was at 96bpm the whole time, then it’s hardly restorative and quite possibly undermines the entire point.

I suppose this partly depends on the ‘point’ of meditation. If your objective is stress relief and you’re planning on tapping into relaxed theta brainwaves, then this isn’t particularly useful. If you’re trying to meditate on a subject matter though, or perhaps if you’re trying to alter your emotional state in other ways – it may still be useful. One reason I’m interested in meditation is that it can be used to reduce pain (1) and if you can reduce pain by not focusing on it, could you also reduce tiredness?

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I’d love to measure my brainwaves using a device from NeuroSky or Melon but seeing as I don’t have one, I can’t. I may update this post in future if I am able to get those results.

But again, seeing as I think it’s bad news to mess with neurotransmitters, I wouldn’t recommend using modafinil for meditation practice – even where getting into a relaxed state is not a concern.

Piracetam + Meditation

What about other nootropics?

One popular option for combining with meditation is piracetam. This increases acetylcholine which some people report helps to marginally increase the clarity of their thoughts and which can boost memory.

One Reddit user, Geovicsha, said this of their experience combining mindfulness meditation with piracetam:

“I find that while having Piracetam, I’m able to enter a mindful, present state with greater ease. I feel I am able to recall how it is to experience a mindful state more vividly, and this memory of earlier experiences is able to be elicited in the present moment.”

That certainly sounds appealing. But I stay away from piracetam for the same reasons I stay away from modafinil. Increasing acetylcholine too much leads to a dip in dopamine and serotonin, resulting in ‘brain fog’ for many people. And acetylcholine is one again an excitatory neurotransmitter so it’s not likely to help you get into that relaxed state.

Caffeine + L-Theanine for Meditation

There is one nootropic stack that I wouldn’t completely dismiss for helping with meditation – and that’s the classic caffeine + l-theanine combo. Caffeine helps to clear up adenosine in the brain, giving you more wakefulness and focus. Meanwhile, l-theaning dampens the stimulant effect, acting as a serotonin precursor. It increases GABA (which I view as a negative) but it is also effective at reducing alpha brainwaves, which is ideal for meditation (2).

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In short, this stack may produce the psychological trait known as ‘vigilance’, which is calm focus. It’s found naturally in green tea and there are a lot of positive reports regarding its benefits for meditation. I tried it myself for the purpose of this article and found that although I didn’t get the strange ‘laser focus’ I got from modafinil, I did find it a little easier to reduce chatter and my heart rate was just fine. If you’re struggling to get started, then this stack might just help. I can also confirm that I did feel especially refreshed following this combination.

Apart from anything else though, isn’t using any kind of stimulant/relaxant… cheating? You’re supposed to be practicing discipline and overcoming distracting thoughts; if you have chemical help then the results of that training might not carry over in the same way.

As another Reddit user (Norin Radd – excellent Marvel reference) said, speaking of l-theanine:

“It makes clearly easier to me. I have been trying not to mix them, nonetheless, as lowering the challenge may perhaps downgrade the benefits of meditation. If I will be on theanine that day, I try to meditate first.”

 

Nutrition and Cognitive Metabolic Enhancers

But what about non-stimulant nootropics? What about something that simply provides the brain with more energy, or fortifies health?

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Increasing energy is something I’ve talked about before with regards to nootropics. The brain needs energy (ATP) in order to help neurons fire as well as for general ‘housekeeping‘. Things that increase the brain’s ATP supply (like creatine) might therefore be able to aid with concentration, as might something like omega 3 fatty acid which can encourage cell membrane permeability, aiding that communication between cells. Various vitamins, minerals and amino acids can supply the brain with precursors to neurotransmitters so they’re there when they’re needed, while something like vinpocetine that increases bloodflow to the brain could also help.

Plasticity

I’m additionally interested in whether nutrients and nootropics that enhance brain plasticity could help encourage us to more quickly adapt to the changes incurred by regular meditation practice. As we improve at meditation, so our cortical thickness increases (3), so aiding neuroplasticity might certainly be beneficial.

Bruce Lee Meditating

Lion’s mane is one such nutrient (a type of mushroom in fact) that appears to encourage the production of extra NGF (nerve growth factor – a neurotrophin linked to brain plasticity and myelination of the brain cells). This is thought to have potential benefits for improving cognitive function (4) and even for reversing nerve damage (5).  You could go even further and try valproate (6) which is a highly effective but unhealthy way to increase plasticity, or you could even try using transcranial direct current stimulation, which has also been shown to boost learning and plasticity and to potentially encourage specific brainwaves. But it might be hard staying calm with electrodes strapped to your head…

The very best way to increase NGF and BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) though? Exercise. And learning new skills and information. Okay that’s two ways. Sleep is also pretty darn good.

These effects are liable to be minor and more noticeable over time rather than creating any noticeable difference to your experience of meditating – but isn’t that always the way? Slow and steady wins the race. There is no silver bullet. And all that.

Conclusions and ideas

So to put it simply: exercise + learning + sleep + meditation is generally a good prescription for good mental health and each will help the other. While the change won’t be profound, eating right and taking care of your health will help you to progress more quickly in meditation. Lion’s mane or similar might give you a little edge.

Nootropics like modafinil or piracetam could help to give you a head-start by putting you in a more focused state of mind but not without costs and risks. That said, caffeine + l-theanine can be fairly beneficial without causing any obvious downsides; making it a potential aid for beginner biohacking-types.

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If you really want to give yourself a boost at the start of a session I would recommend priming your mood first instead: i.e. engaging in activities or watching media that puts you in a calmly focused state. One of the best ways to do this is to put yourself in a position where you’re surrounded by beautiful but novel scenery. Novel environments sharpen focus, while natural views are relaxing and can calm the heart rate.

But I’ll provide more tips on meditation when I’m better at it myself!

The most interesting thing I take from all this, is how you can use meditation in order to assess your mental state. Meditating with modafinil felt very different from meditation with l-theanine or just meditating normally. This makes sense seeing as meditation is innately self-reflective and is all about controlling mental states. In other words, it could be a fantastic tool for assessing the effects of different stacks, which is notoriously hard to do. Likewise, it’s equally useful for assessing your current mental state at any given time and as a form of feedback for any attempt to improve it.

Use meditation to identify just how focused you are, how motivated you’re feeling and what your nervous system is doing at any point and then take the steps necessary to improve upon that situation.

I’ll be coming back to this subject in future, so watch this space!

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.
  • Jonathon Durno

    L-theanine actually decreases serotonin and increases Alpha brainwaves because of the rise in Gamma waves caused by GABA