Can You Create a Nootropic Stack to Achieve Flow? Mastering Ultra Instinct Part 3

By on April 10, 2019

In this comprehensive post, I’m going to see if there is a nootropic stack that can help to get us into flow. What supplements can put you in a state of creative, zen-like focus, for heightened reflexes and better productivity?

Flow state

First, we need to break down what flow is. Fortunately, I’ve already done that.

More than a year ago now, I started this series: ‘Mastering Ultra Instinct’. Across the first two videos and blog posts, I dived deep into the neuroscience of flow to try and cast aside some of the myths, and find the deeper truths behind this near-mythical state.

Because there really is an awful lot of guff out there…

I despise comment like ‘Flow is the ultimate state of human consciousness’ – which seem to be just about everywhere. Flow is just one state among many. There is no such thing as an ‘ultimate state of human consciousness’.

Imagine if we were in a state of heightened focus while trying to relax and watch TV. What about playing with your kids?

Flow stack

A healthy brain should be able to adapt to circumstances.

Likewise, I dislike the notion that there is just one ‘flow state’ and that the neurochemistry of creative flow (being really in the moment while writing poetry, for example) should be identical to the neurochemistry experienced when snowboarding down a mountain.

People like Stephen Kotler want to commodify flow states – to turn them into a panacea that can cure every ailment, such that they can sell books and programs. In truth, a flow state is merely a state of intent concentration on a particular task. Normally this occurs when the challenge is set at just the right level, and the task itself is inherently interesting.

Flow states occur when we commit 100% of our cognitive resources to a given endeavour. Thereby, time appears to slow down, and we seem able to pull off feats that would normally be lost to us. Ideas come easily, and reaction times increase.

The precise neurochemistry and brain activity associated with these states can therefore vary greatly depending on the nature of the task. Brain imaging results would look extremely different being 100% focussed on a good book, as compared to being 100% focussed on a fight.

This is where the confusion regarding transient hypofrontality comes from, I think. This state describes the apparent shut down of the prefrontal cortex, the default mode network, and of the sense of self/ego. We lose the ‘inner critic’ that often distracts us from the task at hand and causes us to choke.

Many find this loss of ‘self’ very liberating, and in fact seek flow states as a kind of intoxication. Freud would describe this as the Thanatos instinct. That is to say, it seems that some people are simply trying to ‘escape themselves’, turning flow states into an alternative for the likes of alcohol.

Flow state ego

I speculate that in fact, we can achieve flow without shutting down the prefrontal cortex entirely. It simply depends on what you are focussed on. If you focus on surfing, then of course that will mean you lose that inner voice. You’ll be focussed on balance and on the amazing view around you, not on what you had for lunch.

But if you are 100% focused on writing, then I suspect that you’d see less shut down of these areas. I put it to you that it is not hypofrontality that causes flow, but rather it is a symptom of some forms of flow.

And indeed, brain scans of rappers in flow show that a specific area of the prefrontal cortex (called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shuts down, while the medial prefrontal cortex remains active (study).

If all it took for us to be in a state of flow was hypofrontality, then we’d be in flow whenever we were scared. When you’re standing on stage in front of lots of people, it’s your fight or flight response that makes you feel highly aroused and alert. This does shut down certain brain regions in a bid to help you focus on escaping, which is why we often croak under pressure. Likewise, cortisol and adrenaline are known to blunt creativity. Some writers and speakers have described this as a ‘frontal lobotomy’.

Hardly the ultimate state of human performance!

In my previous research, my conclusion was that it was being in a state of calm arousal that was more attributable to flow. That means experiencing a sympathetic response – but maintaining your higher brain function as needed.

It’s the point at which anything becomes meditative.

Again, it’s simply being extremely focused on the thing you’re doing, to the point that it comes as easily and quickly as possible – while retaining the ability to switch gears immediately as needed.

Current Flow Hacks

Flow hacks

So if flow is simply concentration without the downsides, how could we devise a nootropic stack to try and duplicate it it?

There are already one or two attempts out there. Following are two concoctions people are already using to get into flow, and one strategy that isn’t used specifically for that goal but certainly has similar effects.

‘Hippy Speedball’

Let’s start with the suggestion put forward by Kotler again. His recommendation is the ‘hippy speedball’ which consists of a 20 minute run, followed by some marijuana, and a cup of coffee.

His assertion is that the run will trigger endorphins and the ‘runner’s high’, the marijuana will release anandamide and make you more creative, while the coffee will heighten focus. To his credit, he says that this is a temporary and short-term solution at best.

But, look. I try to stay positive but this guy gets on my nerves.

A twenty minute run is going to cause a minor and very short-term increase in endorphins at best. The marijuana – apart from having no dosage recommendation – is just going to make you high. And a cup of coffee is going to do nothing to mitigate any of that.

Nootropic flow stack

So basically, this combination will get you high. And a bit sweaty. And that’s the ‘ultimate state of human performance’. Give me a break!

And this is before I even mention that there is zero evidence that I can find for anandamide having anything to do with flow (despite Kotler constantly saying otherwise).

LSD Microdosing

Another strategy that I personally won’t be trying, is to microdose LSD. Microdosing means taking extremely small amounts of a substance in order to elicit more subtle and nuanced effects, rather than triggering some huge chemical change.

Of course LSD is a very powerful hallucinogen that causes users to experience vivid ‘trips’ and surreal experiences when taken in larger quantities. When microdosing however, proponents – including many entrepreneurial types – claim that it can be effective in improving creativity, helping to make it easier to make connections between disparate concepts. Extreme sports athletes meanwhile find that it helps them to achieve flow by aiding with the dissolution of the ego. In other words, you lose the ‘I’ and focus entirely on the sport.

So, what are we to make of this?

Nootropic stack for flow state

Well, LSD works by activating serotonin receptors en-masse, and in particular 5HT2A (study). It is also thought to have some effect on BDNF, aiding neuroplasticity.

Personally, I am not willing to go this route. I understand the reasoning for those who do, but for me the risk with taking class A drugs is too great. When a drug is not regulated, you have no idea what you are getting – not to mention the fact that you’d be supporting some very shady individuals. There’s also a lack of research looking at the long term effects, which could potentially be very pronounced given the very potent nature of the drug. Many say it elevates their mood and helps them feel better throughout the day, which is no surprise given the increase in serotonin. In this sense, it’s just like self-medicating with antidepressants though, and there’s always the risk of adaptation and tolerance when you mess with serotonin.

The other thing I always try to emphasize as well is that hormones and neurotransmitters rarely do just ‘one thing’. It is really misleading to call serotonin the ‘feel good hormone’ given that it also plays a role in sleep, in at least one anxiety-inducing neural circuit, in appetite, and much more. 5HT2A receptors, which are implicated in the experience of hallucinations, tend to be more abundant in patients experiencing depression (study).

It’s certainly an area that could benefit from further research, but I don’t recommend experimenting on yourself until that has been conducted.

Productivity

Not only that, but with the relatively one-sided approach to ‘flow’ (i.e. minimal stimulatory effect), this still doesn’t seem truly like the same effect to me.

I have a person rule that I follow for this website: which is that I won’t recommend anything I wouldn’t recommend to my own sister (and maybe my daughter now). I guess that’s why said sister calls me ‘Square Bear’. What are you gonna do!

LSD microdosing is interesting, but I don’t think it’ flow, and I cannot recommend it.

Modafinil Microdosing

One last one that I’m not going to recommend on a similar note, is microdosing modafinil. Modafinil is of course the eugeroic (wakefulness agent) that appears to work on orexins and dopamine. It’s only available on prescription, and again there is a lack of long-term studies to show safety. But then again, it’s also used by a lot of entrepreneurs with no obvious issues so far. It’s meant to be relatively free of side effects, and not chemically addictive.

I personally found that modafinil simply made me wired – which wasn’t necessarily conducive to all kinds of productivity (and certainly isn’t flow). I also found that it did seem to cause other side effects, like anxiety, frequent bowel movements, etc. And it did kind of feel addictive too.

Modafinil

But by microdosing, you might in theory be able to prop yourself up with a little more wakefulness and focus, without pushing too hard in that direction. Increasing your propensity for flow, but not forcing you into a hardwired state.

You could perhaps consider balancing this out further with something like 5HTP (5 hydroxytryptophan) which is a serotonin precursor, meaning it gets converted to the feel-good hormone in the brain. This could theoretically be the equivalent ‘low grade’ alternative to LSD, especially at low dosage. But again, you’re risking adaptation, and you’re messing with extremely complex circuits. Our understanding of the human brain is simply not sophisticated enough to try and hack it this way.

Modafinil microdosing is certainly preferable to LSD, but it’s still not the answer in my opinion. Apart from the inherent risks, there’s also the fact that you will be artificially pushing yourself further than your body wants to go. As Tim Ferriss says, you will have to pay that ‘biological bill’ at some point, normally by completely crashing out.

There’s a better way to support this kind of energy and enthusiasm in the 21st Century – which we’ll get to in just a moment.

Better Flow Stacks

So, what neurochemicals could help with flow? And what nootropics could we use to trigger these?

Dopamine is certainly up there as this increases alertness and focus. I’d say possibly BDNF as it improves out capacity for learning, which tends to also stimulate dopamine – it puts you in a mood where you are engaged and learning from your environment. Flow feels good and does increase creativity under the right circumstances, so let’s say serotonin. And there is definitely an element of adrenaline/norepinephrine, which helps to improve boost attention and reflexes.

Caffeine flow state

Other than the serotonin though, that’s just a stress response. What I think might set flow apart – as I’ve already alluded to – is the ability to stay calm during the stress response. And to that end, I would also suggest neuropeptide Y and DHEA. DHEA buffers the effects of cortisol on the hippocampus, preventing that ‘prefrontal lobotomy’ by allowing us to still access our memories and ideas. NPY on the other hand is linked to learning, appetite and more, and it helps to reduce the effects of norepinephrine on prefrontal regions of the brain.

These chemicals allow us to continue to be creative and alert when we are highly aroused. They let us be calm, but focussed. And studies show that the top performing athletes and special operations personnel produce more of these chemicals (study). This is what allows them to perform better than others in the most demanding situations – to thrive under pressure when others go to pieces, and to stay focussed despite distractions.

Following are three potential ‘flow stacks’ that may just help you to get into this state.

Caffeine + L-Theanine

This is one of the oldest nootropic stacks going and one of the most popular. And it’s for good reason too: once you dive into it, you realise that it is almost a perfect synergistic combination for increasing flow.

We all know caffeine. Found in tea and coffee, it works by blocking adenosine receptors, thereby reducing the groggy effects of being awake too long. That wakefulness is then compounded by a release of dopamine, norepinephrine, etc. All this boosts concentration and focus, but it also risks making us jittery and anxious, and potentially reducing creativity.

Caffeine + L-Theanine Flow State

But that’s where the l-theanine comes in: an amino acid that occurs naturally in green tea alongside caffeine, and that is able to create a ‘relaxed’ state of focus. L-theanine works by blocking the effects of the highly abundant excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and increasing the ratio of the inhibitory GABA to glutamate. This essentially prevents the brain from going into an anxious overdrive. Like caffeine, it is also neuroprotective in the long-term. What’s perhaps most interesting about all of this though, is that it also appears to help create alpha and possibly theta brainwaves – the brainwaves associated with flow states and meditation (study).

Key to point out at this point though, is that your brain isn’t in just one ‘brainwave state’ at any one time, but rather will exhibit different patterns of across different brain areas.

This is normally consumed at a ratio of 1:2 (100mg caffeine to 200mg theanine, or 50mg/100mg) and from my experiences it certainly does help to elicit a state of calm focus. Not that you can expect to notice a radical difference.

Flow state no mind

A quick tip: when using any nootropics with stimulating qualities, always make sure that you begin the task you want to engage in first, and then take the dose. This prevents you from being distracted and then becoming intently focussed on that distraction – something which can happen otherwise.

Adapt 232

While researching this topic, I came across a number of different adaptogens capable – at least in theory – of supporting flow. I started to craft a stack that I was pretty excited by, and was about to unveil. And then I realized that it was already a thing! Or at least an extremely similar stack already existed.

Specifically, I was accidentally recreating a natural performance-boosting stack that was tested on elite athletes, astronauts, and special operatives in Russia before the days of steroids, called Adapt 232. Adapt 232 consists of Siberian Ginseng (AKA eleuthero), Rhodiola Rosea, and Schisandra Chinensis.

Said Dr. Victor M. Baranov, from Moscow’s Ministry of Defence: “The search for ways to maintain high mental and professional working capacity of cosmonauts at all stages of a long-term flight is the most important task of space psychology.” Adapt 232 represents their efforts at least at this time.

An adaptogen is a naturally occurring herbal supplement with a rather vague definition: that being that it ‘acts on multiple pathways’. Generally, these herbs – which also tend to hail from various traditional forms of medicine – work by acting on the adrenal glands and sympathetic tone. They support our ability to ‘adapt’ to stress, and may be very useful for recovering from adrenal fatigue.

Rhodiola Rosea is a traditional Chinese remedy that acts on the adrenals and has anti-fatiguing properties. Studies show that it is able to increase tolerance to high pressure and high stress activities, preventing burnout (study) . In one study on 161 military cadets, it was found that it could significantly boost mental work capacity over placebos (study). It is neuroprotective in the long term, and works by elevating dopamine/norepinephrine and serotonin – three of the neurotransmitters we’ve identified as playing an important role in flow. It also significantly increases BDNF in the hippocampus in at least one study (study). It is classed as a Monamine Oxidase Inhibitor.

Siberian Ginseng, also known as Eleuthero, is not really a ginseng at all but is actually a totally different species of herb. What it is, is another anti-fatiguing agent that has been found to improve tolerance and adaptation to novel stressors in military personnel (study). It has also been shown to help combat occupational stress (study). It may even help to improve trichromatic vision – enhancing the ability to distinguish between color for six to seven hours after dosing (study). It has also been shown to increase short term memory (study).

Shaolin meditation

What I find most interesting of all though, is the role it may have in regulating the response to stress, via Neuropeptide Y systems. Siberian Ginseng appears to actually increase many of the chemicals associated with stress, but then also helps the body to better cope with them (study).

Schisandra is somewhat the odd-one out here. This is a berry bearing plant and a ‘co-factor’ that may help you to get more from other nootropics. It raises nitric oxide, thereby aiding blood circulation. And in one study it was found to reduce the production of cortisol in athletes (study). It appears to help reverse stress-induced activity via changes to monoamine transmitters and plasma corticosterone. It has also been suggested that it may enhance eyesight and night vision.

I tried this stack and found that it did manage to increase my focus and attention to a decent degree. Moreover, it seemed to help me cope with an extremely high workload and the sleep deprivation that comes from being a parent. Unfortunately, I also found that the rhodiola rosea in particular gave me a churning stomach.

But this is also what clued me in on what the answer to increasing flow might actually be.

Vitamin D, Omega 3, Magnesium Threonate, Ashwagandha, (Inositol, Creatine, Lutein, Curcumin)

Using nootropics to trigger flow is misguided. Anything that causes a flood of one neurotransmitter will artificially force you into one mental state, robbing you of the ability to change gears as needed.

Instead, we need to think about supporting the brain’s natural ability to get into flow: by providing the health and energy it needs.

Omega 3 inositol bcaa flow state

The brain is designed to produce excitatory neurotransmitters when something important is happening, to thereby enhance energy, enthusiasm, focus, creativity, and reactions. The problem is a) when this is accompanied by anxiety that makes it hard for us to think, and b) that very often, we simply feel too tired and disinterested to summon this enthusiasm.

So what’s going on? Why can’t you engage with that important task?

Focusing purely on the physiological side of things for the moment, the answer may be to do with adrenal fatigue. It’s no secret that most of us spend an inordinate amount of time in a state of high arousal. We are stressed when we get woken up by our alarm clocks in the morning. We are stressed when we force our way through the crowds to commute to work. We’re stressed at the desk where we get shouted at all day long and work to tight deadlines. We’re stressed when we come home, too tired to do anything but all too aware that this or that bill needs to be paid/sorted out. Even our phone screens trigger the production of excitatory neurotransmitters.

And despite all that arousal, none of it is particularly stimulatory. Our work often isn’t intrinsically motivating (at least not for the 80% of people who don’t like their jobs), and we rarely encounter new sights, sounds, or challenges. Hence the complete lack of serotonin, or of BDNF and other learning chemicals.

Programming, hacking, batman

Too many of us suffer from adrenal fatigue, and a craving for something interesting and entertaining. So it’s no wonder that we struggle to summon our superhuman focus at the office that next day, or that evening when training or starting a new business.

So the best nootropic stack should instead focus on recovering the brain. We should view this process as biphasic: enhancing recovery so we can go into the next day with the optimal chance of attacking work with plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

A simple stack to accomplish this is: omega 3, vitamin D, magnesium, ashwagndha, inositol.

Omega 3 fatty acid is neuroprotective, it will reduce inflammation, it speeds up neuronal transmission through improved cell membrane permeability, and it even supports neuroplasticity by helping with myelination (study) – essentially strengthening connections between brain cells. What’s more though, is that it also helps to increase the production of DHEA: the hormone that helps to buffer the effects of stress.

Vitamin D likewise helps to support healthy levels of DHEA (study), as well as testosterone (also important for drive and recovery), and other key hormones.

Brain training program

Magnesium supplementation is useful to support vitamin D supplementation, but can also encourage better sleep when taken in the evening, and most importantly can support neuroplasticity.

Adaptogens as we have seen are generally very effective at helping the body to cope with stress. This is likely why I had such success with cordyceps, and adapt 232. Many of us are living with some degree of burnout, and taking the time to correct that can yield amazing benefits. For long-term support, Ashwagandha is a good choice as it has been shown to raise DHEA levels and lower cortisol by up to 26% (study). It also helps to regenerate axons and dendrites, reconstruct synapses, and support BDNF production (study), perfect for our purposes.

There’s plenty more I would add to a stack like this, including lutein, creatine, curcumin etc. but it starts to get a little expensive. I include inositol on this list too, as it is able to help boost the density of neurotransmitter receptors (study). There is some concern regarding the effect of inositol on testosterone levels, but the effect is unlikely to be enough to be noticeable, especially given what we’re doing here to support it. The good news is that all these ingredients are perfectly natural and should be possible to obtain through a healthy balanced diet, which is also a strong option!

Instead of hacking the brain, we’re simply ensuring it has the nutrients it is designed to thrive on, in order to better cope with the demands we’re trying to place on it. If we’re going to push our brain to perform at its max, it only makes sense that we should try and support its recovery to the max during the downtime. It’s a biphasic approach – a yin and yang. And it also means that getting proper rest is vitally important. Just like you wouldn’t expect to go extremely hard in the gym every day, without so much as resting come evening.

Batman memory

You can also combine this with a number of lifestyle changes to put you in the best possible state:

  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Getting plenty of sunlight – my advice? Train outdoors
  • Using intermittent fasting, which elevates neuropeptide Y in the basomedial hypothamalus (study), and increases norepinephrine in the short-term. This is widely regarded as a way to enhance productivity and focus.
  • Meditation, which induces alpha and theta brainwaves, supports neuroplasticity, and trains focus
  • Choosing tasks that are intrinsically motivating where possible

We aren’t stimulating a flow state, so much as enhancing an adaptable state – from which flow should come much more readily.

flow state ultra instinct

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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