Flash in the Pan 

Feed your head

Hunters will go to great lengths to gain an edge on their prey. You never know where the margin between success and failure may lie, so you wake up extra early, say a prayer, spray bottled deer piss on your boots and do whatever else you think might increase your odds. My schedule recently got more demanding, thanks to a new baby. With less time to kill and another mouth to feed, I've had to step up my game.

Hunting can be physically demanding but, assuming that you're prepared, it's mostly mental. Staying sharp is how opportunities are created. I ordered a bottle of nootropic pills, in case they might help.

Nootropic is the term for supplements that improve brain function and health. They can be food substances like phenethylamine and L-theanine, found in chocolate and green tea, respectively. Nootropics also include extracted and purified components of medicinal plants, as well as substances synthesized from chemical precursors, such as piracetam.

Many stimulants act like nootropics, including caffeine and the amphetamine-based Adderall, of which there's currently a nationwide shortage. Most legal Adderall users are children; it's prescribed sparingly to adults for fear of abuse. Although some abuse Adderall for recreational purposes, many are students and professionals using Adderall illegally to work long hours and boost productivity.

The nootropic pills I ordered are a brand called Alpha Brain, which I chose mainly because its ingredients are extracted from biological, rather than synthesized, sources. I swallowed some the day they arrived and waited to become mentally sharp. I wanted fireworks bright enough to eliminate all doubt about whether they worked.

Nothing happened until I was falling asleep, and I became distinctly aware that I was falling asleep. I monitored the entire process and remained lucid, with a measure of free will, as I dreamed, and woke up surprisingly refreshed. While I remembered many of my dreams, some of which were quite long, I couldn't recall how my underpants ended up around my ankles.

I got the pills hoping they might make a difference in the sole hunting trip I had time for last season. I was headed for an area so populated with deer that I could legally shoot several. But even when animals are abundant, they don't exactly dive eagerly into your rig. You still have to go get them.

Alpha Brain's most noticeable impact on hunting was how easy it was to wake up early. Since I'm typically not a morning person, this was striking and helpful. I also felt slightly more organized and had a curious sense of emotional stability. These changes could also be attributed to parenthood and to my determination to get it done and get home as soon as possible.

For whatever reason, it was a good hunt. I got my allotted four deer and was able to convince a trophy hunter to give me the body of a monster buck we both knew he wasn't going to eat.

Back home, I contacted Aubrey Marcus, whose company Onnit Labs produces Alpha Brain. He attributed my lucid dreaming to increased levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which enhances REM dreaming. Alpha Brain has two ingredients that boost acetylcholine levels: GPC choline, which the body converts to acetylcholine, and Huperzine A, an alkaloid derived from Chinese club moss, aka Huperzia serrata.

"Huperzine A disarms the enzyme that naturally breaks down acetylcholine...So while the GPC choline is being converted to acetylcholine, the Huperzine A is keeping it from disappearing. It's like plugging the drain and turning on the faucet."

I asked Marcus which nootropic he would want if he were stranded on a desert island.

"I guess it would depend on the challenges I was facing on the island. If staying healthy was the biggest challenge, then I'd choose AC-11. If I needed to stay motivated to rebuild the village, I would choose Mucuna [pruriens]. If I was hunting, I'd choose Huperzia serrata, for mental acuity and speed."

The AC-11 he mentioned for health is an extract from the Amazon jungle vine una de gato, and has been shown in laboratory and clinical trials to encourage DNA repair. The Mucuna pruriens he named for motivation is a legume that's a concentrated source of L-Dopa, which the body converts to the neurotransmitter dopamine.

The Huperzia serrata he chose for hunting is the same substance that induces lucid dreaming. This seems appropriate. While I felt the Alpha Brain helped my hunting, maybe I was dreaming. Or maybe a dream state of mind is good for hunting.

Clinical psychiatrist Emily Deans has a private practice in Massachusetts and teaches at Harvard Medical School. She told me by phone that, in principle, there's "probably nothing dangerous" about the occasional course of nootropics for a hunting trip, finals week or some big project. Beyond that, she suggests considering that it's possible to build up a tolerance to many neuroactive products if you use them often enough.

She recommends seeking pharmaceutical-grade products if possible, which are more accurate regarding dosage and less likely to be contaminated. In various preparations of the herbal antidepressant St. John's Wort, for example, dosages of the active ingredients are all over the map, she says.

Deans cautioned that in high enough doses, acetylcholine affects your autonomic nervous system, influencing your temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. So increasing the dosages to chase better dreams could be dangerous.

Marcus told me that the ingredients used in Alpha Brain are pharmaceutical grade when possible, but that not all of its ingredients are available in that form. Regarding dosage levels, he said, "There are numerous double-blind studies on all of the ingredients in our product that demonstrate safety in higher doses than we are using."

Marcus directed me to a page on the Onnit website referencing studies on the safety of Alpha Brain's components (www.onnit.com/alphabrain-science). He added, "Many of these studies also demonstrate facets of efficacy; however, until we complete our own clinical trial [six to nine months from now] there will be no clinical evidence on the effectiveness of our own concentration."

The ingredients in Alpha Brain are available separately, over the counter. So in buying Alpha Brain, or any other commercially available nootropic concoction, you're paying the brand to do the shopping and mixing for you, like paying a chef to prepare ingredients you could have acquired and cooked yourself.

The number of neuroactive materials being studied and brought to market today is unprecedented, and it's tempting to think some of these might make you a more effective person. But explore carefully, and at your own risk. With nootropics, as with new houses or Newt Gingrich, due diligence is in order.

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