I’m test-driving Modafinil to (hopefully) combat my chronic brain fog, mental fatigue, and possibly dysthymia. Instead of putting up multiple posts on the topic, I’m going to just update this one entry, so if you’re interested in the topic, check back here for updates.
Modafinil has been around for quite a while (better known by its trade name, Provigil), but I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across some discussion about it on Slate and Salon. Primarily intended to treat narcolepsy, Modafinil is widely used off-label as a stimulant. Some pretty extravagant claims have been made about Modafinil — that it “obliterates the need to sleep”, nullifies the effects of sleep deprivation, and makes people insanely productive.
You’re probably thinking what I thought when I read these testimonials: Meth. But Modafinil apparently doesn’t work like amphetamines — there’s no “high,” and the effects are much more modest — and it’s non-addictive and non-habit-forming. It’s classified by the U.S. as a Schedule IV drug, so it’s in line with medications like Xanax and Ambien. (I’m not “breaking bad,” no worries.) The effect is said to be more along the lines of caffeine — or what you wish caffeine would actually do — without the jitters and tension. It appears to be relatively safe to use. Gwern.net has a very detailed overview of its effects, health concerns, and suppliers (though the supplier info is outdated as of this writing), and there are lots of discussions at the Reddit nootropics subreddit.
From what I’ve been reading on the web, experiences vary quite a bit (with a few people not experiencing anything at all), but the most common reports are that using Modafinil can enable (non-narcoleptic) people to stay awake continuously for up to 40+ hours with little resulting sleep debt. If you’re sleep deprived and groggy, Modafinil can bring you back to full alertness.
It can help you think faster and more clearly, with intense focus. It doesn’t speed you up unnaturally, like amphetamines, so much as remove the lethargy and sluggishness that are keeping you from being at 100%. People use it when working on projects, and report being extremely productive (a common experience seems to be losing track of time due to absolute absorption in a task).
Effects are said to last 10-15 hours, and kick in about 20 minutes from dosing. Typical dosage is 200mg, though many people lower their dosage to 50-100mg. Some, as you might expect, increase their dosage to 400mg or more, but the consensus seems to be that cranking up the dose doesn’t do that much, and can potentially lead to problems, so is not worth it. It’s relatively free of side effects, but tolerance can develop.
Besides the boost in wakefulness, Modafinil is said to dramatically decrease appetite, making it easy to forget to eat.
I didn’t see any reports of adverse reactions with alcohol, but a few people pointed out that, for people who tend to binge-drink, Modafinil can be hazardous since, whereas normally you’d drink until you fell asleep/passed out, Modafinil will keep you awake far longer than normal, so if you’re not careful you could drink yourself to the point of alcohol poisoning.
Although I’m not a narcoleptic, I have chronic issues with lethargy and “brain fog.” Even when I’m physically rested and energized, my mental stamina is limited. It’s the mental equivalent of being so tired that you can’t get out of bed. Writing, which is a process of designing and building conceptual structures, is difficult at the best of times, and any kind of complex or creative writing requires more energy than I can usually muster. And on top of (or underlying) everything else is my dysthymia, which exacerbates my low energy level and difficulty concentrating my thoughts.
What I’m hoping to get out of Modafinil isn’t the ability to stay up for three days straight or anything crazy like that. If it works as promised, I hope to use it as a tool to cast off the lethargy and fog, and allow me to finally make progress on the many, many projects I’ve had to keep wrapped up in their boxes because I’m too tired or unfocused to do anything with them.
I probably won’t use this during the work week, since I have the kind of job that doesn’t necessarily require a laser-sharp focus. I don’t see this as a daily supplement. Modafinil seems ideally suited for the weekend, when you can put those extra “on” hours to good use. If I can sit down at my desk on a Sunday morning and get right to work, and get up five hours later feeling like I accomplished something substantial, that alone will make it a godsend.
For this initial test, I wanted to see how Modafinil would work under the worst scenario I normally deal with — falling asleep way past bedtime the night before, then waking up in the early morning and being unable to get back to sleep.
I fell asleep sometime past 10:30 p.m., and woke up at 4:30 a.m. I could actually have gone back to sleep at this point, but I figured this was a good time to wake up and take my first dose, having had six hours of sleep, which is about the minimum I can do and still resemble a functional human for the rest of the day (I’m old).
My usual early-waking pattern is that, for the initial hour after waking up, I’m very awake, alert, and functional. After about an hour, though, I crash. The sleepiness collapses back down onto me, and if I can’t go back to bed, I’m practically useless for the remainder of the day, with a strong sleep-deprived feeling, and unable to focus. My short-term memory is also shot.
The Modafinil I bought comes in 200mg tablets (can be cut in half). I took one tablet shortly after 4:30. Twenty minutes later, I did indeed feel awake and alert, but this wasn’t out of the ordinary. What was unusual is that over an hour later, I was still fully awake and alert. The usual crash didn’t happen.
Between 5:00 and 7:30 a.m. I did a variety of chores, including cleaning the cat boxes, collecting the trash and taking it out to the dumpster, and making breakfast. Here and there I did some Internet browsing and home finance stuff. I observed a couple of things during this time:
(a) The effect of Modafinil, it seems, is not additive, but subtractive. I didn’t get revved up, the way one might expect from an amphetamine. The sensation is not of having your energy level boosted, but of having your fatigue removed — a subtle but important distinction. I suspect this is why there aren’t a lot of reports of people feeling wired or jittery on Modafinil, and why caffeine seems to play quite well with it.
(b) Modafinil is really messing with my time sense. I’d be web surfing and reading, and become absorbed by some article, and after a while I’d stop, alarmed, positive that I’d lost track of time and let a half hour go by. Then I’d look at the clock and realize that only five minutes had actually passed.
Driving to work was pretty normal. I didn’t suddenly go into Neo-style bullet time and start tearing through slow-mo traffic. Again, my senses didn’t feel boosted — I just felt fully alert. Given that I’d normally be in a sleep-deprived fog, though, this was a huge improvement.
At work, I went about my business with a trifle more spring in my step than usual. Mood was upbeat, but not manic. No jitters after drinking black tea. Warped time sense was still happening. One odd thing — I felt a little annoyed by people I conversed with, because it seemed like they were talking very slowly.
Also, when doing stuff on the computer, I noticed that I wasn’t jumping around every few seconds from work to web page to web page to web page to phone to web page to work, the way I usually do. I tended to stay with whatever I was looking at, until I was done looking at it. Most days I tend to slide into bouts of dazed browsing, refreshing the same websites over and over, not really digesting much of what I’m looking at. Not today, though.
As far as actual work done is concerned, I can’t say I felt any massive increase in motivation. The most I can say is that the work I was presented with, that needed to be done, got done right away. If it was something that could wait until later in the day, or the next day, I set it aside without hesitation. But even then, stuff I might normally procrastinate on for a few minutes or an hour, I just went ahead and did immediately.
For the most part, I did minimal work, reserving most of my day for writing this blog post. On that front, things went pretty well in terms of concentration and ability to just start writing without dithering or wandering about. Following interruptions and breaks, I was able to come back and pick up the thread and get right back in the groove.
I’m not sure what physical effect Modafinil is having on me (if any). When I’m sleep-deprived, my eyes feel dry and tired, my hair gets droopy, and my skin seems to become more oily. For the most part, I did experience all those things today, so I wonder if Modafinil only affects the mind, leaving the body to suffer everything it would normally suffer from sleeplessness. I did experience a marked increase in leg-bouncing and “crazy legs.” Walking and expending some energy through my legs felt satisfying.
To gauge my problem-solving capabilities on Modafinil, I fired up Letterpress and started some games with Hannah and her mom. I was interested to see if I did any better or worse than usual. I didn’t suddenly turn into some kind of savant — NZT-48, this is not. I’d say I played at about the same level as any regular day when I’m rested and functional.
One reason I chose Letterpress is that — for me, at least — it’s more of a right-brain than a left-brain game. It’s about looking at a board of random letters and allowing words to emerge from the fray. It’s not a logic or spatial-reasoning game, or one that involves memorizing or working with numbers. It’s the rare game that I actually do better on when I’m drinking, because it requires what I think of as a fuzziness of thought rather than clarity. Sort of like with Magic Eye posters, it’s only when I mentally “squint” and just let the letters float around, rather than actively trying to string letters into words, that the words come into focus.
Interestingly, it was difficult to do that today. Instead of letting whole words emerge from the letters, I found myself thinking very linearly and building words letter by letter from beginning to end, very often being stymied when I belatedly discovered I didn’t have the letters I needed to finish the word I’d started.
Driving home from work, I noticed a couple of things. One, my energy level was definitely starting to fade a bit. Not a crash, but a distinct feeling of having started the downward slope. Second, I felt hungry. Not appetite-hungry, like “Man, I could go for a big greasy burger!” but stomach-hungry, like “My gastrointestinal system has signaled my brain that my body requires nutrients/calories.”
I had taken the day’s dose at 4:30 a.m., and by around 8:00 p.m. I could definitely feel myself ebbing down towards sleepiness. This was right in line with the 10-15 hour duration I was expecting.
The end of the evening was problematic. I normally start the going-to-bed process at around 9:00. If I want to be a crazy hedonist, I might stay up until 10:00! But this evening was complicated by the fact that Hannah and I had gotten totally pulled in by Top Chef, and tried to power through the several episodes we’d piled up. So, while we might normally have been asleep by 9:30, we instead stayed up until 10:30 — and then I had kitchen crap to do, which kept me up for almost another hour.
This is problematic because one thing I wanted to observe was whether or not I could go to sleep at my usual hour. I think I could have, based on my speculation that Modafinil only acts on my mind and not my body. I’m noticing a distinct separation between mental and physical energy levels. When I did finally go to bed, at around 11:30, I didn’t have much trouble falling asleep. (I also got quite a bit done in the kitchen beforehand.)
I was a little stymied today, because I was hoping to compare a sleep-deprived day to a normal, rested day, and going to bed late the night before made that impossible. I considered skipping a day today, but since I’d gotten the same 6 hours of sleep as the night before, I decided to go ahead and take the dose. I don’t like to suffer (I’m old).
Contrary to expectations, today wasn’t just a replay of yesterday. Even though I’d slept the same amount as before, I actually felt considerably better, in terms of overall pep and alertness. Your guess is as good as mine as to why that would be. Did the dose I took this morning add to some residual Modafinil I still had in my system? Does my body for some reason require less sleep on Modafinil? I don’t know. But I felt fine this morning and for most of the day, despite two consecutive “sleep-deprived” days, whereas normally I’d be a wreck by this point.
For the most part, the work day went about like it did yesterday. I didn’t feel especially compelled/motivated to do extra, non-essential work (although I did do some), but I snappily executed all priority tasks. It was a very busy day, so there were a lot of priority tasks.
Two observations from the day, and one kind of odd thing.
One, I think my overall attitude at work has improved significantly. Most of the time, lately, I’ve been super cranky at the office. A lot of it is because of office chatter — I find it distracting, and in general I have a (admittedly weird) peeve about unnecessary talking at work. I wasn’t cranky at all today — I was pretty cheerful, in fact. I attribute this to being able to totally focus on my tasks without being distracted by my environment.
The focus issue is interesting — I would have imagined that being very focused on my work would make me less tolerant of being interrupted. But it seems like the opposite is happening. Instead of being irritated when the phone rings or someone walks up to my desk, I’m greeting these interruptions with equanimity. I wonder if it’s because, while normally any interruption results in wasted time/energy while I try to get back into my groove, when I have a strong focus ability I’m not set back in any way by directing my attention elsewhere, since I can just snap right back and pick up where I left off.
Two, I am definitely feeling a different kind of hunger throughout the day. The best way I can describe it is that my hunger isn’t coming from cravings, but from my body expressing a need for food for nutrition (rather than wanting food out of boredom or being set off by environmental cues). My hunger has become rather intellectualized — I sense hunger impulses, and respond by seeking out food.
I’ve taken things before that have had appetite-suppressant effects, like Ephedra, or anti-depressants that suppressed appetite, but in those instances, I found that, not only did I rarely feel hunger, but when I did eat food I didn’t really enjoy it. My appetite was dulled, but so was my ability to enjoy eating.
By contrast, over the past couple of days I’ve found that, even though I don’t feel much in the way of cravings or appetite, when I feel hunger pangs I do genuinely want food, and am enjoying the food I eat. In a way, I’m enjoying food more, in that I’m satisfied and fulfilled by whatever it is I’m eating, even if it’s kind of boring.
For instance, today for lunch I scrounged some celery and carrot sticks out of the fridge. Normally, if that’s all I had to eat for lunch, I’d eat it grudgingly — not really savoring it, given that it wasn’t the cheeseburger and fries that I’d rather be eating. Today, though, I enjoyed and savored the plain, unadorned veg sticks. They tasted really good — I suppose because I was truly hungry, and not just eating for entertainment.
I should also note that I’m satisfied by much smaller portions than I’d normally eat. I don’t know that I’d eat less food if I had more food on my plate, but if I have a modest amount of food to eat, and I eat it, I’m not left wanting seconds.
One odd thing I need to report, although I don’t know if it has anything at all to do with the Modafinil. At lunchtime, driving back from running errands, I felt a curious melancholy fall over me. I’m struggling to describe the feeling. It was like an intense feeling of loneliness…a feeling of being disconnected, isolated, bound up in a tight ball deep inside my gut. I don’t know if it has anything to do with anything, but I’m recording it.
Felt the tiredness creeping in on the commute home. One thing I like, though, is that it’s creeping, not crashing. It’s a gradual downslope. And it does go all the way down, so when I went to bed (at 10:30, later than I’d hoped) I didn’t have noticeable trouble falling asleep.
I actually had planned on skipping a day — the idea being that I’d get enough sleep the night before, so I wouldn’t need to be propped up today — but a combination of going to bed later than intended and some obnoxious cat business at 4 a.m. made for a groggy morning and another ride on the Modafinil tram.
Diminishing returns? I’m not feeling as awake as I did on day one. Focus is still there — I don’t feel mentally foggy — but the physical fatigue I think is building up. The other night I joked that Modafinil was a “zombie drug,” because it’ll keep your body animated no matter how much it deteriorates.
Over the past few days I’ve noticed a distinct mind-body separation happening. Like they’re now going on separate, parallel tracks. My mind is fine; my body’s slowing down. Yet one doesn’t seem to be affecting the other. My physical fatigue isn’t dragging down my ability to think; my mental alertness isn’t giving me any physical pep. I’m turning into a brain in a jar!
I CAN’T GET OFF THE MODAFINIL TRAIN! This was going to be the day that I definitely, seriously skipped a dose. I got a reasonable — if not optimal — amount of sleep last night, so I didn’t really “need” to take it today, but then I just figured what the hell.
The only new thing to report this morning is that I woke up feeing oddly wired and jittery. I hadn’t taken any caffeine or Modafinil, or ingested anything, actually, so I can’t trace it back to any specific cause. Just a strange nervous energy. Rushing around the kitchen, dropping stuff. That feeling has lasted all day. My nerves feel jangly, and my hands are slightly shaky. Some cumulative effect of Modafinil?
The idea of diminishing returns gains some traction today. I find myself returning to old habits today, like compulsively flitting from website to website. Earlier today, I had to do a boring task that required me to just literally shuffle papers. I couldn’t look at the computer or listen to anything while doing this. It was crazymaking! My brain needs something to nosh on, but everything I’m looking at or doing is too boring to hold my interest.
In a way it feels like an intensification of the feeling earlier this week, where I could focus hardcore on work, but only that work I felt like doing.
Whoa — something I just now realized: from Day 1 to today, nothing at the office has gotten on my nerves in the slightest. If you know me, you know that this is remarkable, and a huge departure from the way my mood has been at work for the past few months. It didn’t occur to me at all until now. Weird. Very weird.
So, to wrap up my work day…for the past couple of weeks, I had designated today, Friday 2/8, as the day of reckoning for all the crap that I’ve been putting off and setting aside. The pile had gotten pretty huge, and as all procrastinators know, the more you put stuff off, and the bigger and more daunting it gets, the scarier it becomes, and the more you put it off.
I was hoping that Mighty Mighty Modafinil would grant me superpowers to enable me to take care of this mess in one intense Day o’ TCB, and I guess it did, because I was pretty much a Work Tornado most of the day, and I’m now heading into the weekend with a completely clean plate. So, maybe it actually did have more of an effect on me today than I thought was the case this morning. Thanks, Modafinil!
My original intention, if Modafinil turned out to be useful for me, was to take it mostly on weekends and the occasional work day as needed. After this past weekend, though (took it Saturday, laid off Sunday), I’m wondering if it would be more useful to take it mostly on weekdays instead, and take the weekends off. Do I really want increased waking hours on the weekends, or do I want more sleep?
The major issue, if I decide to take this more frequently, is of course tolerance. Reports are kind of all over the place on this, but it seems to be the case that tolerance can and does build up, to varying degrees depending on the individual. My experience last week did seem to indicate, at the very least, less satisfactory effects when taken on several consecutive days.
Also, one reason I wanted to try this in the first place is that I’d like to use my Sundays for some kind of creative activity, and I’m hoping Modafinil can help with that by improving my focus. (I get very easily distracted when I try to produce stuff on weekends.) So I might end up going Sunday/Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday, to cover my creative day and the worst part of the week, then take three days off to let the Modafinil clear out of my system.
One observation from the weekend: there may be something to the claim that Modafinil curbs impulsivity. Having cocktails on Friday night, I had no particular trouble sticking to my limit and not going for “one more drink,” which is usually a strong temptation. On the downside, I felt pretty crappy on Saturday, and felt bleh all day despite taking a dose that morning. So I don’t think I’ll take any on days when I’m planning to consume alcohol.
Have now been taking Modafinil for seven weeks. I’ve settled into a schedule of one 200mg tablet Monday through Friday, resting on weekends. I haven’t experienced tolerance as far as I can tell — during the week, it kicks in as expected, and I haven’t felt the need to increase the dosage to get the desired effects.
The effects have been consistent with my experiences through week 2. Focus is improved; mental fatigue is counteracted; physical effects of sleep deprivation are not really affected (I still feel like a zombie after insufficient sleep, but can think and react normally). I’m not easily distracted; I can be pulled away from what I’m doing without feeling annoyed, but then snap right back.
I still tend to write walls o’ text. Still finding it very easy to resume a writing project after interruptions and breaks. I started a long-term blog series at the beginning of March, and I credit Modafinil with the fact that I’ve been able to stick with it. It’s probably the longest piece of writing I’ve done since…ever, so this is a real breakthrough for me.
One new observation. Hannah has been taking Modafinil as well, and she’s reported that it’s often more difficult to focus on work when she takes it. I’ve also noticed this. I believe the reason for this is that, while Modafinil enhances your concentration, it can’t tell you what to concentrate on. It’s a laser that you have to point in the right direction. If you point it towards work, you can work with amazing focus. If you point it towards aimless web browsing, though, you’ll do that with the same intensity.
Is Modafinil worth it? For me — yes. As I said earlier, the effects are subtle. (The initial dose felt pretty dramatic, but I think this rush was just the distance between my starting point — foggy, unfocused — to where I’ve more or less remained since taking Modafinil.) It hasn’t turned me into a tornado of activity, but it has enabled me to get done the things I want to get done. For the most part I feel it’s delivered on its promise.
Was it oversold in any way? I think the only real disappointment has been that it isn’t quite the “instant wakefulness” drug that some people claimed — not for me, anyway. I can’t take this after five hours of sleep and feel completely awake. I can think, but my body is still as bedraggled as it normally would be. I have not tried using this to stay awake for marathon periods, but I don’t imagine it would be especially pleasant or that I’d be fully functional.
So if asked, I would recommend — with qualifications. The benefit you’ll experience depends on what condition you’re starting from. The foggier the mind, the more dramatic the results. You only get boosted to a state of normalcy — which I’m defining as a clear head, alertness, ability to concentrate on tasks. If “normalcy” is zero on a numerical scale, and you’re, say, -20 on that scale, then you’ll get a +20 boost. But if you’re only -5, you’ll only get a +5 boost.
So, approached with reasonable expectations, you may find Modafinil to be a very useful and productive tool.
- Modafinil seems to give me a mild headache, increasing in severity towards the late afternoon. Like a buildup of pressure at the front of my skull. It’s slight, but noticeable.
UPDATE: The headaches I was experiencing worsened over the next few weeks, to the point where I could barely move my head. I then realized that the pain was due to a pinched nerve. Long story short: my computer monitors at work and home were too low, which caused me to view them with improper head/neck posture. I hadn’t had a problem with this before, but on Modafinil I was staring at the monitor for extended periods without moving my head. After I adjusted my monitors higher, the headaches went away within 3-4 days.
- I just ran across this study that indicates Modafinil can help curb impulsive behavior. That totally jibes with several of the effects I’ve been experiencing, like the total absence of food cravings. I wonder if Modafinil doesn’t reduce appetite at all, but instead blocks emotional food cravings (which can feel like the same thing)? And not feeling bored/distracted can certainly cut down your chances of behaving impulsively.
- I haven’t had any particularly memorable or intense/vivid dreams for the past couple of nights. A quick Google search didn’t turn up anything solid on whether or not Modafinil suppresses REM sleep. But this is an important issue for me, because of the connection between excessive REM sleep and depression. It’s hard to find information on ways to reduce REM sleep, since most of the energy out there is devoted to increasing it. If Modafinil can mute the dreams somewhat, that’s a point in its favor.
- I don’t know if it needs to be said, but I have no way of knowing with certainty if any of the things I’m experiencing are due to Modafinil, some other substance (I just recently restarted Wellbutrin after a few months off), or placebo effect.