Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug (or eugeroic) with many uses. Officially, it’s prescribed by doctors for individuals with narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder as well as shift work sleep disorder. Unofficially, it’s a hugely popular smart drug used to enhance cognitive abilities.
I’m a big fan of modafinil (which also often goes by the brand name Provigil). While I make use of it often, for whatever reason, not everyone can or wants to do the same.a
Luckily there are many modafinil alternatives which can be taken in its place. They all yield similar benefits (though, of course, never exactly the same) and have similar or even milder possible side effects. They also all avoid modafinil’s potential logistical and legal complications.
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What Exactly Is Modafinil
Modafinil was first developed in 1970 by a French neurophysiologist Dr. Michel Jouvet and Lafon Laboratories. In 1998, the US FDA approved modafinil for the treatment of narcolepsy. In 2003 it added obstructive sleep apnea and shift work sleep disorder to the list.
Modafinil is similar to stimulants like Adderall, though it’s safer and doesn’t fall into that category. Because of how differently it acts on the brain’s neurotransmitters, it’s officially classified as an eugeroic.
Traditional stimulants increase the amount of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. These neurochemicals are responsible for motivation, mood, and energy levels. Stimulants often give the sensation of a “rush” following onset, and a “crash” when they wear off. Modafinil’s effects are much more gentle and more comfortable to deal with.
How Does Modafinil Work
Slightly similar to traditional stimulants, there are several research-backed ways in which modafinil achieves its effects.
- Histamine Levels
Modafinil raises hypothalamic histamine levels. Histamine is essential in regulating the sleep/wake cycle. As an aside, this is why antihistamines, often taken to combat seasonal allergies, cause users to experience drowsiness.
- Norepinephrine Levels
Also called noradrenaline, norepinephrine is quite similar to adrenaline. Modafinil elevates norepinephrine levels, thus boosting wakefulness and attention levels.
Increased levels of norepinephrine may trigger a “fight-or-flight” response in the brain, which leads to higher levels of cortisol. This mechanism explains why increased anxiety is one of the possible modafinil side effects.
- Dopamine Levels
Modafinil inhibits the absorption of dopamine, leading to increased synaptic concentrations of it. In other words, it makes the user feel more awake and motivated.
- GABA Production and Glutamate Levels
GABA, which helps regulate sleep, is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and modafinil restrains its production. A lack of GABA accounts for the feeling of vigilance experienced on modafinil.
Modafinil also elevates glutamate levels. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for attention and memory. This neurochemical also goes up when drinking coffee.
Orexin is a neuropeptide which plays a vital role in appetite, alertness, and arousal. Modafinil increases its production, a process some believe to be partly responsible for the boost in wakefulness. However, the jury is still out on this one. Some studies suggest orexin is not necessary for modafinil to produce this effect.
Who Uses Modafinil
Commonly, modafinil is prescribed to treat a number of psychological conditions. But, its effectiveness as a cognitive enhancer leads many to use it to manage and get ahead in both their professional and personal lives. Here are just a few examples of individuals who can benefit.
Modafinil increases the ability to focus over long periods of time. It has positive effects on memory retention and recall. It also boosts motivation. As such, drugs like modafinil makes it easier for students to focus on their studies and helps them retain information much quicker.
Whether it’s an entrepreneur or an ambitious employee, modafinil is famous for creating a “glued-to-the-chair” effect. It makes the brain eliminate distractions and merely concentrate on whatever task is at hand.
Professional gaming is the same as any other sport. You need focus, fast reaction times and the ability to stay sharp in critical moments. In addition to those benefits, modafinil also boosts creativity, potentially resulting in original strategies not expected by opponents.
The Downsides of Modafinil
Since modafinil is a relatively new discovery, its long-term side-effects are challenging to predict. Though there are a few potential issues which are clear.
Due to its long half-life, modafinil can make it hard to go to sleep at night. Disturbed sleep is counterproductive for students who take modafinil to study during the day since sleep time is when the brain consolidates memories.
Contrary to popular belief, modafinil has addiction potential. It increases dopamine levels and blocks dopamine transporters similarly to cocaine.
Taking modafinil does indeed make you feel very focused on the task at hand. However, you may get extra-focused on things that aren’t actually important, especially if sitting in front of a laptop.
Headaches too are a possible side effect of modafinil, though mostly because of inadequate hydration. Anxiety may occur either if you haven’t eaten, or if you’ve consumed other stimulants like coffee at the same time.
Modafinil can trigger rhinitis, which is an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose. This issue is caused by the increase in histamine levels. It’s most common in people who are already predisposed to seasonal allergies. Taking antihistamine medication should alleviate symptoms, but on the downside can dull the effects of modafinil.
Last but not least, obtaining modafinil without a prescription is technically illegal in many countries. That said, the government rarely, if ever cracks down on this practice which makes ordering modafinil on the internet quite safe and commonly practiced.
Popular Alternatives to Modafinil
Many individuals like the benefits of taking modafinil but are either unable or can’t afford to get it (non-generics like Provigil and Nuvigil get very expensive). The good news is there are several alternatives which offer similar effects.
If you’re looking to match modafinil as closely as possible, adrafinil is unquestionably your best choice. That said, you may also be looking for a few additional benefits, in which case exploring some of the other options may not be a bad idea.
Much like modafinil, adrafinil was first manufactured in the 1970s by a French pharmaceutical company called Lafon Laboratories. Adrafinil is a prodrug to modafinil, meaning your body metabolizes it and turns it into modafinil. Thus, hands down, adrafinil is as close to modafinil as it gets.
Adrafinil is less potent than modafinil. You need around 300 mg to 600 mg of it to feel the same as just 200 mg of modafinil. But because your body converts one to the other, you can expect pretty much the same end results. There is also another small difference between modafinil and adrafinil or two you may want to be aware of, though nothing major.
One of the biggest selling points of adrafinil is that it’s entirely legal. It’s also easy and very inexpensive to get online.
The original nootropic piracetam was first synthesized in 1964. It boosts cognition by increasing cholinergic neurotransmission. It also improves alertness by stimulating oxygen and glucose uptake in brain cells.
Phenylpiracetam is essentially piracetam with a phenyl group added to it. It’s around 50 times more potent than piracetam and quite stimulating in effects due to its resemblance to phenethylamines such as Adderall.
Just like modafinil, phenylpiracetam boosts motivation, mood and memory retention. That makes it a handy study aid. Due to its stimulating effects and increase in stamina, taking phenylpiracetam can also enhance athletic performance.
[You can get phenylpiracetam here]
Pramiracetam is a very potent member of the racetam nootropic family. It’s one of the strongest cognitive enhancers around and an invaluable addition in many stacks. It does however different from other racetams as far as the mechanism of action and absorption.
Unlike most racetams, which are water-soluble, pramiracetam is fat-soluble. Pramiracetam also doesn’t directly influence neurotransmitters. It stimulates choline uptake and causes the release of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine spurs activity in the hippocampus, which causes increased memory retention and recall.
Pramiracetam boosts mental clarity, focus, and alertness but unlike modafinil, does not have any effect on mood or anxiety levels. This is because of the minimal influence of pramiracetam on the production and release of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. On top of it, pramiracetam stacks well with oxiracetam for increased energy and with aniracetam for its mood-lifting and anti-anxiety effects.
Sulbutiamine is a synthetic version of Vitamin B1. It was synthesized to treat chronic Vitamin B1 deficiency, a condition detrimental to alertness, memory, and attention.
What sets sulbutiamine apart from regular Vitamin B1 supplements is its ability to influence even those who aren’t Vitamin B1 deficient positively.
When taken on a regular basis, the most apparent effect of sulbutiamine is the ability to improve long-term and short-term memory. Sulbutiamine influences acetylcholine, dopamine and glutamate production. The result is a positive impact on overall mood, alertness, focus, and energy levels. Sulbutiamine is extremely fat soluble, and like modafinil, its effects show up very quickly.
[You can get sulbutiamine here]
First synthesized in 1996, Noopept is considered to be one of the best smart drugs for treating age-related memory disorders. It is similar in effects to phenylpiracetam (and, of course, modafinil). Noopept is estimated to be 1,000 times more potent than the original nootropic piracetam and brings several neuroprotective properties to the table.
Do note that Noopept’s potency doesn’t imply that it will generate extreme effects. You simply need much less of it to achieve the desired results. This is why overall Noopept prices are lower when compared to other nootropics. A single dose of 30 mg is enough to produce the same impact as 3 grams of piracetam.
Noopept’s most apparent benefit is its ability to enhance memory retention and retrieval. It does so by facilitating proper management of stimuli. By using Noopept on a regular basis, you will also notice memories seem more vivid. The reason is it increases NGF (Nerve Groth Factor) production, a protein involved in growth and maintenance of nerve cells.
I also use Noopept fairly extensively and have to say that in some situations, I do like it better than modafinil.
Semax is a heptapeptide nootropic that was first manufactured in Russia in the 1980s. It shares many similarities with Noopept. Semax was initially developed to help those suffering from brain damage but has been subsequently also used by healthy individuals.
It modulates the receptors in the Limbic Reticular complex and the neurotransmitters acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, adenosine as well as histamine receptors. Like Noopept, Semax has highly neuroprotective properties. It boosts neuroplasticity and increases cholinergic and glutamatergic activity.
Additionally, Semax increases memory, concentration, energy levels, alertness, and mood. Users report feelings similar to other stimulants, modafinil included, without many of the associated adverse side-effects.
A lesser-known nootropic, Phenibut is very similar to the neurotransmitter GABA. Phenibut is very potent in its ability to both relieve anxiety and increase focus.
Usual GABA supplements won’t produce noticeable nootropic or anti-anxiety effects. But Phenibut is essentially a GABA analog with an added phenyl ring which allows it to pass the blood-brain barrier.
Phenibut was initially used by Soviet astronauts due to its effectiveness in reducing anxiety without impeding cognitive abilities. It is quite useful as a nootropic and helps to maintain focus for extended periods of time by eliminating the mind’s “background noise.”
If you opt for Phenibut, avoid taking it daily or in high doses because of its potential to be addictive. It can also produce a “drunk feeling” when exceeding standard dosages.
[You can get Phenibut here]
Natural Alternatives to Modafinil
If you’re looking for a more natural substitute for modafinil, here too, you have several options to choose from. Depending on your needs, they may be just as effective as the ones listed thus far.
Although it can’t entirely be considered a nootropic, caffeine does boost your mental performance. You would have to go far to find a workplace that doesn’t have a coffee machine. It’s funny to think of caffeine as a psychostimulant due to how common it is, yet it does exhibit noticeable effects on receptors that trigger the release of dopamine.
Caffeine enhances alertness, focus and mental energy. It positively affects the mood and can even protect against Alzheimer’s disease. On the flip side, too much caffeine will result in anxiety and an increased heart rate.
Many describe modafinil as a “stronger cup of coffee.” While caffeine won’t treat narcolepsy or attention deficit disorder, healthy people can do well without anything else except a cup of joe (in addition to proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep, of course).
[You can get caffeine here]
L-theanine is an amino acid similar in chemical structure to glutamate, another amino acid which aids in transmitting nerve impulses. It increases serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. This is the reason why teas which contain L-theanine help people relax and improve their mood. L-theanine is most commonly consumed as green or black tea, both of which also contain significant amounts of caffeine (especially the latter).
The L-theanine and caffeine stack is famous among nootropic users. Even though L-theanine just by itself boosts focus and increases mental clarity, combining it with other nootropics or stimulants generates effects which are much closer to modafinil.
Caffeine and L-theanine complement each other well. The former produces stimulating effects while the latter makes you more resistant to the jitteriness that comes with increased caffeine intake. When consuming the two together, maintaining a 2:1 L-theanine to caffeine ratio is a good target.
[You can get L-theanine here]
Rhodiola is a perennial flowering plant that grows naturally in the Arctic regions of Europe, North America, and Asia. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine due to its effectiveness as a tonic.
Today, Rhodiola’s most common uses include treatment of fatigue and depression. It is also an adaptogen, meaning it helps the mind and the body be more resilient to the harmful effects of stress.
Rhodiola has noticeable positive effects on motivation levels, memory retention and capacity for cognitive effort. Ongoing research is currently being conducted looking into its potential to treat other disorders such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.
[You can get Rhodiola rosea here]
Gotu Kola, also known as Centella Asiatica, is a herb native to the wetlands of Asia. In Bali, it’s often referred to as “the student herb” because of its ability to sharpen the mind, increase focus and mental energy, and relieve anxiety during stressful times. Most of these effects are very similar to those of modafinil.
Gotu Kola has a long history of use in holistic medicine. It’s quite popular in China and even regarded as an elixir of life. This belief stems mainly from its association with Li Ching-Yuen, a Chinese herbalist who supposedly lived over 200 years by consuming various herbs.
What’s great about Gotu Kola is its effectiveness and safety. A typical dose needed to experience significant nootropic effects ranges from 300 mg to 1000 mg. However, people very often exceed those doses without a sign of any short or long-term side effects.
[You can get Gotu Kola here]
Panax (Korean) Ginseng and Ginkgo Biloba
Panax ginseng and Ginkgo biloba are two of the most widely used nootropic supplements on the planet. Both can improve quality of life and treat various physical and psychological disorders.
Ginkgo biloba is effective at enhancing memory and cognition by boosting blood flow in the brain. Panax ginseng is a tonic and very effective at raising energy levels and mood. The two supplements produce synergistic effects. When used together, users have reported faster mental processing speed and increased mental sharpness.
Mind Lab Pro
You can also, of course, stack several of these nootropics. If that’s the road you wish to take, you have two options. You can buy the ingredients separately and build a custom stack, or have everything done for you by getting a pre-formulated product.
Mind Lab Pro is a popular option for this purpose. It’s a combination of eleven natural nootropics, including L-theanine and Rhodiola rosea, both of which were mentioned above.
The advantage of stacking, other than gaining the benefits of multiple substances, is nootropics often work synergistically, further enhancing the overall effect. And that is indeed the case with Mind Lab Pro.
What you can expect from it are a boost to your memory, focus, and processing speed, as well as improvements in your creativity and motivation levels. It also does an excellent job of installing a greater sense of calmness and reducing anxiety and stress levels.
Wrapping It Up
There are many valid reasons why you may be looking for alternatives to modafinil. Perhaps you can’t get a prescription or find the cost too high (though in both cases, getting it online is a solution worth considering). Or maybe you were just not entirely happy with the effects modafinil produces.
Ultimately, choosing the right nootropic is very much a subjective matter. And armed with the above list of modafinil alternatives, you’re now ready to find that one supplement which best works for you.