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Modafinil – a smart drug or just a drug?

First off, what is Modafinil? Well, its main use is being a medication to treat sleepiness due to narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, or obstructive sleep apnoea.

It was approved for medical use in the United States in 1998 and today it’s available as a generic medication. So why would I write about a prescription drug for narcolepsy?

You know me better than that right? Well, the truth is Modafinil or Provigil is a drug most associated with improving cognitive ability. Fatigue and sleepiness are conquered when using Modafinil, which allows people to improve their overall health and performance.

It’s also known as the Limitless drug. Yes as in the movie, and while the effect isn’t as profound, neither are the side effects. I personally find it interesting that some people like to use drugs which makes them stupider, while others are doing drugs to make them smarter. With this, you could be a better you. Now isn’t that something?

Modafinil is the world’s first safe “smart drug”, researchers at Harvard and Oxford universities have said, after performing a comprehensive review of the drug. 

The wonder drug?

Modafinil is the first real example of a smart drug which can genuinely help

Guy Goodwin, president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology

So what are the benefits?

Modafinil or Provigil has been used non-medically as a “smart drug” by students, office workers, soldiers, and so-called bio-hackers for years. As a ‘smart drug’ it helps increase mental focus and helps evade sleep, properties which attract students, professionals in the corporate and tech fields, air-force personnel, surgeons, truck drivers, and call-center workers.

When more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning. Importantly, we did not observe any preponderances for side effects or mood changes.

Battleday, R. M., & Brem, A. K. (2015)

A survey of 2000 students in the UK in 2014 found that one in five people had used Modafinil to stay awake and study.

The thing is, overwhelming evidence suggests that this smart drug actually works. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford demonstrated that Modafinil offers significant cognitive benefits for people who do not suffer from sleep deprivation or fatigue.

It improves the ability to plan, and make decisions. It also has a positive effect on learning and creativity.

Another study done by researchers at Imperial College of London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons perform better when they took modafinil.

Our results suggest that fatigued doctors might benefit from pharmacological enhancement in situations that require efficient information processing, flexible thinking, and decision making under time pressure.

Sugden, C., Housden, C. R., Aggarwal, R., Sahakian, B. J., & Darzi, A. (2012).

A new review of 24 of the most recent modafinil studies suggests that the drug has many positive effects in healthy people, including enhancing attention, improving learning and memory, and increasing something called “fluid intelligence” – essentially our capacity to solve problems and think creatively.

One study also showed that modafinil made tasks seem more pleasurable. The longer and more complex the task tested, the more consistently modafinil conferred cognitive benefits, the authors of the review said. Müller, U., Rowe, J. B., Rittman, T., Lewis, C., Robbins, T. W., & Sahakian, B. J. (2013)

What I also found interesting during my research is that apparently it doesn’t just help with the mental aspect, but can also help with physical performance. It may not be a bad idea to use it with your pre-workout stack.

Modafinil has been shown to prolong exercise time to exhaustion while performing at 85% of VO2max and also reduces the perception of effort required to maintain this threshold. The RPE results suggest that the dampening of the sensation of fatigue was likely a factor responsible for the enhanced performance.

Jacobs, I. R. A., & Bell, D. G. (2004)

So basically it boils down to this. There are the main benefits of taking Provigil.

  • Improved cognitive ability;
  • Heightened focus lasting 12+ hours;
  • Ability to improve fatigue, including those dreaded hangovers;
  • Increased productivity;
  • An array of other health and cognitive benefits!

Occupational use of Modafinil

Yes as funny as it sounds, this is a thing. Armed forces of several countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, India, and France, have expressed interest in modafinil as an alternative to amphetamine, which has been the drug traditionally employed in certain combat situations or lengthy missions. Ephedrine for example fell out of favor due to anxiety-producing side-effects. Something that might not be the best thing to have on the battlefield.

The French Foreign Legion used Modafinil in Gulf War I. In the United States military, provigil has been approved for use on certain Air Force missions, and it is being investigated for other uses, due to its effects. As of November 2012, modafinil is the only drug approved by the Air Force as a “go pill” for fatigue management and replacing prior use of amphetamine-based medications such as dextroamphetamine.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal also reports that modafinil is used by astronauts on long-term missions aboard the International Space Station. It states as following. Modafinil is “available to crew to optimize performance while fatigued” and helps with the disruptions in circadian rhythms and with the reduced quality of sleep astronauts experience. Also, the cognitive benefits and increased focus might not be bad when you’re in an environment when even the smallest mistakes can have big consequences.

In 2011, the Indian Air Force announced that modafinil was included in contingency plans, due to its effects.

Sleep deprivation and the resultant fatigue have been attributed to be the biggest danger to the success of any mission. That is why we have opted for a drug named Modafinil, popularly known as the ‘Go Pill’.

Major Gen Mandeep Singh, ADG (Medical Research)

Is it safe?

Considering it originated way back in the late 1970, I think that’s more than a long enough track record. If there were any major issues they would have emerged by now.

Unlike Ritalin or Adderall, modafinil isn’t an amphetamine and doesn’t flood the body with dopamine in the same way. For this reason, scientists believe it to be non-habit-forming.

On top of that, large-scale clinical studies have found no evidence of tolerance with modafinil at therapeutic dosages even with prolonged use (for 40 weeks and as long as three years). It is very effective for the long-term treatment of EDS associated with narcolepsy and significantly improves perceptions of general health.

Modafinil has few side effects. The 70 percent of the studies that looked for mood and side effects found only some instances of insomnia, headache, stomach-ache, or nausea, all of which were also reported in placebo groups.

“In the face of vanishingly few side effects in these controlled environments, modafinil can be considered a cognitive enhancer,” said Anna-Katharine Brem, another co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford.

While i’m not saying it doesn’t have potential side-effects but then again what doesn’t. Even the most widespread and benign drug as coffee cause side effects in certain people.

A poll of Nature journal readers suggested that one in five have used drugs to improve focus, with 44% stating modafinil as their drug of choice.

Sahakian, B., & Morein-Zamir, S. (2007)

Who may benefit the most from taking it

So who may benefit from taking Provigil? Well almost everyone basically, but the most noticeable effect will be for the following people.

  • Shift workers
  • People working longer shifts
  • People whose jobs require a high level of focus or concentration
  • Students
  • People who want to have a more active lifestyle

Admittedly this is a wide scope of people but then again, you can’t argue that anyone on this list couldn’t benefit from more focus, concentration, or having more energy and better memory.

It may even help with depression. The meta-analysis involved a total of 568 patients with unipolar depression and a total of 342 patients with bipolar depression. The analysis revealed that modafinil improved the severity of depression as well as remission rates. 

44% of modafinil patients achieved ≥50% reduction in IDS score compared with 23% in placebo group (P=0.03)

Ballon, J. S., & Feifel, D. (2006)

Bottom line on Modafinil

The thing is, Modafinil is not some wonder drug like some people like to claim. It doesn’t make you reach a higher limit of consciousness or make you an all knowing being with an IQ of 500+.

That said, it can massively improve your efficiency, memory, focus, and drive so it can be a big boost for certain people who are just overloaded, underslept, or just plain old lazy. And let’s be honest a lot of people today fall into at least one if not more of these categories due to the fast tempo of modern-day life.

So basically in a nutshell, while Modafinil won’t make you more clever, it will allow you to live up to your ability, which in reality is more than enough.

As always, stay safe and be smart about your choices.


Author: Ivan Vlahinić

I am not a scientist. But i don’t have to be a scientist to be able to deftly use the scientific method in your daily life. In fact, you can be one helluva ‘thinker’ (in the scientific sense) and not be a scientist. For instance, nutritionists and personal trainers like me, who use and embrace science and the scientific method are better trainers because of it. Why? Because rather than just being a parrot and telling my clients what to do, because that’s what I have been told when I was younger I understand the "why" of my advice. And if I dont? Then I fully admit that i don't, and that's fine. The more you learn in the field of fitness and nutrition, the more you realize there is a lot of stuff that you dont know. But this is something that is true of all fields of work or life. The scientific method is the single most powerful way of thinking, that's why I embrace it. Anecdotes are nice, but data and facts trumps anecdotes.

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