Many students take pills and supplements to improve focus. But what effect do these ‘boosters’ have on your body? Joas de Jong volunteered himself as a guinea pig and tested four of them.
No one really knows how many students take Ritalin these days. We do know that in 2015, one in ten students were popping pills to improve their concentration. In 2017, the Institute for Responsible Use of Medication (IVM) reported that the number had jumped to one in four students. Judging by my own experiences as a student, I think it’s probably even higher than that.
For three years I studied the old-fashioned way, getting by on willpower and lots and lots of caffeine. But I kept hearing stories about students using pills as a study-aid – pills that are really only available through a prescription, though there are plenty of legal means to boost your focus. Braincaps have been around for a while, and even the people behind Stuvia – the online market place for buying and selling book summaries – developed their own little focus pill, StudyLess.
But do these pills actually work?
It’s the last exam week of the year, which means it’s the perfect time for an experiment. For a week, I tried studying with the help of Ritalin, Modafinil, Braincaps, and Study Buddy. Apart from the user information that comes with the pills, I read as little about them as possible in an effort to preclude the placebo effect. I also gave up coffee during the experiment.
Active substance: methylphenidate
Price: approximately two to five euro a pill
Where to buy: online through special websites
Please remember: this is in fact illegal, and you can never be sure that what you get is the real deal.
Methylphenidate, more commonly known under its brand name Ritalin, is the most well-known of the ‘focus drugs’ and is intended for people with ADHD. Ritalin slows down the dopamine reuptake in your brain, which means you don’t get that rewarding feeling when you do something ‘nice’, like lighting a cigarette or looking at your phone. Ritalin is a controlled substance under the Dutch Opium Law. Trading it is illegal.
Professor of clinical toxicology Daan Touw: ‘Ritalin is an amphetamine-like drug, which means it’s psychologically addicting. It suppresses your need for sleep and you’re less easily distracted. But it doesn’t help you remember things any better than before. The fatigue from not sleeping catches up with you, which means you have to take another pill to stay awake.’
The drug is not without risks. ‘We know very little about the long-term effects’, says Touw. Any research that’s been done involved children with ADHD. ‘I don’t think they’ll ever study the long-term effects of the drug on healthy people. Nobody would want to participate in that study.’
I take a single Ritalin pill to help me write this article. We scoured various sites to find it, but most people want to be paid in bitcoins, which is a bit daunting. In the end, getting my hands on the drug is deceptively simple: a friend of mine has a connection, so the pill is free to boot.
I have to write, and I’ve got two days until my deadline. The pill kicks in almost right away: in less than ten minutes, I’m beginning to feel different. Normally, I’m quite easily distracted: I’ll check my phone, watch a random YouTube video, or get a cup of coffee. But I have no use for distractions today; I am focused and efficient. I finish what I started and don’t jump back and forth between tasks.
I do notice that I’m beginning to feel warm, and I’ve started to sweat a little. Could it be the Ritalin? Probably.
Usually, I glance up at the clock on my wall every few minutes, but it’s ceased to exist. My eyes are focused on the screen and my fingers fly over the keyboard. I want to keep going until I finish my paper, even though it’s the weekend and I’ve got plenty of time.
But I’m not really enjoying the way the pill makes me feel. I’d already heard plenty of stories about people suffering from sleep disorders, depression, or even psychosis after using Ritalin, so that’s doing nothing to ease my misgivings. In the end, I’d rather study under my own willpower. Or maybe with a cup of coffee.
After four hours I can feel the effects of the pill begin to ebb. I grab a book simply because I feel like it. I haven’t finished my paper yet, but I decide it can wait. I leave the rest of the pills in their blister pack.
Final verdict: the benefits do not outweigh the side effects. Better stay away from this one. Back to pills
Active substance: modafinil
Price: two euro per pill
Where to buy: modafinilbestellen.nl
Modafinil was originally developed to help people with narcolepsy, which is a serious sleep disorder. But it’s slowly replacing Ritalin as the king of focus drugs. The side effects that we know about are much less severe – and, you can order modafinil legally online.
It has the same slowing effect on your dopamine reuptake that Ritalin does. Your brain simply doesn’t ‘reward’ you distracting it anymore. If you need to get through a lot of material in a short time, modafinil could be your ticket.
Touw hasn’t studied this particular drug, but he would still discourage students from using it. ‘The potential side effects are pretty severe: nausea, stomach aches, nervousness, anxiety, and especially abnormal thoughts. Young people in particular can suffer severe skin reactions. That’s why they stopped using modafinil in sleep disorders.’
It can impact the effectiveness of oral contraceptives and other medications. ‘It will also disrupt your sleep rhythm and you’ll really feel it when it stops working.’
Today, I need to read and study a text by Michael Foucault. It’s not the easiest read, so I’m hoping some modafinil can help me out.
I take it at noon when I’m still at home, with the intention of leaving for the UB immediately after, but I never make it there.
I can feel the pill doing its job almost immediately. If it’s a placebo, it’s a really convincing one. I’d pulled up the Foucault text on my laptop and I find myself drawn to the text; all I want to do is read. All of a sudden, taking five minutes to walk to the library seems like an enormous waste of time.
My eyes are glued to the screen and nothing can disrupt my focus. Incoming WhatsApp messages go unread; I don’t even notice them pinging my phone. I don’t realise how much life I’ve missed until I finally look up from my text two hours later.
By way of a break – not that I need it – I decide to play some piano. I usually just improvise, but today I feel like learning new things. I’m so consumed by my new project, however, that I almost miss a planned meeting. When I do meet my friend in the cafeteria, I’m completely unable to focus on his story, which makes no sense to me at all. This pill certainly doesn’t benefit your social life.
Not working is feeling really uncomfortable; I’m jumpy. That flood of relief you usually get when you close your laptop at the end of a study session now only comes when I open it. My unsettled feeling won’t go away at the end of the night. I want to relax but I don’t know how.
The pill doesn’t wear off until nearly eleven hours after I take it. At one moment I’m completely wired; the next moment, I feel fine and relaxed. But I still have trouble falling asleep and I’m fully awake again after just six hours.
Final verdict: It works, but it’s pretty unpleasant. Your social life will suffer ill effects. Back to pills
Braincaps Boost en Studdy Buddy
Active substance: mainly caffeine
Price: 0.45 – 0.75 per pill (Braincaps)
0.50 – 0.86 per pill (Study Buddy)
Where to buy: https://mijnstudybuddy.nl/ or https://braincaps.nl/
Braincaps and Study Buddy are two well-known supplements that are supposed to help you focus. They’re easily available online and don’t have any nasty side effects.
The pills are almost identical in their ingredients, the main one being, of course, caffeine. Interestingly enough, the people behind Study Buddy have decided to also add vitamins B6 and B12, as well as pepper. The vitamins are completely unnecessary; you also get these from a healthy diet. The pepper is an interesting addition as well.
‘Unfortunately, it won’t do anything to improve your focus’, says Touw. ‘Thirty percent of what you feel can be chalked up to the placebo effect, which does actually create a response in your central nervous system. If you think the pill works, it actually will for some of its users.’
Large amounts of caffeine are a pretty big no-no as well. An overdose can be dangerous and lead to arrhythmia and circulation disorders.
Touw is also not a fan of the Braincaps Night, which contain melatonin. You can take this after you spend the day studying with the help of Braincaps Boost. ‘During the day, you flood your brain with caffeine to stay awake, and at night you take melatonin to sleep. Better to just drink a double espresso before you start studying.’
Before I take Study Buddy, I take google some of the ingredients. I find out that the L-Theanine is supposed to have a calming effect. It also contains Huperzia Serrata, a moss which counteracts Alzheimer’s in mice, but has no effect on people. The Rhodiola Rosea is supposed to lower my stress levels. And the caffeine, well, we know what that’s supposed to do.
I’m feeling optimistic when I take my first pill at eight thirty in the morning and leave for my first lecture of the day. I’m sure this will work out.
Two hours later, I haven’t paid attention during the lecture at all. It’s probably because I skipped my morning cup of coffee to see if the pill would really make a difference. I wait two more hours and then pop two more pills. I have to read through an article by historical philosopher Frank Ankersmit, and it’s a doozy. But when a friend messages me if he can come over for a drink forty minutes later, I agree immediately.
I never return to Frank Ankersmit.
The next day I try the Braincaps, hoping they’ll work better than Study Buddy. Many of the substances in the capsules are identical: Rhodiola Rosea, Huperzia Serrata, and our old friend, caffeine.
I pop my first pill, as usual, in the morning. I have to write a 1,200-word essay on public history. I’m halfway there, so the Braincaps should help me eek out the last six hundred.
But the effects are, once again, disappointing. Under normal circumstances (post-coffee) I would have finished the essay in ninety minutes. Today it takes four hours, which are punctuated with distractions: breaks, games, YouTube videos, a grocery run for bread.
‘Boost your brain’, Braincaps promises. ‘Optimise your focus and your memory.’ But the only thing that’s being optimised is my need for coffee. I gave a friend of mine some pills, too. He chased them with three cups of coffee, but he isn’t feeling any more focused either.
Four hours later, I take another two pills. But there is absolutely no added effect.
I work at my essay for another fifteen minutes before giving up.
Final verdict: coffee is cheaper, healthier, and tastes better. Back to pills