Modafinil Review: Is it Good for Studying?
Benjamin Martin - 16 April 2021
Life is speeding up. We’re creating a more hectic and pressured world for ourselves, which places even greater burdens on people who want to succeed.
Some people want to push themselves further, and for longer, but aren’t able to do so. That’s where they may turn to modafinil as a smart drug.
It's a prescription medication that's being increasingly used off-label as a smart drug.
Academics, professors, stockbrokers, pilots and all sorts of other professionals who have a need to be alert and cognisant for long periods use modafinil. It’s even been given to soldiers to let them stay on duty for days at a time.
According to estimates, between 20-25% of students have used it, with rates of use being highest at Oxford University.
Modafinil is alleged to help people stay up for nights on end, working, studying, or doing whatever they need to do.
It’s still very prominent but is modafinil any good? That's what we'll find out in this article.
- Modafinil's background
- User reviews of modafinil
- Modafinil reviews in the media
- Other cognitive enhancers and natural nootropics
- Conclusion & our recommended modafinil alternative
First, some background on the drug itself. Modafinil is a eugeroic and traces its roots back to adrafinil, invented in 1974 by French chemists.
It was found to produce hyperactivity in mice, leading to an interest in using it as a treatment for sleep disorders.
Modafinil was identified as the active part of adrafinil and was subsequently isolated and trialled in the 1990s. It’s prescribed for use in narcoleptic patients, as well as a few other disorders.
The drug is believed to work by inhibiting dopamine uptake, leading to increased dopamine levels in the brain.
This should account for increased motivation, wakefulness and other aspects of cognition after taking the drug.
It’s also been speculated that modafinil increases levels of histamines in the brain to generate some of these effects. Its exact method of action is not fully known.
But how it’s meant to function is secondary. The question you’re probably interested in is whether it works.
We’ll conduct an amateur meta-review of the testimonials presented online to try and come to a conclusion on this matter.
User reviews of modafinil
There are hundreds of reviews commenting on the efficacy of modafinil as a smart drug floating around the internet.
There seems to be a definite divide, in that many of the articles published by larger outlets tend to be negative towards the drug (such as the examinations by the BBC, Vice, the Guardian and others), while personal testimonials are more mixed.
These individual reviews can be very positive, with students reporting that they were able to focus and get lots more done.
They feel more motivated, awake, and the effects last for significant periods of time. People who take it in the early afternoon can end up awake until the wee hours of the morning, still studying or unable to sleep.
Interestingly, many people who take it feel that they became more social and talkative, and the drug seems to make people self-report as more confident than before.
As a general property of the drug, it seems to impair creativity, while also making formulaic tasks much easier to get through. This might be due to the drug’s purported ability to raise dopamine levels, making it more pleasurable to finish tasks.
It may be better suited for a mathematics student than an essay writer, which might account for journalists frequently being critical of modafinil. It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘get stuff done’ pill, and may thus not be suitable if you need to be creative.
Contrary to these positive reports, there are also several modafinil reviews by students recounting negative experiences.
While it’s frequently cited as improving social skills, others feel that they became robotic as a result of taking it, and can be over-focused on their work to the detriment of socialising. It can also make you irritable or anxious if you aren't doing what you want to do.
Moreover, the effects of modafinil can be too much for some. It’s not unheard of for people to feel jittery, restless, irritable, develop physical tics or find it hard to let go of tasks and emotions after taking modafinil.
Even though it isn’t strictly a stimulant, modafinil seems to induce stimulant-like side effects in some cases.
Modafinil has also been known to cause skin problems, sweating and can lead to diarrhoea, all of which may jeopardise your studies more than the pill helps.
Many reviews state that after you take it, whatever you are doing at the time will become the most important thing in the world to you.
That can be working, or it can be something else entirely: you may focus on playing video games or walking, or another tangent which won't help your studies in the slightest.
It is possible that some of these side effects might be because modafinil is frequently bought online, from illegal sellers.
It’s legal and easy to find if prescribed by a doctor, but if acquired without a prescription, modafinil tablets could contain anything. It might be that modafinil itself is quite safe, but there are negative effects as a result of the drug being diluted or adulterated in some way.
This is, of course, speculative: people react in different ways to drugs, so it’s likely that modafinil simply doesn’t agree with some.
Side effects of highly changeable severity have been reported, from something as benign as trouble sleeping to (admittedly very rare) cases of psychosis.
Modafinil reviews in the media
Moving away from personal accounts, numerous larger media outlets have covered modafinil. While these aren't reviews focused on modafinil for studying, larger outlets have more resources and ability to research the drug.
Some, such as Vice and the BBC, have actively tried it and reviewed it, and some just analyse its use with comments from physicians, as the Independent has done.
We find the most interesting sorts of reviews to be the former - Vice’s article on modafinil was very informative and raised some important questions. It presents both benefits and drawbacks from modafinil use: increasing productivity but blunting more pleasant aspects of life in some ways.
Furthermore, a small amount of caffeine seemed to overload the author’s system. This caused numerous side effects for a while, though they eventually passed. Aside from this, it seems that the writer felt largely typical effects, but was dissatisfied with the experience.
An over-focus on work seemed to detract from other things, with the writer also mentioning that they began to dislike walking (something they previously loved) as it seemed to be ‘wasted time’ that might be spent working.
The BBC’s direct review of modafinil was less positive. The title alone, “My ‘smart drugs’ nightmare,” belies their findings on modafinil. After an initial positive experience, the drug disrupted the author’s focus and probably made him get less work done than he would have otherwise.
He also felt several side effects, including poor skin and lumps forming on his extremities. The drug was harshly criticised, and the effects described do sound ‘nightmarish’.
So the reviews are very divisive, in general. Many student reviews of modafinil report benefits, but many others report severe ramifications after taking it.
To return to the question of whether modafinil is any good, we can only say: maybe, leaning towards no. It’s acknowledged by a contingent of people online that the pills can be effectively used as smart drugs and may be helpful to some.
But, while there might be benefits felt after taking modafinil, there’s a wide range of problems you can encounter too, and there's no guarantee that you'll have a positive effect.
It simply doesn’t seem worth taking a potentially dangerous substance when you may not feel a benefit, or may even get less done as a result of taking a drug.
So, if modafinil is a dubious option what other things could you try to enhance cognition? Aside from pharmaceuticals, what alternatives can be found on the market today that can help enhance your brain?
Other cognitive enhancers and natural nootropics
Recently in the UK, there has been a surge of other nutritional cognitive enhancers (also known as natural nootropics) that can produce similar effects to pharmaceuticals but with fewer risks.
These enhancers use superfoods, herbals, amino As, vitamins and minerals to bolster your brain, instead of containing pharmaceutical drugs.
Their impact is more subtle than a pharmaceutical smart drug, which is a good thing if you want to avoid a sense of restlessness or jitteriness from something like modafinil.
Furthermore, natural options are legal, better for you, and will work more synergistically to nourish your body. This means that there will be a longer term positive benefit and less chance of a tolerance forming.
Many of them have been designed to work as alternatives to pharmaceuticals, and the best ones are fully regulated by British organisations like the MHRA, meaning that there’s a far lesser risk to your health from trying a natural nootropic.
Before trying something like modafinil, or any other pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, it may also be prudent to examine why you feel you need it in the first place.
Many of the problems that people try to combat with modafinil as a study drug are connected with fatigue and overwork, so it might be wise to try a change in lifestyle prior to self-medication.
Taking more personal time to de-stress, exercise and eat well are effective ways of promoting a better sleep schedule. If this isn’t an option, mindfulness and meditation can be ways of improving mental wellbeing with minimal time investment.
If your work or study schedules are really taking their toll, it might be worth speaking with your manager, professor or another appropriate figure regarding some sort of a change that could be made to improve your wellbeing.
It’s generally in their interest to help you, as it will improve your productivity or ability to learn as well.
Conclusion & our recommended modafinil alternative
We hope you found this article helpful. We’ve tried to collate the opinions found online into an overall conclusion. In the end, we feel that smart drugs like modafinil simply aren’t worth the risk based upon the very changeable experiences people have had with them.
On the other hand: aside from a more subtle result, food supplement based cognitive enhancers are generally safer than pharmaceutical smart drugs like modafinil.
Food supplement cognitive enhancers tend to be perfectly safe if consumed in moderation.
Moreover, there’s frequently a lot of research done on superfoods, herbs and amino acids, as they’ve been around for a lot longer than smart drugs, and most food-supplement based cognitive enhancers are legal in the UK. This makes them much more dependable than study drugs.
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About the author
Benjamin Martin is a nootropic and brain supplement enthusiast who has tried every type of performance-boosting supplement under the sun. At Brainzyme, he uses his expertise to produce educational content for the Nootropics UK and Brain Supplements UK blogs.
Based in Edinburgh, Benjamin loves spending his free time in nature whenever he gets the chance.