“You just don’t make bad decisions on it!” he pronounced, wearing the wide-eyed grin of a man who hasn’t slept for three days.
“I saw my mate pulled three chicks in one night after just one dose, that’s how I found out about it! What a legend!” he went on.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone sing the praises of Modafinil.
Several years ago I’d dated a med student who swore by the stuff.
“It has no side effects. I couldn’t pass without it,” he’d said.
Intrigued by the fact a dirty doofer and a future doctor both loved this supposed wonder drug, and quite frankly a little sick of hearing about it, I decided to get on the blower to ethnopharmacologist Stephen Bright.
I wanted to know if the rumours about this “miracle medication” were true.
Here’s what he told me.
Myth #1: Modafinil makes you smarter
Fact: Modafinil doesn’t increase your IQ or make you “Limitless”, it just counters the effects of sleep deprivation.
“There is no evidence to indicate that it makes people smarter, but it does reduce the effects of fatigue. So, someone who is sleep deprived and using this drug could achieve similar functioning to a person who is not sleep deprived. But it doesn’t increase intelligence or cognitive performance from baseline.”
Myth #2: There are no side effects from using Modafinil.
Fact: Modafinil is a drug to counteract narcolepsy, which means that it will cause insomnia when used for non-medical purposes. Other side effects have also been discovered.
“The main side effect is insomnia. Modafinil lasts a long time in the body: It can take 12-15 hours for the body to metabolise it to half the amount you’ve taken. We don’t have data on the long-term effects of regularly using Modafinil, but we do know that humans need REM sleep to stay healthy.”
“Furthermore, people who don’t sleep well tend to eat more and eat more unhealthy foods. Down the track some of the issues associated with the lifestyle could have harmful side effects.”
“People have also reported anxiety and hypertension. Other common physical side effects include headache (34%), nausea (11%), diarrhoea (6%), stomach pain (5%) and dizziness (5%).”
“In addition, there are psychiatric symptoms, including but not limited to ‘nervousness, agitation, irritability, psychomotor hyperactivity, depression, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, suicide attempt, aggravated depression, psychosis, mania, delusions, hallucinations, suicidal ideation, thinking abnormal and aggression’”.
Myth #3: Modafinil is pure because it comes in pharmaceutical blister packs
Fact: Drugs imported from overseas do not meet Australian safety standards, and there’s no easy way to test Modafinil for adulterants.
“A lot of people are buying these drugs from overseas, and there’s not a lot of quality control over drugs produced in India or China. There can be all kinds of weird adulterants in imported drugs.”
“In Australia we have some of the tightest regulations over pharmaceutical products. The manufacturing standards and quality control here are incredible, even compared to the USA. If you get any drug from an Australian pharmacy, you can be guaranteed, apart from the 0.0000001% of instances where they do identify a problem (in which case there will be a recall) that it will be quality.”
“Furthermore, I am not aware of anyone importing Modafinil and getting it tested. One way you could do a proper test in Australia is to send it to Energy Control And yes, it would be illegal to send a drug in the mail in Australia – but from the perspective of border control they’re more interested in what’s coming in than going out. At Energy Control’s end there’s not much of a problem.”
“I have checked and it seems that there are no colour changes for Modafinil using typical reagents.”
Myth #4: I need Modafinil to help me focus.
Fact: You are probably better off figuring out the root cause of your inattention.
“There could be a range of reasons why people are having difficulty focussing – everything from anxiety, ADHD, other medical conditions. So, before running to get a pill – particularly getting a pill online – it would be better to find out what’s causing it.”
Myth #5: Modafinil is not addictive
Fact: If you’re using Modafinil to be more productive, you can become addicted to the lifestyle that it facilitates. Recreational users don’t report a desire for daily use.
“You can become psychologically dependant on it and feel that without it you won’t be able to get work done. In addition to that, you can create an environment by taking it regularly in which literally you can’t get the amount of work done that you’ve committed to. And then you can become quite stressed if you can’t access it.”
“In high doses, when you have euphoric effects, it could be moreish. However, because it lasts so long, most people who I’ve spoken to who do that say they wouldn’t do it on a frequent basis.”
Myth #6: It’s safe to mix Modafinil with alcohol.
Fact: A lot of people report mixing Modafinil with alcohol unintentionally and getting blackout drunk.
“If you’ve been quite wired and you’ve done a lot of work, you celebrate with a few drinks to take the edge off at the end of the day. Say I took it this morning and I have drinks this afternoon. I’m drinking alcohol and I’m not feeling much, so I have more. I don’t realise that I am actually experiencing some of the impairments from alcohol already. Then, as the evening goes on, the Modafinil starts wearing off and the alcohol is still in my system. All of a sudden, I feel the effects of the alcohol come on very rapidly. At the beginning it cancels out so you drink more, but later on your liver still has to process all the extra alcohol you’ve ingested.”
Myth #7: You can build up a tolerance to Modafinil
Fact: When used to treat narcolepsy, patients are put on a stable dose. Any tolerance you experience is most likely psychological, not physical.
“I’m not aware of people needing to take more to stay awake when they’ve been using Modafinil regularly. But there may be a psychological perception that you aren’t getting as much as you were in the past, so people may increase the dose on their own.”
Myth #8: There’s no harm in trying it
Fact: If you’ve got a pre-existing condition such as an anxiety disorder, insomnia or hypertension, or you’re taking medication for other things, there’s not enough research to conclusively rule out the potential risk of harm Modafinil could cause.
“I don’t think there’s been enough research to really talk about the contrary indications might be – there’s not a lot of research that’s been done on the populations who shouldn’t take it. The initial clinical trials were done on people with narcolepsy and the more recent research is on healthy volunteers that have been sleep deprived. Usually with a trial like that they err on the side of caution and you’d have to be in good physical health, taking no other medications, and have no mental health issues to participate.”
Myth #9: We’d be better off if everyone was on Modafinil
Fact: Performance enhancing drugs set an unattainable standard.
“My main concern is something broader: In my office, if ten percent of people are taking Modafinil and they set the expectation of work performance, it puts pressure on me, which may lead to burn out or taking Modafinil or other drugs to improve my performance as well. I worry about the flow on effects. It sets the bar unreasonably high.”
“Companies continue to downsize and expect to get more from less people. Something has just got to give at some stage. The emergence and increased use of Modafinil in the workplace is a symptom of this broader societal issue of expecting more out of people when we have less people who are doing the work.”
Myth #10: Modafinil is safe to use in conjunction with the contraceptive pill
Fact: Ladies, look out. Modafinil reduced the effectiveness of the birth control pill.
“The effectiveness of oral contraceptives may be impaired due to enzyme induction activity of Modafinil. Alternative or concomitant methods of contraception are recommended for patients treated with Modafinil”.