Olga Pyleva wasn’t allowed to keep her silver medal from the 2006 Olympic games in Turin. When the decorated Russian biathlete’s drug test came back positive for a banned substance, the Olympic committee disqualified her without a second thought. Pyleva said she didn’t know she was doping. The banned substance, she claimed, was an unlabeled ingredient in over-the-counter pain medication given to her by a Russian doctor.
The World Anti-Doping Agency wasn’t buying it. “I should start a collection of the different excuses I hear, like, ‘I got it from sitting on a toilet,’ or, ‘My evil twin gave it to me,’" said Doping Agency president Dick Pound to the New York Times in 2006.
Pyleva’s drug test had revealed traces of phenylpiracetam, a synthetic cognitive enhancer (or, nootropic) with a clunky name and a mixed reputation. Her claim of ignorance didn’t make much sense, as phenylpiracetam is only available in Russia with a prescription. Here in America, however, there's no Rx needed.
The word “nootropics” was coined by Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneliu E. Giurgea, to describe drugs that confer a cognitive boost. They’re said to induce focus and motivation, sharpen memory, help you learn information faster and more easily and transform work into a joyful experience. Basically, they’re smart drugs.
They’re also largely unregulated and, depending on the nootropic, available for legal purchase, according to the comments on a certain a Reddit rabbithole I fell down one July afternoon last year. There, trusting the credibility of strangers on the internet, I learned that phenylpiracetam was the strongest Nootropic I could order without inviting the DEA to my front door. The drug goes by several names. In Russia, where it was first formulated in 1983, it’s known as phenotropil. Infrequent news coverage usually calls it carphedon. For our purposes, let’s just call it phenyl.
Nootropics doesn't refer to a fixed group of substances, but the category is loosely bound by the construction of a stack — the ideal nootropic cocktail. Depending on the desired impact, a stack might include both natural supplements (e.g., caffeine, L-theanine, taurine) and synthetic racetams (another nebulous drug category that includes oxiracetam and piracetam). Phenyl, I learned, is the crown jewel of the lab-grown racetam family.
Nootropic enthusiasts tweak their recipes and dosages in search of the ultimate stack. Then, naturally, they share their findings online. Again, because most of these substances aren’t illegal, there’s nothing wrong with this. Caveat psychonaut.
To Dominate, or to Live
Before you imagine the nootropic landscape as a Wild West of drug experimentation, consider that some people include prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin in the category. (Others don’t.) Modafinil, aka the Limitless drug, always makes that cut.
What’s more, unlike prescription stimulants, racetams are thought to have low potential for abuse. They also work differently in the brain. One theory says they enhance cognition by making neurons more pliable and interactive with one another. But the primary mechanism of action (i.e., how they work) is, really, still a big question mark.
The degree to which phenyl and other racetams actually make you smarter depends on whom you ask. Some insist it’s mostly bunk DIY pharmacology, but the pro-nootropics community is effusive in its praise. Across different nootropics forums, members describe similar effects from phenyl, most notably a “clean” buzz without the crash brought on by stimulants. Many compare it to a more subtle version of Adderall.
“The best way to describe it,” said one commenter, “is that on Adderall (or other strong CNS stimulants), you are dominating the moment. On phenylpiracetam, you are living in the moment.”
Intellectually, I can appreciate the difference between dominating and living. But in practice? Still, I was intrigued. If the Russians go to the trouble to restrict a substance, and Dick Pound himself condemned it, it must do something, right?
Sample Size: One
I couldn’t find any stores in New York that sold phenyl, so I looked online. I quickly found Peak Nootropics, a Denver-based vendor that gets good reviews in the usual places. Along with a 10-gram supply of phenyl for $36, I spent $29 on a supplement called Nooept, which contains choline. (I’d read that phenyl can cause nasty headaches if you’re choline-deficient. I didn’t know if I was choline deficient but, as they say when you order unregulated powder from the internet, “better safe than sorry.”)
My bundle arrived a week later. Opening the cardboard UPS sleeve, I was surprised to find a packet that looked suspiciously like an eightball of cocaine, only more crystalline; it even came with a tiny plastic scoop.
Reportedly, phenyl works best when taken sublingually (under the tongue), but I couldn’t bear the acrid, gag-inducing chemical taste. Instead, I emptied a few multi-vitamin capsules and scooped 100 mgs of phenyl powder into each pill exoskeleton.
The next morning, I kicked off the day with a smoothie and a stack: one phenyl pill, one noopet pill, plus some taurine and l-theanine for good measure. Within an hour, the phenyl seemed to kick in. A low-throttle buzz took over my head. I didn’t feel high, exactly, but I did feel an urge to add words to the empty Google doc in front of me. And, once I started typing, I wanted to keep going.
The effect was more nebulous than that of a stimulant, but otherwise not dissimilar. Adderall-lite, basically. The living vs. dominating distinction started to make some sense.
The first pill wore off by midday, and a second kept me revved all afternoon. But the buzz wasn’t as clean as promised. The come-down left me a little light-headed, despite having eaten a sizeable lunch.
A common topic on the nootropic forums is the speed with which phenyl tolerance builds. Some regular users recommend taking it sporadically in one- to three-day blocks, which turned out to be sage advice. By day four, the low-throttle buzz felt more like a mild hangover. I started sweating and developed a dull ache around my temples.
It didn't seem worth tweaking my hastily assembled stack to see if I could dredge up the productivity from a few days earlier. I wouldn't call my trip down phenyl lane a failure, but the synthetic supplement didn't sharpen my focus or cognitive drive enough to justify the creeping headache. I threw the one remaining pill in my backpack and forgot about it for a few months.
A few months later, I came across the discarded pill at the bottom of my bag. Never one to learn from mistakes that might not have been mistakes in the first place (right?), I decided to give phenyl another shot.
With this lone pill, I felt great for three or four hours. That night, I emptied more vitamin capsules and resumed my makeshift pill production mill. The problem was, I’d lost the tiny measuring scoop. Eyeballing the dosage, it turns out, wasn’t a good idea. The next day, with one pill in my system, I skipped past the brain hum and went straight to a stomach ache. Always one to throw good money after bad, I took a second pill.
That was also a bad idea. To say I spent the day hunched over my desk would be an insult to hunchbacks. Doubled over in discomfort, I felt like I'd received a firm kick in the abdomen after spending a road trip eating chili dogs and reading tiny print, while sitting in one of those old Volvo trunk seats that faced backwards.
I walked home from work, bent at an angle just short of 90 degrees and, around 8 p.m., decided it was time for a burger. (You know the old phrase, don’t you? “Starve a fever, feed phenyl-induced nausea.”) Yet another bad idea. I threw up, assumed fetal position and moaned my way through Difficult People until sleep rescued me.
And thus ended my affair with phenylpiracetam. Like other affairs, it started as electrifying but quickly got rocky. We broke up, but got back together. Again, I felt sparks. Then I felt sick. Then we split up for good and I watched too much television while curled up in a ball.
Still, I’m not convinced phenyl doesn’t work. It’s certainly an experimental, unregulated supplement. As a wise friend and future MD pointed out, we don't always know how supplements that don't endure FDA rigor interact with one another or with prescription drugs. Without labels to warn us against mixing drugs, contraindications are easy to gloss over.
With that said, phenyl isn't entirely unstudied. Clinical trials from the past decade suggest piracetam, phenyl’s weaker predecessor, may help those with epilepsy, mood disorders and cognitive disabilities. And, when I was smart enough to carefully prepare my homemade pills, I made off with nearly three productive, joy-filled days of work.
The real lesson? I’m the wrong person to play chemist with nootropics. I’m always going to fudge my way through doses, and I’ll always order the burger when my stomach is clearly urging otherwise. I may write about science, but that doesn’t mean I should practice it.