W When writing my book on enhancing cognitive ability to be a better software developer, I debated whether to include just supplements and nootropics, or to also address lifestyle habits.  In turn, I wondered if I should even address it for this blog in general.  It was a difficult decision, in no small part because people often use supplements to mask weaknesses in their lifestyle. 

For someone who’s a stressed-out sleep-deprived mess, it can be easier to take an anxiety-lowering nootropic like L-theanine and pair it with an egoic (wakefulness promoting agent) like modafinil than to get their house in order.  I wondered if I’d be diluting my main message if I address it.

Comically large supplement bottles

Comically large supplement pill bottles

I ultimately decided that both the book and this blog need to tackle those habits, whether or not it was the most efficient choice.  Here is what decided it for me, and if any of this applies to you, then I recommend you pay attention to these observations:

  • Poor lifestyle habits are so destructive to your productivity that fixing one or more of them will stack up to, if not exceed, the benefit you’d get from any combination of supplements and nootropics.
  • Once you’ve developed good habits, they’ll only synergize better with supplementation.  You’ll go from damage control mode to maximizing yourself, which is a much healthier long-term place to be.
  • As discussed elsewhere in this blog, many supplement and nootropic studies are ambiguous.  Part of that ambiguity is that they don’t always control for the lifestyle of their subjects.  When it comes to you deciding if something works for you or not, you’ll make a better decision if you get your own habits under control.

I was ready to die on that hill whether it was wise or not . . .  but I don’t have to!  I found an interesting meta-review that combed over supplement studies in the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination) data and CRN (Council for Responsible Nutrition) surveys from multi-year periods.  The cool part is the strong link between people who take supplements and those who practice healthy lifestyle habits.  While that 2014 review is slightly dated, the more recent surveys I looked at all have similar enough data that it’s worth considering.[1]Dickinson, Annette, and Douglas MacKay. “Health Habits and Other Characteristics of Dietary Supplement Users: A Review.” Nutrition Journal 13 (February 6, 2014): 14. … Continue reading

A critical keystone lifestyle habit is exercise.  There’s an absurd number of studies backing up the basic premise that exercise > being sedentary for health and longevity, so I won’t even go there.  While it’s a less popular topic, there are also plenty of studies supporting aerobic exercise and improved cognition (particularly in the aging population, though there’s interesting evidence on the young adult side too).  Surprisingly, anaerobic exercise and cognition have few studies over the decades.  The ones I’ve reviewed show a modest, at best, link to cognitive performance and resistance training, though I expect we’ll see a stronger trend in the future.  Anyway, guess who’s more likely to take supplements?  People who exercise!

    Other lifestyle factors with a link include that fitter/less obese individuals are more likely to take supplements (the lifestyle habit of maintaining a healthy weight).  Smokers are less likely to supplement, which isn’t surprising when you consider it an anti-healthy habit.  One I got a laugh out of is that both moderate wine and liquor drinkers are more likely to supplement than either heavy or non-drinkers.  There was no link one way or the other with beer drinking.

    Here are some other interesting factoids from it:

    • Supplement use is common, with roughly 50% of the US adult population taking them regularly and an additional 10 to 15% taking them occasionally, so as much as 2/3 of people nationwide.
    • Most of them take a single supplement (47%), and, for anyone who takes a supplement, it probably includes a multivitamin (67%). Putting that together, a huge swatch of the population supplements with just a multivitamin.  It actually isn’t my advice—if you’re going to supplement with just one, you’ll get more cognitive bang for your buck looking at Vitamin D3 or magnesium—but at least it’s something.  Also, I’m apparently a heavy outlier as only 17% of people take four or more supplements. 🙂
    • When asked to pick the main reason people take supplements, the top answer by a mile is some version of “improve/maintain/overall health” (the surveys used slightly different wording), varying from 33 to 58% of responders.
    • The only survey question close to the AdaptableDeveloper way of improving cognition and productivity is “Mental health or focus, concentration,” which 4% chose.

    Bringing this to a close, I would have written about lifestyle habits regardless, but it’s encouraging to know that there’s a strong overlap between supplement users and those looking to optimize their lives.  I heartily encourage you to work on both dimensions of your life! While the content here will favor the supplement and nootropic worlds, I have plenty to say in both my upcoming book and this blog on life optimization as well.


    1 Dickinson, Annette, and Douglas MacKay. “Health Habits and Other Characteristics of Dietary Supplement Users: A Review.” Nutrition Journal 13 (February 6, 2014): 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-13-14