Modafinil is one of the most popular nootropic compounds in the world. It was made famous in the early 2000s when it came to light that many of the executives working in Silicon Valley California were taking the drug to get leg up on the competition.

The drug works by increasing the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain like dopamine, norepinephrine, histamine, and orexin. The end result is a greater level of focus and a delay in the onset of fatigue for several hours.

But there are some problems with modafinil.

For example, it comes with a host of negative side-effects — some potentially very serious. On top of this, there’s the fact that you can only buy the medication with a valid doctors prescription.

Here, we’ll discuss some legal modafinil alternatives you can use instead.

Let’s get started.


What is Modafinil?

Modafinil is a pharmaceutical medication available by prescription-only.

The medication was developed in the 1970s and sold as a treatment for narcolepsy — a rare sleeping disorder involving excessive daytime sleepiness.

Modafinil is sometimes used as a treatment for ADHD, sleep apnea, or to manage fatigue caused by conditions like multiple sclerosis or severe depression.


How Modafinil Works

Modafinil works by increasing the concentration of specific neurotransmitters in the brain, including:

  1. Dopamine — associated with concentration and focus
  2. Norepinephrine — involved with the fight or flight response and helps us feel alert during the day
  3. Histamine — a neurotransmitter involved with both the allergic response and keeping the brain stimulated during the day
  4. Orexin — a neuropeptide involved with keeping us alert and awake during the day (narcolepsy is a condition involving a reduction in orexin levels in the brain)

Together these effects lead to an increase in mental energy and can delay the onset of mental fatigue for several hours longer than normal.

A lot of people are using the stimulating effects of the drug to help them power through projects at work or university — this, of course, is not an approved use of the medication.


The Dangers of Modafinil

The main problem with modafinil are its side-effects. The most common side-effects by far are insomnia and anxiety. This is a direct result of the stimulating effects of the drug — which can last up to 18 hours.

The Most Common Side-effects of Modafinil Include:


Alternatives to Modafinil

Although nothing will provide the same level of stimulation to modafinil except other heavy-hitting pharmaceuticals, this isn’t a bad thing.

Many people consider modafinil to be too stimulating — resulting in severe anxiety attacks, complete inhibition of hunger cravings resulting in weight loss, headaches, and insomnia.

The short-term effects of modafinil are great, but it can actually have a negative impact on our productivity long-term. The drug changes the chemical composition of the brain, affecting sleep quality and nutritional status — both of which can have a profound negative impact on our cognitive function overall.

Here, we’ll discuss some alternatives to modafinil that offer similar stimulating benefits, without the negative consequences.


1. Caffeine & L-Theanine

Caffeine is the most popular nootropic stimulant the world has ever seen.

Every day, an estimated 4 billion cups of either coffee or tea are consumed around the world. The active ingredient in both of these popular beverages is caffeine.

Caffeine works by blocking a compound called adenosine in the brain. Adenosine levels naturally build up during the day, which causes our nerves to slow down their rate of transmission — this makes us feel tired.

This system of adenosine is designed to help us wind down for bed at the end of the day.

Caffeine blocks adenosine from working, thereby delaying the onset of tiredness.

Caffeine is a great nootropic, but it works even better in combination with L-theanine — an amino acid found in the tea plant. L-theanine helps combat many of the negative side effects of caffeine (such as jitteriness or anxiety).

L-theanine even offers a boost to the natural benefits of the caffeine by supporting dopamine function [1] — which is involved with the process concentration and focus.

2. Piracetam or Aniracetam

Piracetam was the first compound to be coined as a nootropic.

Since its discovery, a few other compounds have been identified with similar chemical structures and effect profiles.

Both piracetam and aniracetam have since become popular nootropics for students and entrepreneurs alike. Both of these compounds are also mildly stimulating in their effects, but work through an entirely different set of neurotransmitters to modafinil — namely acetylcholine [5].

Acetylcholine has many roles in the body but is heavily involved with the formation and retrieval of memories in the brain [2].

A lot of people seek out nootropics like piracetam or aniracetam for their nootropic of choice because it’s available without the need for a prescription in most countries and has significantly fewer side-effects overall despite having a very similar set of effects to modafinil.


3. Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic herb used to delay the onset of fatigue — just like modafinil.

Even though both of these compounds have similar results, they’re extremely different from one another.

Modafinil provides its effects immediately, and very powerfully — but the effects don’t last. Once the modafinil wears off, the effects quickly fade.

Rhodiola, on the other hand, increases our cognitive endurance over long periods of time, and will often continue to provide benefits even once you’ve stopped taking the supplement.

If substituting Rhodiola for modafinil it’s important to remember that the benefits aren’t going to appear overnight. You need to take Rhodiola regularly for several weeks before you begin noticing the difference. However, once the effects start to appear they remain consistent and are more reliable in the long-term.

Rhodiola is especially beneficial for people experiencing signs of burnout from a heavy workload. It’s often used by people who have reached physical and mental exhaustion as a way to replenish their energy levels.

Compared this to modafinil that’s more likely to cause you to burn out — rather than repair or prevent it.

4. Siberian Ginseng

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is similar to rhodiola in that it can be used to extend the amount of time we can exert ourselves mentally before reaching exhaustion with consistent use (over several weeks).

Where Siberian ginseng excels is in its ability to give us a physical boost, as well as a mental boost. It’s popular among athletes or people who need to work as hard in the gym as they do at work or university.

Just like Rhodiola, the effects of Siberian ginseng become more apparent the longer you take it.


Key Takeaways: Modafinil Alternatives

Modafinil is a powerful pharmaceutical stimulant used for treating conditions characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness (such as narcolepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, or multiple sclerosis). People are using the drug off-label to increase the number of productive hours they can get out of their day.

The unfortunate downside of modafinil is that while in the short-term it can help us work longer hours, it ultimately has a negative outcome on our overall productivity. On top of this, the only way to get the medication is to either get a doctors prescription or buy it from online vendors operating outside the legal range of European regulators.

Luckily, there are some alternative options.

Nootropics like caffeine & L-theanine, or racetam compounds (such as piracetam or aniracetam) are going to be the best alternatives for the short term as they produce immediate effects to get through a project.

However, for long-term benefits, supplements like Rhodiola rosea or Siberian ginseng are going to provide the greatest impact on your overall productivity and energy levels. You need to be patient with these options, as they can take two or three weeks of consistent use to really start getting the benefits, but it’s worth the wait.

Let us know what you use to boost your productivity levels or if there’s anything we’ve missed on this list in the comment section below.



  1. Yokogoshi, H., Kobayashi, M., Mochizuki, M., & Terashima, T. (1998). Effect of theanine, r-glutamylethylamide, on brain monoamines and striatal dopamine release in conscious rats. Neurochemical research, 23(5), 667-673.
  2. Hasselmo, M. E. (2006). The role of acetylcholine in learning and memory. Current opinion in neurobiology, 16(6), 710-715.
  3. Davydov, M., & Krikorian, A. D. (2000). Eleutherococcus senticosus (Rupr. & Maxim.) Maxim.(Araliaceae) as an adaptogen: a closer look. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 72(3), 345-393.
  4. Petkov, V. D., Yonkov, D., Mosharoff, A., Kambourova, T., Alova, L., Petkov, V. V., & Todorov, I. (1986). Effects of alcohol aqueous extract from Rhodiola rosea L. roots on learning and memory. Acta physiologica et pharmacologica Bulgarica, 12(1), 3-16.
  5. Malykh, A. G., & Sadaie, M. R. (2010). Piracetam and piracetam-like drugs. Drugs, 70(3), 287-312.