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Foster care is not good and we should make it better

You show up to live with a foster family at age 12. You’re traumatized from the freshest round of sadistic abuse your biological mom recently inflicted on you, but at least that’s over. You’re hoping for a respite, for some tenderness, for some love. You are instead greeted with coldness and a set of strict house rules. You do the dishes for the family of 8 after every meal. You are told you will be skipping school the next morning to help your new foster dad on outdoor construction sites. You will not be paid.

You are led down to a dingy basement that you share with four other foster kids, including a special needs infant that is not getting the attention it needs. The door is locked behind you. No one is allowed to come up until the following morning. You empty out your garbage bag of belongings and climb into your bed. You try to appreciate the fact that at least you got to walk down the stairs to this dungeon. Your last trip down a set of stairs was when you were sent tumbling after your mom kicked you down a flight at your apartment complex. That bloody adventure is what finally got child protective services to remove you from her care. You close your eyes and try to sleep through the babies cries.


Your first memories are of being a toddler and feeling the sharp pain of a wooden spoon whacking your head. You cry, whack. You try to sit at a table not designated for foster kids, whack. You try to stop your foster mom from hitting your sibling, whack. You don’t like the food on offer? Whack, whack, whack. When your mom is feeling extra medieval you’re hung up by your collar on a door hanger for a while. Complain about that, more whacks from the spoon. You are given no parental love and no hope that anything will ever be different. 


You are 14. You wake up one day to learn that your unstable, violent mother has left. For good. You have 5 younger siblings to look after and an apartment to manage. You are scared to tell anyone what’s happening because you fear being separated from your siblings. You steal to get by and somehow make the whole thing work for 6 months, until your power and water are cut off. 


Those are just a few of the horror-movie scenarios you’ll read about if you go to the library and pick up every book you see about foster care. I’ve learned about parents who prostituted their pre-teen daughters, or pulled out every one of their child’s teeth as soon as they grew in, or scalded their baby before killing it. One teenage girl talked about how her infant brother starved to death because, “There was nothing to eat but jam.”

Excuse the analogy, but peering into the shadows of the foster care system reminds me of the first time I watched undercover videos of animals on factory farms. Before seeing the videos, I knew somewhere deep down that many farm animals were being mistreated. But it’s still a gut punch to watch and listen as a barn full of pigs are killed via ventilation shutdown, which suffocates them over a period of hours.

In the same way, I knew lots of kids were suffering and needed help, but it’s still a gut punch to read first hand accounts of the kind of abuse that goes on both with biological parents and in foster care.

Thankfully, there is also a lot of beauty and hope in these books. There are tough as nails kids who persevere through unbelievable hardship, and parents with huge hearts who do their very best to provide love to people who have felt far too little of it. There are also social workers going above and beyond to help families, despite extremely long odds their efforts will make any difference. 

Of all the books I got, four in particular stood out to me:

  • One from the point of view of someone who was in the foster care system and was eventually adopted — A Place Called Home, by David Ambroz
  • One from the view of a person who worked as a social worker, helping with foster kids and parents, as well as adoption placements — The Children Money can Buy, by Anne Moody
  • One from a parent who adopted five special needs kids out of the foster care system — Whelmed, by Ann Ellsworth.
  • One from a teacher, professor, and foster parent who studied the foster system over the course of a decade in the early mid 2000’s — To the End of June, by Cris Beam.

I came away with several broad takeaways.

Some foster parents are in it for the money

All the books highlight parents that are doing foster care or adoption for all the wrong reasons. The bad families appear to see the kids as paychecks.

We rarely get to hear from those parents directly, but their actions speak louder than words. And the kids are on to them. A girl from To the End of June, Lei, who had recently beaten the odds and left her foster family for college, was not naive about her situation:

Lei had only one picture of her foster family, and she dutifully pointed out each child, and the mom, as though she were naming employees at a job she once held a long time ago. Said Lei, “When I left her house, the mom never bothered to call. I felt like, ‘Screw you, man. I’m ready for my life.’ I felt like she did it for the money. What can I feel?”

David Amborz, from A Place Called Home, stayed with a family that forced him to stay home from school and work as an unpaid manual laborer. He also acted as an infant caretaker and maid.

One of the more disturbing tales comes from The Children Money Can Buy. The author, Anne Moody, had to do a home visit to see a foster baby who lived with a woman who was considered a cream of the crop foster parent. She lived in a beautiful, large home and in the past had won a “Foster Parent of the Year” award.

One day Moody went to check up on one of the kids. The foster mom said the baby was sleeping. But when she went into the room to check, the baby (14 months) was wide awake.

She was sitting quietly in her crib and paid little attention to us as we entered the room. There was no crying — but there was also no sign of greeting or expectation. She did not jump to her feet, lift her arms to be picked up, or make a single sound. It was eerie.

Moody reported this woman, and after subsequent investigations it turned out that this supposedly model parent was essentially imprisoning the babies to their cribs at all times of the day. She eventually lost her foster care license but faced no other repercussions.

The incentives to foster and adopt are not good enough 

Society has no issue advocating for higher pay and more benefits for teachers, first responders, nurses, and other jobs where people help the most vulnerable for the greater good. Why should foster parenting be any different?

To the end of June highlights a foster parent advocating for more pay: 

Bruce Green, who has brought several foster kids into his home on DeKalb in addition to baby Allen, doesn’t see anything wrong with treating forster parenting as  job. “You have people who have been foster parenting for years, and there’s no health insurance, no life insurance, and if they stop, there’s no retirement,’ he said. Bruce riled at the notion that giving parents more money and benefits would yield a more selfish crop of applicants. “There should be incentives to being a foster parent; there should be deals with cable, lights, and water. Being a foster parent should be something that’s earned.”

By earned, I think he means the job of being a foster parent is so desirable that people are meeting a high bar in order to qualify. That’s something I can get behind. 

My paycheck takes huge swaths of money out and sends it social security and medicare. I am all about taking care of the elderly, but maybe we need a big pool of money for all these struggling kiddos, too?

I know this is pie in the sky thinking. I have done zero investigation into the feasibility of any of this. I just know I’d be perfectly happy to give half us much as I am to medicare and have the other half go to some sort of abused children fund. The problem seems that big and important. And in general, though this might sound callous, I value helping people with a lot of life left to live.

The economic argument for helping these kids is that they’ll have much less problems later in life. And these kids cause very expensive, emotionally devastating, society-wide problems. To the End of June puts it like this: 

It’s been said that the economic impact of child welfare reaches upwards of 100 billion — in adult criminality, mental illness, homelessness, and so on — and this backsplash is traditionally pegged to the structural failings of a battered system.

The criminality aspect is especially disturbing. Recent estimates are that 1/5 of the adult prison population is former foster children and almost 70% of kids who age out of the foster system are arrested by the time they turn 26. Equally sad is the fact that, according to estimates from To the End of June, 25-50% of all homeless people were in foster care at one point.

On the flip side, you can argue that the real crux of the problem is a bad home life, not foster care. At least one study analyzed this in a clever way:

We compare the outcomes of children who by chance are assigned a strict investigator and placed in foster care to the outcomes of children who are assigned a more lenient investigator and are not placed.

The study finds that foster care placement reduced later-in-life crime 

If you study specifically a subset of kids in harsh situations who could be left at home or placed in foster care, the system looks better.

Still, even though foster care is often the least bad option for kids, it can still be quite bad. David Ambroz comes up with a few different ways the system can be improved. They seem reasonable to me. His main wishes:

  • Decrease caseloads and increasing pay and benefits of social workers. 
  • Incentivize wealthier parents to foster. “Perhaps above all, we need to recruit more middle and upper-income foster parents with higher education degrees. This effort is not to displace but to add to and diversify the incredible commitment of lower economic classes who are already fostering.” 
  • Make foster parents eligible for pensions, give them free health care, and give the foster kids and any of their biological kids free college tuition 
  • Let older foster kids enroll in community colleges as well as high school in order to do vocational training 
  • Provide priority housing for foster youth at community colleges 
  • Put more effort into broad, society wide poverty fighting efforts 

Providing more money and benefits to foster parents would be controversial, for sure. Some people think doing so will attract the kind of person, who is just in it for the money. My take is that those people already exist, and at least if the incentives were better some more upstanding people could crowd out the less savory ones. Whatever we’re doing now is not working.

We should run more experiments where we provide better resources to foster parents and kids

There have been small-scale experiments where foster parents and kids are given more than the standard amount of money and resources. There was one in Oregon and Washington where parents were paid $100 more per month than regular foster parents and overall the children were allotted 60% more funding than normal. Also, the caseworkers working with them had significantly lighter loads than normal. The results are promising. 

From To the End of June:

The nearly five hundred kids in the study had entered foster care as adolescents between 1989 and 1998 and were evaluated in the early 2000s. The Casey kids, now adults, had experienced less than half the rate of depression and substance use, and about 70 percent the rate of bolic disorders. They also endured significantly fewer ulcers and cardiometabolic disorders. The authors, who were headed up by a team at Harvard, claimed that this was the first ever study to look at the long-term effects of enhanced, or more thoroughly funded and supported, foster care.

That’s all great! Sadly, I dug into that study, and the outcomes are not quite as rosy as the author makes it seem. She doesn’t talk about how despite the extra effort and money, 4/5 of the foster kids enrolled still faced “significant challenges in the areas of mental health, education, and employment and finances.”

They still barely had any money when leaving care, and a high percentage of them were not prepared to take care of themselves. Most did not have health insurance, and only 38% had $250 in cash to their names.

This is not to knock the experiment. I’m glad they tried it. In my dream world we would try this again, but with ten times the money and services provided.

State child welfare agencies spend about 33 billion on child welfare purposes, while the federal government spends about 12 billion per year on “federal programs wholly dedicated to child welfare.” That sounds like a lot but is nothing compared to the 274 billion the US spends each year on “Veterans Benefits and Services.”

Maybe we should invest in these vulnerable and traumatized kids similar to how we do for vulnerable and traumatized veterans and see where that gets us. 

The question of how and when to remove kids from abusive homes is more complicated than I realized 

In The Children Money Can Buy, Anne Moody talks a lot about her personal experience doing home visits. She was a social worker for the state of Michigan, and she had some really harrowing experiences. One of her first home visits was to the apartment of a mother who was in the process of trying to regain custody of her young kids after losing it. 

She showed up to a filthy apartment and decided she had to take the 8 year old daughter, Missy, to the hospital. “Her eczema was so severe that she had clawed bloody wounds into her hands and arms. The poor child had no medicine to relieve the itching, and it was obvious the skin was now infected.” 

While that is sad, Moody talks about how it’s not her remove kids from their parents care unless the situation is truly dire. 

What counts as truly dire comes down to a judgment call, often made by a stressed out and overworked early 20-something social worker. While neglect is a reason to rescue a child, determining what counts as neglect that crosses the line is hard. Here’s Moody talking more about how, in her eyes, there was nothing she could do for Missy: 

Despite the risk to her children, Missy’s mother’s inadequacy in this area didn’t constitute grounds for permanently removing them from her care. She couldn’t be compelled to upgrade her standards and she wasn’t amenable to encouragement, particularly since she didn’t even recognize that there was a problem in the way she cared for her children — or herself. She wasn’t at all interested in my explanations about how to tend to her daughter’s wounds, but she did think it was nice that I had taken Missy on a four-hour outing. Not long after the visit, the mother regained full custody, and her children were removed from my caseload.

There are a lot of people that think most kids are better off with their parents than in the state’s custody. They think that we are too quick to remove kids from parents who hit a rough patch and just need a little support. They make some compelling points. And the disastrous state of the foster care system is hard to argue with. This stuff is so, so hard. 

David Ambroz represents the other side of the coin. He comes across as someone who would advocate that social services step in sooner in a lot of cases. You can tell why after reading his book. 

He had to watch in silent horror, multiple times, as social workers investigated his birth family’s living conditions . He hoped beyond hope someone would remove him from the hell he was in, but his mom was always able to trick the workers into believing they’d just hit a rough patch and everything was fine.

When the children’s input was sought by the child protection services workers, it was always in front of the mom. The kids were put in the brutal position. Tell the truth, and possibly be rescued, but face certain and painful wrath from the mother if the workers left him there. Or lie, say things weren’t that bad, and watch as yet another opportunity for help slips their your grasp. That’s a very heavy burden to place on a child.

Ann Ellsworth also ran into much infuriating red tape when trying to adopt children from the foster care system. The first two kids she adopted told her all about the litany of abuses they suffered at the hands of their previous foster mom, Ms. Smith.

Ellsworth could not live with the thought of her kid’s siblings still living in that environment, so she set out to adopt them as well. She was stonewalled for months even after reporting horrific abuses. She was only able to secure approval to adopt after she directly “befriended” Ms. Smith and got her to agree to give up the kids. 

As Anne Moody points out, the number one things CPS workers are trained to do is reunite families. And once they’ve made a placement, they want it to stay that way. Whether that’s because moving kids takes thankless work, or they genuinely believe stability is always more important than escaping some abuse, is hard to say. 

A woman profiled in To the End of June represents the extreme end of the ‘keep families together at all costs’ camp. The author describes seeing this person, a top executive in the NYC social worker world, give a talk about her strong desire to keep families united. The author Beam notes that,“In all her years, working her way up from a case manager to a director overseeing 250 employees, Dr. Rittner terminated parental rights only four times.” 

When the author later relays this story to a teenager in foster care, the foster youth, Arelis, is incredulous:

“For you to oversee a thousand cases and only terminate four, you’re doing something wrong!” She slammed her hands on the table and gazed up at the ceiling in exasperation. “Did the people in the meeting call that lady out? Did they think she was doing her job?” Arelis, who generally speaks softly and with a slight lisp, raised her voice again and then had to get up for a cigarette. On her way out, she fumed, “Less than half the parents could get better if you gave them the right help. Did they have a former foster child there to speak for us?” 

Arelis and her 5 siblings had been sadistically abused and were removed from their mother once, only to be placed back in her care. Then the mother abandoned them. Arelis, at age 14, watched over her 5 younger siblings as a solo “parent” for 6 months at one point. She thinks her mother’s rights should have been terminated the first time around so they could have received the help they needed. 

The foster care system as a whole is not performing well

Something is deeply broken in the system. To the end of June cites a study showing the extent of the issues, as of the early 2010’s:

Federal investigators recently spent three years looking into seven fundamental criteria for successful foster care in all 50 states. They examined the basics: things like kids being protected from abuse and neglect, being safely maintained at home whenever possible, and receiving adequate services for educational and physical health needs. No state met more than two of the seven criteria.

Grades like that should require drastic changes. The fact that they don’t makes clear the depressing reality that we just don’t care that much. 

Attachment is way more important than I realized, and it may never happen between foster kids and their parents 

All four books deal with the importance of a child attaching to their parent. I didn’t come away with a clear idea of what attachment exactly meant, or how you can be sure it’s been achieved. I did gather that the longer one goes without having healthy attachments, the harder they become to form. Without healthy attachments, a kid is at higher risk of developing issues that make it hard for them to successfully function in adult society. 

Attachment is seen as the key thing that needs to happen for a child, and a family, to be healthy. Yet so many of these kid’s lives were so messed up and disrupted that it’s hard for them to trust or bond with people. 

One of the hard lessons Ann Ellsworth had to learn was that no matter how hard one tries, it may never happen. You ultimately have to remember that there are only so many things you can control, and a lack of attachment does not mean you are not a loving parent. 

Making matters tougher is the fact that attachments to toxic birth mothers hinder a lot of kids. David Ambroz was clearly worse off in a lot of ways for having been so attached to his mom. He often lied to social workers about what was happening to him to protect her. It’s a common problem that a lot of kids face.

We need a science for how to de-attach and then healthily re-attach.

Absolute selflessness (and a lot of money) can help make fostering and adoption go well 

Ann Ellsworth and her husband didn’t hope for kids who would shower them in love and gratitude. They simply wanted to help the kids be able to function in society. In the end, they got there. But only after an unbelievable amount of timeouts, physical restraining, home schooling, live-in tutors (they cycled through almost 30), counselors, psychiatrists, and general patience. 

This ties back to the whole foster parents need more money to do well thing. I don’t know the Ellsworth’s exact financial situation, but when they moved out of NYC they bought a house she describes like this: “It was a 4,300 square foot brownstone on a former Air Force base overlooking Lake Champlain. It was enormous, with eight bedrooms and three floors that had sightlines across the parade field and the lake towards Vermont.” 

I am going to go out on a limb and say most foster parents can’t afford mansions on a lake. 

But even with the money and resources, it was an absolute slog to help their kids become stable, non-violent people. You’ve gotta be ready to put in serious work. This passage gives a good sense of the constant drama the Ellsworth’s were dealing with, and the way they met those challenges with determination. Long quote incoming, but I think it paints a nice picture of the stress of dealing with traumatized and violent children:

Two weeks in, Jason was no longer welcome in gym class either. Another week passed and he was pulled out of structured reading and library time as well. I spent more time driving him to and from school than he spent in the classroom and still, I cherished the moments he was out of the house. Another week passed and he was home for good. The principal called. “I have never known a more deceptive, manipulative child than Jason. Get him out of here. This was coming from someone who had worked with a lot of deceptive, manipulative children. It was terrible news yet strangely validating.

Ruby returned to middle school for core classes only. She was not allowed to have a locked and had no unsupervised access to other students. In the three minutes between bells, she had to check in with her guidance counselor and and came home every day for lunch. We were very clear with Ruby, “Engage another child physically and we will pull you back out of school.” A month into her modified program, Ruby punched two of her classmates in the face during math class. I met her in the principal’s office. Even her telling of her side of the story was damning and calculated.

After these failed attempts, I was forced to accept homeschooling as my new calling and took up the mantle of educator.

That woman is tough.

Imposing very restrictive house rules is a socially acceptable (and encouraged!) way of dealing with violent children

In Whelmed, there was a lot of isolating one kid from the others, putting them in physical restraints, and locking them in rooms. In the wrong hands this method feels like it could go very south. But when done with incredible patience and infused with constant affirmations of love, it can work wonders. 

It felt like at least twenty times, Ann Ellsworth said something like, “I restrained Susie as she thrashed and hit me, chipping one of my teeth and bruising my chin. I held her down for 30 minutes until she finally relented. Then she went for a timeout.” 

It seems like half this woman’s parenting life was spent on physical restraints and then timeouts. Apparently that is totally acceptable protocol for dealing with traumatized and violent kids. You are supposed to be strict, maintain control, not let their behavior escalate, and be extremely tough. Timeout often meant putting the kid in a windowless room and holding the door shut while the kid pounded on it and cried. 

I was left wondering if there are any other recommendations. Ellsworth talked a few times about people suggesting she medicate her kids, but she never wanted to. The one time she tried Ritalin on one of them it only made things worse. The hardest stuff she ever gave them was Benadryl.

Amazingly, she didn’t even legally sedate them with TV or electronics. Maybe if you aren’t going to give them iPads and you aren’t going to give them drugs, you’ve got to master your MMA style takedowns and hope for the best. 

I am amazed they had the energy to do it all over the years. But I bet it felt good to get this text from one of her kids after her book was published.

My heart goes out to all the kids in need and to those trying to help them

There are so many kids in the US in unfortunate situations. Here’s another figure from the Casey Family Foster Care study: 

Almost 1/2 of the kids in foster care have been sexually abused!

It’s easy to be cynical when you look at numbers like that, or if you dig into any number of troubling aspects of the foster care system. I don’t blame anyone for finding it easier to just not think about it. The problem is deep rooted and would take institutional upheaval to solve, so why try?

That’s why I am inspired by everyone doing even little things to make these kid’s lives incrementally better, despite the odds.

Those folks reminded of the boy from the famous starfish story. I like this adaptation:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.”

I hope to make that kind of difference for a kid someday.  


My battle against indoor air pollution

I purchased an air quality monitor in late 2021. I was inspired to do so because of bloggers like Andres Gomez Emillson, who has a great video on how many particles the CA wildfires produce, as well as the anonymous blogger Dynomight, who has a fantastic post called better air quality is the easiest way not to die.

Taking my life into my own hands by sautéing onions

The device gives measurements for particles of 2.5 nanometers in length (PM2.5), particles of 10 nanometers in length (PM10), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and a number for the air quality index, or AQI (which is entirely based on the level of 2.5 nanometer particles present as far as I can tell.) 

I’ve had fun messing around with it to both optimize my indoor air quality and to see how polluted different places are.

The problem

If you are consistently exposed to lots of fine particles in the air, you get lung and heart problems.

According to the EPA, a PM 2.5 level of 12 is the upper limit for healthy air. If an area is at an average of a 12 over a 3 year period, they are healthy by EPA standards.

Dynomight says you really want the PM 2.5’s to be at an average of 5 or below to prevent health problems. I haven’t done my own research here. I use the 5 or below upper limit in my home.

It’s a pernicious problem because you can’t tell a difference between healthy and harmful levels. At least, I can’t. I only notice something’s up when it’s obviously smoky in a room. I wonder how many people have no idea they are inhaling PM2.5’s in the 15-40 range every day of their lives. Then they have heart and lung problems at 65, and assume it’s only because of bad luck. 

Here is a screenshot from Dynomight summarizing the problem with small particles:

One calculation from that post particularly stood out to me. It refers to how particles shorten life expectancy (A DALY is a disability adjusted life year, or the loss of one year of full health)

A life-long exposure of 33.3 PM2.5 costs 1 DALY […] Moving from somewhere with no particulates to somewhere with a level of 100 costs 3 DALY.

How I clean my air

I have a cuboid, of course! It’s a beast-mode homemade filter unit that costs way less than a comparably powerful unit you can buy pre-made. You lose a lot in the aesthetics department though, so if that’s an issue you gotta pay up.

I also have a three other filters, two in the bedroom and one downstairs in my office. Two of them are small Levoit’s and one is a midsize from Coway. I bought those before I’d seen the cuboid light. They work pretty well, but they are expensive. You can also make cheap and effective filters using box fans, but they are noisy.

NYC can produce some serious pollution. The AQI outside is often between 50-100, which means PM2.5 levels between 12 and 35. When it’s like that, our indoor levels will creep up quickly if we have a window open and no filters running. With our system, PM 2.5 levels stay consistently at 5 or below.

The EPAs revised safe levels as of 2012

Things that make my air pollution detector go wild

Once you start playing around with the air quality monitor, you realize that evil particles are all around you and constantly trying to kill you. Mostly when you are frying things, or when you leave the window open for too long in the busiest city in the country.

Pan frying buckwheat pancakes

Pan frying just about anything, including just vegetables, throws off some scary numbers.

But Buckwheat is king. Once they get smoking, ol’ TemTop acts like I am standing next to a burning paint factory. Within seconds it cycles from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “unhealthy” to “hazardous”. It maxes out the machine and does everything but alert the paramedics.

Buckwheat pancakes are amazing though, it’s all worth it.

The NYC subway

It’s just bad, bad, bad down there. 

It’s so bad that Dynomight calculates that a daily commute from Newark to Manhattan takes a 1/2 year off your life expectancy.

Places that are mostly okay 

Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

JFK Airport. 

Places that are squeaky clean 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NYC residents can get in free. Consider hunkering down with the clean air and amazing paintings on particularly high pollution days.

A note on VOCs

VOCs are less of a problem than I would have thought given how much I’ve heard about them in the press. New furniture doesn’t throw many off, nor did our new vinyl flooring in our house. New wall installation was fine. Low VOC paint was as advertised — it made the number go up for a bit but was back down to negligible levels once it dried. 

My in-laws basement has really high VOCs for some reason. Cracking a window makes them drop to almost nothing within a minute or two. 

I feel like I have a lot more to learn around VOCs, I haven’t spent nearly as much time looking into it as I have small particulate matter.

Stay safe in there!

I didn’t give much thought to indoor air pollution until recently. Now I realize there are simple, low effort ways to breathe cleaner air. That makes me happy.

For the curious (and for those that don’t want to read the Dynomight article I keep going on about), here are that person’s takeaways on how to improve indoor air quality, most of which I didn’t get into here:

Here’s to having clean air in 2023 without obsessing about it and turning into the Howard Hughes of fine particulate matter.

L-Tyrosine: A Cheap, Safe, Energy Boosting Amino Acid

Like any good knowledge worker, I’m always on the lookout for legal substances that will help me get through more tasks, faster. It’s crucial to have something at the ready when you’ve got 30 more minutes of call notes to transcribe into Salesforce but you have already exhausted your very will to live. 

You can drink caffeine of course. And chew nicotine gum. But you can’t do those too often or they’ll lose their effect. If you also have an addictive personality and you’re kinda worried you’d become a meth addict if you tried Adderall, then you need to look for “natural” ways of getting an energy boost. 

That’s when you enter the murky world of nootropics, or so-called smart drugs. There are a zillion nootropics on the market claiming to help boost your energy, and I’ve taken a lot of them. They are mostly useless, at least for me. But that doesn’t stop me from trying new ones. If I can find something even close to caffeine and nicotine it’ll have been worth all the trouble. 

My latest interest, and one that shows great promise, has been a naturally occurring amino acid called L-Tyrosine. I decided to give it a try after seeing the eccentric, fascinating, and brilliant consciousness researcher Andres Gomez Emilsson consistently sing its praises on Twitter. That’s an understatement — he talks it up like he’s on the payroll of Big Amino Acid.  

He thinks it’s useful for:

  • Acting as a safe, addiction-free stimulant with nicotine-like effects
  • Helping with restless leg syndrome (akathesia) 
  • Helping with amphetamine comedowns 
  • Preventing insomnia
  • Having more productive dialogues with DMT entities (okay he doesn’t say this but I bet he thinks it) 
I fully trust this man with the fate of my brain cells 

Talk about a wonder drug!

We should all be skeptical of wonder drugs. But we should at try them at least once, yeah?

I’ve been taking L-Tyrosine on and off for about 8 weeks now as well as doing a ton of research to see what it’s all about. 

I can’t endorse everything Andres claims, but I do see L-Tyrosine as a cheap and safe way to get a noticeable yet subtle boost of energy. Let’s dive in.

What is L-Tyrosine?

L-Tyrosine is a nonessential amino acid that acts as a key building block for neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine.

It’s found naturally in many foods. A serving of almonds has about 500mg of L-Tyrosine. The average person gets about 7mg/kg of l-tyrosine from their diet per day. That means as a 90kg man, I probably consume about 630mg of L-tyrosine per day. 

L-Tyrosine was first synthesized by a prolific German scientist named Justus Von Liebig. It’s name comes from the greek word for cheese, because it was first synthesized as part of the cheese byproduct casein. As a vegan who used to love cheese, this makes me happy.  

Thank you, Mr. Von Liebig, for helping me have the energy to finish this essay! (And also for creating the fertilizer industry. That’s cool too.) 

How does L-Tyrosine boost energy? 

If you increase the amount of L-Tyrosine in the body, you boost the production of dopamine and norepinephrine. Those two chemicals have many and various uses in the body, but for our purposes it’s sufficient to know that boosting dopamine and norepinephrine tends to give people more energy. 

One study showed that within 45 minutes of taking a 500mg dose of L-Tyrosine, participants had elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine for 30 minutes. That makes me feel good about doing a 500mg pill when I want a quick boost to finish some tasks.

Can L-Tyrosine Improve your Brain Function?

It turns out there is a huge body of literature on L-Tyrosine. There is no way I could cover it all, so I only looked at studies on humans that investigated L-Tyrosine’s energy boosting and cognitive enhancing potential. I ignored other studies, such as the ones looking at L-Tyrosine’s effect on the sexual activity of goats. Who am I kidding, I peeked at that one. The L-Tyrosine treated goats had healthier offspring.

That feeling when your mom and dad had tons of L-tyrosine in their system when they made you

Anyway, after spending several hours reviewing dozens of individual studies on L-Tyrosine, I realized someone way smarter than me had probably already done this before.

I was right. I found a 2015 meta-review of studies on L-Tyrosine and mental performance. It concludes that L-Tyrosine does help with mental performance once you’re already a bit run down. The authors reviewed 35 studies on L-Tyrosine and say the following in their abstract: 

L-Tyrosine does seem to effectively enhance cognitive performance, particularly in short term stressful and/or cognitively demanding situations. We conclude that L-Tyrosine is an effective enhancer of cognition, but only when neurotransmitter function is intact and dopamine and/or norepinephrine is temporarily depleted. 

If you’re undergoing some stress and burning through your available dopamine and norepinephrine, L-Tyrosine might help you refill your energy stores so you can maintain your normal functioning.

Another L-Tyrosine literature review I found supports this conclusion, stating that under stressful conditions you can use “acute and dietary administration of tyrosine to prevent the depletion of brain norepinephrine which would otherwise occur.”

The trend I kept seeing is that L-Tyrosine is helpful, but only when someone is stressed. But I didn’t see a standard definition of what stress actually is. Here are some of the ‘stressful’ conditions under which L-Tyrosine appears to improve functioning:

If stress includes situation in which you’re thinking hard for prolonged periods of time, maybe we’re all stressed when working our normal jobs? So L-Tyrosine might be more beneficial than is commonly thought? In my opinion day to day life can stressful for many people, so I wonder if L-Tyrosine can be used in a wider range of situations than most researchers imagine. I might be missing something obvious here.

Maybe a better framing is that L-Tyrosine helps performance on cognitively demanding tasks. That’s the conclusion of this 2013 study using 2mg doses:

The present study is the first to demonstrate that TYR supplementation promotes working memory updating. As expected, the more challenging 2-back condition was more sensitive to the effect of L-Tyrosine, which reinforces our suspicion that only tasks with considerable cognitive demands benefit from L-Tyrosine. As we have argued in the introduction, this may be because more demanding cognitive operations are more likely or more efficient to exhaust the available cognitive resources, which can then be repleted by L-Tyrosine. The idea that cognitive-control operations are particularly likely to exhaust cognitive resources fits with the concept of “ego-depletion” suggested by Baumeister et al. (1998), which would suggest that L-Tyrosine can be used as an effective “ego-repletor.”

If nothing else, I think we can all agree that ego-repletor is a cool word and that we should use it it in non-drug contexts as well.

“You’re not just my best friend, you’re my number one ego-repletor.”

Can L-Tyrosine Make You More Creative?

One study showed L-Tyrosine (at a 2mg dose) helped with a word association task. The author of the study take this to mean that L-Tyrosine “may promote convergent thinking in inexpensive, efficient, and healthy ways, thus supporting the creative process that Steve Jobs was so fond of. ”

That feels like a bit of a stretch to me. I can’t say I’ve felt any more creative on L-Tyrosine. I also think it’s amusing that the authors end their scientific research paper with a totally out of left field reference to Steve Jobs. I mean, sure, he was a fan of the creative process, but so were a lot of people!

Maybe it’s an homage to the fact that Steve Jobs was a notoriously voracious consumer of fruit and nuts, two foods high in L-Tyrosine. God bless the internet, where a search of “steve jobs l-tyrosine” led me to an article which argues just that. It’s called “Did Fruit Contribute to Apple’s Success?

“Eat a lot of L-Tyrosine to think different” was less catchy

What Dose of L-Tyrosine Should You Take?

All L-Tyrosine studies appear to have one of two approaches to dosing:

  1. Give someone a little bit (500mg – 2g)
  2. Load people up with L-Tyrosine until it’s coming out their ears (150mg-300mg per kg of body weight)

It’s strange, there appears to be no in-between! The high doses might be due to the fact that you need about 100mg/kg in order to double your plasma tyrosine levels. Maybe that’s what many researchers are shooting for? I wasn’t able to find anything around why that would be.

As a 90kg person, taking 150mg/kg is the equivalent of taking 13.5 grams of L-Tyrosine, or 27 (!) of my 500mg pills at once.

I have yet to try the higher doses. I couldn’t afford to do that for very long, and it just feels extreme? But maybe I’ll give it a go one time just to see what happens.

Depending on your approach this could be 180 servings or 7 servings 😳

Thankfully, there are plenty of studies showing cognitive enhancing abilities in the 2 grams or less range. I’m going to bank on that lower dose being effective for me.

I also want to note that some studies have shown positive effects with doses as low as 100mg per day. That was the case in some small scale trials where L-Tyrosine was given to Parkinson’s patients. I’m left thinking there is still a ton to learn here about dosing and I’m curious to see how the field develops.

My personal experience with L-Tyrosine

I’ve been taking L-Tyrosine about 4 days a week for a couple months. I find a 500mg to 2g dose to be mildly stimulating when used in the afternoon. I also feel it gives me a better ability to focus. Overall, it provides a sustained, non-jittery energy boost for a couple of hours. This is very helpful for getting through the all-to-common afternoon slump. I once took 3g dose after a poor night of sleep and it seemed to help my energy levels quite a bit.

I don’t get a big energy kick with L-Tyrosine like with caffeine or nicotine. It’s more of a subtle boost. And I take L-Tyrosine in the afternoon it has a way more noticeable effect than if I take it in the morning. I honestly can’t really notice it if I take it in the morning. Probably because I drink coffee every morning too.

All that does make me wonder how much of the effects are placebo. I am finding it helpful in the exact situations all the studies say it should be helpful, which is when I am depleted from a morning of work and staring down the barrel of a couple more hours of things that need to get done.

This either means it actually works or I’ve convinced myself it should work. Or some combo. Either way, I am happy with the results.

I don’t notice any withdrawal the next day, and I don’t notice any strong cravings or a comedown like with coffee.

Overall I think it’s great, but you won’t see me on TikTok contributing to the trend of people calling L-Tyrosine “natural Adderall.”

I guess people also say it will give you a natural tan?? I couldn’t find evidence of that, but I would welcome it as a side effect

I’ve noticed my sleep being slightly worse since I’ve started my experiment, but I’ve also had other changes going on that could be confounding factors. I unfortunately don’t wear a sleep tracker at night anymore so I have no hard data around this. 

As far as the claim that it only works when the brain is “depleted,” I find that hard to test. I consider all my work to be cognitively demanding, so it’s hard to parcel out specific parts where I feel like Tyrosine is helping me more than others. I need to try paying more specific attention to if I have been able to sustain higher energy for longer periods of time in the past couple months. My performance and reviews at work have been excellent lately, so maybe that counts for something?

My wife noticed that my breath gets an odd, slightly metallic smell when I take L-Tyrosine, even at the 500mg dose. When I take 2g she notices it right away.

It’s not bad breath necessarily, just weird. Or maybe she’s just telling me that to be nice. I have a poor sense of smell and would never even notice anything was off.

This doesn’t seem great, but I’m not too worried about it. If my wife can’t handle it that would be an unfortunate deal breaker. For our relationship. L-Tyro for life! JK, I’ll have to go on a new nootropic hunt if the weird breath becomes a quality of life issue.

Is it Risky to Use L-Tyrosine?

L-Tyrosine is generally recognized as safe by the FDA. You can take very large amounts for months at a time without causing significant harm. While you would likely build a tolerance taking mega doses all the time, I am encouraged by the fact that I have never heard of an L-Tyrosine addict. It doesn’t get you high. That said, I’m sure taking it all the time would lead to tolerance, and repeatedly boosting dopamine and norepinephrine has to have some downsides? I’d use your own judgement and common sense — don’t take it every day, watch out for escalating use.

The main risks I came across in the scientific literature have to do with it’s potential to interact with other drugs. It might interacts poorly with MAOIs and if you’re already on thyroid medicine or if you take L-Dopa for Parkinson’s you also probably want to steer clear. 

L-Tyrosine — Fan Favorite

While writing this post I stumbled into a nerdy part of twitter where scientists are running a (totally unscientific) bracket to determine the best amino acid. As of this writing, L-Tyrosine is in the final four and is winning it’s matchup! If that doesn’t convince you of its goodness, I don’t know what will.

I’ll be sure to update everyone when the voting is complete. I am sure everyone is on pins and needles, wondering if L-Tyrosine can take down the mighty Tryptophan in the finals.

I’m excited about the potential of L-Tyrosine. While there is not a ton of research at the dosages a normal person would take, those that did look at a 500mg to 2g intake show promising results.

It’s a substance that is safe to try if you are struggling with energy and want a low cost solution that isn’t some mystery chemical cooked up in a lab. It’s just an amino acid that you are already consuming anyway. And a large bottle of 500mg capsules will only run you like 20 USD.  

Ideally, we’d all be fully optimized humans who get the perfect amount of sunlight, exercise, fresh food, and soulful interaction with friends and family. Plus we’d work a job we love that doesn’t require us to push the limits of our mental capacities if we don’t want to. I truly wish that existence for anyone, and someone living like that might not even need coffee to feel like their best self, let alone L-Tyrosine. They could be high on life in the truest sense of the word.  

Until I get to that point, I’ll continue to explore nootropics. I’m glad I discovered L-Tyrosine and that I now have another weapon in my stress fighting arsenal.

Short Book Review: Gandhi — A Life

I knew very little about Gandhi before reading this book, which I picked up on a whim at the library one day.

Here are some things that stood out to me. 

Gandhi apparently made a suicide pact with a friend when he was 9 years old

At the last moment they lost their nerve.

Gandhi got married at age 13

He instantly fell into the role of domineering husband. Funny to imagine a little 13 year old bossing around a wife. Also, super sad. If Gandhi treated his bride like this, imagine what other people were doing.

“take beef tea or die”

That’s what a doctor told Gandhi, a vegetarian, when he got sick while visiting England as a young man. Gandhi would rather die.

Beef tea is what passed for medicine in the early 1900’s

Gandhi was charmed by the Eiffel Tower

He was pretty good at saving money but was so enthralled at the Eiffel Tower he dropped big money (seven shillings) “for the satisfaction of being able to say that I had my lunch at a great height.”

Gandhi exuded cult leader vibes at certain points

He lived way out on a commune for a while with a bunch of followers. He was notorious for punishing those who did not live up to his standards of perfect moral purity. Usually this mean being mean to young women.

He even did that annoying thing where he would punish himself for their misdeeds, making them feel even worse. He admits he was cruel in this regard.

Later, he started making woman who were “sinners” shave their heads.

Not a good look for a leader many assume is the ultimate exemplar of peace and tolerance.

Gandhi was anti-money until he really needed some

As he grew up, he became increasingly anti-material goods, and anti money in general. Then he found himself needing money so that he could quit his job, buy an Ashram, and focus entirely on furthering his political ambitions.

A benefactor with money stepped in and bought him a whole damn farm where he could live and work with many of his followers.

One of the most famous movements in history might have fizzled out had a friend with money not stepped in at the right time. His social capital and ability to make rich friends was as key to his success as his determination and his religious conviction that what he was doing was right. 

Gandhi denounced the caste system and embraced “untouchables”

I’ve been pretty harsh on Gandhi so far, so I want to note that he could be pretty badass when it came to defying the social constructs of the time. He even adopted a daughter from the lowest caste in Indian society, the “untouchables.”

This controversial move threatened the stability of his movement, and boycotts were threatened, but he held strong. When people told him he might be boycotted, he doubled down:

Gandhi was unperturbed and told the ashramites that if the situation warranted the would all move to the Untouchable quarter of Ahmedabad and live on whatever the could earn by manual labor.

That’s hardcore. The boycott never happened and the Ashram continued on.

Gandhi’s work ethic and stamina were impressive

He would often get up at 2 AM, walk 20+ miles to his law office, work all day and then walk home at night. No one on the farm/commune was supposed to take a train and spend money unless it was really important. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, literally.

When Gandhi did ride trains, he usually rode in 3rd class rail cars amidst utter filth

He’d arrive places and the welcoming committee would have trouble finding him because they’d look for him the first and second class cars.

I respect his commitment to experiencing the lifestyle of those he wanted to help.

His schedule when visiting England for a conference was insane.

He only slept 1.45 hours sleep per night! That’s a lot to ask of a 60 year old whose diet at the time consisted entirely of nuts and dates.

He lived the lived the #loinclothlife to the fullest

Dude was marching into high level government meetings in England rocking a loin cloth and a toothless smile while preaching his brand of Bhagavad Gita-Thoreau-Tolstoyian ethics. What an unlikely character to have the most powerful nation in the world wanting to please him. When not in a loincloth, he stuck to wearing incredibly simple shirts and shawls.

He talked a big game about wanting Muslim and Hindu unity but wouldn’t let his son marry a Muslim girl

He essentially disowned him over it. Pretty wack, in my opinion.

He advocated for non-violence against the Nazi regime

This is not surprising. Gandhi got a lot done through preaching non-violence. It’s just always a bit startling to read how bad some people’s Hitler takes look in hindsight. It’s another example of “when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, one of the founders of Pakistan, was a fascinating guy

I can’t come close to covering all the details here, so I’ll just highlight that Jinnah has one of the most baller quotes from a political leader ever.

He worked hard to bring Pakistan into being as an independent nation. Once this was complete, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to take credit for things they didn’t do. They said they were owed something for their part in creating the country.

Jinnah’s reply:

“You helped to create Pakistan? My dear man, I got you Pakistan with a typist and a typewriter.

The author of the book follows up that quote by saying “this was more or less a statement of fact.”

The great ones are human too

I came into this expecting to be absolutely blown away by what a saint Gandhi was. And he did do some remarkably saintly things. But he was mostly just a committed person fighting for what he believed in while exhibiting some pretty profound character flaws. Just like the rest of us. I find this motivating. Maybe I too can refuse the beef tea, do things my way, and make a difference in the world.

Nicotine is Not Evil: A Literature Review of Studies on Pure Nicotine

In a recent interview, the famous military strategist Edward Luttwak said:

“One book I’ve never written, is “The Impact of the Arrival of Nicotine and the Scientific Revolution.” A big jump in intellectual achievement that took place among those Europeans, all of whom smoked. The social history of nicotine begins with the sharpening of the brain.

He also thinks the west’s war on nicotine is making us all dumber.

Take away my nicotine patches, and I am immediately 5-10 IQ points stupider, which I can’t afford.

The contented grin of a man covered from head to toe in nicotine patches.

I’ve chewed 1 piece of 4mg nicotine gum about 5 days a week for close to 10 years, and I endorse Luttwak’s message.

But if you believe the medical establishment, we are both living recklessly. I was taught from a young age that nicotine is a toxic, deadly substance. And when tied to tobacco products, that appears to be the case.

But what about doing nicotine just a little bit, and never smoking it? I decided to research everything I could about pure nicotine to see if I should be scared off.

I was able to find plenty of research claiming nicotine is a horrific substance that only an idiot would willfully ingest. But when I dug deeper, I saw that all of the damning studies are really about using tobacco. I also noticed a surprising amount of research showing nicotine’s positive effects, such as how it helps with ADHD, irritable bowel disease, and Parkinson’s.

When it comes to studies claiming that nicotine is bad independent of smoking, I feel like Anthony Edwards when he was asked to comment on Rudy Gobert’s rim protection — they “don’t put no fear in my heart.”

In this post, I’ll show why.

This has nothing to do with nicotine, but I’m fascinated by the fact that they are teammates now. Edwards once said Kristaps Porzingis was a better defender than Gobert, lol.

What the scientific research has to say about nicotine

Tobacco and nicotine are so intertwined in the scientific literature that they are hard to separate.

Thankfully, amazing independent researchers like Gwern, a total hero of mine, walk amongst us. He did the hard research into pure nicotine and wrote up his results:

Much of the nicotine/​tobacco literature willfully conflates the two, leading to misleading attribution of the harm of tobacco to nicotine; many associations with harm are confounded by past or present tobacco use (eg. Kenkel ⁠et al⁠ 2020), but when pure nicotine is examined, as in patch/​GUM nicotine replacement therapy, the harms appeared minimal: like all stimulants, nicotine may raise blood pressure somewhat, and is addictive to some degree, but the risks do not appear much more strikingly harmful than caffeine or modafinil (and certainly appear less than the many commonly-used amphetamines).

Overall, I am personally comfortable using nicotine gum (but not vaping) once in a while, and have done so since 2011 without any noticeable problems or escalation in usage frequency.


I am not going to reinvent the wheel and analyze at all the studies that Gwern looked at. What I can offer is a more in depth analysis of some oft cited studies which supposedly prove that even pure nicotine is terrible for humans.

A closer look at a few claims about pure nicotine 

I’ll start with Harmful Effects of Nicotine by Mishra et al, 2015. It has been cited 278 times and appeared as the 5th ranked post when I searched Google Scholar for “nicotine effects”.

The paper is a review of 90 studies that claim to only look at pure nicotine. They come to the conclusion that even without the influence of tobacco, nicotine is extremely bad for you.

There is an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal disorders. There is decreased immune response and it also poses ill impacts on the reproductive health. It affects the cell proliferation, oxidative stress, apoptosis, DNA mutation by various mechanisms which leads to cancer. It also affects the tumor proliferation and metastasis and causes resistance to chemo and radio therapeutic agents.

Scary stuff! But I think it’s way overstating the negative effects.

First off, about half the experiments and studies cited by the Mishra paper involved animals. (I looked at the first 20 of 89 cited studies and extrapolated from there.)

Most dealt with rodents, but there was a wide variety of animals used. Dogs, cats, and rabbits are also in the mix.

A dog being forced to smoke to test if it would get emphysema. (source)
More smoking dogs.What is wrong with people. (source)

In my opinion the majority of animal studies are hot garbage. These papers get at my viewpoint:

But there are of course animal results that do translate to humans, so let’s carry on and see if the Mishra paper gives us anything to get worried about.

Giving baby mice tumors for fun and profit

Pour one out for all the laboratory mice (source)

I decided to pick a couple of the studies the Mishra et al paper uses to support its claims to see if they justify such strongly negative conclusions about nicotine. If they aren’t reputable, why should I trust the other 80+ studies in the review? Just having a bunch of studies doesn’t mean anything if they’re all weak.

One claim the Mishra review makes is that nicotine is a tumor promoter.

Following the citation for that claim leads me to a paper called Nicotine and Gastrointestinal Disorders: Its Role in Ulceration and Cancer Development by Chu et al., 2013. 

The Chu study says nicotine is a tumor promoter, but instead of showing the evidence that proves it, they merely state it as fact and cite yet another study to back up their claim.

The study they cite is called Nicotine promotes gastric tumor growth and neovascularization by activating extracellular signal-regulated kinase and cyclooxygenase-2 by Shin et al, 2004. 

This paper finds “a direct promoting action of nicotine on the growth of gastric tumors.”

Which indeed it does. But the methods of the study make me question its relevance to humans. 

Here’s how one would go about replicating what Shin and crew did:

  • Get a bunch of 4-6 week old mice
  • House them in individual chambers
  • Surgically inject cancer cells into their stomach lining 
  • Force the mice to drink either tap water, or water with extremely large amounts of nicotine in it
  • Wait three months
  • Kill the mice and look to see if they had tumors and how big those tumors were

Every mouse in the study got a tumor, so at least that bit of science is settled — injecting baby mice with cancer reliably gives them cancer. 

Next, they looked at how big the tumors were and found that the mice given nicotine had slightly bigger tumors than the mice that drank tap water.

So grateful it’s not my job to cut out the intestinal lining of mice and take pictures of it.

That’s not great. No one wants bigger tumors. But should we update our thoughts on the human use of nicotine because of this study? Ehhhhh.

Let’s talk dosing. The mice in the “high nicotine group” consumed about .8mg/day of nicotine. Given the mice weigh a mere 25 grams, they were taking in an astounding amount of nicotine for their body weight. It’s the equivalent of a 150 pound human consuming 2000mg/day of nicotine. That’s like smoking 80 packs of cigs per day, or chewing 500 pieces of nicotine gum per day! For three straight months!

I would not disagree with a scientific paper saying that chewing 500 pieces of nicotine gum per day for three straight months is bad for you. I just think it’s not quite relevant to the average person. And I might think the scientists making a mouse consume that much were slightly unhinged?

To continue with my skepticism, we are talking about isolated baby mice who were purposely given stomach cancer.

I do think that if you already have stomach cancer it’s probably not a great idea to ingest large amounts of nicotine every time you drink water for months at a time. I am not sure what this tells us about someone like me, a 35 year old cancer free person who does nicotine in small doses.

The problem is that when a review paper confidently states that nicotine promotes tumors, they don’t also say,

We think it promotes tumors because in a 20+ year old study performed on baby mice who had cancer injected into their bodies before being forced to consume the equivalent of hundreds of cigarettes worth of nicotine per day, the nicotine caused tumors 2mm bigger than those in a control group.

That would be a lot less convincing.

Did you know one of the animal right’s movements first major supporters gave the movement a lot of money because he was worried about being reincarnated as a draft horse? I kind of feel like that about lab mice. (image source)

more dubious nicotine studies 

So the first claim made by the Mishra review paper technically checks out. But it didn’t convince me, a human being and not a mouse in a concentration camp laboratory, to worry about my low-dose nicotine intake.

I decided to investigate another claim made in the Chu paper mentioned above. Remember that this paper is a load bearing pillar for some of the claims Mishra makes in their influential and highly cited review paper talking about how bad pure nicotine is.

In a section of the Chu paper titled Gastric Ulceration, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and Pancreatitis the authors state: 

“Nicotine caused a reduction in gastric mucosal blood flow and mucus volume. Taken together, all these factors may partially explain why cigarette smoke and its components exacerbated gastric ulceration.”

To prove that claim, they cite a 2005 paper published in Nature called “Mechanisms of Disease: nicotine — a review of it’s actions in the context of gastrointestinal disease” by Thomas et al., 2005. 

The Thomas et al. paper is yet another review paper that looks at around 800 articles relating to nicotine and the gastrointestinal system. Notably, it does not say it’s trying to control for pure nicotine without tobacco smoke. But whatever, let’s set that aside for now.

The claim I am checking is “nicotine caused a reduction in gastric mucosal blood flow and mucus volume.” 

The only section on gastric mucosal blood flow in the Thomas paper states that “studies have provided conflicting results, but in some studies nicotine reduced gastric mucosal blood flow.”

Okay, kinda weird. That is quite a hedged statement. If you check out the paper they cite to make that claim, you get a sense of why.

The paper is by Cho et al. from 1990, The influence of acute or chronic nicotine treatment on ethanol-induced gastric mucosal damage in rats

I really don’t think this paper should be used as a strike against nicotine. Let’s look at why.

Maybe nicotine actually prevents ulcers and helps IBS?

To reset a bit, we are now 4 levels deep. Mishra et all was a meta analysis saying all nicotine is evil. They cite Chu et al. to back up claims, Chu et al. cites Thomas et al, Thomas et al. cites Cho et al. 

It’s like freaking Inception trying to keep it all straight. 

Leo thinking about whether his nicotine habit is ultimately good or bad.

The claim I’m investigating is whether or not nicotine reduces gastric mucosal blood flow (which I’ll refer to as GMBF from now on, like the paper does.)

The Cho paper does in fact conclude that, sometimes, nicotine reduces GMBF. But overall it finds that nicotine is more likely to increase GMBF!

Here are the last few sentences of the paper’s abstract:

It is concluded that acute nicotine pretreatment elevates, whereas chronic nicotine pretreatment differentially affects GMBF. These effects could account for their protective or preventive actions on ethanol ulceration. The increase in nonacid gastric secretory volume by nicotine could partially explain its anti-ulcer effect.

Anti-ulcer effects! So while the Thomas quote (“in some studies nicotine reduced gastric mucosal blood flow”) is true to the letter, it completely fails to get at the core of what was found in the study they cite to support their claim. 

The claim was that a reduction in GMBF partially explains why nicotine makes ulcers worse. When you follow the trail of citations to their conclusion, the claim cashes out in a study saying the exact opposite of what the anti-nicotine study is suggesting.

I can’t say for sure that nicotine doesn’t exacerbate gastric ulceration in rats. But I feel pretty confident saying the study I looked at that purports to prove that it does cause gastric ulceration in rats says nothing of the sort.

I think this says a lot about the overall state of the anti-nicotine literature. 

That’s because in the end, their scary claims often end up looking a lot weaker, and sometimes will be completely contradicted by, the studies they cite to prove their point.

I also think it’s notable that Gareth Thomas, the lead author on the Thomas et al. meta review, has run another study showing that nicotine is “a safe oral treatment for people with inflammatory bowel disease.”

Is all anti-nicotine literature this flawed?

Maybe I missed the key anti-pure nicotine studies that produced meaningful results applicable to humans. I do admit that I am biased in wanting nicotine to be relatively harm-free, so that could have tainted my research.

I know that some people are worried that nicotine might be messing with our dopamine receptors, which seems bad? When I google “nicotine and dopamine receptors” and click first result that does not mention smoking, I land on an article that says:

Long-term exposure to nicotine alters brain circuits and induces profound changes in decision-making strategies, affecting behaviors both related and unrelated to drug seeking and consumption.

That doesn’t seem great! Ah, but what is that I see in the very next line?

We investigated in mice… 

Ah, right. There are those mice again.

In this study, they “implanted osmotic minipumps subcutaneously to expose mice to continuous nicotine (Nic, 10 mg/kg/day) or saline (Sal) for 3 weeks.” Let me translate: They gave the mice a nicotine dose equivalent to an averaged sized human ingesting 170 pieces of 4mg nicotine gum per day, or around 20 packs of cigarettes worth, every day for 3 weeks.

I’m surprised they didn’t just drop dead. Instead, they seemed to have moved a little faster than the other mice, plus they “exploited” rewards more.

I can’t say that all the research is on mice given stupidly large nicotine doses. And I can’t say that nicotine won’t mess with your brain in a negative way. I can say that I remain unworried about 4mg doses.

Nicotine as wonder drug

Leo, deciding that the pros of tobacco-free nicotine outweigh the cons. Vaping still seems bad for your lungs though, fwiw 🤷

If you’re like me, you might now be convinced that low-dose nicotine is not that bad for you. But is it good? Potentially, in some cases!

Here are just a few of the many studies and popular science articles talking about the positive effects of nicotine. Editors appear to really like using the delightfully naughty “wonder drug” moniker in headlines.

I also take seriously the fact that basically every successful person I’ve read about who lived between 1800-1970 was an avid smoker, and thus consumed a lot of nicotine. Many of these people were supremely unhealthy on many levels, but they made huge contributions to the world.

I gotta think the nicotine buzz helped Thomas Edison with his creations and Mark Twain with his writing. Twain certainly thought so. He claims to have smoked 300 cigars a month, and once remarked:

If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go.

Mark Twain
He apparently started smoking at age 8?!

More personally, I used to have awful IBS symptoms from ages 7-25. When did they stop? Right around when I started using nicotine, which has been shown to help with irritable bowel type issues. 🤔

There are even people arguing that Nicotine isn’t addictive! This 257 page academic report from 2002 written by 2 Israeli Ph.D’s says that, “Nicotine is not an addictive drug and that the popularized equation of the addictive properties of nicotine and heroin has little to do with science.”

Gotta love science. You can always find a study saying something that makes you feel good.

The almighty Gwern on whether nicotine is a performance enhancer

Gwern appears to be as fascinated with nicotine as I am, because along the general nicotine research he did he also conducted a nicotine use self-experiment. It’s famous in the internet circles I inhabit. People tend to reference it when arguing that nicotine doesn’t actually improve mental performance when taken daily.  

I recommend reading the whole study, if for nothing else than to see a true master researcher at work.

I’m like, “Gum make Drew feel good.” Gwern’s like, “Let me do a blinded study with placebos and Ph.D level rigor to see if I do better on tests of cognitive function when I chew nicotine gum.”

Gwern doing Gwern things while studying nicotine intake

His thinks that the gum maybe gives him a slight boost in performance, but it’s kind of hard to say.

The greatly increased variance, but only somewhat increased mean, is consistent with nicotine operating on me with an inverted U-curve for dosage/​performance (or the Yerkes-Dodson law): on good days, 1mg nicotine is too much and degrades performance (perhaps I am overstimulated and find it hard to focus on something as boring as n-back) while on bad days, nicotine is just right and improves n-back performance.

He concludes by saying he’ll continue to occasionally use nicotine gum.

The main thing I question is that he’s measuring his performance in what amounts to a memory challenge.

I don’t do nicotine to improve my working memory. I do it because it makes activities, especially long form writing, a lot more fun and productive. When I’ve got that nicotine buzz going it feels like I can better make connections between disparate ideas, write jokes, think up metaphors, and stay on task. I feel more creative and energetic. I’m not claiming it makes me smarter, only that it helps me get started on tasks and feel more in a flow state while I’m doing them. Perhaps substances that boost the creative side of things don’t have strong effects on the memory game side of things. 

My next quibble has to do with dosage, a potential downside he acknowledges by saying ,“1mg may have too small effects to easily detect.”

To me, studying only 1mg of nicotine is kind of like studying how you’d feel on 3 ounces of coffee. I can definitely feel something on 1mg of nicotine, but it’s much different than how I feel on my standard 4mg. 

Finally, Gwern and I have much different brain chemistry, upbringing, beliefs, priors, and brain harmonics.

Gwern is really into anime. I’ve never watched anime, nor do I have a desire to. And I don’t think Gwern stays up late watching NBA playoff games and texting his friends when he thinks the announcers are saying something dumb. 

As much as I wish I was more like Gwern, he’s just another data point, and I am hesitant to trust his conclusions over my own experience when deciding what nootropics to take.

In my opinion, there’s no substitute for trying things out for yourself.

Still, I can’t rule out that what I feel when I do nicotine isn’t mostly the placebo effect. I should do Gwern’s experiment and find out. Maybe one day. 

More on my personal experience with nicotine 

Nicotine can have a heavy body load. It hit me hard the first time I tried it and I almost threw up. So watch out for that.

Tolerance wise, I certainly don’t feel the rush for as long and as hard as I used to. But I still feel it plenty, and enjoy it. My slightly diminished buzz hasn’t led me to escalate usage over the past decade.

Just as I drink about the same amount of coffee each day, I have not had much trouble sticking to 4mg (or less) of nicotine whenever i used it. I tried to go higher once when I was staying up late for work, but the effects didn’t scale.

I don’t feel I get a ton out of increasing the dosage. And I’m grateful for that! You can find a lot of stories online of people who get very addicted to chewing gum or vaping. If you are one of those people, unfortunately you should probably find a different drug of choice. I normally have a very addictive personality so I’m super grateful that hasn’t happened to me.

Nicotine withdrawals can be nasty, so I’m glad I haven’t gone through that either. Mason Hartman had awful withdrawals when she stopped using nicotine. Her negative thoughts around nicotine gum in general gave me a lot of pause around my usage when I first read them.

Then I realized she was on a whole ‘nother level than me when it came to her intake!

I’d bet that I’d be feeling rough going cold turkey after that amount of daily use, too.

I set two strict rules around my usage that I’ve broken only a handful of times over the last decade. 

  • Never more than 4mg in a day
  • I always have to write at least something before I do other tasks. So even if I’m taking it to knock out a bunch of boring work tasks I don’t want to do, I need to jot something down in my journal beforehand. I do this because I like writing and want to be doing more of it, and because it helps me feel like I am not slipping into the habit of mindlessly consuming nicotine. (I wonder if the fact that I do this around nicotine and not coffee shows how deep the anti-nicotine propaganda is still in my system.)

Speaking of coffee, I have experienced plenty of legit crashes when my morning caffeine wears off. I can definitely notice when a nicotine dose wears off, but it’s nothing like a caffeine come down. It’s more like, “Okay, back to normal now.” A bad caffeine come down, at least for me, is more like, “Ugh, everything sucks and I have no motivation now.”  I can also chew gum in the evenings and still sleep soundly that night whereas late night caffeine throws my sleep off.

The biggest thing for me is that nicotine gets me locked into a writing flow state like no other substance I’ve tried. With nicotine’s assistance I can basically always sit down for solid hour or more of focused writing and have a great time doing it. From what I can tell, I am far from the only one who finds writing and nicotine to go hand in hand.

Would we have The Hobbit or LOTR without JRR Tolkien’s tobacco habit?

Nicotine also gets me over general work roadblocks remarkably easily. I can knock out a whole bunch of annoying tasks I have been putting off, such as emails, on 4mg of gum. Mostly it helps me get started at all, an effect Gwern also acknowledges when talking about why he likes gum more than patches:

I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly.

When I take breaks I don’t get jittery, nor do I crave gum all day. Maybe I get a little more annoyed in the afternoons than usual, since I normally do the gum between 2-4 pm.

I also get hungrier and more fatigued without it. I don’t believe I gain weight when I take breaks but I also haven’t measured it that closely and I am generally in really good shape. 

I also have had times where I take nicotine and feel some minor chest pain and tightness. But I’ve also had that when not chewing gum! So, I dunno what to make of that.

I recently had a thorough health checkup and came out looking very healthy on all measures. This includes sperm count and quality, since I had to get that checked out as part of the IVF process. I only mention it because anti-nicotine crusaders absolutely love to say that nicotine is disastrous for sperm. Maybe for some (and probably for smoker!), thankfully not for me.

All in all, I feel fine about my level of consumption and I think I’ll be okay as long as I’m vigilant about not letting my usage escalate.

My parting thoughts on Nicotine

Nicotine seems fine in small doses and I like it. 

If future research proves me wrong, and all nicotine is bad, maybe I’ll become more dedicated to finding a nootropic stack that replicates nicotine’s effects with less risk. L-tyrosine seems like a promising candidate, and I’ve used that in place of nicotine several times recently.

I also can’t rule out that there is a downside to chronic use over many years, although after all my research I’d be surprised if the effects were any different than chronic caffeine use.

All in all, I hope that my nicotine doses are small enough to not cause harm. I can also justify my usage the way people justify doing any drug — the benefits of boosted mood and productivity outweigh the downsides, at least for now.

I hope we don’t find any new bombshell accusations against nicotine. Can’t the universe just lets me have this one? I don’t eat meat or drink alcohol, so it only feels fair.

BPS — The Best Adult Basketball Tournament

It’s hard for adults to find activities with all of the following:

  • Intense physical competition
  • 150+ awesome people looking to connect with old friends and make new ones
  • Communal meals and nightly parties
  • A rugged camping vibe with unlimited natural beauty

There’s a yearly basketball tournament I’ve been playing in that checks all the boxes.

It’s called BPS. It’s a name derived from the initials of Brian P Schwartz, a close friend of the trip founders who died tragically before the first ever tournament, just over 15 years ago.

From what I’ve learned, Brian was an amazing, loving person who was as kind off the court as he was tenacious on it. He was a hoops junkie who would have loved the tournament that bears his initials.

Amazing pic of the BPS campus at night by @dhsalz13

The basketball tournament

BPS is what happens when pickup basketball fanatics take things to the next level.

I’ve played in a lot of consistent pickup games. But I’ve never been in one where the leaders one day said, “You know what? Let’s take a weekend every year, invite all the best players we know, travel 6 hours by car to the middle of the woods, sleep in bunks, hold a draft, bring nice uniforms, and battle each other across 8-10 super intense games on outdoor courts to determine a champion.” 

That’s basically what happened with BPS. A bunch of guys, mostly from the Chicago suburbs, get together at the site of a summer camp many of them attended growing up and put on a freaking epic basketball tournament.

The structure

Just before the 2022 championship game

The scale of the operation is so impressive. There are 3 games going at once, with scoreboards, stat keepers, and videographers. You call your own fouls but there are court supervisors to settle thorny disputes. There are doctors on hand if needed, as well as trainers and massage therapists. This year two different people brought a pair of hilarious looking full-leg compression recovery pants that saw a ton of action between sessions.

Me taking recovery more seriously than I did when I was a professional basketball player. Shoutout to @rossrunnington for letting so many people use these.

There’s even a sportsbook. Futures odds come out after the draft, and there are betting lines on each game.

The book doing the lord’s work by handling all the bets before the championship game (photo by @rossrunnington)

I get a kick out of the people who come up to me before a game, looking me up and down like a racehorse, trying to sound casual as they ask me how I’m feeling about my next matchup.

I have yet to place any bets myself, but it makes me unreasonably happy when my friends come up to me after a game and tell me I won them money. 

As for the actual format, every team plays each other once, and then the top 4 teams play a single elimination final four.

So if you make the finals, you play 10 games in two days.

My first year, both my big toe nails fell off in the month after BPS. After every tournament I’m always so sore I can barely move for a week after. It’s an insane way for a bunch of office workers to treat their bodies, but that’s part of the allure. Anyone can go play in a local half court 3×3 tournament. Only the incurable, degenerate hoops junkies will spend a weekend playing 10 physically punishing, outdoor, full-court games in the Midwestern summer heat. It self selects for people who enjoy playing hard just because it’s fun. My kind of people.

It’s not uncommon to see people on the floor for loose balls, concrete be damned. (photo by @rossrunnington)

Picking teams and gameplay

The trip starts off with each of the 9 team captains pulling names out of a hat to determine the draft order. Then they make their first round selection. This year, I was the 4th overall pick, which helped me a lot because it’s a snake draft and the first pick gets the last pick of the second round. 

Two captains, and a couple of the nicest dudes you’ll ever meet, going at it (photo by @dhsalz13)

The first round draft is in front of the entire camp, then all the first rounders and their captains head over to a different room to complete the rest of the draft. The war room atmosphere is so fun. Everyone has printed out lists, rankings, and an intense focus. The founders have recreated in miniature what I imagine a real professional sports draft feels like. There’s a moderator, a clock, a big board that displays the picks, and a sense that the fate of your team hangs on each selection. 

The tournament has really talented players considering it all takes place way off the beaten path, in the north woods of Wisconsin. I am not the only guy who played pro, multiple people played in college, and there are a ton of former high school stars and adult gym rats who will absolutely light you up.

Don’t let all the baldness fool you — these dudes can seriously hoop. Brian (with ball) gives me buckets every time we play. (photo by @rossrunnington)

As for the basketball itself, games are to 21 by twos and threes. There are morning and afternoon sessions on Friday and Saturday, with two games each session. The top 4 teams play in a single elimination final four.

An important gameplay factor is that there is no time limits on the games. If you find yourself in a 45 minute grinder because it’s deadlocked at 19 and you’ve been trading missed jumpers while absolutely mauling anyone who comes in the lane, well, good luck to you, because you might have to play again 5 minutes after that one ends.

You also call your own fouls. You might think this would lead to chaos, but when it’s a bunch of mature people it actually works really well. Because while everyone wants to win, no one wants to win so bad they’re willing to cheat.

Of course there are questionable calls. But have you ever played in an adult men’s league with refs? Have you seen what it does to once mild mannered people? How it can turn them into a rage filled lunatic, ready to throw down with a 23 year old official who’s just trying to earn a few dollars of side money? 

The BPS way is better. Shame, in the form of loud boos from the crowd for weak calls, keeps people in line. 

The fact that you can’t foul out does lead to some interesting dynamics where layups are extremely hard to come by. If you’re in the paint, you can usually expect to get a forearm shiver, especially if it’s game point.

My college roommate Erik (center), new to the trip, not understanding he should be savagely fouling my boy Joel on a shot this close (photo by @dhsalz13)
Erik’s teammate Zach showing him how it’s done (photo by @dhsalz13)

My 2022 trip

With scouting help from my boy Danny, my friend who introduced me to the trip, I had a solid target list and got almost everyone I wanted. Besides Danny :(

Shoutout to Danny (in white) giving it his all, banging in the post, and making it to the final four less than 9 months removed from ACL surgery 🤯💪 (photo by @dhsalz13)

Everything clicked, and my team went on to win the championship. I think the highlight of our run was an epic final four comeback after being 14-6 and then 20-17.

Pure joy after captain Boehm (arm raised) hit an incredible double pump layup to cap the final four comeback (photo by @rossrunnington)

Then we rolled in the finals. It’s my first time winning in 3 trips and it felt amazing. I could not have been happier with my squad. Every person played their role to perfection and we had incredible chemistry.

Going at D Kay (he’s a beast) in the championship. (photo by @dhsalz13)
Getting a rare, cherished, clean look. Too bad I airballed it. (photo by @dhsalz13)
The pained look on my face encapsulates what it’s like trying to defend during your 10th game in two days (photo by @rossrunnington)
Boehmer’s finals game winner (photo by @rossrunnington)

I was also extremely pumped to have one of my best friends, Erik, join me on the trip. We used to do ice baths together after battles in college. Now it’s more of the same, we just ice in Catfish Lake instead.

More than a vacation

Great photo of Catfish Lake by @rossrunnington

You can look at BPS and say sure, that sounds fun, but can’t you take a trip to a random hotel and have an equally good time playing in a pool volleyball tournament?

For me, that’s not the case. BPS provides brotherhood, a sense of accomplishment, the release of tension through insanely intense competition, and the chance to bond over meals with people of all age groups. You can’t find that shit on a Carnival Cruise.

Late night hang

People at BPS care about each other. People check in on my job and my life. People want to make sure I’m okay. People from the trip help each other out when they hear someone is in need. I am still new to the group, but I can already see the ties run deep. If I faced a crisis, people from BPS would be there for me.

Finally, at least in my opinion, a run of the mill vacation will feel good in the moment but it won’t have many lasting effects. Not so with BPS!

Scientist and consciousness researcher Andres Gomez Emilsson writes about how taking part in unique and challenging group experiences can feel transformative because they elevate our collective consciousness and plant seeds of hope within attendees. His description of how he felt going to one such event could have been written about BPS:

Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together, might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than they intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope.

Okay, that’s some lofty, idealistic language. And to be clear, BPS is not a big hippie fest where we all hold hands and perform chants of thanks to Gaia . You’re more likely to see a keg stand than to overhear a conversation about how to get humanity properly focused on values that matter.

Is a keg stand not a beautiful symbol of human connection in its own way? (photo by @rossrunnington)

But that doesn’t mean something isn’t happening beneath the surface.

Many of us spend more time than we’d like as part of an isolated family unit, ho humming through our days, interacting mostly with our employers and our screens. Going to an event like BPS is like being given a 72 hour glimpse into an alternate reality where there is more time for physical activity, friendship, and community building.

It leaves me feeling like more of us should be doing what the founders of this trip did. We should actually create awesome experiences, not just hope they materialize. Darren and the other BPS founders prove that it’s possible. In doing so they inspire others and create waves of positive energy that reverberate far past a single weekend.

Darren (center, orange shirt) MC’ing the opening ceremony. After these talks it’s always clear the trip is as much about brotherhood and building friendships as it is about basketball.

Maybe all that sounds a little cringey and cult-like. But hey, a wholesome cult centered around basketball? Sign me up.