Huperzine A is one of the supplements most lucid dreaming enthusiasts swear by. It is available without a prescription, it is relatively cheap and by all accounts – including my own – it does indeed work when it comes to LD induction and enhancement.
To really understand how and why huperzine A works (and the possible risks it entails), you really need to take a close look at acetylcholine.
Before we venture that far into the mechanism of action used by huperzine A though, let us get a few essential definitions out of the way.
Huperzia serrata & other psychoactive firmosses
Huperzia is a genus of firmosses (also known as fir clubmosses and gemma fir-mosses) in the Lycopodiaceae Family (clubmosses), which was originally included in the related genus Lycopodium. In 1801 the species were differentiated by Johann Jakob Bernhardi who reclassified Lycopodium selago as Huperzia selago.
Huperzia plants are known as firmosses due to the their superficial resemblance to branches of fir (Abies), a conifer. “Gemma” or “gemmae” is after the bud-like structures which occur among the leaves.
The number of Huperzia species depends on the classification approach. The first method recognizes Huperzia as a broad genera, which then includes more than 300 species. According to this approach, Huperzia plants can be found around the world, except for North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Western Asia.
The other approach divides the subfamily Huperzoideae to 3 genera:
- Phylloglossum drummondii (pygmy clubmoss) – a small plant superficially resembling a tiny grass plant, native to southwestern Western Australia, southern South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as North Island, New Zealand.
- Phlegmariurus – a tropical genus including more than 300 species, which grow on other plants.
- Huperzia – this classification leaves Huperzia with just around 25 species, which grow on the ground or on rocks in temperate, arctic, and alpine habitats, including mountains in tropical Asia.
In the following article I cover the most well-known species of Huperzia which may be psychoactive.
Huperzia selago (northern firmoss; fir clubmoss; devil’s claw) can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. The Upper Tanana Indians of Alaska made a poultice from the whole plant which they used headaches.
It was also an ancient Celtic-Germanic magical plant used in druidic rituals.
Selago may have certain psychoactive effects, but may also cause the following side effects:
This and other club mosses indigenous to Europe are known by names such as Druid’s plant, Witches’ dust, and Disquiet, which suggest an ancient use in pagan rituals and strong associations with witchcraft.
In Nepal, Lycopodium clavatum and similar species are sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu and are used in garlands and other objects at his festivals.
In Chinese medicine it is known as Shen Jin Cao and used to treat tightness of the tendons involving difficulty of movement and painful joints as well as trauma-related pain.
It contains psychoactive alkaloids, such as nicotine.
Lycopodium spp. (Condor Plants)
In northern Peru, folk healers use club mosses as medicinal plants, bath additives, and amulets (e.g., for magical defense during healing rituals.)
One plant, Lycopodium magellanicum, also known as Austrolycopodium magellanicum or the Magellanic clubmoss, grows in the mountains of Latin America, as well as a number of islands in the antarctic and subantarctic oceans.
The plant appears to contain inhibitors of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), like Huperzia serrata (see below).
Lycopodium magellanicum is also sometimes used as a San Pedro drink additive, which makes the plant spirit appear to the shaman as a condor, which can then be sent on astral journeys and fulfill tasks. It is possible that it even augments the hallucinogenic effects of the San Pedro drink, for example by improving the visionary sight, and may even have hallucinogenic effects on its own.
Lycopodium gayanum (ngalngal or harina de los brujos) is used by the Mapuche of Chile as a sedative.
Huperzia serrata (toothed clubmoss; Chinese club moss; Lycopodium serratum), which is native to eastern Asia (China, Tibet, Japan, the Korean peninsula, and the Russian Far East), is the firmoss which interests me the most.
It contains the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor alkaloid, huperzine A, and is a traditional Chinese medicine (Herba Lycopodii Serrati).
Its Chinese name (Jin Bu Huan) means “will not exchange for gold.”
Other Chinese names for the plant include:
- Ju Bu Huan
- Qian Ceng Ta
- Qi Chun Jin
It is used for blood circulation problems and to relieve pain in conditions such as:
- traumatic injuries
- tendon and bone pain
- irregular menstruation
- lung abscess
- hemorrhoids or hemorrhoidal bleeding
It is believed to have sedative, analgesic, and antispasmodic effects and is also used as a sleeping aid and even for weight loss.
Side effects: Dizziness.
Huperzine A, an alkaloid extracted from Huperzia serrata, has been used as a neuroprotective prescription drug in China since the early 1990s with no reported serious adverse effects. It showed considerable benefit in the treatment of dementia and myasthenia gravis.
Huperzine A is also used as a nootropic dietary supplement said to promote cognitive function and improve memory and learning performance.
How does it work?
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is thought to play a major role in memory. Low levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain may result in the memory problems seen in Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by cholinergic dysfunction.
Huperzine A works by inhibihiting acetylcholineesterase (AChE), the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine in the brain. With less AChE available to breakdown acetylcholine, levels of the neurotransmitter go up, specifically in the basal ganglia (which plays a role in working memory), manifesting in an improvement of memory.
Other mechanisms by which huperzine works to treat seizures and dementia and improve cognition include:
- interfering with beta-amyloid deposition, which, according to the amyloid hypothesis, are the fundamental cause of the disease.
- inhibiting N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the cerebral cortex (other NMDA receptor channel blockers include dissociative hallucinogens such as dextromethorphan, ketamine, tiletamine, phencyclidine, methoxetamine, and methoxphenidine).
- decreased neurotoxicity leads to less neurodegeneration which along with increased GABAergic transmission leads to less seizures and thus less cognitive decline.
- an adrenergic mechanism may also be involved (since it can improve yohimbine-induced memory impairments)
The acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors currently used in conventional medicine, such as physostigmine, tacrine, and donepezil (Aricept), are more toxic to the liver than huperzine A, which is significantly more selective in its sites of action.
Moreover, huperzine A was more effective in inhibiting AChE than tacrine and galantamine, and has greater bioavailability and penetrates the blood–brain barrier more easily than donepezil.
Huperzine A may be an effective and well-tolerated agent to both suppress seizures and improve memory, cognitive function, and behavioral factors in Alzheimer’s disease by enhancing cholinergic and GABAergic signaling and mitigating Alzheimer’s disease-related neurotoxicity.
Alzheimer’s disease dosage: 400 mcg huperzine A, twice a day.
What exactly is Huperzine A?
Huperzine A is a sesquiterpene alkaloid, which occurs naturally. It can essentially be extracted from a number of plants, such as Huperzia serrata, Huperzia elmeri, H. carinat, etc.
The main source for the currently available huperzine A supplements is Huperzia serrata.
Due to its effects on neurotransmitter acetylcholine, huperzine A has been considered as a treatment for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. While there is data available in this regard, the studies which produced it have been found lacking in methodological quality, and therefore are treated with caution by the science community.
What you really need to know about huperzine A though – as a LD enthusiast – is that it acts upon acetylcholine, effectively preventing the breakdown of the neurotransmitter in the brain, by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase. This way, huperzine A is claimed to improve memory, as well as mental function.
Through the preservation and promotion of acetylcholine though, its effects on dreaming in general and on lucid dreaming in particular, are much further reaching.
Like most medications and supplements, huperzine A does not come without side effects. In its case, these side effects are relatively mild, and they are limited to diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea.
How does huperzine A work for lucid dream induction?
If I told you that I knew exactly how huperzine A affects lucid dreaming, or even that there is a scientific consensus in this regard, I’d be lying.
One of the most popular and scientifically studied substance which can induce lucid dreams is galantamine. Huperzine A and galantamine both have a similar mechanism of action. By inhibiting AChE, they cause higher levels of acetylcholine, and therefore an improved memory and attention, making it much easier both to retain awareness within the dream state and to recall the experience upon returning to the regular state of consciousness.
The fact that huperzine A may be a mild dissociative may make it even more interesting in the induction of altered states of consciousness which involve dissociation from the physical body, such as out-of-body experiences.
To understand how and why huperzine A accomplishes the effects that it does, a thorough understanding of acetylcholine is required.
As a matter of fact, considering what we now know, the whole huperzine A equation can be reduced to acetylcholine only.
So what makes acetylcholine (ACh) so special?
The very first neurotransmitter discovered in the early 1900s, the role of acetylcholine in the organism is extensive and science is probably only just scratching the surface in this regard.
ACh is involved in the regulation of the sleep/wake cycle, that of emotions, as well as in the stimulation of learning, cognitive processes, thinking, and memory. ACh stimulates muscles as well.
Besides being an ever-present necessity, ACh is something of an Achilles’ heel of the body too. The blocking of ACh receptors leads to muscle paralysis, while the overabundance of ACh, attained via the inhibition of its breakdown, can lead to muscle spasms.
It is worth noting that while this is more or less the effect huperzine A produces, it happens on a much smaller scale and it is temporary.
Slightly elevated ACh levels have always been associated with positive effects: better focus, increased learning ability, and better memory, not to mention increased REM sleep.
On the flipside, lower-than-normal ACh levels are associated with bad sleep quality, poor memory, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Those who suffer from this disease have been registered with ACh levels some 90% below those of healthy individuals.
How exactly does this huperzine A-supported ACh affect dreaming and the likelihood of lucid dreams?
There are several theories floated in this regard, but the fact that ACh does indeed seem to increase and deepen the REM stage of sleep, is a clear lead.
This fact alone clearly promotes dreaming and dream recall, though according to some, the boosting of the memory may in fact be what’s solely responsible for all these effects.
As far as the regulation of the sleep cycle is concerned, acetylcholine has a major role, together with serotonin. While the latter promotes deep-sleep, and spikes during periods of deep sleep, the former sees its levels increase with the onset of REM sleep. The two neurotransmitters seem to work against one-another, together balancing out the sleep cycle.
While huperzine A (through its effects on ACh) is used for the boosting of the REM sleep stage, serotonin can be used for the boosting of the deep-sleep stages (3 and 4 of the cycle).
The conclusion here is though that the boosting of the deep-sleep stage isn’t just about the boosting of serotonin levels: it also needs the lowering of ACh levels. Likewise, the promotion of REM sleep doesn’t just need the raising of ACh levels, it needs to see a corresponding decrease in serotonin levels.
What the above tells us in regards to the use of huperzine A for lucid dreaming, is that timing is of the essence when using it.
If you take the supplement when going to bed, you will mess with your natural sleep cycle: boosting your ACh levels during the first part of sleep, when deep-sleep stages dominate, is a mistake, and it may easily result in a REM rebound-like effect, which will see your body try to recover the lost deep-sleep periods by cutting back on REM.
That said, the boosting of ACh levels shouldn’t happen until after you’ve put in 4-5 hours of quality sleep. That’s the approximate point when REM sleep takes over, and serotonin levels naturally decrease, as ACh takes over.
This way, you won’t just end up with increased ACh and deeper/longer REM sleep, you’ll have kept your sleep quality intact as well.
Why is it important to pay attention to the quality of your sleep? An advanced lucid dreamer will want to bring about an LD experience 2-3 times per week on average. It is easy to see how such an exercise could have a massive negative impact on one’s life, provided sleep quality wasn’t properly maintained.
Due to the nature of acetylcholine, the impact of supplements like huperzine A is two-pronged. On one hand, they extend the length and enhance the vividness of lucid dreams; on the other, they make it easier for the dreamer to remember the LDs.
As already stated above, ACh’s effect on dream recall – though often overlooked – should not be underestimated. It may in fact be the predominant effect of the neurotransmitter on dreams. Increased vividness may indeed result from better dream recall.
The benefic effects of ACh on lucid dreaming are undeniable. What’s more is that it helps with MILD as well as WILD lucid dreams. Elevated ACh levels can indeed greatly help with the WILD variety of LDs, which is quite a leap forward, given how this type of LD can be induced at will.
For a beginner lucid dreamer, 90% of LDs happen in the MILD mode (lucidity realized in an actual dream) and 10% in the wake-induced mode (WILD). The use of supplements such as huperzine A, can turn that ratio upside down: triggering 90% of LDs in the WILD mode and 10% of them in the MILD one.
ACh can be manipulated in three different ways through supplements.
- ACh precursors use compounds which are then broken down into ACh in the brain.
- ACh agonists mimic the effects of ACh on the brain,
- and AChE inhibitors delay the breakdown of ACh.
Huperzine A obviously belongs in that latter category. Of the three supplement categories, inhibitors and agonists have been shown to be the more potent.
Does huperzine A work for astral projection?
The short answer to that is: yes. Since astral projection is achieved through the same WILD techniques, it makes perfect sense that huperzine A lends itself well to AP too.
The boundaries between AP and lucid dreaming are often quite ambiguous, as indeed, some lucid dreams can turn into astral projection. Astral projection is essentially a lucid dream by definition too, albeit a more advanced sort of version of the latter.
The difference between a lucid dream and an OBE (Out of Body Experience) is that the latter requires the dreamer to leave his/her physical body behind, moving his/her consciousness into his/her spiritual body, which remains linked to the physical shell through a silver cord.
With that in mind, it is obvious that astral projection is a lucid dream on an entirely different level. Still, its basics are the same, and the supplements that stimulate LD aid in achieving astral projection too.
How good/potent a lucid dreaming supplement is Huperzine A?
Some say that huperzine A is the best available LD supplement in existence. Indeed, my personal experience backs that statement. The results one can attain with Huperzine A, especially in the realm of WILDs, are nothing short of spectacular. When properly used, the compound barely has any side effects. What’s more, its “brain food” status makes it generally useful.
The only other supplement that comes close to huperzine A, LD-related effects-wise is galantamine, which acts in a manner similar to huperzine A: it inhibits AChE, to thus prevent the breakdown of ACh in the brain. Still, huperzine A is the clear winner for me and for many others out there.
Before I begin comparing the two supplements, let us set one thing straight: they both work for LDs, and efficiency-wise, there’s really not much of a difference from one to the other. They’re both at their best when combined with other supplements and – as said above – they both act by the same mechanism.
What I have personally found though it that galantamine packs quite an additional punch – and not in a good way. Whenever I wake up in the morning following a galantamine-aided LD experience, I feel like I had a few drinks too many the previous night.
With huperzine A, I’m always refreshed, a good nights’ sleep behind me. For someone who engages in lucid dreaming as much as I do, this is quite a deal-breaker as far as galantamine is concerned.
I simply cannot afford to wake up feeling like I’ve been through a thorough beat-down 2-3 days a week.
This fact alone makes huperzine A vastly superior to galantamine.
Price-wise, I can’t really pick a winner. Galantamine is rather expensive, though quality huperzine A can be just as expensive. There are cheaper sources of huperzine A available out there too, though when it comes to the quality of the LD supplements I take, I know no compromise.
What else is huperzine A used for?
As said above, huperzine A has been studied in regards to its effects on Alzheimer’s disease. As a brain food, it is generally considered benefic for all sorts of memory- and learning-related problems. It is also used for the treatment of myasthenia gravis, a condition affecting the muscles.
Dosage & Experiences
A single huperzine A pill may contain 50-300 mcg. It is recommended to not exceed the 300 mcg dose (or perhaps up to 600 mcg maximum; but start with a low dose and increase it if necessary.)
One person had to take a GABA supplement to counteract the effects of too much acetylcholine. He reported:
Huperzine A seems like it can be a great study/work/memory aid, but I would STICK TO NO MORE THAN A LOW DOSE […] I took 2,000 mcg and was throwing up for five hours and regretting it.
Another reason to stick with a low dose when using huperzine A as a lucid dreaming supplement is that it may be difficult to fall asleep with too much acetylcholine in the system. One person made the following report after taking 100 mcg:
I originally bought the Huperzine A as a memory supplement. It worked for that, not anything miraculous mind you. But it gave me a little boost. Trouble was that sleeping anytime close after ingestion, was a no-go! And when I finally went to sleep, I ended up just skirting the edge of consciousness. Similar to suddenly falling off a cliff, just to jump up in bed realising I was just dreaming. Only I do this all night!
Here’s another interesting huperzine A experience report:
My experiences with Huperzine have generally been good. It greatly enhanced my creativity and focus, I felt as if everything made sense, somewhat like what one may feel on psychedelics but milder and it was a logical sense as opposed to a spiritual sense. Everything I said and thought flowed very well and I felt like I could win an argument with anyone about anything. The recommended dose was 1-2 capsules (100mcg each) but I found that I needed to take 3 or 4 to get where I wanted to be. Something I read other people experienced that I also noticed was that though it made new concepts more comprehensible, nothing I learned on it would stay in my long term memory. I left school and laid in bed where I proceeded to have an experience like that of a DXM trip, but more simple, the main characteristic being that I perceived my body visually and in a psychedelic sensation in 3 different forms. One was much skinnier than I am and one was much fatter, and each had a different sort of personality all of which felt alien to me. I was removed from myself and it seemed that the me which I was observing was, not dangerous, but like something that would play slightly malicious pranks. I then proceeded to fall asleep and jolted awake from a nightmare into a half asleep half awake phase in which I was mostly incapacitated and had the very hazy but powerful hallucination of a dog running at me and jumping on me as if it was going to attack me. I then stood up very uncoordinatedly and walked around but saw many duplicates of everything in my vision and could not walk straight. I laid back down and about 30 seconds later I was able to function normally.
For some people, even a dose of 100-200 mcg can cause digestive issues as well as trouble sleeping, so start with 50 mcg and work your way up to 600 only if you must and do not suffer any significant side effects. Especially when combined it with choline supplements, 50-100 mcg huperzine A may do the trick for inducing vivid lucid dreams that are easy to recall.
Side effects of huperzine A are generally mild and may include:
- gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, or loss of appetite
- nervous system symptoms such as insomnia, excitability, hyperactivity, or drowsiness
- other symptoms, such as dizziness, thirst, sweating, slow heart beat, nasal obstruction, or edema.
Several cases of acute and chronic hepatitis have been described in the literature after 4-5 months of regularly ingesting Huperzia serrata (as a whole herb; not purified huperzine A), which are resolved 2 months after discontinuation of the herb.
In general, it is not recommended to take this powerful herb regularly, especially not for such long periods of time. While using the herb, it may be wise to conduct regular liver function blood tests and blood count (high eosinophil count may be a symptom) as well as look out for the following symptoms:
- abdominal pain
- constitutional symptoms (e.g., weight loss, fever, headache, excessive sweating, chronic pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, or a general sense of being unwell)
- yellowing of the skin and/or eyes
- enlarged liver
Do not take Huperzia or huperzine A without consulting with your doctor first, especially:
- if you are taking medications such as:
- other acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs (e.g., donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine)
- dopamine D2 receptor blockers
- beta adrenergic antagonists
- calcium channel blockers
- beta blockers
- if you’re pregnant or lactating.
- If you suffer from any medical disorder.