Outside of its prescribed use, most people taking modafinil are taking it to boost their productivity at work or school.
eSports is another up and coming application of modafinil for its ability to boost perception and reaction times, and athletes use it to get more out of their workout regimens.
Many companies, sports authorities, and universities are now using drug testing to identify performance-enhancing drug use.
This has some modafinil users worried.
They take modafinil to boost their performance and would hate to lose everything they’ve worked for due to something as preventable as a failed drug test.
Is this even possible? Will modafinil show up on drug tests?
Why use Modafinil in the First Place?
Modafinil is prescribed by doctors to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. It’s sometimes prescribed for sleep disturbances resulting from shift work and is occasionally prescribed for other conditions like depression.
Off-label use of this powerful prescription drug is much more variable.
Modafinil is classified as a eugeroic drug. This is defined as a compound that promotes the neurological activity associated with wakefulness.
It’s similar to caffeine in that it works on specific receptors on the brain that make us feel awake when we would otherwise feel sleepy.
Caffeine is significantly less potent than modafinil and doesn’t exactly stimulate the brain. It works by inhibiting a compound called adenosine, which builds up throughout the day to make us feel tired. In this respect — caffeine doesn’t promote wakefulness, it technically only inhibits sleepiness.
Modafinil is very different. It inhibits sleepiness and actively stimulates regions in the brain that control our waking state.
This is what makes modafinil so useful for people struggling to stay awake, such as those suffering from narcolepsy or other sleep dysfunctions.
These wakefulness promoting benefits of modafinil give it many applications. The most obvious of which is among students to help them cram for exams and finish tough projects on time.
This has since spread into other industries including the military, corporate workforce, E-sports, and both amateur and professional athletics.
People That Use Modafinil May Include:
- People who need that extra boost to become productive during the day
- People who need to stay up late into the night to prepare for an exam or finish tough work projects
- Overnight or physically exhausting military operations
- Athletes training at various times around the clock
- Frequent flyers experiencing recurring jet lag symptoms
- People working alternating day and night shifts
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Most pharmacies sell modafinil — usually in the brand name versions Provigil® and Alertec®.
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Why Does Drug Testing Exist?
The first official drug test was invented in 1966 by a man named Manfred Donike. He developed a technique using gas chromatography to identify anabolic steroids in the urine of athletes.
Before this, there were other, more crude methods of detecting illicit compounds in the urine of workers.
Henry Ford was famous for his “sober and moral” philosophy on his workforce. He employed staff members to track the habits of his employees at home to identify if substance abuse may hinder their work performance.
Although it’s become frowned upon to follow your employees home to see if they take any drugs or drink too much alcohol — we no longer need to. We now rely on chemical testing to examine the contents of employees’ urine.
As Henry Ford would agree, there are some good reasons why someone would want to test people for drug use.
Let’s go over the top 3 organizations that have an interest in drug-testing.
1. Athletic Organisations
Drug testing is now a standard procedure in professional athletic industries to ensure participants aren’t getting an unfair advantage over their competition.
Methods like gas chromatography, reagent testing, immunoassays, and mass spectronomy are employed to identify the most commonly used illicit or problematic drugs. The compounds drug testers look for depends a lot on the agency doing the testing and what they deem is important.
Virtually every country in the world has a specific organization that regulates the drug testing done on their athletes. They set the standards for their countries testing — which can vary a lot from one country to the next.
Corporate drug testing has changed a lot over the years. President Reagan of the United States passed the “Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988”, creating a framework for introducing drug testing to American corporations in an attempt to lower drug use in the workplace.
Drug use was seen as a negative impact on productivity and worker performance.
For several years afterward, drug testing became a standard in corporate America — with many other countries following suit.
3. The Government
Various levels of the government also test for drugs. The police may order a test if they feel you were under the influence of illicit substances and were involved in a crime or car accident.
This can be taken forcefully via the blood or saliva, or given voluntarily in a urine sample. The most common form of testing used, however, is through breath testing — which can be used to test for traces of alcohol or marijuana. Hand swabs using reagent testing (more on this below) may also be used to identify the presence of drugs on the hands.
Hospitals also test for drugs if they believe their patients are under the influence of drugs or are in a medical emergency as a result of drug overdose.
Certain government agencies also include testing of their employees as a mandatory part of their employment. This is especially true in the military and transportation services like public train and bus drivers.
How do Drug Tests Work?
There are a few different types of drug tests that can be employed. They’re designed to identify the most common problematic substances in the urine or blood and come in varying levels of accuracy, scope, and cost.
Let’s go over them one by one.
1. Reagent Drug Testing
Reagent Drug testing involves combining urine or blood with a compound that changes color when it comes into contact with certain chemicals. They usually come in the form of special drops or a test-strip paper.
It’s one of the most cost-effective methods of drug testing available and can be done right on the spot. Other examples of reagent testing include chlorine tests in swimming pools and pH testing.
This is the most common form of drug testing used in hospitals looking for illicit drug overdose and with corporate drug testing.
Reagent drug testing doesn’t provide a complete breakdown of what’s in blood or urine. You will only be able to find something if you look for it specifically.
2. Immuno-Assay Drug Testing
Immuno-assays are another common drug testing method. They look for specific antigens produced by the body for a particular drug, rather than looking for the drug itself.
Virtually everything that enters our body is inspected by the immune system, including drugs. The immune system then decides if it needs to mount an attack or not.
Many drugs will cause a mild immune response (attack), causing the body to produce antibodies.
Antibodies are used to mark substances that aren’t made by us. It’s like wearing a visitor pass when you tour a factory or office.
This way the immune system (like building security) knows exactly what has entered the body, why they’re there, and they keep tabs on them wherever they go.
The benefits of this type of testing are that it can be used to identify drug use even when there is no longer any of these drugs in the system.
Antibodies can hang around for a very long time, making it easy to look for past drug use even if gas chromatography, mass spectronomy, or reagent testing comes up negative.
Immuno-assays are much faster than gas chromatography or mass spectronomy drug testing, but often come up with false positives. Any positive results are only considered presumptive with this type of test and will need to be confirmed with further blood testing.
A common example of an immunoassay test is a pregnancy test. It reacts in the presence of special proteins only found in the urine of pregnant females (anti-hCG antibodies).
Just like a reagent drug test, immuno-assays will only find compounds that are looked for specifically, and will not show the full contents of the urine.
3. Gas Chromatography Drug Testing
Gas chromatography is the original method Manfred Donike used in the first drug test.
It involves vaporizing urine or blood samples and sending it through a long tube.
The compounds separate in the tube depending on their molecular weight and come out the other side at individually. A UV light is then used to view the presence of chemicals coming out the other side.
The results are then compared to standard example tests of various drugs to see if any of the data points match up, thus confirming the presence of that particular drug in the urine or blood sample.
Gas chromatography drug testing is often combined with Mass spectronomy to confirm any positive results.
4. Mass Spectronomy Drug Testing
In mass spectronomy, urine or blood samples are blown apart by electron lasers and sent through a magnetic tube detector. Substances measured this way will each have a unique fingerprint, helping scientists make a positive identification of various drugs in the samples.
Mass spectronomy is often used in research for mapping the chemical composition of various plants, insect, and animal testing. It’s useful for this because you don’t need to look for specific compounds to find them. It works as an exploratory tool for finding out the ingredients of various compounds, including the urine and blood.
5. Four, Five, Ten, and Twelve Panel Drug Tests
Drug testing is far from universal. It depends on the company ordering the testing to decide what drugs to look for.
Most companies use either a 4 or 5-panel drug test to search for illicit substances. They rarely test for prescription medications due to the added cost and low risk they tend to bring with their use. Some, however, will check for commonly abused prescriptions like opioids and benzodiazepines.
This type of testing uses a combination of immuno-assay & reagent tests.
More in-depth testing is available, and it’s most often used by athletic commissions, various branches of government, and bigger corporations. They usually look for the most commonly abused prescription medications and illicit compounds.
These tests can vary a lot depending on who ordered the drug test and what they deem is most important.
The Following Compounds are Often Included in Drug Test Screening:
- Anabolic steroids
- Phencyclidine (PCP)
- Alcohol (sometimes)
Does Anybody Look for Modafinil in Drug Tests?
The simple answer to this question is no — but there are some exceptions.
Corporations ordering drug testing for their employees usually include anywhere from 4 to 12 different substances on their testing panels.
It’s extremely unlikely that modafinil will ever make it onto this list.
This is because modafinil is not generally considered a problem in the workforce. In fact, it’s very nature makes it helpful to the workforce. The whole point of taking it is to boost productivity and work performance.
Athletic commissions, however, might test for modafinil.
Most high-level athletic commissions will employ more high-tech drug testing like gas chromatography, mass spectronomy, and immunoassays. These types of drug tests are likely to identify compounds they aren’t specifically looking for — including modafinil.
Is Modafinil Illegal?
Modafinil itself is not illegal, however, depending on who orders the test, they can decide whether they allow their employees or contestants to use modafinil or not.
Modafinil Testing in Athletics
In the United States, The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) offers a list of banned substances on their website.
Although modafinil isn’t technically on this list, they explicitly state that the list is far from official. They also list the entire class of “stimulants” as banned in general.
Drug screening is highly subjective, meaning that if something is found, it will be up to the board members to decide what actions are to follow.
If caught using a drug in one of these tests, the commission can decide whether it wants to take action or not. This is done on a case by case basis if the substance isn’t specifically listed on the list of banned substances.
This is the same with most athletic commissions around the world.
It’s highly recommended that you avoid modafinil if competing in professionally regulated sports.
Modafinil Testing in Professional Gaming and E-Sports
In recent years, interest in professional video gaming (called E-Sports) has skyrocketed. E-Sports now has an estimated 427 million viewers worldwide — spanning several categories of game genres.
Over the past several years, as the industry has grown exponentially in size, people have become vocal about their use of cognition-enhancing drugs like Adderall and modafinil to boost their performance in professional competitions.
Earlier this year, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) have announced plans to start drug testing their players.
It’s likely that they’ll be using a range of drug testing techniques depending on the scale and budget of the competition. It’s also expected that they will test specifically for modafinil and other cognitive enhancing drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, and Dexedrine.
Modafinil Testing in the Corporate & Government Workforce
Drug testing among corporate and government workforces are unlikely to ever test for modafinil. It just isn’t an issue in these industries, and it isn’t a common addition to any of the reagent or immunoassay drug tests available.
Although the drug might come up on other tests like gas chromatography or mass spectronomy, this testing is far more expensive to be running on all employees.
Whether or not this changes in the future, we can’t be sure, but at the moment it’s not likely modafinil will cause anybody to fail a drug test at work.
Summing it all up
Depending on the type of drug test used, which itself depends on the purpose of the drug test, modafinil may or may not be identified. Corporate drug testing mainly uses reagent and immunoassay urine test strips, which can only identify chemicals that are searched for specifically.
Modafinil isn’t common on the list of chemicals looked for on these tests and therefore will not show up on these tests.
Professional sports and E-Sport commissions often use more high-tech testing equipment for their participants, which can identify chemicals without looking for them individually.
These tests are much more likely to find modafinil.
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- Lehrer, M. (1998). The role of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Instrumental techniques in forensic urine drug testing. Clinics in laboratory medicine, 18(4), 631-649.
- Moeller, K. E., Lee, K. C., & Kissack, J. C. (2008, January). Urine drug screening: practical guide for clinicians. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 66-76). Elsevier.