As the use of nootropics, also known as smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, become more and more mainstream, many people are asking the same question: are nootropics safe?
The demand for substances that enhance mood, improve memory, and boost brain power has existed since the dawn of civilization, however, the last 50 years have seen an incredible amount of progress in the field.
Once considered cutting-edge and experimental, the range of available nootropics has rapidly expanded and are now commonly used by students, executives, truckers, shift workers, athletes, and others who are seeking maximum peak cognitive performance.
While the effectiveness of nootropics is generally quite clear, some questions remain about their safety.
No “One Size Fits All” Answers
Though most research indicates that the commonly administered nootropics are generally safe and well tolerated when taken responsibly, it’s important to note that the term “nootropics” covers a very wide and ever-increasing range of substances, from common natural supplements like caffeine to powerful new and relatively untested synthetic drugs.
Many nootropics have been shown to have a decidedly positive health impact; for example, L-theanine, huperzine, piracetam and many others have been proven to act as neuroprotectants, actually guarding the brain against potential injury from oxidation damage, inflammation, stress, and even aging.
However, depending on the user, the dosage, and a variety of other factors, some nootropics may pose a significant risk of side effects and long-term complications that can range from mild to severe and in extreme cases, even life-threatening.
It’s impossible to broadly characterize the safety of the nootropics market as a whole, but there is a classic combination of crucial factors that significantly impact safety: the individual and the particular nootropic.
In many respects, the user is the primary factor in determining the safety of nootropic use.
Like all drugs, nootropics perform differently for different users, and issues like age, pre-existing conditions, other drugs being taken, and even unique body chemistry can play a significant role in both the efficacy and safety of nootropics.
Teenagers and young adults typically make up a large percentage of smart drug users, but some research suggests that the younger the user, the greater the risk.
The danger hasn’t been unequivocally proven, but it is widely believed that taking certain nootropics before the brain is fully developed could have lasting adverse effects on a broad range of cognitive functions.
Research on the long-term effects of psychostimulants, or drugs that enhance mood and increase alertness and energy, indicates that they could pose particular risks to young users.
While prescription psychostimulants are typically used to safely treat a variety of medical disorders ranging from ADHD to sleep disorders and depression, they are also among the drugs most commonly used off-label as nootropics. Some non-prescription nootropics, including phenylpiracetam, oxiracetam, and adrafinil also have psychostimulant properties.
The potential danger lies in the possibility that psychostimulants could interfere with the brain’s natural development and maturation, which isn’t complete until around age 25.
Psychostimulants work by modulating the production and release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and other important neurotransmitters, and some research suggests that upsetting the natural balance of these brain chemicals during the developmental years might disrupt the maturation of the prefrontal cortex and have lasting behavioral consequences.
Animal studies suggest that early-life use of psychostimulants may have significant negative effects, including altering circadian rhythms, inducing persistent anxiety, and even impairing object-recognition memory.
Research also indicates that early use of psychostimulants may have a lasting adverse effect on neuroplasticity or the changes in neural connections that occur when we learn or experience new things.
Some animal studies support the theory that treating healthy juvenile brains with even low doses psychostimulants may result in impaired working memory and behavioral flexibility.
Medical Conditions and General Health Concerns
The overall physical condition of the user plays an enormous role in the safety of nootropics, or indeed of any supplement, drug, or pharmaceutical.
A diagnosis of (or even a predisposition to) medical conditions like high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, diabetes, liver or kidney disease, or heart disease could potentially significantly increase the risk associated with some nootropics.
Stimulants typically increase heart rate and may raise blood pressure, which could pose a risk for those with hypertension, heart disease, or other cardiovascular problems.
Nootropics such as Noopept, which have been shown to affect blood glucose levels, must be used with caution by individuals who are currently being treated for diabetes.
Adrafinil and other nootropics that are processed in the liver could be dangerous for those at risk for or diagnosed with hepatic disease.
The list of possible risks is as long as the list of pre-existing medical conditions, but the bottom line is that a nootropic that is perfectly safe for one person may pose significant risks to another, so it’s up to each user to choose and use nootropics wisely.
The Particular Nootropic
Every nootropic substance has its own mechanism of action with its own safety profile. It’s important to familiarize yourself as much as possible before starting any new supplementation routine.
Research-Backed Safety Profile
Some substances have been taken for hundreds or thousands of years and have hundreds of scientific studies that back up that they are safe to take without any serious long-term side effects.
However, other nootropics are very new or obscure, with little to no understanding of their long-term effects.
By opting for nootropics that have years of research into their safety, you are taking much less of a chance that the substance itself may have harmful long-term effects compared to less-researched substances.
Potential Interaction With Other Drugs
Nootropics are powerful substances that work in a variety of ways through many of the body’s organs and systems, and they can potentially interact with other substances that an individual has taken.
This interaction may be positive, with each substance enhancing the action of the other; that’s the theory behind nootropic “stacking,” or combining nootropics for synergistic effects. But the interaction may also be harmful, as in cases when the nootropic interferes with, offsets, or dangerously amplifies the action of another supplement or prescription drug.
Though many nootropics can be safely taken with other substances, some are known to be very dangerous in combination with certain medications.
For example, Modafinil is documented to negatively interact with a wide range of common pharmaceuticals, including MAO inhibitors, anti-depressants, ADHD treatments like Adderall and Ritalin, warfarin, Valium, and many more.
Even non-prescription drugs like acetaminophen can be dangerous in combination with some nootropics, so it’s essential to do thorough research and be well informed about possible interactions and side effects before taking any smart drug.
How Much, How Often
Dosage and frequency can also play a huge role in determining how effective nootropics are and what, if any, safety risk they pose. When it comes to the amount and frequency of nootropics, more doesn’t always mean better.
A Russian animal study on the effects of increasing intake of the nootropic piracetam clearly illustrates the importance of sticking to the recommended dosage. At minimal to moderate doses, piracetam’s anti-anxiety and cognitive enhancement properties were evident, but when the dosage was increased to above-moderate amounts the effect was reversed. The positive learning effects disappeared (and sometimes actually became negative) and the subjects displayed elevated anxiety.
The possible loss of a nootropic’s cognitive enhancement properties is only one reason to avoid exceeding the recommended dose.
Nootropics that are safe and effective when taken as recommended can trigger dangerous physical reactions including anxiety, elevated blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and palpitations, blood glucose drops or surges, debilitating headaches, and more when taken in large amounts.
Most nootropics experts recommend that users start with the minimum effective dosage, increasing the amount gradually and only as necessary. This sound and medically proven advice is the best guarantee of safely testing a nootropic’s effectiveness.
Though some nootropic users advocate an “attack dose” (an initial extra large dose when taking a new smart drug) or a “megadosing” (taking a familiar nootropic in doses three to five times larger than recommended for recreational purposes), can be dangerous and pose a substantial risk of significant side effects.
The frequency of use is also important to nootropic safety. To be extra cautious, nootropics that have acute effects can be used on an “as needed” basis rather than on a daily basis; not only does this reduce the potential for negative side effects, it greatly reduces the possibility of developing tolerance that requires the user to take increasingly large doses in order to achieve the desired effect.
Other nootropics must be taken over a period of days, weeks, or even months in order to fully realize their benefits, and in those cases it’s important to use them in cycles – for example, taking the nootropic regularly for three to four weeks, then taking a full month off before starting the cycle again.
Simple Steps To Using Nootropics Safely
Though there is potential for risk when taking nootropics, there are also simple steps that anyone can take to maximize the cognitive benefits of nootropics while mitigating risk.
1. Research The Nootropic Before You Take It
This is, without a doubt, the single most important step anyone can take toward nootropic safety.
Read everything you can about a nootropic that you’re considering to take; find out how they work, what they can be expected to do, how long the effects can be expected to last, whether any side effects are typical, and if there are any side effects that signal a dangerous reaction.
Pay particular attention to the nootropic’s potential for interacting with any prescription medications or other drugs you’re taking, and know how the mechanisms of action can be expected to impact your brain, body, and sleep patterns, particularly in light of any existing medical conditions.
Depending on the particular substance, there may be hundreds of studies that back up the effectiveness and even long-term safety, while more novel nootropics may have more limited research.
Taking these less extensively researched nootropics comes with more risk as long-term effects may not be known.
2. Use Nootropics on an As-Needed Basis
Many nootropics are safest and most effective when used only as needed for an occasional cognitive boost.
Risk factors for unwanted physical and mental side effects soar when nootropics become part of a long-term daily regimen, as does the likelihood of developing an increasing degree of tolerance for some types of nootropics.
While tolerance isn’t the same as dependence or addiction, they’re all steps along the same path; tolerance occurs when the body becomes so accustomed to the substance that effectiveness is diminished, and larger and more frequent doses are required to achieve the desired effect.
Though the danger of developing tolerance varies depending on the nootropic, it’s always a possibility with any drug.
The surest way to avoid it and keep experiencing the maximum results from your nootropics is to take them occasionally rather than regularly.
3. Respect Standard Dosage and Cycling Recommendations
Follow the advice of nootropic experts and start with a minimum dosage, increasing gradually, and only, as needed.
Not only is this by far the safest strategy, but it’s also the most effective
Most people find that a minimum dosage delivers maximum results, and taking higher doses can actually interfere with the desired action of the nootropic.
If cycling (taking a nootropic for a number of days or weeks, then taking a break from it before resuming use) is recommended, follow that advice as closely as possible.
High doses and prolonged uninterrupted use not only make both tolerance and side effects far more likely, but they also open the door to a host of serious complications, including dependence, addiction, and brain chemistry alterations that can actually leave you at a cognitive deficit.
4. Have Realistic Expectations About Nootropics
Nootropics are powerful substances that can increase energy, enhance alertness, and provide a substantial cognitive boost, improving mood, memory, focus, and performance.
But they’re not magic. They can’t permanently replace a healthy lifestyle or a reasonable sleep schedule.
Expecting nootropics to be a long-term substitute for healthy choices is more than a mistake, it’s opening the door to both disappointment and danger.
Nootropics work with your body, and the better your lifestyle choices, the lower the risk of unwanted physical and mental side effects. And the better lifestyle choices you make, the better results your nootropics will provide.
5. Talk to Your Doctor
Taking the cognitive enhancers that are right for your particular body chemistry and medical history is key to nootropic safety, and consulting with your doctor before beginning any new supplementation routine is always recommended.
It is particularly important for anyone who is taking prescription drugs, has a medical condition, or even a predisposition to a medical condition (like pre-diabetes or pre-hypertension).
The Bottom Line
Decades of study have demonstrated that many nootropics can be considered very safe while other substances, especially those that are less understood, may carry more unknown risks.
While there can be some degree of risk associated with attempting to manipulate your biochemistry, many nootropics are considered safe for adult use and are generally well tolerated with few, if any, side effects when used responsibly.
Planning to start a new supplementation regimen? See our medical disclaimer.