You pause a moment as you cross the threshold into your local vitamin shop. In front of you is row upon row of shelving displaying thousands of bottles and boxes of supplements.
An overwhelming experience even to the most experienced neurohacker.
Online stores can be even more confusing. Store algorithms decide what you first see when you begin your search.
Then your mind starts comparing individual capsule or tablet prices because you don’t recognize many of the brands displayed.
You’re not even thinking of the ongoing problem with counterfeit products masquerading as genuine brand name supplements. Or even well-known brands filling their supplement bottles with anything but what’s marked on the label.
Just one of many examples over the last few years comes from a 2013 investigation by Canadian researchers. The team used DNA testing on 44 bottles of brand name supplements sold by 12 companies.
Many of the dietary supplement bottles tested contained none of what the label said they did. Instead the bottles were filled with capsules containing soybeans, wheat, various grasses, and rice. In what were supposed to be nootropics like Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s wort, and Ginseng.[i]
So how do you find brands you can trust to give you the benefits you need to achieve your neurohacking goals?
In this post you’ll discover how to choose a quality nootropic supplement. Sound advice based on what I’ve learned over the last 14 years. From spending $10’s of thousands on dietary supplements in dozens of online and local vitamin shops, and health food stores.
Table of Contents
Choosing quality nootropic supplements
The following 7 steps will help you increase your odds of actually getting what you’re paying for.
As a general rule, stay away from drug store, department store and supermarket brands of supplements. Drug stores sell drugs and have little incentive to sell quality supplements to compete with one of their main sources of revenue – pharmaceuticals.
Department stores sell everything from appliances to furniture to clothes. And have no real incentive to ensure the quality of their private label supplements. Supermarkets sell food and other grocery items so their private label supplements are not a main money-maker.
In 2015, the New York Attorney General demanded GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart stop selling a number of their dietary supplements. Their investigation used DNA barcoding to analyze supplement bottle contents to compare to packaging labels.
The investigation discovered that all but five of the dietary supplements contained DNA that was either unrecognizable. Or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be.[ii]
When deciding on a brand, check out their website and ‘About’ page to find out who the company is. Find out how long they’ve been in business, and what their philosophy is toward manufacturing dietary supplements.
Find out what their customer service options are and how you can get ahold of someone if you have a question or complaint. The absence of any of this information is a red flag.
Check to see if the company offers a current Certificate of Analysis (CoA) for each supplement they produce that will verify the purity of their product. Or if a CoA is available on request. Absence of a CoA for each product is a red flag.
Check to see if the company provides evidence of a Quality Assurance certificate from a recognized 3rd party lab (more below).
Read the reviews on Amazon, Swanson, iHerb and other nootropic supplement vendor websites. Find out what verified buyers of their products say about that product and company.
Pay attention to, or search for social media chatter about the supplement company to see what others are saying.
Check the Better Business Bureau for customer complaints. And do a Google search for law suits, negative reviews or media reports about the company that can help you decide if the company is trustworthy.
Once you find a company you know is trustworthy, do your best to buy the bulk of your nootropic supplements from them.
If you’re buying from an online supplement vendor, find out who the seller is. It should be sold by the original manufacturer or a company who has a track record of selling genuine products.
This is a bigger deal than most people realize. In 2013, a Natural News investigation found that the retail giant Amazon was allowing 3rd party sellers to sell counterfeit dietary supplements to unwary buyers.[iii]
The problem with Amazon and other online retail stores who allow nearly anyone a storefront is they don’t have the ability to police literally 10’s of thousands of 3rd party sellers who sell products through their site.
But it gets worse because you can’t rely on Amazon’s star review system either. All products that Amazon believes are identical on their site assigns the same star rating to that product. Regardless of who the seller is. You can read the entire story here for more > “Amazon.com (AMZN) sells fake, counterfeit nutritional products to unsuspecting consumers”
You must ensure that the company from whom you are purchasing a dietary supplement is legit. And has a track record and high quality reputation for selling genuine, pure nootropic supplements.
I’m not saying to avoid getting supplements from Amazon. I purchase nootropic supplements from various vendors on Amazon every month. The big takeaway here is “buyer beware” and do your research. Using the information you’ve learned here on Nootropics Expert.
In the United States, the FDA does not oversee every single supplement sold like they control pharmaceuticals. But it does regulate supplements to a certain extent under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).[iv]
The law prohibits supplement makers from marketing adulterated or misbranded products. And the FDA does take action against companies with an adulterated or misbranded product after it reaches the market.
But the administration itself says, “Dietary supplements are not approved by the government for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.”
So supplement manufacturers are left to police themselves. It’s only when a product is found to be defective, and reported, that the FDA can take action.
Some tests on U.S. products have shown defects. But supplements sourced from countries like China, India and Mexico are more likely to contain toxic ingredients, and even prescription drugs.[v]
The FDA provides an updated list of tainted supplements you can check here > Tainted Supplement List.
Choose reputable brands who have a track record of providing quality product. These companies will tell you their entire supply chain from farm to capsule. Their website and marketing material will tell you about purity testing before, during and after encapsulation.
Check the label to see if it is USDA-certified organic which ensures the product is free of toxins, pesticides and herbicides. And check the label for certification seals. These are independent labs who test for quality and discussed in the next section.
You can also contact the manufacturer and ask how they produce their products. They should be able to provide a lot-specific Certificate of Analysis if you request it. Find out if raw ingredients are sourced directly from the farms that grow them. Or if they come from distributors. And where those distributors source the raw ingredients.
Certificate of Analysis (CoA)
Several qualified independent labs test dietary and nootropic supplements for quality, potency and toxicity. Some dietary supplement manufacturers feature certification labels on their packaging. And lately I’ve seen supplement labels with a QR code that you can scan with your phone. The scan may allow you to download a Certificate of Analysis to your phone. Or it’ll take you to a page on their website where they explain how they test their supplements.
But QR code or not, I encourage you to make the effort to find the supplement maker’s website. And learn about their testing program. If a supplement company doesn’t have a comprehensive testing program in place you shouldn’t be buying their product. Find another company who makes or bottles the nootropic you’re looking for and who have a testing program in place.
The following are some of the larger testing laboratories that you’ll see on nootropic supplement labels …
The US Pharmacopeia provides a seal for labels verifying that a supplement is “USP Verified”. The company offers GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) facility auditing, product testing, product quality control, and product documentation review. Their website also offers a list of dietary supplements that have received the USP Verified mark.
NSF International is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides certification for dietary supplements. The NSF certification process includes: a) label reviews to verify product formulation and marketing claims b) formulation reviews to identify and quantify the dietary ingredients declared on the label c) contaminant testing and d) GMP facility inspection.
Labdoor is an independent company who buy products off retail shelves and online. And send the supplements to a FDA-registered lab for analysis. The analysis includes measurements of active ingredients and potential contaminants. Labdoor then generates a ranking on each product and publishes the results on their website you can access for free.
Consumer Lab is an independent, subscription-based service that tests dietary supplements and offers the test analysis to their members. The company selects products to review. And also accepts submissions from supplement manufacturers for their review and analysis. Their testing methods include a yearly GMP review, and a comprehensive spectrum of lab tests for each supplement.
A word of a caution about Consumer Lab however – the company does not disclose the brand names of supplements that fail their testing if the manufacturer has paid them their $4,000 yearly fee.
And Consumer Lab “reviews” of supplements are heavily biased in favor of conventional, mainstream medicine. Any experienced neurohacker will notice a lack of knowledge in their recommendations because they are not based on natural or alternative medicine. I recommend only using them for supplement ingredient analysis.
To make it simple, there is no established “therapeutic dosage” level for individual dietary supplements. Most labels provide commonly used and safe dosage recommendations.
These doses are often too low to provide cognitive benefit. I recommend following dosage instructions for each of the nootropics on the Nootropics Expert Nootropics List. The dosage recommendations are based on clinical trials, user reviews and personal experience.
If you’re trying a nootropic supplement for the first time, always start with the lowest suggested dose and see how you react.
Check most supplement bottle labels and you’ll see a list of so-called “inactive” ingredients. Often called “other ingredients”, this list includes chemical sounding names you likely will not recognize.
The list of “other ingredients” on supplement labels are used to increase shelf life, bind tablets together, improve consistency, improve moisture resistance, help stabilize ingredients, add bulk (to fill a capsule), and add color and flavor.
“Excipients” is a general term you’ll encounter on some supplement labels. And includes any one of the “other ingredients” I explain below.
The FDA does regulate these ingredients as food additives. And ‘officially’ are considered safe in small quantities. Nootropic supplement labels sometimes include:
- Cellulose – a binding, or thickening agent, or otherwise augmenting the consistency of the ingredients – sometimes the capsule is made of cellulose
- Magnesium stearate (vegetable stearate, stearic acid) – a “flow agent” or lubricant that speeds up the manufacturing process and is used because it prevents ingredients from sticking to mechanical equipment – also makes the tablet easier to swallow – the problem with magnesium stearate is it suppresses your natural killer T-cells which are a key component of your immune system[vi]
- Titanium Dioxide – a pigment used to color a supplement – the problem with titanium dioxide is it leads to mitochondrial dysfunction[vii], damages astrocyte cells which leaves them unable to absorb glutamate, and induces potent oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage in glial cells.[viii] All damaging brain health and cognition.
- Silica (silicon dioxide) -acts as an anti-clumping agent that prevents ingredients sticking to mechanical equipment, and ensuring even distribution of active ingredients throughout the mix
- Rice flour – a filler used to fill the rest of the capsule
Those are the main ones found in a few well-known individual nootropic supplements. The full list of extra ingredients you may encounter contains dozens of ‘FDA-approved’ ingredients. Sometimes you simply can’t avoid one or more of these ingredients if it’s a nootropic you need to add to your stack.
But lately I’ve noticed new companies entering the dietary supplement market who avoid “other ingredients” all together. The thing is if you’re working on optimizing brain health, why consider a supplement with unnecessary, unhealthy “extra ingredients” in the first place?
The best nootropic supplements on the market have no extra ingredients. Opti Nutra® has been a leader in this market with Mind Lab Pro, and the Performance Lab® line of supplements, which include only tapioca-based Nutricaps® capsules in their “other ingredients” list.
Do your best to get nootropic supplements with no “extra ingredients”. Or with one or two wholefood-based ingredients if the manufacturer can provide a good reason why they’re in there.
Some of the things you eat, and even some of the supplements you may select are not all ‘absorbed’ for use by your brain. For example, some of the important compounds found in the powerful nootropic Turmeric are poorly absorbed.
Another example is L-tyrosine which is an amino acid that is directly involved in the synthesis of dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine in your brain. But is not efficiently absorbed by your body when taken as a nootropic supplement.
To boost the bioavailability of L-Tyrosine, you may want to try N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine (NALT) because it is said to be more bioavailable to your brain. I personally find both L-Tyrosine and NALT work equally well for my stack. But you may find you prefer one over the other after using each one for a week or two. Trial and error is key to success with nootropics.
Several nootropic supplements depend on the right form, or another ingredient they are stacked with, to ensure they work efficiently as a cognitive enhancer.
Read the dosage notes and suggestions here on Nootropics Expert carefully for each nootropic supplement you intend to add to your stack. To make sure you’re getting all the value you can from your investment.
Extracts vs. Whole Herb
One of the most confusing things when choosing a supplement is reading a label. And trying to decipher if “whole root” is better than an “extract” reduced by some ratio. Or if a tincture is more effective than a capsule or tablet.
So what is a neurohacker to do? Well, it depends on the herb. And that’s where Nootropics Expert saves the day.
Each of the dozens of nootropics in our Nootropics List has a full review of each nootropic supplement. Which includes “Dosage Notes” and “Available Forms” with recommendations in each.
Turmeric is a classic example of a herb that works better as a ground powder for things like arthritis or an autoimmune condition. The Curcumin extracted from Turmeric works better as a nootropic for cognitive benefit.
Resveratrol purity is extremely important. And an extract from Japanese Knotweed provides more cognitive benefit than other forms of Resveratrol extract.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom dosing depends on the strength of the extract. Ashwagandha comes as a standard ground powder, or a standardized extract. And dosage of the extract is in mg compared to grams for plain powder.
So extracts vs whole herb is often critical to your buying decision. Prevent making a mistaken purchase by reviewing the Nootropics Expert Dosage Notes in the review for the nootropic you’re buying before you travel to the vitamin shop.
Nootropic Supplement Evaluation Checklist
When choosing a nootropic supplement brand, naturally we want supplements that are authentic, pure and unadulterated.
So with some due diligence and a “buyer beware” attitude, you now have the information you need to find supplement brands you can trust.
Take this checklist with you each time you go supplement shopping. And keep these key criteria in mind as you select your nootropic supplements.
- Brand Name – choose and buy from reputable brands
- Quality – look for country of origin and choose certified organic (ignore “all natural”)
- Certification – labels with seals like USP Verified or NSF International
- Bioavailability – use the review on Nootropics Expert to choose the best form for cognitive function
- Other ingredients – select supplements containing only the ingredients you want with no extra additives of any kind
- Extracts – look for standardized extracts of most herbs
And be very suspicious of two identical bottles of a supplement with substantially different prices. The lower priced bottle is very likely counterfeit and will not contain the nootropic you are shopping for.
After your first couple of shopping trips you will have selected your most trusted brands. And this checklist will come to you automatically as you stand in front of the supplement shelf.
[i] Newmaster S.G., Grguric M., Shanmughanandhan D., Ramalingam S., Ragupathy S. “DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products” BMC Medicine 201311:222 (source)
[vii] Wilson C.L., Natarajan V., Hayward S.L., Khalimonchuk O., Kidambi S. “Mitochondrial dysfunction and loss of glutamate uptake in primary astrocytes exposed to titanium dioxide nanoparticles.” Nanoscale. 2015 Nov 28;7(44):18477-88 (source)
[viii] Huerta-García E., Pérez-Arizti J.A., Márquez-Ramírez S.G., Delgado-Buenrostro N.L., Chirino Y.I., Iglesias G.G., López-Marure R. “Titanium dioxide nanoparticles induce strong oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage in glial cells.” Free Radical Biological Medicine. 2014 Aug;73:84-94 (source)
[ix] Shoba G., Joy D., Joseph T., Majeed M., Rajendran R., Srinivas P.S. “Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers.” Planta Medica. 1998 May;64(4):353-6. (source)