We use nootropics to enhance cognitive function. Because we want to perform better, improve our productivity and live our lives to our full potential.
But is there a cost to boosting cognitive function with nootropics?
It crosses the mind of nearly every neurohacker at one time or another. Is my nootropic stack safe? Is the nootropic I’m about to try going to do anything other than help?
In this post, we’re going to look past the hype. And take a critical look at nootropic safety and potential side effects.
Table of Contents
Nootropic Track Record
Dr. Giurgea stated that a nootropic must be non-toxic even with long-term use. It should be able protect the brain and even repair damage caused by pharmaceuticals and other toxins.
With this view of nootropics as brain enhancement supplements, we choose to exclude “smart drugs” from this category of neuro-enhancers. Including popular drugs like Adderall and Modafinil.
Nootropics are generally made from plants. The supplement is often taken from plant ingredients or extracts.
Many of these plant-based nootropics have been safely used for thousands of years. Bacopa Monnieri (Brahmi) which is used in my favorite pre-made stack Mind Lab Pro® for example, was mentioned in the ancient Ayurvedic texts. It was recommended to devotees to help memorize long passages of text.
Even the racetam family of nootropics are derived from biochemicals naturally produced in your body. For example, Piracetam is a cyclic derivative of GABA which is naturally produced throughout your body, including your brain.
Contrary to claims made by the pharmaceutical and some mainstream medical professionals, most nootropics have undergone extensive research. Even for long-term use by animals and humans.
Part of the problem with Western medical journals is a lot of nootropic compound research has been done in countries other than the United States. Often in languages other than English. And are not included in databases like PubMed or Medline.
However, for us to claim there are no dangers in using nootropics would be unprofessional. And a disservice to you.
Each nootropic compound or substance has a different mechanism of action in the brain, and in your body.
Factors to consider by every neurohacker include dosage, your age, drug interaction or complications, duration and frequency of use, and affects in your brain on neurotransmitters, neurons and other cognitive functions.
One term you’ll come across frequently in nootropic circles and communities is YMMV. Which stands for “Your Mileage May Vary”. Each of us has unique bio-chemistry and we’re affected by our environment, the foods we eat, water we drink, air we breathe and even genetics inherited from our family.
Some neurohackers can use a nootropic for years with no problems. And stop usage with no effect on cognitive function. While others can use a supplement for years. And when discontinuing usage, experience significant cognitive impairment.
At Nootropics Expert, we do our best to provide the clinical research backing up each nootropic. We include dosage recommendations, side effects, and potential drug interactions for each nootropic.
Potential Nootropic Side Effects
We have common issues that can be applied to most of the nootropics we explore on Nootropics Expert. Many neurohackers will not experience side effects for most of the nootropic compounds we cover. But you could have issues.
It’s your responsibility as a neurohacker to thoroughly research each substance you’re considering adding to your nootropic stack. We are not medical professionals. And make no claims and cannot give advice that you should be getting from a medical professional you have a working relationship with.
Here is a list of potential side effects to help you evaluate each nootropic.
Some nootropics affect the most basic and critical functions of a brain cell including the cell membrane, mitochondria and even DNA. Others influence chemical movement into and out of brain cells. Or can act as an antioxidant and free radical scavenger.
This constant alteration in brain chemistry can expand or shrink certain areas of your brain. Altering how your brain works while you’re using the nootropic. Even after you discontinue use.
Many of the nootropics we use for optimizing cognition can interact with prescription drugs. And the reason why we often include warnings in the “Side Effects” section of each nootropic article on Nootropics Expert.
Some adverse reactions between a nootropic and a pharmaceutical can be deadly. So please carefully read the cautions and warnings we provide. And use other resources you can find online which provide extensive lists of contraindications.
We always suggest working with a medical professional like your doctor if you’re combining nootropics with prescription drugs. But most doctors know less than you about nootropics.
Do your research and listen to your body and brain. And always assume you may have a problem when combining prescription or OTC drugs with nootropics.
Some nootropics can have a cumulative effect in your brain. Constant use of something like Huperzine-A for example can be a problem. Huperzine-A has a long half-life, and doesn’t leave your body as quickly as most other nootropics.
Huperzine-A can also be toxic if used in larger than recommended doses. Hup-A is a potent acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor. Which means Hup-A prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine (ACh). If you already have high levels of ACh you’re setting yourself up for a problem with excess ACh in your brain.
Huperzine-A is just one example of a nootropic that when used in too high a dose, or for continuous extended periods, can cause big problems.
The strongest recommendation we can offer is to carefully read each nootropic article on Nootropics Expert. Take note of dosage recommendations, timing, and side effects.
And if you experience ANY problems, stop using that nootropic.
Some neurohackers report that extended nootropic usage for cognitive enhancement leaves them dependent on that nootropic.
When they stop using the nootropic, their cognitive function declines. Not only to baseline levels like when they started. But has a negative effect on cognition worse than what they tried to correct.
You know your body chemistry better than anyone else on earth. Listen to your body and brain. If you experience negative effects when stopping use of a nootropic, carefully assess your options.
You may want to completely avoid that nootropic. And find another nootropic that can help correct the problems caused by long-term usage of the original substance.
Most neurohackers will not experience this type of dependence using the same nootropic. Get to know your body and brain and listen.
Experimentation, knowledge and wisdom are critical when it comes to hacking your brain.
Lack of Regulation
Know who your supplier is for the nootropics you use in your stack. Do your best to get an assay of the compound you’re using verifying its purity and source.
Nootropic supplements are not regulated like pharmaceuticals. This is not as scary as it sounds because there is far more documented evidence of problems with prescription drugs than there are for nootropics and dietary supplements.
No one that we know of has overdosed and died because of nootropic usage. That’s not to say no one has ended up in the ER, or with serious health issues because of a nootropic. But the bottom-line is that nootropics are some of the safest and most vetted supplements on the market today.
Read the user reviews of each nootropic at the supplier you are considering using. Get to know your supplier and do your best to verify the quality of their product.
And research the heck out of each nootropic you’re using or plan to use. Nootropics Expert has dozens of clinical studies and user information for each nootropic we write about. Most we’ve tried or use daily ourselves.
Lack of regulation means the responsibility is entirely yours to use nootropics responsibly and safely.
We have plenty of evidence, scientific and user feedback on the problems with many pharmaceutical drugs.
Anti-psychotics used in the treatment of schizophrenia have been found to cause brain shrinkage over time.[ii] Tricyclic antidepressants and antihistamines have been found to cause dementia and contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease.[iii]
My point in bringing up these findings with prescription pharmaceuticals used to treat everything from Alzheimer’s to a stuffed-up sinus to insomnia is that they affect neurotransmitters in your brain.
Nootropics often target neurotransmitters in your brain as well. Altering neurotransmitters and neurotransmission is serious business. And can have equally serious consequences if we’re not careful.
For optimal cognition and brain health, your brain maintains a delicate balance of all neurotransmitters. Each works in synergy with another and is often dependent on optimal neurotransmitter levels, good cerebral blood flow, and many other factors.
Boosting a neurotransmitter like dopamine too much and for extended periods can damage or kill neurons or neuroreceptors. And cause irritability, insomnia and other issues in the short term.
But your brain is a beautifully designed piece of equipment. Neuroplasticity and common sense can salvage most mistakes. Caution is always advised.
Every nootropic article on our List of Nootropics has a “Side Effects” section. Always assume that anything you do to alter brain chemistry or metabolism can have adverse effects.
Most neurohackers will not experience adverse effects for a single nootropic. But more sensitive individuals may experience dizziness, headaches, insomnia, migraines, rashes and many other adverse reactions.
And why we always say YMMV because everyone’s body chemistry and metabolism is different. If you experience a side effect to one nootropic, stop using it. And try something else. Experimentation is key to optimizing cognition.
Tolerance & Cycling
We mentioned “Dependence” earlier in this article which ties in somewhat with tolerance.
Tolerance is loosely defined as not getting the same benefit out of a nootropic with consistent and/or long-term use.
The “placebo effect” is applicable to nootropic usage and some can develop a psychological dependence on a nootropic. Thinking you’ll have a memory problem for example if you don’t take your daily stack can be very real. Even though the mechanism of action of that nootropic or stack proves otherwise.
Tolerance happens when your brain adjusts to using a certain nootropic. And as it adjusts, it can become less effective over time. The temptation is to increase your dosage to achieve the same effect. And is nearly always a very bad idea.
Taking higher than recommended doses of a nootropic can often be toxic to your brain. My recommendation is to never, ever exceed recommended doses for any nootropic. The least that can happen is a decline in quality of life. The worst is permanent brain damage.
Most neurohackers will not experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using a nootropic. Most nootropics are completely safe to use without the worry of withdrawal symptoms.
But a few will feel like they’re going through withdrawal. Some nootropics like Phenibut which affects GABA levels in your brain can induce withdrawal symptoms. Nicotine is another that can be very addictive and can certainly cause withdrawal symptoms when you stop using it.
Read the user reviews, forum comments, and “How does it feel” section for each of my nootropic reviews. And you’ll get a sense for which nootropics may lead to withdrawal symptoms.
But it is your responsibility to use nootropics safely. Read the user reviews and forums and see what others are saying. Carefully review each nootropic review here on Nootropics Expert before adding it to your stack.
Always follow recommended dosages and start with the lowest dose possible to see how your body reacts. Be aware of possible interactions and contraindications with other prescription and non-prescription drugs.
More is not better when it comes to neurohacking. Dosage guidelines are based on decades of nootropic use and personal experience. You’ll experience the opposite effect or get no benefit by over-dosing.
Pay attention to cycling recommendations, and using certain nootropics on an as-needed basis. If your gut is telling you to stay away from a certain supplement, then don’t take it.
Nootropics are generally safe to use to optimize brain function. But caution is always advised.
[i] Billioti de Gage S., Bégaud B., Bazin F., Verdoux H., Dartigues J.F., Pérès K., Kurth T., Pariente A. “Benzodiazepine use and risk of dementia: prospective population based study.” BMJ. 2012 Sep 27;345:e6231. (source)
[ii] Ho B.C., Andreasen N.C., Ziebell S., Pierson R., Magnotta V. “Long-term antipsychotic treatment and brain volumes: a longitudinal study of first-episode schizophrenia.” Archives of General Psychiatry. 2011 Feb;68(2):128-37 (source)