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There’s almost no denying that in recent years, nootropics have made their way into mainstream society, with everyone from students to high-level CEOs raving about them.
But while more and more people are becoming interested in the cognitive-enhancing effects of nootropic ‘smart drugs’, many still have questions surrounding their safety.
In this article, we are going to address the main risks associated with using nootropics. We’ll go over how and when they can become dangerous, as well as, general practices to keep the risks at a minimum.
Are Nootropics Safe?
While nootropics are new to the mainstream, research on them goes back decades. Numerous substances have been extensively studied in both animal and human subjects and appear to be both safe and effective when taken appropriately.
Even so, there are dozens of different nootropic substances. While some natural nootropics like ginseng have been thoroughly researched and investigated, relatively little is know about how other nootropics — especially certain synthetic compounds — interact with the brain.
On top of the substance itself, other factors like age, dosing, frequency of use, and interactions with other drugs can all affect the risks involved in taking nootropics.
Safety Factors to Consider When Taking Nootropics
Factor #1: Age
Age is an important factor to consider when it comes to nootropic substances, particularly as it relates to brain development. Most people’s brains do not fully develop until somewhere in their 20s.(1) During development, the brain may be at an increased risk of long-term damage from the regular use of some nootropic substances.
While this may not be the case for every nootropic substance, research has shown that drugs like Ritalin, which is frequently prescribed to adolescents with ADHD, may have some long-term detrimental effects on prefrontal functioning and plasticity in the brain.(2)
How to Minimize Age-Related Risk
While there might be some nootropics out there that are safe for adolescents, there just hasn’t been enough research into their effects on the developing brain to say for sure.
When you aren’t really certain what the long-term effects of the substance might be, the risk involved always goes up. Long story short, in order to keep the risk involved in taking nootropics at a minimum, it’s probably best to wait until your brain is fully developed before you begin using them — for most people, that’s somewhere in their 20’s.
Factor #2: Dosing
Another factor that you’ll need to pay close attention to is dosing. When taken at the appropriate dosage, there are a number of nootropic substances that appear to have little to no short-term or long-term risks involved for most people.
However, at very high doses, nootropic substances can cause serious side effects like headaches, brain fog, nausea, and sleeplessness. Worse yet, going far beyond the dosage recommendations can lead to negative longer-term effects like chemical imbalances in your brain.(3)
How to Minimize Dosing-Related Risk
Although it might be tempting to increase your dosage for amplified effects, going beyond the recommended dosage range will increase the risk of doing harm to your brain and body.
In order to minimize the risk of experiencing side effects and long-term impairments, it’s best to stay within the dosage recommendations for the particular substance you’re taking. On top of that, don’t take any more than you need to feel the therapeutic effects, even if that means you’re on the low end of the recommended dosage range.
Factor #3: How Often You Use Them
The frequency with which you use nootropics can also affect the risks involved in taking them. Like with many substances, the more frequently you take them, the more likely it is that they’ll alter your brain functions.(4)
This is where you run the risk of developing a dependency. If you are taking the substance too frequently, you may only feel ‘normal’ when you are on it. In other words, your brain may become dependant on the substance in order to function throughout the day.
It is important to point out that not all nootropics will cause you to develop a dependency. However, some substances — such as those that target brain chemicals like dopamine — can alter your brain chemistry over time, causing you to become more reliant on the drug.
How to Minimize Dependency-Related Risks
An easy way to reduce the risk of dependency (again, this isn’t a risk for all nootropics) is to only take them when you know you’re going to be doing things that are stressful or cognitively challenging. If you’re taking them all the time, it can start to feel like you can’t function right without them.
You can also try cycling off them from time to time in order to reduce the risk of developing a tolerance. When you take them for long periods without a break, it can become difficult to feel the effects you once did at any given dosage.
Factor #4: Product Quality Control
Nootropics that are relatively unknown and untested are obviously going to have a higher risk factor in terms of their effects on your brain. But even nootropics that are known to be safe and effective can become dangerous in certain scenarios.
The unfortunate reality is that there are a number of low-quality products out there that are tainted and/or deceptively advertised. In some situations, low-quality supplements may contain a number of potentially dangerous ingredients not listed on the label.
Furthermore, some dietary supplements may not accurately represent how much of the substance is actually in the product. So even if you think you’re following the appropriate dosage recommendation, you don’t really know.
How to Minimize Quality-Related Risks
If you really want to keep the risks involved in taking nootropics at a minimum, do your research! Only take substances that have been thoroughly and scientifically investigated and are known to be safe and effective.
On top of that, even if you know that the substance itself is safe, make sure that you are obtaining it from a trustworthy source. In order to make sure that you’re actually getting what you think you’re getting, only go with nootropic supplements that are third-party tested and customer-reviewed.
Factor #5: Interactions With Other Drugs
One of the biggest risk factors associated with nootropics is the unintended effects that can occur when they are combined with other substances.
The effects of any particular nootropic can be amplified or altered when it interacts with other drugs in your body. The end result can range from minor side effects to serious long term impairments.
It’s certainly true that combining some ingredients based on their mechanism of actions and desired effects can produce positive results. In fact, there are a number of tried and true synergies that have been found to far outweigh the sum of any nootropic’s individual benefit.
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Stacking some substances together can also drastically alter their effects. For instance, when taken alone, l-theanine helps to produce a calm, relaxed state of mind but when combined with caffeine, it helps to further increase alertness and attention during cognitively demanding tasks. (5)
However, there are also some nootropic combinations that can be risky simply because of the unknown. Combinations that have yet to be thoroughly investigated can potentially disrupt some of your cerebral processes both in the short and long terms.
How To Minimize Interaction-Related Risks
Again, this is where doing your research comes in. If you’re already on other types of medication and/or have some type of medical condition, you will certainly want to speak with your doctor to make sure that adding a nootropic substance into the mix is safe.
Even if you’re just looking to combine a few different nootropics, you’ll still want to do plenty of research. In particular, pay attention to different substances’ mechanisms of action in the brain and whether or not they can potentially interfere with one another.
Although public interest in nootropics has only grown in recent years, researchers have been interested in them for decades. As such, there are a number of substances that have been extensively researched and appear to be safe and effective when taken responsibly.
While there are some potential risks involved in using nootropics, many substances
- Casey, B.J., Jones, R.M., Hare, T.A. “The adolescent brain” Anals of The New York Academy of Science. April 2008
- Urban K.R., Gao, W.J. “Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. May 2014
- Farid. T., Ajaltouni, J. “Probably nootropicinduced psychiatric adverse effects: a series of four cases” Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. December 2015
- “Drugs, brains, and behavior: the science of addiction” National Institute on Drug Abuse. July 2018.
- “Owen, G.N., Parnell, H., De Bruin, E.A., Rycroft, J.A. “The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood” Nutritional Neuroscience. August 2008.