Nootropics or “smart drugs” tend to improve cognitive function to help people perform better, maximize productivity, and ultimately achieve their full potential. Most nootropics are regarded as safe and in some cases serve as “neuroprotective agents,” meaning they preserve brain function and cognition. There is even some evidence to suggest that they may help prevent age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases.
Although nootropics get a lot of positive attention, many people fail to take a critical look at the potential dangers that they may present, particularly with long-term usage. While most research indicates that they are “safe,” nootropics haven’t been studied over the course of a long-term, particularly in humans. Additionally there are many different types of nootropics with varying mechanisms of action that should be considered when thinking about the dangers.
Factors that influence the dangers of nootropics
There are some factors to consider when thinking about potential dangers of nootropics. Perhaps the two biggest dangers to consider are the: brain development of the user as well as the dosage that a person is taking. Other secondary factors to consider include: the specific nootropic (and its mechanism of action), how long the person has taken it, as well as how frequently they use it.
1. Brain development (Age)
During critical stages of brain development such as the teenage years, it is unknown as to whether consistent nootropic usage would be detrimental. Some speculate that nootropics are unlikely to cause any harm and may actually improve brain development. Others believe that the brain may become dependent on the substance and may rely on the drug for functioning rather than creating new adaptations associated with new experiences.
There is evidence that suggests the human brain is likely fully developed by age 25 (our mid-20s). If you use a nootropic consistently before your brain is done developing, it may impair certain connections from being formed that would’ve been beneficial. If your brain is fully developed and you are over the age of 25, there’s less risk that the drug will induce major functional changes.
PET scans demonstrate that nootropic effects can vary drastically based on the dose that a person takes. When certain nootropics are taken at high doses (e.g. Provigil) they have been found to stimulate areas of the brain involved in substance abuse and dependence. Each specific nootropic has recommended guidelines for dosing.
Unfortunately, people may find a certain nootropic so effective, that they end up continuing to take more than they should. Whenever you keep “upping the ante” you are essentially giving a supplement or chemical more control over your brain functioning. When you take high doses for a considerable period of time, your brain may become so dependent on the high-dose nootropic to enhance your cognition, that you won’t be able to think clearly without that same dose.
Many people assume that tolerance cannot be established on nootropics, but I’d argue that they can. If you’ve had to increase your dose of a certain drug over a period of time to achieve the same effect, you’ve likely experienced some degree of tolerance. To minimize potential dangers, it is recommended to always take the “minimal effective dose” or the amount that gives you benefit, without going overboard.
3. The Specific Nootropic
There are hundreds of nootropics in the form of drugs and supplements. Each one has a different mechanism of action than the next and this mechanism of action is important to consider. Certain nootropics may be relatively safe when taken over a long-term, while others may be detrimental to cognitive processes. Some experts believe that drugs like Provigil may deplete dopamine when used over a long-term, leading to difficult withdrawals.
Other nootropics such as the racetams (e.g. Piracetam) may be safe when used over a long-term. It is important to consider the specific nootropic you plan on taking, and whether it has been researched over a long-term. Also take into account its mechanism of action and consider how it may affect your brain functioning when taken over an extended period.
The longer you use a nootropic (or any substance) the greater the potential it has to alter your brain function. Those that use nootropics for an extended period of time may come to realize that they are dependent on the substance for functioning – especially if they use it on a daily basis. Using a substance daily for years straight teaches your brain and nervous system to become reliant on it in order to function.
While some evidence suggests that there are neuroprotective effects when taken over a long-term, this may not be true with all nootropics. Therefore it is important to consider avoiding high frequency usage at high doses for a long-term. To minimize potential dangers, keep the duration of usage as short as possible.
5. Frequency of usage
Some people use nootropics on an “as-needed” basis to help them in a pinch when they need to maximize productivity to finish projects before a deadline. Others may use them to give them a cognitive boost when jetlagged or after getting a bad night’s sleep. Infrequent usage of nootropics probably is likely to carry considerably less danger than daily usage.
Particularly with nootropic drugs like Provigil which function by using up stores of dopamine. Some people take it several times per day to avoid the associated mental “crash” that often accompanies usage. People that are self-medicating with nootropics at all times may be inhibiting important nervous system functions to help restore the brain.
6. Individual variation
Lastly it is important to understand that there is significant individual variation when it comes to experiencing potential dangers from nootropics. Some people can vouch that they’ve used them for years and have been able to discontinue without any noticeable setbacks in memory or cognitive function. Others have used high doses of nootropics for years, discontinued, and feel as if they are suffering severe cognitive impairment as a result of extended use.
It is likely that a person’s lifestyle, genetics, the specific nootropics that were taken, and dosages all play a role in influencing whether a person experiences any noticeable problems upon discontinuation. Realize that just because you experienced no problems (e.g. tolerance, dependence, etc.) from using nootropics does not mean that another person won’t.
Potential Dangers of Nootropics / Smart Drugs
Below is a list of potential dangers associated with using nootropics. Keep in mind that you may not experience any of these dangers in your usage, but another person could. It is important to avoid assuming that taking nootropics results in optimal brain functioning over the long-term.
- Brain chemistry alterations: Based on brain scans, it is clear that certain nootropics are capable of altering the way the brain works. Some researchers even speculate that certain regions may shrink or expand based on nootropic usage. Additionally it is unknown how the brain responds when a person takes a nootropic for an extended period and then discontinues it. Even the safest nootropics can change the way your brain works; possibly inhibiting important functions.
- Cognitive deficits: Some experts have compared the usage of nicotine to other nootropics in suggesting that long-term consistent usage may lead to cognitive deficits. When nicotine is used for a short-term, it boosts cognition. However, over the long-term, users tend to stabilize and eventually require the same amount of nicotine just to achieve normal cognitive function. It is speculated that the brain could adapt (i.e. become tolerant) to the drug and end up relying on it in order to perform advanced cognitive tasks.
- Cumulative toll on nervous system: This may not be common with all nootropics, but stimulatory ones like Provigil that force you to be alert at all times may be taking a toll on your physical body. Think about it, the drug is forcing your body to create energy even when you feel tired. This disrupts your circadian rhythm and is using up energy stores that could accelerate aging and/or alter the way your body works.
- Dependence: There have been user reports of long-term nootropic usage, some of which state that they can no longer perform cognitively demanding tasks without them. In other words, they have become so dependent on nootropics in order to do work, take tests, and stay productive, that their functioning is impaired without them. Many of individuals who have become dependent upon nootropics warn others to proceed with caution when taking any sort of supplement.
- Lack of research: At the moment, there isn’t enough research to justify the safety of long-term nootropic usage. Sure some people have been using them for a long time and haven’t reported any detriment, but there are risks associated with taking any substance to alter homeostatic functioning. While some nootropics may be totally safe, the jury is still out in terms of research.
- Long-term effects: Long-term consistent usage may result in dependence in that the brain becomes so used to receiving the drug, that it no longer has to actually work in order to perform cognitive tasks – it just expects the nootropic. While dependence should be more associated with dopaminergic-based nootropics than others, it is something to consider with any exogenous substance. There could be other potentially harmful effects on physical functioning as well when used over a prolonged period.
- Memory impairment: Recently there was news of dementia linked to benzodiazepines and other CNS depressant drugs. Although these are clearly not the same as nootropics, it took researchers years before they even noticed a connection. Nootropics are relatively new to the scene and haven’t really been studied over the long-term. Some researchers believe that when used over a long-term, they could cause memory damage.
- Neurotransmission: The neurotransmission in your brain is very delicate and influenced by many factors. Taking a drug or supplement over an extended period is likely going to deplete certain neurotransmitters. This will result in a “need” to take the drug in order to maintain adequate functioning. Upon discontinuation, it may take awhile for your brain to reestablish homeostatic neurotransmission.
- Interactions: The nootropics that you take could interact with any pharmaceutical medications and/or other supplements that you take. Be sure that you are aware of any contraindications before taking a nootropic. Certain adverse reactions could be fatal and therefore should be avoided by doing research and/or talking to a professional.
- Perceived deficiencies: Sometimes people end up with perceived deficiencies in their cognitive abilities when they discontinue a nootropic. Cognition may drop below baseline when they first discontinue, but should normalize if given enough time. When used over an extended period, others may constantly compare their “nootropic-self” to their “sober-self” and come to believe that they are incapable of performing well without the drug; this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Quality concerns: Since most nootropic supplements are sold on the internet, it is important to consider that the source may not be supplying a quality product. Always evaluate the supplier and make sure you are getting a good product. Look for third-party independent screening on the product to make sure they are safe for your consumption. Since nootropics are unregulated, it is imperative to seek out a quality product for your own safety.
- Side effects: Nootropics are not substances devoid of side effects – anything that influences neurotransmission is going to have side effects. Many of the side effects a person experiences are based on the individual. That said, these effects may include: migraines, dizziness, headaches, skin rashes, and in some cases – may be life threatening.
- Sleep problems: Not only could your sleep quality diminish while taking a nootropic, it could stay impaired after you’ve stopped using the nootropic. Certain nootropics such as Provigil when used over the long-term are thought to deplete slow brain waves during sleep (akin to cocaine users). Stimulatory nootropics force the nervous system to stay activated and the entire circadian rhythm, leading you to wake up feeling groggy.
- Withdrawals: Many people consider nootropics to have “no withdrawals” but some clearly experience them. Any substance that influences the way your brain works, alters neurotransmission, and gives you energy when you previously didn’t have it is likely to have some sort of discontinuation. Whether you regard that discontinuation as significant or insignificant is entirely subjective. (As an example, read what some people experience during Provigil withdrawal).
How to minimize potential dangers of nootropics…
If you are considering using nootropics and/or are already using them, there are some things you can do to reduce their potential dangers.
- Wait until your brain is fully developed: Among the most obvious things you can do is wait until your brain is fully developed before you start using nootropics. Although it isn’t known how a particular drug will affect the developing brain, there’s always potential for risk. Certain nootropics may pose more risk than others in the degree to which they’ll influence your brain development. To avoid this risk, wait until you are at least in your mid-20s (or later) before you start using them.
- Know why you’re using them: If you’re going to use nootropics, have a clear reason as to why you plan on using them and/or need to use them. Many people simply take them blindly without doing much research regarding the dosage, the drug’s mechanism of action, and how it’s affecting brain activity.
- Minimize the dosage: Although there are therapeutic ranges of doses based on the substance, it is important to realize that not everyone reacts the same way to doses. When you start taking a nootropic, it is recommended to slowly titrate up to the lowest possible dose that gives you a cognitive enhancing effect. Immediately hopping on a high dose could result in detrimental brain changes.
- Use on an “as-needed” basis: To avoid any consistent damage caused by nootropics, consider using them on an “as-needed” basis. Avoid using them unless you need to actually accomplish a cognitively demanding task. Those that use stimulating nootropics too frequently may find that they impair sleep quality and/or the ability to relax.
- Avoid over-medicating: Take a minimalist approach when using nootropics to avoid over-medicating yourself. Taking stacks upon stacks of these nootropics could be harmful and may result in overwhelmingly negative side effects. Keep things simple and take low doses of one supplement or drug at a time.
- Cycling off: Humans didn’t evolve to take supplements, let alone medications or nootropics. They can be helpful, but may also take a cumulative toll on the body’s natural functioning. Therefore it is recommended to give your body and brain a break from them by cycling off every once in awhile. Cycling off is especially beneficial if you suspect that you’re becoming “tolerant” to their effects and/or dependent on them for functioning.
- Beware of interactions: Many nootropics have synergistic effects on cognitive function, but it is still important to be aware of any interactions that may occur while using multiple substances simultaneously. The interactions could lead to significant physical side effects and may even be dangerous. Research the potential reactions before blindly shoveling a “stack” down your throat.
- Don’t take them: When in doubt about a substance, don’t take it. You avoid any risk altogether by forgoing usage of nootropics. If you have a bad feeling about a certain substance or don’t want to risk your health, play it safe and do something else to improve your cognition.
Bottom line: Nootropics are likely safe, but use with caution
Until there’s more research on certain nootropics and “stacks” it is important to avoid taking anyone’s word that they are definitively safe for you, especially over the long-term. As more research is conducted on certain substances, you’ll get a better idea of whether it is likely to be safe vs. unsafe over the long-term. Since most are considered unregulated supplements, the big pharmaceutical companies aren’t going to be backing human-based studies.
Fortunately there are many reports (in forums and on blogs) of user experiences with certain nootropics and “stacks” (combinations). Many people have been nootropic guinea pigs and experiences over the long-term are varied – likely based on individual physiology. Some reports of long-term nootropic use have been optimistic, while others have reported cognitive impairment when attempting to function without them.
If you plan on using nootropics, it is best to proceed with caution as well as a healthy degree of skepticism regarding their long-term safety. Always do your best to optimize your mental function with activities like: exercise, meditation, working memory training, caffeine, and an optimal diet before resorting to using the perceived quick-fix, utopain brain boosters that are nootropics.