A question that should be on every newbie nootroponaut is, are nootropics safe? The nootropics safety question or safety of any supplement you are ingesting, is of the utmost importance if optimal health, wellness and performance are your aim. To get to the bottom of the issue of nootropics safety we have to first define our terms. As for whether nootropic cognitive enhancers are perfectly safe or not, that depends on your definition of what is a nootropic. By the original definition, formulated by the Romanian neuropharmacologist and father of modern nootropic cognitive enhancers Dr. Corneliu Giurgea. Dr. Giurgea’s strict protocol for what determined a truly “nootropic” substance allows for little confusion in the matter. A classic, or true nootropic compound should do the following:
Enhancement of learning and memory function
Improvement of learned behaviours when conditions are set to disrupt them (eg. administering an amnesiac)
Must be neuroprotective
Must be extremely low in toxicity, with few to no side effects
Nootropics vs. cognitive enhancers and smart drugs
There are, for instance, cognitive enhancers like theanine that, while being GRAS (generally recognized as safe) alter blood pressure, vascularity or other bodily functions. Caffeine is neuroprotective in small doses and may even reduce chances for cognitive decline in proper dosages but it’s physically stimulating, alters heart beat and other physiological sides would generally limit it on its own (as opposed to being stacked with other supplements that limit negative attributes) from being considered a “true nootropic.” For this reason, the term cognitive enhancer and smart drug are important to use to differentiate from actual nootropics that will be not only GRAS, but neuroprotective, cognitive enhancing, well tolerated, free of side effects and not alter heart beat, vasculatrity, blood pressure, etc.
At the opposite end of the spectrum we might put substances like modafinil and phenibut and the addictive and neurotoxic ADD medications methylphenidate or mixed amphetamine salts like Ritalin. All of these compounds have been referred to by some as “smart drugs” but if you’re aim is long term positive impact on your brain and body then abusing substances like these will eventually be counterproductive.
Nootropics Safety Tips
A few things to keep in mind to ensure that you are using nootropics and other cognitive enhancers safely will be to first consider age. The brain is still developing until about 23 to 25 and any drugs should be avoided whenever they can be during this important developmental stage. The effects of many nootropics are also dose dependent. That means at different doses the effects may be vastly different. Always stick to the minimal effective dosage. It’s best to begin with a little less than what’s considered a standard dosage because everybody’s body is different and some people for whatever reason may be sensitive to certain types of substances. You can always titrate up as necessary by small degrees but remember that the effects of nootropics are generally mildly perceptible outside of increased focus and productivity. Like vitamins, some are more effective after a regular dosing schedule as well.
Another important tip for nootropic dosing safety is to always trial one new supplement at a time. If you’re taking a cholinergic like piracetam or other racetam supplement you might want to add a choline supplement to prevent possibility of brain fog, but outside of this it’s best to experiment with one substance for a cycle or two before adding anything else into the mix or trying complex “stacks” of compounds to supplement with.
The most common side effects of nootropics generally tend to be no worse than a mild headache or stomach upset at the very worst. Occasionally, brain fog is reported with cholinergic usage if there’s not enough choline in the diet. Lecithin and choline supplements may be nootropic on their own if you’re one of the over 90% of people who are regularly deficient in dietary choline.
The old adage to always make sure your house has a sturdy foundation before putting on a new roof fits well here. The most important thing before beginning a nootropics regimen is to make sure you are eating properly and exercising so that you aren’t creating any deficits in your cognitive functioning there. Getting plenty of sleep, aerobic exercise and meditation are an excellent daily practice and should be essential to your personal productivity hacking endeavors.
A true smart drug will not be stimulating or addictive and should be perfectly safe for those in average health. Be advised, however, even psychostimulants like piracetam may result in hypomania and racing thoughts that could result in insomnia or sleep disturbances. Proper sleep hygiene is vital to peak performance, so make sure you don’t cut corners on your nightly rest. Be sure to time your nootropic intake properly so as not to disturb your sleep cycles.
Considering the fact that many nootropics were originally formulated for Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinsons or other age related cognitive decline issue, they are for the most part safe even for the elderly who may be on multiple over the counter and prescription drugs. Regardless though, before beginning any change to your fitness, diet or workout regimen, whether it’s as simple as an herbal tea ritual or Xi Gong class or as complex as undergoing a full nootropic supplementation regimen, you should always check with your personal care practitioner, especially if you are currently under a doctor’s care or taking any over the counter or prescription medications currently.
Some like to tout the fact that “nootropics are as safe as salt.” In actuality the LD-50 (amount of a substance to be lethally toxic) is lower for piracetam than for salt, but as far as taking as much of as many things because they’re “safe as salt” you may want to take that with a grain of salt.