Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Nootropics are natural supplements or drugs that have a beneficial effect on brain function in healthy people. Many of these can boost memory, motivation, creativity, alertness and general cognitive function. Nootropics may also reduce age-related declines in brain function.
“Are nootropics safe?” When Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu E. Giurgea first coined the term nootropic, there was no question of safety. Giurgea specified that true brain-boosting nootropics must have very few side effects and extremely low toxicity. In other words, by definition nootropics are safe.
However, a few supplements may not meet the safe cognitive enhancer criteria, but are still called nootropics. Harsh nootropic combinations, megadosing and low-quality manufacturing may also create additional safety concerns.
So how can you find true nootropics that are safe, healthy and effective for the brain? This guide discusses steps you can take to maximize brainpower benefits and minimize risks with the safest nootropics.
What Makes Nootropics Safe?
Determining nootropic safety is more complex than it may seem. First off, nootropics are classified as nutritional supplements. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, nootropic supplements do not have to undergo clinical trials demonstrating their safety before being sold:
Pharmaceutical drugs are considered to be unsafe until they are shown to be safe by clinical trials, at which point they can be sold with a doctor’s prescription.
Nootropic supplements are considered to be safe until proven otherwise, and are sold over-the-counter and in online retail settings.
Nootropics may be generally considered safe when they are backed by clinical trials and have a good history of use with few adverse events.
But ultimately, a nootropic is only as safe as the process that makes it.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important aspects of safe nootropic sourcing and formulation — and discuss how you can use these points to identify safe, effective brain supplements.
The best way to verify a nootropic’s safety is with human clinical trials. When nootropics are administered in a clinical setting over an extended period of time, researchers can record any side effects and adverse events, as well as noting any safety concerns.
As a whole, nootropics’ research-backed safety profile is excellent.
Of course, research-backed safety is not the same as research-backed effectiveness. While the vast majority of nootropic compounds in the world have been shown to be safe in human research, there are far fewer nootropics shown to be safe and effective.
These are the best nootropics to buy in brain supplements and stacks.
Advanced nootropic forms
When nootropic ingredients are presented in higher-quality forms, their safety may improve. Examples of advanced nootropic forms with safety advantages include:
Branded nootropics, recognized by a registered trademark (®), may feature patented processes that reduce side effects and improve safety. Many branded nootropics also have human clinical research demonstrating safety.Standardized nootropic herbs are safe and reliable because they are calibrated to an exact percentage of active ingredient. In some cases, a nootropic herb’s standardization matches clinical research studies that have demonstrated safety.
In general, higher-end nootropic forms pay closer attention to quality in a way that may enhance their safety profile.
Safe nootropic formulation starts with minimum effective dosage (MED). This means a nootropic will hit a clinical-range dosage that is safe and well-established — but will avoid megadosing, which may increase risk potential without bringing any additional nootropic benefits.
Safety-conscious nootropic formulas will also generally avoid excessive caffeine and addictive stimulants, due to their potential for health risks and side effects.
Finally, nootropic stack supplements that care about safety will take care to avoid negative interactions when combining their nootropics. Expert-formulated stacks will have good strategies and reasons for combining nootropics, making them superior at boosting brainpower safely, comfortably and effectively.
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)
Even the safest nootropics may turn into health risks in an unsatisfactory manufacturing environment. Quality manufacturing will take several steps to ensure safety. These steps can be summed up as Good Manufacturing Practices(GMP).
What is GMP? Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) is a set of guidelines developed by the public health and safety organization NSF International.
To get GMP certification, nootropic manufacturers must follow a strict set of GMP rules, including rules related to:
Raw ingredient screening – for example, nootropic herbs should be tested for dangerous microbes and contaminants prior to manufacture
Facility cleanliness – sterile equipment, air filtration and climate control to eliminate safety risks of cross-contamination, mold, etc.
Equipment maintenance – smooth-running machinery and analytical equipment produce safe, precise nootropic supplements
GMP certification adds to a nootropic supplement’s quality, ensuring that the finished product is not only pure and effective, but also safe.
What good are safe nootropics if the capsules that carry them are bad for you?
In nootropic supplements, we sometimes see manufacturers using capsules, additives and questionable ingredient choices that have been associated with potential health risks, including:
Artificial colors – Food dyes, including those seen in some nootropic supplements, may have some neurotoxic risks
Artificial preservatives – Some preservatives may disrupt the GI tract’s microflora, which in turn may affect brain function
Carrageenan – found in some nootropic delivery forms; shown to trigger inflammation in the colon
Soy – the nootropic PS is sometimes sourced from soy, even though soy may be associated with some hormonal side effects and potential risks
Gluten – associated with risks related to nutrient absorption and digestive health in sensitive individuals
The safest nootropic supplements also go to great lengths to ensure their formulas are free of additional common allergens — such as tree nuts, dairy and shellfish — in order to promote the best overall safety for the widest cross-section of consumers.
Tips for Taking Nootropics Safely
Your mileage may vary, but here are a few general steps to follow in order to make taking a nootropic as safe as possible.
Talk to your doctor. The most important tip: Print out a nootropic’s supplement facts and review it with your doctor. It is always safer to take any nutritional supplement under a doctor’s supervision.
Follow manufacturer’s directions. There’s a reason why supplements have directions: Taking too much of some nootropics may be dangerous.
Avoid random DIY stacking. Unless you’re an expert biohacker on Reddit, combining several products from several manufacturers multiplies safety variables and uncertainty.
Consider cycling. With cycling, you take a nootropic every day for a specific duration, and then stop taking it — giving your brain a healthy break before resuming again.
When is it NOT safe to take nootropics?
For safety reasons, there are stages of life and states of health where nootropic supplementation is discouraged. Do not take nootropics if you are:
Pregnant, nursing, or considering getting pregnant
Under the age of 18
Dealing with a serious medical condition or about to have surgery
Taking brain-related medications or other drugs with potential interactions
In any other cases where your doctor objects to nootropic supplementation, just skip the cognitive enhancers. It’s smart to be safe.
The Verdict: Are Nootropics Safe?
By definition, yes — nootropics are safe. But a lot can happen between the definition of a nootropic and what ends up in a finished nootropic supplement. To ensure you boost your brainpower safely, consider these two rules:
Choose the right nootropic – high quality ingredients, safety certifications, well-designed formulas and clean labels;
Take the nootropic the right way – using established stacking strategies, cycling if necessary, and following the manufacturer’s directions.
With these two rules, you can find a nootropic that will work for brainpower, remain true to the very few side effects and extremely low toxicity nootropic definition, and make nootropic supplementation safe, beneficial and healthy for the brain.