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.
2. DosagePET 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 NootropicThere 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.
4. DurationThe 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 usageSome 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. Inidual variationLastly it is important to understand that there is significant inidual 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.