Supplements are marketed with claims to cure everything from cancer to loose skin, and unfortunately it’s up to consumers to tease out truth from fiction. The supplement industry’s regulations are less rigorous than you might expect given the regulation on the adjacent pharmaceutical industry, setting up a condition where only ethical manufacturers and marketers dedicate the time and expense to ensure their products are safe and effective.
This isn’t to say that all supplements are bad, but rather, that anyone interested in getting the benefits of effective ingredients without wasting money should learn to read the language of the label. Doing so is the only way to make informed, intelligent decisions about what you should and should not be supplementing in your diet.
One category of supplements, nootropics, has grown considerably over the past few years as an increasing number of people have experimented with healthy cognitive enhancement. “Cognitive enhancement” is a broad term, and it encompasses effects that span the spectrum of established to exaggerated. For example, if you’re researching a nootropic that claims to make you “smarter” or give you superhuman energy levels, that is a sign that caution is needed. On the other hand, there are certain natural nootropics, like Bacognize® Bacopa monnieri, which have established, research-backed benefits like enhanced focus and working memory.
The devil is in the details, and unfortunately, it’s too easy to market a supplement without evidence. The nootropics world, especially, is full of products marketed with inflated claims and low-quality ingredients. You’ll find it said all over our site, but our position is that there is no magic bullet, and if you find a nootropic being marketed with benefits that sound too good to be true, that’s a sign you should be doing extra research to validate the formula and the company marketing it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!
In this article we will explore:
- What nootropics really are
- Where nootropics came from
- What the side effects of some nootropics are
Brief History on Nootropics
In the 1960s, a Romanian psychologist and chemist named Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea began a project to develop a sleeping aid. The story goes that Dr. Giurgea was working to develop a form of the neurotransmitter GABA that would be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and help those who struggled with sleep. While he wasn’t exactly successful in creating that sleep aid, he did manage to develop a molecule with the ability to enter the brain. Dr. Giurgea named this molecule “piracetam” (pronounced pee-rass-eh-tam), and it’s known today as the first nootropic ever discovered.
Piracetam was quick to demonstrate beneficial properties for mental performance, cognitive abilities, information processing, and short-term memory consolidation — all benefits that were new and unique to any isolate at this point in time. Consequently, Dr. Giurgea used piracetam as a model to establish the criteria of what constitutes a true nootropic:
- Resistance to disruptive mental conditions
- Enhancement of memory and learning acquisition
- Enhanced resistance to chemical and physical brain damage
- Facilitation of neuronal transfer of information
- Absence of any stimulant, sedative, or toxic effects
Under Dr. Giurgea’s criteria, a true nootropic not only enhances cognition, but, significantly, also possesses a degree of brain-protective elements that come without any negative side effects.
By this strict definition, only a handful of true nootropics exist, but since the time of Giurgea’s discovery and definition of the term, the definition of the term “nootropic” has relaxed significantly, leading to a market where just about anything “brain-boosting” is marketed as a “nootropic.” Do you think we’re happy about that? Spoiler alert: we’re not. We’re nootropic purists. This is normally where someone would say “but we’re not here to judge…” except we are! We are definitely here to judge! Read on for more judgement!
Some people like to “stack” multiple nootropics, which means taking more than one nootropic at once to increase or diversify the overall effect. This is something of an ‘advanced technique’, and leaping into this approach can make it difficult to understand each ingredients’ effect on your cognition or to attribute any side effects to a specific ingredient. When it comes to nootropics, and supplements in general, we advocate caution. If you are thinking about taking nootropics, make sure you choose ingredients that are well-tolerated and generally safe before moving forward. It’s for exactly this reason Plato’s formulation is conservative and made up of just a few well-researched ingredients.
In a market willing to use the term ‘nootropic’ loosely, there are many products available with poorly-researched, ineffective, improperly sourced, or downright dangerous ingredients. Here are some of the ways that nootropics can go wrong:
- Cheap stacks are sometimes packed with inexpensive ingredients like B-vitamins, which look good on the label, but may be a challenge for even healthy people to fully absorb and digest. Excesses of B vitamins can produce gastric side effects that range from unpleasant to downright disruptive.
- A nootropic herb that is of poor quality may be grown in toxic conditions (think roadside exhaust), which can produce an herbal extract or powder that itself has concentrated toxic elements like cadmium and mercury.
- Poorly-formulated nootropic stacks may include several ingredients that can either act on the same pathway or potentiate (enhance) one another’s actions in a way that causes the effect to be stronger than intended. Especially for stimulatory ingredients (which are technically not nootropics!), the side effects can be unpleasant.
- Imbalanced formulations may draw down on the brain’s store of necessary chemicals — neurotransmitters like GABA, or ‘foods’ like choline — essentially ‘borrowing’ from your future and leaving you a few hours down the road in a worse place than where you started
- Poorly-controlled potencies on herbal ingredients are, unfortunately, more the rule than the exception, and the state of regulation is such that manufacturers aren’t required to provide you with potency measurements, to standardize for potency, or even to test potency. As they say, “the dose makes the poison,” and even beneficial ingredients can produce adverse side effects at larger doses. We cover this in our FAQ about why we use standardized ingredients in Plato, and also in our article on how we test Plato — this is why we make public all of our third-party test results for every batch.
Nootropic Delivery and Clean Labeling
When avoiding negative nootropic side effects, it’s always important to always look for the cleanest possible formulation to minimize the number of unnecessary ingredients and thus the chance something might disagree with you.
Unfortunately, some nootropic brands neglect to invest the time and expense necessary to avoid the inclusion of cheap ingredients. When looking for a high-quality supplement, read the supplement facts panel, and, if possible, stay away from these unnecessary additives:
- Artificial preservatives – some may disrupt the gut’s microflora
- Artificial colors – some may have neurotoxic properties
- Carrageenan – potentially triggers inflammation in the colon and may be linked to cancer
Synthetic nootropics are “man made” substances that were designed to boost brainpower and cognitive performance by manipulating the chemistry of the brain in a targeted fashion. Smart drugs like Adrafinil, Noopept, and the family of Racetams (including Piracetam, above) are examples that fall into this category.
While these compounds may be able to improve mental function to a degree, they might also come with some unwanted side effects, as with many novel compounds. Although these effects may vary from person to person, here are some of the most common side effects reported by users taking these synthetic nootropics:
- Adrafinil – headaches, irritability, difficulty sleeping, raised blood pressure, anxiety
- Noopept – insomnia, nausea, fatigue, irritability, gastrointestinal issues
- Racetams – headaches, insomnia, irritability, vomiting, nausea
Potential Nootropic Side Effects
Taking well-formulated nootropics properly does not – or at least should not – induce any unwanted side effects in most people. However, in the rare case that they do, some of the most common reported side effects associated with nootropics are:
- Brain fog – a general lack of mental energy, focus, and clarity typically referred to as “brain fog” or cognitive impairment. Nootropics, put simply, change elements of your brain’s chemistry, which, if done in a way that is imperfectly compatible with the user’s individual chemistry, may induce imbalances, thus resulting in impaired (rather than improved) performance. Not every nootropic is ideal for every individual! There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as we like to say.
- Headache – if you experience any side effect from taking a nootropic, it will probably be a headache. These can occur when beginning new nootropics with vasodilating properties, as the increased blood flow to the brain temporarily increases brain blood pressure, resulting in discomfort.
- Digestive discomfort – did you know that your stomach is commonly referred to as the “second brain” of your body? This is because your gut is laced with neurotransmitter receptors and nerves known as the enteric nervous system. Due to this incredible mind-gut connection, when the gut is disturbed, it may contribute to impaired cognition. Take it from Hippocrates: “Bad digestion is the root of all evil.” Now ain’t that the truth!
- Insomnia – There are a rainbow of nootropics out there. Some can alleviate anxiety and others can stimulate wakefulness. Naturally, you generally want to avoid taking any kind of nootropic that could stimulate your brain before attempting to get some shut-eye. This is why it’s so important to become familiar with the ingredients. You don’t want to accidentally take a nootropic with an energizing effect right before bed, just as you don’t want to take one with sedating properties right when you wake up!
Plato is made with ingredients that are non-toxic and non-habit-forming. We even provide links to the 33 clinical trials on which Plato’s nootropic formula is based. Plato is made from the best ingredients available, for ourselves, for our friends, and for our families, and we’re proud to say that Plato is safe, simple, and effective.