The Dangerous & Ineffective Ingredients to Avoid
With nootropics growing in popularity and research showing that some supplements can boost brain power, increase focus, and improve memory function, there have been some unscrupulous brands that have taken advantage of this trend by releasing low quality products that simply don't work or that may even be dangerous for public consumption.
One of the most common questions we hear is, “Are Nootropics Safe?”
Nootropics as defined by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea are compounds that have brain boosting properties without side-effects. Unfortunately, many modern nootropics brands break this rule by sneaking in potentially harmful and unsafe ingredients into their supplements.
This list will teach you about the blacklisted nootropics to avoid. And we'll point out a few compounds that you should approach with caution due to their negligible benefits and potential danger.
If you see any of these blacklisted ingredients in supplements or if companies have a history of using these ingredients in their products, you're better off avoiding such products and associated brands. Consumers shouldn't tolerate brands that practice gross negligence by subjecting people to the potentially hazardous side-effects that may be experienced by ingesting some of these substances.
Here are the 7 nootropic compounds to avoid and the ones that you'll see in the worst nootropic supplements.
DHEA is a steroid that is banned for over-the-counter sale in the UK & Canada. DHEA is also banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) among other leagues. Due to certain legal loopholes, this potentially dangerous steroid is still available for public sale in the US.
A heavily marketed nootropic called Qualia by Neurohacker Collective is the most notorious brain supplement to have included DHEA steroids in their product. After we published our damning report on the dangers of DHEA Steroids in nootropic supplements in June 2017, Neurohacker quietly removed the DHEA steroids from their Qualia supplement and replaced this ingredient with Tumeric. Yes, Tumeric... the kitchen spice. This isn't surprising since the Qualia Original Stack's focus is maintaining 42 ingredients rather than utilizing compounds that are most effective. But we're not here to comment at length about the lack of scientific research behind some products. (Update: they've since removed tumeric from their original stack.)
Some scientists are concerned that DHEA steroids may accelerate cancers. Also, the promised benefits of DHEA, including enhanced mental acuity and slowed aging, have not been conclusively proven. And there all kinds of other minor and potentially major side-effects DHEA may cause. See our full report for details.
Considering that steroids, if abused, can cause longterm physical and psychological harm, we strongly advise against taking any supplement that contains DHEA or buying nootropics from brands that have a history of adding steroids to their nootropics without warning consumers about the potential dangers involved.
Apoaequorin (or Aequorin)
A product called Prevagen turned heads in the nootropics world by its claims that a glowing jellyfish protein could “support healthy brain function and improve memory”.
With a marketing campaign that primarily targeted vulnerable citizens like seniors in its advertising for a product that costs more than a week's groceries, Prevagen and its Apoaeguorin/Aequorin product quickly caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission who said that there is no real evidence that this supplement can actually improve memory and brain health.
State and federal regulators didn't hesitate in filing a lawsuit claiming that Prevagen is a “clear-cut fraud”, and headlines calling the jellyfish memory supplement a hoax appeared on reputable news sites.
So how did all these outlandish claims come about?
Well, some small, company-sponsored trials showed “evidence” of apoaequorin's effectiveness, but these studies don't meet expected scientific standards. According to the FDA, apoaequorin should be considered a drug, not a supplement, and such adverse side-effects of this jellyfish drug include seizures and strokes.
Our stance is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true.
Avoid any supplement containing “apoaequorin” or “aequorin” at all costs.
Huperzine A is a controversial nootropic ingredient. Opinions on it are polarized, and many heavily marketed brain supplements contain this quenstionable compound.
On one hand Huperzine A helps your brain utilize the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, helping maintain a high concentration of this essential component of brain function.
So what's the problem? Well, there are several...
Huperzine A disrupts your natural brain chemistry, inhibiting the enzyme that helps your brain utilize and break down acetylcholine in a healthy natural way.
Your brain also develops a quick tolerance to Huperzine A, thus it must be continually cycled to keep having an effect. It should be taken no more than 2-3 times per week, if at all. Any Huperzine A containing supplement claiming safety and effectiveness for daily use is misleading.
Perhaps the biggest known issue is that since Huperzine A compromises your natural brain chemistry and thus needs to be cycled, it may also affect the performance of other more effective nootropics. Compounds like Bacopa Monnieri have greater effects on brain health and cognitive function when taken daily. Thus, if you take a nootropic supplement with Huperzine A and cycle it to reduce the negative impact of its effects on your brain chemistry, you're also reducing the positive effects of the other nootropics that would provide greater benefit when taken daily. This is arguably the biggest reason NOT to take a nootropic brain supplement containing Huperzine A.
It's also worth pointing out that the long-term dangers of Huperzine A are unknown. Disrupting your brain chemistry by suppressing natural enzymes may cause unforeseen issues down the road.
So why do companies use Huperzine A in their supplements?
With all the grey areas, known conflicts with other nootropic compounds, and possible dangers, you'd think companies would avoid this ambiguous ingredient.
Here's the answer as simply as we can put it. Most nootropics brands aren't going to like us spilling their secrets here, but here it is...
Acetylcholine is an essential neurotransmitter. Supplementing with Alpha GPC (instead of citicholine or choline bitartate) is the most effective way to boost acetylcholine levels through supplementation. But it takes about 300mg of Alpha GPC daily to have the most notable positive effects seen in clinical trials. The problem for supplement makers is that they can only put so much of each ingredient in a capsule, and most companies are competing to put “more” ingredients in their products, not proper dosages of more effective ingredients.
So rather than put in more Alpha GPC to maintain a high level of acetylcholine in a safer way, companies will use less Alpha GPC and put in some Huperzine A to inhibit your brain from breaking down acetylcholine naturally. It only takes a very small amount of Huperzine A to disrupt your brain chemistry and keep the acetylcholine active, and thus, companies can put less of an acetylcholine precursor like Alpha GPC in each capsule.
The stated theory is that this will produce a similar effect to having more acetylcholine naturally. But really, companies just want to save space in their capsules to fit in more ingredients (up to 42 ingredients in the worst case we've seen. Yes, it's ridiculous out there, we know).
So at the expense of your brain chemistry, nootropics brands get the one-two punch of getting to include 2 ingredients instead of 1, and companies save space to include even more ingredients.
As is usually the case with nootropics brands that try to stuff as many ingredients as possible in their supplements, more doesn't mean better. Huperzine A is best avoided in a proper nootropic supplement calibrated for maximum effectiveness and least potential for harm to your brain health.
Noopept is a synthetic compound that has gained popularity due to its potential cognitive benefits. It's notably effective at dosages as low as 10-30mg, making it another popular ingredient for nootropics brands that try to squeeze in as many ingredients as possible without regard for safety and potential harm.
Noopept is one of the more risky and experimental compounds out there, and it should be used sparingly if at all. If used, Noopept should be cycled with long waiting periods between re-use. Noopept is considered a drug in many countries and likewise users should exercise diligent harm reduction practices when using this drug.
High doses of noopept (as little as 20mg or more) may result in short-term memory loss, brain fog, and headache. These unwanted side-effects are in stark contrast to the kinds of positive benefits that nootropics users want to achieve.
Intense headaches are the most common side-effect reported by Noopept users. Users may also experience sleepiness, grogginess, and fatigue, and some users attribute their experience of sleep paralysis to Noopept use. Higher dosages may cause (rather than reduce) anxiety. Depression and suicidal thoughts are also reported. Strangely, some users report increased libido while others blame their erectile dysfunction on Noopept use.
In short, Noopept is best avoided by anyone who prioritizes safety and well-being over rumored positive effects.
Vinpocetine is an artificial chemical similar to a substance found in the periwinkle plant, Vinca minor. This substance seems like less of a harmful compound than others on this list, but the possible benefits don't seem to warrant strong consideration compared to more effective ingredients.
Vinpocetine is often used because some people think that it may improve blood flow to the brain, but few double-blind controlled clinical studies have been conducted to prove this compound's effectiveness and safety.
Vinpocetine is linked to side-effects including stomach pain, nausea, sleep disturbances, headaches, dizziness, nervousness, and flushing of the face. Due to the compounds possible links to increased blood flow and reduced clotting, it is not recommended if you have issues with blood clotting as it might increase the risk of bleeding. Vinpocetine may also weaken your immune system. It's best to consult a medical professional before taking a nootropic brain supplement containing vinpocetine.
Modafinil (often sold as Provigil) is a wakefulness-promoting drug used for treatment of sleep disorders. It's a schedule IV controlled substance in the US due to concerns about addiction potential.
It acts as a kind of dopamine uptake inhibitor, having various effects by unknown mechanisms. Essentially, the “wakefulness” inducing effects of this drug are the reason why it's used in a similar way to other stimulants like like caffeine or Adderall.
The most notable positive benefits users report from taking Modafinil are improved concentration and focus. This makes it a popular choice among those in high-performance situations.
As a drug Modafinil comes with its own list of potential side-effects. Headaches, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite may occur. The most alarming side-effects of Modafinil are related to the mood changes this substance can cause; if you experience depression, hallucinations, or thoughts of suicide, you should discontinue use. Other serious side-effects may include irregular heartbeat and/or chest pains.
Modafinil is known to be effective, but the brain burnout possibilities make it a risky compound. If you do consider taking Modafinil, take it sparingly, about once per week tops. This will help you avoid tolerance issues and may minimize the potential for experiencing the more alarming side-effects.
Racetams: Use With Caution
The racetam family of nootropic compounds includes piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, and pramiracetam among others. Many of the compounds in the class are posited to have beneficial effects on memory through interaction with cholinergenic and glutamate receptors in the central nervous system.
Piracetam, the original nootropic, is the first of these compounds, but the many successive racetams are known to have improved effects. While piracetam has a history of studies, the other racetams are less studied.
Some users may experience brain fog, upset stomache, and nausea when taking racetams. But these compounds can be effective when used in proper dosages.
Caffeine: The Truth About Nootropics Containing It
Caffeine is great. We love it. Two cups of coffee helped me write this article. But there are some things you need to know...
We want to talk about caffeine particularly in relation to its use in pre-made nootropic supplements. While it could be argued that caffeine is the most effective and well-known nootropic for giving users a temporary boost in focus and concentration, we don't usually recommend products containing caffeine. Here's why...
A correlation in all of the popular nootropic products we've seen that contain caffeine is that their overall formulations are lacking in effectiveness aside from containing caffeine. Unless you specifically want a caffeine pill that has some other stuff in there that might give you a little extra support, you should avoid nootropics containing caffeine.
Brands typically add caffeine to their products to make you think you feel them working. It's a common practice in the nootropics industry which preys upon the hype surrounding nootropics and is targeted at those enthusiastic buyers who want to feel like the product is really doing something.
While caffeine does provide a more immediate effect, many nootropic compounds have a more gradual effect on cognitive enhancement, and some provide more seemingly passive brain support rather than over-the-top “Limitless” style brain boosting.
The addition of caffeine feeds the misconceptions about nootropics and often contributes to disappointment and unmet expectations.
Smart pills containing caffeine may also conflict with your daily routines if you already drink coffee. In some cases the caffeine in a nootropic supplement may replace a cup of coffee, but you can't really control the dosage as you'll always get a set amount of caffeine if you take it in capsule form.
Considering the misleading reasons why caffeine often ends up in nootropics stacks, it's best avoided.