Nootropics are natural supplements taken as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and consistent exercise. These consumers have little to fear over addiction. However, some questionable marketers keep classifying drugs or hastily made products as nootropics, introducing the possibility of addiction to an unsuspecting and under-informed buying public.
By definition, nootropics are safe, well-tolerated, neuroprotective substances that lack the usual side effects associated with synthetic cognitive enhancers -- or the so-called "smart pills." Therefore, it seems counterproductive to even ask "are nootropics addictive?" given that if a substance is additive, then it's not a true nootropic. Nonetheless, here's a guide on how to discern the differences between a truly safe, healthy nootropic and a risky, synthetic "smart pill" that might be colloquially classified as a nootropic.
The Difference Between Nootropics and “Smart Drugs”
One primary concern over drugs being improperly defined as nootropics is that their users' neurotransmitter systems may be negatively affected, despite the pretense that what they're taking is good for them. This can unwittingly lead to harsh side effects such as anxiety, depression, and toxic serotonin activity. As a result, the potential for addiction is a recurring issue with these so-called “smart drugs,” especially with free-form powders: smart drugs can become even more dangerous when not presented in standardized dosage formats.
Perhaps the best way to avoid getting duped by false nootropic sellers is to distinguish the differences between nootropics and smart drugs.
The Definition of "Nootropic"
According to the original definition set forth by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, who coined the term "nootropic," the criteria involved in identifying a nootropic includes:
- Enhancement of learning acquisition
- Resistance to impairing agents
- Facilitation of interhemispheric transfer of information
- Enhanced resistance to brain "aggressions"
- Increased tonic, cortico-subcortical "control"
- Absence of the usual pharmacological effects of neuro psychotropic drugs
It's this final criterion that particularly distinguishes nootropics from smart drugs. By definition, nootropics possess neuroprotective benefits that help shield the brain against long-term damages, inherently removing harmfully addictive substances from qualifying as true nootropics.
The Definition of "Smart Drug"
Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea would likely describe these as the "neuro psychotropic drugs" that demonstrate the "usual pharmacological effects" (or adverse effects) absent from nootropics. While highly used and abused in academic settings, prescription-based cognitive enhancers achieved mainstream attention with the release of 2011's Limitless movie, a supposedly cautionary tale against the abuses of prescribed smart pills that ironically garnered more interest in "smart drug" bio-hacking culture.
Whereas natural "earth grown" nootropics are safe and generally legal to use, popular smart drugs require a prescription and are illegal to use under competitive or non-prescribed circumstances.
Even for familiar cognitive enhancers, unsafe usage may override a reasonably safe compound. For example, two college students nearly died in January 2017 when they accidentally took too much caffeine powder (30 grams as opposed to 0.3 grams) in an experiment.
Nootropics — again, natural supplements taken as one part of a healthy lifestyle — lack the usual risk of addiction. It’s only when we talk about “smart drugs” that the risk of addiction emerges. In fact, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies many prescribed “smart drugs” favored by college students as Schedule II “high potential for abuse” substances. For frame of reference, the highly addictive, illicit cocaine is also in this category.
Without better research and long-term studies, it’s impossible to know the consequences of smart drugs’ side effects. Instead, it's easier to define addiction and identify the symptoms of addiction, so that we may discern the differences between addictive and non-addictive mental performance boosters.
The American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) and World Health Organization (ICD-10) agree that an addiction must meet at least three of the following criteria.
- Tolerance, i.e., using more drugs over time.
- Withdrawal, either physical or emotional, when you have stopped using.
- Limited control. Using more drugs more than you would like and regretting it the next day.
- Negative consequences. Using despite negative consequences to your mood, self-esteem, health, job, or family.
- Neglected or postponed activities, e.g., putting off or reducing social, recreational, work, or household activities due to use.
- Significant time or energy spent obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from use.
- A desire to reduce or control use, including unsuccessful attempts to do so.
Tolerance and withdrawal are perhaps the most associated traits of addiction. According to the Merck Manual, someone may develop tolerance to a drug with repeat use. Usually, tolerance—not to be confused with dependence or addiction—develops as metabolism of the drug speeds up (often because the liver enzymes involved in metabolizing drugs become more active) and the number of sites that the drug attaches to (or the strength of the bond between the receptor and drug) decreases.
When tolerance builds up, the user requires an increasingly heavier dosage to achieve the same results previously enjoyed.
What may reduce tolerance is “cycling”— e.g., taking a supplement for only five out of seven days, those two "off" days re-sensitizing the brain's response to the substance. A substance with a low tolerance risk does not necessarily require an on/off cycle to sustain its effects.
Extremely addictive substances make "cycling" altogether difficult. The greater the addiction, the more miserable the withdrawal symptoms during those "off" periods.
The Symptoms of Withdrawal
Withdrawal refers to the physical and emotional problems that occur once a person suddenly stops or drastically reduces their intake of a drug they’ve become dependent on. The longer and greater the use of an addictive substance, the more miserable the withdrawal; and thus the less likely one is to abandon their addiction.
When your body’s cells can’t function without a substance or drug, that is physical addiction. Once the body starts to become depleted of the substance, painful withdrawal symptoms begin. And since the quickest way to ease the pain is to take more drugs, most cannot quit “cold turkey.” Typical withdrawal symptoms spurred by a physical addiction include tremors or “shakes,” nausea, diarrhea, chills, and body aches.
Physical and psychological addiction do share similarities because they activate similar brain regions. An October 2010 study found that the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, both associated with feelings of physical pain, were activated after research participants viewed photos of a former romantic partner.2
In severe cases of psychological addiction, these thoughts become all-consuming. Without help, a psychological dependency can transform a drug of choice into a ceaseless taskmaster. The substance makes the rules, and rule-breakers pay the price with mind-wrenching withdrawals.
Are Nootropics Addictive?
Although rare, when nootropic addictions occur, they are usually psychological or emotional, especially if used in a ritualistic manner—i.e., performing the same routines sans nootropics might feel “off.” On a biological level, a common side effect is the far-from-fatal “brain fog” as the mind adjusts to a nootropics-free life. Subjectively, nootropic users may simply feel attached to the daily routine of their nootropic use, especially if they're paired with another positive association -- e.g., taste. Pre-workout (PWO) supplement users are all too familiar with the conditioned taste craving that develops after weeks of using the same tasty PWO product.
At worst, natural nootropic users may find non-nootropic cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine, suddenly insufficient when compared to the nootropic experience. This is common with nootropic enthusiasts who add L-theanine, an anxiolytic amino compound, to their coffee, a favored stacking technique to reduce the jittery side effects of caffeine. Returning from L-theanine-enriched coffee to plain coffee may feel "off."
However, this type of "return" is more of a regression than a withdrawal. Regressing from naturally enhanced to naturally average isn't the same as a substance overriding your willpower to discontinue; especially considering the short- and long-term health benefits of nootropics, such as L-theanine. Again, it's a defining feature of nootropics that they possess neuroprotective benefits towards the promotion of long-term brain health. Addictive substances accomplish the opposite.
Are Mind Lab Pro® Nootropics Addictive?
Addictive substances ultimately impair cognition, often chronically. Mind Lab Pro® nootropics, on the other hand, promote long-term cognitive performance, supporting brain health without leading consumers down addiction’s slippery slope. Some nootropics may also help ameliorate drug addiction.3
Well-researched and -tolerated brain boosting options embody the right definition of nootropics, as envisioned by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea. And Mind Lab Pro® nootropics adhere to these principles to avoid risk of addiction and other adverse health effects. A few powerful, yet safe, Mind Lab Pro® nootropics include:
Citicoline (CDP Choline)
Citicoline outperforms other nootropic choline sources by providing two nootropic compounds in one. First, there’s choline, a precursor nutrient to cell membrane phospholipid phosphatidylcholine and the memory-enhancing neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Then, there’s cytidine, a precursor compound to uridine, a nucleotide base associated with increased energy and synaptic plasticity.4
- Choline - the precursor building block to neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the brain chemical associated with better memory and learning.
- Cytidine - the precursor to nucleotide uridine, a brain boosting nucleotide that seems to assist with natural energy production and neuron connectivity.
This combined boost on cholinergic output and synaptic plasticity contributes to an all-around enhanced brain power and neural connectivity. As opposed to synthetic stimulants, which simply flush the brain with an inordinate amount of unnatural energy, citicoline seems to boost the brain's natural, cellular energy levels.
The amino acid L-tyrosine naturally converts to excitatory catecholamine neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine) that deplete under high stress, high-activity conditions. When the body is stressed, the cycle increases as the brain burns through these neurotransmitters. The brain turns to L-tyrosine to create more catecholamine neurotransmitters—until the cycle stops. Given dopamine's potential role in reinforcing addictive habits, L-tyrosine's pro-dopamine activity may help sustain healthier dopaminergic functions in the face of mental hardship.
This partially explains why supplementing L-tyrosine (or N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine, the enhanced form) works best under conditions of stress. Under normal, healthy conditions, the nootropic might help. But L-Tryosine excels under rough conditions and when energy reserves plummet.
Clinical studies show L-tyrosine has been found to improve cognition and mental performance under several stressful scenarios.5-6 However, with regards to brain energy, one placebo-controlled clinical study shines.
Participants performed various performance tasks and mood assessments while staying awake for 24 straight hours. Half of the participants received L-tyrosine and the other half received placebo. By the end of the study, those who received L-tyrosine demonstrated significant improvements on cognitive performance otherwise impaired by sleep deprivation. The researchers’ conclusion: “tyrosine may prove useful in counteracting performance decrements during episodes of sustained work coupled with sleep loss.”7
Finally, rhodiola rosea, a powerful adaptogen complements pro-energy nootropics with its potent anti-fatigue bio-activities. A highly bio-active adaptogen herb with immense ergogenic value, Rhodiola helps the body adapt to stress, essentially lessening the damaging impacts of stress hormone cortisol and other stress-related byproducts.8
Rhodiola rosea’s adaptogenic bio-actions include:
- Regulating the HPA axis (the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis), the stress hormone loop that controls our response to stressors.9
- Supporting neurotransmitters—namely the brain chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—by inhibiting the enzymes that break down these neurotransmitters.10
By inhibiting the negative effects of stress hormones and enzymes, Rhodiola seems to improve energy by inhibiting the pathways that promote fatigue and brain fog. Similar to L-tyrosine, Rhodiola improves mental performance and energy by ameliorating stress-induced fatigue; only instead of replenishing “burnt out” neurotransmitters, Rhodiola reduces the contributing factors in brain depletion.
The result: less stress and fatigue for all-around better, clearer thinking.
In an increasingly stressful, fast-paced world, our brains must operate at peak performance. Fulfilling that desire must not come at the steep cost of addiction. True nootropics are not drugs or OTC medications or breathlessly hyped on late-night infomercials. They are natural, effective, and not addictive. They help the brain gain without its owner losing control.
So, read labels, consult with your health care provider, and favor solid research over slick marketing. Doing so is not only better for your mental health, it is better for your spiritual and physical health—and those who matter most in your life.