What do caffeine, lion’s mane mushroom, and green tea have in common?
They’re all sources of natural nootropics, or cognitive enhancers, used for brain health. While they may be new to many of us, nootropics have been used in both Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic healing for thousands of years.
Whether it’s boosting brain power before a big test or warding off memory loss in old age, people use nootropics for an array of personal and professional reasons. Regardless of what people use nootropics for, everyone’s looking at the same goal: to get more done and become more efficient in a shorter amount of time.
This demand for productivity has increased sales of both natural and synthetic nootropics across the globe. And in a market that’s poised to reach $6.29 billion by 2028, according to Verified Market Research, you might just be wondering what nootropics can do for you. Here’s what you need to know about naturally-sourced nootropics that can speed up your smarts.
What Are Natural Nootropics?
Nootropics are any compounds, supplements, or drugs designed to improve cognitive function. They’re used by people all over the world to improve intelligence, creativity, and motivation. In addition to supercharging productivity, nootropics can make you smarter and less stressed, holistic health practitioner Shari Auth told The Thirty.
“Nootropics offer a range of cognitive benefits, including faster reaction time, increased alertness, improved memory, and decreased mental fatigue and fog. Some nootropics are also adaptogenic, meaning they help your body manage stress,” Auth added.
Since there are so many medicines, plants, and substances that offer these benefits, there remains a debate about what is and isn’t a nootropic. Psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu Giurgea was one of the first scientists who researched nootropics and attempted to define a number of features that would classify as such. According to his definition, a true nootropic may:
– Improve learning and short-term memory retention
– Increase resilience to stress hormones and trauma
– Protect brain cells and improve brain bioactivity
– Promote intercellular communication
Have no side effects similar to other neuro-psychotropic drugs
Supplementing With Natural Nootropics
While Nootropics can have many benefits for brain health, they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for healthy habits. Getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet and managing stress are fundamental for achieving optimal cognitive performance, Chris D’Adamo, PhD, at the University of Maryland, told WebMD. Once a person incorporates these changes into their life, nootropics can serve as an additional bonus for improving mental sharpness, reducing mental fatigue as well as the chances for age-related cognitive decline.
There are a wide range of brain boosters available, but some come with safety concerns and side effects. That’s why it’s so important to know what to look for when starting a search for nootropic supplements. The first distinction to make is between synthetic and natural nootropics.
Synthetic nootropics are manmade pills designed to boost cognitive functioning using chemical ingredients. So called “smart drugs”, such as Modafinil, Racetams, Adrafinil, and Noopept fall into this category. These compounds do improve mental function, but many also come with side effects and potential long-term consequences.
Take Modafinil, for example. This drug for people with sleep disorders is becoming a particularly popular choice to boost alertness and energy. While the research on Modafinil remains scant, looking at how the drug works may offer insight into possible side effects down the road.
“Part of the way Modafinil works is by shifting the brain’s levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters; it’s not clear what effects these shifts may have on a person’s health in the long run,” as Markham Heid pointed out at TIME.
Common focus-enhancing pills like Ritalin and Adderall also classify as nootropics. These drugs are used widely both by ADHD patients and those without the condition — and both groups experience their negative effects. Aside from being addictive, Adderall and Ritalin have been linked to insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, heart trouble, and sudden death in healthy individuals.
Many proponents of Giurgea’s theory don’t classify these drugs as nootropics.
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If the side effects of synthetic nootropics aren’t reason enough to avoid them, consider the abundance of natural nootropics found in the natural world. Plants and herbs offer a wide range of adaptogenic, or stress-relieving compounds that support increased focus and relaxation.
Natural nootropics are much safer than synthetic forms because, in their purest version, they don’t produce side effects similar to other neuro-psychotropic drugs. Look for high-quality nootropic herbs that are standardized or that feature certain trademarks or labels, such as GMP, which denotes good manufacturing practices. Also look for Nootropics without artificial ingredients or common allergens. Manufacturers concerned with safety will clearly define the presence of ingredients and allergens, such as gluten, soy, and dairy.
Here’s a look at the best natural nootropics, and how they support the mind and body.
Green Tea and L-Theanine
Green tea is a natural source of L-theanine, a common and efficient nootropic. Multiple studies have shown L-theanine to increase attention performance, improve sleep, boost reaction time, and promote relaxation. It could also be therapeutic for patients who suffer from high anxiety. These benefits are linked to L-theanine’s neuroprotective effects, meaning it can restore and regenerate nerve cells in multiple ways.
Brahmi, or Bacopa monnieri, is a fundamental herb in Ayurvedic medicine. It thrives in wet, tropical environments and can survive well under water. Similar to many other natural nootropics, the plant, its extract as well as isolated bacosides are known to support mental performance while reducing stress and having anti-inflammatory properties as well. Another perk of supplementing with Bacopa Monnieri is that it contains adaptogens, which fight off the free radicals and oxidative stress that’re linked to many modern lifestyle diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Ginseng is one of the oldest and most popular adaptogenic herbs. Stemming from traditional Chinese medicine, it’s a long, light brown root with green leaves and a bitter flavor. The two most popular varieties are American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian (Panax ginseng), both of which have a positive effect on the immune system.
Ginseng can support healthy blood sugar levels and increased concentration may help with menopause, cancer, blood pressure, and heart disease. Since ginseng is a powerful herb, it has the ability to interact with other drugs and may not be a good choice for people taking certain medications, so please consult with your doctor before taking Ginseng as a supplement.
Also known as rosenroot, arctic root, or golden root, rhodiola rosea is a mountain herb that grows in cold climates. It contains over 140 active ingredients and has both antidepressive and anti-fatigue effects and is also used to treat anxiety in Russia and Scandinavia. To test its antidepressive effects, a study compared rhodiola to the antidepressant medication Zoloft that’s active ingredient is sertraline. Findings showed that, while the chemical drug had a greater effect on reducing overall symptoms of depression, the herb was easier to tolerate because it was generally without side effects.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom is a shaggy white mushroom that can be consumed cooked, raw, dried, or in tea form for improved brain function. While there’s no definitive report linking lion’s mane to Alzheimer’s disease prevention, a study on mice has shown the mushroom to have neuroprotective impact on treating or preventing neurodegenerative diseases. These are often a cause of chronic inflammation, cell death, and brain damage in patients. More research is needed to see if the mushroom has the same effect in humans.
Lush and leafy, ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest living tree species. It’s a popular natural nootropic that may have a positive effect on cognitive function, anxiety and stress management. Additionally, studies have shown the use of the herb to reduce symptoms of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
Gingko may play a role in improving blood flow, which can support artery health and reduce the chance of stroke. Other studies demonstrate the positive impacts of Gingko on eye health. More research is warranted, but preliminary findings suggest that supplementing with ginkgo biloba may be beneficial in treating age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss.
The body only makes a very small amount of choline in the liver; however, it isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of humans. Therefore, we must get it from our diet or from a choline supplement. Choline is often grouped with B vitamins due to its essential role in regulating liver function, metabolism, brain development, and muscle movement. While it’s rare to be deficient in choline, certain groups of people may be more at risk. These include endurance athletes, post menopausal women, pregnant women and people who consume high amounts of alcohol.
Piracetam is a natural nootropic that, like many others, is used for cognitive enhancement. It has been found that Piracetam may help working memory, intellectual function, learning, and concentration. Studies have also shown that Piracetam enhances ATP production, but when it comes to treating cognitive decline, the right dosage is key. A study of older adults showed significant difference in cognition improvement with a dosage of 1,600 mg three times per day. However, there was no difference in cognition with patients who received 800 mg three times per day.
Natural Nootropics for Health
An increased interest in brain health and productivity has given rise to a variety of synthetic supplements, but not all of these compounds are without concern. Since many synthetic nootropics may have side effects, natural nootropics are a much healthier and safer alternative.
Whether it’s improving mental performance, reducing the risk of disease, or raising your resilience against stress, natural nootropics offer a wide range of benefits for overall well-being and cognitive fitness. Understanding how to incorporate these supplements into your life can help you better understand your health and how to optimize it.