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 new to many of us, nootropics have been used in both Chinese medicine and ayurvedic healing for thousands of years.
Whether its 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 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 $5.9 million by 2024, you just might 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 (without the side effects).
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, says holistic health practitioner Shari Auth.
“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.”
Since there are so many medicines, plants, and substances that offer these benefits, there remains debate about what is and isn’t a nootropic. This can all be clarified by psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, the first nootropics researcher. He explained that nootropics must meet a number of features to be classified as such. According to this definition, a true nootropic will offer:
- Improved learning and short-term memory retention
- Increased resilience to stress hormones and trauma
- Brain cell protection and communication
- No side effects
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, says Chris D’Adamo, PhD, at the University of Maryland. Once a person incorporates these changes into their life, nootropics can serve as an additional bonus for improving mental sharpness and reducing mental fatigue.
There are hundreds 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. Smart drugs like Modafinil, Racetams, Adrafinil, and Noopept fall into this category. These compounds do improve mental function, but many also come with side effects.
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,” says Markham Heid 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 — which states that a true nootropic has no side effects — don’t classify these drugs as nootropics.
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. 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 powerful nootropic. Multiple studies have shown L-theanine increases 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. Like many other natural nootropics, this powerful herb is known to support mental performance while reducing stress. Another perk of supplementing with Bacopa Monnieri is that it contains adaptogens, which fight off the free radicals linked to 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 reduced blood sugar levels and increased concentration while helping 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 diabetes medications.
Also known as rosenroot, arctic root, or golden root, rhodiola rosea is a mountain herb that grows in cold climates. It 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. 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, studies on mice have shown the mushroom to prevent the progression of amyloid-beta plaques in the brain. These are a major cause of inflammation, cell death, and brain damage in patients with the disease. 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 has a positive effect on cognitive function. Practitioners of Chinese medicine use the herb to reduce dementia symptoms and reverse depression symptoms.
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. Age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss, may be slowed with a regular ginkgo biloba supplement.
The body makes choline in small amounts, but many people also take 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. While there are no extensive studies on young, healthy adults, some findings suggest that piracetam can help working memory, intellectual function, learning, and concentration. Older adults experiencing cognitive decline can also benefit from Piracetam.
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 safe. Since many synthetic nootropics are accompanied by side effects, natural nootropics are a much healthier and safer alternative.
Whether its 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. Understanding how to fit these supplements into your life can help you better understand your health.