Health & Medical

Enter the world of natural nootropics

Enter the world of natural nootropics thumbnail

Among the prized substances of Mother Nature’s bounty is an array of natural nootropics, touted for enhancing your brain’s function and supercharging cognitive abilities. Here we explore how harnessing these nootropic substances in your lifestyle ultimately provides you with a means to have your brain functioning optimally. It’s time to dive into how they work, which ones to choose and how to incorporate them in order to reap the maximum brain-boosting benefits on offer.

What are nootropics?

The term nootropics, by definition, refers to a collection of substances colloquially known as “smart drugs” or supplements due to their actions on the brain that can contribute to a boost in intelligence. While this includes synthetic options created in a laboratory, the abundance of efficacious natural herbal nootropics, bearing the minimal risk of side effects, generally tips the scale in favour of those created by Mother Nature when selecting cognitive enhancers.

According to expert Anna Mitsios, a naturopath passionate about utilising the special qualities of certain herbs and plants, nootropics found in nature have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine; however, they are only recently becoming popularised in the Western world due to their ability to function as cognitive enhancers. “This essentially means that they are substances with a long tradition of use by humans, which have the ability to improve your brain’s power through avenues such as enhanced memory, concentration, focus, clarity and energy,” explains Mitsios. In turn, this can have a ripple effect of increased productivity and higher work quality, along with greater enjoyment and less stress when performing cognitive tasks.

How do they work?

Though the traditional use of natural nootropics and the preclinical records of their elevating effects dates back thousands of years, modern science is here to back up the ability that myriad nootropic substances have to positively alter the brain’s functions. Nootropic compounds have been well studied in relation to driving a potential increase in memory, creativity, motivation, concentration and attention span, proven to both boost cognition while simultaneously making the brain itself healthier.

One of the ways nootropics impact the brain is by acting as vasodilators of the small arteries and veins in the brain, resulting in increased blood circulation and provision of important nutrients, plus increased energy and oxygen flow to the brain. Since the brain requires a continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients in order to generate energy from burning glucose, it makes sense that introducing natural nootropics into your system can improve the overall health of your brain.

Going beyond supporting the general wellbeing of the brain, studies have also shown that natural nootropic compounds can reduce inflammation in the brain. Using ingestible nootropics as part of your lifestyle can protect your brain from the adverse impact of toxins and minimise brain ageing effects.

Perhaps even more impressively, the demonstrated ability of natural nootropics to boost brain function is also attributed to the way these substances can stimulate new neuronal connections and new neurons. (Yes, adult neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons in adulthood, is an accepted phenomenon these days.) When this occurs, brain activity increases, elevating thought- and memory-making pathways in the mind and thereby increasing neuroplasticity. In other words, natural nootropics enhance the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganisation (brain plasticity), especially in response to learning.

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Nootropics also play a role in increasing key neurotransmitters and hormones to support beneficial brain chemistry, including dopamine, serotonin and GABA, which further explains their cognitive-boosting effects.

Meet some of the top performers

If all of this information has your brain ticking over and you’re interested in going further into the world of natural nootropics, the following herbs and substances are excellent choices to look into bringing into your repertoire. They are known to be some of the best-studied and top-performing natural smart herbs, compounds and supplements available.

Bacopa monnieri

Also known as brahmi or water hyssop, this plant is a perennial creeping herb native to the wetlands of southern and eastern India that has been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It is categorised by Ayurvedic medical practitioners as medhya rasayana, which is a substance that enhances memory, learning and intellect. Clinical study of the plant suggests this may be related to stimulation of certain brain chemicals involved in these brain processes. It also may be effective in protecting brain cells against adverse chemicals involved in the onset and development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Caffeine

The most commonly used nootropic around the world, caffeine comes in many forms, such as coffee, tea and energy drinks. It works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, which are what make you feel tiredness. In doing so, it helps you feel more alert and productive and reduces feelings of fatigue. The downside is that regular consumption leads to a tolerance building, so you may feel more reliant on it to function normally and also have to increase your dose to get the same effects over time. When it comes to an almost instant brain boost though, caffeine can’t be overlooked as an effective nootropic.

Creatine

This naturally occurring amino acid may benefit cognitive function due to the way it is able to interact with brain cells and therefore support their activity. Since brain cells need large amounts of energy in order to function optimally, supplementing with creatine could potentially assist the brain’s production of the energy required to think. Indeed, a systematic review of the scientific literature reported that short-term memory in healthy individuals could be improved by taking a creatine supplement.

Ginkgo

This is a classic herb used for centuries in China for its blood circulatory stimulating benefits, and it is commonly used to this day to support memory, focus and concentration. “This is one of my absolute favourite natural nootropics,” says Mitsios. “It works by boosting cerebral blood flow along with increasing nitric oxide, which assists in dilating blood vessels and enhancing circulation to the brain further. By doing so it boosts neuron cell oxygenation and glucose availability, which in turn improves memory, focus, recall and learning,” she explains. Studies show it can also increase levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter with several important functions including those related to memory and motivation) in the brain by reducing substances that break it down.

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Ginseng

Ginseng has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. The herb’s health benefits can be attributed to two significant and complementary compounds it contains, which are ginsenosides and gintonin. The two most popular varieties are American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian (Panax ginseng), both of which have a positive effect on brain function, including concentration, memory and mood, as well as being potent sources of antioxidants.

Lion’s mane





This shaggy white medicinal mushroom is aptly named and is known for its neuroprotective capabilities. Studies have found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain two special compounds that can stimulate the growth of brain cells, called hericenones and erinacines. Supplementing with this mushroom may have benefits such as increased memory, mental agility and protection against degenerative brain disorders.

L-theanine





Found naturally in high concentration in green tea, this unique amino acid tends to initiate a boost in alertness while at the same time providing a calming and relaxing effect on the brain. It achieves this by increasing serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels, which all have important functions for mood and stress regulation. A randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind study in which certain participants were given a dose of 200 milligrams of L-theanine over four weeks found that those using the nootropic substance experienced an improvement in executive functioning along with a reduction in stress.

Mucuna pruriens

Also known as velvet bean, this herb is native to southern China and also traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine. “I have used this herb in clinical practice with profound results,” says Mitsios, who explains that it works due to its ability to function as a natural source of dopamine.

“It not only has neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing benefits, it is also used for its ability to improve male sexual function and doubles as an aphrodisiac. It has been clinically studied to be beneficial in nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s, which is why it truly earns my respect!”

Incorporating natural nootropics

Ready to see what smart supplements can do for your brain? A good place to begin is by incorporating them into your drinks and foods. “My recommendation is to start sneaking nootropics into your diet,” says Mitsios. “For instance, adding medicinal mushrooms such as lion’s mane or matcha green tea powder (extremely rich in L-theanine) into your morning beverages, whether that be a hot latte or refreshing smoothie, a tonic of some form offers an easy way to start experimenting with nootropics.”

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Another great way to get the cognitive-boosting benefits when it comes to nootropic herbs is in concentrated liquid tinctures and extracts. “I love herbal medicine for instance and incorporate Bacopa and ginseng or gingko into a liquid herbal mix designed to be taken in the morning with great success for my clients when focus and mental clarity are treatment goals,” says Mitsios.

What about side effects?

Generally speaking, the risk of side effects is low with natural nootropics; however, as with all supplements and herbs, it is recommended to take them under the guidance of a qualified practitioner. “I do recommend that they cannot be an alternative to healthy eating and a balanced lifestyle,” advises Mitsios. “While natural, certain herbs can have a significant impact on mood, neurotransmitters and energy, so they do need to be specifically prescribed to ensure there are no negative side effects for an individual.”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that when it comes to common “everyday” nootropics, such as caffeine in coffee and tea, it’s a good idea to be cautious of overuse or having too high a quantity in one sitting, as this may cause unwanted side effects such as anxiety, insomnia and tremors.

Additional notes on nootropics

Though natural nootropics certainly have the ability to boost your brain power and function, it’s important to be aware that they aren’t a cure-all, and most work best if you have some symptoms of decreased mental clarity to begin with. The science certainly supports the effects of nootropic herbs and substances; however, it is still an area of growing study. It should also be noted that numerous factors can adversely impact your mental abilities, such as sleep, diet, exercise and stress levels, so the most effective strategy for cognitive performance is to look at your lifestyle and wellbeing from a 360- degree point of view. Improving all of these factors, in conjunction with use


of natural nootropics, will provide a more thorough and sustained beneficial outcome in the long run.

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