Nootropics have been well known by CEOs and scientists for years and are just now becoming popularized by college students and those simply wishing to optimize their cognitive performance.
Most nootropics, however, are synthesized and can be compared to pharmaceutical medications.
This does not mean they are dangerous, but many would prefer to use natural products to achieve optimal health.
Well if this is you then you’re in luck!
Nootropics are not limited to the pharmaceutical scene, and in fact, many of these synthetic chemicals are actually made after naturally occurring chemicals.
The only real difference with using whole plant extracts as nootropics compared with synthetic chemicals is that a higher dosage will be needed in order to achieve the same results.
Natural chemicals can also be concentrated from the natural herb in a lab environment which closer resemble the synthetic versions in dosage.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics are not stimulants, but instead, promote the normal healthy functioning of the brain.
They are popular amongst students to make their study more efficient, older generations who are worried their memories are beginning to weaken, and for work by people who have demanding jobs which require them to think critically or quickly.
Some nootropics are even useful to stimulate creativity and imagination. Medicinally, the main application of nootropic and cognitive enhancing botanicals is for the treatment and prevention of Alzheimers and dementia (see my other article) in older people, and ADD and ADHD in children.
Alpha brain is my favourite all-purpose nootropic formula at the moment.
Many Nootropic Substances Come From Plants
Many nootropics, synthetic or otherwise, actually come from or are replicated from natural components of medicinal plant species.
Vinpocetine, for example, is a synthetic version of vincamine which is a naturally occurring indole alkaloid found in the periwinkle plant.
These synthetic versions or concentrated extracts of vincamine itself are often highly concentrated, and only a very small dose is needed to achieve results.
This makes it a little bit easier to take, but often creates more side effects than using a more complete or holistic extract of the plant.
Whole botanicals or herbal extracts can be used similarly to these concentrated or synthetic extracts to achieve the same sort of results, but generally need to be used in higher dosages than their highly concentrated counterparts.
Harmonic Arts has a great holistic herbal nootropic blend which can be found here.
Here are some of the best natural nootropics:
Especially useful when combined with ginseng (Panax ginseng or Panax quinquefolium).
Ginkgo is believed to act as a nootropic mainly by improving the blood flow to the brain. It tones the vascular system of the whole body, including the brain.
Conditions such as Alzheimers and Dementia can develop in one of 2 main ways. By a buildup of beta-amyloid plaque as a result of the breakdown acetylcholine, or due to low blood flow to the brain.
Ginkgo is thought to prevent these conditions by preventing the later. Improving the vascular system and subsequently allowing more oxygen, and nutrients to reach the individual brain cells.
Through this action, it is also believed to improve the performance of healthy individuals as well.
Ginkgo leaf extracts are often found highly concentrated (similar to many of the other nootropics) in order to be most effective and should be consumed over a long period of time.
Try this as a good holistic Gingko leaf extract.
Known as Brahmi in India, is only effective for cognition enhancement with long term use.
A study investigating the short term effects of bacopa found no improvement, but several long-term studies of 90 days or more have shown significant improvement in memory, cognitive function, and intelligence.
This herb has been especially associated with an improvement in hand-eye coordination. This suggests an action on the cerebellum of the brain which is known to be responsible for the coordination of muscular function.
Without this portion of the brain, we would have extremely poor hand-eye coordination.
Find Bacopa extract here.
As mentioned earlier, the relatively well-known nootropic vinpocetine is the synthetic (and slightly altered) version of vincamine.
This chemical is found in the periwinkle plant, which is actually a fairly common garden species for its beautiful purple colours.
The periwinkle plant, known botanically as Vinca major, can be consumed in dried, powdered or extracted forms as well to naturally improve cognitive function in much the same way as its synthetic counterpart.
Vincamine is not as well studied as vinpocetine, likely due to the fact that the only synthetic versions of these chemicals are patentable, and the natural component is not.
Nevertheless, it has been found that these two chemicals, though slightly different, appear to have the same or similar active regions and accomplish virtually the same results.
This slight difference can be compared to the better-known aspirin, which is an acetylated version of the naturally occurring salicylic acid found in willow and birch bark.
These two chemicals have slight differences, but both accomplish the same anti-inflammatory actions through inhibition of the COX pathway, which is vital for certain kinds of inflammation.
Find Periwinkle here.
4. Cannabis (CBD)
Most people associate cannabis with the. Exact opposite effects to cognitive performance.
The chemical cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids, however, are in fact quite a nootropic in their action. CBD, in particular, can inhibit acetylcholinesterase, which over long periods of time creates beta-amyloid plaques around the nerve synapses. It’s believed to be the main pathological process resulting in Alzheimers.
Smoking cannabis is not the best way to use it as a nootropic, however, as the carbon monoxide and other products of combustion can actually damage the brain instead, and reduce oxygen delivery to the brain cells which will no doubt result in reduced cognition.
The best way to take CBDis in a capsule, or liquid extract. CBD extracts can be purchased in areas where this highly useful herb is no longer ignorantly outlawed and will not produce a high.
The psychoactive components can be omitted and will likely prove to be even more nootropic in this form than the whole plant extract for this reason.
5. The Tea Plant (L-Theanine)
This amino acid has been shown to improve memory and concentration. Although found in pretty much all tea, it is contained in highest amounts in shade grown varieties of green tea.
This includes gyokuro, tencha, and of course matcha green tea.
Matcha is considered the best natural source of L-theanine because it is not steeped like other forms of the tea plant.
It’s powdered and consumed whole as a solution. Ths means that 100% of the contents of the leaves enter the body.
This is compounded by the fact that matcha is usually shade-grown. Shading the tea plant for the last few weeks before harvest cause a significant rise in L-Theanine compared to sun grown varieties.
L-Theanine can also be found in a concentrated extraction from laboratory intervention.
This form of L-theanine is still highly effective, and very safe even with long term usage.
You can find Matcha powder here.
6. Lions Mane
Lion's mane is a fungus (Hericium erinaceous) with a characteristic irregular shape resembling that of hair or a lion's mane.
This mushroom is often eaten as a food, and actually, pairs very well cooked with butter. Much like other mushrooms, however, it offers additional medicinal actions.
Lion's mane is well known to improve cognitive functions in doses as low as 750 mg daily. There are several ways that lions mane can improve cognitive performance and act as a nootropic.
The main one is that it is able to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein complex that stimulates the nerve cells to grow. In most cases, it is agreed tat the nerve cells are not the best multiplier, and once enough have been damaged, by conditions such as MS, traumatic injury, neurotoxic chemicals, or Alzheimers they generally do not come back.
By stimulating nerve growth factor it is believed that these degenerative conditions can be either slowed or prevented altogether depending on the severity of the condition. In healthy individuals, it is thought that the nerve growth stimulated by lions mane is more of a maintenance and preventative action, with only a mild increase in cognitive performance, memory, and concentration.
The more significant improvement appears to be in those with reduced cognitive function.
Find lions mane here.
7. Chinese Club Moss (Huperzine-A)
The popular nootropic huperzine-A is another naturally occurring compound that has been highly refined and concentrated for use as a nootropic supplement.
In order to concentrate this chemical to the level needed to be classified as specifically "huperzine-A" a laboratory is needed.
This may turn some people who prefer the more holistic approach, it is a safe and naturally occurring compound. Recently there has been an increase in interest or this chemical, and numerous studies on its safety and effectiveness have been published.
Many use it to improve memory and prevent Alzheimers and dementia by improving blood flow to the brain.
This is especially useful in eating vascular dementia or Alzheimers but may prove useful as a preventative as well over long term use.
Find it here.
8. Black Ant
Although this last example is not botanical in nature, it is one of the most interesting ones.
Polyrhachis is a large genus of ants commonly referred to as black ant. It has an impressive nutritional profile and contains multiple potent medicinal compounds along with high levels of zinc.
In fact, black ants have the highest concentration of zinc in any living substance in the world.
In China, black ant is commonly used by university students to help prevent the burnout associated with overworking and studying.
The cognitive enhancing properties associated with black and has been suggested to be due to its high zinc content, ecdysterone, and its rich supply of the neurotransmitter precursors tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine. .
Blending Nootropics: An Example Formula
Use liquid extracts (1:2) or dilute as necessary.
Take 10 ml of this formula 2 or 3 times a day.
Periwinkle (2 parts)
Ginseng (Asian or American) (2 parts)
Gingko (2 parts)
Lions mane (1 part)
The Sunlight Experiment
Recent Blog Posts
Jha, M.K., Rahman, Sheikh, H. (2012). Vinpocetine: A smart drug and mart nutrient: A review. IJPSR. Vol 3. 2. 346-352.