Nootropics (from the Greek roots noo-, meaning “mind, and tropo, meaning “turn”) are substances with the potential to transform cognitive performance in healthy members of the population (1). From young people to older folks, office workers to professional athletes, the use of nootropics is becoming increasingly common amongst those wanting to boost their recall, focus, and general brainpower.
These “smart drugs” come in both natural and synthetic forms. As with many man-made drugs, however, there is a risk involved in taking synthetic nootropics. As a result, many prefer the idea of consuming nootropic compounds that can be found in nature.
As well as breaking down the scientific benefits of natural nootropics, this no-nonsense review offers detailed summaries of thirteen natural nootropics which will enable you to unlock your mental performance – naturally.
Why Natural Nootropics?
Natural nootropics don’t just enhance cognitive performance. They also increase blood circulation to the all-important organ that is the brain, which depends on receiving 15% of your body’s total oxygen and blood supply (2).
Natural nootropics can stimulate the release of a panoply of brain-function-increasing neurotransmitters. The most well-documented of these is dopamine, but natural nootropics also encourage the uptake of choline, the turnover of phosphatidylinositol, and the movement of phosphatase (3). The increased volume and activity of these neurotransmitters can actually improve synaptic transmission within the brain in the long-term, meaning that the regular use of natural nootropics has the potential to impact your cognitive function for good (4).
With increasing numbers of healthy people awakening to the benefits of natural nootropics, more and more types of nootropic products are popping up on the commercial market. But it isn’t always easy to figure out which of the products marketed as natural nootropics are gimmicks, and which are truly effective. Understanding how to tell the difference between the two is the key to finding a natural nootropic that works for you.
We all know the stereotype of the med student or crazed writer guzzling coffee to get through the night’s work. Although this kind of routine isn’t recommended, it remains that caffeine has well-documented effects on cognitive function. And there’s no denying its cost-efficacy and availability (after all, you won’t be able to find every nootropic in your household pantry).
Debates continue to rage about whether caffeine is a cognitive and physical performance enhancer or a psychoactive drug, and those prone to anxiety or mood disorders may find that caffeine enhances their manic symptoms (5). For most of the population, though, caffeine is a safe and effective way to sharpen and stimulate the mind when tiredness hits.
A review article published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that caffeine, when consumed in low to moderate doses (40-300mg), improved condition, offsetting the cognitive and physical deterioration associated with sleep loss (6). Caffeine achieves this by blocking adenosine receptors (adenosine is the neuromodulator responsible for causing drowsiness by slowing nerve cell activity in the brain) (7).
The medicinal plant Brahmi (Bacopa monniera) has been a foundational compound in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Now its scientific profile is coming to light too, and the picture looks promising.
In 2008, a double-blind, placebo-controlled investigation into the effects of Brahmi found that regular consumption of the Bacopa monniera product significantly improved participant performance on the “Working Memory” factor (8). A more recent meta-analysis in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggests that Brahmi has the potential to improve cognition amongst the healthy population (9).
Whilst further studies are necessary to determine the ideal dosage rage of Bacopa monniera and the effects of long-term administration of the extract, it appears that the principles of Ayurvedic medicine hold true in a scientific context.
Nicotine isn’t all bad. This naturally-occurring chemical, if consumed in the right way and at the right dosage, can improve motor function and focus the attention.
A study into the nootropic effects of nicotine on a cohort of non-smokers found that nicotine – administered through a transdermal patch – significantly increased measures of alertness in the sample group (10). Another animal study indicated that nicotine notably improves the cognitive deficits caused by schizophrenia (11)
For the healthy human, then, chewing on some nicotine gum may offer just the boost needed to push through that long workday or all-nighter.
Although the name may be tricky to wrap the tongue around, phosphatidylserine is a straightforwardly effective nootropic. As it naturally occurs, phosphatidylserine is a fatty substance that protects the brain cells and acts as a message-carrier between them. In supplementary form, phosphatidylserine can boost brain power in younger subjects and prevent mental decline in the older population.
One study explored the effects of phosphatidylserine on young males aged 18-30, to determine whether the use of the supplement would improve cognitive function following an intense period of resistance training. Phosphatidylserine supplementation was found to significantly reduce the time needed for decision-making and to reduce the margin of error in said decision-making (12).
Another study, this time conducted on elderly volunteers with memory complaints, demonstrated the favorable effects of soy-based phosphatidylserine on memory recognition, memory recall, executive functions, and mental flexibility (13). The researchers of this study also underlined the safety of the soy-based form of phosphatidylserine (as compared to the form of phosphatidylserine extracted from cow brains).
5. Meadowsweet Extract
Meadowsweet extract is made from the flowering tops of the Filipendula vulgaris plant. Thanks to a study published in 2015, the longstanding cognitive benefits of meadowsweet extract have been brought to light. The study tested the effects of extracts of Filipendula vulgaris on the behavior and memory of mice following hypoxic injury. Ultimately, the extracts of meadowsweet were shown to improve animal resistance to hypoxia, as well as to improve conditioned passive avoidance response after injury (14). The authors of this study pose that meadowsweet may actually offer the same benefits as the nootropic drug Piracetam, which though reported to improve neural plasticity, is not FDA-approved (15).
Meadowsweet extract can be consumed dissolved in water whenever a brain boost is needed.
Curcumin is a naturally-occurring polyphenol, or plant compound found in turmeric, the Indian spice that many millennials may know best for its presence in funky lattes. As it turns out, there’s a scientific basis for the hype. Turmeric (and so curcumin) boasts myriad health benefits, with its nootropic properties the latest to be confirmed by scientists.
One study tested the effects of curcumin pretreatment on stress-induced anxiety and memory in rats, reporting positive results on both counts. The study concluded that the supplementation of curcumin in rats’ diets may prove beneficial in treating anxiety and in enhancing memory function (16). Another reputable curcumin trial – this time on humans – examined the effects of the polyphenol on cognitive function in 60 healthy older adults. This study found that just one hour after consuming curcumin, participants performed notably better on attention and working memory tests (17).
Tyrosine is one of the better-known natural nootropics on the market, widely marketed as an amino acid. Tyrosine is naturally produced in the body and is found in dairy, poultry, and other high-protein food sources. The reason tyrosine is attractive to those wanting to improve their cognitive performance is that it’s vital to the production of other important hormones and neurotransmitters, including dopamine, melanin, and adrenaline (18)
Since tyrosine is so popular a supplement, a broader body of scientific research is available to support its effects on cognitive performance. The majority of these studies confirm that tyrosine supplementation is correlated to better cognitive performance (working memory and intelligence), extending wakefulness and countering the effects of mental stress (19).
If you’re in a high-stress situation and need a temporary mental upper, tyrosine could be the thing for you. Just be aware of tyrosine’s potential drug reactions, especially if you’re on antidepressant medication or have underlying thyroid issues (20).
8. Huperzine A
Huperzine A is a dietary supplement extracted from the Chinese club moss plant, also known as Huperzia serrata. You’ll see Huperzine A listed as an ingredient in many nootropic supplements, and for good reason: this supplement is thought to speed up cognitive function significantly, and has a whole tranche of neuroprotective benefits.
The majority of extant randomized controlled trials for Huperzine A speak to its effects on Alzheimer’s patients, but the ameliorative effects of the supplement on older members of the population is hypothesized to apply to younger people, too. A meta-analysis of the available trails of Huperzine A reports that, compared with the placebo, Huperzine A significantly increased participants’ cognitive performance (21). However, the methodological soundness of the existing studies was questioned (22).
9. Arctic Root
Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea) is another herbal nootropic that has historically been used by Chinese and European herbalists to improve endurance and reduce stress. Researchers have demonstrated that Arctic Root can effectively control the body’s central stress response by increasing the ability of the brain to absorb the precursors of dopamine and serotonin (the so-called “happy hormones”). Artic Root stimulates the release of neurotransmitters to activate the cerebral cortex and improve the cognitive functions of this vital part of the brain. Artic root can even prevent the processes which block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, thus reversing the faltering of memory (23).
Gingko – or gingko biloba – refers to the maidenhair tree renowned the world-round for its medicinal powers. Like many botanical products, the benefits of the gingko tree are still being conclusively proven by scientists, but existing studies support the neuroprotective effects of gingko on healthy and neuro-compromised patients alike.
The effects of gingko have been particularly well-demonstrated on the older population. Gingko has been shown to protect brain cell membranes from assault by free radicals, thus defending against the degrading effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s dementia (24). Moreover, selected longitudinal studies have found that cognitive decline in the healthy older population is lower amongst those who regularly took gingko biloba extract than those who did not (25).
Other studies have proven the usefulness of gingko biloba extract in enhancing memory acquisition and retention amongst a wide age-range of healthy human participants, especially in combination with Codonopsis pilosula (Dangshen), another natural plant product (26).
The amino acid creatine has long been used by competitive athletes or bodybuilders keen to bulk up their forms and enhance their physical performance. One placebo-controlled study out of Australia compared a sample group that took creatine for a period of six weeks against a group that didn’t. All of the sample subjects were vegetarians, since creatine is most often found in red meat. Creatine supplementation via oral tablets was found to have a markedly positive impact on both working memory and intelligence – findings which, the study’s authors concluded, “underline(d) a dynamic and significant role of brain energy capacity in influencing brain performance” (27).
However, other scientific experts warn that the effects of creatine on brain function are not as well-evidenced as the effects of the amino acid on physical performance. What’s more, the authors of the aforementioned study caution that the health impact of extended creatine supplementation remains unknown. It’s best to supplement creatine only for a temporary mental boost, with students fit to benefit particularly from this powerful nootropic.
When it comes to natural nootropics, coffee tends to get all the buzz – but we’ve got good news for tea-drinkers, too. Did you know that tea is the near-exclusive source of the brain enhancer L. Theanine, touted as the ideal supplement for putting its human consumer into a state of serene concentration?
According to one randomized controlled trial, the consumption of healthy levels of L-Theanine is correlated to a reduction in stress responses (namely, heart rate and salivary immunoglobulin) (28). The authors of the study in question concluded that the oral intake of L-Theanine could result in anti-stress effects, primarily due to L-Theanine’s ability to block the binding of L-glutamic acid to glutamate receptors in the brain (29).
The amino acid of L-Theanine is most abundant in green tea, but is also found in black and white tea. So if you’re searching for the ideal nootropic but don’t necessarily want the coffee jitters, opt for a meditative brew.
13. American Ginseng
American ginseng, also known as Panax quinquefolius, has caused a real stir in the scientific community over the last decade. A panoply of research studies into the effects of American ginseng in recent years have shown strong evidence for the benefits of this herb on neurocognitive function.
The increased interest to American ginseng arose from the proven impact of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) on human cognitive function. Chinese herbalists have used extracts of ginseng for millennia to ward against a huge range of diseases, as well as to increase performance (physical and mental). Scientists hypothesized that the American version, with its distinct ginsenoside profile, might offer equivalent or even better brain-enhancing properties than P. ginseng – and they were right.
One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study used American ginseng in the form of the extract Cereboost™ to assess whether P. quinquefolius could influence the mood, cognitive function, and blood glucose of young healthy adults (30). Whilst no changes in blood glucose levels were recorded, the researchers found a significant improvement of working memory performance in participants. Mood – measured in this trial as “calmness” – was also significantly improved (31).
A further study conducted on healthy middle-aged individuals found that the effects of American ginseng extended also to people later in life (32). As with the above study, a significant improvement in participants’ cognitive performance (on the “Working Memory” factor) was recorded, although there were no significant effects on mood levels reported.
For a long time, the highly beneficial effects of multiple plants from the Panax family went understudied due to the dearth of ginseng extracts on the health market. Today, though, the widespread availability of extracts like CereboostTM make it easy for people to procure and test out the effects of P. quinquefolius for themselves.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of natural nootropics to get your hands on, many of which have demonstrable scientific benefits. Whether you opt for a plant extract like American ginseng or a concentrated supplement like creatine, you’re likely to experience at least a slight improvement in your cognitive capacity. And if you’re not wanting to spend your time and resources tracking down one of the more elusive natural nootropics on the market, then you can’t go wrong with a classic cup of joe.
Whichever natural nootropic you settle on, you can rest easy in the knowledge that consuming any or all of the substances listed above is unlikely to impact your health negatively. So what are you waiting for? Give some of these natural nootropics a try when you’re in dire need of a brain boost, and see what gets your neurons firing.
Philip Ghezelbash is passionate about nootropics and presenting complex science in an easy to digest manner. As an ex-personal trainer, science graduate, best-selling author, and freelance writer, Philip has helped educate millions of curious people around the world about science-based health, nutrition, and fitness.