9 Herbal Nootropics to Boost Brain Power
by Stacy Thomas | August 11, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
If you’re keeping an eye on the latest health and wellness trends, you’ve likely heard of nootropics.
“Nootropics” refers to a whole slew of different supplements, synthetic and natural, that enhance your cognitive function, memory, motivation, and creativity. Also known as ‘smart drugs’, nootropics are often touted as magical pills that will solve your procrastination issues, and give you superpowers.
However, not all nootropics are created equal. Some of them can be downright damaging. A favourite of harried students and exhausted worker bees, nootropic stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines can lead to addiction, or worse. There are countless ‘nootropic’ products on the market making false, or vague claims.
Luckily, there are many herbal nootropics that can be as effective as synthetics, without crazy side effects. Here’s nine natural options to help you figure out what works for you.
1. Water Hyssop (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa monnieri, otherwise known as water hyssop or Brahmi (after the Hindu creator god Brahma), is a creeping perennial, native to Australia and India, that also grows in the warm wetlands of America and East Asia, often as weeds in rice fields.
Used as a stimulant in Ayurveda since the 6th century, the herb helped Vedic scholars memorize unbelievably long, sacred scriptures. Ayurvedic texts describe bacopa as a powerful agent for improving intellect, especially in combination with other brain-sharpening herbs like Gotu kola.
Bacopa shows great promise in reducing the effects of dementia, mainly through free radical scavenging.
2. Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng)
There are two types of ginseng—Chinese ginseng and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). The latter is known for its calming stress reducing effects, and the former for its stimulating cognitive effects.
One of panax ginseng’s most documented uses is its ability to improve secondary memory functions such as declarative recollection—the ability to recognise things or people you’ve seen before; and working memory—temporarily retaining memories to reason through an issue or complete a task. This was demonstrated in one significant study where rats with Alzheimer’s disease were given doses of ginseng, and outperformed other rats with the disease in a memory test.
3. Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba is another popular nootropic used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for several millennia, and noted for its positive effects on age-related cognitive decline, as early as 2,800 BC. The oldest Ginkgo (or Maidenhair) tree currently stands in the Chinese province of Shandong, and is over 3,000 years old. Some scientists regard these trees as ‘living fossils’.
Extract from Ginkgo’s fan-shaped leaves increases dopamine levels in the brain by acting as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). Increased dopamine means reduced anxiety, and can treat ADHD symptoms. Dopamine also increases cerebral blood flow, making oxygen and glucose more available to your neurons therefore improving your memory, cognition, and learning.
4. Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus Linn)
Sweet flag, a tall wetland monocot perennial, has one of the longest histories of recorded medicinal use. Used in Greek and Roman medicine, it also makes an appearance in the Old Testament during the time of Moses.
The plant’s sweet-smelling rhizomes are valued for their scent and medicinal use in many cultures. Sweet flag is commonly consumed as a tincture, in alcoholic beverages, or enjoyed as an essential oil added to perfumes.
Tonics and powders derived from the ground roots of sweet flag are effective in boosting memory, cognition, intelligence, confidence, and reducing mental fatigue. It can also be helpful in improving depression and anxiety.
5. Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
Gotu kola was known as one of the ‘miracle elixirs of life’ in China for over 2,000 years, and is now one of the most widely-used herbal tonics for increasing memory and sharpening the mind, which makes it popular among students the world round.
Gotu kola increases axon and dendrite growth, both helpful in increasing memory, and also stimulates the growth of brain cells. Gotu kola encourages brain plasticity as it enhances communication between neurons.
Gotu kola also prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine which improves cognition, memory and learning, while also prolonging or possibly preventing age-related neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.
6. Rhodiola rosea
Rhodiola works so well on the brain that the Russian and Soviet governments spent years using it as a performance enhancer for their national athletes and astronauts.
A known adaptogen, rhodiola improves poor concentration, fatigue, memory loss and brain fog. It can also help alleviate depression and anxiety by influencing serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain, and releasing natural opioids like beta-endorphins.
It also works to repair and grow new neurons and activate the synthesis of ATP, which is your brain’s main energy source.
7. Green tea
The two main compounds in green tea, L-theanine and caffeine, improve performance in attention-switching tasks, boost mood and increase alertness and recall—all important when you’re trying to meet a deadline or focus on a project. If the monks are any indication, green tea might even help you reach spiritual enlightenment.
8. Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Taken in capsule, powder or extract form, lion’s mane’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties support brain health. The herb promotes new cell growth in the brain by stimulating nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), while strengthening existing cells to keep you smart and aware. Not only that, lion’s mane helps to form myelin—a protective sheath for the nerves involved in brain function.
Lion’s mane also reduces the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s by destroying the free radicals that cause inflammation and damage brain cells.
9. Common sage (Salvia officinalis)
The name salvia officinalis comes from the Latin word, salvare, which means ‘to heal’. That says it all when thinking about this amazing plant and its brain benefits. Salvia contains a wide array of phenolic compounds and flavonoids such as caffeic acid, luteolin, rosmarinic acid and quercetin.
Salvia is also rich in beneficial essential oils, terpenoids, tripertenes and diterpenes. The sheer variety of its compounds makes salvia a powerful agent against cognitive deficits as it can work on several different neurological pathways. Grow some in your garden if you can, or buy fresh or dried leaves to enjoy as a beautiful tea that will sharpen your senses, get you moving and help you remember everything on your to-do list. Not to mention protect you from age-related cognitive decline. Not bad for a simple garden plant.
Beginning your health journey can be intimidating when there is so much to learn and try, but Which Doctor is here to help. Browse our network of herbalists, holistic nutritionists and naturopaths to get started today.
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.