Natural Nootropics: Be Smart When Choosing Smart Drugs
You’ve asked: Why take natural nootropics? Synthetic ones are stronger, more effective and cheaper.”
Nootropics are a booming industry. Valued at 2.17 billion, nootropics have gained popularity both for their productivity-boosting effects and their potential to boost long-term brain health.
And while it doesn’t take long to find a nootropics supplement on the internet, choosing a product that’s both safe and effective isn’t as easy. Here’s a look at what natural nootropics are, how they differentiate from synthetics, and how to choose the best supplement for you.
by Michelle Polizzi • 10 December 2020
What are Natural Nootropics?
Nootropics are cognitive enhancers designed to positively influence the brain, particularly in the areas of memory and mood. They’re often known as smart drugs due to their positive impact on focus, intelligence, creativity, and overall work ethic.
According to researchers in the book “New Look to Phytomedicine,” nootropics stimulate nerve growth and boost the supply of oxygen and nutrients in the brain, therefore boosting cognitive ability. Natural nootropics are readily available in the natural world and can be found in herbs, flowers, roots, shrubs, and mushrooms.
A wide body of research points to the many positive effects that natural nootropics can have on memory challenges, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other illnesses associated with dementia. As demonstrated in a study by Taiwanese researchers, treatment with natural nootropics showed prolonged lifespan among older adults with dementia. This study shows that early treatment with natural nootropics in recently-diagnosed dementia patients can help these individuals live longer.
Natural nootropics also reduce inflammation in the brain, protect it from toxins, and prevent cognitive cells from aging. One of the greatest benefits of natural nootropics is that they stimulate neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt to changes by creating new neural pathways. This in turn boosts thinking, memory, and overall cognitive ability among young, healthy people to potentially delay the onset of cognitive decline.
Natural Nootropics vs. Synthetic Nootropics
The healing effects of natural nootropics have been widely demonstrated around the world. Unfortunately, many manufacturers aim to mimic these healing properties in synthetic nootropic supplements. While these variations echo the same elements of natural nootropics, they’re often laced with chemicals and additives that may not be safe for human consumption.
This was demonstrated in a widespread FDA crackdown in 2019, which found unapproved, illegal, and misidentified constituents in more than 58 supplements claiming to support cognitive enhancement.
Many of these supplements, which claimed to “prevent, treat or cure Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other serious diseases and health conditions,” contain chemicals and ingredients that haven’t been classified as safe by the FDA. The Federal Drug Administration noted that marketing these unproven products on social media and websites can put individuals at risk.
Other supplements marketed as “brain enhancement” drugs were found to include piracetam, a synthetic drug that’s banned in the United States. Piracetam is believed by supporters to be a cognitive enhancer, though there are few studies supporting these claims, says a report in Clinical Neurology News.
The above study’s authors say that supplements containing piracetam in high doses put healthy individuals at risk of “anxiety, insomnia, agitation, depression, drowsiness, and weight gain,” and the risk for seniors and those with kidney challenges remain uncertain.
Side Effects and Risks
Additionally, supplements labeled as nootropics may contain stimulant-like compounds such as modafinil or memantine (or similar substances) which may result in negative side effects such as high blood pressure, insomnia, and addiction.
Modafinil is a narcolepsy drug and one of the leading synthetic nootropics designed to reduce fatigue and promote focus. While Modafinil will help individuals boost their mood or stay up late to work, long-term use is associated with dependence. Other research shows that prolonged use of Modafinil can also result in chronic fatigue due to lack of sleep, which can exacerbate stress and reduce immunity.
Memantine is another synthetic drug classified as a nootropic, and it’s primarily used to treat Alzheimer’s patients through the improvement of memory and awareness. Memantine use has a range of mild and serious side effects, ranging from dizziness and fatigue to liver and kidney failure. Side effects can also include stroke, brain hemorrhage, seizure, and Stevens Johnson syndrome, a serious skin and mucous membrane disorder.
These studies demonstrate that understanding the potential negative side effects of synthetic nootropics is imperative for your health.
How to Choose Natural Nootropic Supplements
In contrast to synthetic nootropics, often touted as true nootropics, natural nootropics have far fewer side effects that are much less severe. Most importantly, the best natural nootropic supplements contain less ingredients, all of which are from trusted and natural sources. Still it’s also important to understand that not all supplements labeled as a natural herb are created equal.
Look at researches and trials done for a particular herb. Look how transparent is the supplement manufacturer with labeling their product and manufacuring process. Hint: “proprietary stack” is a keyword that should make you worried.
Some herbs with nootropic properties are very well researched. For example, Rhodiola rosea is a powerful and effective natural nootropic, derived from a flowering plant, that can aid in anxiety and stress relief. The authenticity and quality of supplements labeled as rhodiola rosea was tested in a study published in Phytomedicine. This research demonstrated that 20 percent of commercial products labeled as rhodiola rosea didn’t contain rosavin — the main component that differentiates the nootropic effects of rhodiola rosea from related species.
The study’s researchers also reported that “adulteration with different species, and other sometimes unknown adulterants, appears to be commonplace.” This shows why it’s so important to choose wisely even when searching through nootropics labeled as natural.
Best Natural Nootropics
Now that you have a stronger understanding of what to avoid when choosing nootropics, it’s important to know what to look for. This is especially true when choosing a supplement that has multiple compounds or herbs combined. After all, many of the compounds in natural nootropics work harmoniously together, creating a natural nootropic stack that can offer healing in multiple areas of life at once.
So which natural nootropics are best?
Bacopa monnieri, or Brahmi, is a staple in ayurvedic medicine due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Research also shows that this natural nootropics has anxiolytic properties, meaning it can help relieve anxiety.
Another staple natural nootropic is Ashwagandha. In addition to it’s cognitive enhancing effects, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an adaptogen, which means that it’s scientifically proven to reduce chronic stress and its negative effects.
Let’s get back to Rhodiola rosea mentioned above. This is a beneficial nootropic, which has been demonstrated in studies to reduce fatigue and stress while boosting focus, energy and overall happiness. Rhodiola rosea is often touted for its mood regulating properties, and has been proven particularly effective in people who experience depression alongside panax ginseng and Schisandra chinensis.
But things are even more complex. It is commonly believed that Rosavin is the most important compound responsible for the antidepressant and anxiolytic actions. Some studies, however, show that the other compound Salidroside, is more effective in certain nootropic actions.
For example, apart from Rosea as the most widely researched species of Rhodiola, another one, namely Rhodiola Crenulata shows endurance properties among others and it is also often used in combination with other herbs. Again, as it is mentioned above, some supplement brands claim their product contains Rhodiola rosea, but in reality they use other (cheaper) species.
However, some products such as Total Focus use Rhodiola Crenulata intentionaly and are transparent with the fact. The decision was based on evidence and own research that it would be more beneficial to add more Salidroside to the stack than Rosavin. Anyway, Rhodiola is certainly one of the most interesting nature’s nootropic gift.
It’s clear that natural nootropics offer a wide range of benefits for mind and body. However, it’s also evident that many corporations leverage the healing power of natural nootropics to create synthetic versions that aren’t as healthy or safe as their counterparts.
Even with natural nootropics themselves, it’s not that straightforward to understand all the nuances – as it is shown on the above “Rhodiola case”. Educating yourself on how to look for natural nootropics ensures foremost that you’re safe — and that you’re receiving the maximum benefits of these incredible healing plants.
As an adventurer, yoga, and healthy living advocate, Michelle’s stories explore the intersections between nature, culture, and wellbeing. Michelle writes for AzothWise and other leading publications, including Bitch, WELL+GOOD, Healthline, and more.
Michelle is a freelance writer and yoga teacher on a mission to make the world a healthier and happier place. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can find her enjoying the great outdoors or exploring a new corner of the world.