Most of us have seen the movie ‘Limitless’ and the concept of a mind-expanding drug compound (NZT) that grants the user laser like focus and super-human cognitive ability. While a drug as powerful as NZT may be a fairy tale or perhaps still in development, there are several naturally occurring herbs that can provide significant cognitive enhancement and act functionally as nootropics. A nootropic is defined as substance that improves mental and cognitive function; things like memory, creativity, focus, executive function and mental energy.
There are several classes of nootropic substances, many of which are classified as prescription drugs like amphetamine derived pharmaceuticals (Adderall, Ritalin) or over the counter (OTC) drugs like the ‘racetams’ (Piracetam, Aniracetam, etc.). While these ‘smart drugs’ may be powerful, their effects are typically short lived and a tolerances are often built up to their effects. Nootropics are typically ‘brain enhancers’ that help support the brain’s activities and make it healthier overall.
For the purposes of this article we’ll touch on a few naturally occuring compounds and how it’s believed that they work in the brain to enhance cognitive function and neurological health:
Many amino acids can help support brain activity either directly or indirectly via their physiological actions. In some cases, modifications to the amino acid structure such as acetylation as with N-Acetyl-L-Carnitine or N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine increases solubility and bioavailability of the amino acids as well as enhances their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and exert more local effects. N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine can help with stress management but also helps with production of several neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and noradrenaline. Another amino acid that is an energy drink favorite is Taurine. Taurine can activate the brains’ suppression of anxiety and stress, but as a nootropic it has demonstrated the ability to support memory formation with its induction of long-lasting synaptic potentiation.
Google herbal nootropics and you’ll quickly realize it’s a vastly expansive field of interest that is growing rapidly. There are however some ‘staples’ in the herbal nootropic world. Commonly mentioned herbs include Huperzine A (from Chinese club moss) to support neurotransmitter levels, Bacopa monnieri for memory and anxiety control, Gingko biloba the ancient Chinese cognitive energy enhancer and Vinpocetine (from Periwinkle) which can enhance blood flow in the brain. One less common herbal nootropic which is gathering a lot of steam in the medicinal mushroom research field is Lion’s Mane mushroom, which seems to elicit several brain health benefits. One thing to note with all herbals when shopping for them is to ensure you are comparing ‘apples to apples’. Herbal extracts tend to be far more potent that powdered herbs because they have been concentrated for particular active compounds – so there will be a wide range of dosages and prices for seemingly similar items.
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that act as messengers between nerve cells, and they are the mode by which signals are passed along from neuron to neuron for everything from muscle contraction to memory formation. In the brain, the key neurotransmitters are norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate and acetylcholine. The majority of these use amino acids as their biosynthetic building blocks (or precursors), but several other compounds like L-Dopa (from Velvet Bean) for dopamine or Choline (from Choline Bitartrate or Alpha-glycerophosphocholine) for acetylcholine can support neurotransmitter production.
Naturally Occurring Stimulants & Stacks:
While stimulants themselves are not necessary nootropic by definition, they can certainly boost mental energy and are often combined with herbal nootropics. Caffeine is perhaps the most commonly consumed stimulant daily in coffee, soda and teas. A xanthine alkaloid, caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant to increase alertness, enhance mental performance and fight fatigue. A very common stack is the combination of caffeine with L-Theanine (naturally occurring in green tea). L-Theanine provides a calming influence over what can be a harsh edge to a caffeine-induced ‘energy rush’. It blunts the crash and at the same time enhances mental focus, mood and memory.
Overall natural nootropics are safe when used properly, and can be useful in a wide range of situations by many different people. The athlete can use nootropics to enhance the mind-muscle connection, and enhance mental focus during training or game time. Nootropics are favored amongst video gamers as well, for their long lasting bouts requiring intense focus and quick reflexes. Lastly students and executives (or those in training), that are burning the midnight oil, dedicating endless hours to their studies or their trade and require that extra mental energy to solve issues or learn new skills can also benefit from nootropics.