Nootropics provide a great deal of cognitive and general brain health benefits. As a nootropic user you have a wide range of options to pick from on the rapidly growing market. Nootropics are generally categorised based on their mechanisms of action and origin. Most popular categories include racetams, cholinergics, anxiolytics, neurodilators and serotonergics.
However, nootropics in all of these groups are synthesized in laboratories. Therefore, if you prefer natural supplements you may be looking for the best natural nootropic to give you significant mental performance gains.
Interestingly, some users consider natural nootropics to be superior to the synthetic ones. The key advantage of natural supplements is their safety. They are known to result in drastic cognitive improvements without any side effects.
Although, all nootropics are 100% safe as it is one of the criteria, some synthetic nootropics may have mild side effects. As with other types, the strength of natural nootropic supplements varies quite a lot.
Below is a brief review of the best natural nootropics and nootropic stacks for an cognitive function and general well-being.
Bacopa monnieri (aka Bacopa or Brahmi) is a nootropic herb that naturally grows in India.2 Specifically, it is a herb from the Scrophulariaceae family of plants. Ayurvedic medicine, which is considered to be the world’s oldest healthcare system, has been using it for many years. This herb is known for its tranquilizing, sedative, cognitive and memory enhancing and antioxidant effects.
Evidence shows that Bacopa monnieri works by interacting with dopamine and serotonergic systems in the brain. In addition, it contains a number of active ingredients, such as alkaloids, saponins and flavonoids.1 All of these actions lead to a reduced anxiety (anxiolytic), improved mood and memory, a better sense of well-being and an increased neuroprotection.
From a cognitive point of view, long term use of Bacopa monnieri improves learning capabilities, working memory capacity, visual retention of information as well as the ability to process various types of information more efficiently. The recommended daily dosage of Bacopa monnieri is 300 mg. Current evidence suggests that chronic use (around 12 weeks) of Bacopa may be required to see its cognitive enhancing effects.1
Its effectiveness for cognitive enhancement is comparable with Modafinil, a popular pharmaceutical compound used to treat various sleep disorders.1 However, it is important to note that these substances affect different cognitive functions.
Ginseng is a natural nootropic (extracts from the Araliaceae family of plants) with reproducible neurocognitive effects in humans.1 Its popularity makes it the second most used herbal nootropic in the US.1 This may be attributed to several studies in healthy young volunteers demonstrating the effects of acute doses of Ginseng on different aspects of cognitive function as evidenced by changes in brain activity and peripheral blood glucose concentrations.
It terms of improvements in cognitive processes, Ginseng enhances working memory performance, concentration, reaction time and mental arithmetic performance.1 Its main active components are the ginsenosides that are believed to be involved in glucoregulation, modulation of cholinergic and dopaminergic systems as well as regulating nitric oxide synthesis. 1 The recommended daily dosage of Ginseng is 200 – 300 mg.
Ginkgo Biloba (aka Maidenhair tree) is the oldest living tree species that grows in China. Today, as an herbal supplement Ginkgo Biloba extract is one of the best-selling cognitive enhancers around the world. Due to its popularity as a nootropic it is often called a “brain herb”.
In fact, in the United States it has been titled the best nootropic a few years in a row. It has traditionally been used to treat blood disorders as it is an effective vasodilator and improve memory capacity. Additionally, it is a very effective antioxidant as its leaves have two types of antioxidant chemicals – flavonoids and terpenoids.
Flavonoids are known for supporting various systems, protecting the nerves, blood vessels as well as reducing inflammation in the brain. Terpenoids are vasodilators that can increase the blood flow to the brain by widening the blood vessels.
“As a result, this herbal supplement contributes to positive mood, reduces anxiety and supports deeper concentration.”
It is widely used in the treatment of dementia, intermittent claudication and glaucoma. For example, a recent meta-analysis has shown that Ginkgo Biloba taken in a daily dosage of 240 mg is effective and safe in the treatment of dementia.3 The recommended daily dosage ranges between 120 and 240 mg. It should be taken for at least 4 – 6 weeks to see positive effects.
Lion’s Mane (aka Hedgehog Mushroom, the Latin name is Hericium erinaceus) is a safe and edible fungus also originating from China. It is used as an herbal medicine as well as a delicacy and has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine.
The Lion’s Mane may be the first “smart” mushroom to improve memory and mood. Lion’s Mane is an effective cognitive enhancer, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive as well as a glucose and lipid levels regulator in the blood. Pills made of Lion’s Mane are also used to treat stomach ulcers. It is rich of various physiologically active ingredients (e.g., β-glucan polysaccharides).
Speaking of the supplement’s nootropic abilities, a study carried out in 2009 has concluded it is able to improve cognitive function. Other researchers have also stated that Lion’s Mane boosts the secretions of Nerve Growth Factors (NGFs). NGF is a protein which is extremely important for lifespan of the brain, as it promotes the growth and maintenance of neurons.
Huperzine A is a natural dietary supplement derived from Firmoss, a plant that grows in South East Asia. As a nootropic supplement it has been utilized by people for many years, but the actual scientific explanation for its effectiveness and mechanisms have only been provided recently.
This supplement is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme which breaks down excess acetylcholine. Huperzine A influences the levels of acetylcholine by inhibiting the receptors that control the production of acetylcholinesterase, thereby improving the brain’s ability to transmit electrical activity.
It is a well-known fact that increased (or at least sufficient) levels of acetylcholine result in a number of cognitive improvements. Memory becomes sharper, while learning new information also gets easier. Acetylcholine protects apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the brain cells and is crucial when it comes to forming new ones.
Vinpocetine is another naturally occurring nootropic supplement. It is an alkaloid of Periwinkle plant (Vinca Minor). These days it is synthesised in the laboratory environment and that is why a lot of people disagree about its natural credentials. Nevertheless, it is still one of the finest nootropics, simply because of how well its brain oxygenation effects are understood.
Trials have shown that Vinpocetine is a potent vasodilator. It has a massive short-term effect on increasing the blood flow. Improved blood circulation in the brain brings important nutrients and energy and removes unwanted toxins.
Therefore, important functions like focus and alertness are improved. The user usually enjoys more efficient memory and learning abilities. Vinpocetine is also known to be neuroprotective. Over the time it helps reduce the oxidative stress in our brains.
Green tea (Camellia sinesis) is a well-known medical plant historically linked with many health and mental benefits.4 Some of the reported benefits include prevention of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and neurodegenerative diseases.5
In terms of cognitive benefits, tea consumption has been shown to have acute effects on alertness/arousal, attention, relaxation, refreshment and feelings of satisfaction. Tea consumption has also been linked with better cognitive function in older people.5 Theanine and caffeine are two tea ingredients that may help explain its wide ranging effects.
Briefly, Theanine is a highly bioavailable amino acid found in green tea that has been suggested to improve cognition and mood.4 More information on L-Theanine, its nootropic effects and where to buy it can be found here. Whereas, caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive ingredient worldwide, which is known to affect neurotransmission.4
The açaí palm (Euterpe oleraceae Mart.) is native to South America and produces a small, black-purple fruit which is edible.7 In fact, açaí berries are a good source of anthocyanic compounds and other polyphenols.6 These active compounds play important biological roles and can modulate parameters related to cognitive decline.6 This explains why açaí supplements are sold as anti-ageing. Açaí is also sold as weight-loss supplement as it reduces glucose, insulin and cholesterol levels.6
“Açaí has been called ‘superfood’ due to its antioxidant potential and high nutritional value.”
This may have numerous health-promoting and therapeutic benefits.7 In terms of açaí nootropic effects, a study in aged rats showed an improvement in cognition and mobility following supplementation of açaí fruit.8
Rhodiola rosea is another herb widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhodiola rosea is used to alleviate depression, stress, anxiety and reduces fatigue.10 A systematic review published in 20119 shown that Rhodiola rosea may have beneficial effects on mental performance and certain mental health conditions.
A study on the effects of Rhodiola rosea on stress related symptoms found that 400 mg of Rhodiola rosea per day (taken in the morning and before lunch) used for 14 days had positive effects in mildly anxious participants. 10 Following the use of Rhodiola rosea participants demonstrated a significant reduction in self-reported measures of anxiety, stress, anger and confusion and showed a significant improvement in total mood.10
Gastrodia elata (Gastrodin):
Gastrodia elata Blume (aka Tianma) is a traditional Chinese medicine and a herb in the Orchidaceae family.11 Recently, gastrodin, which is its main bioactive ingredient has been linked with cognitive enhancement, neuroprotection, anti-depressive and anti-inflammatory actions. 11 Gastrodia may also prevent cerebral insufficiency (decreased blood supply to the brain).
Natural nootropic stacks:
Each of the above described natural nootropic supplements is very effective when used individually.
“However, for extra benefits you may want to combine several of them into a “stack”.”
Stacks have been shown to have a greater cognitive boosting capacity when compared to individual supplements. There are different ways of creating stacks. The first option is to buy all ingredients separately and build a custom stack yourself. This, however, requires experience and knowledge of each supplement and dosages (see below) in order to get it right. Therefore many users might shy away from that at first.
Much more convenient choice is to go for pre-designed natural nootropic stacks. Such natural nootropics stacks have blended various ingredients for user’s optimal experience.
Suggested dosages for natural nootropic stacks:
Dosing can be confusing, especially if you combine several nootropics at once. It is very important to balance the doses depending on a number of different supplements taken, as their synergistic effect may be too strong to begin with.
Here is a good example: 100 mg of Bacopa Monnieri taken twice a day; 240 mg of Gingko Biloba in the morning (or split into two equal administrations); 0.5 g of Lion’s Mane once a day.
Once you gain some experience with a combination like this, you might want to add a high quality choline supplement like Alpha GPC. This will increase your synaptic plasticity and yield even greater results.
Natural nootropic stack for depression:
For example, a natural stack of Bacopa monnieri, Rhodiola rosea and Gingko Biloba could be used to alleviate depression and improve overall mood and well-being. A daily stack to reduce symptoms of depression should include 240 mg of Gingko Biloba, 300 mg of Bacopa monnieri and 400 mg of Rhodiola rosea.
- Neale, C. et al. 2013. Cognitive effects of two nutraceuticals Ginseng and Bacopa benchmarked against modafinil: a review and comparison of effect sizes, Br J Clin Pharmacol. 75 (3), 728 – 37.
- Roodenrys, S. et al. 2002. Chronic effects of Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) on human memory, Neuropsychopharmacology. 27, 279 – 81.
- Hashiguchi, M. et al. 2015. Meta-analysis of the efficacy and safety of Ginkgo biloba extract for the treatment of dementia, J Pharm Health Care Sci. 1 (14).
- Einöther, S.J. & Martens, V.E. 2013. Acute effects of tea consumption on attention and mood, Am J Clin Nutr. 98 (6 suppl), 1700 – 8S.
- Feng, L. et al. 2012. Tea drinking and cognitive function in oldest-old Chinese, J Nutr Health Aging. 16 (9), 754 – 8.
- Haskell, C.F. & Dixon, A. 2013. Cognitive and mood effects of acute supplementation with acai berry extract in healthy adults, Appetite. 71, 477.
- Heinrich, M. et al. 2011. Açaí (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) – a phytochemical and pharmacological assessment of the species’ health claims, Phytochemistry Letters. 4 (1), 10 -21.
- Miller, M.G. et al. 2013. Dietary açaí fruit improves cognition and mobility in aged rats, The FASEB Journal. 27, 1083.3.
- Hung, S.K. et al. 2011. The effectiveness and efficacy of Rhodiola rosea L.: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials, Phytomedicine. 18 (4), 235 – 44.
- Cropley, M. et al. 2015. The effects of Rhodiola rosea L. extract on anxiety, stress, cognition and other mood symptoms, Phytother Res. 29 (12), 1934 – 9.
- Huang, GB. et al. 2013. Therapeutic potential of Gastrodia elata Blume for the treatment of Alzheimer’s diseas, Neural Regen Res. 8 (12), 1061 – 1070.