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Nootropics: herbal cognitive enhancers

Nootropics: herbal cognitive enhancers

Knowing Nootropics

Brain care a no-brainer

THE BRAIN is the most complex organ in the human body and contains more than 100 billion nerves.

These nerves use trillions of different connections (synapses) to communicate with our body.

Every time we move a limb, we are able to do so thanks to our brain. Every time we take a breath, consciously or unconsciously, it’s our brain that makes it possible.

Even our blood flows from place to place because our brain tells our heart to pump in a certain way.

Our brain is easily one of the most important organs in our body, because we need it to do basically everything.

This is why it is so important that we do what we can to keep it in functioning optimally.

We still have to eat right, stay properly hydrated, sleep well and avoid harmful chemicals.

Protect the brain from decline

If we already do the fundamentals to maintain good health, then taking the right brain tonics can help further enhance our brainpower, as well as the abilities of our nervous system in general.

Whether we are looking to improve focus and concentration, enhance memory or protect our brain from decline, herbal medicine has a lot to offer.

Two important global concerns of our modern society are the rapidly increasing ageing population and environmental stressors.

These have rapidly increased the incidence of a variety of pathological conditions including brain tumours, neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders bringing new challenges for their treatment.

The plant world will surely hold many healing solutions to support and restore our brain’s health.

Natural advantages for the human brain exist in every day herbs and plants found growing in the wild and in organic supplements.

There are plants that grow naturally on Earth that have been used by tribes and cultures around the world for thousands of years to help unlock the brain’s full potential.

What is a Nootropic?

A nootropic is a substance that boosts cognitive performance, most notably in decision-making function, creativity, memory and more. 

Nootropic herbs, or nutraceutical agents, help to improve concentration, focus and learning while mitigating and protecting against cognitive decline.

Nootropics also help to support mood, sleep and mental health while improving energy, focus and faster reaction times and increasing attention span.

Nootropics are currently having a moment despite the fact that the plant variety have been around and used for thousands of years for their incredible abilities to improve the brain.

Nootropics include any natural or synthetic substance that is considered to have a positive impact on our mental skills.

In general, they fall into three categories: synthetic compounds, prescription drugs and natural plant products.

Sometimes, even coffee, energy drinks and also nicotine have been considered types of nootropics that will in the short term boost alertness, however as we know they are also addictive and can progressively corrode the nervous system and our well-being.

The nootropic new age began with plants

Originally nootropics were all plant-based and quite safe and effective to use, however now nootropic drugs have pervaded the social scene and even the workplace with people micro-dosing synthetic compounds to up their game.

There is an abundance of nootropics found in nature; plants and herbs offer a wide range of adaptogenic (stress-relieving) compounds that support increased focus and relaxation.

These herbal nootropics are very effective cognitive enhancers, delivering the brain and mind with extra bursts of stimulation and energy.

This ‘nootropic new age’ has advanced how we approach human performance in the workplace as well as for recreation.

Natural nootropics are much safer than synthetic forms because, in their purest version, they don’t produce side effects and dependence.

Look at our life habits first

It is important to note that many people who wish to optimise cognitive function should first think about improving their sleep and nutritional patterns as well as managing their stress levels more effectively with exercise, yoga and meditation.

If these fundamental lifestyle basics are in a good place then the nootropic herbal formulae can further enhance cognitive function.

They will help the mind think with greater clarity, improve focus and even help reduce the onset of cognitive decline as we age.

It is time to lean into the wonderful plants that help the brain produce helpful chemicals and some provide more stimulation, giving the brain endurance during strenuous times.

Maintaining optimal brain function

Our brain already has incredible skills and unimaginable capabilities, however modern living creates unprecedented stress and sensory overload from all of the information that must be processed every day.

Contemporary, competitive culture is fixated on achievement and rewards ambition and working more than is healthy.

Meeting deadlines, cramming for exams and late nights all reinforce the constant pressure that forces the body and mind to exceed its personal limits.

The sympathetic nervous system becomes jammed, creating adrenal depletion, burnout and anxiety.

Sensory overload has even been shown to cause irritability, anxiety, mood swings, depression, ADHD, fibromyalgia, PTSD and chronic fatigue syndrome.

The ability of our brain to continue learning, processing, and forming new neural connections is key to maintaining optimal brain health and longevity.

No-so smart drugs

People who are severely hindered by an inability to focus often turn to prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin or Provigil that are technically known as psychostimulants.

They stimulate increased activity of the central nervous system, that is, the brain and spinal cord.

There are many other ‘smart drugs’, or types of stimulants that come at a cost, especially with long-term use; and misuse is astonishingly prevalent. Their harmful side effects and increasing tolerance can easily lead to addiction. Side effects include insomnia, stomachache, headache and anorexia.

Overdoses (which may occur easily as it can be difficult to estimate and regulate dosage) can lead to agitation, hallucinations, psychosis, lethargy, seizures, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), dysrhythmia (irregular heart rhythms), hypertension and hyperthermia.

Ultimately, reliance on these quick fixes produces the opposite desired effect, causing severe crashes, hampered productivity and often the need to withdraw from the drugs altogether to regain a sense of functionality.

This is where we can safely and confidently turn to the plant world.

A-Z of the best herbal cognitive enhancers

Plants that offer the brain natural advantages to think faster, smarter and remember more

Ashwagandha Withania somnifera

ASHWAGANDHA is a member of the nightshade family and is native to India, having a rich history in Ayurvedic medicine.

It is very commonly employed as a tonic with rejuvenating and energizing effects. A favourite of yogis, ashwagandha enhances mental focus and attention, contributing admirably improved cognitive function and a healthy brain. It’s a powerful antioxidant, which helps reduce brain cell degeneration. The effects of Ashwagandha extracts are multidimensional ranging from differentiation of neuroblastoma and glioma cells, reversal of Alzheimer and Parkinson’s pathologies, protection against environmental neurotoxins and enhancement of memory.

Brahmi Bacopa monnieri

BRAHMI is a staple plant in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.

It is mainly used to boost brain function including improving memory, reducing anxiety and treating epilepsy.

Brahmi reduces stress and anxiety by elevating mood and reducing cortisol levels.

The main active compounds in Bacopa monnieri, called bacosides, have been shown to have antioxidant effects in the brain, improving memory and especially decreasing the rate of forgetting newly acquired information.

The herb increases focus and the ability to process visual information.

Research is pointing towards Bacopa monnieri being helpful reduce ADHD symptoms, such as restlessness and self-control.

Bacopa produces cell-protective effects and may have neural-protective effects in the brain.

It has specifically been suggested to help protect against neurodegeneration.

Turmeric Curcuma longa

A POLYPHENOL found in turmeric, curcumin gained fame as an anti-inflammatory herb, as well as a staple in the Indian diet and gold standard in Ayurveda, the Indian medical system, for its ability to ease pain in the joints due to inflammation.

But curcumin’s potent anti-inflammatory properties pertain to more than joint health. In fact, it has promising brain-enhancing capabilities.

The herb may boost memory retention by protecting against neuroinflammation that can lead to dementia seen in an ageing brain, as stated in a study in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Frankincense Boswellia carteri, serrata

FRANKINCENSE, the resinous extract from the trees of the genus Boswellia, has been used for centuries in ceremonial, cosmetic, cultural and as a traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, especially cancer and inflammatory diseases.

The resin itself and its active component (boswellic acid) are used, as well as the essential oil.  Studies have shown that the use of frankincense resin can improve learning capacity and enhance the memory.

The effect of frankincense is remarkable in increasing the number of dendritic segments and branching in the neuron cells of hippocampus, causing more synaptic connections in that area and therefore improvement of learning and memory.

Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba

ANCIENT Indian and Chinese medical systems have been using this powerful plant medicine for millennium to bolster the brain’s ability to function well. Indeed, today gingko is a popular nootropic to improve all cognitive function.

Ginkgo is a powerful antioxidant that is rich in flavonoids and proanthocyanidins and is thus neuroprotective protecting the brain from oxidative stress and in the ageing process.

Ginkgo supports cerebrovascular health and helps to improve memory and concentration.

Using Ginkgo biloba supports healthy mood and improves memory, cognition, sleep quality, subjective well-being, calmness, cerebral blood flow, processing accuracy, processing speed and reaction time.

Studies have found the herb to be beneficial for a large range of behaviour and psychological disorders such as dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression, assisting with focus and clarity.

It should be noted that ginkgo biloba would benefit the average healthy individual as well, protecting against the cognitive decline that can often accompany ageing.

Gingko is a classic example of the doctrine of signatures, wherein structure or appearance elucidates function: gingko leaves have a distinct bi-lobed symmetry reminiscent of the brain.

Ginseng Panax ginseng

GINSENG is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine and is being re-discovered as a potent nootropic. It an adaptogen that helps restore balance to the body and protects it from physiologic stress.

Panax ginseng has been used for hundreds of years for boosting immunity, mood, cognition and libido enhancement.

It certainly keeps the mind sharp and awake; it becomes faster, calmer and more precise.

The increase in serotonin levels may be another mechanism by which ginseng active ingredients exert antidepressant effects; its neuroprotective effects can be useful in the prevention of depression.

Indirectly, enhanced memory can ameliorate anxiety; ginseng is effective in memory improvement and in the direct prevention of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Gotu Kola Centella asiatica

GOTU Kola is known by many names including Hydrocotyle, Indian Pennywort, Spadewort and a variety of other spellings of ‘Gotu Kola’.

It is native to Eastern Asia and has both culinary and medicinal uses.

It is very commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, but has recently has become popular in the United States. It is a nervine, which means the nervous system likes this herb.

It is a powerful nootropic for the brain, regularly used to increase intelligence, being able to increase attention span, focus and concentration for all types of activities. It is also used to specifically improve memorisation and memory recall.

Green tea Camellia sinesis

GREEN tea is traditionally known to induce mental clarity, cognitive function, physical activation and relaxation. This is due to the phytochemicals caffeine, L-theanine, and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that deliver benefits on mood and cognitive performance.

Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis

LEMON balm is a very relaxing nervine that supports the entire nervous system. It has been shown to relieve agitation in people with dementia and improves the mood and stress levels in healthy adults. It helps resolve restlessness and insomnia.

The herb is high in anti-oxidants and thus improves oxidative stress and DNA damage and tests show this to be of relevance for the brain.

Energetically, lemon balm is cooling and helps us to return to our centre, ground and tune in.

It is quite uplifting to the mood and helps to protect the ageing brain.

Rhodiola Rhodiola rosea

RHODIOLA is used for increasing energy, stamina, strength and mental capacity; and as an adaptogen that helps the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical, and environmental stress.

Plenty of studies show that the increased focus provided by rhodiola rosea inevitably leads to an increase in cognition.

Rhodiola rosea’s ability to improve our focus helps our brain in more ways than one, not only do we feel less tired, but we are able accomplish tasks faster.

It is also used for improving athletic performance and shortening recovery time after long workouts.

Rhodiola is used by the Russians and Scandinavians to increase physical endurance, especially in harsh conditions. The herb improves sexual function and is also used for depression and cardiovascular health.

Most people who take rhodiola rosea have reported that they experience an improvement in mood and general well-being.

Rhodiola’s calming effect on the mind helps mitigate the deleterious effects of negative thinking.

It increases the level of serotonin, one of the feel-good chemicals that our body creates to soothe the mind, improve our ability to learn new things, enhance memory and enhance other physiological responses to external stressors.

Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis

ROSEMARY was historically recognised as a memory enhancer, and worn as wreath around the brain by Greek scholars. Rosemary is one of our top medicinal and nourishing herbs for the nervous and cerebrovascular systems. Rich in terpenes, phenolic acids and flavones, rosemary is strongly aromatic and a potent antioxidant for brain health. Rosemary supports cognition, memory and alertness, keeping us switched on.

Sage Salvia officinalis

IN HEALTHY adults, sage was shown to improve memory in low doses.

Research has revealed how sage significantly improved performance cognition, such as accuracy of attention, word recognition, word recall and working memory.

Higher doses also elevated mood and increased alertness, calmness and contentedness. In both younger and older adults, sage appears to improve memory and brain function.

It acts on a number of the brain’s signals involved in depression and is also a powerful anti-inflammatory.

Schisandra Schisandra chinensis

SCHISANDRA is a vine native to Northern China and Eastern Russia. The berries are considered a nootropic, specifically providing a powerfully energised mindset. This plant is an adaptogen and is able to help one better control mood and focus levels. Many people have suggested schisandra has made them much more accurate, depending upon the activity.

St John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum

ST JOHN’S Wort herb has a variety of folklore and folk-uses associated with it; however, the herb is more commonly employed today for its medicinal properties.

St John’s Wort has been used to help treat mood disorders, depression and a variety of brain imbalances for centuries. It is considered a nootropic for its abilities to improve the working flow of the brain.

As a nootropic and for cognitive health, St John’s wort is effective at relieving mild-to-moderate depression, working in a similar way to standard antidepressant medication.

Research shows that it increases the activity of brain chemicals such as serotonin and noradrenaline that are thought to play an important part in regulating our mood.

St John’s wort also helps anxiety, tiredness, loss of appetite and trouble sleeping. It is used to help attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and social phobias.


ALONE, spices are not specifically nootropic.

However cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger all enhance cerebral circulation. When they accompany other nootropics, they aid in the assimilation of the whole herbal blend, which in turn increases their efficacy. The spices act as transporters of the active constituents to the target area, in this case the brain.

Memorable Mushrooms

Lion’s Mane Hericium erinaceus

A SHAGGY white mushroom long used in traditional Chinese medicine as a powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immuno-stimulant.

Buddhist Shaolin monks used the lion’s mane mushroom in meditation practices, believing it enhanced their concentration thus enabling them to better cultivate the mystical life force ‘Qi’. 

Lion’s mane supports brain health, enhanced immune system, improves mood and focus, enhances memory and brain function. It easily crosses the blood-brain barrier where it stimulates the brain to produce more NGF (Nerve Growth Factor), thus stimulating the production of new neurons.

Reishi Ganoderma lucidum

REISHI mushroom has been used for over 2000 years in traditional Chinese Medicine.  As a nootropic, Reishi is used for its anti-anxiety benefits and for chronic fatigue syndrome. As a nootropic, it supports the growth of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) that boosts learning, memory and longevity. Reishi has some notable nootropic benefits for cognition and mental health. Reishi is considered an adaptogen, helping the body and mind find equilibrium in difficult situations.

Who is the knower that knows the world but cannot itself be known?

- Ken Wilber

Nootropics in Aromatherapy

Boosting productivity with essential oils

NEARLY all aspects of human behaviour are closely linked to processes of attention, the basic level being that of alertness, which ranges from sleep to wakefulness.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of essential oils to enhance human brain function.

Aroma is one of the most powerful sense-memory simulators and can also have positive effects on physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, which of course all support productivity.

Researchers in Japan previously discovered that lemon essential oil was an effective aroma.

When rooms were scented with its fragrance, 54 per cent fewer typing errors were made by employees who worked with computers.

The aroma of Jasmine reduced typing errors by 33 per cent and lavender lowered errors by 20 per cent.

Typing errors are seen to have a negative effect on productivity in many professions, which suggests that using certain essential oils in a vaporiser or diffuser in an office can increase output and accuracy.

Other studies have also demonstrated the effects of certain chemical constituents in essential oils for altering mood and improving physical health.

Linalool is known to reduce stress, for example, which creates mental clarity and allows individuals to focus on the task at hand.

The memory/scent association is the key

There is a strong connection between the nose and the brain via the limbic system.

Located deep within the brain, the limbic system responds to sensory stimulation from the external environment (scent) and is associated with memory, emotion and primitive drives and reactions.

Essential oils integrate a biological signal of the receptor cells in the nose when inhaled, which is transmitted to the limbic and hypothalamus parts of the brain via the olfactory bulb.

These signals cause the brain to release neuro messengers such as serotonin or endorphins, to link our nervous and other body systems; thus assuring a desired shift in our emotional state - providing a feeling of relief.

Serotonin, endorphin and noradrenalin are released from calming euphoric and stimulating oils respectively to deliver pre-determined effects on the mind and body.

Essential oils expand our awareness

Memory recall is accelerated when a past event is associated with a smell. That’s why a whiff of a certain scent can send us back in time and carry with it images and feelings associated with that event.

Next time we need assistance to access some elusive fact, aromatherapy can trigger our memory.

The human brain can remember more than 50,000 different scents; and every one of these individually shaped smell molecules has to fit like a jigsaw into its own exact space on the olfactory bulb.

When it comes to work and studying, the memory-scent association is of particular significance.

Scent can trigger memories, help us stay focused and aid in studying.

We can reprogram our smell memory ‘database’ by using essential oils that support intellectual activity by expanding our memory.

Interestingly, the hippocampus is the part of the brain with the greatest degree of plasticity and appears to be absolutely necessary for making new memories or creating new neural pathways.

It appears to be very important in converting things that are ‘in our mind’ at the moment (in short-term memory) into things that we will remember for the long run (long-term memory).

It happens holistically

The concept and function of memory involves more than the temporary or permanent, planned or incidental recall. It includes the expansion of memory itself; the increasing capacity to remember and to do so independently and consciously improving our human intelligence.

Essential oils enervate the brain and the entire central nervous system; the smells of basil, peppermint and rosemary have the ability to stimulate not just recall, but the mental powers of memorisation and concentration.

Essential oils evoke and enhance intellectual, emotional and physical faculties of awareness and discrimination, according to the character of the oil employed to a corresponding feature of human nature and elsewhere in the body.

Essential Oils for brain function and focus

Basil: high in linalool, basil reduces stress and enhances mental clarity and ability to focus.

Bergamot: boosts feelings of joy, and increases energy.

Cedarwood: improves calm feelings, induces sleep, encourages feelings of happiness.

Chamomile: relaxing, helps calm nerves, improves sleep.

Clary Sage: lifts the mood, reduces stress, gives one a sense of security.

Copaiba: a wonderful substitute to CBD oil. It contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is fantastic for symptoms of ADHD and autism. It provides neurological, immune and digestive support.

Eucalyptus: a stimulating essential oil to increase alertness and prevent lethargy. For some, it has been found more effective than caffeine and without the side effects.

Fennel: increases motivation and improves self-esteem.

Frankincense: Studies have proven the psychoactive effects the scent of frankincense has on the brain, alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression. It dispels negative feelings and promotes focus and calm.

Lavender: helps to bring calm, lifts one’s spirits and helps with sleeplessness. Lavender oil may be an effective treatment of several neurological disorders.

Lemon: An uplifting scent used for memory stimulation and mental alertness, productivity and focus.

Orange and Mandarin: boosts feelings of joy, alertness and calmness.

Peppermint: is mood-elevating, improves focus and reduces headaches. For enhanced for productivity and mental alertness.

Sandalwood: improves mental clarity and induces calm.

Thyme: relaxes the body and mind, beats depression and boosts mood and memory.

Vanilla: effectively treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and beats depression.

Vetivert: reduces stress, invites sleep, improves patience, boosts concentration and emotional balance.

Ylang Ylang: increases mood and energy levels, ands reduce anxiety.

Other essential oils for concentration and alertness: cypress, ginger, juniper, lemongrass, pine.

Plant Allies of the Yogis

IF WE ARE to look through the spiritual lens, cultivating focus, clarity and elevating our mood from negative states is fundamental to yoga practice and the sacred journey towards wholeness.

Of course, to be able to sit calmly and grounded with equanimity in our practice is essential for us to be comfortable with ourselves as we venture deeper into our inner world.

The pre-emptive stage before meditation is to gather all our thoughts and attention towards a single point (this is called dharana).

This is far more challenging than it sounds, so any help that the plant world can offer to optimise focus is surely welcome.

A nootropic elixir (soma) can greatly assist us to reach a profound sense of unity with any object or activity. Refer to Edition 93 for more information on Sacred Soma.

True meditation, (Dhyana) occurs spontaneously after our awareness has been single-pointed for a prolonged period, then all thoughts, emotional feelings and bodily sensations are transcended.

This is a systematic process of vacating the mind and unifying consciousness characterised by an unusual degree of lucidity. Yogis of ancient and recent time have sought powerful brain tonic herbs to assist in the arduous path towards Samadhi.

Samadhi is total absorption whereby all the fuctuations of mental activity are ceased, leaving an all-pervading stillness and peace in its place.

Nootropics are a spiritual gift to humankind

Indeed the herbal nootropics that enhance mental clarity and focus the mind will serve us well to reach this spiritually venerated milestone.

However when this level is attained, these enhanced mental faculties will no longer be required and will eventually dissolve back into Source as the perceived separation between the object and subject melts away.

For millennium, sacred plants have been right there alongside the Mystic sages as valued allies; helping, enhancing or catalysing their Divine awakening.

Nootropics teach us that it is only in the perfect wisdom of a spontaneously present and open mind that enlightened activity can take place.

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