Nootropics "smart drugs"? Brain boosting benefits from plants.

 by Gianne Rayandayan, Herbalist

‘Smart drugs’ are a current trend in commercial wellness, and it makes sense - school and work call for us to be at peak mental performance’ despite pressures and expectations to multitask and excel. This is a lot for our brains to take on! Factors like age and genetics also play a role in our ability to concentrate.

Why is staying focused sometimes so difficult to begin with? 

The holistic approach considers the idea that nothing exists in a vacuum -- despite many factors, for most of us, chronic stress is likely one of the largest culprits of reduced mental performance. 

In short-term scenarios, stress hormones are actually meant to boost focus and performance. However, when stress hormones stay elevated over a length of time, one sees the opposite effect. Over time, poorly managed stress hormones in the body set the stage for inflammation and neurodegeneration. Common cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s are amplified by chronic stress, high blood sugar, and general inflammation (10). 

Defining Nootropics: 

The phrase was coined from the Greek words for mind (‘nous’) and to bend (‘tropein’). Nootropics ‘act on the mind’ in ways that enhance cognitive functions like learning, memory, and concentration. Oftentimes, they will also provide structural support to the brain itself (2).

 By definition, true nootropics also exhibit a very low side-effect profile-- a key feature that distinguishes them from other categories of drugs (2). 

Are pharmaceutical ‘smart drugs’ true ‘nootropics’? 

Popular medications to improve mental performance and concentration include stimulants like Adderall. These do offer increased focus but are often associated with side effects, bringing them further away from the definition of a true nootropic. These drugs also require a doctor’s approval. If you would like more information on herbal alternatives to these medications check out our blog post ‘Herbs for ADHD’. 

How Nootropics Work: 

Nootropics are essentially ‘cerebral stimulants’(8). They appear to boost blood flow to the brain while providing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits to the brain’s cellular pathways.

When thinking about working with nootropics, it is helpful to consider other factors that may affect mental performance, such as: 


Depression and/or lack of motivation

Lack of Sleep 

Technological distractions


(as we discussed in our post on Herbal Supplements for Mental Wellness, gut and brain health are undeniably linked! Sometimes conditions like yeast overgrowths may cause one to experience poor concentration. If you feel this applies to you, we highly recommend booking a consultation with our Clinical Herbalist to get more insight). 

A few Examples of Nootropic herbs and supplements 

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) - An excellent anti-inflammatory and ‘cooling’ herb which Ayurvedic literature documents extensively. It contains triterpenes that appear to have strong protective and restorative effects on the brain’s pathways (6). 

Bacopa (Bacopa monerii) - Another well-known Ayurvedic herb for boosting cognitive function. It’s shown to act by increasing GABAergic neurons. GABA is a very calming and anxiolytic chemical-- Bacopa would therefore be helpful for anyone whose brain fog is tied to emotional tension. (3) (4) (5) 

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - Both are strong circulatory stimulants with a long history of traditional use. It is common to pair either with another nootropic (like Gotu Kola and/or Bacopa, above) to achieve a synergistic effect. Both play a significant role in improving memory. 

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) - Both are neuroprotective ‘adaptogens’. They are shown to positively support the body’s hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, helping the body maintain a healthy stress-response (11). Building resilience to stress is key for improving mental performance. Both are found in Pure Encapsulations’ Cortisol Calm and our Remedy Adrenal Rx formula. 

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) - This mushroom contains carbohydrates that appear to play a role in protecting brain cells and reducing neurodegenerative cell-death. A study from Japan suggested that Lion’s Mane is effective at reducing mild cognitive impairment in the elderly (12).

L-Theanine (from Green Tea) - This amino acid is proven to increase the brain’s level of alpha-wave activity. This induces a calm and alert mental state through a direct influence on the central nervous system. (9) We have the isolated compound as well as a decaffeinated Green Tea Extract

Huperzine A (from Chinese Club Moss) - Concentrated extracts are shown to pass the blood-brain barrier and prevent the breakdown of Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in how the brain sends nerve impulses. This extract shows neuroprotective effects while being a circulatory stimulant and blood tonic. It is a helpful nutraceutical for Alzheimer’s related diseases. (8) Both our Vibrant Mind Product as well as our Qualia Focus supplement contains this active ingredient.

Our best-selling cognitive enhancement product, Vibrant Mind by Natura contains many of the herbs mentioned above. We also love Pure Encapsulation’s CogniPhos for promoting cognitive function and mood, especially for those that feel age may be a factor in their cognitive functioning. For that mid-afternoon slump, Genius Juice is a fan favorite, this one contains Gotu Kola and ginkgo but comes in a liquid tincture that has a quick onset!

Helping Nootropics Along
We can supplement nootropics by taking a quality Omega-3 and a Magnesium supplement-- both offer extra neuroprotective benefits. Read our recent blogpost on Magnesium to learn more! Caffeine is a quick pick-me-up that may be helpful if you are experiencing temporary focus issues from lack of sleep. This is more of a patchwork solution compared to a more robust cognitive enhancement. 

Closing Thoughts
If you are experiencing cognitive issues that you would like to address holistically, please stop by in-store for a chat with one of our herbal practitioners! We also offer more in-depth consultations with pharmacists for those on medications (Medication Optimization Consultations) Whatever your needs are, we have someone who can help! 


  6. (ASHW) 
  7. Winston, David RH(AHG). (2019) Updated and Expanded: Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press.