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).
One reason herbal supplements are fantastic– especially in the realm of nootropics– is nuance. Herbs are complex, and this can be leveraged for more specific needs! For example, we notice that our patients with more ADHD-specific presentations tend to experience greater success with our best-seller Vibrant Mind by Natura, and it all comes down to the nuanced actions of the herbs in those respective formulas. Everyone’s body is different, so if you want help choosing a specific nootropic for your goals, book a complimentary consultation with one of our clinical herbalists!
But 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).
According to the WHO, more than 366 million adults worldwide have ADHD as of 2020 so this condition is no doubt a driver of nootropic use to help support a calm and focused mind. Diagnostic criteria for ADHD include symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and/or inattention that occur in more than one setting and affect function (eg, academic, social, emotional, etc).
Catecholamine metabolism appears to play a role in ADHD pathogenesis. In animal studies, the noradrenergic system is involved in the modulation of higher cortical functions, including attention, alertness, vigilance, and executive function. An imbalance between the norepinephrine and dopamine systems in the prefrontal cortex of the brain contributes to the symptoms of ADHD (decrease in inhibitory dopaminergic activity and increase in norepinephrine activity).
The findings from animal studies are supported by human studies indicating patients with ADHD have an increase in dopamine transporter density (which may clear dopamine from the synapse too quickly) compared with healthy controls and that stimulants increase extracellular dopamine in the brain.
We are no strangers to the infamous ‘long-haul COVID’. For many, it seems that one of the most stubborn symptoms to kick is a mental fogginess that continues day after day. Like other long-haul symptoms, it is not entirely clear as to why this happens. Inflammation is a large component of COVID, and by managing this, we might see an improvement in not only brain fog but symptoms overall. Herbs that reduce inflammation and bring circulation to the brain are what we are interested in. This leads us to one of our favorite topics– nootropics and herbs for brain health!
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. Common side effects many people suffer from include irritability, insomnia, heart palpitations and anorexia. 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.
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).
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) - A brilliant anti-inflammatory herb that helps mitigate inflammation in the body and brain (13). For covid-longhaul symptoms, this is an excellent herb to work with. It is important to make sure you are working with a high-quality medicinal grade turmeric, like Gaia’s Curcuma NFkB or Thorne’s Meriva extract.
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!
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.
If you are struggling to get a handle on long-haul covid brain fog – or experiencing any issues with focus that you would like to address holistically!-- stop by in-store for a chat with one of our herbal practitioners or sign up for a free 10-minute phone appointment! 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!
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/ (ASHW)
- Winston, David RH(AHG). (2019) Updated and Expanded: Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press.