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Do you struggle with brain fog, poor memory, or trouble focusing on mental tasks? If so, natural nootropics could help increase your brain power. While this might sound like a magic pill, centuries of alternative medicine and modern research have proven these substances do exist.
If you’re considering delving into the world of natural nootropics, it’s important to do your research on their sources, benefits, and potential side effects. Everyone’s body is different, so nootropic supplements can have very different effects on each person. Since these supplements are not a case of one-size-fits-all, finding the best mix for you can require significant trial and error. But once you find the right balance, you could unlock a whole new brain.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics are the brainchild of a scientist named Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea. When defining these compounds, Dr. Giurgea identifies five traits each nootropic chemical needed to possess. A prospective nootropic compound had to:
- Improve the user’s memory and learning capabilities
- Defend the user’s brain against physical and chemical damage
- Maintain the user’s brain functions under physical stress, such as oxygen deprivation
- Improve the functions of firing neurons throughout the user’s brain
- Have no negative side effects for the user
Even though Dr. Giurgea created the term “nootropic” and set forth this list of required traits, most nootropic supplements don’t meet all of them. Some argue that those supplements aren’t actually nootropics. But most people have adopted this name for them regardless.
What Can Nootropics Do for Your Brain?
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term nootropics, you might have heard their more colloquial name: smart drugs. These substances are benign chemicals that can improve our brain power. The benefits of nootropics are especially helpful for professionals and students who need to focus on and remember large amounts of information. But we could all benefit from a little extra cognitive power.
Some prescription medications, like Ritalin and Adderall, are nootropics. That is why anyone without ADD or ADHD who takes these medications experiences a boost in focus, energy, and productivity. But don’t mistake over-the-counter nootropics for medicine. Nootropics improve your brain’s baseline functions: better memory, increased focus, and more. They don’t cure or treat mental disorders or illnesses. If you’re looking for something to cure depression, anxiety, attention deficiency, or another condition, please consult with a doctor.
Most people who take nootropics for improved brain power use a pre-mixed nootropic “stack.” Think of these like multi-vitamins. Rather than take each vitamin separately — A, B6, B12, D, K, and on — we usually take a single pill that contains many of these vitamins. While these multi-vitamins are often slightly tailored to your sex, age, or other unique physical factors, the basic formula covers all of your body’s primary needs. The same is true for these nootropic supplements. That can help save money, time, and is just generally more convenient.
Natural vs. synthetic nootropics
There are two main nootropic categories: natural nootropics and synthetic nootropics. Natural nootropics are those derived from organic sources. Plants are the most common source of these chemicals. But one of the most common supplemental nootropics, fish oil, comes from an animal.
Synthetic nootropics function in much the same way as natural ones, but these chemicals come from a lab. While some natural nootropics exist in the human body without supplementation, through diet or otherwise, this is not true for synthetic ones. Though their effects are similar to natural nootropics, synthetic nootropics typically yield stronger effects on the brain. Because of this, synthetic nootropics are common in prescription drugs and other controlled substances.
The Safety of Nootropics
As outlined by Dr. Giurgea, true nootropic substances can’t cause harm or significant side effects. But not everyone follows Dr. Giurgea’s requirements when categorizing nootropics. While most natural nootropics offer far more benefit than risk, there are some things you should consider before introducing these chemicals into your routine.
Natural nootropics that are also stimulants can cause addiction issues. Even something as innocuous as caffeine can make users dependent on this stimulant to feel “normal.” To put this into perspective, some people categorize nicotine as a natural nootropic. Yes, it comes from a plant, and yes, it can help the human brain focus and feel energized. But are these benefits worth the addiction and dependency that comes along with them? Most people would say no.
Also, remember that nootropic supplement stacks are labeled “nutritional supplements.” Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which undergo rigorous clinical testing to ensure safety and efficacy, nutritional supplements can go straight from lab to market. These products undergo little, if any, testing before they are available to consumers.
While natural nootropics are safe for the average person, not everyone’s body functions the same. Natural nootropics with stimulant effects, like caffeine, can trigger issues in those with heart conditions, anxiety disorders, and more. Those using prescription or over-the-counter medications could also experience harmful drug interactions. Always check with a licensed physician before starting a supplement routine. That is especially important if you have any pre-existing medical conditions.
Natural Nootropics and Their Benefits
The current known natural nootropics are nearly endless, and there are probably many more we’ve yet to discover. But the most popular natural nootropics of today make up a short list. These natural nootropics include L-theanine, creatine, Rhodiola, ginseng, and gingko.
Research backs these nootropic chemicals and their claims. But many of these chemicals have long histories of use in alternative and ancient medicine. Today, we find them in all kinds of nootropic stacks, daily vitamins, and other supplements.
L-theanine is one of 21 amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Some of these acids occur naturally in the body, but others are only available through supplementation. L-theanine is the latter type. The most common natural sources of L-theanine are green and black tea leaves and mushrooms. But you can often find concentrated doses in over-the-counter sleep aids and stress relievers.
L-theanine has many proven benefits for our brains and bodies. L-theanine can improve cognitive focus when paired with relatively low doses of caffeine. But perhaps the most well-known is its ability to aid in relaxation. By blocking glutamate, a brain chemical that makes us excited and alert, it prevents stress. And by stimulating GABA production, a sedating neurotransmitter, it further relaxes us. In addition to these mental benefits, L-theanine can suppress spikes in blood pressure related to stress and anxiety.
Creatine is made up of three other amino acids. Unlike L-theanine, the human liver and kidneys naturally produce these amino acids. But many people, especially athletes, choose to supplement their diet with this natural nootropic. Creatine is naturally present in meat and fish, with the highest concentration found in red meat. The most popular creatine supplement is creatine monohydrate, a concentrated version of the compound.
Creatine helps transport energy to the body’s cells, especially muscle and brain cells. This increased energy boosts brain power and delays mental fatigue. That is particularly useful when working long hours or taking a test. Research has also shown that creatine might improve memory capacity in some subjects.
Rhodiola is an Arctic plant with adaptogenic roots, meaning the chemicals within help reduce stress when ingested. Sometimes called golden root or Arctic root, Rhodiola is and will be a staple of nootropics for centuries. While over 140 different chemicals are in Rhodiola root, the two most potent are rosavin and salidroside. Some Rhodiola supplements contain just one of these primary chemicals, but they have slightly different benefits and work best when combined.
While Rhodiola has its own anti-anxiety properties, it can also increase the strength of prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications. Rhodiola is also believed to fight symptoms of fatigue and physical stress. Small studies have even shown similarities in efficacy between Rhodiola and sertraline, a popular prescription anti-depressant. Further studies are necessary, but these initial findings are very promising.
There are 11 species of ginseng, but the two species that possess proven nootropic properties are Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius. These two species — colloquially called Asian and American ginseng, respectively — are staples in alternative herb-based medicine. Like the Rhodiola plant, ginseng’s benefits are in its thick roots.
Ginseng reportedly has cognitive and mood-boosting benefits. Research shows that ginseng can improve cognitive reaction speeds and improve symptoms of mental fatigue. Again, like Rhodiola, ginseng also has adaptogenic properties. Ginseng is believed to normalize high cortisol levels, a key piece of emotional and physical stress management.
Ginkgo comes from the Chinese ginkgo tree. This tree is popular as an ornamental tree in the United States but has built quite the reputation for its fruit’s unsavory smell. Ginkgo extract, which is known for its natural nootropic properties, is taken from the tree’s leaves. While most modern uses of the ginkgo tree utilize the leaves, the seeds were also a major part of ancient Chinese medicine.
Ginkgo extract is most famous for its memory-boosting benefits, especially short-term memory and recall. This natural nootropic works by increasing blood flow to the brain and encouraging the production of dopamine and other neurological biochemicals. It also has antioxidant properties that protect the body and brain from radical damage. Like most other nootropics, it also helps manage stress levels and fights mental fatigue.
The Best Nootropic Supplements
Even though each of these natural nootropics is available as separate supplements, pre-mixed stacks are the most popular form of nootropic supplementation. There are dozens of these stacks on the market, but only a few well-known ones. Whether famous for their results or celebrity endorsements, these natural nootropic stacks are undeniably popular in the world of smart drugs.
Below are the most popular nootropic stacks on the market. We looked at their ingredients, customer reviews, and pricing to create a short comparison of these three products. This brief overview will help you navigate the fast-growing world of natural nootropics and choose the best product for your needs.
Qualia Mind is a nootropic stack created by Neurohacker Collective. Several health and fitness personalities endorse this product, including Ben Greenfield and Mark Divine. Qualia Mind includes Rhodiola, l-theanine, ginkgo extract, and many other lesser-known nootropic chemicals. This supplement also includes a handful of vitamins and minerals.
Qualia Brain is rated 3.1 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers. Positive reviewers saw an increase in focus. Negative reviewers reported no change at all. Qualia Brain costs between $100 and $150 per 154-count bottle and is available from the Neurohacker Collective online shop and Amazon.
As far as brand recognition goes, ALPHA Brain might be the leader. Endorsed by Joe Rogan, this nootropic stack is used by professionals and athletes to gain an edge in cognitive performance. Surprisingly, though, ALPHA Brain only contains one of the natural nootropics on our shortlist: L-theanine.
ALPHA Brain is rated 3.4 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers. Positive reviewers saw improvements in reaction times and memory recall. Negative reviewers mostly reported side effects like nausea and a racing heart. ALPHA Brain costs between $60 and $80 per 90-count bottle and is available from the ONNIT online shop and Amazon.
MasterBrain by 1st Phorm is one of the largest fitness supplement brands currently available. This nootropic stack comes with an AM and PM version. The MasterBrain AM formula has a larger concentration of natural nootropics, including ginseng, L-theanine, and Rhodiola. The PM formula has a second dose of Rhodiola, as well as a sleep blend including melatonin and valerian root.
MasterBrain is rated 3.6 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers. Positive reviewers saw increased energy and better sleep quality. Negative reviewers felt the product was overpriced and saw no noticeable results. MasterBrain costs between $60 and $80 per two 60-count bottles and is currently only available from the 1st Phorm online shop.
The Future of Natural Nootropics
While some natural nootropics are more popular than others, everyone responds to these chemicals differently. If you plan to start a nootropic routine, there are a few simple steps you should follow. First, consult your physician for clearance to begin such a regimen. Second, determine your goals when it comes to the benefits of the nootropics. For instance, are you most concerned with lowering your stress levels? Or, improving your memory and recall? Even easing symptoms of mental fatigue? Finally, test out different nootropics and nootropic stacks to see what works best for you and your body.
Regardless of the regimen you choose, new research and clinical testing for nootropic supplements will continue to emerge. The best thing you can do for your cognitive health is to revisit and adjust your nootropic routine until you find the perfect stack for your body. With a little work, you can find the key to your true cognitive potential. After all, everyone can benefit from extra brain power.