Nootropics are ingredients that can be used to enhance a range of brain functions from memory, to focus, to decision making. The word is a combination of the Greek words nous (mind) and trepein (bend), and refers to what are often called “smart drugs,” “brain herbs,” or simply cognitive enhancers, due to their multifaceted effects on brain functions including heightening mental clarity, improving memory, and enhancing the mind-body connection. If you have ever brewed a cup of green tea or coffee for a mental boost before sitting down to work, you’ve used nootropics. The term nootropics was invented in 1972 by a doctor who also indicated they should have low toxicity and few side effects in addition to enhancing learning and memory.
Where are they found?
These brainy compounds appear naturally in foods in the form of Omega-3s, which are found in fish, chia seeds, flax seeds, and many nuts, but the most historic use of them is in herbalism, as fungi and herbs are some of the earliest medicines used by mankind, who would use seeds, stems, bark, and flowers of many plants as brain boosters in the forms of teas, taken raw, or ground into a powder like a form of proto-supplements. Traditional pharmacopeias from around the world make robust use of nootropic herbs: Bacopa monnieri is an Ayurvedic herb with nootropic properties that have been substantiated by modern, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. In its historical use as a “medhya rasayana,” or intellect-sharpening herb, it has been used to treat memory loss and poor concentration, as well as inflammation. It is joined by another adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha which can help with focus and stress relief.
Elsewhere in traditional medicine, rhodiola rosea is a traditional component of Chinese herbalism that is shown to reduce fatigue and improve thinking, and the so-called superberry schisandra is used to combat mental stress and sustain concentration. Ginseng and ginkgo biloba are two more well-known plants that have become widespread in improving memory and cognitive longevity. Nootropic fungi like reishi and lion’s mane have both been used for thousands of years to boost concentration and emotional support and are shown to stimulate the neuroprotective nerve growth factor essential for the creation of new brain cells.
Are they safe?
By definition, nootropics are meant to be low toxicity and have few side effects. That said, simply because they are naturally occuring does not mean they are not powerful substances, and you should still consult with your doctor before integrating any cognitive enhancers into your routine. Certain interactions can arise between prescriptions and over-the-counter therapies, so do not make any changes without first asking your medical professional.
Who should use them?
Though there is a very real pressure in modern life to be a great multi-tasker — someone who can simultaneously knock out business emails while coordinating family schedules, planning social gatherings and, somewhere in there, still find time for self-care — the fact is that constantly switching tasks is a known productivity killer. A super common stress response is to tense up and lose the precision to prioritize among your tasks, but if you have ever felt a buzz from looking a to-do list that is completed or nearly completed, you know the temptation is real. While herbal nootropics may not be an overnight fix for getting more out of your brain power, studies suggest use over a period of four weeks and on can show demonstrable improvements across brain functions, whether that be boosting concentration, sharpening your memory, or quickening your response time.
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