Improving Memory and Focus With Nootropics

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 ability to heighten mental clarity, improve memory, and enhance the mind-body connection. If you've ever brewed a cup of green tea or coffee for a mental boost before sitting down to work, you’ve used nootropics!

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. However, the most historic use of nootropics is in herbalism as fungi and herbs are some of the earliest medicines used by mankind; the seeds, stems, bark, and flowers of many plants have long been used as brain boosters. Traditional pharmacopeias from around the world make robust use of nootropic herbs: Bacopa monnieri is an Ayurvedic, intellect-sharpening herb that's often used to treat memory loss and poor concentration. It's joined by another adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb,  ashwagandha, which can help with focus and stress relief.

Elsewhere in traditional medicine, rhodiola is a traditional component of Chinese herbalism that can reduce fatigue and improve thinking, and 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.

Are they safe? 
By definition, nootropics are meant to be low toxicity and have few side effects. That said, simply because they are naturally occurring 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 at a completed to-do list, 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.

Amieva, Hélène et al. “Ginkgo biloba extract and long-term cognitive decline: a 20-year follow-up population-based study.” PloS one vol. 8,1 (): e52755. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052755

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Kulkarni, Reena et al. “Nootropic herbs (Medhya Rasayana) in Ayurveda: An update.” Pharmacognosy reviews vol. 6,12 (2012): 147-53. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.99949

Sreemantula, Satyanarayana et al. “Adaptogenic and nootropic activities of aqueous extract of Vitis vinifera (grape seed): an experimental study in rat model.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine vol. 5 1. 19 Jan. 2005, doi:10.1186/1472-6882-5-1