For most of human history, finding success in life would have depended on effective survival instincts, brute strength, and quite a bit of luck.
In the modern world things are different.
Getting ahead relies on having a sharp mind and a good network of people.
More than ever people are looking for ways to give themselves an edge on the competition by enhancing their cognitive function with supplements. They’re using them to boost social interaction, improve their memory retention, and boost productivity.
Leading the way in this regard are nootropics.
By definition, a nootropic is any substance that has a positive effect on brain function. This includes everything from herbs and amino acids, to synthetic pharmaceuticals.
Although there are benefits to both, many prefer to keep their nootropics natural because in general they’re considered safer and more effective for long term benefits than their synthetic counterparts.
Here, we list our top 15 natural nootropics to get you started. Whether you’re looking to boost your memory, improve your focus, or ease social anxiety, there’s something on this list that can help anybody get an edge on the competition.
How Natural Nootropic Supplements Build a Better Brain
There are many different ways nootropics can have an effect on the brain.
Synthetic nootropics tend to focus on a single pathway. They either inhibit or stimulate target receptors.
Although this usually produces faster, more profound effects, they also tend to bring a lot of side effects and questionable long-term health benefits.
Conversely, natural nootropics tend to support the body’s normal processes. They keep them running at their best, but prefer to stay within natural limits. The result is fewer side effects and long-lasting benefits on the brain.
Safe and Effective Natural Nootropics
Many nootropic herbs also classify as adaptogens, which have a high safety rating. This is true even in large doses and with a long duration of use. Other natural nootropics like amino acids and plant derivatives often have a much higher safety rating over their synthetic counterparts.
The reason for this is thought to be due to the fact that plants and fungi don’t just have a single ingredient. There can be hundreds, or even thousands of chemicals, all working together to produce their overall effect.
Nootropic Amino Acid Supplements
Amino acids are the building blocks of life. They’re connected to form large strands of proteins, which carry out various roles in the body.
Proteins form cell structures, enzymes, cell transporters, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Their used to generate energy, detoxify chemicals from the body, and form a key element of our immune systems.
Some amino acids are considered nootropic for their role in neurotransmitter production or energy metabolism in the brain and neurons.
L-Theanine is an amino acid isomer produced in the tea plant (Camellia sinensis).
Most high-quality green tea is grown with labour intensive farming techniques designed to shade the plant for the final 2 weeks before harvest. The goal is to increase the natural umami flavour which the tea plant owes to L-Theanine.
This amino acid is produced naturally in high concentrations in the tea plant, but quickly degrades in the presence of sunlight.
The benefits of L-Theanine stretch beyond flavour. It’s considered by many in the biohacking community to be a staple nootropic, useful for almost everybody.
L-Theanine works by mimicking the neurotransmitter L-Glutamate, which is the primary neurostimulating chemical in the brain. It binds to the same receptors, but has far less effect, therefore causing the exact opposite effect. It’s considered calming, reduces anxiety, and promotes mental clarity and focus.
One of the main applications of L-Theanine is to reduce the negative side effects of caffeine (such as jitteriness, anxiety, and high blood pressure).
Creatine is commonly used as an athletic supplement for its role in muscle contraction and energy metabolism. It’s useful as a nootropic for its benefits on energy metabolism in the brain.
This amino acid is made naturally in the liver from the dietary amino acids glycine, L-arginine, and L-methionine. It enters the bloodstream, eventually passing through the blood brain barrier directly into the brain.
Once inside the brain, creatine mixes with phosphate ions to form creatine phosphate. This is the active form that can effectively “turn up” energy consumption in the brain. It does this by allowing both brain and muscle cells to reset themselves faster after firing.
Essentially, creatine works like a fuel additive for the brain, boosting power and improving cognitive work output.
Taurine is an amino acid derivative named from the latin word Taurus, which means “bull” or “ox”. It’s a major ingredient in the energy drink Red Bull.
The body has many different uses for taurine, including bile production in the liver, oxidative protection, calcium signalling, and nerve function.
The reason taurine is added to energy drinks like Red Bull, or in nootropic stacks isn’t because it boosts energy. In fact, it doesn’t do this at all. Instead,it serves as a way to buffer neurons that have been firing at high rates, helping them maintain a higher workload for longer before fatiguing.
It’s like the cooling fans for a computer working at maximum output. Without it, the computer would overheat and stop working very quickly.
Taurine can be used alongside mental stimulants like caffeine, racetams, or amphetamines to help resist exhaustion, and improve the overall effectiveness of other nootropics in the stack.
L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning we lack the ability to produce it ourselves. It’s essential that we get this amino acid from our diet. Our body uses L-Tryptophan to manufacture the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin.
The role tryptophan plays in serotonin production is the main reason it’s used in the biohacker community.
It’s especially useful after activities that drain serotonin levels in the brain. This can include prolonged periods of stress, memorisation tasks, or emotionally draining activities. Some amphetamines can also drain serotonin, which can leave us feeling dull and mentally slow.
After serotonin levels have been depleted, our bodies rely on nutritional sources of tryptophan to replenish lost serotonin reserves. We can get this neurotransmitter from our diet by eating foods like milk, cheese, turkey, or chocolate.
Generally, however, tryptophan supplementation is thought to be superior for replenishing lost serotonin quickly, and has been shown in animal studies to have a greater outcome on aggression and attention span than dietary sources .
L-Tyrosine is one of the 20 standard amino acids required for human life.
It’s used primarily to produce the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. It’s also a primary ingredient in the manufacture of CoQ10 which is essential for energy production in the electron transport chain.
In plants, L-tyrosine forms the skeleton for medicinally active alkaloids like morphine and mescaline.
L-Tyrosine is used as a nootropic to optimise dopamine and catecholamine (epinephrine and norepinephrine) production.
These neurochemicals play a key role in the regulation of mental energy, mood, and motivation. Periods of prolonged mental focus or mood imbalances often result in deficiencies of these neurochemicals.
Nootropic Herbal Supplements
Plants may offer the greatest source of chemical diversity on the planet, even compared to humans.
Many of these compounds are also biologically active in humans, some are even specific to cognitive function.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an ancient medicinal plant used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of health issues. One of the main uses for Ashwagandha was to resist adrenal exhaustion due to stress or overwork. It’s also used to resist cognitive decline in the elderly.
The active constituents in the plant are a group of similar chemicals referred to as “withanolides”. They were shown to reduce detectable levels of the main stress hormone, cortisol .
Cortisol is known to contribute to cognitive decline with age, as well as more short term cognitive deficits.
7. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
There are 2 different kinds of ginseng; American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). The active constituents in both species are a class of compounds called ginsenosides.
In a similar context to the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, there are dozens of different ginsenosides, each with different benefits on the human body.In a similar way to cannabis, there are differences in ginsenoside content between American ginseng and Asian ginseng.
Generally speaking, American Ginseng is higher in the ginsenoside RG1, while Asian ginseng is higher in RG2.
RG1 is preferred as a nootropic because it’s been shown to reduce the buildup of plaque in the brain associated with senility and Alzheimer’s disease .
This offers long-term benefits, as well as short term boosts in cognitive performance as a result of some of American ginsengs many other benefits which includes blood glucose regulation, antioxidant protection, improved cardiovascular efficiency, and immune enhancement.
8. Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)
Rhodiola is a modest looking herb found growing in high altitude mountainous regions of North America, Russia, and Asia. It thrives in environments where most other forms of life would wither and die.
It’s used as an adaptogen, meaning that it improves the body’s ability to resist and adapt to stress. This can include things like altitude sickness, prolonged physical or emotional stress, athletic activities, and mental fatigue or exhaustion.
The ability for rhodiola to help us resist stress is what makes it so useful as a nootropic.
Biohackers use rhodiola to increase the amount of time they can study or work before becoming fatigued. This is especially useful at work, during intense exercise regimens, or studying for a big university exam.
9. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa is a small flowering herb originating from India. It’s a staple herb in the Ayurvedic medical system for conditions involving the nerves and brain.
The Ayurvedic medical system places a strong emphasis on the minds connection with the spirit in order to promote healing. Supporting this connection often means treating the brain. This has resulted in extensive development around herbal treatments to support cognitive function.
One of the most highly sought after for this is bacopa (known as Brahmi to Ayurvedic practitioners).
A recent randomised, double blind study investigated the effects of bacopa on cognitive function. The study found that after 12 weeks those taking the herb had marked improvements in verbal learning, information processing speed, and memory consolidation compared to the placebo group .
10. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Ginkgo biloba is believed to be the oldest living plant species on earth.
It’s fitting that this ancient tree species is so effective for preventing age-related cognitive decline.
In traditional Chinese medicine, where the majority of our traditional understanding of this herb comes from, it’s used as a memory enhancer. They also used it in the treatment and prevention of senility and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It’s thought to increase blood flow to the brain, allowing more oxygen and nutrients into the deeper parts of the brain. This also allows better clearing of metabolic byproducts from the brain, which is a major problem in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
In modern times its become a popular nootropic with a primary focus on longevity and memory improvement. It’s also useful for supporting the cardiovascular system and male libido.
Naturally Sourced Nootropic Supplements
Some plant-based nootropic substances require very high doses.
In the past this meant consuming large quantities of bitter herbal teas, or excessively restrictive diets. Now, thanks to modern extraction methods, we can isolate and concentrate these naturally occurring substances into a more manageable dose.
These nootropics come from nature, but have a human twist.
11. CBD (Cannabidiol)
There are roughly 113 different cannabinoids in the marijuana plant. Among the most medicinally active is CBD.
This compound only came into the spotlight in recent years after it was found to be the only effective treatment for a little girl suffering from debilitating seizures. A single dose was enough to reduce seizures from 60 times a day, to once every 2 weeks.
The story became viral, and thousands of people began flocking to legal marijuana states in search of effective treatments for themselves and their families.
Since this time there’s been a surge in interest in this compound. Along with this interest has come new insights into the other cognitive benefits of the compound.
CBD modulates the endocannabinoid system in the body. This system is used to regulate brain, immune, and endocrine function. It helps the body return to normal during states of imbalance. This makes CBD highly beneficial for cognitive conditions involving neurotransmitter dysregulation, high stress, neuroinflammation, and indeed, seizures.
As a nootropic, CBD is most effective for those who have a neurochemical imbalance. This includes nerve pain, epilepsy, neurotransmitter imbalances (especially glutamate/GABA, or serotonin/dopamine), or neuroinflammatory conditions like multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s disease.
CBD is non-psychoactive and can be taken without causing any changes to sobriety.
Citicoline is naturally produced by the body. It can be supplemented to boost concentrations in the brain to support neurotransmitter production and healthy nerve function. It boosts memory, and protects the brain from damage long-term.
Citicoline contains a choline molecule, which is used to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter is responsible for sending messages throughout the brain and is directly related to memory.
Those who suffer from poor memory associated with Alzheimer’s disease are experiencing the effects of a disabled acetylcholine system.
The choline found in citicoline is also a primary ingredient in cell membranes in the form of phosphatidylcholine. This is used in the brain to maintain existing neurons, as well as manufacture replacements.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in the famous Indian herb Turmeric.
Turmeric owes many of its medicinal uses to this chemical, including cognitive protection.
Traditionally, turmeric was used to treat depression, age-related cognitive decline, cancer, and digestive system conditions.
The curcumin content of the root has been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) . The brain uses BDNF to stimulate nerve cell regeneration and repair.
People who are chronically stressed, anxious, or overworked often have lower levels of BDNF in their brains. This results in poor nerve maintenance, and a general reduction in cognitive function.
Curcumin can be used to boost nerve health during times of stress to prevent this gradual decline in cognitive output.
14. Huperzine A
Huperzine A is a nootropic alkaloid found in Chinese Club Moss (Huperzia serrata).
Although traditional use mainly involves blood and skin conditions, modern uses involve cognitive enhancement, and Alzheimer’s disease treatment.
This alkaloid inhibits an enzyme known as acetylcholinesterase, which is responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. By preventing the activity of this enzyme, acetylcholine can be reused by the neurons to communicate with other areas of the brain more effectively.
Additionally, huperzine A is considered a NMDA receptor antagonist. NMDA receptors are involved in the glutamate system in the brain.
By blocking these receptors, huperzine A produces a feeling of calmness and focus. It’s especially effective as a nootropic for hyperactive or anxious people who are easily distracted and unfocused.
15. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is an odd looking fungus found growing on pine trees in north America, Europe, and Japan.
It’s one of the only substances known to man proven to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF).
Nerve growth factor is important for stimulating the growth of new neurons. It’s a primary factor in the concept of neuroplasticity (the ability for the structure of the brain to change).
Although the concept of neuroplasticity is controversial, the idea is that by increasing NGF, we can promote the replacement of damaged or lost neurons in the brain. This improves cognitive function and resists degeneration as we age.
Lion’s mane is mainly used as a nootropic to boost memory, and resist neurodegeneration as we get older.
Natural nootropics are abundant if you know where to look, and offer unique benefits to their synthetic counterparts.
Whether looking to enhance your memory, boost focus, or protect your brain and nervous system from the negative effects of ageing, there are plenty of natural supplements to help you do it. Most of them have little to no side effects, and are safe to take long term.
- DeNapoli, J. S., Dodman, N. H., Shuster, L., Rand, W. M., & Gross, K. L. (2000). Effect of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 217(4), 504-508.
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255.
- Shi, Y. Q., Huang, T. W., Chen, L. M., Pan, X. D., Zhang, J., Zhu, Y. G., & Chen, X. C. (2010). Ginsenoside Rg1 attenuates amyloid-β content, regulates PKA/CREB activity, and improves cognitive performance in SAMP8 mice. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 19(3), 977-989.
- Stough, C., Lloyd, J., Clarke, J., Downey, L., Hutchison, C., Rodgers, T., & Nathan, P. (2001). The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology, 156(4), 481-484.
- Xu, Y., Ku, B., Tie, L., Yao, H., Jiang, W., Ma, X., & Li, X. (2006). Curcumin reverses the effects of chronic stress on behavior, the HPA axis, BDNF expression and phosphorylation of CREB. Brain research, 1122(1), 56-64.