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The Body

Boost Your Brain: 5 Natural Nootropics

Getty/Danny JIA

These superfoods not only protect neurological function, they can also improve mental performance.

Nootropics have been put to use in one form or another by almost every culture around the world for millennia, whether to increase stamina or focus during a hunt or a battle or as a way to elevate consciousness and better connect with the world on a spiritual level.

There are many everyday foods that are fantastic for overall brain health, but the difference between these everyday smart foods and foods that are considered natural nootropics comes down to the brain-boosting ability of nootropics. Natural nootropics not only maintain and protect neurological function, they can also improve your mental performance.

The effectiveness of every nootropic varies from person to person, and with continued use, the amount taken may need to be adjusted in order to yield the desired results. All of the nootropics on the list are commonly sold as supplements.

Start small (more is not better), listen to your body, and consult your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about using natural nootropics.

Lion’s Mane

“The Smart Mushroom”

What It Is: Lion’s mane has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, but it has also played a role as a popular health food in Japan, Korea, and India. The mushroom gets its fanciful names from its toothed appearance. Most likely, though, you’ll find it as an innocuous looking, tan-colored powder at the health food store. It imparts a very mild, earthy flavor when added to food.

What It Does: This goldstar nootropic contains many compounds that support an impressively wide range of brain boosting benefits: Lion’s mane is brain protective, brain healing, cognitively stimulating, and even promotes neural growth.

How To Use It: The most accessible and versatile way to use lion’s mane is in powder form. This offers potent benefits without having much of an effect on flavor, making it an ideal secret ingredient that can be used in just about anything, from soups and other savory foods (raw or cooked) to smoothies and sweets.

Lion’s Mane Checklist:

• May help treat neurodegenerative diseases

• Is exceptionally neuroprotective

• Helps with sleep disorders

• Contains nerve regeneration capability

• Decreases depression and anxiety

• Improves learning, memory, and attention

• Supports overall cognitive function

• Increases neuroplasticity and neurogenesis

Reishi

“The Health Insurance Mushroom”

What It Is: Reishi is a species of mushroom that naturally grows in the forests of Asia, Europe, North America, and the Amazon. The Chinese name for reishi, ling zhi, translates as “spirit plant.” It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

What It Does: As a calming nootropic, it can promote deeper and better quality sleep and improve adrenal function, which makes it a good stress regulator. While its immediate effects may be mild, it has been reported that these effects can increase over time.

How to Use It: Like lion’s mane, reishi is an easy-to-use nootropic, although it has a slightly more bitter taste than lion’s mane. The fresh mushroom is very bitter, but the dried reishi powder has a much mellower flavor.

Reishi Checklist:

• Promotes calm and reduces anxiety

• Helps reduce stress

• Supports better sleep

• Supports learning and memory

• Is neuroprotective and a strong detoxifier

Rhodiola

“The Edge”

What It Is: Rhodiola, a perennial sometimes known as “golden root” or “arctic root,” has been used for a range of healing functions since ancient times.

What It Does: Rhodiola is one of the most effective natural nootropics for boosting mental energy. The herb is so popular because most people experience its effects almost immediately (some individuals may require more time to achieve the results they want). Chief among the benefits conferred by rhodiola are improved motivation, heightened focus, and the ability to stay “in the flow” longer.

How To Use It: On its own, rhodiola powder has a slightly odd, soapy taste that isn’t altogether terrible, but it does need a little flavor “encouragement” from other ingredients. In powder form, it works well in sweet, fruity recipes and with chocolate.

Rhodiola Checklist:

• Reduces fatigue and increases energy

• Enhances mood and feelings of well-being

• Increases stamina

• Improves focus and motivation

Ashwagandha

“The Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy Herb”

What It Is: A hardy nightshade, Ashwagandha is native to dry regions of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and parts of Africa.

What It Does: Ashwagandha has many beneficial effects on various areas of cognitive function. For the most part, however, ashwagandha is considered a calming adaptogen that enhances endocrine function by promoting the health of your thyroid and adrenal glands, which help regulate hormones (and the moods brought on by those hormones). Ashwagandha is often used for its beneficial effects on the nervous system, and it may also enhance GABA activity, the major down-regulating neurotransmitter that suppresses stimulus response—another reason why the root helps promote a sense of tranquility. Ashwagandha may also have a subtle effect on optimizing serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine activity in the brain, as well as improving epinephrine connectivity. 

How To Use It: Despite its powerful benefits, ashwagandha will never win any awards in the flavor category. But it can be masked and hidden away quite successfully. In traditional Ayurvedic recipes, for example, ashwagandha is often prepared with ghee and honey or enjoyed as a tea. To make it even more cognitively effective, you can use it with plant-based fats like coconut oil in place of ghee and integrate it seamlessly into low-sugar lattes, smoothies, and high-fat recipes like dressings. Ashwagandha can be taken at any time of the day, but if it makes you feel too relaxed, try using it only in the evenings. 

Ashwagandha Checklist:

• Decreases nervousness

• Improves mood

• Reduces stress by balancing hormones (cortisol and insulin)

• Soothes fatigue and neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion)

• Clears up cloudy thinking

• Helps diminish stress-induced insomnia

• Boosts stamina and endurance

• Promotes recovery from stress and helps with burnout

• Aids memory, focus, and concentration

Schisandra

“The Focus Berry”

What It Is: A woody climbing vine, schisandra produces deep-red, edible berries. The berries are dried and ground into a fine, blackish-purple powder and used as both a food and a remedy to heal a wide range of ailments in Russia and various parts of Asia.

What It Does: Schisandra is most commonly used to treat insomnia, and its benefits have been confirmed by several animal studies showing that it helps reduce anxiety and enhance sleep—not only increasing the total hours of sleep but also improving the quality of rest by augmenting the amount of restorative, deep, slow-wave sleep. But because schisandra is considered an adaptogen, it doesn’t just chill you out and help get you tucked in at night; it can also boost your performance while you are awake. Schisandra checks the boxes for almost every quality you could want from a nootropic: It can help keep you calm and lower anxiety, while also keeping you alert, attentive, and in the flow—thereby increasing your productivity.

How To Use It: In traditional Chinese medicine, schisandra is known as wu wei zi, which means “five flavors fruit,” because it hits all five Chinese flavor markers: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent/ spicy, and salty. As you might imagine from that description, the flavor of the schisandra berry is quite adaptable: It can hang out as innocuously as a wallflower in sweet smoothie bowls, or it can add a bit of interest to savory vegetable recipes or soups. The overall flavor of schisandra is a little like nutmeg, so while you may not want to use it in large quantities as the focal flavor of a dish, it can be an interesting and exciting ingredient to use as an add-in taste.

Schisandra Checklist:

• Promotes calm, reduces stress, relieves anxiety

• Helps with duration and quality of sleep

• Good for memory

• Enhances brain energy and mental activity

• Boosts attention and work performance; speeds reflexes

• Is neuroprotective

Calming and Energizing?

Some nootropics seem to confer contradictory benefits; for example, a nootropic might be both a stimulant as well as a calming sleep aid. Although this flexibility is partially due to a synergy of naturally occurring substances in the plant itself, it is the nootropic’s role as an adaptogen that accounts for the duality of its effects.

Adaptogens are a special class of foods that include some superfoods and herbs. Adaptogenic foods offer the unique health advantage of supporting the endocrine system (a collection of glands that produce and regulate hormones, metabolism, sleep, and mood, among other functions) in a natural way. As their name suggests, adaptogens can literally help you adapt, or adjust, to many different kinds of stress. 

Although the benefits of adaptogens may sound a bit nebulous, there’s nothing magical about them: By supporting endocrine health, adaptogens help restore your body’s natural state of balance.

Excerpt adapted from Smart Plants © 2019 by Julie Morris, with permission from Sterling Epicure.