In today’s highly competitive world, popping a pill for extra brain power can be a tempting solution for those needing a quick boost in productivity, or hoping to get the creative juices flowing.
Recent years have seen an enormous spike in demand for neuroenhancers known as nootropics or “smart drugs,” especially among university students during exam time, but also among working professionals with looming deadlines and older folks worried about cognitive decline in advanced age.
In response to this demand, a whole black-market industry has sprung up around prescription medications such as Adderall, Ritalin, and modafinil — powerful, mind-altering drugs intended to treat psychiatric and neurological conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, but which are also widely believed — rightly or wrongly — to stimulate the brain and improve mental performance in healthy individuals.
If you’re considering taking nootropics, it’s important to know that synthetic psychostimulants are very often controlled substances, which means possessing them without a prescription can land you in jail. Worse than that, abusing these medications can also put you in the hospital, in rehab — or even in the morgue.
Fortunately, not all nootropics are prescription-only pharmaceutical products with frightening safety profiles. Many can be found growing all around us, or on the shelves of your local health food store — although you should still consult your doctor before using them. Here are some of the best:
Bacopa monnieri, also known as waterhyssop or brahmi, is a perennial herb native to the wetlands of India and Australia. Used in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) for centuries, Bacopa contains a number of chemical compounds, known collectively as bacosides, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and provide significant neuroprotective and neuroenhancement benefits.
A 2013 neuropharmacological review of Bacopa monnieri at the Pitzer (Claremont) College Department of Neuroscience found that “unlike the potentially addictive and forceful action of widely used psychostimulants,” such as modafinil, long-term moderate use of Bacopa “appears to nourish rather than deplete neurons.” Despite the herb’s slower, gentler influence on the brain than pharmaceutical nootropics, a 2013 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology has shown chronic Bacopa administration to have an overall greater positive impact on cognitive processes than modafinil, especially in the domain of memory.
“Bacopa could potentially be clinically prescribed as a memory enhancer,” according to a 2012 systematic review carried out at the Swinburne University of Technology’s Center for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia, which analyzed the results of six high-quality, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials. More recently, in 2022, an article in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Pharmacology noted that, in addition to memory enhancement, “several therapeutic and laboratory researches have demonstrated the usefulness of Bacopa monnieri in improving intellect and concentration,” and that Bacopa extract “has already been shown to help cognitive performance in adolescents with ADHD.”
Ginkgo biloba, often simply called ginkgo, is a species of tree native to China and a staple of traditional Chinese medicine. Extracts from its leaves contain many bioactive compounds, including ginkgolides and bilobalide, which are considered to exert memory-enhancing, neuroprotective, and neuroregenerative effects by improving blood circulation and assisting the distribution of nutrients and oxygen to the brain.
A systematic review of seven randomized controlled trials by an international team of scientists from India, Israel, and Poland in 2012 reported that despite only “limited evidence” for Ginkgo as a treatment for ADHD (unlike Bacopa monnieri), the plant was nevertheless “found to provide cognitive benefits in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” and that “some executive functions, selective attention, and long-term memory were all enhanced by its extracts.”
In patients with dementia, the standardized ginkgo extract EGb761 was shown to be more effective than placebo in a 2010 meta-analysis of nine clinical trials, and although its alleged benefits in this area remain hotly debated, the authors of a more recent (2015) article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Pharmaceutical Health Care & Sciences concluded that “taking a 240-mg daily dose of Ginkgo biloba extract is effective and safe in the treatment of dementia” — a conclusion further corroborated by an updated review for Frontiers in Pharmacology in 2020.
Similarly, as a complementary therapy for ischemic stroke, Ginkgo extract has been observed to “improve neurological function” and “seems generally safe for clinical application,” according to a 2020 systematic review of 15 randomized clinical trials involving more than 1,800 participants.
In early 2022, a comprehensive survey of plant-derived nootropics by a group of Spanish scientists, who analyzed the findings from over 250 research papers published between 2000 and 2021, summarized that “Ginkgo biloba was the most relevant nootropic regarding perceptual and motor functions” — the neurocognitive domain responsible for receiving, interpreting, and using sensory information. Perceptual motor skills include hand-eye coordination, body-eye coordination, auditory language skills, and visual-auditory skills.
Variously known as ashwagandha and winter cherry, Withania somnifera — another Ayurvedic herb — is an evergreen shrub mainly cultivated in the dry regions of India. Since this adaptogenic herb is already fairly well established as a folk remedy for stress, depression, and anxiety, it is perhaps unsurprising that the same study that assessed Ginkgo biloba to be the best plant-derived nootropic (PDN) for perceptual-motor function-enhancement also evaluated Withania as the most effective PDN for improving social cognition — the ability to process, remember, and use information in social situations. The active phytochemicals in Withania, and the role they play in the herb’s medicinal applications, are not yet clearly understood, but their effects on the brain are well documented.
In 2021, eight scientists from four top U.S. universities noted in a review of 21 nutrients’ effects on cognitive function that Withania has “demonstrated promising results as a safe and effective treatment for improving immediate and general memory, executive function, attention, and information-processing speed” in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This review — which summarized the findings of nearly 100 research papers from the last 21 years — ultimately found Withania to be one of seven “promising” natural nootropics, thus confirming an earlier (2019) Withania-focused systematic review by Singaporean scientists, who likewise concluded that, “in most instances, W. somnifera extract improved performance on cognitive tasks, executive function, attention, and reaction time,” and “also appears to be well tolerated, with good adherence and minimal side effects.”
Salvia officinalis and Salvia lavandulifolia are the botanical names for common sage (the popular culinary herb) and Spanish sage, respectively, which share a similar biochemical composition and have both been used as memory-enhancers since the time of the ancient Greeks. Although Salvia is much less studied than the other natural nootropics listed here, its inclusion in this article is warranted by its most remarkable quality — the rapidity of its action on the brain.
According to Professor David O. Kennedy, director of the Brain, Performance & Nutrition Research Center at Northumbria University in the U.K., a series of human clinical studies have proven a single dose of Salvia extract or essential oil to exhibit significant neuroenhancement benefits almost immediately. A one-off 167mg ethanolic extract of Salvia officinalis improved both memory task and attention task performance in healthy adults for six hours after consumption in one study, while in others, a single 25-50 microliter capsule of Salvia lavandulifolia essential oil — also administered to healthy adults — was seen to increase memory task and executive function task performance, as well as improving levels of subjective alertness, for 2.5 hours after consumption.
Professor Kennedy’s 2019 assessment of Salvia as a “promising” neuroenhancer echoes the findings of an earlier (2017) review by clinical psychologist Dr. Adrian Lopresti, an associate professor at the Murdoch University School of Psychology & Exercise Science in Australia, who judged that, “overall, evidence for the cognitive-enhancing and protective effects of Salvia plants is promising.”
In addition to its nootropic benefits for healthy individuals, Salvia may also be effective in treating patients with neurological disorders. A 2014 systematic review of 16 clinical trials, published in the medical journal CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, concluded that “S. officinalis and S. lavandulifolia exert beneficial effects by enhancing cognitive performance both in healthy subjects and patients with dementia or cognitive impairment,” and also vouched for their safety. Scientists believe that the terpenoids contained in Salvia extracts, which possess cholinesterase-inhibiting abilities, may account for its potential in this regard.
Commonly known as turmeric, Curcuma longa is a flowering plant of the ginger family with a long history of culinary use as a spice. Curcuma — and its main active ingredient, curcumin — has become a subject of study for its neurocognitive influence because Indians, who eat a turmeric-rich curry diet, are more than four times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than Westerners.
Like Withania somnifera, Curcuma is primarily recognized as an anxiolytic and mood-stabilizing nootropic useful in treating anxiety and depression. “Nonetheless, extensive research demonstrates curcumin’s potential for being a key neuroprotective agent and beneficial for cognitive function in healthy adults and those with AD or dementia, based on its ability to […] reduce the effects of oxidative stress and decrease inflammation,” according to a 2021 study by scientists at Columbia University and the Universities of Miami, North Carolina, and New Mexico, who further noted that Curcuma — due to its time-honored culinary application — has a good safety profile.
An earlier (2006) literature review of over 1,500 research papers examining the effects of curcumin alone similarly determined that “compelling evidence confirms curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, antioxidant, and an overall neuroprotectant” with “a very high margin of safety even in very large oral concentrations.”
The main problem with Curcuma, however, is its low curcumin bioavailability and difficulty in crossing the blood-brain barrier (BBB) — meaning that very little of the curcumin in the spice makes it into the bloodstream, and even less is absorbed by the brain. Fortunately, recent technological advancements in the nutraceutical industry have made possible the development of several commercially-available Curcuma extracts with greater curcumin bioavailability and enhanced BBB permeability.
Rhodiola rosea or roseroot is a perennial flowering plant that grows naturally at high altitudes in the colder climes. As an adaptogen — much like Withania somnifera, Ginkgo biloba, and Bacopa monnieri — Rhodiola contributes to better mental performance primarily by fortifying the brain against physical, chemical, and biological stressors. The main bioactive compound responsible for this effect is salidroside, a glucoside with known antioxidative and neuroprotective qualities.
In a 2022 study backed by the Spanish Ministry of Science & Innovation, the authors concluded that the complete body of clinical and preclinical research to date has “undoubtedly validated” the herb’s centuries-long history of use as an “an effective psychostimulant, general strengthener, and an anti-stress agent […] for enhancing mental and physical performance, decreasing symptoms of fatigue and depression, increasing work productivity, and providing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.”
Another study, published in 2020, with funding support from the Italian Ministry of Health, also gave a positive evaluation of Rhodiola as an adaptogen, praising especially its “remarkable multi-target activities” and “remarkable anti-stress effects.” Moreover, the authors noted that Rhodiola is not only “generally evidenced to be safe, with no acute and chronic toxicity,” but, when administered in combination with certain pharmaceutical antidepressants, actually “leads to a marked reduction in the side effects of the drugs, while producing additional beneficial effects on depressive symptoms,” and therefore ought to be “considered as an adjunct to standard antidepressant drugs which possess side effects related to mitochondrial toxicity.”
Unsurprisingly, Rhodiola was one of the seven nutrients (along with Bacopa monnieri, Curcuma longa, and Withania somnifera) that made it into the “promising” category — out of the 21 nutrients reviewed for their influence on cognitive function — in the aforementioned American study by scientists from top U.S. universities, based on 21 years of human clinical trials. The authors of that study concluded that “Rhodiola rosea offers promise as a treatment for anxiety, stress, and fatigue in healthy adults and as a possible enhancer of mood, mental performance, and cognition,” and “also appears to be safe for human consumption with little to no adverse effects.”
In a similar vein, a scientific review carried out in 2010 by researchers at the Swedish Herbal Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne in Australia found “robust traditional and pharmacological evidence” that long-term ingestion of Rhodiola extract “exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance (particularly the ability to concentrate in healthy subjects), and reduces burnout in patients with fatigue syndrome.” Furthermore, Rhodiola’s clinically demonstrated lack of interaction with other drugs and adverse side effects “make it potentially attractive for use as a safe medication.”
Panax ginseng(Asian ginseng) and its occidental cousin, Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), are plants native to the mountainous regions of eastern Asia and the forests of Appalachia, respectively. Panax (of both varieties) is yet another example of an adaptogenic herb; it has been used as such in traditional Chinese medicine and by Native-American healers for generations, and today is often marketed as a vital herb with anti-aging properties.
Panax is rich in steroidal saponins known as ginsenosides — the biochemical compounds mainly responsible for the root extract’s neuroprotective effects. “Multiple clinical, as well as translational studies, have demonstrated the effectiveness of ginseng in various neurological disorders, both acute (ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, TBI) and chronic (Alzheimer, Huntington, and Parkinson) diseases,” according to a 2015 article in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience by scientists at the University of Florida College of Medicine, who argued that Panax represents “a promising neuroprotective strategy in stroke,” due in part to ginsenoside Rb1’s potential to stimulate neurogenesis and reestablish the neuronal connections damaged or destroyed by ischemia. Ginsenoside Rd is another natural neuroprotective agent and has been suggested by Chinese researchers as “a novel clinical candidate drug for treating neurological diseases,” in a January 2022 issue of the peer-reviewed therapy journal Phytomedicine.
As for the effects of Panax on healthy individuals, memory seems to be the neurocognitive domain most improved by Panax supplementation; such, at least, was the conclusion reached by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in 2014. Another study, conducted in 2019 by the Brain, Performance & Nutrition Research Center at Northumbria University in the U.K., found that “single doses of standardized ginseng (P. ginseng/quinquefolius) extract […] have been shown to consistently improve cognitive function across several domains relevant to sport,” and are particularly promising in this regard. Similarly (and most recently), the aforementioned 2021 review of 21 nutrients and phytonutrients noted that “working memory appears to be enhanced by both American and Panax ginseng.”
Importantly, toxicological investigations and human trials have demonstrated that Panax extracts have a “good safety profile” and are “rarely associated with adverse events or drug interactions.”
So, Which Is Best?
Of all the botanical nootropics listed above, Ginkgo biloba and Bacopa monnieri are by far the most extensively studied for their cognitive enhancement abilities — although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best of the bunch. Others, such as Salvia officinalis/lavandulifolia and Panax ginseng/quinquefolius, while less studied, show promise as rapid neuroenhancers, for example; whereas other, more established herbal nootropics typically only yield benefits after a period of prolonged use.
Deciding which of these natural brain-boosters is best for you also depends largely on the neurocognitive domains (NCDs) where you’d most like to see improvements. For instance, an athlete might favor Ginkgo biloba for its superiority in the realm of perceptual-motor function (which includes hand-eye coordination), while a teacher might opt instead for Withania somnifera because it better supports social cognition — the NCD most relevant to communication skills. Curcuma longa, on the other hand, appears to be the best choice for general, long-term brain health and performance, without necessarily providing specific or tangible benefits in the short-to-medium term.
Best plant-derived nootropics (PDNs) by neurocognitive domain:
Best PDNs for quick results: Salvia officinalis/lavandufolia & Panax ginseng/quinquefolius
Best PDN for overall brain health: Curcuma longa
Best PDN for fatigue: Rhodiola rosea
Another consideration is whether and how to combine herbal nootropics — a practice known as “stacking.” Clinical data indicates that Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng pair particularly well together; a 2019 systematic review of eight “high quality and robust” studies by psychologists from Teesside University in the U.K. showed that “a Panax ginseng/Ginkgo biloba combination treatment can modulate cognitive function, with the strongest and most consistent effect being one of improved ‘secondary memory’ performance,” and presented “direct evidence to suggest that a combination treatment can produce a stronger and more persistent effect than either Panax ginseng (G115) or Ginkgo biloba (GK501) ingested alone.”
As always, however, it’s necessary to speak to your doctor before taking any kind of nootropic or other supplements — even non-pharmaceutical ones, as these can still interact with medications or nutraceuticals you’re already taking, or negatively impact a pre-existing medical condition.