by Dr. Will Cole
Never before in human history have we seen the level of brain and neurological problems that we see today. Ranging from mild to severe or even life-threatening, these brain disorders include anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, depression, attention deficit and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADD and ADHD), autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. These are just some of the brain conditions that now occur in epidemic proportions and affect nearly everyone in some way. Why here, why now? What has society done to itself that could have triggered such rampant brain dysfunction, to the extent that the quality and quantity of countless lives are impacted every day?
As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to ask questions like this, in order to get to the root cause of health problems—especially brain and neurological issues like the ones I’ve already listed. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers because the brain is multifaceted and complex. However, there are some exciting tools we can all use to improve and support optimal brain function, in the face of this scary health trend. One of my favorites, because of its effectiveness and lack of side effects, is natural nootropics.
What the heck are nootropics?
While they may sound like some fancy new cutting-edge technology, “nootropic” is just a word for any supplements, drugs, or other substances that may have the ability to enhance cognitive function. Sometimes referred to as “smart drugs,” nootropics work to improve memory and cognitive performance and provide neuroprotection in healthy people. In other words, they claim to boost brain power and protect your brain from deterioration over time.
Natural nootropics versus pharmaceutical nootropics.
Nootropics come in many forms—natural, synthetic, and pharmaceutical. Commonly prescribed for ADD and ADHD, Ritalin and Adderall are considered nootropics. Synthetic nootropics are becoming popular, although there isn’t yet much research regarding their long-term effects—examples include Modafinil, Adrafinil, and Piracetam. These may be tempting for those struggling with severe brain fog or fatigue, but I don’t recommend them until we know more about their long-term effects.
But there is another option. In functional medicine, we strive to uncover and treat the underlying cause of brain problems, and we prefer to try natural solutions before synthetic ones. Luckily, there are many natural nootropics. You’ve probably already heard of some because alternative medicine practitioners have been using and recommending them for many years. These natural smart drugs include several types of herbs, especially adaptogens, as well as food-based compounds commonly found in healthy foods you may already eat. The biggest difference between these natural nootropics and synthetic and prescription options is how quickly they take effect. While medications and synthetic drugs offer a quicker reaction time, they also have more intense side effects and require a prescription. Like all natural remedies, natural nootropics have a slower effect that is more subtle at first, but work gently in harmony with your body to enhance and protect brain function with fewer and less extreme side effects.
Natural nootropics in beverages and supplements.
If you want to approach the world of nootropics with some caution but you also want to boost your brain performance, dip your toe in by incorporating a few of these natural nootropics into your wellness routine. These are all easily accessible without a prescription. You may already be familiar with some of these.
You might just think it helps perk you up in the morning, but caffeine is the superstar nootropic. Naturally occuring in coffee, tea, and chocolate, caffeine is hardly a stranger. You can also get caffeine in supplement form, if you aren’t a coffee or tea drinker. Caffeine helps you feel more alert and wakes you up by blocking your brain’s adenosine receptors, and the result is a sharper brain and clearer thinking.
Naturally occurring in tea, especially green tea, L-theanine is a great co-pilot to caffeine having shown that the combination of these two resulted in faster reaction time and less mental fatigue.
An amino acid your body uses to make protein and promote muscle growth, creatine is a popular supplement amongst athletes. It’s also great brain fuel because it binds with phosphate in your brain to provide energy to your brain’s cells, increasing short-term memory.
4. Gingko biloba
I always manage to throw an adaptogen onto my lists because they are my favorite tool for managing stress and boosting brain power, and gingko biloba is a particularly brain-beneficial adaptogen. The leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree are proven brain boosters, especially when it comes to improving memory and alleviating stress by decreasing levels of cortisol, your stress hormone.
5. Panax ginseng
Another superstar, this adaptogen improves memory by reducing oxidative stress, thereby promoting the production of brain-protecting nitric oxide. Research has also shown that panax ginseng may prevent age-related memory loss and improve long-term memory.
You may have 99 problems, but if you use it regularly, curcumin has probably already solved 98 of them—and you can add improved cognitive performance to that list. With long-term use, this compound, abundant in the turmeric root, has been shown to improve working memory. Curcumin can also increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), reduce oxidative stress, and reduce inflammation by inhibiting the production of inflammatory cytokines.
How to use nootropics.
It’s easy to add natural nootropics to your daily wellness routine. You can find most of these herbs and compounds in supplement form from any natural food or vitamin store, or online. You can also find adaptogens and turmeric in powder form, which you can throw into your morning smoothie, favorite recipe, or elixir.
If you decide to explore the amazing brain-boosting power of natural nootropics, it’s important to know that while these natural “smart drugs” are considered generally safe, research is ongoing but still limited. Everyone is different and has different reactions to foods and supplements so, depending on your health case, you may be more sensitive to certain nootropics, especially L-theanine and/or caffeine. For instance, some people have specific gene mutations that makes it more difficult for them to metabolize caffeine. These people will probably not respond well to caffeine. My advice is to start slow, listen to your body, note any problems, adjust dosages accordingly, and always tell your doctor about your supplement use, no matter how natural the supplement may be.
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