You may have heard about adaptogens before, and if you have, you’re likely at least partly familiar with the word “nootropics” - but they are indeed different, and this article is about to clear up exactly how they differ (as well as how they are similar!).
Firstly, for a primer on adaptogens, we highly recommend you check out some of our recent blog posts here, in particular this one. Basically, adaptogens are non-toxic plants that help the body resist stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical or biological.
One of the (many) aspects we love about adaptogens is their level of safety. Adaptogens are well & truly food-grade herbs, which means that you can take them consistently for a long-period of time without any negative side-effects (literally, like food!).
On the other hand, while nootropics certainly have their place for healing and benefits when used in the right circumstances, they are a bit more complex in the sense of adverse effects.
Let’s start by defining what the heck nootropics even are! Nootropics are a broad category of substances reported to have a positive effect on cognitive functioning (1). They are also sometimes referred to as cognitive enhancers, and “smart” or “study” drugs (ibid.). ("Nootropic" comes from Greek - "noos" = mind and "tropos" = changed, toward, turn).
In most cases, cognitive enhancers have been used to treat people with neurological or mental disorders, but there is a growing number of healthy, "normal" people who use these substances in hopes of getting smarter. Although there are many companies that make "smart" drinks, smart power bars and diet supplements containing certain "smart" chemicals, there is little evidence to suggest that these products really work. Results from different laboratories show mixed results; some labs show positive effects on memory and learning; other labs show no effects. There are very few well-designed studies using “normal” healthy people. (2)
Many of these substances affect neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system. The effects of these chemicals on neurological function and behavior is unknown. Moreover, the long-term safety of these substances has not been adequately tested. Also, some substances will interact with other substances. A substance such as the herb ma-huang may be dangerous if a person stops taking it suddenly; it can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death.
Examples of Nootropics
Let’s start with the most commonly used (like it or not!): caffeine. While it can have health risks if you overdo it, this natural stimulant has been shown to improve thinking skills. It is also claimed that caffeine gives you more access to several chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your brain such as acetylcholine, which helps with short-term memory and learning (3).
Branching out to some of the more “natural” dietary supplements, most formulas include one or more of the following compounds: CDP-choline, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, Bacopa monnieri, huperzine A, and vinpocetine (delivered as synthetic compounds) (ibid.).
Racetams, such as piracetam, are another type of nootropic. You can get these synthetic compounds over the counter in the U.S., but they’re considered prescription drugs in some other countries. It’s important to note that these chemicals have only been scientifically studied in older adults who have a decline in thinking skills. They are not recommended for most younger, healthy people. (3)
Which Should You Choose?
Here’s the deal, scientific studies have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity (4). In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention (ibid.). Indeed, we’ve written quite a bit about the cognitive & mental benefits of adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha here.
So, if you can get the same if not better efficacy on your brain health with safe, traditionally used herbs - why play around with synthetic compounds and artificial drugs? Of course, we’re not suggesting that you swap in adaptogens for a prescribed medication without consulting a medical professional. But for the case of otherwise healthy individuals - simply looking to advance their state of focus, concentration, memory, etc. - we suggest turning to multi-directional herbs such as adaptogens which will work WITH your brain power in a supportive manner (rather than a quick “hack”).
Here are 3 specific adaptogenic herbs we LOVE for cognitive support:
Reishi: Scientific studies reveal that the polysaccharides from this mushroom could serve as a regenerative therapeutic agent for the treatment of cognitive decline associated with neurodegenerative diseases (5).
Holy Basil: This herb has been documented to possess neuroprotective, cognition-enhancing and stress relieving effects in regulated scientific research (6).
Ginseng: Clinical trials have reported that Panax ginseng treatment improves cognitive functions in both healthy people and in dementia patients (7).