The use of nootropics (drugs used to enhance memory or cognitive function) for the treatment of of ADD, ADHD, and narcolepsy is becoming more and more prevalent. Most of us are familiar with these medications or know someone who takes them, despite the many reports of debilitating side effects such as severe headaches and persistent insomnia.
What you might not know is that adaptogenic herbs were the original nootropics, and they can also be effective at heightening focus and concentration, without all the negative (and sometimes dangerous) side effects.
Adaptogenic herbs are like holistic "drugs."
Adaptogenic herbs work naturally to create a feeling of calmness and relaxation while giving you laserlike concentration and heightened brainpower. They are especially useful in times of great physical, mental, or emotional stress. Herbal adaptogens can safely:
- improve our ability to focus in high-stress, anxiety-ridden environments.
- produce antidepressive effects in the brain.
- increase brain working capacity.
- stimulate neuron synapse activity.
This is why herbs are different.
Unlike hyperstimulating prescription drugs that increase sleeplessness and agitation, adaptogens improve cognitive functioning while alleviating stress and protecting the brain and mood.
This distinction is vitally important if you are on a quest to enhance your brain power because stress and agitation can be damaging to the brain. In fact, the branches of stressed brains look like gnarled, shrunken trees with shriveled branches, while healthy brains have strong, hardy branches reaching out like upraised arms to touch other information-carrying branches of the brain.
And so, think of these five adaptogenic herbs as the smart person's "smart drugs":
One of the most powerful adaptogenic herbs for improving cognitive function, rhodiola will reduce stress while enhancing mental energy and focus, improving learning capacity and heightening the quality and length of the attention span.
Maca root can boost physical and mental energy, and like many adaptogenic herbs, maca reduces stress, alleviates depression, and calms anxiety while stimulating brain activity. Maca root works directly upon two regions of the brain—the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland—boosting mental focus and overall cognitive function.
3. Siberian ginseng
Siberian ginseng works by stimulating the production of protective proteins in the brain during times of great stress. This "smart herb" speeds up mental processes and reaction times, improves memory and learning capacity, improves endurance and stamina, and sharpens the senses—particularly vision and hearing.
Typically used by chefs to enhance curries and sauces, turmeric is now making breakthroughs in the science of cognitive enhancement. Turmeric stimulates neuron activity and is such a powerful antidepressant, even for severe depression, that it is now becoming popularly known as a "natural Prozac."
Turmeric is also rich in a substance called curcumin that has such healing and neuron-boosting effects on the brain; it is being researched as a compound that may heal the brains of stroke and Alzheimer's victims.
5. Grapeseed extract
Grape seeds are rich in polyphenols, which work to enhance brain function. The most powerful polyphenols in grape seeds are proanthocyanidins, which are demonstrating potential for having impressive anti-aging effects on the brain. Grape seed is thought to improve the connections between neurotransmitters, protect and enhance neural pathways, and block damaging amyloid-beta proteins that create plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. You've probably heard about the benefits of red wine for protecting brain pathways, so you can see why the seeds of grapes might prove beneficial as well!
6. Green tea
Green tea is highly beneficial for enhancing cognitive activity; it can enhance memory and stimulate synapse connectivity while reducing physical and mental stress in the body. The active compound in green tea that works to improve the brain is L-Theanine, which increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, and alpha waves in the brain. L-Theanine has shown potential for preventing memory decline in old age, improving and heightening the attention span, enhancing focus and concentration, and aiding in complex problem-solving tasks.
You can even find green drink powders (such as matcha powder) that are packed with additional brain-enhancing adaptogens like grape seed extract, rhodiola, and Siberian ginseng.
The importance of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) in adaptogenic supplementation.
When it comes to enhancing cognitive function, amino-acid-rich proteins—found in high-fat dairy products and meat—are important because for an herb to nourish the brain it has to cross the blood-brain barrier. And only some amino acids can carry nutrients across this barrier; therefore, proteins rich in amino acids like leucine, isoleucine, valine, and lysine are taken with brain-enhancing herbs to guarantee delivery to the brain. And this doesn't mean we need to eat a bunch of butter and cheese to enhance our brain function; plain, nonfat yogurt and whey protein powder are rich in these amino acids and have the added benefit of helping you build supple, lean muscle mass. Together adaptogens and amino-acid-rich proteins with enhance brain function without the negative side effects of pharmaceuticals.