What Is a Nootropic? An Herbalist Explains

Dec 09, 2019

by Kristin Henningsen

Need a brain boost? You’re not alone. According to a 2019 study done by the Global Council on Brain Health, about 26 percent of adults in the U.S. take at least one supplement for brain health. When multitasking is the rule rather than the exception at work and an active social life can be key to success, it’s not that surprising. Add to that juggling all the complexities of parenting and family, you can see the struggle is real. Our brains need support just like any other organ in the body.

Enter nootropics. Often defined as “smart herbs” that improve memory, brain function, and intelligence, nootropics are so much more. These herbs can be considered more of a long-term brain support system, rather than just a quick boost. 

 

What Are They?

Though the term nootropic was first coined in 1972 by Romanian chemist and psychologist, Dr. Corneliu Giurgea, who pioneered the manufacturing of nootropic drugs, the use of herbal remedies with similar benefits have been around for thousands of years. Ancient records of ayurvedic medicine refer to medhya rasayana, herbs that improve memory and intellect, and the use of the nootropic herb Ginkgo biloba has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2,500 years.

The term nootropic has now evolved to describe any remedy that can help attain and maintain memory and cognitive ability. It does so by improving the levels and function of neurotransmitters. And while they are often focused on brain health, there is some evidence for mental health support, as well. 

 

Benefits

The secret to the effectiveness of these remedies, however, is in their long-term use. While taking a big dose of Bacopa might help you get in the zone to nail that job interview, it’s really the continued use that’s key. Ayurvedic texts describe the improvement of memory and intellect after one week but report a healthy, prolonged lifespan when used for decades.

 

How to Choose

With all the benefits that nootropics provide, it’s clear that these can be a great addition to a health regimen. The key is finding the nootropics that are going to fit your specific needs. Targeting your approach will save you time and money. For some, taking a formulated supplement like those from us here at FOCL might be the way to go; for others, taking a nootropic in tea may be more realistic. Here’s the quick list of specific benefits.

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Lion’s Mane

Hericium erinaceus is a mushroom that is especially useful for those who may have suffered from trauma-related nerve damage, as it has an ability to help stimulate nerve growth. Its protective benefits and ability to improve cognition are also beneficial for those seeking an overall boost in memory support, not related to any disease state. If brain fog and short-term memory issues are your main complaint, this fungus could be your new best friend.

Bacopa

Bacopa Monnieri is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used for thousands of years to promote memory and focus. For those who have a wandering or ruminating mind, Bacopa is known for its ability to calm without sedating. If you have anxious tension before getting up before a big crowd, Bacopa is a great option.

Gotu Kola

Centella asiatica is another Ayurvedic herb that has an impressive track record for its use as a memory and brain boostertonic. What sets it apart from the rest is the additional function of boosting mood and supporting blood sugar regulation. If your brain shuts down when your fuel sources run low, then this is a great herb to consider.

Rhodiola

Needing a quick zip? Rhodiola Rosea has been used traditionally in Siberia for increasing focus and physical performance. A friend to those burning the midnight oil, Rhodiola is the herb to reach for, whether you’re cramming for that next exam or you’re suffering from long-term burnout

 

Gotcha Thinking?

No matter what your specific goals are for your health, considering a long-term nootropic is a great move. Not only can they support our day-to-day brain function, but they can also work preventatively to decrease the effects of aging on the brain. Choose the herbs that best fit your needs in the form that is most realistic for you, and the multifaceted benefits of this class of remedies will keep you sharp and focused.

Kristin Henningsen MS, RH (AHG), RYT, is a clinical herbalist and educator who first fell in love with plants in the Southwestern desert. She’s passionate about bringing plant medicine back to the people, integrating Western herbalism, TCM and Ayurvedic practices to empower folks in their healthcare. She maintains a private clinical practice and serves as faculty for several university programs.

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