But humans have been using nootropic herbs and medicinal plants since before recorded history.
Nootropic herbs are some of the most potent natural brain enhancers we have available today. Often shown to be as effective and safer than modern pharmaceuticals with a similar mechanism of action.
New scientific studies are now validating the cognitive benefits associated with traditional nootropic herbs. And modern manufacturing methods make these botanicals safer, purer, and more effective than ever before.
In this post you’ll be introduced to the top 15 nootropic herbs that can be used as stand-alone supplements. And several are included in some the best pre-formulated nootropic stacks available today.
Table of Contents
What are Nootropic Herbs?
Nootropic herbs are naturally growing plants, or parts of plants including roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. That are used for their brain-enhancing qualities.
Each of the nootropic herbs investigated in this post have a long history of traditional use in herbal medicine. Used for millennia by ordinary people as well as medical professionals.
It’s only in the last hundred years that science has shown us how these herbs work in our body and brain. Validating what people have known through practical experience in using these herbs.
A Brief History of Nootropic Herbs
Humans have been using plants for food and medicine for thousands of years.
Emperor Shen-Nung, the 2nd of China’s emperors (3500-2600 BC) catalogued over 365 species of medicinal plants. Many of which are still used in traditional Chinese medicine today.[ii]
The ancient Greeks and Romans were also into herbs. Surgeons with the Roman army spread their herbal expertise throughout the Roman empire including Spain, Germany, France, and England.
Dioscorides (40 – 90 BC) and Galen (131 – 203 AD), both Greek surgeons in the Roman army wrote herbal books that remained the definitive materia medica texts for 1,500 years.[iii]
In 1597, John Gerard (1545 – 1612) who was the superintendent of the gardens of Queen Elizabeth incorporated New World plants in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants.[iv]
Our ancestors long ago learned that certain herbs could have a profound effect on healing and optimizing the human brain and body.
Modern Nootropic Herbal Science
Our ancestors used nootropic herbs in their most basic form; dried, raw, as a powder or steeped as a tea. And while effective, ancient herbal medicines were not that consistent in their brain-enhancing activity.
And some extracts that can only be produced with modern lab techniques can amplify nootropic cognitive activity for more specific benefits.
The latest manufacturing techniques for nootropic herbs include:
- Standardized extracts – provide an exact level of a plant’s active nootropic compounds in each serving
- Concentration – distilled into highly potent herbal extracts resulting in smaller quantities offering great cognitive-enhancing activity
- Calibration – precisely measured botanical extracts are made to supply more specific nootropic compounds shown to benefit your brain
Not only does modern lab and manufacturing techniques provide more effective nootropic herbs. Safety is also enhanced because unwanted compounds or toxins can be prevented from entering your nootropic supplement.
Next you’ll get a summarized introduction to 15 of the most effective nootropic herbs known to man. Most with thousand-year track records in cognitive-enhancing performance.
Each summary provides a live link to my full review of that nootropic herb. Providing a deeper dive into what it is, where it comes from, why we use it, recommended dosages, side effects and type or form of each botanical to buy as a nootropic supplement. With links to dozens of clinical studies supporting each nootropic.
In Sanskrit, Ashwagandha means “smell of horse”. Meaning this herb imparts the strength and vigor of a stallion.
One of the most powerful nootropic herbs in Ayurvedic healing, Ashwagandha stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the most potent drugs used to treat anxiety and depression.
Ashwagandha helps reduce cortisol, lowers blood sugar, and improves blood pressure.[v] It helps regenerate axons, dendrites and synapses. Restoring neural networks, this nootropic herb boosts memory and learning.[vi]
And Ashwagandha extract inhibits acetylcholinesterase. The enzyme responsible for breaking down the key neurotransmitter acetylcholine.[vii] Which in turn helps increase cognition, learning and memory.
Bacopa Monnieri, also known as water hyssop, is often referred to as “Brahmi”. Named after the supreme god Brahma.
In ancient Ayurvedic texts, Bacopa was recommended to devotees to help them memorize long passages of text.
CBD has been shown in the lab and through practical user experience to provide anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.[xi] Reducing anxiety in those with social anxiety disorder. And as an antidepressant by enhancing serotonin and glutamate signaling via the 5-HT1A sub-receptor.
CBD has gained widespread attention for treating seizure disorders like epilepsy. CBD lowers excitation in brain cells that contribute to seizures. CBD also enhances GABA which helps prevent seizures.[xii]
In fact, four Ginkgo trees survived the atomic explosion over Hiroshima. Only 1,130 meters from the bomb’s epicenter.
In the oldest Chinese Materia Medica (2800 B.C.), Ginkgo biloba was recommended for asthma, swelling of the hands and feet, coughs, vascular disorders, aging and for the brain.[xv]
Ginkgo acts as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) which reduces levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO) in your brain. Which in turn boosts dopamine which can help reduce anxiety, depression and assist in the symptoms of ADHD.[xvi]
The name “ginseng” as a nootropic usually refers to either American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), or Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Panax means “cure-all” in Greek.
Ginseng provides neuro-protective effects on the dopaminergic-pathway. And ginseng is a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI). Working as an antidepressant and helping some symptoms of ADHD.[xix]
Ginseng also works as an anti-inflammatory by reducing cytokines, and as an antioxidant. Boosting ATP synthesis in mitochondria due to its antioxidant effects. Improving physical and mental energy.[xx]
Gotu Kola protects your brain from toxins and oxidative stress. Studies show it helps protect against heavy metals and food additives which cause brain fog, mood swings and migraines. And it reduces oxidative stress by reducing free radicals in brain cells.
Holy Basil (Tulsi) or “The Incomparable One” is the most sacred nootropic herb in the Hindu religion. And has been valued for millennia by Ayurveda, Greek, Roman, Siddha and Unani medicine because of its benefits for mind, body and spirit.
Holy Basil is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) which boosts levels of dopamine in your brain. And inhibits acetylcholinesterase (AChE) which boosts acetylcholine. Affecting anxiety, depression, memory and faster thinking.[xxiii]
Holy Basil shields your brain from heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium and mercury. And from the toxic effects of radiation.[xxvi]
And several studies have shown Holy Basil to be as effective in treating anxiety and depression as Valium.[xxvii]
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean region. And has been cultivated for well over 2,000 years.
It was used as a tea to combat mental confusion, and as an elixir to extend lifespan.
In the 17th century, French Carmelite nuns dispensed Carmelite Water. This lemon-balm infused ‘miracle water’ was said to improve memory, vision, and reduce fever, melancholy and congestion.
Lemon Balm inhibits acetylcholinesterase (AChE). AChE is an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine (ACh). Increasing ACh boosts memory and cognition.[xxviii]
Lemon Balm also provides a significant anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect. It raises brain levels of the neurotransmitter GABA by inhibiting the enzyme GABA transaminase. This influences mood regulation.[xxix]
The rosmarinic acid in Lemon Balm promotes an anti-depressant effect in your brain by downregulating mitogen-activated protein kinase phosphatase-1 (Mkp-1). And it upregulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), along with boosting dopamine synthesis.[xxx]
L-Theanine boosts the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and GABA in your brain. As well as increasing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) and Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). Relieving stress, improving cognition, boosting mood and quicker thinking.[xxxii]
Native Peruvians (pre-Inca) have cultivated the nootropic herb Maca for at least 2,000 years. It is the only sustainable food crop that can grow in the harsh, cold conditions of the upper Andean plateau.
Maca is used as a sports supplement by strength and endurance athletes to improve trial performance. Likely due to better energy metabolism and improved antioxidant status.[xxxiii]
Natives in the central Peruvian Andes traditionally had their children eat Maca to improve their performance in school. Likely due to Maca’s ability to boost acetylcholine and act as an antioxidant.[xxxiv]
Studies have also revealed that Maca acts as a fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) inhibitor. Which prevents the breakdown of anandamide and could explain why Maca boosts libido, regulates hormones, improves memory and acts as an antidepressant.[xxxv]
Saffron is the dried stigma of the Crocus sativus plant native to the Middle East. It is the world’s most expensive culinary spice and has also been used for thousands of years as an anxiolytic, sedative, and antidepressant.[xxxvii]
As a nootropic herb, Saffron is now used for depression, PMS symptoms, post-partum depression, memory, appetite suppression, energy & stamina in athletes, and preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Recent studies show Saffron as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants. And can even help alleviate the sexual dysfunction caused by these drugs.[xxxviii]
Crocin and safranal which are unique carotenoids in Saffron make it a potent antioxidant. Scavenging free radicals which reduces inflammation, preventing apoptosis, and protecting neurons and mitochondria.[xxxix]
Many neurohackers report an increase in energy and better libido with Saffron.
And the Saffron extract found in Performance Lab® Vision has become popular within the athletic world because it helps improve vision. And reduces light flicker sensitivity from bright and flashing lights.
Turmeric has remarkable nootropic properties. And stands far above many modern medicines used to treat neurodegenerative diseases like depression, Alzheimer’s and stroke.
The curcumin in turmeric boosts the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are critical for mood, cognition, libido and focus.
Curcumin functions very much like antidepressant MAOI’s and SSRI’s used to treat depression and Alzheimer’s Disease. And can actually enhance the effect of antidepressants like Prozac and Effexor.[xlii]
And the curcumin in turmeric is a potent antioxidant which helps protect your brain from inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to depression and dementia.[xliii]
Vinpocetine inhibits an enzyme called PDE1 (phosphodiesterase type 1) while reducing calcium levels in brain cells. Increasing cerebral blood flow especially in the thalamus, basal ganglia and visual cortex regions of the brain.[xliv]
And Vinpocetine is an anti-inflammatory. It prevents the upregulation of NFκB (nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells) by TNFα (tumor necrosis factor alpha).
This anti-inflammatory action shows such promise that scientists are now working on trying to determine if Vinpocetine can reduce inflammation in the brain. And help protect the brain from developing Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.[xlv]
Valerian helps eliminate stress by boosting GABA, serotonin, activating adenosine receptors, and reducing the stress hormone cortisol.
Valerian extract helps relieve anxiety. The valerenic acid and valerenol in Valerian binds to GABAA receptors which provides its anxiolytic effect.
Like the prescription drugs Xanax and Valium but without the side effects associated with these pharmaceuticals.[xlvi]
The Promising Future of Nootropic Herbs
With the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the herbal books of Dioscorides, Galen, and Avicenna were mass-produced. And ordinary people outside the palace, the monastery, and the university could now access the healing power of herbs.
Then as now, the use of nootropic herbs require no specialized skills.
With some research here on Nootropics Expert®, and deciding what you’d like to heal or optimize, select two or three nootropics mentioned in this post.
If one doesn’t provide the benefit you’re looking for, then try another.
Nootropic herbs are generally non-toxic and safe when used in recommended dosages. So you can only benefit by trying them.
Or you can try a high-quality pre-formulated nootropic stack like Mind Lab Pro® that includes effective dosages of Bacopa Monnieri, L-Theanine, Rhodiola Rosea, and Pine Bark Extract.
If you decide to try individual nootropic herbs, then please see my post, “7 Tips for Choosing the Highest Quality Nootropic Supplements”. And ensure you are selecting the best quality natural nootropics available.
You too can heal and optimize your brain with nootropic herbs. And have safer and more effective options than your ancestors ever had.
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[xxi] Soumyanath A., Zhong Y.P., Gold S.A., Yu X., Koop D.R., Bourdette D., Gold B.G. “Centella asiatica accelerates nerve regeneration upon oral administration and contains multiple active fractions increasing neurite elongation in-vitro.” Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmacology. 2005 Sep;57(9):1221-9. (source)
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[xxvii] Pemminati S., Gopalakrishna H.N., Venkatesh V., Rai A., Shetty S., Vinod A. “Anxiolytic effect of acute administration of ursolic acid in rats.” Research Journal of Pharmaceutical, Biological, and Chemical Sciences. 2011;2:431–7. (source)
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[xxxii] Yamada T., Terashima T., Wada K., Ueda S., Ito M., Okubo T., Juneja L.R., Yokogoshi H. “Theanine, r-glutamylethylamide, increases neurotransmission concentrations and neurotrophin mRNA levels in the brain during lactation.” Life Sciences. 2007 Sep 29;81(16):1247-55. (source)
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[xxxvi] Lishmanov Iu.B., Trifonova Zh.V., Tsibin A.N., Maslova L.V., Dement’eva L.A. “[Plasma beta-endorphin and stress hormones in stress and adaptation].” – in Russian Biull Eksp Biol Med. 1987 Apr;103(4):422-4. (source)
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[xxxviii] Mazidi M., Shemshian M., Mousavi S.H., Norouzy A., Kermani T., Moghiman T., Sadeghi A., Mokhber N., Ghayour-Mobarhan M., Ferns G.A. “A double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial of Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in the treatment of anxiety and depression.” Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. 2016 Jun 1;13(2):195-9. (source)
[xli] Wang R., Li Y.B., Li Y.H., Xu Y., Wu H.L., Li X.J. “Curcumin protects against glutamate excitotoxicity in rat cerebral cortical neurons by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor level and activating TrkB.” Brain Research. 2008 May 19;1210:84-91. (source)
[xliii] Xu Y., Ku B., Tie L., Yao H., Jiang W., Ma X., Li X. “Curcumin reverses the effects of chronic stress on behavior, the HPA axis, BDNF expression and phosphorylation of CREB.” Brain Research. 2006 Nov 29;1122(1):56-64. Epub 2006 Oct 3. (source)
[xliv] Vas A., Gulyás B., Szabó Z., Bönöczk P., Csiba L., Kiss B., Kárpáti E., Pánczél G., Nagy Z. “Clinical and non-clinical investigations using positron emission tomography, near infrared spectroscopy and transcranial Doppler methods on the neuroprotective drug vinpocetine: a summary of evidences.” Journal of the Neurological Sciences. 2002 Nov 15;203-204:259-62. (source)
[xlvi] Benke D., Barberis A., Kopp S., Altmann K.H., Schubiger M., Vogt K.E., Rudolph U., Möhler H. “GABA A receptors as in vivo substrate for the anxiolytic action of valerenic acid, a major constituent of valerian root extracts.” Neuropharmacology. 2009 Jan;56(1):174-81 (source)