People have been using natural substances for centuries to treat illness and to improve both physical and mental performance. One of the most common of these substances are herbs.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the top 5 nootropic herbs – plus one honorable mention. These are all herbs that have been extensively used in traditional medicine. And modern science is starting to catch up to what healers from hundreds of years ago already knew. But before we get to our list of nootropic herbs, let’s see what an herb is, exactly.
What Is An Herb?
“What is an herb? The friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” – Alcuin of York, ~800 A.D.
Herbs are plants that have strong scents and/or tastes that are used to flavor and garnish food, to make fragrances, and for their medicinal properties. These exclude vegetables and other plants we consume for their caloric and nutritional content.
In cooking, herbs and spices are often used to flavor food. Whereas herbs are the flowering or leafy green parts of a plant and can be fresh or dried, spices are usually dried and come from seeds, roots, bark, and fruits. Here are a few examples of common cooking herbs, though there are many more:
But we’re not interested in herbs for their culinary potential. We’re here to discuss their medicinal and nootropic uses. Herbs have been used for their medicinal properties since prehistoric times. They contain a number of biologically-active compounds that can affect the body and the brain. Here are a few common medicinal herbs that you may have heard of:
- Saint John’s Wort
And some herbs can be powerful brain boosters. Now that we’ve taken a look at what herbs are, we can get to our list of the top 5 nootropic herbs. They’ve all been around for centuries and have lots of science to support their safety and effectiveness.
The Top 5 Nootropic Herbs
This is one of the most-widely used nootropic herbs. Ashwagandha is championed for its ability to reduce anxiety and stress, improve sleep quality, and improve overall cognition. And it’s been used in tradition medicine all over the world for millennia. It’s sometimes refereed to as “the king of Ayurvedic herbs.” Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India.
Ashwagandha, like several herbs on this list, is an adaptogen. These are substances that increase stress resistance and stabilize the body. Ashwagandha has been shown to have an adaptogenic effect on a variety of bodily functions. In addition to its nootropic properties, ashwagandha can improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduce cortisol, and even boost testosterone levels in men.
2. Rhodiola Rosea
This is another adaptogenic herb that grows naturally all over the world. Like ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea (often simply called rhodiola) has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. And in recent years, rhodiola has become popular among nootropic users for its ability to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and improve overall cognition.
Numerous studies have looked at several of rhodiola’s medicinal and nootropic properties. It has consistently been shown to improve mood and well-being, reduce fatigue and improve physical performance, reduce anxiety, and improve overall cognitive performance. And rhodiola has an excellent safety profile.
3. Bacopa Monnieri
Here we have yet another adaptogenic herb that has been used all over the world in traditional medicine for centuries. Bacopa monnieri, often simply called bacopa, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of illnesses and to improve mental functioning. More recently, it’s become a fairly-popular nootropic that can have several brain-boosting benefits.
Nootropic users often report that bacopa improves their mood, focus, and memory, reduces anxiety, and boosts overall cognition. Several studies have been done on bacopa and most of them support these claims. And like the other nootropic herbs on this list, bacopa has been shown to be extremely safe.
4. Ginkgo Biloba
Of all these nootropic herbs, this one is probably the most-widely known. Ginkgo biloba, often simply called ginkgo, is the most-commonly-ingested herb for brain health. It comes from the maidenhair tree, one of the oldest tree species on the planet. Ginkgo has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine and has also been used by several other cultures.
As a nootropic herb, ginkgo can improve memory, slow cognitive decline, and improve overall cognition. Some users also report a reduction in anxiety and boost in mood, though ginkgo usually isn’t taken specifically for these reasons. There is a bit of science to support these claims, although some of the results have been mixed. And generally, ginkgo is very well tolerated.
5. Mucuna Pruriens
This last substance on our list of the top five nootropic herbs is another that has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Mucuna pruriens, often simply referred to as mucuna, has been used to treat a variety of disorders from snake bites to Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, mucuna has become somewhat popular for its nootropic properties.
Mucuna has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is known to play a major role in motivation, anxiety, focus, drive, pleasure, and more. This goes a long way to explain the benefits that mucuna users often report. Some of the nootropic benefits of mucuna include increased motivation and focus, improved mood, and reduced anxiety.
Cannabis (honorable mention)
This extremely-popular herb didn’t make our list of the top nootropic herbs for one simple reason: it’s technically not a nootropic. In some ways, cannabis is the exact opposite. While it can certainly improve mood and reduce anxiety, cannabis can have a detrimental effect on memory. However, as an herb that affects both the body and brain, cannabis is worth mentioning.
While all the other herbs on this list are consumed orally, cannabis is usually smoked (though it can be vaped or eaten when cooked properly). Some people find that cannabis helps them to focus, improves their mood, and reduces their anxiety. And these are just some of its medicinal uses. Cannabis can also improve sleep, appetite, pain, and a whole lot more.