100 thousand stars. 100 billion planets. The Milky Way is so vast, it's hard even to grasp. Yet, our 5.5-inch-wide brains hold more: 1,000 trillion synapses, connecting 86 billion neurons. No wonder we're so smart!
Why then do we ever forget things? How can we ever feel "foggy" with so much going on in there? These are the questions neuroscientists still don't entirely have answers to—about how our spongy gray matter actually works and what causes failures.
With Alzheimer's rising at an epidemical rate, research foundations worldwide are applying more funds than ever to find answers. With so many struggling to concentrate and stay focused while working or learning online—and new conditions like the post-Covid-19 "brain fog" described by Dr. Fauci—health and wellness companies are expanding their brain-supporting technologies, too.
What Can Nootropics Do for You?
The modern day nootropics or “smart drugs” booming right now are actually smart supplements that combine plants and/or synthetic compounds to enhance various cognitive functions. The old-school nootropics are typically caffeine and prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.
Here, we’ll focus on the former rather than the latter, as most of us are familiar with the life-saving nectar of the coffee tree and amphetamines if the multi-billion-dollar ADHD and illicit market is any indication.
The most buzzed-about natural neuroenhancers right now are mushrooms. Not the magic kind (although psychoactive mushrooms are being fast tracked for FDA-approval for treating depression, anxiety and PTSD, but rather what are called “functional mushrooms.”
Some you will have heard of in your recipe books or the vitamin aisle:
- Lion’s Mane
- Oyster mushrooms
Others have been used for centuries in their native China, Korea, Japan and Tibet:
- Reishi mushrooms
The best natural nootropics we have found combine one or more of these powerful mushrooms with psychostimulating herbs.
Popular Nootropic Mushrooms
Cordyceps comes from the weirdest, most remote place but is used in medicines worldwide. A staple in natural pre-workout supplements, it’s a highly effective booster for energy, vitality and endurance. Its remote native land is on the “roof of the world” in the Tibetan high plateau. The weird place it grows? On caterpillars that live there.
The rare elixir traditionally harvested for royalty ultimately became a major income source due to its rarity and value. Cordyceps gained worldwide attention after the 1993 Olympics when the Chinese Women’s Track and Field team used the supplement and shattered 9 world records. It is a star for many benefits and in nootropics, “helps elevate energy levels naturally via ATP production with increased oxygen utilization,” says The Genius Brand.
Reishi is an extra-sexy mushroom in the wellness world because it is an adaptogen, one of few plants that adapts to your body’s needs to help it cope with physical, biological, or chemical stressors. “Adaptogens can affect different tissues and organs, and adjust each of these parts to attain homeostasis,” according to an article published by the National Institutes of Health.
Myco Botanicals says Reishi mushrooms support neurological and adrenal functioning* in its Brain Capsules. According to studies cited by Healthline, it also provides strong support for the immune system and inflammation pathways. This is increasingly important during cold, flu and Covid season, as systemic inflammation affects the brain downstream, its immune system and the way it signals.
Lion’s Mane look just like they sound and are the kings of the nootropic mushroom forest. The shaggy-headed super-shrooms are known to help improve focus and boost concentration levels and memory, according to Nulivscience. They are also known to help prevent degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
Buddhist monks brewed Lion’s Mane tea to heighten their focus while meditating. Sources say it can help with anxiety and depression, diabetes, preventing cancer, ulcers and heart disease, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and stimulating brain cell growth. Before you begin gobbling it up, though, know that you should check levels in your nootropic as it can negatively affect people treating diabetes or already on blood thinners.
Other Popular Nootropic Herbs
As with the smart shrooms, some of the brainy herbs are already well known, while some are just popping.
Gingko Biloba contains antioxidants galore and thus protects against the effects of age and organ damage, including your brain organ. It is also known to promote blood and oxygen flow in the bloodstream, which your brain loves. Many people take it to improve memory and mental function.
American Ginseng is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory herb, too, and a well-known adaptogenic. Understood to improve mental health and social functioning, Western studies have shown it helps with fatigue and improves cognitive and task performance throughout the day.
Because adaptogens act on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to tune your physiological functions, they are at the forefront for optimizing brain function, too. Among the elite herbs:
Bacopa used in Ayurvedic medicine has neuroprotective effects, according to research published by the National Institutes of Health. It is thought to help the brain process faster and help facilitate dendrite growth.
Rhodiola contains more than 140 active ingredients, according to Healthline. It has been proven to alleviate burnout and exhaustion, reduce mental fatigue and improve work-related task performance by 20%, increase motivation to study and even boost exam scores by 8%, they say.
Gotu Kola, or Asiatic Pennywort, is well known in Chinese, Indonesian and Ayurvedic traditions as a brain-power booster. According to Healthline, studies proved it enhances memory and nerve function, protects brain cells from toxicity and improves overall cognition.
4 Nootropics to Help You Work Smarter
- Rise by Cured Nutrition boasts a blend of adaptogens (Rhodiola, American Ginseng, Gotu Kola and more), along with Lion’s Mane and Cordyceps mushrooms and a Vitamin B complex—topped with THC-free, hemp-derived CBD to eliminate anxiety and any jitters and crash that can come after using any stimulant. One consumer states, "This particular nootropic concoction is great for inflammation and reestablishing and unlocks my physical flow. I suffer from autoimmune and Rise helps me move through my day."
- Brain Capsules by Myco Botanicals support mental clarity with a different blend of herbs (Gingko, Bacopa and Gotu Kola) and pairs Lion’s Mane with Reishi mushrooms instead. They say the complementary plants support and nourish the brain and nervous system to ensure optimal cognitive functioning.
- Genius Mushrooms by The Genius Brand has all three of the brainy mushrooms described above and has thousands of positive reviews. It boosts natural (ATP) energy production and promotes total brain health and peak functioning by stimulating neurotrophic and nerve growth factors. Genius Joy is another of their nootropics, which leans more on emotional enhancers to support dopamine production and “unclog” the mind.
- Basis by Elysium is an outlier in that it contains none of the above. Yet, it has gained much attention for its revolutionary natural technologies. Created by the director of aging research at MIT, Basis helps optimize cellular health to optimize brain function. It is clinically proven to significantly increase NAD+, a coenzyme (or helper molecule) involved in the body’s energy production and cellular protection processes. And it activates sirtuins, which regulate and manage everything that happens in your cells. Your brain will thank you for it, now and when it’s older.