At Lost Empire Herbs we have a particular bent on performance. This started out with athletic performance. That in turn led to sexual performance (basically the herbs that help with one, help the other).
And there is a third area of performance we like to focus on…cognitive.
I have a lot of business owner friends. And among this group, perhaps more so than many others, they’re always looking for the edge in being more productive. After all if you’re more productive you can make more money and help the world better (yes, those two can very much go hand in hand).
And thus nootropics aka smart drugs and smart nutrients are becoming more and more popular. The rise in “biohacking” further fuels this trend.
This is not a bad thing. Far from it. BUT there are some big misconceptions and lack of knowledge around the area.
In this article I aim to clear up what is a nootropic, what it’s not and why there are several classes of herbs that may be even more important to those that wish for cognitive performance.
Further, we’ll finish up with some non-herbal resources. Just like weight loss, or energy production, yes herbs can help, but they’re a 2-10% sort of thing, rather than the major drivers of your results.
Table of Contents
- 1 Different Types of Intelligence
- 2 Nervine Herbs
- 3 The Potential Problem
- 4 Other Nootropic Supplements
- 5 Non-Supplement Resources for Cognition
- 6 Conclusion
Different Types of Intelligence
IQ has long been used as the standard for how smart a person is. Other types of intelligence like EQ or Emotional Quotient are often mentioned as IQ is obviously not everything. Howard Gardner created the model of seven types of intelligence: musical, visual, verbal, logical, bodily, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Later, two more types were added, naturalistic and existential.
Obviously, “smarts” is not a one dimensional type of thing. So when we look at improving cognitive function, it is useful to become more clear on what exactly that means to us.
The term nootropic, coined in 1972 by Corneliu Giurgea, denotes a drug, nutrient, supplement or food that improves one or more aspects of mental function. Some of those mental functions may be:
• Memory (short, long term, working)
• Focus, Attention and Concentration
• Pattern Recognition
• Mental Imagery
• Problem Solving
There’s others that could be added to this list too. Motivation is one that comes up from time to time. But to expect something you take to make you more motivated just seems weird.
Creativity is another aspect that many people would like to improve. Although there might be elements of some of the above things, like pattern recognition, it also appears to be different. Those nutrients that help you focus on one thing are quite different on those that expand your frames of thinking. (Here, various psychoactive substances can certainly come into play. Steve Jobs credits LSD with helping to change his thinking, leading to Apple…and he’s not the only one.)
Ultimately, what most people take nootropics for are to become more productive. That’s a word that can mean lots of things, but in general, seems to encapsulate the benefits most people come to this area are looking for. That’s one of the reason that I take certain herbs, including to help write an article such as this.
So now that we are a bit clearer on what we want, or at least have some options to choose from, let’s look at herbal actions.
The term nervine is typically used to refer to just two of these groupings, the relaxants and hypnotics. However, in a general sense it merely means something that acts on the nervous system.
As such, this focus could then be broken up by different action.
Some of the most used and well-known herbal substances in the world fall into the nervine stimulant category. As the name implies these stimulate the nervous system (in addition to some other areas of the body). The most famous of these are:
Some others would include:
- Coca leaf (with cocaine being an isolated extract many times as powerful)
- Kola nut
- Yerba mate
Several of these have caffeine, or related molecules like theobromine, though not all of them act through these specific molecules.
Nervine stimulation is neither good nor bad by itself. It certainly has some uses, though in Western society it is often overdone.
In fact, according to some, it was coffee that began the Industrial Revolution and largely got us to where we are today. Looking at the history of coffee and tea, not to mention the others is interesting. Did you know that coffee has been banned in certain countries at certain times, like Sweden in 1746? As with any strong drug it has had its ups and downs.
On the flip side of stimulation, here we have relaxants. This category is sometimes called sedatives as well. These are often separated from the stronger herbs, called the hypnotics, which will be covered next.
It is important to note that just because these herbs are grouped together doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Ashwagandha is very different from chamomile.
The latin root meaning of the word hypnos is sleep. Although hypnosis is not sleep, here these herbs have a stronger effect on the nervous system, and can aid people in falling asleep.
- Kava Kava
- Wild Lettuce
Once again these are quite different plants. Many of them are also great anodynes or pain relievers, which can help with sleep, if pain is what is keeping someone awake.
And different people are affected by different herbs in different ways. Valerian root is a strong hypnotic…to some people. If I take it I’ll often wake up groggy the next day because it is too strong for me. But some people experience the exact opposite and are stimulated by it.
Trophorestorative is a term you may not have heard. The key part is in “restorative” as these herbs help to restore, strengthen and rejuvenate the area they work on, in this case the nerves. In Chinese medicine, these would be called tonic herbs, however the word tonic can mean multiple things in the Western traditions, so trophorestorative is used instead.
- Milky Oats
- Lion’s Mane Mushroom
- St. John’s Wort
- Wood Betony
Finally, we come to nootropics. Unlike the others, this is a new term that has not been around long but means something that improves one or more aspects of mental function. Still we can classify some of the herbs from the various other categories into this category.
In Chinese medicine shen has a lot to do with the nervous system. The mind is considered to reside in the heart (not the brain), and the heart is where shen resides. Modern research shows that the heart has a very large impact on the brain and nervous system (check out the Institute of HeartMath for more details).
Many of these herbs would likely also be classified as nervine relaxants or trophoresoratives.
Like nootropic, adaptogen is a modern term. In addition to the many other effects on stress, the adaptogens tend to produce some cognitive effects.
Several of these may act as nootropics to some degree. After all stress is not just about the endocrine system, but the nervous system as well.
The Potential Problem
One issue that more people should be aware of is that overuse of adaptogens can lead further to burnout. People that use adaptogens to continually push harder and longer may eventually crash harder (just like those using nervine stimulants).
In our Western world, where working hard is so highly valued, we tend to go overboard in this direction.
There’s nothing wrong with being productive, however it must be done in balance. To further drive in the one direction, without bouncing back, will simply force you to bounce back harder and longer.
Often times, these people would be better served by taking relaxants, hypnotics, and trophorestoratives by themselves or in combination with adaptogens.
This isn’t just about balance with herbs or supplements but also should be done in lifestyle practice. By all means work hard. But then balance that out with meditative practices or other stress relieving activities.
Coming in the Future…
Because the nervine materia medica is so important, we’ll release some more of these herbs in the future.
In the meantime, I’d like to point you to one of my teachers, and the person that lent a ton of insight into this topic, Sajah Popham, and the great herbal products he produces at Organic Unity.
You can find many of the most of the herbs mentioned above that we don’t carry there.
Other Nootropic Supplements
There is a whole lot out there in the field of nootropics that is not herbally based. Here at Lost Empire Herbs we trust in the wisdom of nature and thus like to focus on herbs.
There are drugs like modafinil and the various forms of racetams (piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetem, etc.). I just say no to drugs 🙂
Then most of the supplements out there are isolated nutrients (sometimes isolated from plants, sometimes otherwise), often times single amino acids, that are typically aimed at doing something to the various neurotransmitters we have.
While not an exhaustive list, here’s a few of the major players:
- Choline and Acetylcholine
- Hyperzine A
- GABA and Phenibut
- Typtophan and 5-HTP
I’ve experimented with a number of things, but I always come back to the herbs. It’s hard to know exactly which neurotransmitter you need to boost or inhibit without lots of self experimentation.
And when you’re using drugs or isolated nutrients the possibility of doing something wrong is higher than a full spectrum extract of an herb. I’d say most of this stuff is generally safe but if you take something everyday over the long term who knows.
Plus my reaction to some of these supplements isn’t always good. I recall trying this one thing that was billed as the real NZT after the movie Limitless, which was a powder than came in a test tube. While I certainly felt focused for the first hour or two I felt “cracked-out” after that.
There are others besides me that know more about all these nutrients but I say again I’ll stick to the herbal materials.
Non-Supplement Resources for Cognition
In these articles, we don’t like to focus solely on the herbs. While the herbs can produce amazing results, ultimately other factors of lifestyle are even more important.
Yes, you may be able to keep going on less sleep by loading up on coffee and adaptogens, but it is not going to make you healthier. What you need is more sleep. Herbs can of course assist in that, and there are many other behavioral things you can do.
All the basics are going to be very important:
Many hormones act on the brain and nervous system too, so making sure those are working is going to improve your thinking too. Thus ensuring you have optimized hormones is important. Both for men and for women.
How to Think
When it comes to cognition, how you think becomes very important. I’m a huge fan of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) as it helps you to step behind the curtain, so to speak, and see how you are thinking. From this position you can change things and get very helpful results.
Let’s say you want to improve your memory. First of all, do you believe you have a bad memory? If you do, that will stop you from improving it much, even if you do the right things or take herbs. Alter that belief and anything you do will become much more effective.
Then look at what you’re trying to remember. Ultimately if you’re able to make things rich in sensory detail (sight, sound, feeling, smell, taste), it becomes much easier to do. Techniques for remembering people’s names or something like a random deck of cards in order, rely on using more senses than people typically do.
As an example, in NLP they modeled people who were good at spelling versus those who were not. It wasn’t because of IQ or anything like that. Instead good spellers see the words they’re spelling whereas bad spellers sound them out. Because English is not phonetic the former works much better. Other languages may be different. And this strategy is a trainable ability.
Although we may all have things we’re better or worse at, and some of this may be genetic, I believe that anything can be improved.
If you’re trying to be productive, being capable of entering a “flow state” at will is helpful. Processes like anchoring, among others, can be very helpful. That’s how I’m able to crank out these articles, writing every single day, without a hint of writer’s block.
NLP is a BIG subject. I’ll point you to a good starting resource, The User’s Manual for the Brain Volume 1 by L. Michael Hall and Bob Bodenhammer. There is one caveat, though. It is very tough to learn NLP from a book. For best results you need hands on training.
Some other great non-NLP books on different areas of thinking include:
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie
- De Bono’s Thinking Course
- How to Think Like Leonardo Di Vinci by Michael Gelb
- The Einstein Factor by Win Wenger
- Super-Learning by Shiela Ostrander
Of course, there are many more than that, but those are all great to start with.
So if you want to be a genius and maximally focused, productive, creative and a variety of other things it could be boiled down to a few simple things.
- Make sure you have a strong foundation of health.
- Figure out how to think better in whatever capacity you wish to have. You can model people that are great and read books from many of them too. Then take action and find what works for you.
- Use herbs to help supplement what you’re doing.
Take control and you can be much more than you are currently capable of.
I hope you’ve enjoyed and learned from this article. Please post any comments or questions below. Thanks!