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Nootropics: Brain Health Support
Whether you are a student studying for an exam or an adult wanting to improve your memory, you are not alone in wanting to promote and protect your brain health. In today’s age, more and more people are seeking out ways to enhance brain function and prevent, and even reverse, memory loss and other cognitive disorders.
Our brains have diverse, specific and wide-spread functions which are vital to life. Whether it comes to memory and focus, creativity and motivation, or the completion of everyday tasks—our brains impact everything we do. Our brains play a role in controlling all functioning organs—from the nervous system to digestion—when brain health is optimal, it is reflected in greater overall physical health.
When it comes to supporting the function of our brains, there happens to be a classification of substances, known as nootropics, which are specifically indicated for brain function and health. As we will see, not all nootropics are created equal.
What is a Nootropic?
Sometimes referred to as “smart drugs,” Nootropics are a class of cognitive enhancing substances which are recognized for their ability to strengthen memory, concentration, and focus. They are part of a broader category of drugs referred to as performance and image enhancing drugs (PIED,) which are used to enhance cognitive, sexual, and athletic performance. In general, Nootropics are neuroprotective substances which improve cerebral circulation and reduce neuroinflammation, thus improving memory and mental performance.
There are three basic categories of nootropics, including: pharmaceutical and chemical isolate nootropics (ex. caffeine, nicotine, memantine)- most of which are prescription drugs; nutritional supplement nootropics (ex. fish oils, SAMe, citicholine); and natural botanical nootropics (ex. Gotu Kola, Lion’s Mane, Bacopa, Rhodiola.)
While most prescription nootropics have mild to significant potential for adverse effects, there are many botanical nootropics which have a long history of safe and effective use. In fact, nootropic herbs have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for thousands of years in the treatment of anxiety, depression, brain fog, and memory loss.
Are Nootropics Safe for Everyone?
As we know, brain health impacts literally every aspect of our lives. In turn, nootropic intake can impact your brain health and function—make sure to choose nootropics that will serve you in the long-term. When considering if nootropics are safe for you there are a few things to consider.
When it comes to brain boosting nootropic supplements use there seem to be two schools of thought. One, which we mostly see when it comes to prescription nootropics, regards immediate effects. It’s the magic pill idea—”if I take this today, I will feel the benefit today.” The issue is that our bodies don’t work this way. There is almost always a cost to these “quick-fix” nootropics. Prescription nootropics often carry the risk of being addictive substances, which have a slew of negative long-term health impacts. Even nootropic substances such as caffeine, which may supply immediate focus at the moment (and some studies show can improve long-term memory!) can have negative side-effect such as dependency, blood sugar imbalance, and if used in excess can lead to adrenal burn out.
The second school of thought is using brain boosting nootropic supplements as nutritional therapy—nourishing the brain with proper nutrients over an extended period of time. While one may not notice the effects immediately, they likely will notice a difference in their functioning after several days of use and in their long-term health. In general, nutritional nootropics and natural botanical nootropics tend to fall into this category. Keep in mind that proper dosage is important, as it is possible to take too much of a good thing! Consult a qualified practitioner to access your own unique needs.
Do your research, and don’t take any nootropics that aren’t backed by science or have a history of safe use. While the field of nootropics is relatively new (the term was coined in the 1970s,) it is constantly growing. Just as other supplements, there are a plethora of nootropics to choose from. The overall goal of using nootropics is to improve long-term health, so keep this in mind if you are tempted to reach for the quick fixes.
Your Brain is Always at Work
That’s right, day and night, your brain keeps going. While you may only think to take nootropics during the day, to help with your focus and productivity, it can be argued that nootropic support at night may be equally, if not more important. After all, when we sleep our bodies are undergoing their primary healing and processing.
Are Nootropics Stimulants?
While some nootropics have stimulating effects, it is important to recognize how they distinguish from psychostimulants. Nootropics and psychostimulants both have excitatory and dis-inhibitory effects on the central nervous system, yet they differ in their types of effects. While psychostimulants produce a general excitatory effect, which tends to be disturbing to homoeostatic functions, nootropics tend to have a stabilizing effect on homeostatic functions. This is because nootropics activate imbalanced or reduced adaptation functions—bringing back balance. While tolerance and extreme dependence can occur with the use of psychostimulants, this is not typical of nootropics (particularly when nootropics are used as nutritional therapy as indicated above.)
When it comes to herbal nootropics, some have more excitatory effects, while others support the body with more calming energy. Taking into account your individual needs and learning about different herbal nootropics will help you choose a nootropic that supports your body.
General Uses of Herbal Nootropics
When it comes to herbalism, herbs that provide targeted brain care are classified as nootropics. In general, herbal nootropics act as brain tonics—helping to maintain and improve memory/cognition, and improve the levels and functions of neurotransmitters.
Herbal nootropics often address blood circulation, oxidation, and brain inflammation. Our brains need constant, adequate blood flow to function properly. Blood flow is necessary for the delivery of nutrients (including oxygen and glucose,) removal of wastes, and the transportation of hormones. The blood vessels supplying our brain are tiny. So, any inflammation and oxidation can inhibit flow. While some damage, such as brain fog can be felt immediately, longer-term effects, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, often take years to present. In fact, scientists are just beginning to identify inflammation markers in the blood which indicate early signs of cognitive damage and risk for longer-term effects.
Herbal medicine offers a holistic view of health, and advocates the importance of diet, stress, sleep, and movement in brain health. While herbs that are classified as nootropics are all specifically indicated for prevention and promotion of brain health, each is unique, having different modes of action in the body and different energetics (hot, cold, damp, dry), both of which influence how the herb will affect the body. Each person is unique too, and understanding one’s personal constitution (energetics—hot, cold, damp, dry,) will help one choose the nootropic that will best serve her as an individual.
Well-Respected Nootropic Herbs
Gotu Kola is an Ayurvedic herb which has been regarded as a memory tonic in India for at least 2,500 years. In fact, ancient Sanskrit texts lay claim that the juice of this herb will improve memory and cognition after just 1 week, and with long-term use aid in photographic memory and longer lifespan.
Gotu Kola is considered an adaptogen (balancing) herb, which supports the body with calm energy. It can be used to help relieve stress, while not making one sleepy. Studies show that Gotu Kola enhances the neurotransmitter GABA, which is the brain chemical associated with relaxation. When GABA levels are imbalanced, one is prone to anxiety, worry and stress. Gotu Kola has the ability to bind with GABA receptors and, in turn, seems to increase GABA activity.
Studies show that Gotu Kola can improve mood and cognition while decreasing anxiety. Research also shows that Gotu Kola acts as an antioxidant. Along with containing antioxidant compounds, this herb also seems to increase naturally occurring brain levels of glutathione and catalase, which are antioxidants known for their role in neuroprotection. Studies also show that Gotu Kola improves circulation and blood vessel integrity—both of which are important for brain function!
Gotu Kola is generally regarded as safe, though it should not be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding without supervision. Gotu Kola would serve as a great nootropic for someone who is more prone to stress and seek energy that is more grounding. Much of the research points to this herb as a wonderful tonic for elderly people.
Another powerful Ayurvedic nootropic is Bacopa. Bacopa is primarily used for promoting memory and focus. It has been shown to decrease the progression of Alzheimer’s, and can even be a powerful adjunct to recovery from brain trauma. Studies show that it is most helpful in improving retention of information, regardless of one’s age. Like Gotu Kola, Bacopa is calming without sedating.
Bacopa is a tonic which works best when used for months on a regular basis. Classified as an adaptogen, Bacopa brings balance to the body and mind. It is regarded for supporting the nervous system—it is important to note that stress-reduction can do wonders for brain health! Bacopa is traditionally used in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity. Studies show several mechanisms of action that Bacopa has on the brain– the herb acts as an antioxidant neuroprotectant, increases neural blood flow, and modulates neurotransmitters.
Bacopa is generally regarded as safe and is even used for children. It is bitter in taste, which may cause upset stomach in sensitive individuals—if this is the case, try taking it with food.
Lion’s Mane is a TCM medicinal mushroom that has developed a strong appreciation as a nootropic. In fact, its mechanism of action sets it apart from other nootropics. Studies show that Lion’s Mane can promote the growth and differentiation of neurons through inducing nerve growth factor (NFG) in the brain. This is incredible, as nerve regeneration is something that is generally considered impossible. NFG also decreases inflammation in the brain and is necessary for optimal brain health. Preliminary research indicates that Lion’s Mane can heal nerve damage, improve cognition, and fight dementia. When it comes to the treatment of dementia, prolonged use is required to maintain positive results. The ability of Lion’s Mane to increase nerve growth also makes it a promising treatment of neurological issues including, but not limited to, Parkinson’s Disease, muscular dystrophy, and Alzheimer’s.
Lion’s Mane also acts as a neuroprotectant by reducing oxidation stress (it contains antioxidants). This medicinal mushroom can serve as an overall brain tonic- helpful in increasing memory recall and enhancing cognitive efficiency and focus.
In TCM it is traditionally used as a general tonic, appreciated for healing digestion. Studies show that Lion’s Mane can be helpful in the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Lion’s Mane is generally regarded as safe and has a history of safe use as a food.
Rhodiola has a traditional use as a tonic herb that promotes energy, vitality, and focus. It is considered a stimulating adaptogen—its effects can be felt quickly, and studies show that it helps the body increase the production of ATP which supplies the body with energy on a cellular level. In TCM it is commonly used as a remedy for fatigue. Rhodiola is also recognized for its ability to help improve mood and can prove helpful in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
The stimulating effects of Rhodiola can increase one’s mental energy, while also improving focus. Due to its rapid effects, it is popularly used amongst night shift workers, athletes, and students. In fact, Rhodiola can also be used to reduce stress related to cognitive performance. Studies show that Rhodiola has neuroprotective and restorative effects. In fact, preliminary research shows that this herb can be helpful in the treatment of illnesses that affect the brain (such as Lyme disease) along with brain trauma. Research shows that Rhodiola contains several enzymes that have powerful antioxidant effects—they can help protect against neuronal damage and support cell life and have even shown potential for treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s. It is also believed that Rhodiola modulates the neurotransmitters—slowing the breakdown of serotonin and dopamine, both of which are associated with mood stabilization, motivation, and the pleasure response.
Rhodiola is generally regarded as safe. Due to its astringency, some people find it can cause an upset stomach if not taken with food. Be mindful that this is indeed a stimulating nootropic, therefore it is best to take earlier in the day and avoid during bedtime. If you feel more anxious when taking Rhodiola, try taking a more calming nootropic such as bacopa or Gotu Kola.
Protect Your Brain
Nootropics offer the opportunity for us to enhance our cognitive performance and overall brain health. Brain health impacts one’s quality of life, so it is wise to protect and nurture our brains! Try nootropics for yourself and see what they do for you.
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