Nootropics are having a moment–and it’s well deserved after centuries of quiet use. Natural herbal compounds like ginkgo biloba and cordyceps mushroom have been used to boost cognitive and physical functions for centuries, and now modern research is starting to uncover exactly what makes these natural nootropics so popular.
Of course, with their newfound popularity come many synthetic nootropic options. These lab-made concoctions promise to outdo the natural varieties, but we contest–natural nootropics deliver everything they promise, from enhanced focus to boosted energy and even several physical benefits, like increased endurance and muscle gain.
Plus, natural nootropics may come with far fewer side effects than synthetic medications and supplements. And you don’t lose any of the functionality, especially since you can find pre-blended nootropic stacks that pair synergistic nootropics together to offer more complete, full-coverage benefits.
Looking for the best natural nootropics for every wellness need? Here’s the complete list:
Table of Contents
Natural nootropics are naturally derived compounds that can interact with the brain and nervous system to improve cognitive and physical health.
Synthetic nootropics, on the other hand, are lab-made and may have riskier side effects.
Stacking several natural nootropics together is the best way to create a full-coverage regimen that mimics the action of most synthetic nootropic stacks.
What are Natural Nootropics (vs Synthetic)?
Before we dive into the best natural nootropics you can buy, we want to touch more on the “natural” part, as opposed to the synthetic nootropics on the market. What exactly are natural nootropics and how do they have such a significant impact on brain function?
Well, nootropics, sometimes described as “smart drugs,” are substances that regulate neurotransmitter production or otherwise alter the way the nervous system interacts with neurotransmitters. In other words, nootropics work by altering the production or uptake of essential neurochemicals, like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, or GABA. This is the same way that some prescription medications function, like anti-depressants or stimulants prescribed for ADHD.
Also like medications, each nootropic has a different (and very specific) function. Some may upregulate GABA production, for instance, while others have a more significant impact on serotonin or dopamine. That’s a good thing–it means you can choose the nootropics that meet your specific needs, and you can blend natural nootropics together to create a more multifaceted wellness routine.
Blends of nootropics, especially supplements that contain two or more natural nootropics, are often referred to as a nootropic stack. These stacks generally contain a balance of nootropics designed to play on every possible feature of nootropic supplementation. In other words, a good nootropic stack will usually help to support focus, energy, endurance, immunity–all of the things that natural nootropics are known for.
You can go for a premade nootropic stack, or you can stack up some of the best natural nootropics for yourself. Here are some of the best to choose from:
11 Best Natural Nootropics
Caffeine is the most well known natural nootropic in the world, and it has undeniable benefits for boosting energy and focus. It works by blocking the production of adenosine which can help you feel less tired and more alert.
Caffeine doses range from 20-400 milligrams per day, with larger doses leaning towards more severe side effects. In fact, regular doses of caffeine can lead to dependence or other unwanted side effects, like adrenal fatigue, which is the opposite effect from what most people are trying to accomplish when taking natural nootropics.
This is where stacking comes in–caffeine can be even more powerful at smaller doses (and may have fewer side effectS) when paired with some other nootropic supplements. L-theanine is a perfect example of a nootropic that pairs well with caffeine, and it’s next up on the list.
L-Theanine is an amino acid that's found in most kinds of tea leaves, and it’s the compound that’s most often associated with the health effects of green tea. Green tea is known for providing a caffeine boost that’s smoother and less jittery than what you may get from coffee or synthetic energy drinks–and it’s probably because of the L-theanine content.
L-Theanine is known for its relaxing effects that are soothing without making you drowsy. According to research, taking L-theanine with caffeine may reduce caffeine’s impact on your blood pressure or anxiety levels. Another study found that L-theanine may help to regulate your sleep schedule, which can be helpful for anyone who’s sleep schedule is sensitive to caffeine consumption. Overnight, L-theanine may help you get more low-wave sleep, the sleep cycles that help you feel more rested, thus decreasing the need for caffeine over time.
Plus, the two compounds synergize like no others. According to research, a combination of L-theanine and caffeine has been associated with improved reaction times, improved word recognition, and improved attention, improved ability to switch between tasks more easily, and higher accuracy upon completing tasks.
- Calming effects
We mentioned ginkgo earlier as an example of how natural herbal compounds have been used as nootropics for centuries. It is, in fact, one of the oldest nootropic supplements we have and it comes from one of the world's oldest trees–the Ginkgo tree.
Traditionally, ginkgo was used for many reasons, like improving kidney health, treating respiratory conditions, and managing memory loss and cognitive decline in elderly patients. Now, researchers believe that ginkgo’s ability to improve blood flow in the body, and especially to the brain, is behind its diverse health potential.
In one study, researchers used a standardized ginkgo extract called EGb 761 to effectively manage dementia in 216 outpatient subjects. A later study confirmed these results using the same standardized extract, and added that it may help improve both cognitive function and social patterns in adults with dementia.
Ginkgo may also be healing for the brain and nervous system, which can help it to provide greater cognitive benefits over time. In animal animal models and test-tube models, it’s been shown to help promote the growth of neurons. Ginkgo may also have preventative effects that help keep cortisol and blood-pressure levels low during stress-related experiences, which can help decrease the risk of tissue damage and improve overall performance.
Alpha-GPC helps to increase acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps facilitate learning and memory. That’s why Alpha-GPC has come to be known as a powerful nootropic for improving memory. So much so that it is sold as a prescription medication for managing Alzheimer’s Disease in some other countries. Of course, it exists as a natural dietary supplement in the U.S. and can be purchased without a prescription, which is why it still fits on this list of natural nootropics.
One study suggests that alpha-GP. may have an even wider range of cognitive benefits. More specifically, it found that alpha-GPC may target four primary areas of cognition–verbal memory, visual memory, verbal learning, and executive function.
Another study comparing the impact of caffeine and alpha-GPC found that alpha GPC supplementation increased mental performance speed in young adults by 18%.
- Memory and learning
- Improved physical performance
Lion’s mane was once one of the more obscure medicinal mushrooms, but it’s gaining some traction thanks to its natural nootropic benefits. The mushroom is chock full of polysaccharides that help support a healthy gut microbiome–a colony of good bacteria that experts now know plays a role in most aspects of both mental and physical health.
Most notably, though, Lion’s Mane is thought to stimulate neurogenesis, the growth of new nerve cells, which may help to improve nerve signaling speed and heal damage within the nervous system.
This may be the working factor behind many of Lion’s Mane’s benefits, though more research is needed to understand how the mushroom truly works. According to the research we have, though, lion’s mane is thought to improve memory, focus, and mental endurance, and may be in the running for new medications designed to treat dementia.
- Memory and focus
- Increasing Neurogenesis
Cordyceps is a more popular functional mushroom with an age-old reputation. It was first used by herdsmen to combat the effects of low oxygen levels while working at high altitudes, and researchers now believe that it can improve many aspects of both mental and physical health by improving blood flow.
In fact, it was once given credit for helping the Chinese Olympic women’s running team break several work records. Cordyceps is most often linked to increased endurance, though research has also found it to have possible benefits for improving memory and learning in animal models thanks to extraordinary antioxidant properties.
Rhodiola is another age-old remedy that’s chock full of active medicinals–including rosavin and salidroside, two compounds known to be potent adaptogens. Adaptogens are compounds that help the body respond to stress.
In traditional medicine, Rodiola was used to treat psychological conditions, but its benefits may span even further. One review of 36 animal studies stated that “R. rosea L. can improve learning and memory function” possibly due it’s “antioxidant properties, cholinergic regulation, anti-apoptosis activities, anti-inflammatory, improving coronary blood flow, and cerebral metabolism.”
Thanks to its adaptogenic effects, taking it daily has been linked to reduced mental fatigue and increased feelings of well-being while under stress.
- Improving stress response
- Increasing mental endurance
Curcumin is the yellow substance that gives turmeric its brilliant color–and it’s well known for its potential anti-inflammatory effects. You may not know, however, that it’s been shown to have a positive impact on serotonin and dopamine levels, and has been highlighted as a potential treatment for depression and related disorders.
Other research has linked curcumin to total body benefits, like prevention against cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.
- Managing mental health
Bacopa monnieri is another ancient remedy we’ve added to the list thanks to continual research that proves it may have a multitude of benefits. For instance, bacopa monnieri has been linked to improved processing speed and reduced reaction times, as well as memory enhancement and the prevention of age-related cognitive decline. Researchers believe that it has powerful antioxidant properties that can help prevent oxidative stress, a primary cause of neurodegeneration as we age.
- Improving memory
- Increasing processing speed
Ginseng is easy to find on nutrition labels for energy drinks and brain-boosting supplements–and for a good reason. It’s often linked to reduced mental fatigue and improved cognitive performance, especially when doing difficult tasks.
Like other nootropics on this list, it may not act directly on any neurotransmitter pathway, rather it may increase blood flow to the brain. Others believe that many of its benefits may have to do with its anti-inflammatory effects, which may help to reduce oxidative stress.
- Anti-inflammatory effects
Omega-3 fatty acids (which can be divided into two main categories–DHA and EPA) are necessary for most brain function. In fact, they are required for brain development, which is why they can be found in most infant formulas and toddler supplements.
Omega-3 is known to help improve many facets of cognitive function, from increasing focus to decreasing anxiety and depression. A lack of omega-3 is associated with cognitive dysfunctions.
One study published in Neurology® measured the mental function of 1,575 people with an average age of 67. These tests also evaluated their brain structure, body mass, and the omega-3 fatty acid levels in their blood.
The researchers concluded that people with low Omega-3 levels had lower brain volume and scored lower on tests involving visual memory and executive function, like tasks involving problem solving, multi-tasking, and abstract thinking.
Another study looked at the impact of a fish oil diet (or a diet containing plenty of omega-3) on fruit flies’ ability to learn. In this study, fruit flies fed the fish oil had a positive impact on learning and memory compared to fruit flies fed a standard diet.
- Brain development
Are Natural Nootropics Safer?
To make a blanket statement claiming that natural nootropics are somehow safer than all synthetic nootropics is to claim that natural nootropics are less powerful. That’s not the case, and some natural nootropics can absolutely cause unwanted side effects when used incorrectly.
Of course, natural nootropics are often compounds that are naturally found in the body (or naturally-sourced duplicates of compounds found in the body) and the risk of side effects is pretty low when they are used responsibly.
Some synthetic nootropics may be safe, while others are poorly quality tested and could come with a slew of unwanted side effects. Some synthetic nootropic substances, particularly prescription medications like Adderall and Modafinil, may pose a muchmore significant risk of side effects and dependency.
The best way to ensure your safety is to choose a well-made nootropic supplement and to use it at appropriate dosages. Usually, this means choosing a product that is made in cGMP-compliant facilities and that is lab-tested to prove label accuracy. Research the dosage threshold for a supplement before you try it, and start on the lower end of the dosing threshold to get a feel for its effects.
Stacking Smart Drugs for Improved Efficacy
We mentioned “nootropic stacks'' above–combination supplements that pair up several nootropic supplements to create a product with well-rounded benefits. These types of supplements will usually combine the best nootropics for memory, focus, energy, and other aspects of cognitive and physical health to help target all areas of wellness at once.
If you’re looking for this type of nootropic diversity, let us introduce Lucid Instant Drinks.
Lucid beverages are the perfect blend of nootropics + functional mushrooms designed to support healthy brain functional and optimal health. The Lucid formula combines many of the nootropics above (and more) to help promote neurogenesis, improve focus and energy, increase endurance, support immunity, and help you unleash the full potential of your brain and body.
Our nootropic stack includes:
- Lion’s Mane
- Ginkgo Biloba
Want to learn more? Read “Why We Chose Our Ingredients? What’s in a Lucid Stack?” Or, check out one of our three flavor varieties:
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- “Effect of Green Tea Phytochemicals on Mood and Cognition” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28056735/
- “A double-blind, placebo-controlled study evaluating the effects of caffeine and L-theanine both alone and in combination on cerebral blood flow, cognition and mood” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4480845/
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- “Reduction of rise in blood pressure and cortisol release during stress by Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb 761) in healthy volunteers” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12369732/
- “The effects of alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, caffeine or placebo on markers of mood, cognitive function, power, speed, and agility” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4595381/
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- “The effects of alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, caffeine or placebo on markers of mood, cognitive function, power, speed, and agility” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4595381/
- “Dietary Supplementation of Hericium erinaceus Increases Mossy Fiber-CA3 Hippocampal Neurotransmission and Recognition Memory in Wild-Type Mice”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5237458/
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- “Improvement of Learning and Memory Induced by Cordyceps Polypeptide Treatment and the Underlying Mechanism” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5874985/
- “Rhodiola rosea L.: an herb with anti-stress, anti-aging, and immunostimulating properties for cancer chemoprevention” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6208354/
- “Rhodiola rosea L. Improves Learning and Memory Function: Preclinical Evidence and Possible Mechanisms” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6288277/
- “A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10839209/
- “Curcumin for the treatment of major depression: a randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled study”https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25046624/
- “Therapeutic Roles of Curcumin: Lessons Learned from Clinical Trials” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535097/#Sec42title
- “Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on cognitive effects of Bacopa monnieri extract” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24252493/
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- “Single doses of Panax ginseng (G115) reduce blood glucose levels and improve cognitive performance during sustained mental activity” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15982990/
- “Protective effects of ginseng on neurological disorders” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26236231/
- “Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging” https://n.neurology.org/content/78/9/658
“Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Fish oil Improve Learning and Memory in Drosophila melanogaster” https://jbs.camden.rutgers.edu/content/omega-3-fatty-acids-fish-oil-improve-learning-and-memory-drosophila-melanogaster