From improving your attention span to stabilizing your mood, nootropic substances can help to enhance your brain in a number of different ways. But when many people think of nootropics, they often think about synthetic substances like Piracetam or Adderall.

While drugs like these have been found effective in enhancing a number of different mental processes, the pathways through which they interact with your brain are still poorly understood. As such, some people worry about the long-term psychological effects.

No matter whether you’re concerned with the long-term risks of some synthetics, or just looking to stick with organic substances altogether, there appears to be a number of natural nootropics that can enhance your cognitive capabilities. Many of which have been well-researched and some have even been in use for centuries throughout different parts of the world.  

In this article, we consider the scientific findings surrounding a number of different substances to weight in on the efficacy of 11 of the most popular natural nootropics currently on the market.

Our Rating Scale

natural nootropics

For this purpose, we’ve developed an efficacy rating scale we call Does It Work (DIW). The scale ranges from 1 to 4, with 1 being the least effective and 4 being the most.

We’ve taken into consideration the number of prospective, randomized, and blinded studies that have been conducted on each natural nootropic. If there have been few studies, the efficacy ranking will be lower. If there have been numerous studies, the efficacy raking will be higher.

We also take into account the results of the studies. If the demonstrated result is positive with high statistical significance, then the study would rank higher, if the study showed only modest improvement, it would rank lower. Finally, if there are some studies that show a positive result and some that show no difference, then that would lower the DIW score. Our dosing recommendations were determined by dosing evaluated in peer reviewed studies.

Now that we’ve touched on the basis for our ranking system, let’s clearly define what we mean by the term ‘natural’ nootropics before we jump into the list.    

What are Natural Nootropics?

The term ‘natural nootropic’ refers to any cognitive enhancing organic compound. It sounds simple enough but it can actually mean a couple of different things.

On the one hand, natural nootropics are plant-based substances like herbs and herbal extracts. On the other hand, ‘hybrid’ nootropics are compounds that have technically been created in a laboratory but also do occur naturally.

For instance, amino acids are produced naturally in your body and are also found in organic food sources like meat and dairy. The same chemical compounds, however, can be created artificially. In fact, many nootropic supplements are composed of these kinds of ingredients — compounds that are technically man-made but can also be found in nature.

With that being said, our list includes compounds that fall into either of these 2 categories. While we go over a number of different substances, this list is by no means exhaustive.    

The List

1. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a herb derived from the Withania somnifera plant. It’s adaptogenic, which basically means that it helps your brain and body adapt to stress. Ashwagandha is native to the Indian subcontinent and has been in use there as a herbal healing remedy for centuries. It is also widely available here in the U.S. as an herbal extract used for alleviating stress.

How Does It Work?

Ashwagandha works by targeting certain neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that your nerve cells use to communicate with one another. Ashwagandha is believed to enhance GABA receptors, which are directly responsible for regulating your body’s response to both physical and mental stress.

Main Benefits

  • Stress Relief
  • Mood Stabilizer
  • improves Cognition

Dosing Recommendations

300mg twice a day

2. B Vitamins

B vitamins are important micronutrients found in a variety of different food sources, including meats, vegetables, and fruits. They’re also present in just about every one of your body’s cells. In their ‘hybrid’ form, B vitamins are also frequently found in dietary supplements, including a number of different nootropics stacks.

How Does It Work?

Specific B vitamins are used as cofactors for the synthesis of adrenaline during your body’s stress response. Vitamins like B6 can help to reduce feelings of nervousness and uneasiness but only in combination with other substances.

They’re used to synthesize neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine as well. Researchers have found them helpful in lowering homocysteine in older populations — homocysteine can negatively impact cognition in elderly folks.

B vitamins are also used during glucose metabolism in the brain. The role they play in cognitive functioning is therefore critical, and a deficiency may affect your ability to effectively cope with stress.

Main Benefits

  • Stress Relief
  • Mood Stabilizer

Dosing Recommendations

Varies

3. Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa Monnieri is a perennial plant native to South and Southeast Asia. It is an adaptogen that helps to mitigate the effects of biological and physiological stress. Its mood and memory enhancing properties have been known and written about for hundreds of years in Indian culture, where it has traditionally been used amongst religious followers to memorize lengthy passages of text.

How Does It Work?

Bacopa Monnieri works by modulating neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and serotonin. Acetylcholine plays an important role in cognitive functions like working memory and information processing. Serotonin is a powerful brain chemical that helps to regulate your mood.  

Bacopa Monnieri also functions as an antioxidant, helping to prevent the build-up of toxic free-radicals in the brain.

Main Benefits

  • Improves Cognition
  • Stress Relief
  • Antioxidant

Dosing Recommendations

300mg – 450mg daily

4. Caffeine

Caffeine is the most popular nootropic substance in the world and its cognitive enhancing properties have been known since at least the 15th century (some evidence even suggests its use goes back much further).  

It’s the psychoactive ingredient found in both coffee beans and tea leaves and is known the world over for its energy boosting properties. In addition to being found in coffee and tea, it is also the central ingredient in many energy drinks and pre-workout supplements.

How Does It Work?

Caffeine works in a few different ways. First, it functions as an inhibitor, helping to block the action of the chemical messenger known as adenosine. Adenosine is a naturally occurring chemical found within the body; its one of the main chemicals responsible for making you feel tired. Caffeine also modulates neurotransmitters in your brain like serotonin and epinephrine.

While it is well known for its stimulating effects, studies since 2010 have shown that its effects on alertness and cognition may not be as significant as once thought. Multiple studies in the realm of athletics, however, have found that it significantly improves reaction time and overall performance.     

Main Benefits

  • Improves Reaction Time
  • Brain Energy
  • Improves Alertness

Dosing Recommendations

200mg per dose

5. Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient produced in the body and found in a number of food sources ranging from eggs and dairy to beef and fish. It plays a vital role in your brain, helping to provide it with energy and maintain the critical structures it needs to function. Even so, many North Americans don’t get enough choline through their daily diets.  

It comes in multiple forms, including lecithin, citicoline, acetylcholine, and alpha GPC. It is the centerpiece of many different nootropic supplements and helps to increase multiple aspects of cognition including working memory and comprehension.  

How Does It Work?

Choline aids your brain in rebuilding and repairing neurons, helping to optimize the signaling process between them. It also helps to increase the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is your brain’s primary chemical fuel source.

Main Benefits

  • Improved cognition
  • Brain energy

Dosing Recommendations

250mg – 500mg daily

Brain Nootropics Stack

Improve focus, memory & recall w/ these 5 synergistic & clinically proven natural nootropics.

Learn More

6. Creatine

Creatine is an amino acid and non-essential nutrient that is produced in relatively low quantities within your body. It is also a common ingredient found in a variety of different dietary supplements. Creatine is considered a nootropic substance due to its enhancing effects on mental energy and concentration and has been popular in the world of sports and fitness for years (although not necessarily as a nootropic).  

How Does It Work?

One of its primary roles is to aid in the synthesis and resynthesis of ATP in your brain cells. In addition to being your brain’s primary fuel source, ATP also plays an important part in the production of neurotransmitters.

Creatine may also function as a neuroprotectant, helping the brain to recover from concussions and even possibly reduce the effects of neurodegenerative diseases.  

It’s important to point out, however, that studies on the efficacy of creatine are mixed. It has been found effective in improving cognition in elderly populations; however, its efficacy in young adults has yet to be clearly demonstrated.

Main Benefits

  • Brain Energy
  • Improves Cognition (only in elderly adults)
  • Neuroprotectant

Dosing Recommendations

5 grams daily

7. GABA

GABA is an amino acid and neurotransmitter that primarily functions as an inhibitor. More specifically, it helps to block glutamate, which is an excitatory brain chemical that can induce feelings of nervousness and uneasiness. While GABA occurs naturally in the body, it is also available as a dietary supplement.

How Does It Work?

In addition to blocking glutamate receptors in the brain, GABA may also modulate your brainwaves. Research suggests that GABA helps to increase alpha brainwaves which are believed to induce feelings of relaxation.  

There has been some question as to whether GABA crosses the blood-brain barrier. Studies are mixed but none have used human subjects and there is currently no real way of measuring this in humans. To date, most studies that had overwhelmingly positive findings on GABA supplementation appear to have conflicts of interest.

Main Benefits

  • Stress Relief
  • Improves Cognition

Dosing Recommendations

50mg – 800mg daily

8. Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo Biloba is an herbal extract that derives from the ancient Maidenhair tree, which has been around for over 250 million years. It’s therapeutic properties have been known in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, where it has been used as everything from a cough suppressant to a brain booster.  It has also been extensively researched in modern times, with hundreds of studies published on its cognitive enhancing effects.

How Does It Work?

Ginkgo works in a few different ways. First, it helps to increase cerebral blood circulation by increasing the flow of oxygen and glucose to the brain’s neurons. This helps to optimize mental functions like memory and cognition.  

It also contains, EGb 761, which is a multifunctional neuroprotective agent.  The protection is in part associated with the activation of the HO1/Nrf2 pathway.  More specifically it contributes to the upregulation of VEGF and downregulation of inflammatory mediators such as astrocytes and microglia.  

Main Benefits

  • Improves Cognition
  • Neuroprotectant
  • Stress Relief

Dosing Recommendations

120mg – 240mg daily

Warning: Ginkgo has been found to interact with other medications, so consult with your physician before taking it. Most notably, it can increase bleeding when taken with anticoagulants like platelet inhibitors.

9. Ginseng

The term ginseng can technically refer to substances derived from the roots of several different closely related plants, all from the Panax genus — Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are the most popular sources. It is one of the oldest and most well-researched nootropic substances in the world, having been in use for thousands of years. Ginseng has long been known for its cognitive and mood-enhancing effects and there have been numerous clinical studies on its efficacy.

How Does It Work?

As an adaptogen, ginseng blocks the production of excitatory chemicals in the brain, helping to alleviate feelings of stress. It also modulates neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which is believed to assist with cognitive functions like your working memory and memory recall.  

Main Benefits

  • Stress and Relief
  • Improves Memory
  • Antioxidant

Dosing Recommendations

200mg – 400mg daily

(in impaired brains)

10. Huperzine-A

Huperzine-a is an alkaloid compound extracted from the Huperzia Serrata plant, which is native to China. In addition to being a mainstay in traditional Chinese medicine, its cognitive enhancing effects have also been investigated in contemporary western society, where researchers continue to investigate its effects on things like working memory and memory recall. Natural huperzine A is of limited supply, so it is mainly produced synthetically.  

How Does It Work?

Huperzine-A works by protecting your brain from glutamate-induced neurotoxicity, which researchers believe may explain why it helps to improve cognitive functioning in Alzheimer patients.

It is important to mention that most studies have been performed on individuals with serious cognitive impairments, not on those with normally functioning brains. However, huperzine-a is currently being investigated by the U.S. military as a cognitive enhancing substance. Their findings have yet to be published.

Main Benefits

  • Improves Cognition (only in those with certain mental impairments)
  • Antioxidant

Dosing Recommendations

50mcg – 200 mcg

11. L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid that is most commonly found in tea leaves (it can also be found in certain types of fungi). It was first isolated from tea leaves in the late 1940s and its therapeutic effects have continued to be studied ever since. It is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and is utilized as a mood stabilizer in a variety of different dietary supplements. On its own, it helps to produce a calm, relaxed state of mind but when paired with caffeine, it helps to further stimulate the central nervous system.  

How Does It Work?

L-theanine helps to increase the production of mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. These brain chemicals have a calming effect on your state of mind.  

L-theanine is also believed to modulate your brain waves. In particular, it is thought to help increase alpha brain waves, which are believed to induce feelings of relaxation.

Main Benefits

  • Mood Stabilizer
  • Stress Relief
  • Improves Reaction Time (when combined w/ caffeine)

Dosing Recommendations

100mg – 200mg daily