Since their inception in the early 1970s, nootropics have gained a lot of attention for their cognitive-boosting capabilities. Also known as “smart supplements” or “memory enhancers,” these substances have been shown to improve human thinking, learning, and memory—especially for those whose brain functions are a bit impaired. Here's a closer look at what nootropics do and why they belong in your cognitive health tool kit.
How Do Nootropics Work?
Nootropic herbs and nutrients contain high amounts of antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and immune modulating compounds that work to rejuvenate brain function and reduce neurodegenerative effects. For example, nootropics increase acetylcholine (a compound that acts as a neurotransmitter) and oxygen levels while delivering enzymes and key hormones to the brain.1 In doing so, they protect brain tissues from neurotoxicity by eliminating damaging free radicals, acting as an antiplatelet to prevent blood clots, and improving the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to stimulation—a process known as plasticity.2
What Are the Benefits of Nootropics?
The brain-enhancing impacts of nootropics are especially beneficial for two specific conditions.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Marked by inattention, distractibility, nervous energy, and poor executive function, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can significantly affect all aspects of daily life, from school and work performance to personal relationships. To cope, sufferers often turn to prescription drugs that carry a slew of side effects. But, nootropics can help alleviate the impacts of ADHD without having to go the pharmaceutical route. By improving attention, concentration, hyperactivity, anxiety, and the ability to deal with frustration, nootropics offer a natural solution to managing symptoms.3
Dementia. Research suggests that nootropics may be an effective preventive and therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of dementia. In one study review, nootropics appeared to reduce cognitive deficits by acting as antioxidants, calcium-channel blockers, and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors to improve memory and learning. What’s more, these compounds’ neuroprotective activities have been found to decrease the beta-amyloid accumulation, synaptic dysfunction, inflammation, and oxidative stress commonly found in those experiencing AD.4 And a recent clinical trial involving 583 patients with mild to moderate dementia found that those taking nootropics had less cognitive decline than those taking a placebo.5
Enhance Cognitive Health with Plant-Based Nootropics
You can up your mental capacity naturally with a combination of botanicals known to promote sharpness, mental acuity, and attention.
Aged Garlic Extract (AGE). Studies show that AGE improves memory retention and the ability to learn new information. That’s not surprising since this unique herb boasts potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and neuroprotective properties.6 Preliminary research suggests that AGE also increases the survival of specific nerve cells (neurons) in the hippocampus—the area of the brain, thought to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system.7 AGE may help guard against Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by discouraging the buildup of amyloid-beta plaque, which is the primary hallmark of the disease.8
Ginkgo biloba. This ancient herb has been shown to improve both mental acuity and focus. A 2023 review of 256 studies found that standardized ginkgo biloba extract can effectively increase blood flow to the brain and enhance vascular permeability. The researchers noted that these benefits are especially useful for anyone experiencing cognitive problems, such as delayed reaction time and reduced global functioning (a measure of how much a person’s symptoms affect their day-to-day life).9
Siberian ginseng. This unique form of ginseng, also known as eleuthero, not only boosts brainpower, it also acts as an adaptogen to ease the negative effects of stress on the brain. This is important since high levels of stress damage the brain’s ability to learn, form new memories, and retrieve existing memories.10 Siberian ginseng has also been shown to increase acetylcholine in the hippocampus, thereby improving communication between neurons.11 Plus, preliminary research suggests that eleuthero might safeguard cognition by helping the brain to maintain its ability to regenerate after experiencing beta-amyloid damage.12
Healthy Habits for Improved Brain Activity
Though a nootropic supplement can go a long way toward providing an improvement in your cognitive function, it’s not the only step you should take to enhance your mental acuity. Here are a few more ways to get the most out of your brain.
Diet. Boosting your brain power through food is an easy way to stay sharp at every age. Whole foods diets, such as the Mediterranean or Nordic diet, are linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia. On the other hand, consuming a diet high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates can lead to impaired cognitive function.13
Exercise. Physical activity doesn’t just influence your cardiovascular system; a wealth of research shows that it also supports cognitive function, particularly for those experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI). One meta-analysis found that engaging in regular physical exercise improves global cognitive function, executive function, and delayed recall in MCI patients.14
But to get the most brain benefits, take your workout outside. Exercising outdoors—even a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood—can improve cognitive performance and increase the neural responses associated with attention and working memory.15
Sleep. Subpar sleep habits are directly related to poor memory and an increased risk of dementia. Fortunately, researchers have determined the optimal amount of shuteye you should get every night. In a study of 479,420 adults, they found that sleeping seven hours per night was associated with the highest cognitive performance, and for every hour below and above, cognitive performance decreased.16
Nootropics are a great way to give your mental acuity a lift, whether you suffer from a lack of focus or slight cognitive impairment. They are typically very well tolerated, but it’s wise to always talk with your doctor before starting a new supplement.
- Muralidhara M. Chapter One – Ayurveda: Ayurvedic herbs against neurological disorders: are they golden nuggets? Editors: Muralidhara M, Rajini PS. Ayurvedic Herbal Preparations in Neurological Disorders. Academic Press. 2023;1–40.
- Malík M. Nootropics as cognitive enhancers: Types, dosage and side effects of smart drugs. Nutrients. 2022;14(16):3367.
- Sharma A. Non-pharmacological treatments for ADHD in youth. Adolescent Psychiatry (Hilversum). 2015;5(2):84–95.
- Chiroma SM. The use of nootropics in Alzheimer’s disease: is there light at the end of the tunnel? Biomedical Research and Therapy. 2019;6(1):2937–44.
- Kang M. Effectiveness of nootropics in combination with cholinesterase inhibitors on cognitive function in mild-to-moderate dementia: A study using real-world data. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2022;11(16):4661.
- Tedeschi P. Therapeutic potential of allicin and aged garlic extract in Alzheimer’s disease. International Journal of Molecular Science. 2022;23(13):6950.
- Thorajak P. Effects of aged garlic extract on cholinergic, glutamatergic and GABAergic systems with regard to cognitive impairment in Aβ-induced rats. Nutrients. 2017;9(7):686.
- Luo JF. The effect and underlying mechanisms of garlic extract against cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of experimental animal studies. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2021;280:114423.
- Lorca C. Plant-derived nootropics and human cognition: A systematic review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2023:63(22):5521–45.
- Kuhlmann S. Impaired memory retrieval after psychological stress in healthy young men. Journal of Neuroscience. 2005;25(11):2977-82.
- Huang D. Eleutheroside B or E enhances learning and memory in experimentally aged rats. Neural Regeneration Research. 2013;8(12):1103-12.
- Bai Y. Active components from Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) for protection of amyloid β(25–35)-induced neuritic atrophy in cultured rat cortical neurons. Journal of Natural Medicine. 2011;65:417–423.
- Puri S. Nutrition and cognitive health: A life course approach. Frontiers in Public Health. 2023;11:1023907.
- Biazus-Sehn LF. Effects of physical exercise on cognitive function of older adults with mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics. 2020;89:104048.
- Boere K. Exercising is good for the brain but exercising outside is potentially better. Scientific Reports. 2023;13:1140.
- Tai XY. Impact of sleep duration on executive function and brain structure. Communications Biology. 2022;5:201.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.