Imagine going back in time to the Indian city of Mohenjodaro around 4500 years ago. You find a man chanting and handing out some type of plants to those who speak with him briefly. Curious, you get closer to what looks like a shaman or medicine man and find plants you oddly recognize: bacopa monnieri, ashwagandha, and one even looks like shilajit, but you can’t be sure.
That scene you imagined on the ancient Indian subcontinent is very similar to what would have played out in civilizations across the globe. Many traditional societies used natural nootropics and cognitive enhancers including the Chinese dynasties, the mighty Roman empire, Viking tribes, and peoples across the Americas.
While their practices were rooted in generations of trial and error, our ancestors did not have the scientific understanding and technology that we have today. Modern science has not validated some of their favorite remedies and our technological advances have rendered certain plants more potent and thus more susceptible to abuse and side effects.
A Brief History of Natural Nootropics
In 2737 BC a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, sat under a tree and boiled water to drink. On this windy day leaves were blowing and some serendipitously fell into his pot of boiling water. Interested in the infusion, the emperor waited for the water to cool before drinking. He loved the infusion so much, he spread it across China and the rest of Asia .
While this is nothing more than legend, it shows just how long ago the psychoactive effects of tea were enjoyed and spread across cultures many thousands of years ago. The traditional Chinese medicine was responsible for spreading tea, panax ginseng, ginkgo biloba, cordyceps mushrooms, and a host of others.
In Scandinavia, the raiding Viking tribes consumed rhodiola rosea to improve their mental stamina and prevent fatigue. This adaptogenic herb allowed them to weather the extreme cold and thrive in difficult environments. The ancient Greeks and Romans, conquering much of the Mediterranean, used lemon balm frequently to increase relaxation and reduce anxiety .
Many of these traditions live today. In Indian villages, children who live similarly to the way they did thousands of years ago still consume bacopa monnieri with ghee to improve their mental capabilities.
Research and Natural Nootropics
Long used through tradition and anecdote, modern science and research is finally catching up and validating (or not) the claims of our ancestors.
Many of the cognitive enhancing natural nootropics are well researched because of their prevalence in these traditional cultures. Bacopa monnieri is a fat soluble herb native to Indian Ayurvedic medicine and modern research suggests it is quite powerful for memory enhancement . Another 12 week bacopa study found significant improvements in anxiety and depression as well .
In contrast, many of the options that have not been validated are related to natural ways to increase testosterone. Men looking for more muscle and sexual prowess have hoped our ancestors found the magic pills, but in many cases they have not. The horny goat weed craze shows promise, but there aren’t many human studies or affirmative research that would justify widespread sale.
If you would like to see a full list of all the natural nootropics including natural ways to boost testosterone, you should check this out so you don’t waste time or money on supplements again.
Dangers of Natural Smart Drugs
Many of our ancestors took these natural smart drugs to improve everything from their memory and learning ability to their libido and sex drive. Despite their zeal for supplementation, they were not operating with the same technology that we have today.
Our ancestors did not have the extraction methods that we currently have. Many of the plants have specific psychoactive ingredients, which are the main cause of benefits. These ingredients are extracted and processed into high powered, brain altering drugs.
Given the limitations of space and irrigation tactics, our ancestors rarely had enough of these nootropics to overdose whereas today toxicity is a real problem when consuming too much of a good thing.
The common misconception is that because something is “natural” and people have taken it for thousands of years, it must be safe.
In reality, our modern technology “powers up” many of these nootropics to the point where they can still be as dangerous as any synthetic compound .
Manufacturing Natural Nootropics
Below we have a list of common nootropics with the main psychoactive ingredient so that you have a better idea what to look for. However, in order for companies to extract these bioactive ingredients, they must use use solvents.
The manufacturers that take shortcuts to save money, use other solvents in the extraction process. These companies use chemicals like methanol, ethyl acetate, butane, acetone, dichloromethane, or ether . While they claim that they can remove these chemicals after processing, it is never an efficient or fully complete process.
Ensuring that plant extracts are extracted using safe solvents is important for your safety. This is the main reason we suggest certain vendors over others.
Different Plant Parts
Despite all these nootropics being sourced from plants, the bioactive ingredients are dispersed unevenly throughout the plant. For example, in kava the root is where almost all the “kavalactones” (bioactive ingredient) exist.
Within the root, the kavalactone percentage can vary from 3 – 20% by weight. In the case of kava, it is actually safer to use the root for kavalactones than the stems or leaves .
This is yet another reason to pay close attention to the products that you purchase. It makes a difference which plant parts are used for the extraction process and how they are extracted (as described above).
Bioactive & Standardized Extracts
Sorry to have burst your bubble regarding the safety of natural nootropics, but it isn’t all bad news. Given our understanding of these principles, we can give you actionable advice on your favorite natural nootropics (or any new items you’d like to try).
The following list of nootropics includes the extract information and (more importantly) sources we have vetted / analyzed where you can purchase them safely. Bookmark this page and revisit it as a reference whenever you need to buy natural nootropics.
Extract: Withanolides (3-5% depending on product)
Source: Pure Nootropics Ashwagandha
Reasoning: Pure Nootropics collaborates with KSM-66, which is a ashwagandha extract that took 14 years to develop and has the highest standardized percentage of withanolides in the world at > 5% (evaluated by HPLC). The manufacturer maintains “green chemistry” processing for user safety.
Nootropic: Bacopa Monnieri
Extract: Bacosides (20 – 50% depending on product)
Source: Pure Nootropics Bacopa
Reasoning: Like ashwagandha, Pure Nootropics collaborates with BaCognize, which is created by Verdure Sciences. This company uses organic, non-GMO practices in their ISO-certified facility. This has a standard 50% bacoside content, but inferior bacopa monnieri products can also have 20% so look carefully if you decide to purchase another bacopa product.
Nootropic: Coleus Forskohlii
Extract: Forskolin (10 – 40% depending on product)
Source: California Products Coleus Forskohlii
Reasoning: Because so many people believe forskolin can help with weight loss, there are a LOT of products that are filled with other ingredients (like chromium etc). This brand specifically has 20% forskolin.
Nootropic: Holy Basil
Extract: Eugenol (there are others, but this is seen as active ingredient)
Source: Gaia Herbs Holy Basil
Reasoning: Besides the fact Gaia Herbs is a large, reputable brand, they are transparent with their methods on the bottle itself. It shows they use a hydro-ethanol extraction method on the leaves in order to create their product. This way you can decide for yourself what is safe for you.
Source: Now Foods Kava
Reasoning: We trust Now Foods both as a brand and given the specifications on their product. While the dosage is a bit low (250 mg compared to 400 mg recommended), the product is standardized to a minimum of 30% kavalactones.
Nootropic: Mucuna Pruriens
Extract: L-DOPA (not an extract, but bioactive ingredient)
Source: Source Naturals Mucuna Pruriens
Reasoning: Source Naturals has developed their product using a seed extraction, which yields a specific amount of L-DOPA (100 mg). While you can purchase mucuna pruriens powder with anywhere from 20 – 40% L-DOPA by weight, it is more convenient for most to have capsules and a fixed L-DOPA dosage displayed.
Nootropic: St. John’s Wort
Extract: Hyperforin (standardized 0.5%)
Source: Now Foods St. John’s Wort
Reasoning: Again, Now Foods is a reputable brand within the nootropics community. Their transparency on the label suggests their hyperforin content is lower than recommended (it is 3%), but the knowledge can help users to adjust accordingly.
Nootropic: Panax Ginseng
Extract: Ginsenosides (2 – 3% depending on the product)
Source: Nootropics Depot GS15-4 Panax Ginseng
Reasoning: It’s a bit more expensive, but the GS15-4 patented method creates panax ginseng extract through an enzyme fermentation process as opposed to other methods. This creates not only a safer, but more impactful ginseng product.
Nootropic: Rhodiola Rosea
Extract: Rosavins (3%)
Source: Nootropics Depot Rhodiola Rosea
Reasoning: As we mentioned above, Nootropics Depot is (in general) a trusted vendor. Their rhodiola rosea comes with a standardized 3% rosavins very clearly stated and they have third party certificates of analysis on their page from Alkemist Labs.
Extract: Valerenic acid (0.8 – 1% standardized)
Source: Nature’s Way Valerian Root
Reasoning: Nature’s Way is a national and reputable brand that provides pure valerian root. Their dosage is a bit skewed because each capsule has 530 mg (and their serving size is 1590 mg), but you can start small and work your way up to the dosage you’d like. Otherwise, this is a safe product.
- References (Click to Expand)
- Mary Lou Heiss, Robert Heiss “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” (2011)
- Foster, S. Herbal Renaissance. Utah: Peregine Smith Books; 1984.
- Conversations with Reddit moderator MisterYouAreSoDumb dated 7/20 – 7/21/16