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Stemming from the Greek nóos for “mind” and tropḗ for “turning”, nootropics (sometimes known as cognitive enhancers or “smart drugs”) are supplements that can increase cognitive functions such as memory, motivation, or creativity. A relatively new field, research on the effectiveness of nootropics is still emerging. They range from the herbal variety (think: ginkgo biloba and panax ginseng) to prescription drugs (such as Adderall and Ritalin).

Here, we’ll examine some of the herbal nootropics that you probably already know, and some that you might encounter in your pantry soon:


Yes, the caffeine in your morning latte is an alertness-increasing, attention-improving, naturally occurring chemical that wakes you up and reduces reaction time. Fun fact: caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world!


Found in tea, L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid with the ability to calm the body without causing drowsiness – and it has also been found to increase creativity. Its effectiveness is increased when taken in combination with caffeine. 

Bacopa Monnieri

An ancient herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, bacopa monnieri can (when taken regularly for several months) speed up information processing in the brain, reduce reaction times and improve memory. 

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb that can help the body handle stress more effectively. A number of studies have found rhodiola rosea supplements to improve the mood and reduce the sense of burnout in highly stressed individuals. 

Panax Ginseng

Panax Ginseng is an ancient medicinal root with brain-boosting properties. According to a number of studies, taking 200–400 mg of Panax ginseng daily can reduce brain fatigue and significantly improve performance on complex tasks such as math exercises. 

Ginkgo Biloba

Extracts from the leaves of the Ginkgo Biloba tree might also have positive effects on the brain: supplements have been shown to improve memory and mental processing, when taken daily for six weeks or more. Ginkgo biloba can also help reduce the production of cortisol when taken before stressful tasks. 

In a nutshell

Herbal/natural nootropics have been widely used in alternative medicine for millennia, though their effects tend to be somewhat more subtle and gradual.  Some, such as L-theanine and caffeine, can be taken in combination for boosted effectiveness. 

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