Each neuron has a body, with two types of branch: the axon, which sends a chemical message through the gap between cells (the synapse) to the receptor area at the end of the branch of the next cell, called the dendrite.
The chemical message itself is called a neurotransmitter. There are different types of neurotransmitter, each performing a different function.
The more often neurotransmitters travel between a pair of neurons, the stronger that connection between those neurons becomes. Think of it as “rewiring” inside the brain, organizing it, and forming memories.
What all neurotransmitters have in common is the danger they’re in once they start the journey back across the synapse to their original neuron. That gap contains enzymes which can destroy them. Those neurotransmitters which return in one piece get reabsorbed, ready for the next time the cell needs to send a chemical message.
The average brain weighs about 2% of the weight of the body it’s controlling, but consumes a massive 20% of that body’s colorific intake.
That 20% is mainly made up of the natural glucose from carbohydrates in fruit, vegetables, and grains.
As well as glucose, the brain also needs nutrients to keep it working efficiently, including fat. That’s because the brain is made up of up to 60% fat and if there’s not enough fat in a person’s diet, it can affect the brain and lead to depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The best fats we should be consuming include fatty acids in plant material such as seeds, nuts, coconuts, and avocados.
OK, so now we’ve established that the brain is made up of billions of neurons firing off chemical messages between themselves.
We’ve also established that the brain needs glucose and certain kinds of fats for fuel, and some of the best fats come from plant material.
But even with the best kind of fuel, sometimes our brain needs a helping hand – and that’s where nootropics come in.
Simply put, nootropics (or “smart drugs”) have been developed to give the brain the boost it needs to work harder, and smarter.
Different smart drugs give different results, such as improving attention to what’s currently going on (like a class lecture), or improving focus on what needs to be done at the time (like homework), or improving memory at specific times (like exams), or on an ongoing basis (like warding off age-related cognitive decline).
Different smart drugs work in different ways, from encouraging the brain to create more neurons, to stimulating neurotransmitter production, to affecting the body’s entire hormonal system.
And as different smart drugs affect the brain’s performance in different ways, they’re also made up of different ingredients, from synthesized chemicals to pure plant extracts.
We’re going to ignore those synthesized chemicals here, and instead take a look at ten of the most popular natural, plant-based, and nootropic ingredients.
Artichoke Extract keeps levels of one particular enzyme in the brain low enough to prevent it from reducing energy stored within neurons. It also encourages the production of proteins, resulting in more brain cells and more neural networks.
In addition, Artichoke Extract is an anti-inflammatory, particularly within the brain, where inflammation can cause dysfunction in the brain cells as well as memory loss. Because the effects of Artichoke Extract last all day, it’s best to take it early in the morning. Recommended dose is usually 900 mg per day.
Artichoke Extract also stimulates the flow of bile, which affects the liver. So if you have problems in that department, or with your gallbladder, talk to a medical professional before starting a course of this extract.
A relative of the tomato, Ashwagandha grows in dry regions across India, North Africa, and the Middle East. It’s been used for centuries in Indian Ayurvedic healing, as an anti-malarial, anti-inflammatory, immune system booster, blood sugar level stabilizer, and more. It has adaptogenic qualities, meaning that it reduces anxiety and stress by lowering levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”).
Ashwagandha also contains antioxidants which prevent free radical molecules from damaging brain cells, and in addition it helps neurons form more dendrites and thus create more neural connections.
Regarding dosage, if you’re taking Ashwagandha as a nootropic, the recommended daily dosage shouldn’t be more than three servings of 2000 mg, with food. Any side effects? Occasionally people report digestion problems and drowsiness at the start of a course, but other than that, no.
This is another herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, and again, it’s an adaptogen – a substance that lowers mental stress levels without affecting physical energy.
Like Ashwagandha, Bacopa reduces the amount of cortisol. It also balances three of the chemical messengers within the brain – specifically serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. It increases blood flow, and therefore delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain. It also encourages the growth of axons and dendrites.
Normal dosage would be between 50 – 100 mg three times a day, with food. Side effects are rare, but can include digestive problems and a dry mouth.
If you’re thinking of a course of Bacopa and you’re already taking medication for glaucoma, thyroid problems, or Alzheimer’s, talk to your doctor beforehand. The same goes if you’re taking antihistamines or antidepressants.
Technically speaking, caffeine isn’t a smart drug in itself – but its stimulant qualities definitely boost mental performance, so we’re including it here.
Caffeine can be found in more than 60 types of plants, including kola nuts and cocoa beans. In the short term, caffeine stimulates the nervous system and increases alertness… and as for its long-term effects, researchers are looking at how it can help to protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
Caffeine is mainly processed through the liver, and acts as a substitute for adenosine, a chemical that
keeps the nervous system under control. But instead of calming things down, it’s got the opposite effect.
We’d suggest three to four cups of coffee a day maximum. That would be below the daily recommendation of 300 mg of caffeine. More than that can cause rapid heartbeat and sleeping problems, as well as stressing out your adrenal glands.
If a Gingko Biloba tree can live for more than a thousand years, then obviously it’s doing something right. So there’s got to be something in there that’s good for us humans, and that would be flavonoids and terpenoids. Flavonoids are antioxidants, while terpenoids dilate blood vessels and make the platelets travelling around them less sticky.
Gingko is good for a quick memory boost in the short term, and in the long term it can help with for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Gingko improves the blood flow to the brain, giving it more of the glucose and oxygen it needs. It also has antioxidant properties which prevent free radicals from harming brain cells.
It’s suggested that you start off with a low dose such as 120 mg each day, and increase the dosage gradually, but remember: it can take from between four and six weeks for the effects to start showing. Side effects can include digestion problems, headache, dizziness, and palpitations.
Don’t combine gingko with NSAID painkillers, anti-platelet medications, aspirin, blood thinners, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, medicines for diabetes or liver problems, and supplements such as St John’s Wort, yohimbe, saw palmetto, or garlic.
There are two main types of ginseng on the market today: Chinese and American. Chinese ginseng is warming and stimulating, while American ginseng is cooling and calming.
Ginseng has antioxidant properties to prevent free radicals damaging brain cells. It’s excellent for a quick mental boost, and it’s been shown to help improve memory function in stroke patients, as well as overall mental performance in those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Both American and Chinese ginseng reduce the amount of cortisol produced, while raising physical and mental energy levels.
There’s no standard dosage for ginseng, but it’s recommended to take between 100 and 200 mg daily. Side effects can include a little nervousness, a bit of itching, headache, and problems with digestion and sleep patterns.
American ginseng contains substances which act on the body in the same way as estrogen, so if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have problems with your hormonal system, it’s best to avoid it. Don’t combine ginseng of any kind with MAOI antidepressants, immune suppressants, or any type of diabetic medication, at least not without consulting your health professional first.
Gotu Kola has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine – for treating anything from asthma to syphilis, and, of course, for its nootropic effects.
Found in the wetlands across Southeast Asia, Gotu Kola is a low vine with kidney-shaped leaves and small white flowers.
It improves blood flow to the brain, eliminates free radicals and repairs neurons. It helps brain cells to form new connections and prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine, an essential neurotransmitter.
The recommended dosage is between 50 – 250 mg taken two or three times daily. Side effects can include headache, dizziness, drowsiness, and digestion problems.
Some medical authorities advise patients not to take Gotu Kola for longer than six weeks without checking with their doctor first, since it could cause liver damage.
Chinese Club Moss grows in Asia, and Huperzine A, an extract from that moss, has been used for centuries to help with improving memory.
In the short term, Huperzine-A helps thebrain recover from injury, while in the long term it’s been used to reduce the effects of age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Huperzine-A blocks certain enzymes which destroy acetylcholine, and it’s also a very effective antioxidant. Researchers believe it prevents the buildup of harmful toxins in the brain.
Dosage starts at 50 mcg a day, and can go as high as 200 mcg.
In the short term, there shouldn’t be any side effects resulting from moderate dosages of Huperzine-A, but higher doses and longer-term use can cause restlessness, digestion problems (including lowered appetite), slowed heart rate, raised blood pressure, and hives.
Lion’s Mane is a mushroom found in Asia, North America, and Europe, and it’s been used as a medicine for thousands of years. It’s also very much a delicacy, even if it doesn’t look like an everyday mushroom – more like the mane of a lion. It tastes like shrimp or lobster.
It’s good for both neurological disorders and improving brain function, and so is used for depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Lion’s Mane contains hericenones and erinacines, compounds which help to form Nerve Growth Factor, a protein the brain needs for the creation of certain types of neurons.
Dosage of Lion’s Mane is usually 1 gram, three times a day. You can buy Lion’s Mane as a supplement, or even mixed with coffee. And if you’re sautéing it in butter or oil with a little garlic, not only does the result taste fantastic, but the garlic works to boost its beneficial effects.
There’s only one side effect we’ve come across and that’s itchy skin, probably due to the high amount of Nerve Growth Factor.
Turmeric contains Circumin – that’s what makes it so colorful, and so good for you.
Why is it so good? Circumin not only reduces the chances of inflammation in the brain, but also combats depression, improves cognition and focus, and isn’t exactly bad for the libido either.
Circumin helps the brain create more neurons, therefore making more neural connections. That process is referred to as “Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor”, otherwise known as BDNF. Low BDNF has links with OCDs, depression, Schizophrenia, and dementia.
It also increases production of “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, while reducing brain inflammation, and breaking up plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The recommended dosage for a standard powdered supplement is 400 – 600 mgs, three times daily. Since Circumin is used for everyday cooking, there’s little chance of side effects when used normally over the long term.
It’s best not to take Circumin if you’re already taking aspirin, NSAID painkillers, statins or medicines for bood thinning, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Circumin can also interact with natural substances such as ginseng, garlic, and Gingko Biloba.
Because it can be difficult for the body to absorb Circumin supplements, many manufacturers add Piperine, extracted from black pepper. This can radically improve Circumin absorption, but it can also increase the side effects of certain medications.
Those were ten of the natural, plant-based ingredients in smart pill supplements available today. There are others, but the ones we’ve looked at here are among the most powerful and popular.
Soon we’ll be checking out some of the smart pill ingredients that already exist in the body, but in quantities that could do with topping up when you need a quick mental boost, or to help your brain work at maximum efficiency over the medium or long term.
So, stay tuned!