While the concept of nootropics is relatively new, people have been using nootropic plants for most of recorded history, possibly even before.
These potent cognitive enhancers are still in use today, so I thought I’d educate my readers and clients on the benefits of taking nootropic herbs for their physical and mental health.
So, I teamed up with a dietician and botanist and spent weeks reading various research studies on plant nootropics to boil down a list of the best ones.
Here’s the fruit of our labor.
- Nootropic plants or nootropic herbs are edible plants (either stems, leaves, or roots) that can boost brain function and promote cognitive enhancement naturally.
- Many nootropic plants have been used for centuries by many cultures, which serves as key evidence for their benefits.
- Nootropic plants don’t usually cause side effects in themselves; most bad reactions are due to misuse or overuse.
Which Nootropic Plants Are Considered the Best?
Nootropic plants, such as Bacopa monnieri, that enhance mental performance, improve cognitive function, and repair damage to your brain cells without any side effects are considered the best.
This would include most nootropic plants because natural nootropics, by definition, shouldn’t cause any side effects if consumed in the right dosage.
And based on our extensive research, many of the best nootropic herbs are ones that have been used for centuries by various cultures.
That’s because years of observing the positive effects of these herbs have forged a “trust value” in them.
Before we dive into our list of the best plant nootropics, let’s first set our foothold on some basics.
What Are Nootropic Plants?
Nootropic plants, also called nootropic herbs, are naturally grown plants that can enhance cognition and improve brain health. They’re usually parts of plants, like seeds, roots, flowers, leaves, and stems.
Many nootropic plants used today have a long history of use in traditional herbal medicine across various cultures.
Both everyday people and medical professionals have used them for millennia.
Only in the last century has scientific research given us an in-depth understanding of how these herbs work on our bodies and brains.
Some studies have validated the benefits, and others indicate a placebo effect. In either case, scientists are conducting more studies these days to fully understand the effects of herbal nootropics.
10 Best Nootropic Herbs
The following is a list of the best nootropic herbs recommended by some of the best dieticians.
1. Bacopa Monnieri (Brahmi)
Bacopa monnieri, also called water hyssop or Brahmi, is a powerful herb that’s been used in ayurvedic medicine for centuries.
Named after the supreme deity, Brahma, Bacopa was used in ancient India by scholars and devotees to memorize long passages.
Today, many people use it to boost attention span and improve memory.
Studies show that this herb can rebuild damaged neurons and improve electrical signaling in the brain . It’s also effective in reducing anxiety .
Because of the plethora of evidence showing its learning and memory-boosting effects, many nootropic users regard Bacopa as one of the best botanical nootropics. For this reason, many nootropic supplements contain a potent dosage of this herb’s extract.
Ashwagandha (whose name comes from the Sanskrit “smell of horse”) is a natural testosterone booster and plant nootropic found in many supplements .
Ashwagandha is a nootropic that stands out as one of the best natural nootropics for its GABA-mimicking effects on the brain . GABA is an amino acid that has a calming effect on the mind.
As a nootropic, it enhances the formation of dendrites, which promote increased connectivity of neurons in the brain; this improves memory and learning, reduces anxiety, boosts motivation, and improves various cognitive functions .
As a natural testosterone booster, ashwagandha is known to increase spatial cognition in males and combat depressive disorders .
“Ashwagandha has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine to increase energy, improve overall health and reduce inflammation, pain, and anxiety.”
- Dr. Yufang Lin, MD, Integrative Medicine Specialist
3. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo is one of the oldest species of trees that still exists today. It's been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma, coughs, swelling of the hands and feet, vascular problems, and age-related cognitive decline .
Ginkgo helps increase cerebral blood flow, which improves oxygen and glucose availability to your neurons  .
As a result, it can improve memory and enhance cognitive function, recall, and learning.
Supplements that contain Ginkgo biloba extract may promote bodily mechanisms that boost dopamine levels, which can reduce depression and assist in treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), making it a safer alternative to prescription drugs .
Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive culinary spices native to the Middle East.
Apart from cooking, people use it as an antidepressant, sedative, and anxiolytic (medications that treat anxiety) .
As a natural nootropic and potent antioxidant, saffron is used by women to treat PMS symptoms and postpartum depression . It also aids in preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease .
Besides its nootropic effects, saffron is prescribed by doctors to alleviate sexual dysfunction and chronic inflammation  .
5. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a herb that’s been grown for over two thousand years and is native to the Mediterranean.
It’s most commonly used for its antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects.
Consuming lemon balm enhances dopamine production and boosts GABA and other amino acid levels in the brain, which helps with mood regulation .
This herbal nootropic inhibits acetylcholinesterase production, enhancing memory and cognition .
6. Maritime Pine Bark
Maritime pine bark is one of the best herbal nootropics owing to its multifaceted nootropic activity. It’s been used as a wellness herb and food for centuries.
Maritime pine bark stimulates nitric oxide production, which relaxes your blood vessels and encourages the flow of blood to the brain .
It has several powerful antioxidants that cross the blood-brain barrier and protect the brain from the effects of aging .
Research shows that one of the most significant advantages of consuming this nootropic herb is its effect on brain-cell regeneration and improving brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key molecule for learning and memory plasticity .
7. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom is a mushroom whose use goes back to ancient Chinese medicine.
Traditionally, it's been believed to help with cognitive decline and nerve-related disorders like Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, and depression .
However, most research on this effect has been done on animals; more research on human trials is still needed.
Other studies show that two compounds found only in lion’s mane mushrooms — hericenones and erinacines — cross the blood-brain barrier and increase the brain’s nerve growth factor .
Another compound in this mushroom — amycenone — may treat sleep disorders, enhance memory, and improve mental function .
“[Lion's mane mushroom] has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, which may help with stress and work as an antidepressant.”
- Dr. Alex Dimitriu, MD, Psychiatrist
8. Panax Ginseng
Panax ginseng is an ancient medicinal plant known to enhance brain function.
While more research is needed on how this works, a handful of studies show that ginseng has anti-inflammatory effects that can protect your brain from oxidative stress .
One dose of 200–400 mg of ginseng is known to reduce brain fatigue and enhance mental clarity . This makes it especially helpful for students and employees who are under stress and work pressure.
However, some long-term studies show that your body could adapt to its effects over time, rendering its positive effects to a minimum within months .
9. Rhodiola Rosea
Popularly known as the “arctic root,” Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen (plants and mushrooms that help your body respond to anxiety, stress, and fatigue) that’s been used in traditional medicine in Russia and Scandinavia.
Rhodiola rosea helps boost overall mood by increasing serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain .
So it’s more commonly used by people who experience burnout and high levels of stress, such as college students.
Related: Rhodiola Rosea Side Effects
10. Gotu Kola
Nicknamed “the student herb” in Bali, Gotu kola’s ability to sharpen the mind and improve your memory makes it a highly effective nootropic herb.
It does this by increasing dendrite and axon growth in your brain .
It may even break down acetylcholine, which can enhance mood cognition, memory, and learning .
Consuming Gotu kola every day can enhance cerebral blood flow and may even fight against the onset of degenerative brain diseases  .
History of Nootropic Plants
Humanity has used plants as food and medicine since the very beginnings of our civilization.
Several cultures made use of traditional herbs to improve mood, fight age-related memory loss, enhance memory functioning, and support overall brain health.
Here are some examples of how certain cultures promoted the use of nootropic herbs:
- The second-century Chinese emperor Shen-Nung cataloged over 365 species of medicinal herbs still used in Chinese medicine today .
- The ancient Greek surgeons, Dioscorides and Galen, wrote books on herbs that were used as definitive medical texts for 1,500 years .
- In 16th century England, John Gerard, the superintendent of Queen Elizabeth’s gardens, wrote extensively about New World herbs in his works .
Based on the various herbs we looked at, we know that nootropic plants can offer the following cognitive benefits:
- Repair damaged brain cells
- Support brain health
- Enhance overall mental performance
- Improve brain function
- Enhances mental function
- Increase resilience to stress hormones
Are They a Safe Option?
Yes, most plant-based nootropics are safer compared to smart drugs (synthetic nootropics) because they are organic and safe for consumption.
However, the problem of their safety depends on the frequency and the way they’re consumed.
Many herbal nootropics have a recommended dosage. When exceeded, they tend to produce unfavorable effects.
Below is a list of recommended dosages for the nootropic herbs we discussed and the side effects of overconsuming them.
- Dosage: 600 mg/day for up to 12 weeks
- Overconsumption side effects: Stomach cramps, nausea, and dry mouth .
- Dosage: Up to 600 mg/day for three months.
- Overconsumption side effects: Stomach upset, diarrhea, vomiting, and liver problems (rarely) .
- Dosage: 60–240 mg/day for six months.
- Overconsumption side effects: Seizures .
- Dosage: 30 mg/day for extract and 15–200 mg/day for dried saffron.
- Overconsumption side effects: Anxiety, sleepiness, headaches, upset stomach, and appetite changes .
- Dosage: 500 mg/day for six months.
- Overconsumption side effects: Increased appetite, nausea, dizziness, and wheezing .
Maritime Pine Bark
- Dosage: 50–450 mg/day for a year.
- Overconsumption side effects: Dizziness and stomach problems .
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
- Dosage: 1 g/day for 16 weeks
- Overconsumption side effects: Mild stomach discomfort .
- Dosage: 200 mg–3 g a day for 12 weeks
- Overconsumption side effects: Sleep issues, headache, agitation, upset stomach, menstrual issues, breast pain, drowsiness, increased blood pressure, nervousness, and mood changes .
- Dosage: 250–600 mg/day for 6–12 weeks.
- Overconsumption side effects: Dizziness, dry mouth, and excessive salivation .
- Dosage: 60–120 mg/day for 12 weeks.
- Overconsumption side effects: Nausea and stomach pain .
Can Ashwagandha Cause Brain Fog?
No, ashwagandha can’t cause brain fog, whether you exceed the dosage limits or not. When consumed in safe amounts, it helps improve mental clarity . However, overconsuming it may lead to other side effects.
Who Should Not Take Brahmi?
People who suffer from serious stomach ulcers should not take Brahmi. Bramhi is known to increase stomach and intestinal secretions, which can make ulcers worse . Brahmi also increases fluid secretion in the lungs, so people with asthma or emphysema should consult a doctor before taking it .
Is Gotu Kola Better Than Bacopa?
Yes, Gotu kola may be better than bacopa, depending on what your needs are. While both nootropics can powerfully support your mind and nervous system, bacopa might be more potent.
Enhance Your Diet With Nootropic Plants
Enhancing your diet with nootropic herbs can greatly benefit your physical and mental health.
But incorporating a variety of them into your diet can be quite challenging.
That’s why we recommend taking a nootropic supplement that contains safe and clinical doses of various herbs.
We personally tested all these supplements at TotalShape, so we know they actually work. Clients found that these nootropics helped them with mental clarity even on the roughest days.
Browse through our list and pick one that suits your needs.
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