Even if you haven’t heard of nootropics, you’ve most likely been consuming one form or another without knowing it!

What are nootropics, you ask? Also, called “smart drugs,” nootropics are a class of chemicals — both naturally occurring and manmade — that promise to improve mental acuity and provide a cognitive boost. There is a wide array of nootropic chemicals, yet some of the most well-known include caffeine, L-theanine (found in tea), adaptogens such as rhodiola rosea and panax ginseng, gingko biloba, nicotine, and creatine (an amino acid use to make protein).

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Let’s take a deeper dive into what these brain-boosting chemicals are!

What are Nootropics?

Neurons

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Nootropics are dietary supplements, drugs, or other substances that help your brain work more efficiently. Yet, they promise more than simple energy enhancing powers. Nootropics aim to “enhance cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions,” as well as “supporting memory and promoting optimal brain function.” With that said, there are rules that must be followed in order for a substance to be classified as a nootropic. These five guidelines are as follows:

  • Enhance memory and ability to learn
  • Help brain function under disruptive conditions
  • Protect the brain from physical and chemical assaults
  • Increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms
  • Possess few or no side effects and be virtually non-toxic.

Once a substance meets these guidelines, it falls into the nootropic or smart drug category. On top of brain-boosting powers, nootropics are also known to have neuroprotective benefits. Simply put, these wondrous substances not only clear your brain and help improve productivity, but they also may “protect your brain from deterioration over time.”

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Natural versus Manmade

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While there are many naturally occurring nootropics — such as caffeine and a few adaptogenic herbs — these brain-boosting substances are also created in the form of synthetic pharmaceuticals such as Ritalin, Adderall, Modafinil, and Adrafinil.

What’s the benefit of going synthetic? It all comes to expediency.

Generally, pharmaceutical nootropics are quicker to take effect, while the benefits of natural nootropics build over time. You may receive an immediate break from that continuous brain fog you’ve suffered, but later, down the road of life, there could be unforeseen consequences that are yet to be determined. Pharmaceutical forms of nootropics aren’t necessarily new to the scene, but the research surrounding the long-term effects is still very much in its infancy. Plus, many pharmaceutical companies use dangerous fillers in their products such as microcrystalline cellulose.

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With that said, there is a slew of natural nootropics to give a try first such as ancient alternative medicines, “herbs, like adaptogens, as well as compounds that are commonly found in healthy foods.”

Common Natural Nootropics

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If you’re looking to dip your toes into the world of nootropics, a great way to start is with some natural and easy to find substances. While natural nootropics require more patience, they oftentimes imbue other health benefits on top of boosting brain health. Here are a few of the most common natural nootropics! 

Caffeine

coffee beans spilling out of a mug

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That cup of coffee — or two or three or four — that you’ve been consuming on a daily basis is actually considered a nootropic. Not only is caffeine “the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world,” but it’s a natural substance that is found not just in coffee but also in “cocoa, tea, kola nuts and guarana.” How is caffeine a nootropic? When you consume caffeine in any of its various sources, it tricks your mind into feeling less tired by “blocking adenosine receptors in the brain.”

L-Theanine

Two cups of tea

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This is one of those miracle substances that you haven’t heard about, but once you do you’ll want to get as much as you can! L-theanine is an “amino acid that impacts nerve impulses in the brain and the release of neurotransmitters, including GABA.” How does L-theanine make it into the nootropic group? This amino acid has a very special effect on the brain acting as an ananxiolytic meaning it has a “calming, sedative effect on the body and mind without making you feel drowsy.” L-theanine has had great success for those with anxiety, hyperactivity or sleep issues. While you can get l-theanine supplements, this nootropic is naturally present in tea.

Creatine

Woman holding weights looking in the mirror

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Another amino acid on our list of natural nootropics, creatine focuses on making protein — which means it’s great for bodybuilders — but is also beneficial for the brain. How does it work? Creatine binds with phosphate “creating a molecule that your brain uses to quickly fuel its cells” and this “increased availability of energy for your brain cells is linked to improved short-term memory and reasoning skills.”

The human body actually creates creatine by using the “amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine.” Beyond our bodies, creatine is found in animal-based products such as wild game, domestic meats, and wild-caught fish. For those practicing plant-based eating, you can find supplemental forms of creatine such as this all natural, vegan, and non-GMO Health Solution Prime Vegan Creatine Powder.

Rhodiola RoseaRhodiola Rosea Supplement Root Extract

Rhodiola Rosea Supplement Root Extract/Amazon.com

If you haven’t heard about adaptogenic herbs, now’s the time to get familiar! Adaptogens, most commonly referred to as adaptogenic herbs, are plants that have been used as medicines for thousands of yours, generally found in many ancient practices such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicines. Adaptogenic substances “focus on the body’s stress response, referring to the natural human response to urgent situations in which the cortisol hormone is released.”

Rhodiola rosea, an adaptogenic herb, also happens to be a popular nootropic that “helps your body handle stress more effectively.” How does it work? Studies show that “Rhodiola rosea supplements can improve mood and decrease feelings of burnout in both anxious and highly stressed individuals.”

Curcumin

Curcumin

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If you love turmeric, then you’ve been unknowingly consuming a nootropic. Curcumin is the active agent in turmeric that not only gives it that yellowish-orange pigment but also boosts the immune system. This unique plant-based compound is “different from all other polyphenol categories such as flavonoids, stilbenes, and phenolic acids,” and is difficult for the gastrointestinal tract to absorb without amplifiers such as fresh ground pepper.

While supporting the immune system, curcumin also enhances neuroplasticity, increases “mood, intelligence, memory, and productivity,” and can “reduce risks of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.” Research has also found that “curcumin increased serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain,” reducing the chance of depressive states, which leads to more creative and productive abilities.

Cooking with Nootropics

Kitchen sink in front of a window with succulents on the windowpane

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Want to try your hand at integrating these natural nootropics into your diet? It’s actually incredibly easy! Here are five ways to integrate five nootropic compounds into your daily regimen. With that said, before changing your diet, it’s incredibly important to consult a health care professional.

Coffee High-Protein Caramel Cappuccino

High-Protein Caramel Cappuccino/One Green Planet

For many of us, starting your day with a freshly brewed cup of coffee is the ultimate pleasure. Not only does coffee provide a wakeful boost, but it also helps clear brain fog and is known to promote a healthy liver. Luckily, there are a host of healthy ways to get this wonderful nootropic into your system! Take a twist on a classic with this High-Protein Caramel Cappuccino, complete with two full cups of freshly brewed nootropic-rich joe, healthy fat-filled coconut butter, and an additional splash of nootropic and adaptogenic Ashwagandha. Want a fresh approach? Try out this Golden Latte that utilizes the dual nootropic powers of caffeine and curcumin-rich turmeric! Skip the “beverage” part of coffee altogether with this Energizing Coffee Cacao Smoothie Bowl filled with brain-boosting coffee and cacao, as well as a host of other nutrient-rich ingredients such as flaxseed, blueberries, and oatmeal.

TeaSage and Black Tea Latte

Source: Sage and Black Tea Latte

To get the most bang for your buck when it comes to L-theanine rich tea, focus on white (6.26 mg/g), green (6.56 mg/g), oolong (6.09 mg/g), and black (5.12 mg/g). The best thing about tea is that, much like coffee, you can easily infuse other meals with flavors and health benefits. For instance, this Pumpkin Early Grey Oatmeal uses both raw earl grey tea leaves and early gray simple syrup (early gray is part of the black tea family). This Baked Osmanthus and Oolong Tea Doughnuts recipe infuses oolong tea leaves straight into the dough and this Matcha Loaf Cafe uses a potent powder form of green tea called Matcha. With that said, a spin on traditional is always a great way to spice up your morning routine, such as with this Sage and Black Tea Latte complete with loose-leaf black tea and healthy fat-filled cashew butter.

RhodiolaOrganic Rhodiola Rosea Extract Powder

Micro Ingredients Pure Organic Rhodiola Rosea Extract Powder/Amazon.com

While it may be difficult to find recipes that integrate rhodiola rosea, you can always substitute this adaptogenic nootropic into some of your favorite recipes. First off, you’ll need to find an organic rhodiola that works for you! This Micro Ingredients Pure Organic Rhodiola Rosea Extract Powder is not only organic, but also happens to be gluten and soy free, has zero GMO’s, additives, preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, and fillers. Use this powder in smoothies for any meal of the day — such as this nutrient-rich Moringa Green Smoothie or this turmeric-rich Immune Boosting Orange Raspberry Smoothie — mix it into your morning hot cereal — such as this decadent Beetroot Cake Porridge or this Chocolate Puffed Cereal — or add a spoonful to a hearty soup or stew — such as this Coconut Carrot Soup With Shiitake and Spring Onion or this flavor-filled African Peanut Stew.

TurmericIndian Spice Popcorn Cauliflower

Indian Spice Popcorn Cauliflower/One Green Planet

Turmeric is one of the easiest spices to cook with! It has a very mild flavor of nuts and earth. A dash of turmeric, combined with freshly ground black pepper, will warm a dish, yet not overpower it. On the other hand, adding a few heaping tablespoons to your favorite soup or stew will provide it with an empowered heat. Due to this spice’s vast health benefits, more and more people are using turmeric in creative ways. For instance, turmeric is popping up in beverages, such as this Turmeric Smoothie, this Golden Banana Milkshake, or this Orange Dream Mango Smoothie. With that said, theirs nothing wrong with going traditional such as this Gingery Yellow Rice, this Indian Spice Popcorn Cauliflower, or this Spanish Artichoke and Zucchini Paella.

CreatineDoctor's Best Pure Creatine Powder

Doctor’s Best Pure Creatine Powder/Amazon.com

Similar to rhodiola rosea, finding recipes that integrate a creatine substitute may be difficult. Therefore, try your hand at making your own! Make sure to find an organic and vegan supplement that works for you. Powders are the easiest to integrate into cuisines such as this vegan and non-GMO supplements — Doctor’s Best Pure Creatine Powder and Elementa Essentials Creapure Micronized Creatine Monohydrate Powder. Try adding your vegan creatine powder to baked good recipes such as this Perfect Apple Pie, this super simple Hazelnut Chocolate Parfait, or these travel-friendly Chocolate Peanut Butter Raspberry Bars. Creatine powder can also be added to any one of your favorite smoothie mixtures, to any shake — such as this Magical Mango Matcha Shake, which provides a double dose with nootropic matcha powder — or even vegan ice cream recipes.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!

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