There are many different reasons to prefer natural nootropic substances over man-made substances. The best natural nootropics on the market possess some unique qualities which sets them apart from their synthetic counterparts.
Some of the characteristics of natural nootropics include:
- prophylactic effects – the ability to prevent disease and infection.
- neuroprotective effects – preservation of the structure and function of the brain and it’s nervous tissue.
- adaptogenic effects – the ability to reverse stress and promote homeostasis (steady physiological state in the body).
Of these qualities, the adaptogenic properties are most unique to herbal supplements. Adaptogens tend reduce fatigue, reduce stress, and raise energy levels – characteristics which many synthetic nootropics fail to replicate.
Many natural nootropics also have a long history of use, such as ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine and kava in the Pacific Islands. Fortunately, this has allowed us to study these native populations and their use of these substances; thus confirming how effective and safe these herbs are when used over long periods of time.
Many people also show concern over the use of synthetic nootropics due to the possibility of poor quality control – impurities, byproducts, contamination, false products, etc. Furthermore, many synthetic nootropics are quite new and have limited research on their safety; as a result we have not yet had any opportunities to study the long-term effects.
The primary benefit of natural nootropics is that the risk side effects is generally quite small. This doesn’t mean that natural nootropics don’t have any side effects, but the range of side effects are often mild and predictable.
There is one factor that makes natural substances more complicated, however. Many natural nootropics contain numerous active compounds in varying amounts, which makes it hard to achieve consistent effects. The ratio of these compounds in natural nootropics greatly depends upon where and how the product was grown. The good news is that there have been standardized extracts developed with the intention to produce more consistent and desired effects, which I will be going over in detail.
List of the Best Natural Nootropics
Fish oil is an omega-3 fatty acid commonly supplemented for its numerous health benefits, and is one of the most well-researched supplements in the world. Omega-3 fatty acid is an essential dietary nutrient critical to brain development and function , and is quite deficient in western diets.
Fish oil has various roles in the body, and is typically used for its ability to improve brain and joint health as well as promoting healthy aging due to its general prophylactic qualities. Overall, fish oil is one of the best natural nootropics out there and its popularity is well deserved.
In people with major depression, fish oil has very strong evidence that it is as extremely effective at reducing symptoms .
Fish oil supplementation also produces a reduction in symptoms of bipolar disorder , a reduction in anxiety and stress  , and improvements in general mood . It may also be effective for reducing symptoms of ADHD in children [17.
As far as general health effects, fish oil has anti-inflammatory properties , reduces blood pressure , and raises HDL-C (the good cholesterol) . It also reduces the activity of natural cell killers , and provides photoprotection from sunlight .
Fish oil also has some profound effects on cognition and brain health. It improves blood flow and oxygenation in the brain , and prevents cognitive decline in the elderly . High levels of fish oil in the brain, specifically DHA, is correlated with a reduced the risk of dementia , while EPA appears to preserve brain mass by reducing the rate of atrophy . DHA has also been shown to alleviate the rate of cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer’s disease [67.
Fish oil contains two different omega 3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which confer different benefits. The two are often conflated and there is some confusion about which role each plays in the body.
While DHA was long thought to be responsible for the antidepressant effects, it would appear that EPA is more responsible, to the point that doses with higher EPA:DHA ratios were even more effective than pure DHA, with DHA in fact failing to show antidepressive effects on its own . DHA appears more important for general brain health and cognition , though we do not quite know enough to determine what ratios of EPA to DHA are most helpful overall.
There are various ratios of EPA:DHA, but almost all fish and krill oil contain more EPA than DHA, while algae oil contains much higher levels of DHA than EPA.
Krill oil and algae oil are viable alternatives to fish oil and may have similar efficacy, with some debate over which is most effective. However due to the availability and research on fish oil, it is generally preferrable.
For general health purposes, a dose of roughly 1g daily of fish oil appears effective, and up to 6g may be taken if improved joint health is desired. It does not need to be taken with meals, but doing so may prevent “fishy burps”.
Fish oil can become rancid which can cause oxidization and other problems in the body, and there are a few things to pay attention to prevent this risk. When taking fish oil, it is important to look for one that contains a preservative (typically vitamin E) and is in a container that will not subject the fish oil to heat or light. It is also a good idea to only buy a few months supply at a time and keep the container in a fridge or freezer to ensure freshness. A good way to tell if your fish oil supply is rancid is to bite open the pill (liquid forms are not recommended) and see if there is a strong fishy odor – high quality non-rancid fish oil will not have a noticeable fishy smell, if at all.
Curcumin is the compound responsible for the yellow pigmentation in turmeric – a spice most commonly found in curry and other Indian dishes. It is typically used for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, and is overall similar to fish oil as a potent prophylactic agent that can be used to improve general health and longevity.
Curcumin has numerous health benefits establish it as one of the best natural nootropics available. It raises levels of anti-oxidant enzymes in the brain , reduces inflammation  and protects against heart failure . It also reduces fatigue and pain, especially from osteoarthritis  . Additionally, it improves blood flow .
Curcumin reduces risk of colorectal and prostate cancer , and improves symptoms of IBS in people with ulcerative colitis or crohns disease . In insulin resistant people, it can increase insulin secretion and improve sensitivity . It also improves kidney function in impaired kidneys .
There is some evidence that curcumin may be effective for reducing symptoms of depression , and anxiety , though more high-quality studies are needed to determine how truly effective it is.
Curcumin also increases levels of BDNF by 140% , another very promosing feature.
While you may not notice immediate benefit upon curcumin supplementation, it is a very powerful prophylactic and is a great tool for maintaining general health and promoting longevity.
Curcumin is poorly absorbed in the gut when supplemented , though there are various ways to enhance absorption. Curcumin may be supplemented with piperidine (black pepper extract), for a total daily amount of 1500mg of curcumin and 60 mg of piperine, split between two or three doses over the day.
One study sought to gain information about the various proprietary formulations available. Among them, NovaSol, CurcuWin, and LongVida were determined to be the most effective . When using the proprietary formulations, it is recommended to stick with the dosages as instructed on the label.
Curcumin is generally taken with meals but is not required.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a medicinal mushroom with nootropic qualities. Currently, the research on Lion’s Mane is still in it’s early stages, though it shows a lot of promise and more research is urgently needed.
I am including Lion’s Mane on this list primarily due its ability to significantly increase the expression of NGF (nerve growth factor (NGF) . NGF is a moleculed produced in the brain that is involved in the regulation of growth, maintenance, proliferation, and survival of neurons.
When looking at neurons specifically, Lion’s Mane also enhances the formation of myelin and the production of the myelin sheath (myelination) . It also promotes neurite outgrowth  and peripheral nerve regeneration after injury .
Lion’s Mane also provides neuroprotection against neuronal death , prevents against cognitive decline caused by β-amyloid pigmentation , and has shown significant improvements in cognition in those suffering from dementia .
Lion’s Mane also inhibits metastasis of cancer cells to the lung from the colon , and is very gastroprotective, especially against ulcers .
Lion’s Mane does not have a standard dosage, however one human trial show efficacy with 1000mg doses taken 3x daily, and total daily doses of 3000mg or more may be optimal. It does not need to be taken with meals.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that is often referred to as Indian Ginseng due to its use in Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine. Ashwagandha appears to be most effective for alleviating anxiety, reducing stress and fatigue, and promoting restful sleep. It is also under investigation for its ability to improve physical performance. Ashwagandha is easily one of the best natural nootropics out there and is one of the oldest medinical herbs in the world.
To begin, Ashwagandha alleviates stress and lower cortisol quite substantially . In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 64 subjects with chronic stress had their cortisol and stress levels tested. Subjects were given 300mg capsules of the root extract twice daily. After 60 days, the treatment group showed a significant reduction in their stress based on stress-assessment scales, and their cortisol levels were substantially reduced .
Ashwagandha is quite effective at alleviating anxiety , and has mild antidepressant effects . It also reduces fatigue , improves social functioning and well-being , and may even improve motivation .
The full extent of ashwagandha’s mechanism of action, at least in regards to the above effects, is not totally understood at this time. However, it is likely that its anxiolytic effects primarily come from GABAergic mechanisms, specifically by enhancing signaling at the the GABAA receptor . GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmittor in the brain and is a common target for anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) drugs.
As far as the nootropic effects go, Ashwagandha has been shown to provide neuroprotection by inducing antioxidant enzymes in the brain . Additionally it has been shown to cause neurogenesis, demonstrating regeneration activity in axons and synapses as well as neurite extension in normal and damaged cortical neurons . Additionally, ashwadangdha was show to upregulate the expression of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) levels by 130% over the course of a week in mice .
Ashwagandha appears to be a very well-rounded substance that provides real benefits, with its anti-stress and anxiolytic effects being the most significant. Among adaptogens, it may be the most potent of them all, and may be one of the best natural nootropics in existence.
Ashwagandha is typically taken 1-3 times daily in doses anywhere from 500mg to 2000mg. In this case the “less is more” rule does not seem to apply, and taking daily doses upwards of 2000mg might be the best thing to do. It is best to take on an empty stomach to avoid potential GI discomfort.
Panax ginseng is the prototypical “ginseng” herb. Typically when people refer to ginseng they are referring to panax ginseng (often in the form of Korean red ginseng, Chinese ginseng, and Asian ginseng, which are the same plant but processed in different ways). Among these, Korean red ginseng appears to the the most effective, especially for depression .
There are other types of ginseng such as American and Siberian ginseng but for the purposes of simplicity I won’t be covering those, primarily because they aren’t as effective or well-studied as panax ginseng.
Panax ginseng is similar to ashwagandha in that it is fairly well-rounded and has many different benefits. It has numerous mental health benefits as well, with improvements in mood and socializing among them.
One study in particular study used 200mg doses for 4 weeks and showed improvements in mental health and social functioning . However, after 8 weeks it appeared to become ineffective, suggesting that it may be best to cycle it in 4 week periods.
Ginseng also shows promise for elevating mood and alleviating depression . Another study demonstrated improvements in calmness .
Ginseng was also found to have anxiolytic and anti-depressive qualities, and significantly increased social interactions .
Ginseng has nootropic qualities as well. It appears to improve cognition , while providing neuroprotection and memory improvements .
Lastly, it also has anti oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, among other prophylactic qualities .
Overall, ginseng has numerous benefits, and improving social functioning is among the most intriguing of them.
Panax Ginseng is typically taken at doses between 200mg and 400mg once or twice a day. The best form of panax ginseng to take appears to be Korean Red Ginseng due to how it is processed and handled. Panax Ginseng does not need to be taken with meals.
Rhodiola rosea is another herb of the adaptogen class. Like other adaptogens, it is characterized by conferring a wide range of benefits to both mental and physical health. It’s primary benefit appears to be reducing fatigue, and does so quite effectively .
Rhodiola has been shown to have strong nootropic effects, with improvements in cognition and memory being the most significant . It also shows potent neuroprotective and antioxidant effects . One of the active compounds, salidroside, has even been shown to cause neurogenesis when injected .
Rhodiola also confers benefits to general mental health. It improves mood , reduces stress , reduces depressive symptoms , reduces anxiety , with one study showing significant improvements in generalized anxiety disorder upon dosing .
Rhodiola Rosea’s mood-brightening effects appear to come from inhibiting monoamine oxidase , which is an enzyme responsible for breaking down dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. By inhibiting the breakdown of these neurotransmitters, a relative increase will occur.
Overall Rhodiola appears to be great for improving mood and reducing fatigue, and appears to be a reliable cognitive enhancer. As a result of these qualities, rhodiolia one of the most popular and best natural nootropics out there.
Rhodiola rosea is best taken as an extract that contain 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside, the most common of which is the SHR-5 extract.
There is a bell-curve response with doses, and so the less-is-more rule strongly applies here. Doses range from 100-680mg, and should not exceed 680mg in one day or it may lose effectiveness. Rhodiola rosea does not need to be taken with meals.
Bacopa Monnieri is a nootropic herb with a history of medicinal use in India (Ayurvedic medicine) with strong adaptogenic and nootropic properties.
Bacopa has shown immense potential for preventing cognitive disorders and even causes cognitive enhancement in healthy people .
It enhances memory , greatly improves attention and cognition , and has antidepressive/anxiolytic effects .
Bacopa increases levels of serotonin in the hippocampus, and prevents depletion of dopamine and serotonin after exposure to neurotoxins or in people with Parkinson’s disease, which demonstrates its efficacy as adaptogen .
It also appears to lower stress , provide neuroprotection , and prevent neuroinflammation , all of which further demonstrate its ability to act as an adaptogen and prophylactic.
Bacopa is a bit of an underdog in the natural nootropics market, but it shows a lot of promise. I would consider it among the best natural nootropics available today and I predict it will become more popular as more studies get published.
The standard dose for bacopa monnieri is 300mg with a 50% of the extract . In powder form, taking 750-1500mg of the leaf or powder would yield similar results. Bacopa monnieri is fat soluble and should be taken with meals. When taken on an empty stomach it may cause GI problems and not be absorbed properly.
St Johns Wort
St Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a flowering plant which is supplemented primarily for its antidepressive effects. Currently, it is relatively under-studied, though it has sufficient research to back up its antidepressant claims.
St Johns Wort has strong evidence that it’s quite effecting alleviating depression , and possess anxiolytic qualities as well .
St Johns Wort seems to be a serotonin reuptake inhibitor . It also appears to be dopamingeric; a single dose increased extraceullar dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex by 165% and 140% relative to control values . This same study also noted mildly elevated levels of serotonin in the same region of the brain .
While not much else is known about the drug, it has shown a great deal of promise for alleviating depression, and may be a viable alternative to prescription drugs.
St Johns Wort can interact with many medications, especially other SSRIs. I strongly recommend that anyone considering taking it should consult physician beforehand.
Side effects are typically mild, but sensitivity to light (photosensitisation) is the most significant, and caution should be used when in high UV areas .
Dosages are typically around 300mg up to three times daily. St Johns Wort does not need to be taken with meals.
Kava is an herb from the Pacific Islands that can reduce anxiety, elevate mood, promote sleep. In native countries, it is traditionally used in social situations, serving a similar role to alcohol.
Kava is a strong anxiolytic; it is comparable to benzodiazepines at reducing anxiety . It also has antidepressive effects , reduces stress , and improves sleep . Additionally, kava is able to enhance cognition , increase cheerfulness , and confer neuroprotection .
Kava has a few different mechanisms, the first of which is robustly enhancing GABAA signaling , which explains its strong anxiolytic properties. It also raises levels extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens by 120-150% for eight hours after dosing .
There has been some concern over potential toxicity and side effects that come with heavy, chronic kava use. However, these claims have largely been dismissed, and there is overall a low risk factor when it is used moderately .
Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded kava is at an “acceptably low level of health risk”. They did determine that chronic high doses can cause skin rashes, loss of appetite, and GI problems, but these effects cease upon cessation .
Overall, kava is a safer alternative to alcohol, and may be used for similarly social purposes. It is overall a very effective way of reducing anxiety and seems to be a pro-social drug. However, chronic heavy usage of Kava does appear harmful, so it is best to use it sparingly and at moderate doses.
When supplementing, it is advised to use the WS1490 extract in doses of 100mg up to three times daily are recommended for its primary benefits. Kava does not need to be taken with meals, though anecdtotally some people claim it is stronger with a fat source such as milk or peanut butter.
Where to Purchase Nootropics
All the nootropics mentioned in this post and more can be purchased at Nootropics Depot.
I recommend Nootropics Depot because they have been around for a long time and have maintained a solid reputation. They have excellent quality control metrics: they do in-house testing as well as independent 3rd-party testing, and they have certificates of analysis available for all of their products.
Video in which I summarize the contents of this post.