In today’s highly competitive world, popping a pill for extra brain power can be a tempting solution for those needing a quick boost in productivity, or hoping to get the creative juices flowing.
Recent years have seen an enormous spike in demand for neuroenhancers known as nootropics or “smart drugs,” especially among university students during exam time, but also among working professionals with looming deadlines and older folks worried about cognitive decline in advanced age.
In response to this demand, a whole black-market industry has sprung up around prescription medications such as Adderall, Ritalin, and modafinil — powerful, mind-altering drugs intended to treat psychiatric and neurological conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, but which are also widely believed — rightly or wrongly — to stimulate the brain and improve mental performance in healthy individuals.
If you’re considering taking nootropics, it’s important to know that synthetic psychostimulants are very often controlled substances, which means possessing them without a prescription can land you in jail. Worse than that, abusing these medications can also put you in the hospital, in rehab — or even in the morgue.
Fortunately, not all nootropics are prescription-only pharmaceutical products with frightening safety profiles. Many can be found growing all around us, or on the shelves of your local health food store — although you should still consult your doctor before using them. Here are some of the best: Bacopa Monnieri
Bacopa monnieri , also known as waterhyssop or brahmi, is a perennial herb native to the wetlands of India and Australia. Used in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) for centuries, Bacopa contains a number of chemical compounds, known collectively as bacosides, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and provide significant neuroprotective and neuroenhancement benefits. 
A 2013 neuropharmacological review of Bacopa monnieri at the Pitzer (Claremont) College Department of Neuroscience found that “unlike the potentially addictive and forceful action of widely used psychostimulants,” such as modafinil, long-term moderate use of Bacopa “appears to nourish rather than deplete neurons.”  Despite the herb’s slower, gentler influence on the brain than pharmaceutical nootropics, a 2013 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology has shown chronic Bacopa administration to have an overall greater positive impact on cognitive processes than modafinil, especially in the domain of memory. 
“Bacopa could potentially be clinically prescribed as a memory enhancer,” according to a 2012 systematic review carried out at the Swinburne University of Technology’s Center for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia, which analyzed the results of six high-quality, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials.  More recently, in 2022, an article in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Pharmacology noted that, in addition to memory enhancement, “several therapeutic and laboratory researches have demonstrated the usefulness of Bacopa monnieri in improving intellect and concentration,” and that Bacopa extract “has already been shown to help cognitive performance in adolescents with ADHD.”  Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba , often simply called ginkgo, is a species of tree native to China and a staple of traditional Chinese medicine. Extracts from its leaves contain many bioactive compounds, including ginkgolides and bilobalide, which are considered to exert memory-enhancing,  neuroprotective, and neuroregenerative effects  by improving blood circulation and assisting the distribution of nutrients and oxygen to the brain. 
A systematic review of seven randomized controlled trials by an international team of scientists from India, Israel, and Poland in 2012 reported that despite only “limited evidence” for Ginkgo as a treatment for ADHD (unlike Bacopa monnieri ), the plant was nevertheless “found to provide cognitive benefits in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” and that “some executive functions, selective attention, and long-term memory were all enhanced by its extracts.” 
In patients with dementia, the standardized ginkgo extract EGb761 was shown to be more effective than placebo in a 2010 meta-analysis of nine clinical trials,  and although its alleged benefits in this area remain hotly debated, the authors of a more recent (2015) article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Pharmaceutical Health Care & Sciences concluded that “taking a 240-mg daily dose of Ginkgo biloba extract is effective and safe in the treatment of dementia”  — a conclusion further corroborated by an updated review for Frontiers in Pharmacology in 2020. 
Similarly, as a complementary therapy for ischemic stroke, Ginkgo extract has been observed to “improve neurological function” and “seems generally safe for clinical application,” according to a 2020 systematic review of 15 randomized clinical trials involving more than 1,800 participants. 
In early 2022, a comprehensive survey of plant-derived nootropics by a group of Spanish scientists, who analyzed the findings from over 250 research papers published between 2000 and 2021, summarized that “ Ginkgo biloba was the most relevant nootropic regarding perceptual and motor functions” — the neurocognitive domain responsible for receiving, interpreting, and using sensory information.  Perceptual motor skills include hand-eye coordination, body-eye coordination, auditory language skills, and visual-auditory skills. Withania Somnifera
Variously known as ashwagandha and winter cherry, Withania somnifera — another Ayurvedic herb — is an evergreen shrub mainly cultivated in the dry regions of India. Since this adaptogenic herb is already fairly well established as a folk remedy for stress, depression, and anxiety, it is perhaps unsurprising that the same study that assessed Ginkgo biloba to be the best plant-derived nootropic (PDN) for perceptual-motor function-enhancement also evaluated Withania as the most effective PDN for improving social cognition — the ability to process, remember, and use information in social situations.  The active phytochemicals in Withania, and the role they play in the herb’s medicinal applications, are not yet clearly understood,  but their effects on the brain are well documented.
In 2021, eight scientists from four top U.S. universities noted in a review of 21 nutrients’ effects on cognitive function that Withania has “demonstrated promising results as a safe and effective treatment for improving immediate and general memory, executive function, attention, and information-processing speed” in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).  This review — which summarized the findings of nearly 100 research papers from the […]