A Guide To Nootropics And Adaptogens

14/07/2022, Clarissa Berry, Holistic Nutritionist & Personal Trainer

‘Nootropic’ and ‘adaptogen’ are two words that are gaining notoriety in the wellness space. They both refer to supplements that can have beneficial effects on our health, physical and mental, but what do they mean exactly and which are the best ones?

Nootropics are often considered ‘smart drugs’ because they are substances that enhance the brain in some way. Different nootropics can improve memory, focus, motivation, learning, creativity, mood or even sleep, and each nootropic has its own unique set of outcomes. A nootropic is typically something you would take, not to fix a problem if you’re unwell, but to enhance your functioning or wellbeing while healthy.

The word nootropic was first used in the 1960s by a Romanian chemist, Corneliu Giurgea, and comes from the Greek words “noos” (mind) and tropein” (bend or turn). While initially the term referred to substances that improved learning ability, almost anything that enhances cognitive function in some way can now be called a nootropic. For instance, melatonin is a nootropic that acts on the brain to regulate sleep cycles, while caffeine is another nootropic that increases alertness and motivation. Nootropics can be both synthetic and natural, however synthetic nootropics come with a higher potential for negative side effects. Natural nootropics often come with additional health benefits, for example, some are also adaptogens…

Adaptogens, on the other hand, are always natural and are defined by their ability to help the body handle stress. They dont tend to stimulate or subdue you, instead they strengthen your resilience and regulate your bodys systems to promote a state of balance. They help you adapt’ to what life throws at you. In order to be classed an adaptogen, a word coined in the 1940s by the Russian pharmacologist Nicolai Lazarev, a herb or substance:

  • Must be non-specific, meaning it helps the body to defend against a wide variety of physical, chemical, and biological stressors.
  • Must support homeostasis, or equilibrium, in the human body.
  • Must not cause harm or damage normal human bodily functions.

This means that adaptogens are generally very safe to consume and usually offer a broad range of additional benefits on the body and mind. Adaptogens can support immunity, focus, mental performance, energy levels, sleep quality, digestive function, anxiety or even skin health. Many are also classed as nootropics due to their effects on brain function. Adaptogens can be an incredibly useful tool to help us navigate the highly stressful environment in which most of us live. Each adaptogen comes with a range of properties that enhance wellbeing in various, unique ways.

The best way to tell you about adaptogens and nootropics is to describe some of the top players in the field. The ven diagram of adaptogens and nootropics has a significant overlap, containing many of my favourites from both sides: it’s worth noting that adaptogens very often have nootropic properties, but nootropics more rarely have adaptogenic properties. Finding a supplement or a blend (often called a ‘stack’) that falls into both categories has the benefit of enhancing both your cognitive function and your adaptability to stress. Win win.



This is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used for millennia for its balancing properties. It is known to be helpful for stress and anxiety, with one study showing a 69% reduction in stress after 60 days’ supplementation. It can also significantly improve sleep quality. Other studies show it can help to reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, and may even enhance male fertility. You might find ashwagandha in sleepy teas or supplements designed to reduce anxiety.


Reishi is a medicinal mushroom, also called the queen of mushrooms due to its abundance of health benefits and ties to longevity. Reishi is a powerful adaptogen. It lowers cortisol levels, the stress hormone, and stimulates the release of serotonin and GABA in the brain, neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system. Studies have shown it to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and improve sleep quality. It is also highly supportive of the immune system, offers antioxidant support, helps to stabilise blood sugar, balances hormones and promotes a healthy heart.


Maca is a root vegetable from the Andes mountains. It has an amazing ability to improve the body’s hormone balance, and studies show benefits on menopausal symptoms, PMS and male fertility. It may also improve libido and enhance mood. Maca powder tastes quite sweet and malty, so it’s a great addition to your breakfast yogurt or smoothie.


Rhodiola is a root that grows in mountainous Europe and Asia. Research indicates it can stimulate dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline activity in the brain, which may improve both cognitive and physical performance, as well as fighting fatigue. Its adaptogenic properties improve resilience to stress and it has a positive effect on mood, with studies indicating that it may help to reduce symptoms of depression. Rhodiola is a popular adaptogen and nootropic due to its beneficial effects on both stress and cognitive function.


Lion's Mane

Lion’s mane is another medicinal mushroom that has been used for centuries for its cognitive-enhancing properties. Studies show that it can stimulate neurogenesis, the process of growing new brain cells, by increasing the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF is also involved in preserving existing brain cells, giving Lion’s Mane a protective effect on cognitive function as well. Beyond that, lion’s mane is full of antioxidants anti-inflammatory compounds that combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. Studies have demonstrated its benefits on cognition, mood, anxiety and depression, and it is even indicated as having potential in the treatment of dementia. As a powerful adaptogen, lion’s mane also significantly reduces stress levels and can improve sleep quality.

Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa monnieri is a nootropic herb used for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic medicine to enhance brain function. Studies have demonstrated its ability to improve memory, learning and information processing. Its beneficial effects have implicated it as a potential therapy for ADHD. Bacopa monnieri is also an adaptogen and has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, making it a useful herb to promote brain function, neurological health and overall wellness.


L-theanine is an amino acid and a popular nootropic. It is often combined with caffeine, since L-theanine is known to reduce the jitters often associated with caffeine consumption. Taken together, the two nootropics have a synergistic effect. While caffeine improves alertness and focus, L-theanine modulates the action of dopamine and serotonin, balancing mood and enhancing brain power. Green tea is a natural source of both L-theanine and caffeine..


Choline is an essential nutrient with critical roles in the brain. Citicoline, also called CDP-choline, is a natural form of choline that is present in the brain. Supplementing with citicoline has been shown to increase the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory and cognition. It also increases the availability of dopamine, which is involved in alertness, motivation and mood. Citicoline is therefore a popular, natural nootropic to improve memory, learning, alertness and motivation. Studies indicate it may also protect against age-related cognitive decline.

About The Author
Clarissa Berry is a holistic nutritionist and personal trainer with a background in research science. She believes that balance is important both as a goal and as an approach. She specialises in helping women feel strong, well and connected to themselves through conscious nutrition, playful movement and cultivated self-awareness.

Website: https://www.clarissaberryhealth.com/

Instagram: @clarissaberryhealth

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