The jarring side effect profile of conventional anti-anxiety drugs like alprazolam and chlordiazepoxide have caused a rise in public interest around natural nootropics. However, it’s worth exploring the veracity of common claims around the marketing of these so-called “cognitive enhancers;” most notably that they enhance creativity and focus.
Another questionable claim around the use of nootropics is that they can help relieve anxiety, though there is some evidence for this. A double-blind, placebo-controlled efficacy study out of Andhra Pradesh found that ashwagandha, a natural nootropic, was effective in reducing stress and anxiety. Similar anxiolytic effects have been associated with l-theanine, an amino acid naturally found in green tea.
How do they work?
Natural nootropics work by increasing levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays an important role in modulating nerve activity and response to hormones and signalling molecules like cortisol and dopamine.
Low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety and depression, while higher levels have been associated with feelings of calm and relaxation. A growing body of scientific literature suggests that nootropics can reduce anxiety by managing GABA levels in both animal and human trials, but more research is needed to confirm these results definitively.
While it’s still unclear whether nootropics can reduce anxiety and stress, there is significant evidence establishing the viability of both conventional and natural nootropics for other use cases — such as their neuroprotective, antioxidant and stimulatory properties.
Examples of Over-The-Counter Nootropics
The most common nootropics currently circulating the market are a category of drugs known as racetams; so called because they share a common chemical structure. They are marketed as having the ability to improve memory and cognitive function, with some research suggesting they can be helpful to individuals suffering from conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline.
There are a variety of different racetams available on the market, each with unique potential benefits. The most popular racetams sold over the counter include:
- Piracetam has been studied for its potential in improving cognitive function and memory in both healthy individuals and those with neurological conditions. Its exact mechanisms of action are not fully understood as of this writing, but current research suggests that it works by modulating the activity of GABA and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
- Oxiracetam is marketed as a “smart drug” used to improve cognitive function and task flexibility. Additionally, oxiracetam may help protect the brain from age-related damage and improve communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
- Phenylpiracetam is a central nervous system stimulant first synthesised in 1983 in Russia, where it is prescribed as a form of medication for the treatment of a number of neurological disorders to this day. Phenylpiracetam has been explored as a potential treatment for ADHD, epilepsy and cerebral ischemia.
Examples of Natural Nootropics
While synthetic nootropics like racetams are marketed much more ubiquitously than their organic counterparts, natural nootropics (e.g. caffeine) are far more widely consumed by everyday people. Some examples of notable natural and herbal nootropics include:
- Ginkgo biloba is native to China, but can also be found in other parts of Asia and North America. Ginkgo biloba seeds and leaves have been used medicinally for centuries to create a range of medicinal and therapeutic preparations.
There is some evidence that ginkgo biloba may be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other cognitive disorders. It’s even used by some people to help with sexual dysfunction and other health conditions.
- Panax Quinquefolius (American Ginseng) is a herbaceous perennial plant in the ivy family. It’s native to eastern North America, from southern Canada to the northern parts of Georgia and Alabama.
American ginseng is a popular herbal remedy, and is used by many as a dietary supplement for reducing stress, boosting energy levels, and enhancing cognitive function. Some research suggests that American ginseng may help to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes, but more studies are needed to confirm this.
- Bacopa Monnieri (Water Hyssop) is a herb that’s long been used in Ayurvedic medicine for its cognitive-enhancing properties. The herb is traditionally prescribed for children and the elderly to help improve memory and mental clarity.
The active compounds in bacopa monnieri, called bacosides, are believed to enhance neurotransmitter activity and increase brain cell membrane fluidity. This may help improve memory and learning, as well as other cognitive functions. Bacopa monnieri is also known as a powerful antioxidant and has been shown to protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals.