Ginseng (and caffeine) are among the most popular of current natural nootropics
Our current society has become more fast-paced, and is not looking to slow down anytime soon.
Between lightning-fast internet and telecommunications connectivity, 24-hour news cycles, and jobs that require working on weekends and holidays, it can seem as though our brains just can’t keep up with all that is expected of us. Therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised if some of your patients, particularly older ones, are interested in nutritional supplements to help them boost their brainpower and memory.
Such supplements are known as nootropics. How do they work, and what is the research to support their benefits? Read further to find out more about which natural nootropic supplements to recommend to your patients.
Natural nootropics ‘smart drugs’?
Nootropics, sometimes known as smart drugs, are synthetic or natural compounds that improve cognitive function, creativity, memory, motivation, and attention.1 They are believed to work along the dopaminergic pathway, which may also play a role in other memory or attention disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Two significant examples of synthetic nootropic compounds, Adderall and Ritalin, are both prescription drugs used to treat ADHD.2 Two examples of natural nootropic compounds that are not supplements are caffeine and nicotine, which can explain why both can make you feel more alert.3 However, these types of synthetic nootropics have undesirable qualities. Both Ritalin and Adderall are related to methamphetamines, so there is a potential risk for addiction, particularly among young adults.2 As a result, they are both controlled substances and their distribution is tightly regulated.
Excessive amounts of caffeine (particularly combined with sugar, as found in many energy drinks) may increase anxiety and jitteriness, while the link between nicotine and lung cancer is well-documented. Fortunately, there has been a body of solid research into nutritional supplements that have nootropic properties, as shown below.
Korean ginseng root (Panax ginseng) is probably one of the best known nootropic supplements. It has been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to improve brain function and mental processing.
A 2010 study published in Human Psychopharmacology examined the effects of Korean ginseng for a group of healthy volunteers.4 All study subjects alternately received 200- and 400-mg doses of Korean ginseng, and a placebo over the course of eight weeks. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that a 200-mg dose of Korean ginseng slowed a depression cycle, while a 400-mg dose also increased calmness and improved mental abilities on math skills.4
Ginkgo biloba is probably the other best-known nootropic supplement. It comes from the tree of the same name, which has been found in China dating more than 25 million years. Like ginseng root, ginkgo biloba has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve cognition and memory.
A 2011 article in the journal Phytomedicine studied the effect of ginkgo biloba on memory in a group of healthy, middle-aged subjects (45-56 years of age).5 Study subjects received either 240 mg of a ginkgo biloba supplement or a placebo, once daily for six weeks. The study outcomes were measured using performance on a memory recall test, which was administered both at baseline and then at the end of the six-week study period.5
At the end of the study, those subjects who took the ginkgo biloba supplement showed significant improvement in terms of quantity of recalled items, both immediately and after a delay. The researchers noted that this type of memory cognition places a high demand on the ability to self-initiate retrieval of learned material, which is a complex task. They further noted that their findings match previous studies showing that ginkgo biloba works to improve specific types of cognitive and memory function.5
Addressing age-related disorders
The combination of an increasingly faster-paced society that is driven by high-tech advances and the aging baby boomer population leads to more older people seeking ways to improve their memory and delay loss of cognitive function. Nootropic supplements, such as ginseng and ginkgo biloba, may help them do just that.
- Suliman NA, Mat Taib CN, Mohd Moklas MA, et al. Establishing natural nootropics: Recent molecular enhancement influenced by natural nootropic. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016;2016:4391375.
- Smith ME, Farah MJ. Are prescription stimulants “smart pills”? The epidemiology and cognitive neuroscience of prescription stimulant use by normal healthy individuals. Psychological Bulletin. 2011;137(5):717-741.
- Poltavski DV, Petros T. Effects of transdermal nicotine on attention in adult non-smokers with and without attentional deficits. Physiology & Behavior. 2006 Mar 30;87(3):614-624.
- Reay JL, Scholey AB, Kennedy DO. Panax ginseng (G115) improves aspects of working memory performance and subjective ratings of calmness in healthy young adults. Human Psychopharmacology. 2010 Aug;25(6):462-471.
- Kaschel R. Specific memory effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 in middle-aged healthy volunteers. Phytomedicine. 2011 Nov 15;18(14):1202-1207.