Looking after your mental wellbeing is more important than ever, with people actively looking for ways to keep themselves focused and engaged throughout the day. Whilst there are a lot of recommended mindful exercises and guides out there designed to help improve and stimulate your mental performance – did you know nutrition can be just as impactful for your mind? Keep reading as our health and body care advisor, Lucy Browne, talks us through the benefits of adaptogens and nootropics, the differences between both and how, we too, can begin to improve our mental performance by incorporating a variation of natural supplements into our everyday diet.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics or “brain boosters”, are natural substances that enhance cognitive performance and work to improve mental function by boosting our memory, creativity, motivation and attention.
How do Nootropics Work?
Nootropics boost blood circulation and work to oxygenate the brain. Nootropics reduce inflammation in the brain. Nootropics protect the brain from toxins. Nootropics stimulate the release of neurotransmitters.
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers released by neutrons, more commonly known as brain cells. These cells use neurotransmitters to communicate with one another and with the addition of nootropic supplements, and these supplements stimulate the release of different neurotransmitters throughout the body. Each with its own set of benefits, the neurotransmitters we’re discussing throughout this article are; acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA and serotonin.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are ancient plants and herbs that each have the unique ability to enhance human resilience to stress. Adaptogens help us “adapt” to numerous environmental stressors that challenge our internal balance. Different to nootropics in the sense that adaptogens actions are non-specific, adaptogens benefits are widespread throughout the body, instead of focussing on a particular concern.
How do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens control our bodies natural response to stress (HPA-axis) by regulating the release of cortisol. Adaptogens enhance three distinct body systems: the nervous, immune and endocrine system.
What is the HPA-axis (Stress Response)?
The HPA-axis controls how humans respond to physical and psychological stress. The HPA-axis signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which is our primary stress hormone. Whilst doing so, adaptogens work to support the adrenal glands by improving their response and resilience to stress.
What is the Difference Between Nootropics and Adaptogens?
The terms adaptogen and nootropics are both used interchangeably. This is because some plants and herbs can act as both an adaptogen and a nootropic and as such, their benefits may crossover. However, the primary aim of nootropics and adaptogens is different and distinct. Nootropics work to enhance brain health and cognitive performance, whereas adaptogens focus on reducing both mental and physical stress.
Top 10 Nootropics and Adaptogens:
Ashwagandha is also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry adaptogen. Ashwagandha is an ancient root belonging to the nightshade family. It has a rich history of use in Ayurveda (Traditional Indian Medicine), dating back to ~6000 years.
Benefits of Ashwagandha:
• Ashwagandha regulates cortisol levels to relieve stress and anxiety.
• Ashwagandha supports our sleep-wake cycle, to maintain a satisfying sleep at night all whilst providing us with steady energy levels throughout the day.
• Ashwagandha is a potent antioxidant and has natural anti-inflammatory properties.
The astragalus adaptogen is from the pea family, and is part of the third-largest plant family to exist. Native to China, Mongolia and North Korea, Astragalus is also known as Huang Qi, which translates to ‘yellow leader’. This adaptogen has a long standing medicinal history in Asian cultures, dating back to around 2000 years.
Benefits of Astragalus:
• Astragalus possesses anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties.
• Astragalus is rich in antioxidant minerals such as zinc and selenium. Providing longevity and a number of anti-ageing benefits.
• Astragalus is key for kidney health.
Choline was first discovered in 1862, when scientists found that the lecithin from bile, once heated, was able to produce this new nootropic chemical. Three years later, ‘choline’ was also found in the brain, in the form of acetylcholine, which acts as the chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system (helping us rest and digest).
Benefits of Choline:
• A deficiency in choline is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, choline plays a vital role in boosting memory and learning.
4) Ginkgo Biloba
The Ginkgo tree, also known as the “living fossil”. Is the oldest living tree in the world and the last surviving species of its kind. Existing for more than 270 million years, the Gingko tree has been around since the time of dinosaurs. Ginkgo holds an ancient history of medicinal and spiritual importance. Especially in Traditional Chinese medicine, as the extracted seeds and leaves from this particular tree are a powerful nootropic.
Benefits of Ginkgo:
• Ginkgo boosts blood circulation and thus, oxygenates the brain. This enhances our overall cognitive performance, especially with regards to memory.
• Ginkgo has been shown to increase dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Mitigating anxiety and low mood.
6) Lion’s Mane
Lion’s Mane is also known as “The Mountain Priest Mushroom”. It grows on hardwood trees in forests across North America, Europe and Asia. Lion’s Mane has been used for centuries as a medicinal mushroom in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Throughout history, Buddhist monks have utilised this nootropic’s cognitive benefits to help enhance brain power and focus during meditation.
Benefits of Lion’s Mane:
• Lion’s Mane boosts cognitive performance, specifically learning and memory.
• Lion’s Mane increases NGF (nerve growth factor), essential for maintaining healthy brain cells. • Lion’s Mane possesses powerful immune-modulating properties. It also acts as a potent antimicrobial agent and antioxidant.
L-theanine is a type of non-dietary amino acid. Belonging to neither essential nor non-essential dietary amino acids. The L-theanine nootropic was first discovered in 1949 in green tea. It’s popularity as a nutritional supplement has since grown exponentially due to its natural detox properties.
Benefits of L-theanine:
• L-theanine increases GABA, which helps to reduce stress and anxiety and is also known to support sleep.
• L-theanine increases dopamine and alpha-brain waves. Leading to relaxation with improved attention.
• L-theanine increases glutathione levels (our master antioxidant) and thus, supports liver and detox.
Reishi, commonly known as “The Mushroom of Immortality”, grows on the base of deciduous trees in tropical areas of Asia. It grows in a range of colours, with the red reishi being the most potent and researched form. The Reishi adaptogen has held value in Traditional Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years and works to modulate the immune system, as well as providing potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Benefits of Reishi:
• Reishi is the master mushroom at modulating the immune system. It is also the most effective as an antiviral agent.
• Reishi is a potent antioxidant and thus, anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing. • Reishi has also been shown to mitigate anxiety, low mood and aids sleeping.
Rhodiola Rosea is also known as “Golden Root”. This flowering plant is native to the arctic regions of Europe and Asia. The medicinal use of Rhodiola dates back to the 17th century. The Vikings are said to have ingested the powerful Rhodiola adaptogen to enhance their strength and increase stamina.
Benefits of Rhodiola:
• Rhodiola significantly reduces fatigue associated with stress and anxiety.
• Rhodiola increases serotonin and thus, is associated with improved mood.
Schisandra berry is also known as “The Five Flavoured Fruit”. This is because it possesses the five flavours and elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Sour (wood), bitter (fire), sweet (Earth), salty (water), and pungent (metal).
Benefits of Schisandra:
• Schisandra is a powerful antioxidant that protects our cells against inflammation.
• Schisandra optimises liver function and detox pathways.
• Schisandra supports the adrenal glands and protects us against anxiety and stress.