Adaptogens and Nootropics: Wellness Game-Changers?

Navigating the balance between stimulating cognitive power and calming the nervous system often leads to reliance on stimulants and medications. However, they aren’t the only option. Eastern societies have taken advantage of adaptogens and nootropics for hundreds of years, and now our Western culture is starting to catch up. Rooted in Ayurvedic traditions, these natural substances, considered to have fewer and milder side effects than pharmaceuticals, offer a route to increase stress resilience and enhance mental clarity, creativity, motivation, and memory.

What are adaptogens?

As their name suggests, adaptogens help the body adapt to stressors. In other words, they may help improve the body's stress response and promote resistance to stress. Research has shown that adaptogens primarily impact the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a principal player in the stress response, as well as the ​​regulation of key stress mediators, including cortisol receptors and heat-shock proteins.

While the term was first coined in the 1940s, adaptogens are now witnessing a surge in popularity, evident from a staggering increase in available information and global food and beverage product launches. According to an Adaptogens Global Market Report, the adaptogens market size is expected to grow to $17.11 billion by 2028. This demand underlines a shift toward wellness, balance, and health solutions that not only address stress resistance but also bolster cognitive function through natural means.

Benefits of adaptogens

Several studies have been published investigating the impact and benefits of adaptogens, with some findings revealing an overarching positive effect. One of the mechanisms for the benefits of adaptogens is their balancing impact on the HPA axis, supporting the body's natural ability to achieve homeostasis in the face of stress without causing harm.

  • May help reduce stress. At the core of their function, adaptogens may fine-tune the body's hormonal response to stress by modulating cortisol levels.
  • May decrease fatigue and increase neuroprotection. Research involving animal studies and tests on nerve cells shows that adaptogens have several beneficial effects on the brain and body. It has been suggested that they have neuroprotective properties, may help reduce feelings of tiredness, fight depression and anxiety, and improve cognitive function.
  • May increase attention. Human studies have found that adaptogens stimulate the central nervous system and may help people feel less tired, enabling them to do more mental work even when stressed or fatigued. They may be effective at improving our ability to handle mental exhaustion and boosting our attention span.

Examples of adaptogens

Many plants and mushrooms have adaptogenic properties, but two adaptogenic herbs commonly seen together are ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea. Researchers have studied their impact over the past several decades, and their findings are promising.

  • Ashwagandha may help relieve stress due to the herb’s potential ability to impact the HPA axis. Ashwagandha has also been found to improve sexual health and mood, sleep quality, relaxation, and muscle recovery after exercise. When buying ashwagandha supplements look for a clean ingredient list and mind the dosage.
  • Rhodiola rosea is commonly used for its potential ability to stimulate the nervous system, reduce anxiety, improve memory and cognitive performance, fight fatigue, and protect against high-altitude sickness. It’s also been found to positively impact mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, though more research is needed to ascertain the proposed benefits.

What are nootropics?

On the cognitive front, nootropics, often referred to as smart drugs, range from natural compounds found in nature, including vitamins, minerals, mushrooms, herbs, and botanical extracts to synthetic compounds and prescription drugs, each offering distinct benefits to brain health and performance. These benefits include improving memory, focus, and energy levels.

The distinction between natural and synthetic nootropics is significant, as synthetic nootropics can be designed with enhanced potency that allows for a more targeted action. However, they have a greater risk of overdose. Natural compounds, on the other hand, may have a broader range of actions and need higher dosages to achieve a desired result but have none or very mild reported side effects.

Benefits of nootropics

Nootropics are suggested to operate through various pathways, including influencing neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and glutamate, enhancing neuroplasticity, improving cellular energy metabolism, and protecting neurons from damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation, targeting multiple aspects of cognitive enhancement.

Nootropics have the potential to:

  • Improve cognitive power and focus
  • Improve learning and attention
  • Improve memory retention and recall
  • Enhance creativity
  • Protect brain cells from oxidative stress

However, the effectiveness and safety of nootropic supplements are topics of ongoing research, with health experts advising caution and recommending consultation with a healthcare provider before starting any nootropic regimen. A systematic review of 21 studies found that both high school and college students, with and without ADHD, misuse stimulant medications and synthetic nootropics.

Examples of nootropics

There are many types of nootropics. Although most nootropics have been studied individually, some have been found to have a synergistic effect when combined with other ones.

  • L-theanine is an amino acid in green tea and has been gaining attention for its neuroprotective properties. Research studies have shown that L-theanine may help safeguard against cognitive impairment and the death of nerve cells caused by β-amyloid plaques that are linked to Alzheimer's disease. It may also protect against brain damage triggered by environmental toxins associated with Parkinson’s disease. In combination with caffeine, L-theanine may help enhance alertness, attention, mood, and cognition, while reducing the jitteriness that caffeine can sometimes induce.
  • Bacopa monnieri may help improve cognitive performance. Studies have reported improved learning ability by enhancing cognitive function and memory retention. Plus, it also has adaptogenic properties by helping to support brain function under stress. Additionally, animal studies found it to have potential cognitive enhancing and neuroprotective properties against Alzheimer's disease.

Adaptogens and nootropics: what’s the difference?

While both adaptogens and nootropics have steady scientific groundwork established, one of the primary differences is how they impact the nervous system.

While adaptogens may help the body adapt and re-balance stress, nootropics are more directly aimed at enhancing cognitive functions and can act as stimulants. Think of it as adaptogens helping your body step on the brake to calm down and manage stress, whereas nootropics press on the gas to boost mental alertness, focus, and overall brain performance.

However, each individual may have a different reaction. Much like with diet and exercise, there’s no one-size-fits-all stack. It’s worth experimenting with how your body reacts to these substances. Some act faster — think caffeine — and some act slower. Research has shown that most nootropics don’t have an immediate effect after a single dose. Hence, long-term use is necessary to achieve the desired results.

The way one person may experience them and how quickly can vary a lot, depending on what is being taken. Therefore, it is best to consult with a healthcare provider to find the best protocol for you.

Can you take both adaptogens and nootropics?

Adaptogens and nootropics may have a complementary effect, so taking them both may offer a holistic approach to your well-being. While nootropics may enhance cognitive activity, adaptogens may help keep the body in a balanced state and offset any additional stressors.

These two types of substances may complement each other by targeting both mental and physical aspects of well-being. Adaptogens may boost the body's resilience to stress, helping to maintain balance and reduce the negative impact of stressors. On the other hand, nootropics may enhance mental functions such as clarity, focus, and memory, contributing to improved cognitive efficiency. However, it is important to note that while adaptogens and nootropics have mostly been studied individually, their combined effects and safety remain the subject of future research.

Should you take adaptogens and nootropics?

There are hundreds of human studies on nootropics and adaptogens showing promising results, yet the question remains how an individual may incorporate them into their life to gain the most benefits.

Dosage and frequency of consumption may vary from person to person, so applying an individual approach is key. Whether you’re looking to increase your mental acuity, cognitive performance, and attention or want to help your body adapt to stress and achieve and maintain balance effectively, natural adaptogens and nootropics may be powerful tools to add to your nutrition plan. However, with the increased potency of synthetic nootropics, be sure to consult with a health professional before taking them.

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