Thousands of years ago our ancestors had similar ideas about brain enhancement as we have today. Using the plants and herbs surrounding them, civilizations on the Indian subcontinent utilized what they could to become mentally balanced, happier, and more intelligent.
These early nootropic users from what is now known as modern day India developed an entire repertoire of knowledge that helped them 5000 years ago similar to how they are effecting us now.
Despite the long history of Ayurvedic medicine, very little is outdated or unusable by modern humans. In fact, many of the herbal remedies that saved lives thousands of years ago are still being used in regions of India and other parts of the world. So popular are these remedies, the United States and western world has even integrated some of these substances into daily life.
Particularly important were the Ayurvedic herbal remedies for the brain. Because of their traditional use, research facilities have dedicated ample resources to finding out which Ayurvedic medicines actually work and which do not. More importantly, they have helped discover how you can stay safe when using Ayurvedic medicine for cognitive improvements.
Use of Ayurvedic Herbs in Modern Nootropics
When you think of modern nootropics, usually the first thing to come to mind are popular blends made accessible by large marketing budgets and questionable science. However, many of the most popular products are actually powered by Ayurvedic herbs:
Alpha Brain – One of the main ingredients is bacopa monnieri. This herb is part of traditional Ayurvedic medicine and has a long history in rural parts of India, which still continues today. Alpha Brain has been criticized for not utilizing enough bacopa monneri in a single dose, but many people claim the cognitive advantage experienced through Alpha Brain is from this Indian plant.
CILTEP – Another fan favorite, CILTEP has little research and it is primarily popular because it was built from the nootropic community and accepted by reputable names like Tim Ferriss and Dave Asprey. Either way, one of the main ingredients is again an Ayurvedic herb called “coleus forskohlii” (often referred to as forskolin).
Nootrobox (rebranded as HVMN) – Recently, a company called HVMN has pieced together a variety of different nootropic products that appeal to mainstream audiences. Their flagship product, “Rise” has 300 mg of bacopa monnieri as the main component.
Despite the popularity of these options, none of them are as useful as finding the exact Ayurvedic compound that you desire for the concentrated effect. Popular brands will mix various nootropics, a practiced called “fairy dusting” or “kitchen sinking”, which means they add everything they can to tout all of the benefits.
Common Ayurvedic Herbs
Bacopa Monnieri – Known as "Brahmi" or water hyssop in Indian culture, this is one of the most common and well-recommended nootropics. It has memory enhancing properties in the elderly, which was validated through 6 different trials. Because bacopa monnieri is so popular among Ayurvedic medicine, many modern research dollars have been spent to determine the efficacy and mechanism of action. Scientists cannot agree whether bacopa is helpful as an anti-oxidant, blood-flow activator, or brain chemical modulator.
Whatever the mechanism of action, it is largely considered "...one of the safest and most effective..." nootropics according to the scientifically-rigorous Reddit community. Still to this day, children in rural India are given ghee (a fat source) along with bacopa monnieri.
Bacopa monnieri is fat soluble, which means it requires a fat source to see adequate absorption and usage. A standard dose is 300 mg to start (12% bacopa glycosides). While bacopa does not require extended use, up to 8 weeks extends the positive effects.
Ashwagandha – Another popular Ayurvedic herb is ashwagandha (also known as Withania somnifera), which has recorded use for over 3000 years. Testing 64 subjects, then Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine recorded "...significant reduction in scores on all the stress-assessment scales.." Other studies on the stress-reducing properties of ashwagandha have found similar results.
Secondary benefits of ashwagandha include enhanced attention and concentration, but the research is less clear on these benefits. Another side effect is anti-inflammation, which may be the cause for stress-reduction as well.
Doses start at 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract with ~5% withanolides.
Holy Basil – Also referred to as "tulsi", holy basil is a mixed bag of benefits for nootropic purposes. While it is not as well-documented as ashwagandha and bacopa monnieri, holy basil can support a calm mood. Although the evidence seems clear, the effects are not as strong or profound as other herbs (like ashwagandha).
According to Examine.com "A decrease has been noted, but the studies are not overly robust..." It seems there is a positive correlation, but not strongly enough that it will change your life. Somewhat more interesting is the evidence that suggests holy basil is a strong immune-booster. In a double-blind study, holy basil helped to significantly increase levels of cells and cytokines of the immune system. Taken in large quantities it can also serve as a testosterone booster.
Coleus forskohlii – Mostly used as a fat burning supplement, coleus forskohlii has recently become a memory and concentration enhancing product. Because forskolin increases an enzyme within cells called cAMP (acronym), it is used in addition with artichoke extract in the product called "CILTEP".
Shilajit – This ingredient isn't well known, but can be a powerful nootropic if you find the right product. There is a lot of evidence to suggest it is a powerful anti-oxidant, but shilajit is a perfect example of one risk with Ayurvedic herbs.
The sale of shilajit is banned in Canada because too many of the Indian-sourced products were filled with heavy metals. There are often additives in shilajit products, such as gums and stabilizers, which make it a less healthy option as well. It is important to look for a certificate of analysis if you are planning to purchase any shilajit product.
Science & Safety
Besides shilajit, many Ayurvedic herbs sourced from the wrong place can lead to dangerous situations. It isn't always due to negligence, either. In Ayurvedic tradition there is a practice called "rasa shastra", which includes preparing herbal remedies with toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic.
While some of these elements are knowingly incorporated, many times they are not (especially in products for export to the western world). In 1990, studies found 41% of Indian Ayurvedic herbs had aresenic and 64% had lead and mercury. Since then, studies in 2004 and 2008 within the United States have found approximately 20% of the products to contain heavy metals of some sort.
Therefore, it is incredibly important that you have a high-quality and trusted vendor for your Ayurvedic products. This should include looking for either branded versions of such products or a third party certificate of analysis for generic versions which are imported, usually from China. At Pure Nootropics, we care about your safety and thus have opted to use the more expensive branded versions of extracts/ingredients in our products, and if no such version is available then we use third party testing to ensure product quality.