What most people don’t realize is that cognitive enhancement supplements have been around for a long time. In fact, they’ve been around for a very long time, most notably playing an important role in ancient Indian and Chinese medicine as many as 5,000 years ago. And one of the most common of all “smart drugs,” caffeine, dates back nearly as far although it wasn’t commonly consumed in coffee until after the middle ages.
Here’s a look at some of the ways our ancestors sharpened their mental faculties and processes through the use of natural supplements.
No one is quite sure when the practice of Ayurvedic medicine began in India; various sources place its origins at between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. However, it is still widely practiced today in India and Southeast Asia, either on its own or in conjunction with Western medicine.
Ayurveda is a natural, holistic medical system. It focuses on the body’s constitution, the interconnection of the mind, body and universe, and concepts known as life forces (the doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha) similar to the Greek humors (phlegm, blood, black and yellow bile). All must be in harmony for a person to be healthy. To complement this whole body approach, practitioners often prescribe a individualized combination of exercise, diet, massage, body cleansing, lifestyle changes – and compounds made from herbs, minerals, metals and “secret,” proprietary ingredients. This facet of Ayurvedic medicine is where we’ll begin our examination of “ancient nootropics.”
The texts upon which Ayurveda is based discuss three aspects of mental performance: memory (smriti), learning and understanding (dhi) and retention (dhriti). They preach balanced nutrition and natural, whole foods as a key to maintain mental health – and by doing so, increase brain power. The texts also refer in depth to medhya, a particular group of herbs which nourish the brain and are beneficial for the mind.
One of the most-commonly used supplements throughout the history of Ayurveda has been bacopa monnieri (brahmi), an herb native to India. It has been included in patients’ treatments during that entire time as a nerve tonic and to enhance cognition (as well as to treat asthma, epilepsy and a number of other ailments). Written documentation on the use of bacopa monnieri goes back more than 1500 years, as a number of important religious texts cite its usefulness in lessening mental problems and increasing intellect. Some claim that ancient Indian scholars took bacopa monnieri to help them memorize long pieces of sacred scripture and hymns. Studies are currently ongoing to determine exactly how this herb works, but scientists believe it may very well protect the nervous system and improve brain function and memory as the bacosides contained in bacopa prevent the breakdown of nerves in the hippocampus.
A number of other herbs thought to benefit the brain factor prominently in traditional Ayurvedic treatments. One is winter cherry (ashwagandha), which practitioners have always believed can promote cognitive development and intelligence, while preventing neuroses and insomnia. Today, researchers believe the herb may indeed affect dopamine receptors in the forebrain and are studying it further. Another that has been used for centuries is aloeweed (shankhapushpi), said to improve an individual’s ability to solve problems while improving memory. Indian pennywort (gotu kola) is another herb that has been used extensively by Ayurvedic practitioners to help patients improve their memory as well as their longevity.
Ayurvedic medicine also relies on natural antioxidant supplements as an important way to prevent an excess of free radicals in the body, which are linked to brain deterioration and aging. (Of course, practitioners weren’t familiar with these exact concepts in India thousands of years ago, but they nevertheless prescribed natural antioxidants for enhanced brain function in addition to better overall health.) Chief among them are the Indian gooseberry (amalaki), now known to be one of the world’s most potent sources of vitamin C, ginkgo biloba (which will be discussed in much more detail later in this article) and turmeric (haldi), which not only was used for its believed ability to preserve brain function but also contains the strong antioxidants curcuminoids and curcumin. There are many others, including Indian valerian (tagara) and holy basil (tulsi). Bacopa Monnieri has also been found to have significant antioxidation properties in addition to its apparent ability to improve memory.
Few things are as confusing to Westerners as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which has been practiced for at least 3,000 years in a form close to its current-day practice, with evidence of rudimentary Chinese medicine dating back to at least the 11th century BC. In very general terms, it combines acupuncture, massage, diet, exercise and herbal treatments in order to maintain the harmony of the body’s vital energy (chi), which travels through meridians connected to the organs. The concepts of yin and yang and “five phases” are also integral to TCM, with different parts of the body designated as either yin or yang, and as one of the five phases. All must be in proper balance, and the various methods of treatment serve to do that; disease is seen as a sign that there’s an imbalance in the interaction between yin and yang or the five phases. The complete set of theories is actually a lot more complicated than that – for example, diseases are believed to have different patterns in different patients, so one patient with the flu might receive a completely different treatment than another patient with the exact same symptoms. As we said, it’s difficult for Western minds to make much sense of TCM.
What’s most important for this discussion, though, is that herbal treatments have been an integral part of TCM treatments since the beginning (although those treatments may also include animal parts or products including buffalo horns and bear bile). Many of those herbs have always been believed to be cognitive enhancers in traditional Chinese medicine.
Perhaps the best known of this group is ginkgo biloba (which has numerous studies indicating its efficacy in cognitive enhancement). It comes from the Chinese maidenhair, which is native to that country and the only tree in its family still in existence. The Ginkgo tree itself is seen as a manifestation of yin and yang as well as a symbol of vitality and longevity, so it’s not surprising that its by-products became so important in TCM. Its primary usefulness, according to the theories followed for millennia, was for treating ailments such as coughing and asthma. However, among its many other benefits (according to those theories) were improvement in the flow of chi through the meridians leading to the brain, leading to cognitive and memory improvement. (Some of the additional benefits included bladder and sexual health, and the treatment of worms and gonorrhea.) While it can’t be known how the ancient Chinese practitioners originally connected ginkgo with brain function, they weren’t wrong. Today, ginkgo biloba is widely used to treat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive impairment and memory problems as well as other issues related to low blood flow in the brain. It’s also one of the best-selling supplements in the history of the Western world.
There are many more “brain boosters” which have been used for centuries or millennia in traditional Chinese medicine. One of the most interesting is danggui-shaoyao-san (known as DSS or DGSYS), which is an exotic concoction of six different herbs including Chinese angelica (danggui), Chinese herbaceous peony (shaoyao) and hoelen (fulin). It was primarily used to treat female disorders and anemia, but was also known to have beneficial effects on cognition. As it turns out, DSS has been shown to be an amazing superoxidant, and is being investigated as an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Just a few more samples of how herbs traditionally used by in Chinese medicine have been some of the world’s longest-used brain boosters:
- Ginseng root is the best-selling TCM herb in the world. Throughout history, Chinese practitioners have used it to improve brain function and restore memory in patients, and also to boost the body’s immune system. Today we know that it indeed does that, and is commonly used to help stroke victims recover their memory.
- Goji berries are, as you probably know, also extremely popular today. They’ve always been used in traditional Chinese medicine to nourish yin (and the brain is considered yin), and modern studies have shown that they’re a strong antioxidant effective in protecting the brain.
- Reishi mushrooms have long been used in TCM as a body elixir, and they’re now considered effective in regulating brain waves.
The list goes on and on (as you’d expect, since there are more than 10,000 types of medicinal treatments, and more than 100,000 different recipes, in the traditional Chinese medicine literature). But there’s no question that China has contributed an enormous number of cognitive enhancers which are still used effectively today.
There is a large group of cognitive enhancement supplements derived from traditional medicine in other nations. A sampling:
- Maca Root (Peruvian Miracle Root) – this plant was used even before the Incan period in Peru, and was believed to have a wide range of therapeutic uses. Today it’s best known as a purported sexual enhancement treatment and energy booster, and is also believed to be effective against chronic fatigue syndrome. However, one of its main uses in Peruvian culture has been for its cognitive enhancement ability; Maca is said to improve memory and increase mental clarity.
- Yerba Mate (Terere) – This is the main ingredient in the tea known as mate in many South American countries, particularly Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. It’s a common drink there today, but it was first used in the Tupi and Guarani cultures many centuries ago. In addition to being the centerpiece of many social gatherings, mate was often used as an appetite suppressant, to help the immune system, and to improve focus and mental energy. It’s sold as a natural nootropic all over the world today.
- Green Tea (camillia sinensis) – While the Chinese are widely credited with first brewing and using green tea, it can also be traced to Japan, Ceylon and many other cultures. It has been believed since the earliest days to be a powerful health enhancer, and has remained an integral component of medical practice throughout Asia since then. A major benefit of green tea has always been believed to be cognitive development and memory improvement. Green tea has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity around the world in the last several decades, with green tea extract one of the biggest-selling items in the natural health arena. And while many Western practitioners have downplayed the efficacy of green tea, a 2014 study at the University of Basel has found that green tea extract does indeed improve memory.
The first reported use of caffeine as a “natural restorative” was about 5,000 years ago, by the Chinese emperor Shennong; as mentioned earlier in this article, green tea later became an essential element of Chinese medicine. However, it wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that coffee became a common beverage in the middle east and then Europe, and the scientific understanding of caffeine and its psychoactive properties wasn’t reached until the 1800s. Its inclusion in many soft drinks made the drug even more universal.
Even so, it was clear to almost everyone who consumed tea or coffee (or cola) that their mental focus was sharpened after drinking it, and these drinks became the first universal nootropic beverages. Caffeine in some form is consumed daily by nearly 90% of adults in North America and in similar numbers around the world. For many it may be just an enjoyable habit, but there’s no question caffeine has a positive effect on mental function. It’s a stimulant which works directly on the brain, and it also blocks reception of the chemical known as adenosine which normally prevents the brain from performing at full capacity.
Recent studies have shown that caffeine not only provides a temporary boost in cognitive performance, but may also provide a permanent improvement in memory and thinking skills. In other words, you may already be taking a traditional, natural brain enhancing supplement several times a day without even knowing it. For a modern day focus supplement based on caffeine, we recommend our 1-2-Go product which contains the perfect ratio of caffeine and l-theanine to give cognitive enhancement benefits of caffeine without any of the negative side effects.
More recently (beginning as early as the 1960s), people began studying various compounds for their ability to improve cognitive function and performance. More well known synthetic nootropics include the racetam family (piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, coluracetam) and more current synthetic nootropics like modafinil, and noopept. For synthetic cognitive enhancers, most people like to start with the well researched piracetam along with the combination of a choline supplement (like our optimal choline complex).
Given the multitude of options there is no correct place to start. Many people like piracetam + choline because of the lack of side effects, the same is true of the caffeine + l-theanine combination. Ultimately, each individual reacts differently to particular compounds so what right for me, or your friend, or family member may not necessarily be what is right for you. The one thing we do recommend is tracking your cognitive improvement and testing each nootropic substance individually to determine the efficacy of each supplement and how it affects you.