Nootropics - What Are They?

by Sophia Richmond-Manno February 19, 2019 10 mins read


Heard of nootropics? Well they're really good for upping your brain activity and maximising mind activity. But how? Read on to find out...


A quick Google search will enlighten you to the fact that the word ‘nootropic’ was initially coined in 1972 by a Romanian psychologist and chemist, Corneliu E. Giurgea. The man responsible for synthesising Piracetam, the world's first cognition enhancing pharmaceutical drug. Derived from the Greek words  noos (mind) and  tropos (bend or turn), nootropic translates to “acting on the mind”. This definition gives us a clear insight into how these substances work within the body.


Nootropics or ‘smart drugs’ as they are so commonly referred to, are substances that enhance the cognitive powers of the brain. While these substances can be synthetically manufactured (similar to what our friend Dr Giurgea did with Piracetam), they also exist naturally in many plants, particularly herbs, several of which are present in our Neural Nectar blend.

Nootropics serve many actions, they elevate our mood, help us hold focus, retain information, stay motivated, inspired, induce creativity and increase circulation to the brain. It’s no wonder they’re trending so hard right now, particularly in the biohacking community.

Nootropics work within the brain at the biochemical level, influencing the concentration of available neurotransmitters, enzymes and hormones. This enhances the productivity of various communication pathways within the neurological system as a whole. Allowing the chemical messaging that occurs in these areas to be transmitted in a more efficient and fluid manner. Think Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless, nootropics supercharge your brain, maybe not as dramatically as in the movie but you get the idea.

So How Do They Work?

There’s no denying it, nootropics, particularly herbal nootropics, benefit the brain. The way in which they do this however, will depend on what chemical pathway or ‘system’ they activate.

These ‘systems’ are comprised of neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers responsible for sending information to the cells within the brain) and the receptor sites they connect to. This communication occurs through a synapse. The synapse is kind of like the middle man, the little guy who ensures that the information sent by the neurotransmitter is received by its receptor site friend. So now we’ve got that cleared up let’s explore the systems that nootropics generally work on:

The Cholinergic System

Nootropics primarily work within the cholinergic system. Acetylcholine is the primary neurotransmitter used here, where it plays a key role in the functioning of the peripheral and central nervous systems. The cholinergic system governs physiological processes such as learning, memory, neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to create new pathways), sleep, wakefulness, our stress response (remember the HPA axis?) and sensory information. Injury to this network is seen in degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. The herbs in our Neural Nectar blend influence this system in the following ways:

Lion's Mane encourages the formation of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), compounds that are essential for the maintenance of the cholinergic system. Here they stimulate new cellular growth while also offering nourishment and strength to the existing cells. NGF assists the creation of the myelin sheath, the insulation that encapsulates the neuronal cell, allowing it to send and receive information with speed and precision. BDNF helps the brain stay plastic, increasing resilience in this area against trauma and age related decline.


 Dried Lion's Mane


Lion's Mane helps to fortify the gut-brain connection via its anti inflammatory and antioxidant actions. Reducing inflammation enhances circulation, allowing more oxygen to reach the brain. This supports healthy brain activity, focus, and mood stabilisation. We absolutely love the regenerative qualities of this herb, a true superstar nootropic and have a full article on all it's amazing health benefits here.

Gingko Biloba stimulates cerebral circulation, helping to increase blood flow to the brain, thus enhancing brain performance, more blood = more nutrients and oxygen = a more efficient brain, go ginko! At the biochemical level it is the flavone glycosides and terpene fraction of the herb that are responsible for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. Ginkgo has long been used to strengthen the memory, thin the blood, increase vascular dilation and improve the structure of the blood vessels, actions which allow the brain to receive more nourishment. We all know that when something is well nourished it lasts longer. If you don’t water your house plant it will, well... Shrivel up and die, same goes for your brain.


If this area is deprived of nutrients its ability to perform tasks will diminish, decreasing overall health and performance. Ginkgo has been found to directly interact with the cholinergic system, influencing the uptake and release of acetylcholine and it’s precursor choline. An action that can be particularly helpful in the prevention of Alzheimer’s, a disease characterised by a deficiency in acetylcholine. Not only can this herb help you to stay sharp now it can help you stay sharp later, we all want to be able to fully engage with our loved ones and our environment well past 80 yeah? I’d say hell yeah!


Mason with fresh Ginko biloba in China


Rhodiola is a master adaptogen used to improve mood, enhance performance and combat stress. This hardy herb grows at high altitudes in the arctic areas of Eastern Europe and Asia, and it is rhodiola’s ability to thrive in such harsh environments that allow this herb supreme adaptogenic status. Rhodiola is high in rosavins, a group of phenylpropanoids (chemical compounds) unique to the Rhodiola rosea species.


These compounds have been shown to help the body balance cortisol. By now most of us know cortisol is associated with stress and that prolonged states of stress accelerate aging in body, impairing the brain’s ability to function optimally. From this perspective rhodiola packs quite an anti aging punch, lending its adaptive powers to both the body and the mind. Animal experiments using rhodiola have shown improvements in learning and retention after a 24 hour period using a single dose of the herb, with improvements in long-term memory after 10 days of treatment at the same dose.

White Peony is a blood building tonic that encourages systemic circulation, particularly to the brain. This nourishing Yin herb has been shown to activate the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for storing new information. Animal studies indicate that white peony can be used to improve age related learning deficits such as those associated with senile dementia and age related cognitive decline. Traditionally this herb has been used to reduce the neurological tension associated with migraines and headaches, reduce blood pressure, nerve pain, and as a defense against Alzheimer's, especially when combined with ginkgo and brahmi. White peony nourishes the brain’s Yin essence and is one of our favourite tonic herbs to help reduce the brain fog some women experience postpartum and during menopause.


The Dopaminergic and Serotonergic Systems

Many of us may be familiar with dopamine and serotonin as the feel good endorphins released during exercise. However these compounds also act as important neurotransmitters in the regulation and transmission of nerve impulses within the brain and central nervous system, both are involved in the process of learning and memory. Dopamine encourages the development of healthy motor skills and coordination and allows our neurons to communicate with one another, helping us to feel motivated, alert, energised and in control. Low levels of dopamine impair our ability to concentrate and complete tasks, influence feelings of depression, lethargy, lack of motivation, and in extreme cases depletion can lead to the development of Parkinson’s Disease.  


Dopamine also plays a key role in reward related processes, particularly stimulus-reward-learning, this might explain why we feel so happy with ourselves when we learn something new, and why we are motivated to continue the behaviour we’ve been rewarded by. This reward based system can also have adverse effects when it comes to addictions and can lead us to becoming ‘tapped out’ when we’re overindulging in our favourite vices. All the more reason to support ourselves with tonic herbs!

Mucuna influences the creation of dopamine as it is high in its naturally occurring precursor, L-dopa. Mucuna has been traditionally used to tone the nervous system, manage stress and support healthy motor skills and coordination. For these reasons  the herb has been used by Ayurvedic and western medicine as a treatment method against parkinson's disease, a pathology characterised by low levels of dopamine. The western system generally favours the synthetic L-dopa isolate as opposed to the whole herb. However studies have shown, Mucuna, when used it its entirety has therapeutic advantages over synthetically isolated L-dopa preparations.. We know what we’d prefer, the whole herb the whole way baby!


Mucuna is an adaptogenic herb and thus exhibits a dynamic action within the body. Not only does this magical velvet bean influence the creation of dopamine and help to elevate mood, it is also used as a potent sexual tonic to protect against impotence and male infertility. The antioxidant activities of Mucuna are still being investigated, however existing research does suggest that the herb contains strong antioxidant and free radical scavenging abilities when extracted using an alcohol medium. It is the phenolic compounds that elicit these actions.


So WHY are Nootropics relevant to YOU?

Considering what we’ve explored above, we can safely assume that most people can benefit from using nootropics, I mean most of us need to concentrate at our jobs right? We need to pay attention at uni so we can learn. Remember grandma’s birthday because let’s face it, she’s epic and has done a lot for us. It’s pretty important to remember where your keys are so you can drive your car and get into your house. I mean you can’t tell your kids how awesome you were (and probably still are) if you can’t remember all the adventurous stuff you did on the gap year in your twenties, gotta keep that parent cred high ;) At the end of the day we all want to be able to access a space of dreaming, a space where we feel free in our bodies and in our minds, where we have the capacity to be kind to ourselves and to others and show up in the world in a way that is truly aligned to our unique nature.

The reality is, we live in a time where there is an ever increasing daily demand on our brains, to process and retain information. And if you need any tips on how to unwind, check out our article here, we know you'll find something perfect for you! In this regard, nootropic substances, particularly those of a herbal nature, such as our Lion’s Mane and  Neural Nectar can be extremely beneficial additions to your daily flow.

Not only can these beautiful herbs enhance overall neurological performance, they also serve as a preventive measure against age related decline. By no means are we saying that these herbs are a magical cure or a silver bullet, but their adaptogenic nature will assist to create an environment within the body where the presence of inflammation and chronic disease are less likely to occur, and we definitely like the sound of that!

We’re in an age where dementia is the second leading cause of death in both men and women in Australia, with upwards of 250 new cases joining these statistics each day. This fact alone further ignites our enthusiasm for tonic herbalism. Driving us to continue to spread the good word about these epic herbs and their cognitive enhancing abilities.

An aging population that is healthy is not taxing on society, however a sick aging population can be.


It is possible to minimise and prevent many of the neurodegenerative diseases that plague us in the west today through diet and lifestyle. This is where the herbs come in. As a supportive dietary measure, think of them as you would your health insurance.

At SuperFeast we’re all about prevention, and that means taking grounded steps towards a long and vibrant life, “if you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting stones today". Let the stones you lift be the inclusion of these herbs into your daily diet, let them be the practices that you cultivate, allowing you to create the space to move the mountains of your life with increased clarity, sharpness, buoyancy and ease. Enjoy! 


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Teeguargen, R 1988, The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs, Warner Books
Sophia Richmond-Manno
Sophia Richmond-Manno

Her love of helping individuals find their own rhythm and vitality is what makes Sophia tick. Creating content and educating others on the healing effects of tonic herbs, Sophia brings intention and love to all her human interactions. Sophia’s background in naturopathy, paired with her knowledge of the subtle energetics all around, allow her to subtly lead you down the path of your own good health. Sophia is the Customer Service angel at SuperFeast, she is most likely on the other end of the phone when you give us a call.

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