Defining the terms "nootropic" and "adaptogen" is no simple task. It requires the consideration of centuries of traditional practices and customs on the one hand, and the latest developments in science and technology on the other hand.
What is certain, however, is that both nootropics and adaptogens affect human physiology in a way that not only helps improve various aspects of health but can enhance the body and mind beyond their standard state as well. As such, nootropics and adaptogens should be viewed in a positive light.
- Nootropics and adaptogens are designed to support core processes in the body by supplying natural ingredients.
But how do they differ? When should you take them? And which one wins in the battle of nootropics vs. adaptogens? This guide details the ins and outs of nootropics and adaptogens, as it seeks to answer these and similar questions.
What Are Nootropics?
In the simplest of terms, nootropics are brain boosters — supplements that are capable of enhancing the health and performance of the brain. The initial criteria qualifying a supplement as a nootropic were established by psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea in the 1960s and included a very specific set of descriptors.
As science has unravelled increasingly more information about the brain and the way it works, the meaning of nootropic has evolved to include supplements that help the brain in almost any way. A critical stipulation is that a supplement referred to as a nootropic should naturally be free of the side effects commonly associated with neuropsychotropic smart drugs. <1>
This shift in understanding has led to a dramatic increase in the number of supplements classified as a nootropic, with at least 85 recognized in current listings.
Benefits of Nootropics
The potential benefits of nootropics cover basically all conceivable improvements to brain function and cognition without altering brain anatomy. Several of the most prominent benefits include the following:
- Learning. Cognitive learning processes such as knowledge retention and information recall get a major boost from nootropics.
- Focus. Several supplements have proved capable of helping maintain attention and concentration.
- Mood. Many nootropics are associated with increasing motivation and positive emotions.
- Anxiety. Still other nootropics have also shown the ability to relax and calm the mind.
- Creativity. A number of nootropic effects encourage fluid and creative thinking.
Who Should Take Them?
The reality is that anyone looking for enhanced life performance could find nootropics useful due to their wide-ranging benefits. To follow are some examples of those with the most to gain from nootropic supplementation:
- Students. Although nootropics can help any person who enjoys studying, they may benefit college students most because of the constant pressure they face to succeed academically.
- Competitors. Gamers — including e-sport athletes, chess players, and poker players — who rely heavily on hand-eye coordination and rapid decision-making can get the edge they need from nootropics.
- Artists. Nootropics may provide a creative boost for writers and musicians.
- Patients. Individuals with attention-management issues such as ADHD may find relief in nootropic supplementation.
What Are Adaptogens?
In contrast to nootropics, adaptogens consist of a more refined collection of plants and herbs specifically geared toward stabilizing the endocrine system and autonomic nervous system. These systems regulate bodily functions by raising or lowering levels of neurotransmitters and hormones released from the brain and adrenal glands. Collectively, these functions help maintain homeostasis in the body.
- Adaptogens help balance your hormone levels to minimize stress.
To put it even more plainly, adaptogens help the body adapt. They have the ability to regulate the release and inhibition of hormones in order to help your body adjust appropriately to its moment-to-moment needs.
Whereas contemporary health care practices often depend on remedies to reduce the severity of stress symptoms, adaptogens help the body find its way back to a normal, healthy state such that the root of the symptoms is dealt with — improving the overall well-being of a person. <2>
Benefits of Adaptogens
Adaptogens are highly regarded in the Ayurvedic medical community for stabilizing physiological processes. They offer a few key benefits:
- Stress resistance. Above all, adaptogens are geared toward reducing stress as well as increasing the body's resistance to future stressors.<3>
- Mental performance. Mitigating mental stress may enable the brain to achieve peak performance.
- Physical performance. Exposure to harsh weather, loud noises, and extreme temperature can all put a toll on the body. Adaptogens are designed to diminish the negative effect of such conditions.
Who Should Take Them?
Individuals faced with high-stress situations are likely to benefit most from supplementing with adaptogens.
- Athletes. One of athletes' main goals is to perform at their highest possible level of performance. Reducing mental and physical stress facilitates that goal. <4>
- Manual laborers. Adaptogens can help manual workers deal with the harsh conditions that confront them on a daily basis.
- Exam takers. Test taking is an undeniably stressful task for most individuals. Adaptogens can help relax nerves and ease most pre-exam tension.
- Meditators. Meditation is all about attaining "zen," or a stress-free state of mind.
Nootropics vs. Adaptogens
Adaptogens and nootropics certainly have a lot of characteristics in common. This is likely because they are sourced from many of the same brain herbs and plants. What's more, most, if not all, adaptogens could easily be categorized as a nootropic, and several nootropics also fit the qualifications for an adaptogen. As a result, the two terms are often used interchangeably.
But are they the same thing? Well, yes and no.
Technically speaking, most adaptogens fall under the most recent overarching definition of nootropic, which as previously stated, includes all supplements capable of improving brain health and cognition.
However, the foremost concept behind adaptogens is that they help fight against stress, whereas reducing stress is only one of the many aims of nootropics.
As one example, a student who is well-prepared academically and has a tendency to excel on standardized exams is likely to benefit considerably more from supplementing with nootropics that enhance information recall or bolster concentration, compared with taking adaptogens designed to minimize stress.
How Do They Work?
Nootropics Support Brain Health, Cognition
The underlying mechanism of action for each nootropic consists of a combination of several different brain biopathways: <5>
- Increasing brain chemicals. Many nootropics can help increase the level of brain chemicals — i.e., neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and serotonin — by supplying their essential building blocks, stimulating their production, or decreasing their breakdown.
- Augmenting brain blood flow. A number of nootropics have also demonstrated a capacity to support cerebral blood circulation by activating compounds such as nitric oxide to relax blood vessels.
- Energizing the brain. Nootropics can boost not only the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain but also the efficiency of mitochondria (the energizing unit of brain cells).
- Protecting brain cells. Most of them are also able to eliminate free radicals and other toxins in the brain.
- Regenerating brain cells. Various nootropics can provide the nutritional building blocks and nerve stimulation required for neurogenesis, the brains process for producing new brain cells.
- Adjusting brain waves. By "tuning" brain waves to specific frequencies, some nootropics can set the mind to more heightened or relaxed states.
Adaptogens Maintain Brain Homeostasis
When considering nootropics vs. adaptogens, we must identify their key differentiators. Adaptogens share some of the same biopathways as nootropics, but are primarily oriented around adjusting the endocrine system to achieve its main effects:<6>
- Bolstering stress resistance. The stress-protective activity of adaptogens is centered around regulating endocrine pathways such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis as well as key mediators of stress response such as cortisol — ultimately minimizing the effect of stress on the body, including brain cells.
- Fortifying brain cells. Similar to nootropics, adaptogens can combat oxidative stress throughout most of the body and not just in the head.
The mechanisms driving the bioactivity of nootropics span a broad range of processes for improving brain health. In comparison, adaptogens specifically support brain health (as well as overall health) by reducing the impact of stress and fatigue.
Research continues to deepen scientists' understanding of these processes and may uncover yet new biopathways.
Stacking Nootropics and Adaptogens
The similarity between nootropics and adaptogens paves the way for their high synergy and complementation. Combining two or more of them into a singular nootropic stack could markedly enhance their cognition-boosting and stress-reducing effects. Take, for example, two potent nootropic-adaptogen pairings:
- Citicoline + Bacopa Monnieri: The nootropic citicoline provides choline for the production of acetylcholine. Bacopa helps inhibit acetylcholinesterase from breaking down acetylcholine. Together, these two mechanisms may dramatically increase acetylcholine levels, enhancing memory and learning capacity much more than either would alone.
- Phosphatidylserine + Rhodiola Rosea: Both of these supplements have demonstrated a capacity to mitigate exercise-induced stress — the effects of Rhodiola acting more quickly (lasting up to 4 to 6 hours) and phosphatidylserine peaking later.
More on the best nootropic and adaptogen stacking strategies.
Mind Lab Pro® Adaptogen Nootropics
Bacopa is an adaptogenic herb known for facilitating learning and memory. Its large store of bioactive compounds have displayed nootropic effects — from enhancing neuroprotection and the availability of neurotransmitters to speeding up visual information processing — as well as adaptogenic activity, such as balancing stress responses.
The herb has displayed both nootropic and adaptogenic qualities in multiple studies, demonstrating its potential to optimize higher-order cognitive processes while also calming the mind. <7> <8>
Mind Lab Pro®'s Bacopa is calibrated to carry 9 bacosides standardized to 24% potency.
More on Mind Lab Pro® Bacopa Monnieri.
Rhodiola is another herb characterized as an adaptogen capable of promoting nootropic effects. It has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a natural way to boost mental and physical energy.
Now, the herb is most popularly recognized for enabling peak mental performance under pressure — sharpening memory and concentration while also reducing stress. <9>
Its potential for easing away stress and anxiety, on top of its cognition-enhancing effects, make it ideal for supplementation before an exam, presentation, or athletic competition.
More on Mind Lab Pro® Rhodiola Rosea.
Spectrum of Benefits
Though achieving homeostasis is the central aim of adaptogens and nootropics, the biochemistry of plants such as Bacopa and Rhodiola is much too complex to impart a perfectly balanced influence on the mind and body.
- Instead, their effect falls along a spectrum that could be described as ranging from calming to stimulating.
For instance, Bacopa's benefits for cognition and stress relief may be characterized as calming.
In contrast, Rhodiola energizes, rather than relaxes, the brain to boost performance.
Individuals who are more sensitive to caffeine and similar stimulants may thus prefer to include more Bacopa than Rhodiola in their supplemental stack and vice versa.
Don't stress over nootropics vs. adaptogens. Mind Lab Pro® combines both to boost brain health and cognition while shoring up stress resistance.
Nootropics aim to enhance brain health and performance, whereas adaptogens focus on reducing mental and physical stress. Supplements that offer a blend of both may further boost the effects of either one alone.
The premium brain-boosting stack Mind Lab Pro® is designed precisely with this concept in mind, offering a safe yet potent formulation of nootropics and adaptogens for highly effective, performance-elevating results.
- Giurgea C, et al. Nootropic drugs. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology. 1977; 1(3-4): 235-247.
- Seely D, et al. Adaptogenic Potential of a Polyherbal Natural Health Product: Report on a Longitudinal Clinical Trial. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2007 Sep; 4(3): 375-380.
- Panossian A, et al. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010 Jan; 3(1): 188-224.
- Sellami M, et al. Herbal medicine for sports: a review. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2018 Mar; 15: 14.
- Sulliman NA, et al. Establishing Natural Nootropics: Recent Molecular Enhancement Influenced by Natural Nootropic. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016; 2016: 4391375.
- Panossian A, et al. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Current Clinical Pharmacology. 2009 Sep;4(3):198-219.
- Bhattacharya SK, et al. Anxiolytic activity of a standardized extract of Bacopa monniera—an experimental study. Phytomedicine. 1998; 5: 77-82.
- Stough C, et al. The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001 Aug; 156(4): 481-4.
- Hung SK, et al. The effectiveness and efficacy of Rhodiola rosea L.: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Phytomedicine. 2011 Feb 15; 18(4): 235-44.