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Herbs are probably the most controversial nootropics due to the fact that they have little scientific backup for their claimed effects. Although people in the medical profession may not deny the power of herbs altogether, they usually will not recommend them unless the active ingredient in the herb is known along with its effects. Ironically enough, the hectic lifestyle of the modern day person does not leave much time, or provide a suitable environment, to pick herbs, so the western prejudice that herbs can have no viable medical applications never gets the chance to be validated and / or revised. For those unable to spare the time to search for herbs but still willing to experiment with their effects, two varieties of preserved herb essences remain, in the form of freeze-dried and alcohol based extracts. These two preserving methods allegedly retain the desired effects of the herbs for relatively long periods. Here's a sampling of some of the most well known brain boosting herbs:

  • Ginkgo biloba The leaf extract from the oldest tree on earth, ginkgo biloba is a widely used nootropic. Its application improves the efficiency of blood circulation in cerebral blood vessels and has been reported to result in improved memory, reasoning and alertness. Ginkgo extract is accepted as a viable medicine, and is widely prescribed, by doctors in the European medical community. In addition to its other properties ginkgo is also an antioxidant. It facilitates the formation of an essential molecule, the ATP, which forms the basis of energy storage in the human body. Gingko usually comes in the form of liquid, although the powder form is also available and should be preferred. Extracts are available from health food stores almost everywhere, but the potency may not be optimal. The ingredient to keep an eye on when choosing gingko products are gingko flavonoids or gingko heterosides; having more of either within the extract greatly improves the intended effect. There are no reported side effects in the medical literature, but some users have complained about stomach troubles at high doses. Effects are usually noticeable after two or three weeks of continued use, although concrete results may take as long as two months to appear.


  • Ginseng Chinese medicine has utilized ginseng root successfully for four thousand years in a variety of cases. Ginseng has been used to treat fatigue, abnormal blood pressure and, strangely enough, even insomnia and cancer. It is regarded as a default medicine that has no specific use, so quite a bit of experimentation with ginseng has taken place throughout centuries. Stress and fatigue relief are among the most common reasons for taking ginseng extract. Its certified effects include regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure, increasing blood flow and improving the activity level of the metabolism. Ginseng is often referred to as the 'wonder drug' due to its multitude of uses. It is available in several different forms, such as powder, pastes, tablets, ginseng tea and the root itself. One should start noticing effects after two months of continuous use, although ginseng may have noticeable short term effects as well. People with high blood pressure should start at the lower end of the dose spectrum, due to ginseng's other, supposedly beneficial effects which may turn out to be highly dangerous within the wrong context.


  • Gotu-kola Another herb that is highly prominent in eastern medical culture, gotu-kola is a plant that has been used to improve wound healing and to treat various types of skin conditions. It is also believed to aid cognitive functionality by reducing stress and anxiety. Gotu-kola has a mild tranquilizing effect. Unlike gingko biloba and ginseng, both of which are well researched, gotu-kola remains absent in western medical literature. At least one study suggests, however, that it improves concentration. It is readily available from health food stores in various forms and a dose of two leaves a day should give the desired effect. A plant very similar to gotu-kola in its effects and use is fo-ti-tieng, which can be substituted for gotu-kola.


  • Caffeine The surprise member of the group is regarded by many as a life-saver on those dreary Monday mornings but is not generally known to be a smart drug. Part of the reason may be the fact that its classification as a nootropic is controversial at best. The fact that it makes its users anxious and irritable is claimed by some to be the side effects of improved performance, while others proclaim that caffeine actually decreases performance. One definite fact, however, is that caffeine is highly addictive and should be considered a drug when taken as potent pills. It fulfills the definition of a pharmakon remarkably well in that for all intents and purposes, it is a poison: Caffeine disturbs one's digestive system, raises cholesterol levels, may introduce severe withdrawal symptoms such as migraines, and with extensive use can lead to conditions not entirely different from anxiety neurosis. Maximum and minimum doses have not been identified since it seems to have varying effects across different metabolisms and even across particular moods.
  • Herbs seem to be of obscure functionality at best and inherently dangerous at worst. After all, who is to say that what you're gleefully chewing on is a gotu-kola leaf rather than a similar-looking herb which may well wreak havoc with your immune system?

    Should one prefer the wisdom of western medicine, with its conscientious application of the scientific method which ensures that risks are minimized as much as is theoretically possible?

    Or should one rather go for smart nutrients, following an Aristotelian deduction from ancient wisdom, asserting that since one would not bite the hands that feeds him, the hand that feeds him would also refrain from attempting to bite him?

    The above is admittedly a very convoluted application of an inverse statement that abuses deductive reasoning to its innermost core. However, it's difficult to find the concept of nourishment dangerous. It may well have to do with the fact that nourishment forms the basis of a baby's first emotional bond, that of feeding on mother's milk. Therefore food becomes an inherently valuable, possibly sacred, concept. However, that would have to wait until another lexia.