Adaptogens and Nootropics

In today's fast-paced world, mental agility and resilience are more valuable than ever. People are turning to health and wellness supplements to enhance their cognitive abilities and manage stress.
Fact checked by Nattha Wannissorn

Among the plethora of options available, two categories have captured the public’s imagination. Adaptogens and nootropics are two terms often used interchangeably but have different uses.

Note that while there may be some nootropics that are prescription drugs, this article refers to supplemental nootropics. We also aim to educate on how they work and the key differences between nootropics and adaptogens, rather than recommend or prescribe.

What are Adaptogens and Nootropics?

Adaptogen is a term rooted in herbal medicine. It refers to natural substances that help the body adapt to various stressors. These compounds balance, restore, and protect the body. This offers a natural way to bolster stress resilience.

Nootropics are often called “smart drugs” or “brain boosters”. They are substances that enhance cognitive functions such as memory, creativity, and motivation. They are the darlings of students, professionals, and anyone looking to gain a mental edge.

Both adaptogens and nootropics are celebrated for their health benefits, they are not one and the same. This article aims to demystify these compounds. delving into their definitions, key similarities, and differences. We will explore various substances that fall under each category, including those that serve as both adaptogens and nootropics.

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics is a term coined in 1972 by Romanian psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea. It derives from the Greek words “nous” (mind) and “trepein” (to bend or turn). Giurgea identified nootropics as substances that could turn the mind in a positive way. They enhance cognitive functions such as memory, creativity, and motivation.

How Nootropics Enhance Cognitive Functions

Nootropics may improve cognitive function by some or all of the following. Plant-based nootropics tend to contain multiple components that deliver many of these benefits compared to synthetic nootropics.

1. Improving neurotransmitter levels

Nootropics act on the brain’s neurochemical systems, such as increasing dopamine and acetylcholine, either by influencing the neurotransmitter production or breakdown, or providing backbones. These neurotransmitters are crucial for memory and learning.

2. Improving brain blood flow and oxygenation 

Some nootropics support oxygen and blood supply to the brain. This enhances cognition and provides building blocks for the brain’s function.

3. Stimulating neuroplasticity and neuroregeneration

Some nootropics stimulate proteins that support neuroplasticity and neuroregeneration, such as BDNF and NGF.

4. Promoting balanced inflammatory and oxidative stress responses

Day-to-day brain inflammation and oxidative stress from food and other lifestyle factors can interfere with your mood and cognition. Many nootropic herbs contain components that help mitigate these factors in the brain. 

5. Supporting the brain’s housekeeping functions

The brain has housekeepers called glial cells and other types of cells that help clean up waste and protect the brain. Some nootropics have components that support these housekeeping activities in the brain.

6. Providing brain-available nutrients

Many micronutrients are nootropics, especially but some nootropics also provide micronutrients that support brain function.

What are Adaptogens?

The concept of adaptogens dates back thousands of years. It has roots in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The term was coined in the mid-20th century by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev. He defined them as substances that increase the “state of nonspecific resistance” to stress. Adaptogens are natural herbs and plants known for their unique ability to help the body adapt to physical and psychological stressors.

Role in Stress Resilience and Bodily Functions:

Adaptogens work by supporting the body’s stress-response system, improving your stress resilience, and mitigating the negative health effects of stress. They help in balancing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, increasing what’s too low and decreasing what’s too high. The HPA axis plays a critical role in the body’s stress response. 

Adaptogens normalize hormones in the HPA axis, such as:

  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone
  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone
  • Cortisol
  • Catecholamines such as adrenaline and noradrenaline

These hormones may temporarily shift within normal ranges in response to stress. Unlike nootropics, which primarily focus on cognitive enhancement, adaptogens are geared towards overall well-being, helping the body to maintain homeostasis under stress.

Some adaptogens also possess some of the following benefits amidst stress or physical exertion:

  • Supporting cognitive function and energy 
  • Supporting physical performance as ergogenic aids
  • Maintaining robust immune functions or stimulating some aspects of the immune system
  • Improving the body’s ability to cope with oxidative stress or inflammation 
  • Supporting healthy hormone levels and balance
  • Supporting sexual health and performance

Key Similarities and Differences

Adaptogens and nootropics sometimes provide overlapping benefits. Their primary functions and mechanisms of action differ significantly.


Many adaptogens and nootropics have a positive impact on mental functions.

Some plants, like Rhodiola Rosea, function as both, offering cognitive and stress management benefits.


Nootropics enhance cognitive functions. Adaptogens help in managing and resisting stress.

  • What they do: Nootropic improves or changes brain functions. Whereas, adaptogens improve stress resilience or mitigate negative health effects of stress.
  • Historical and Cultural Background: Nootropics are a relatively modern concept with a focus on cognitive enhancement. Adaptogens have a long history in traditional medicine, emphasizing holistic well-being.

Understanding these differences is crucial for anyone looking to enhance cognitive performance or manage stress. Nootropics offer targeted cognitive benefits. Adaptogens provide a broader approach to maintaining health and resilience to stress.

Nootropics that are Not Adaptogens

While the realms of nootropics and adaptogens often intersect, it’s important to recognize that not all nootropics possess adaptogenic properties. This distinction is crucial for individuals seeking specific cognitive enhancements without necessarily targeting stress resilience. Here, we delve into some prominent nootropics that enhance cognitive function but do not function as adaptogens.

Nootropics sharpen cognitive abilities but they don’t always have the stress-managing properties of adaptogens. Some nootropics could even impose extra demands on the body’s stress reserves.

Non-Adaptogenic Nootropics


  • Definition and Function: Racetams are a class of drugs known for their cognitive-enhancing effects. They are synthetic compounds that positively influence the central nervous system and brain function. 
  • Cognitive Enhancement without Stress Modulation: These substances have neuroprotective and memory-enhancing properties. They work by balancing neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain. They don’t have the characteristics of adaptogens that mitigate the negative health effects of stress. However, they may help you maintain performance and energy amidst stress.


  • Definition and Function: Creatine is often associated with physical performance but it also plays a big role in cognitive function. Creatine is an amino acid naturally present in muscles. It helps supply energy to all cells. Creatine is particularly useful during high-intensity exercise or mental tasks.
  • Cognitive Improvement in Stressful Situations: Creatine can enhance brain function, especially under conditions of sleep deprivation or mental stress. But, it doesn’t actually help your HPA axis adapt to stressors, which is a hallmark of adaptogens.


  • Definition and Function: Caffeine, a well-known stimulant found in coffee, tea, and many energy drinks. It is widely used to enhance alertness and concentration.
  • Alertness with Potential Stress Increase: Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. This leads to increased alertness. Caffeine can also increase feelings of stress and anxiety in some individuals. This is a contrary effect to the stress-reducing nature of adaptogens.


  • Definition and Function: Citicoline is a brain chemical that occurs naturally in the body. As a supplement, it provides a source of choline that can enter the brain and increase acetylcholine.
  • Enhances Brain Function, Not Stress Resilience: Citicoline increases levels of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a vital neurotransmitter for cognitive processes. Unlike adaptogens, it does not modulate stress or promote stress resilience.

These nootropics are effective in cognitive enhancement. But, they act through very different mechanisms than adaptogens. Nootropics are tailored more towards improving specific aspects of brain function. In contrast to adaptogens that support the body’s ability to manage stress.

Can Adaptogens Not Be Nootropics?

Adaptogens have stress-managing properties, but this doesn’t always translate to immediate cognitive enhancement. Some adaptogenic herbs have calming and sedative effects. This can actually impair cognitive function in the short term. These types of adaptogenic herbs are used to improve sleep or support relaxation. 

If your sleep is suboptimal, better sleep can significantly improve cognitive function or enhance the benefits of nootropics. Unfortunately, the immediate sedative effects might not help with immediate mental performance. 

Examples of Sedative Adaptogens


  • Sedative Effects and Cognitive Implication: Passionflower has calming effects and helps with a healthy stress response. Its sedative properties help with relaxation and sleep. This can lead to a temporary reduction in cognitive sharpness and alertness.
  • Long-term Benefits vs. Immediate Impact: The long-term benefits of improved sleep quality can contribute to better cognitive function. The immediate sedative effect of passionflower might not be ideal for those seeking an immediate cognitive boost.


  • Improvement in Sleep Quality: Valerian root helps improve sleep quality and reduce anxious feelings. Its calming effect is attributed to its interaction with the GABA neurotransmitter system.
  • Short-term Cognitive Hindrance: The same properties that make valerian effective for sleep can impair short-term cognitive performance.

Lemon Balm

  • Mild Sedative for Sleep and Relaxation: Lemon balm is a traditional medicine with its mild sedative effects. It helps with sleeping and balancing anxious feelings.
  • Potential Immediate Cognitive Downside: The sedative qualities of lemon balm are great for calming and sleep. The immediate effect might be more of relaxation rather than cognitive stimulation.

Adaptogens offer significant benefits for stress management and overall well-being. Their impact on cognitive function can vary. Some adaptogens have prominent sedative effects. 

Herbs like passionflower, valerian, and lemon balm are not effective nootropics in the short term. They have calming and sleep-inducing properties. The long-term benefits of improved sleep and balanced response to stress indirectly contribute to better cognitive function over time.

Examples of Both Adaptogens and Nootropics

There is some overlap between adaptogens and nootropics. These substances offer the dual benefits of enhancing cognitive functions and managing stress. These unique compounds provide a holistic approach to wellness. They address both mental performance and resilience in the face of stress. These compounds function as both adaptogens and nootropics.


  • Balanced Stress Response and Cognitive Enhancement: Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen that supports a healthy stress response. At the same time, it improves cognitive function. This includes supporting memory and executive function, making it a valuable nootropic.
  • Holistic Benefits: Its ability to tackle stress and enhance brain function makes Ashwagandha a prime example of an herb that embodies both adaptogenic and nootropic properties.

Lion’s Mane

  • Neuroprotective and Adaptogenic Benefits: Lion’s Mane is a medicinal mushroom. It has neuroprotective benefits and adaptogenic properties that aid in stress resilience. It supports cognitive function and neurogenesis.
  • Supports Brain Health: Lion’s Mane promotes neurotrophins, protects neurons, and supports a calm focus flow, stands out as a dual-purpose supplement for overall brain health.

Magnesium L-Threonate

  • Brain Function and Stress Management: Magnesium L-Threonate, is essential for optimal brain function. It enhances learning and memory and also has calming effects on the nervous system. Magnesium supports healthy GABA and HPA axis functions.
  • Unique Absorption and Benefits: Magnesium L-Threonate crosses the blood-brain barrier. This makes it particularly effective as both a nootropic and an adaptogen.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Cognitive and Mood Regulation: These essential fatty acids are crucial for brain health and function. They improve cognitive function and also play a role in managing stress and improving mood.
  • Vital for Mental Health: Omega-3s support cognitive function, help improve mood, and support stress resilience. Low omega-3 can increase your stress reactivity, cortisol levels, and stress-related biological aging. This showcases their dual functionality.

Vitamin D

  • Mood and Cognitive Function: Vitamin D plays a significant role in bone health, brain health and mood regulation. Adequate levels of vitamin D are linked to improved cognitive function and mental health.
  • Sunshine Vitamin for Brain Health: Often referred to as the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D’s role in cognitive health and mood stabilization makes it a great adaptogen and nootropic.


  • Sleep Improvement and Cognitive Enhancement: Glycine is an amino acid that improves sleep quality. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it also supports cognitive function. Better sleep quality often leads to improved cognitive functions.
  • Dual Impact on Mental Wellness: Glycine’s role in enhancing sleep and cognition makes it both an adaptogen and a nootropic.

Ginkgo Biloba

  • Cognitive Function and Adaptogenic Properties: Ginkgo Biloba enhances cognitive function and also has adaptogenic properties. It improves blood flow to the brain and helps in managing a healthy response to stress.
  • Ancient Remedy for Modern Challenges: Its dual role in enhancing brain function and stress management makes Ginkgo Biloba a timeless choice for holistic cognitive health.

Medicinal Mushrooms (Reishi, Cordyceps)

  • Various Types with Dual Benefits: Medicinal mushrooms like Reishi and Cordyceps offer both cognitive and stress resilience benefits. They support brain health and help in adapting to stress.
  • Natural Boost for Brain and Stress: Their natural properties make these mushrooms a valuable addition to any regimen focusing on mental acuity and stress management.

Rhodiola Rosea

  • Stress Adaptation and Mental Performance: This herb helps the body adapt to stress and also enhances mental performance and stamina.
  • Balancing Stress and Cognitive Functions: Rhodiola’s ability to boost cognitive abilities while managing stress makes it a fantastic dual-function supplement.


  • Cognitive and Stress Resilience Support: Schisandra is recognized for its role in enhancing mental performance and its adaptogenic properties that contribute to stress resistance.
  • Comprehensive Mental Support: Its comprehensive impact on mental performance and stress management underscores its dual functionality.

Bacopa Monnieri

  • Brain Function Enhancement and Stress Management: An herb used in traditional medicine, Bacopa Monnieri enhances brain function and helps in adapting to stress, making it a valuable dual-purpose supplement.
  • Herbal Approach to Cognitive Wellness: Its use in improving memory and balancing response to stress positions Bacopa Monnieri as a holistic choice for those seeking both cognitive enhancement and stress management.

The exploration into the world of adaptogens and nootropics reveals an intersection of mental wellness, cognitive enhancement, and stress management. Adaptogens and nootropics can sometimes share common ground. Other times they often serve very different purposes. Nootropics enhance cognitive functions such as memory, focus, and creativity. Adaptogens help the body adapt to and manage stress.

The distinction becomes particularly important for individuals seeking specific health goals. For those aiming to boost cognitive performance, certain nootropics might be more appropriate. Adaptogens would be the go-to choice for enhancing stress resilience and well-being. The realm where these two categories overlap offers a unique dual usage.

Each adaptogens and nootropics have specific benefits and mechanisms of action. If you are trying to enhance brain function, manage stress, or both there are adaptogens and nootropics for that.
It’s almost impossible to escape stress nowadays, especially if you’re seeking to maximize your cognitive performance with nootropics. At Nootopia, we always formulate with both adaptogenic and nootropic components in our blends. Intense cognitive work requires resources. By providing individualized comprehensive nutritional, stress, and antioxidant support, the nootropics are much more effective than just nootropics alone.


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