Adaptogens and Nootropics — The Brainfood You Didn’t Know You Need

Although the terms “adaptogen” and “nootropic” have been around for nearly a century and a half, respectively, they are frequently mentioned, for good reason, in the growing conversation around neurohacking. 

Many plants and herbs like reishi and lion’s mane work as both adaptogens and nootropics. Because of this, the words are often used interchangeably. 

And even when a plant cannot be categorized as both, the health benefits of an adaptogen may also aid brain and body health in similar ways to a nootropic.

Despite being used interchangeably, there are still some key differences in the root meanings of the words and some of the specific functions of adaptogens (targeting stress) and nootropics (targeting cognitive health). 


Dr. Nicolai Lazarev was the first to use the term “adaptogen'' in the late 1940s while studying the body’s response to stressors

Simply, an adaptogen should:

  • Be nontoxic in regulated doses and come from plants
  • Help the body maintain balance by adapting to stressors
  • Cause minimal to no side effects outside of its expected function

Make no mistake, though the word may be from recent history, adaptogens have been used for thousands of years in many traditional medicine practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine. 

Historically, these plant-based remedies have been used preventatively and for treatments to help the body pick out responses that cause inflammation, anxiety, stress, aging, low-immunity, low-fertility, and much more. 

Although adaptogens are defined by being nonspecific, there are a variety of herbs or mushrooms that may be taken for targeted benefits, such as cordyceps for fatigue or oyster mushrooms for immune support. 

Personalizing adaptogen intake by safely combining different different sources, such as the sea moss and mushroom blend in the Smart Shrooms supplement, is one way to work towards a well rounded approach to health. 

How Do Adaptogens Target Stress?

Adaptogens assist the body in dealing with different kinds of stressors such as “physical, chemical, and biological” through communication with the adrenal glands.

When the adrenal glands are not functioning as they should, there is a domino effect of health issues that disrupt many necessary functions in the body.

Among all of their other tasks, the adrenal glands are well known for producing cortisol, the “stress hormone.” When adaptogens are doing their job, they are assisting the adrenal glands in balancing cortisol levels. 

For example, if you are stressed before a big presentation, adaptogens will help lower your cortisol levels. On the flip side, if you are overworked and feeling mentally or physically fatigued, the adaptogens will help raise them. 

As a whole, adaptogens are excellent resources to support the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. 

What Are Some Adaptogens? 

The most well-known adaptogens include herbs like ashwagandha, rhodiola, and both the American and Asian ginseng. 

Having said that, there is promising research about the adaptogenic qualities of the following mushrooms:

  • Chaga: This mushroom is great for those who are particularly susceptible to regularly catching the common cold. Chaga was found to help immunity by pushing the body to create more white blood cells, in turn fighting off the bacteria and viruses that cause illnesses. 
  • Cordyceps: A 2015 article related the findings that cordyceps help the body resist its stress response and is effective at fighting fatigue related to physical activity.
  • Maitake: Another more recent study shared the exciting news that maitake has been documented to fight the reproduction of cancer cells and limit their growth. 

These three examples only scratch the surface of all the researched adaptogenic health benefits of mushrooms and just how many fall under the adaptogen and nootropic bubbles. 

Mushrooms gathered in a basket propped on a bed of moss


The key difference to home in on between adaptogens and nootropics is the non-specificity of adaptogens. They are great for general health, but do not target specific brain functions in the same way as nootropics.  

The word itself was coined by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1970s. Nootropic comes from the Greek words νουσ (noos) for mind and τρɛπɛιν (tropein) for bend or turn. 

Originally used only in a pharmacological context, Giurgea defined nootropics as having the abilities to improve:

  • Knowledge acquisition
  • Control over muscles
  • The brain’s response to chemical imbalances

Another important aspect of nootropics is that they should not cause the usual pharmacological side effects and should not act as a sedative. 

Adderall is an example of a nootropic from the pharmaceutical industry.

How Do Nootropics Work?

There is still much the scientific community does not know about the brain’s many intricacies, so the manifold theories about how nootropics work are educated guesses until more research can be done. 

The thoughts are that nootropics increase oxygen in the brain; they support neurotransmitter availability, activity, and adaptability; and they prevent or reverse the processes associated with age-related cognitive decline. 

Diseases Affecting Cognitive Function

A number of neurological and psychiatric diseases currently exist that affect cognitive function including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia. 

Unfortunately, the medication that currently exists is not always the most effective when it comes to improving cognitive abilities.

Natural Nootropics

While natural nootropics may address some of these diseases’ symptoms and even work for prevention, they can also be used for personal improvement in concentration, creativity, and focus. 

A few accessible nootropics include: 

  • Lion’s Mane: Some evidence suggests that lion’s mane mushroom can be an effective antidepressant by raising BDNF levels, a protein not only linked with depression but also with memory impairments when too low. 
  • Reishi: This mushroom has had encouraging results in studies for its anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects which may in turn help those struggling with insomnia. 
  • Sea Moss: Though sea moss is not usually categorized as a nootropic, it contains many vitamins and minerals that have been documented as natural memory and mood enhancers including the B-vitamins, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Ways Stress Can Affect the Body

Stress impacts all systems of the body and can increase the risk of possibly deadly diseases like heart attack or stroke if not dealt with early enough. 

Holistic Ways to Manage Stress

If it is not possible to completely cut out sources of stress, there are other ways to reduce the body’s harmful response to it: 

  • Meditating and reaching out to a healthy support network
  • Supporting the body with nootropic/adaptogenic supplements like Sea Moss + Smart Shrooms
  • Engaging in non-work activities to keep the brain active (i.e. puzzles, reading, sudoku, etc.)
  • Performing any kind of physical activity (something as simple as stretching while watching tv to maybe a more intense cardio workout)
  • Keeping to a schedule of getting the appropriate amount of sleep for the body as regularly as possible

Finally, even though they are natural, supplements may still interact negatively with the body if taken with certain medication or not taken in correct doses. 

Exercise caution and consult with your physician especially if you have a bleeding disorder, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or taking medication for diabetes, high blood pressure, or slowing down blood-clotting.