Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
Adderall is a prescription pharmaceutical drug designed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a stimulant compound that improves focus and concentration. It’s very effective in doing so, but may come with the risk of long-term negative effects on health, as well as dependency. It has been reported that up to 35% of college students may use stimulant medications like Adderall off-label, and the number is increasing.
Many consumers are looking for a more natural alternative to Adderall; they seek a supplement that improves focus and concentration without the risks of toxicity or addiction. There are several nootropic compounds that have been used medicinally for just this purpose for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, which carry superior safety profiles to synthetic prescription drugs like Adderall.
The term “nootropic” refers to a class of compounds that improve cognitive function short-term. It’s important to note that there has yet to be a compound discovered which permanently improves cognition. People generally take nootropics to aid their productivity while completing mentally-demanding tasks, like a test or their job responsibilities.
In this review, we will examine several natural Adderall alternatives that are backed by science. We will look at published medical research to understand how these herbal supplements work, and their respective safety profiles.
1. Ginkgo Biloba Extract
One of the most popular supplements for cognitive enhancement is ginkgo biloba extract. This supplement is formulated by extracting the leaves of a tree native to China called the Maidenhair Tree. It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years.
Ginkgo has been thoroughly studied by researchers across the globe. The medical research standard used for this compound is “24/6”, or 24% flavone glycosides, 6% terpene lactones. These are the primary chemical constituents that are thought to cause its nootropic effects. Most of the studies on ginkgo biloba use this standardization ratio, which is why we standardize our Ginkgo Biloba Extract Capsules to the exact same standard. The reason why herbal supplements are often standardized is because this process increases the concentration of the key chemical constituents, and guarantees potency.
You’re probably wondering, “does this herbal supplement actually work?” Thankfully, there are a ton of placebo-controlled studies testing whether it does. A study in the Phytomedicine journal found that ginkgo biloba extract improved free recall in healthy, middle-aged volunteers. Another clinical trial found that ginkgo biloba extract enhanced attention and cognitive performance in healthy young volunteers. These results are especially impressive considering that nootropic effects are usually more pronounced in populations with some level of impairment, like Alzheimer’s. The fact that ginkgo can improve cognition in healthy volunteers of various ages is astounding.
The safety profile of ginkgo biloba is excellent. A study on adverse event profiles (bad reactions) found that ginkgo was no different than inert placebo compounds. Another study looked more at the toxicity of ginkgo and found that ginkgo had a good safety profile when used in the correct dosages.
2. Rhodiola Rosea Extract
Rhodiola rosea is a flowering plant grown primarily in Europe. It’s commonly referred to as “golden root” for its visual appearance. The extract of this plant falls in a chemical class called “adaptogens.” This class of compounds has the ability to stabilize psychological processes in humans and improve cognition.
The mechanism of action of Rhodiola rosea as a cognitive enhancement tool and alternative to Adderall is different from ginkgo biloba extract. A meta-study from 2010 in the Phytomedicine journal concluded that Rhodiola improved cognitive function by bringing salivary cortisol levels into homeostasis. Cortisol levels which are too high, typically caused by long-term stress, can negatively impact cognitive function. This means that Rhodiola actually improves cognition in an adaptogenic manner.
Rhodiola may also have the capacity to improve memory. A landmark meta-study from 2018 in the journal Frontiers concluded that rhodiola improved memory in a statistically significant manner, after reviewing 36 studies on the topic. What’s especially interesting about this study is the manner in which this supplement is proposed to work: primarily through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action, among others. Rhodiola improves cognition by positively modulating biological processes which can harm cognition, rather than by directly improving cognitive processes themselves.
Rhodiola has been safety-tested thoroughly in various medical research papers. This study from 2015 found a favorable safety profile. A more thorough study in the Medicinal Research Reviews journal found that rhodiola had “no chronic and acute toxicity under the experimental conditions at their therapeutic windows or far beyond.”
3. Panax Ginseng Extract
Panax ginseng is one of the oldest herbal supplements on the market. It’s often called “Red Ginseng” or “Asian Ginseng”. There are different types of ginseng, the second most popular being American Ginseng, which has different effects. Panax ginseng is the most well-studied type of ginseng, and the type typically used for nootropic effects. Increased energy is often a secondary benefit of this supplement, not unlike Adderall supplementation.
One of the more profound effects of ginseng supplementation which makes it a viable Adderall alternative is its ability to reduce mental fatigue in subjects under mental stress. A double-blind study from 2005 found that subjects taking ginseng for a series of mentally demanding tests outperformed those taking placebo. The researchers suggested that the improvement may be due to ginseng’s gluco-regulatory function. Subjects under stress typically see increased glucose levels as a direct effect of the stress, and ginseng can bring these levels back to the normal range which causes optimal cognitive functioning.
Ginseng may also be able to directly improve cognitive function. A meta-study from 2013 published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found ginseng to improve both cognition and memory. The herbal supplement was benchmarked against modafinil, a synthetic stimulant typically used for similar reasons to Adderall, and concluded that both compounds “exerted overwhelmingly positive effects” on function across different cognitive domains. Ginseng was found to be particularly effective in regards to memory and tasks which require memory recall.
Another reason that ginseng makes a great alternative to Adderall is its fantastic safety profile. As one of the most well-studied herbal supplements in the world, there is extensive safety and toxicity research to draw from. A study from 2017 concluded that “ginseng has had nearly no toxic effects in case of controlled intake.” In layman’s terms, this means that so long as you take a reasonable dosage of ginseng as informed by the label, it’s highly unlikely that you will experience any health effects. The same cannot be said of Adderall. Our ginseng capsules are thoroughly tested for safety by multiple laboratories, and the test results are published on each product page.
4. Black Coffee
Coffee is the original nootropic, and the one with the most proven effects. Its predominant compound caffeine is thought to be responsible for most of the nootropic effects. Caffeine tends to show benefit in a dose-dependent manner up to a bioindividual limit, so people looking to replace Adderall may need to start on higher doses of coffee to experience a similar effect.
A thorough review was published comparing cognitive ability and mood in subjects drinking caffeinated coffee compared with placebo in the journal Nutrients in 2018. Those in the caffeinated coffee group outperformed on basically every metric, including information processing speed, digit vigilance, mental fatigue and many more criteria.
Since it's already been established in previous research covered above that inflammation and glucose dysregulation may negatively impact cognition, it may be advisable to stick to black coffee for those looking for nootropic effects. Adding cream and sugar may improve taste, but it will likely come at the cost of inflammation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that coffee is one of the safest nootropic compounds known to man, since about 85% of Americans drink it. It used to be recommended against for patients with cardiovascular risk factors, but a meta-study from 2017 published in the Expert Review of Cardiovascular Therapy journal found that even at-risk groups may not be taking on any additional risk by consuming coffee. The only toxicity risk from coffee comes from caffeine, and it would be nearly impossible to consume enough caffeine by drinking coffee to reach a lethal dose.
5. Bacopa Monnieri Extract
This herb has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years for its perceived benefits to brain health. It’s a perennial herb native to India. Much of the medical research on bacopa monnieri for nootropic effect uses the extract form, typically standardized for bacosides.
What makes bacopa monnieri an exciting potential alternative to Adderall is that it not only improves cognitive function in healthy adults, but even shows promise in fixing cognitive disorders and decline in those with diagnosed conditions. A 2013 meta-study from the Rejuvenation Research journal analyzed nearly 150 previous studies on bacopa and concluded that the herb “demonstrates immense potential in the amelioration of cognitive disorders.”
An interesting study on bacopa came out in 2019. The clinical trial examined cognitive abilities of medical students in a test setting when taking bacopa vs. a placebo. The group taking bacopa saw their scores improve to a statistically significant degree relative to placebo, and the memory task had the most striking results. The group taking bacopa for the memory test saw their scores nearly double after supplementing the compound, while the group taking placebo saw their scores fall slightly. This study is important because it was a test group that already had high cognitive abilities, as evidenced by their studies. The fact that supplementing bacopa could increase cognitive function of a group with already advanced cognitive function is notable.
The safety profile of bacopa monnieri is strong. A systematic review from 2016 published in the Complementary Therapies in Medicine journal found that only 2.3% of participants in all reviewed studies experienced mild side effects.
Why Do We Recommend Plant Compounds Rather Than Synthetic Nootropics?
There are interesting synthetic nootropic stimulants like modafinil and adrafinil (and many more) which are getting a lot of buzz in biohacking circles. We support continued research of these compounds and any other compound, natural or synthetic, that shows promise in improving the human condition.
However as of today, we don’t believe that the safety profiles of most synthetic nootropic compounds are well-established enough to warrant recommendation. Even for those interested in biohacking by all means, it makes sense to start with herbal nootropic compounds from a risk assessment perspective. If one can achieve the desired cognitive effect without taking on additional risk, it makes logical sense to do so.
Are These Herbal Nootropics As Potent as Adderall?
The subjective focus and concentration benefits one achieves from an exogenous compound will all depend on the individual. Every person responds slightly differently to every compound. However as a general rule, most herbal nootropics aren’t as powerful as Adderall.
Because Adderall is an amphetamine, it’s one of the most stimulating compounds that can be used on a daily basis. Just because it can be, and often is prescribed for daily use in the U.S., doesn’t mean that it should be in our opinion. We encourage users of Adderall to speak with their doctor about alternatives that may be safer for long-term use. It’s ultimately up to the patient to decide how much risk they are willing to take to achieve nootropic effect.
Please speak with your doctor or other licensed healthcare professional before discontinuing Adderall use. None of the content on this site is or should be considered as medical advice. The purpose of this article is just to highlight relevant research papers for those curious about potential alternatives to Adderall.
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