Disclaimer: None of the information in this article constitutes medical advice, and is just the opinion of the writer(s). We recommend that patients follow their doctor’s guidance in regard to prescription medication and nootropics.
Adderall is a prescription drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a stimulant 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. The risk of addiction to Adderall is established in medical research.
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 (cognitive-enhancing) supplements that have significant research backing.
In this review, we'll highlight five natural Adderall alternatives that are backed by science. In each section we'll share published medical research showing the efficacy and safety of the supplement.
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 to improve focus for thousands of years.
A clinical trial published in the Phytomedicine journal found that ginkgo biloba extract improved free recall (an aspect of memory) in healthy, middle-aged volunteers.
Another medical 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 mental impairment, like Alzheimer’s. Ginkgo appears to be able to improve short-term cognitive function even in healthy, young volunteers.
The safety profile of ginkgo biloba is excellent. A study on adverse event profiles (bad reactions) found that ginkgo caused no more side effects than placebo. Another study analyzed the toxicity of ginkgo and found the plant to have a favorable safety profile when used at an appropriate dose.
Illuminate Labs manufactures a ginkgo biloba extract supplement that's potent (standardized to minimum 24% flavone glycosides and 6% terpene lactones) and third-party tested to ensure purity and label accuracy.
Interested consumers can check out Illuminate Labs Ginkgo Biloba Extract at this link.
Panax Ginseng Extract
Panax ginseng is one of the oldest herbal supplements on the market. It’s often called “Red Ginseng” or “Asian Ginseng," and is a different variety from American ginseng.
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; similar to Adderall use.
One of the more profound effects of ginseng supplementation which makes it a viable Adderall alternative in our opinion is its ability to reduce mental fatigue in subjects under mental stress.
A clinical trial published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology 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 (blood-sugar-reducing) effects. People under stress typically experience increased blood sugar levels as a direct effect of the stress, and ginseng may normalize these levels which improves cognitive function and performance.
Ginseng may also improve memory. A meta-study published in 2013 found ginseng to improve both cognition and memory.
The study authors concluded that panax ginseng supplementation “exerted overwhelmingly positive effects” on function across different cognitive domains. Ginseng was found to be particularly effective in regard to memory and tasks which require memory recall.
Ginseng has a favorable safety profile.
A 2017 medical review concluded that “ginseng has had nearly no toxic effects in case of controlled intake.” This means that so long as consumers use a reasonable dosage of ginseng as informed by the label, side effects are unlikely.
Illuminate Labs manufactures a panax ginseng extract supplement that's potent (standardized to minimum 8% ginsenosides) and third-party tested to ensure purity and label accuracy.
Interested consumers can check out Illuminate Labs Panax Ginseng Extract at this link.
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, meaning the more is used (to a limit), the more cognition improves.
A meta-study published in the Nutrients journal compared cognitive ability and mood in subjects drinking caffeinated coffee compared with placebo. Those in the caffeinated coffee group outperformed on nearly every metric, including information processing speed, digit vigilance, mental fatigue and many more criteria.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that coffee is one of the safest nootropic compounds, since about 80% of Americans drink it regularly. 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 such as those with cardiovascular disease do not appear to increase risk from moderate intake of coffee, likely because the phytonutrients in coffee are cardioprotective.
We only recommend black coffee consumption, as added sugar makes it less healthy (and is worse for cognition).
We recommend Bulletproof Coffee as a healthy and clean coffee brand that's tested for toxins and has no questionable additive ingredients like flavoring agents.
Interested consumers can check out Bulletproof Coffee at this link.
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 any of the compounds previously reviewed in this article, and has to do primarily with stress-reduction.
A medical review published in 2010 concluded that rhodiola improved cognitive function by reducing salivary cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone, so this suggests that rhodiola favorably modulates how the body deals with stress, and the improvements to cognition are a secondary effect.
Rhodiola may also have the capacity to improve memory. A landmark meta-study from 2018 found that rhodiola improved memory in a statistically significant manner, after reviewing 36 clinical trials on the topic.
The study authors in the above-linked review found that rhodiola rosea extract has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. Rhodiola appears to improve 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 noted a favorable safety profile for rhodiola. A more thorough study published 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.”
Gaia Herbs manufactures a rhodiola rosea extract supplement that's potent (standardized to 5% rosavins) and tested for pesticides and heavy metals.
Interested consumers can check out Gaia Herbs Rhodiola Rosea Extract at this link.
Bacopa Monnieri Extract
Bacopa monnieri 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 rather than raw powder, and is typically standardized for bacosides, which is the active chemical compound in bacopa.
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 cognitive decline in those with diagnosed mental conditions.
A medical review published in 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 or a placebo pill. 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 herb, while the group taking placebo saw their scores fall slightly. This study is important because it involved a test group that already had high cognitive abilities. 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 found that only 2.3% of participants in all reviewed studies experienced mild side effects.
Nootropics Depot manufactures a bacopa monnieri extract supplement that's within the effective dosing range evidenced in the clinical trials cited above.
Interested consumers can check out Nootropics Depot Bacopa Monnieri Extract at this link.
Why Do We Recommend Herbal Supplements Over 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 human cognitive function.
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 a supplement or medication 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 attained legally. 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.
There are also a host of nootropic technologies being developed recently like Neuralink, and these hardware devices, while still nascent, may in five years be able to target cognitive function in novel ways not achievable through supplementation.