Adaptogens Versus Nootropics: What's The Difference?

Although science has yet to discover the secret to eternal life, various supplements exist to help combat cognitive decline and stress. According to The American Institute of Stress, about 55% of Americans have reported being stressed during the day. Stress affects various facets of our life and can cause physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral symptoms (via WebMD). 

Despite the bad press, stress isn't always a bad thing. It's the body's natural response to danger or new challenges, according to MedicalNewsToday. Excess stress is what causes a problem for most people. It significantly contributes to the six leading causes of death in the U.S., according to a 2008 study published in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences.

This likely explains the rise in stress management and mental health remedies, like adaptogens and nootropics — but what are these substances, and how are they beneficial? Although used interchangeably, adaptogens and nootropics have entirely different functions. Let's unblur the lines and address their specific benefits.

What's the difference between adaptogens and nootropics?

As it turns out, adaptogens can help your body adjust to physical, chemical, and biological stress, according to WebMD. People who regularly consume adaptogens may be able to resist stress due to the anti-fatigue, neuroprotective, and anti-depressive characteristics of adaptogens, as noted in a 2010 study published in the journal Pharmaceuticals. Adaptogens can also help improve mood, balance hormones, reduce fatigue, and improve the immune system, per the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The university also suggests that adaptogens may impact post-surgery recovery and other treatments.

Like adaptogens, the American Medical Association explains that nootropics — also known as smart drugs — are gaining ground because of their perceived impact on cognitive functions that help with memory, learning, or intelligence. The association has identified more than 100 nootropics advertised as having the ability to boost performance. However, the safety and efficacy of these products have yet to be established. For this reason, the association calls for more research into the risks and benefits of nootropics.

Generally speaking, the difference between adaptogens and nootropics is that the former is perceived to reduce stress, while the latter appears more useful for cognitive performance.

How to use adaptogens and nootropics

According to the Cleveland Clinic, adaptogens are often sold as capsules and tinctures. Since adaptogens come mostly in plant form, you can dry the leaves, grind them up, and mix them with hot water to enjoy a beverage. As for nootropics, they're available in numerous food products and over-the-counter supplements, as stated by Healthline. Some nootropics like caffeine, omega-3 fatty acids, and L-theanine are sold over the counter and don't require a doctor's prescription before use. Others, like modafinil, require a prescription.

Despite the various benefits of adaptogens and nootropics, it's important to be cautious with herbal supplements and consult with a health expert before consuming any product. Your doctor or nutritionist can let you know what dosage is safe to consume. Also, be aware that some adaptogens can interact with medications, which might do more harm than good, according to UCLA. Besides interacting with medications, adaptogens aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Furthermore, there's little evidence proving the efficacy of these drugs or products, which makes it difficult to adopt adaptogens as a permanent solution.