Longevity Articles

Herbs For Brain Health

How do long-held beliefs about herbs for brain health stand up against scientific scrutiny?

Are there herbs for brain health?  Yes, certain herbs have long been associated with the enhancement of cognitive abilities and functions.  We decided to explore the efficacy of some of these nootropic herbs for brain health.  Asia's two principal traditional medical systems - Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Ayurvedic system out of India - have both identified and utilized plant-based medicines that allegedly support brain health.  But how do these long-held beliefs match up with our current scientific knowledge?

There is a large body of emerging scientific evidence which demonstrates that dietary supplementation with nootropic herbs, vitamins, minerals, and other natural ingredients, combined with healthy lifestyles, may slow the rate of cognitive decline seen with aging individuals and help delay the onset of impaired cognitive function with age-associated diseases [1] [2] [3].  (Please refer to reference list at the end of this article.)

How Cognitive Ability Is Affected By Age

Older individuals commonly experience some degree of cognitive health decline which can be as simple as intermittent memory loss.  In more severe cases, this neurodegeneration can manifest as Alzheimer's Disease, or other forms of dementia.

The most important changes in cognitive ability associated with normal aging are declines in performance on cognitive tasks that require one to quickly process information in order to make decisions.  This includes information processing speed, a properly functioning memory, and executive cognitive function..

Cognitive abilities usually decline in older individuals.

Executive function, in this context, refers to complex cognitive skills, upon which simpler brain activities depend.  Executive cognitive activities are primarily associated with the frontal lobe and involve how we organize thoughts and information, and how we adjust and adapt to environmental changes.  These activities also include our ability to multi-task, our verbal coherency, how we plan activities, and how we store, retrieve, and integrate information.

Functional and structural changes in the brain correlate with these age-associated cognitive changes, including alterations in neuronal structure, loss of synapses, and compromised neuronal networks.  Age-associated diseases accelerate the rate of cognitive decline, neuronal loss, and neuronal dysfunction.  Many people develop cognitive impairments severe enough to impact their ability to function in simple, everyday situations.

A healthy brain is critical for older people to function independently.  It can impact whether someone can communicate effectively, drive safely, manage finances, and take medications correctly.  With the rapidly increasing number of adults over 65, the overall incidence of age-associated neurodegenerative dementia, like Alzheimer's Disease, is increasing.  The number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease is expected to increase to 13.8 million people in 2050.

Ginkgo biloba has been long-associated with enhanced cognitive ability.

Four Traditional Herbs For Brain Health

1. Ginkgo Biloba - The leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree have for centuries been widely associated with their brain-boosting qualities, both in India's Ayurvedic medical system, and in traditional Chinese Medicine.  The ginkgo tree was threatened with extinction during the ice age, but survived in China, and it is believed to be one of China's oldest living tree species.  Ginkgo biloba has been clinically studied for many conditions including dementia, peripheral vascular disease, claudication, cerebral insufficiency, tinnitus, memory impairment, ischemic stroke, asthma, and vertigo.  The PubMed database includes over four-thousand references to Ginkgo [4].

One study showed it to be effective in the treatment of ADHD (attention deficit disorder) [5]. Another study documented its antipsychotic properties [6].  In controlled studies, Ginkgo biloba extract was found to be effective in the treatment of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) [7].

The Ginkgo's major classes of active ingredients are the ginkgolides and bilobalides (also known as terpenes) and the flavonoids.  Ginkgo biloba leaf extract contains high concentrations of flavonol and flavone glycosides, bilobalide, lactone derivatives (ginkgolides), catechin, iron-based superoxide, protocatechuic acid, ascorbic acid, sterols and vanillic acid.

2. Curcumin - Curcumin is a phytochemical (polyphenol) found in turmeric, a primary component of curry, a mainstay of the Indian diet.  Curcumin has long been recognized for its anti-inflammatory properties in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, which is supported by scientific research [8] [9].

Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, a component of curry.

It has been shown to target multiple signaling molecules while also working at the cellular level, which helps account for its many health benefits [10]. It has been shown to benefit metabolic syndrome [10], and pain [11]. In addition, it has been shown to benefit the kidneys [12]. While there appear to be many therapeutic benefits to supplementing with curcumin, most of these benefits are believed to be due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects [13,14].

A recent controlled study, conducted by U.C.L.A. researchers, published online Jan. 19, 2019, in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, demonstrates curcumin's memory-boosting ability in healthy older adults, and its ability to protect against age-related neurodegenerative disorders (dementia) [15].

3. Ashwagandha - Ashwagandha is an ‘adaptogen', meaning that it facilitates a person's ability to adapt to stress and the ups and downs of everyday life.  Here in the West, we might refer to ashwagandha as a ‘tonic', because it affords a broad spectrum of health benefits, including the homeostasis of physiological systems and the stabilization of physiological processes.  Ashwagandha is one of the most studied herbs with over two thousand references to it listed in the PubMed PMC database [16].

Ashwagandha lowers cortisol, the hormone secreted during times of stress.

The use of Ashwagandha in Indian culture can be traced back thousands of years.  Traditionally, it has been used as a general tonic, aphrodisiac, narcotic, diuretic, anthelmintic, astringent, thermogenic, for rheumatism, constipation, insomnia, nervous conditions, and as a stimulant [17].

Its cognitive benefits have been well-documented, including one study showing it lowering levels of cortisol, the hormone secreted during times of stress [18].  Other studies have shown ashwagandha to improve cognitive function, to be bioprotective of brain cells exposed to HIV and Alzheimer's, and protective against neurodegeneration [19] [20] [21].

Ashwagandha's primary active components include saponins and the lactones withanolides and withaferins.  The Sitoindosides and acyl steryl glucosides in Ashwagandha are anti-stress agents [17].

4. Bacopa monnieri - Bacopa has recently been referred to as the new ‘smart pill'.  But there isn't anything new about Bacopa.  Indians have been using this remarkable herb for thousands of years.  Bacopa monnieri is an important component in Ayurveda, India's traditional medical system.  The earliest descriptions of Bacopa are found in some sixth century C.E. texts, which claim the herb's ability to sharpen the intellect and to boost cognitive abilities.  It was allegedly used by ancient Vedic scholars to help them memorize lengthy passages of scriptures and hymns.  It has been traditionally given to Indian school children to promote alertness and learning ability.

Bacopa monnieri was used for centuries by Vedic scholars to help memorize lengthy scriptures.

Like Ashwagandha, Bacopa affords an array of health benefits, which include:

  • Brain (cognitive) enhancement - Human studies on adults over 60 have demonstrated improved speed of processing information, learning rate, and enhanced memory compared to placebo [22].  Animal studies have shown improved learning and information retention, and an increase in the length and branching in dendrites, nerve cells closely linked to learning and memory [23]. Two human studies found that bacopa significantly reduced depression and anxiety compared to placebo [22]. Another study showed a lowering the body's stress hormone, cortisol.

  • Anti-inflammatory -Bacopa appears to suppress the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines [24], which are molecules that trigger the inflammatory immune response. Laboratory studies have shown that it inhibits enzymes that play important roles in inflammation and pain.  It has also been shown to be comparable in effectiveness to two common anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals, Diclofenac and Indomethacin [25], [26].

  • Antioxidant - Bacopa contains bacosides, saponins which have been shown to neutralize free radicals.  The damage caused by free radicals in the brain has been linked to Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders [27].
  • Blood pressure stabilization - Animal studies have shown bacopa to lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels in rats with elevated levels, without affecting rats with normal levels to begin with [29].

  • These four traditional herbal nootropics - Ginkgo biloba, Curcumin, Ashwagandha, and Bacopa monnieri -- all believed for centuries to be cognitive boosters -- do appear to stand up to scientific scrutiny.  Research studies seem to confirm their abilities to increase alertness, concentration, memory, and other brain-related functions.
  1. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2017/4624069/
  2. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/682717/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5021479/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=ginkgo+biloba
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25925875
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29373456
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25925875
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29115448
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27703331
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535097/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3964021/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3814973/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3535097/
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2637808/
  15. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1064748117305110?via%3Dihub
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=ashwagndha
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5871210/
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5976976/
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3797707/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3214041/
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23320031
  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12213536
  24. https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27473605
  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18534796
  26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20607614
  27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5976976/
  28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5568221
  29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21762768

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