Much like fantastic beasts, you can indeed find brain-boosting herbs in the wilds of New York City, or any city with a health or herbal supplement store, for that matter. You can also leverage that Amazon.com magic to get your hands on some serious brain-boosting power.
But what are the brain herbs that you want to pay attention to?
While all the things that come to mind when you hear the word ‘herbs,’ like parsley and rosemary, have powerful health benefits, certain plants like bacopa, ashwagandha, ginseng, periwinkle, and ginkgo biloba have been associated with special brain-boosting properties.
It’s worth noting that bacopa, ashwagandha, and ginseng are all in a class of herbs called adaptogens. These herbs directly help improve your body’s ability to adapt to and cope with stress, whether it’s a stressful job, noisy environment, cold, hot, or any other stressor. In general, adaptogens help with energy, stamina, endurance and mental clarity.
Bacopa is found in the Water Hyssyp, a perennial herb native to Asia, although it’s now spread to other parts of the world – it could be growing in your garden right now! Bacopa has been used for centuries to treat a variety of brain and cognition related maladies, including memory and learning, and multitudes of studies support the conclusion that its effects are real.
Several double-blind studies have reported on bacopa’s memory enhancing effects, and have even suggested that it could be used to help prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, studies have shown that bacopa improves higher order cognitive processes that are essential for interpreting information from our environment, leading to improved memory and retention. It’s also possible that bacopa can help heal the brain; observations of bacopa’s activity have suggested that it’s neuroprotective and helps heal mild brain damage and support neuron growth.
In addition to its memory-enhancing properties, Bacopa has also been identified as an anti-oxidant, and helps support your immune system. It’s also been used to treat stomach ulcers, making it a real jack-of-all-trades. It’s very difficult to take bacopa at a toxic level, and it’s readily available all over if you’re looking to give it a whirl!
Learn more powerful information about bacopa as our Brain Boosting Herbs series continues with this bacopa deep dive.
Like bacopa, ashwagandha is also native to Asia, growing primarily in the drier regions of India, Nepal, and Yemen.
Ashwagandha is well known in women’s health as an herb that supports hormonal balance, fertility and thyroid function, but its benefits extend well beyond the endocrine system and into the brain. In addition to its endocrine effects, ashwagandha is neuroprotective and supports the extension, or growth, of dendrites (neurons) in human body, so it’s possible to say that ashwagandha can help give you a big head! It also helps treat oxidative damage and physiological abnormalities in the brain.
Some studies have suggested that ashwagandha is also anti-inflammatory and useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. The jury still seems to be out on that one, but a variety of patients have found relief.
Ginseng and ashwagandha often go hand-in-hand and are used widely as geriatric tonics, or energy support supplements for the elderly. Users of ginseng in a variety of studies have reported improved overall well-being, as well as improved sleep, sex, energy, life and personal satisfaction.
There are over 40 ginsenosides, or derivatives of ginseng, that are active and positively affect the human body; scientists are currently in the process of identifying and applying individual ginsenosides to patients with a variety or brain and vascular maladies. It’s been shown that ginseng improves strategic learning in both normal and brain-damaged rats, so there’s a high likelihood that humans might experience similar effects.
Vinpocetine is derivative of an alkaloid found in periwinkle. It’s long been used in Europe for the treatment of cerebral senility, or dementia. It’s neuroprotective, and protects the brain from the damaging proteins called amyloid beta that can cause degradation of the neurons. Vinpocetine blocks certain receptors in the brain that promote development of Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that it can prevent the onset of the disease.
Vinpocetine has also been used to treat cognitive impairments such as dementia and traumatic brain injury. One study revealed that individuals who took 30 to 60mg daily improved memory, reasoning, attention and information processing through increasing blood flow to the brain, and another study of retired NFL players showed direct improvement of cognitive function.
This last compound comes from the maidenhair tree, or the Chinese gingko tree, and has been used for centuries as a powerful medication. Today, it’s so commonly used in Europe that it’s considered a prescription herb.
Gingko biloba is widely used to treat brain injuries, improve memory, and reduce inflammation. Originally, doctors attributed thought these effects occurred because the gingko improved blood flow to the brain, but now we know that it’s neuroprotective quality actually causes those effects, like many of the other herbs discussed in this article.
That’s not to say that gingko doesn’t improve blood flow. One of its two main components, terpenoids, improve blood flow by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of platelets. This means that gingko helps improve circulation and can help patients with circulation issues like Reynaud’s phenomenon; one study showed that those took gingko over a 10-week period had significantly reduced symptoms.
The other main compound, flavonoids, are antioxidants that protect nerves, heart muscle, blood vessels and retina from damage. One of the main causes of age-related memory decline is because of decreases in membrane fluidity caused by oxidative stress. Gingko protects neurons from the oxidative stress, improving memory outcomes.
In addition, gingko reduces symptoms related to multiple chronic diseases including asthma, ADHD, and dementia.
Despite their foreign origins, any of the herbs discussed above can be found on Amazon or at your local natural foods store. Periwinkle might be the hardest to find, but since the herbs share many similar qualities, it’s likely that one of the other herbs can suit your needs in a pinch.
All of these make great gifts for family members struggling with memory decline or just hoping to improve their cognition and well-being. Keep an eye out for Wise Ape functional teas which contain several of these powerful brain boosting herbs!
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