Herbs for Cognitive Health

Recently, I have been approached or asked about mental acuity and mental fog over and over again and so I wanted to sit down and discuss some of the things we can do to help with focus, memory and general brain health. 

It is really no wonder that many people are struggling in this area. We live in an age and time where we have so many things competing for our attention. As Jenny Odell puts it in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, we live in an age where the currency is our attention, and we are being pulled in a million different directions. We now struggle with doing things like daydreaming or staring out of the window or being present in a way that doesn’t include us DOING something. Social media, ads, TV shows, work, emails, texts and more, have made us all unable to focus or to do one task with our utmost attention. Moreover, living through a pandemic has been hard. Many of us have children at home and we are working, rearing, cooking, and doing so much but forgetting to get outside and just be with nature or simply be still. Our minds cannot function at that pace without being compromised in some way. We can become forgetful, feel brain fog, tired and generally exhausted. More seriously, early signs of Alzheimers Disease (AD) or dementia can start to creep up.

As we transition out of winter into spring we may notice the state of our cognitive health, as we begin to awaken to the world around us. Whether you’re looking to improve focus and concentration, enhance memory or protect your brain from decline, herbal medicine has a lot to offer. For one, herbs can improve circulation to the brain, bringing in fresh oxygen and nutrients to keep the nerve cells well-fed. They can also protect those nerves and thus stave off senility, by reducing inflammation and improving nerve communications (both chemical and electrical). Nootropics are an increasingly trendy topic, and for good reason. But keeping your mind agile and avoiding Alzheimer’s isn’t something you can accomplish just by taking some supplements or drinking some tea – even with the best herbs in the world. As always, take a look at your lifestyle and then supplement those lifestyle changes with herbs.

Feed Your Brain: Get those Omega-3s; Ditch the Omega-6s!

Did you know that fat is good for your brain? The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat and holds about 25% of the body’s cholesterol!

Studies have shown that low rates of saturated fat may be detrimental to your health. Because our brains are very fatty and need fat in order to function well, it is important to understand what type of fats are conducive to brain health and which fats are bad for our brains. The healthy fats help the brain function more efficiently.  They are characterized as omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy fats are typically found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines as well as avocados, nuts and seeds. But choose your saturated fats wisely and with moderation you can, put grass fed beef, free range chicken eggs and coconut oil back into your diet.

Bad or unhealthy fats are found in foods high in trans-fatty acids or saturated fats. These unhealthy fats can do damage to the brain over time and are commonly found in fast foods and fried foods. Today a typical person will consume nearly fifteen times more bad fat then good fat. This is a significantly unhealthy balance that increases the risk of brain dysfunction from a variety of disorders, such as cerebrovascular disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. Intake of bad fats, including trans-fatty acids, saturated fats, and omega-6 fatty acids, can lead to a breakdown of plasticity of brain cells, creating less efficient information processing. One type of oil that is of concern is canola oil. Canola oil is a seed oil that is widely used in both cooking and food processing and is in almost ALL processed or packaged foods.

Don’t be Afraid of Cholesterol!

The brain requires cholesterol to help neurons form connections with other neurons. These neuron connections are the vital links that underlie memory and learning. Therefore, the more neurons you have connecting with other neurons, the healthier your brain will be. Cholesterol is an important raw material from which your body makes Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fundamental nutrient for brain function. Vitamin D facilitates neuron growth and recent studies have linked a deficiency in Vitamin D to an increased risk for dementia. It is now recognized that some types of cholesterol are important for both brain and heart health. Good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein – HDL) has a positive impact on the circulatory system. The cholesterol that is bad for the circulatory system is oxidized low density lipoprotein – LDL The key here is the oxidization of the cholesterol that gives it its inflamatory impact on your system.

Feed your Gut: Decrease your Sugar Intake; Increase your Fiber.

Higher levels of glucose in the blood, even when an individual does not have diabetes, can have a negative impact on the brain. Research has shown that individuals with high levels of glucose increase their risk of dementia. This occurs whether or not they actually had diabetes.

A possible reason is that individuals suffering from long-term insulin depletion, caused by uncontrolled (or undiagnosed) diabetes, may also cause permanent damage to the myelin sheaths that cover the neurons. Damage to the myelin sheath affects the brain’s ability to move information quickly and effectively throughout the brain. It becomes more difficult for your brain, for example, to process information and tell you to move your foot. The conclusion is that a good diet can make a tremendous difference in brain health. Our diet is an important factor in staying both brain and heart healthy as we age.

More and more studies are shining a light on the gut-brain axis and the importance of the microbiome, or the second brain as it has been called. Studies have shown that diet has a bigger impact on the microbiome than genetic factors. Dysbiosis of the microbiota is responsible for different pathogenetic events such decreased immunity and increased intestinal permeability, which in turn increases the risk of endotoxins entering the body and the development of a chronic inflammatory state and higher susceptibility to brain disease. A dysbiosis of the gut has been associated with brain disorders and neurodegenerative diseases such as depression, ADD, and Alzheimer’s disease to name just a few. Fiber is a prebiotic, which means that it is food for the microbiome, which in turn can decrease the permeability of the gut wall and lead to a decrease in systemic inflammation. Make sure you get a good intake of fiber along with your good fats.

Get Good Quality Sleep!

Perhaps most importantly, you need good restful sleep, and plenty of it. Lack of sleep is probably the single biggest contributor to diminishing mental acuity; good quality sleep is the best guarantee of a healthy brain & mind. Herbs can help here, too – to ease the transition into sleep, to deepen sleep, and even to help you dream. Without good sleep, you will not be able to focus on the tasks at hand and poor sleep will affect your overall mood, ability to synthesize new information, and even fine motor skills. Some of my favorties are chamomile, skullcap, blue vervain, valerian, hops and catnip.

Make Meaningful Connections

Meaningful connections are so important for our physical, spiritual and emotional health. Meaningful connections are one easy way to keep your focus on friends, family, laughter, and good conversation and cannot be underestimated. One study showed that loneliness has the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! So check up on your loved ones and keep their brains happy and healthy.

Exercise

Do I really need to tell you that exercise is good for your brain? Exercise helps feed your gut flora, helps with cardiovascular health, mood, and pretty much all physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of life. Get your heart rate up a few days a week, increase your intake of oxygen, and watch how your focus will transform along with your mood and memory!

If you need more reasons to pay attention to your cognitive health consider the following statistic. The United Nations estimates that the number of people suffering from age-related neurodegeneration, particularly from AD, will exponentially increase from 25.5 million in 2000 to an estimated 114 million in 2050! AD affects brain regions involved in learning and memory processes. The temporal and frontal lobes as well as the hippocampus, are reduced in size in AD patients as the result of degeneration of synapses and death of neurons and studies now show that people as young as their 20s can begin to show symptoms of cognitive decline.

So what else can you do? Herbs can definitely also help with cognitive health. The use of herbal medicine for the treatment of ageing-related disorders was documented in the literature more than 2000 years ago in ancient China and India where herbal remedies were used to boost memory function and increase longevity. Some of the most commonly used and studied herbs include Ginkgo biloba, Curcuma longa, Panax ginseng, Panax notoginseng, Bacopa monnieri, Salvia miltiorrhiza, Crocus sativus, and Camellia sinensis. Below I list some of my favorites!

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary is one of our top culinary herbs, but is also wonderfully medicinal and nourishing for the nervous and cerebrovascular systems. Rich in terpenes, phenolic acids and flavones, rosemary is strongly aromatic and a potent antioxidant. Energetically, it is warming and slightly bitter. Rosemary supports cognition, memory and alertness, giving us that mental “on”feeling. There are many ways to incorporate rosemary into our daily routines. Rosemary essential oil can be diffused in the space (I love it with peppermint and a bit of lavender) or simply inhaled or made into an herbal steam. In terms of culinary applications, rosemary can be used both fresh and dried, infused in olive oil or vinegar, or combined with salt for an herbal seasoning. Rosemary tea is quite delicious as an afternoon pick-me-up, and rosemary can be found as a tincture and capsule.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm is incredibly nutritive to the nervous system. It is calming and supports the mood while also increasing alertness. It helps to increase cognitive speed. Energetically lemon balm is cooling and helps us to recenter, ground and tune in. It is quite uplifting to the mood and helps to protect the aging brain. Lemon balm is delicious and magical in any way, shape or form — infusions, herbal syrups, tincture, cordial, capsule, fresh herb, etc.

Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)

Bacopa is also known as Brahmi and water hyssop. Various mechanisms may be involved in the neuroprotective and memory enhancing effects of Brahmi such as increasing antioxidant activity, free radical scavenging, binding and detoxification of metal ions, modifying levels of acetylcholine, and increasing cerebral blood flow via vasodilation. The constituents responsible for improving learning and memory are attributed to steroidal saponins and bacosides A and B. Bacosides enhance kinase activity and neuronal synthesis, which is linked with the restoration of synaptic activity, ultimately improving nerve impulse transmission. It is extremely bitter and energetically cooling. Ayurveda considers bacopa to be a rasayana, or a rejuvenating herb for vitality and longevity. In short, it is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cerebral tonic, neuroprotective and nervine. Bacopa is a fantastic herb to use daily to support mental clarity, retention, problem solving and rate of learning. It is a great herb for those that might have trouble sitting and focusing on the task at hand to promote attention, or for those who are over-stimulated mentally to combat mental fatigue. Bacopa supports forgetfulness in the short term, and enhances memory in the long term.

Gingko (Gingko biloba)

Gingko is a powerful antioxidant, rich in flavonoids and proanthocyanidins. It is a vascular tonic and is neuroprotective. The principal constituents of ginkgo include flavonol glycosides (e.g., quercetin and kaempferol) and terpenoids (e.g., ginkgolide and bilobalide). Studies suggest that ginkgo decreases oxygen radical discharge and proinflammatory functions of macrophages (antioxidant and anti-inflammatory), reduces corticosteroid production (antianxiety), and increases glucose uptake and utilisation and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production. Ginkgo also appears to improve blood flow through increasing red blood cell deformability and decreasing red cell aggregation, inducing nitric oxide production, and antagonising platelet activating factor receptors. Energetically it is slightly bitter and cooling. Gingko is a classic example of the doctrine of signatures, wherein structure or appearance elucidates function: gingko leaves have a distinct bi-lobed symmetry reminiscent of the brain. As an antioxidant, it helps to protect the brain from oxidative stress and in the aging process. Gingko supports cerebrovascular health and helps to improve memory and concentration. Many high quality standardized extracts of gingko are available, as well as liquid extracts and dried powdered herb. Best results are seen when gingko is taken consistently for several months.

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)

Gotu kola has a long history of use in Ayurveda, and is considered to be a rejuvenating tonic for vitality and memory. Energetically it is cooling and drying. Gotu kola also supports vascular health and can be used internally or topically to heal or rejuvenate hair, skin and nails. Gotu kola is also called brahmi (which can be a bit confusing! another great reason to learn/double check scientific names). It helps to improve memory and cognitive function. Gota kola can be consumed as a tincture, powder or capsule and is pretty easy to grow, even in containers and makes a lovely hanging plant that you can pick and eat for utmost brain health.

Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Our brain is a vascular organ and cannot function optimally without an adequate blood supply. Tulsi has been found to help oxygenate the brain and boost circulation, which may provide many benefits to our overall cognitive function. Some people who use tulsi also report that it lifts their overall sense of well-being, so it may be helpful for mood as well! It also tastes delicious and is considered a Rasayana, imparting adaptogenic qualities and lowering overall stress.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Curcuma longa (turmeric) is a food spice and colouring agent used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries has been applied in therapeutic preparations to treat numerous conditions such as pancreatitis, arthritis, cancer, and inflammatory, neurodegenerative, and digestive disorders. Curcumin and curcuminoids are the key bioactive components of turmeric consisting of three structurally closely related chemical components: curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin. Data suggests that curcumin can affect multiple pathological targets associated with dementia via inhibiting lipid peroxidation, scavenging reactive oxygen species (ROS), and reactive nitrogen species, inhibiting NF-kB activation, and its anti-inflammatory actions. It has also been suggested that curcumin is able to directly bind small beta-amyloid species to block aggregation and fibril formation. Animal studies have shown that curcumin offers protective effects against dementia by exerting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. A lower prevalence of AD in some Asian populations has been attributed to a curcumin-rich diet. 

Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Ginseng has shown therapeutic benefits for learning and memory and may be useful in developing supplements for the prevention or potential treatment of AD. The principal bioactive components of ginseng are ginsenosides (e.g., ginsenosides Rg1, Rg3, and Rg5), which have been suggested to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiapoptotic effects. In addition, ginsenoside Rg5 has been shown to reduce amyloid- and cholinesterase activity, while ginsenoside Rg3 has also been shown to promote -amyloid peptide degradation via enhancing gene expression. In addition, research demonstrates that Panax ginseng decreases blood pressure and improves blood circulation via vasodilation activities.

Saffron (Crocus sativus)

Saffron extract has been shown to improve learning and memory function in ethanol-induced memory impairment in mice and to ameliorate cerebral ischaemia induced oxidative damage in the rat hippocampus. Crocin, the principal constituent of saffron and a strong antioxidant, has been suggested to be largely responsible for saffron’s protective effect on the central nervous system. It has also been suggested that saffron can act as an antidepressant and antiplatelet agent, both of which may offer additional benefits for people with dementia. In more recent years, saffron has been used for neurological conditions. Saffron is associated with significantly improved outcomes in cognitive function.

Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

The brain’s ability to grow and form new connections typically declines with age. Studies have found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain two special compounds that can stimulate the growth of brain cells: hericenones and erinacines and have been beneficial in the treatment of traumtic brain injury. Additionally, animal studies have found that lion’s mane may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease that causes progressive memory loss. In fact, lion’s mane mushroom and its extracts have been shown to reduce symptoms of memory loss in mice, as well as prevent neuronal damage caused by amyloid-beta plaques, which accumulate in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease.

So there you have it! Go out and get some exercise, eat some healthy fats along with your pasture raised eggs, grow some rosemary, make time for friends and family, turn off your phone from time to time, rest, rejuvenate and watch your focus become clearer by the day! We love this tincture from Anima Mundi that includes many of the herbs mentioned. Find it here. You can also find Lion's Mane Mushroom Powder here.