The loss of cognitive function and dementia is on the rise in the U.S., and its most commonly known form, Alzheimer’s Disease, is now the sixth-leading cause of death. This means eating more plants, including spices and herbs for brain health. While research is still in the early stages, existing studies so far suggest that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of certain plants can positively affect brain health.

“Plant-based compounds called polyphenols are effective antioxidants, and oxidation is not a good thing in the brain when it creates free radicals that can screw up cellular functioning,” says neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD. Certain anti-inflammatory drugs such as Aleve or Motrin, were shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in older people, and other researchers became interested in safer ways to exert those effects via plants, since the drugs tend to have side effects.

Herbs that improve cognition, memory and focus include Adaptogens, Brain Tonics, Memory Enhancers, Nervines, and Stimulants.

THE BRAIN: In order to understand how brain boosting herbs work, it helps to have a basic understanding of the structures that underlie brain function:

Cellular Communication: The basic functional unit of the nervous system is the neuron, an individual cell that communicates using both electrical and chemical signals. Neurons are typically divided into three main parts: dendrites, which receive incoming signals from other cells and molecules; the cell body or soma, which contains the nucleus and directs cell function; and the axon, which carries outgoing information. The axons of individual neurons are bundled together to form nerves. The axons of some neurons are surrounded by the myelin sheath, a layer of lipids and proteins that helps insulate the axons and increases the speed at which impulses are conducted. Myelinated neurons are found in both the CNS, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and the PNS, consisting of the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. Neurons transmit information, and the most common mode of cell-to-cell communication, electrical signals, travel down the length of the neuron to the synapse, the terminus where the axon of the neuron meets its target cell. This stimulates the release of neurotransmitters which travel across a gap called the synaptic cleft before they’re taken up by receptors in the membrane of the target cell. Neurotransmitters can be extremely fast acting or can take effect more slowly, depending on how they enter into and affect their target cells.