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.
Here are some of the primary neurotransmitters and a few of their key functions in the body:
Neurotransmitters are very small molecules, but they can’t pass from the bloodstream into brain cells. Instead, neurotransmitters must be produced within the CNS from pre-cursor molecules. Some of the noted activities of primary neurochemicals occur well out-side the CNS, in the heart, kidneys, or digestive tract. Neurohormones can leave the brain and travel through the blood to other parts of the body, and some neurotransmitter chemicals are produced in other parts of the body.
The brain is an energy hog! A fully developed brain weighs in at around 3 pounds, about 2% of total body weight, but it accounts for as much as 25% of total glucose consumption and 20% of oxygen use. These crucial nutrients are delivered via the blood, and the brain is highly vascularized in order to keep its tissues fully supplied. If all the capillaries in the brain, the tiniest blood vessels that directly supply cells with oxygen and other nutrients, were stretched out would go on for 400 miles. The endothelium that lines the blood vessels in the brain has a very unique property that allows it to tightly regulate what substances pass into and out of brain tissue. This special property of the cerebral vasculature is known as the blood-brain barrier. The brain also has an unusually high concentration of lipids which are crucial to both the structure and function of the brain.
Barriers to Healthy Brain Function:
Neurotransmitter Dysfunction: problems with the production, release, or uptake of these compounds can lead to a range of health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and myasthenia gravis. Neurotransmitter imbalance can also affect mood, stress, and sleep.
Traumatic Brain Injury: TBI includes everything from a mild concussion to severe damage. A fall, blow to the head, or other acute external injury can cause alterations in brain function that lead to classic symptoms such as loss of consciousness, partial amnesia, changes in mood or memory, sensory perception, physical mobility, speech, and other aspects of nervous system function. Cognitive and behavioral changes can last for weeks or months. In more serious injuries, there may be swelling or bruising within the brain and loss of circulation, that can lead to permanent functional changes. Severe TBI can also cause neuronal death and brain atrophy.
Cerebral Atrophy: Loss of neurons or neuronal connections can affect the entire brain or only certain parts of it, and may be associated with TBI, stroke, dementia, or other brain disorders. A certain degree of “brain shrink” is also a normal part of aging. Decreased brain volume, particularly in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, along with changes in synaptic activity, contribute to normal age-related changes in memory and processing speed. This mild form of cerebral atrophy is much less severe than the extreme atrophy associated with dementia and other pathologies.
Protein Plaque Development: is the development of clusters of protein fragments within and between neurons, known as plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These plaques and tangles are believed to lead to disrupted cell function and death, which ultimately causes the progressive symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia. The production of these proteins is actually a normal part of brain function, but in the healthy brain they are cleared away rather than accumulated.
Systemic and Neuroinflammation: are critical factors in the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, and a potential contributor to age-related cognitive decline. This pertains to both inflammations specifically within the brain, called neuroinflammation, and chronic systemic inflammation, which can act as a driver to exacerbate neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration.
Blood Glucose Dysregulation and Brain Health: The brain is dependent on glucose for fuel, so fluctuations in blood glucose levels affect brain function very quickly. Mild hypoglycemia can cause the CNS to trigger a stress response that leads to symptoms like irritability, anxiety, sweating, and shaking. But too much blood glucose is also a serious problem for the brain. Long-term dysregulation of blood glucose levels has an array of negative effects on the body, including the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
DIETARY AND LIFESTYLE SUPPORT FOR BRAIN HEALTH:
A holistic approach to brain health should incorporate nutritional support and a brain-healthy lifestyle. Establishing these pillars of support will go a long way in promoting overall wellness and provides a foundation for health. As we age, our brains naturally shrink, and it’s believed that this is at least one factor in age-related cognitive decline. Healthy dietary patterns have been linked to high brain volume later in life, meaning what we eat could limit “brain shrink” and help preserve healthy cognitive function.
Studies show that a high-quality diet includes high intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, dairy, and fish, along with healthy fats such as olive oil, and consumption of nuts and seeds. This diet also requires a low intake of sugar-containing beverages, and very limited intake of added sugars and highly processed foods. The MIND diet, which incorporates aspects of the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to slow age-related cognitive decline, and decrease incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet limits the intake of pastries and sweets, fried foods, red meat, and butter, margarine, and cheese, while emphasizing intake of vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish, poultry, and beans.
Key steps to keep the brain healthy at every stage of life help in moderating chronic inflammation which is one of the major drivers in neurodegenerative disease and many other chronic illnesses:
• Eat Vegetables: Colorful, Diverse, and Lots of Them!
• Maintain Balanced Blood Sugar.
• Choose Healthy Fats: The dietary fats that we consume directly determine which lipids end up being packed into the phospholipids that make up cell membranes, which in turn affects how those cells function. When cell membranes incorporate an excessive amount of saturated fatty acids, they behave differently than those that incorporate polyunsaturated fatty acids.
• Move Your Body, Exercise Your Brain: Physical exercise changes both the structure and the function of the brain, promotes neural plasticity, increases brain volume, improves cerebral circulation, improves metabolism of glucose and oxygen, and alters neurotransmitter levels.
ADAPTOGENIC HERBS: are herbs that are nontoxic, address many organs or body systems, and help increase resistance to adverse biological, chemical, or physical factors. Adaptogens reduce stress by improving and supporting the health of the adrenal system, which controls the hormonal response to stress, thus helping the body adapt to both mental and physical stressors. Because stress can impede learning and memory in different ways, some adaptogens can help improve cognitive function and mental alertness. Many adaptogens build energy levels, enhance immunity, and help support emotional well-being. Herbs in this category include Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Holy Basil, Rhodiola, and Schisandra.
ASHWAGANDHA (Withania somnifera): Root: has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to help stabilize the body’s physiology and homeostasis, & correct imbalances in the body so that during periods of stress it can lower cortisol and boost thyroid function. Ashwagandha root reduces stress and anxiety, detoxifies the body, improves memory and cell function, and stimulates the immune system.
Ashwagandha is propagated from seeds. It is a drought-tolerant plant that grows in dry soil. Plant the seeds ¾” deep and 4” apart when the temperature is 70 F. Seeds will germinate in two weeks. Water the seedlings well while they are establishing. Thin out the weak plants after a month of growing, leaving the space around 24” between plants. Water when the plant seems thirsty as Ashwagandha doesn’t like wet feet. The Ashwagandha plant is not fertilized usually due to medicinal uses of its roots. It is susceptible to pests and diseases including spider mites, leaf spot, and stem and leaf rot. When the plant is overwatered root rot is possible. Ashwagandha is ready to harvest in 150 – 180 days when flower and berries start to form and leaves begins to dry out. Harvest Ashwagandha roots by digging carefully using a small tool. Be careful not to damage the plant when digging up and make sure the soil has some moisture while doing this. After harvesting, roots, and barriers are separated from the plant. Roots are washed and cleaned and cut into small pieces of 4” and dried in sun or shade. Berries are separated from the plant, dried, and crushed to take out seeds.
ELEUTHERO (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Root: an adaptogen that helps the body better handle and adapt to stress, acts as a stimulant, and increases nervous system function. Potential benefits include increasing energy and reducing fatigue, improving cognitive function, healing wounds and preventing ulcers, stabilizing blood pressure, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, improving lymphatic function, repairing nerve damage, and stabilizing blood sugar.
Eleuthero is a small, woody shrub that grows 3 - 10 feet high. Its leaves are attached to a main stem by long branches. Both the branches and the stem are covered with thorns. Flowers, yellow or violet, grow in umbrella-shaped clusters, and turn into round, black berries in late summer. The root itself is woody and is brownish, wrinkled, and twisted. Eleuthero is adaptable to many soils, including sandy, loamy, and heavy clay soils with acid, neutral, or alkaline chemistry. Sow seeds as soon as they are ripe in the autumn in a cold frame. Seeds can be slow to germinate. Stored seed requires 6 months warm followed by 3 months cold. Transplant the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and grow them on in light shade in a cold frame or greenhouse for at least the first winter. Plant out in late spring or early summer. This plant may also be propagated by cuttings or division. The roots are harvested in the autumn, cut and dried for later use. Dried root may also be ground in powder. Be sure to leave enough roots to sustain the plant, harvesting 20% of the root annually. Dry the roots, cut into small pieces, and leaves, then store the pieces or powder in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
HOLY BASIL/TULSI (Ocimum tenuiflorum): Aerial parts: also known as Tulsi, Holy Basil has a unique place in the Materia Medica of Ayurveda. It’s been called “The Incomparable One” and “The Queen of Herbs”, thanks to both its bounty of uses in herbalism and its role as a sacred plant in Hindu spiritual practices. Tulsi is a restorative adaptogen that helps to uplift the spirit as well as modulate response to stress, assists the body in detoxification, protects against oxidative damage, limits chronic inflammation, is a restorative tonic, and has an ability to clear and disperse sluggishness and stagnation from many systems of the body, including the mind, the respiratory system, and the digestive tract.
Tulsi needs warm temperatures. Grow it outdoors in the summer, year-round in a tropical or subtropical climate, or keep it in containers that can be moved inside in winter. Use a light, well-draining soil that is enriched with organic material. The plant will also tolerate some shade, so full sun is not necessary. Keep it watered but not soggy and harvest leaves as needed.
RHODIOLA (Rhodiola rosea): an adaptogen that helps protect cells from oxidative damage caused by environmental and chemical stressors. Rhodiola helps protect the cardiovascular system, and has anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, energy, and memory enhancement properties. This hardy herb, which takes between five to eight years to mature, is rich in rosavins, salidrosides and flavonoids. Rhodiola’s mechanism of the action includes normalizing levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and enhancing nitric oxide (NO), an artery-relaxing chemical that the body makes naturally. Rhodiola provides many health benefits, including easing chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression, and stabilizing blood sugar, and blood pressure.
Rhodiola is a medium-sized succulent plant related to stone crop and jade plant that produces a beautiful flower that is either pink, yellow, or red. The roots are used in medicinal preparations. Ideal growing site components include full or almost full sun, good drainage during the spring runoff, and some shelter from the wind. Rhodiola is very drought tolerant and does not require irrigation, however, it will benefit from regular watering. Time to harvest can be as short as three growing seasons, when roots can attain 0.75% rosavin content or better, though four to five year’s growth will provide greater root biomass and a rosavin content of 1% or more. The roots tend to deteriorate from within as they age, harboring patches of necrotic tissue.
SCHIZANDRA (Schisandra chinensis): Fruit with seed: The native range of the Schisandra vine is far-eastern Asia, including parts of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Japan. It is easily cultivated, and can thrive in a wide variety of climates. The leaves and flowers are very fragrant. Schisandra is known in Chinese medicine as five flavor berry called Wu Wei Zi, because it contains all five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and sour. It is an adaptogen and mild CNS stimulant that enhances reflexes, work performance, mental activity, has a calming effect, and is helpful for fatigue, high stress, anxiety, deficiency-type insomnia with early morning awakening, and helps improve innate immune function, which can be disrupted by the immunosuppressive effects of chronic stress.
Schisandra plants need to be protected from the brightest sun, but they will thrive in everything from part sun to deep shade. They are not very drought-tolerant and need plenty of water in well-draining soil. It’s a good idea to put down a layer of mulch to encourage water retention. Schisandra prefers acidic soil, so it’s a good idea to mulch with pine needles and oak leaves since these are very acidic and will lower the pH of the soil as they break down.