HERBAL BRAIN BOOSTERS: Using herbs to enhance memory, cognition, and focus is easier than you think!
BRAIN BOOSTING HERBS: 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 outside 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 cell 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.
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.
• 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 Schizandra.
HERBAL BRAIN TONICS: are plants that have specific actions that directly affect the body systems associated with the brain, particularly the nervous and cardiovascular systems. These herbs are specifically indicated for various brain-related conditions, and over time, work to promote overall brain health and function. Herbal brain tonics are great for supporting healthy brain function. Not only do they help to relax the nervous system and promote focus, but they also stimulate the circulatory system and provide plenty of good blood flow to the brain, and improve memory recall, mood, and concentration.
Herbs that are brain tonics include Bacopa, Gotu Kola, and Wood Betony.
HERBAL MEMORY ENHANCERS: support brain function, enhance memory and recall, increase focus, improve blood flow to the brain, and elevate mood and motivation.
Many of the plants in the mint family are memory enhancers, and Peppermint, Rosemary, and Sage are examples.
HERBAL NERVINES: are a group of herbs that help to nourish, soothe, and strengthen the nervous system, which helps to revitalize neurotransmitter and nerve function, thus benefiting brain health. Any herb that has a notable effect on the nervous system can be considered a nervine.
Herbal nervines include Chamomile, Skullcap, Licorice root, Lavender, Valerian, and Lemon Balm.
HERBAL STIMULANTS: are substances that raise the level of physiological or nervous activity in the body, and many plants contain chemical constituents that have stimulant actions. Most of these substances have a direct stimulating effect on the nervous and cardiovascular systems, but sometimes directly affect the respiratory, urinary, and other body systems. Cerebral circulatory stimulants increase blood flow to or within the brain by stimulating dilation of the small vessels within, increase peripheral circulation, and increase circulation to the brain.
Examples of herbal stimulants include Cacao, Gingko, and Green Tea.
BRAIN FOOD & BRAIN BOOSTING RECIPES: One of the best parts of hands-on herbalism is that it allows experimentation with plants in all kinds of mediums, from the garden to the kitchen to the laboratory. Commercial extracts, capsules, and other prepared products can be useful and convenient ways to reap the benefits of herbal brain boosters, but playing around in the kitchen can offer a chance to get to know the herbs in a very different way—and it can be so much fun!
Teas and beverages: Making tea and other herb-infused beverages is a wonderful way to incorporate herbal properties into the daily routine, and many find that the simple ritual of making a special daily beverage can be beneficial in and of itself. Whether you’re craving a hot tea or a chilled smoothie, these options will help start the day or perk up an afternoon with a calm and focused mind.
Syrups, Sweets, and Treats: Sometimes, a little sweetness helps the “medicine” go down. This is especially true for many of the brain boosting herbs which are quite bitter! Combine some of the less-than-delicious herbs and raw honey, because double yum is good too, to make it that easier to take them daily.
Rosemary Memory Elixir: By Meagan Visser: This recipe can be adapted to use either fresh or dried herbs. Either way, try adding a dash of this tasty elixir to a glass of sparkling water for an afternoon revitalizer. A sprig of fresh mint or Tulsi, with a quick slap on the palm or counter to release aromatics, can be added to the glass as an eye-catching garnish. With each sip, that bright aroma will also help reinvigorate the mind and lift the spirits!
• 4 parts rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) leaf.
• 2 parts gotu kola (Centella asiatica) leaf.
• 1-part oat (Avena sativa) tops or straw.
• 1-part Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) aerial parts.
• Brandy and raw honey.
• Combine the herbs and mix well.
• Take a clean, dry glass jar and fill it half full of the herb mix if using dried herbs. If using fresh herbs, fill the jar almost to the top.
• Fill the jar half full of brandy, and then fill the remaining half with honey. Use a spoon to mix the herbs, brandy, and honey and push the herbs under the surface of the liquid.
• Place a piece of natural waxed paper over the top of the jar to protect from any chemicals on the lid. Cover and label the jar.
• Allow to sit, away from direct light, for 2-6 weeks. Periodically stir the contents or shake the jar, and make sure the herbs are covered by the liquid.
• When ready, strain out the herbs and compost or discard them. Bottle and label the elixir for storage.
• Take 1-2 teaspoons daily as needed.
Seasonings: Herbs and spices have been tossed, pinched, and dashed into simmering pots and pans across the world. Although many kitchen spices have historically been added to meals to improve digestion or provide antimicrobial benefit, plenty of brain boosting herbs can add a special flare to our cooking!
Sage Salt: This gorgeous herbal salt can be made using fresh herbs from the garden bounty, or dried herbs if that’s what is available. Use it as a seasoning blend to augment all sorts of dishes, or even swap it one-to-one for table salt. A mega-dose of any individual herbs from this kind of kitchen preparation cannot be achieved from this salt, however, regular use of small culinary doses can be incredibly useful, especially when they’re part of the daily routine.
• ½ cup fresh or dried rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) leaf.
• ½ cup fresh or dried sage (Salvia officinale) leaf.
• ½ cup fresh or dried nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf.
• ¼ cup dulse, kombu, or other seaweed.
• ¼ cup fresh or dried nettle (Urtica dioica) seed.
• 1 cup sea salt.
Directions: If using fresh herbs:
• Chop all herbs and combine with salt. Mix well. If using fresh nettle leaf, be sure to wear gloves to protect yourself while handling!
• Spread the mixture in a thin layer on a baking sheet and allow to dry for several days out of direct sunlight. Use a dehydrator or a very low temperature to speed up the drying process.
• Once the herbs have dried, grind the herbal salt to a finer consistency using a food processor or coffee grinder. Label and store in a closed glass jar, hand mill, or salt grinder.
Directions: If using dried herbs:
• Grind or powder each herb using a mortar and pestle or food processor.
• Mix all herbs and salt in a clean, dry bowl and stir well.
• Give the mixture a final whirl in a food processor or grinder.
• Label and store in a closed glass jar, hand mill, or salt grinder.
Tinctures and Other Extracts: It can be so rewarding to incorporate our herbal allies into meals, snacks, and beverages, but sometimes it’s more convenient to reach for a bottle of tincture or glycerite. The possibilities are endless when it comes to formulating a custom brain boosting tincture or extract.
Brain Boosting Tincture Blend: This simple tincture formula combines three superstar brain-boosting herbs for a concentrated daily dose of brain power. Because gotu kola and ginkgo both have nervine properties, this formula may be particularly useful for individuals with anxiety, stress, or insomnia related to cognitive function. Rosemary warms the formula up a bit and acts as a synergist, completing this tincture triad.
• 30 milliliters gingko (Ginkgo biloba) leaf tincture.
• 25 milliliters gotu kola (Centella asiatica) leaf tincture.
• 5 milliliters rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) aerial parts tincture.
• Combine all tinctures in a 2-ounce dark-colored glass bottle.
• Cap tightly and shake to combine.
• Label and store in a cool, dry place.
• Take ½ teaspoon 2 times daily.