Herbs for Memory
Nootropics, also called “smart pills” or cognitive enhancers, are a class of natural or synthetic substances that support mental function. The name nootropic comes from the Greek nóos (mind) and tropein (to bend or to turn) – or “mind-turning.”
FDA-approved prescription nootropics are formulated with stimulants and other synthetic chemical compounds. They are used to treat conditions like ADHD, narcolepsy, and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. These drugs can cause serious side effects and physical dependence, so they should only be taken exactly as prescribed.
Over-the-counter nootropics, on the other hand, are herbs and dietary supplements that leverage natural stimulant ingredients to improve memory, support mental clarity, and reduce stress and anxiety. This article discusses 9 natural performance-boosting substances and herbs for brain health that don’t require a prescription.
If you are interested in supporting your cognitive functions, here’s a memory support supplement to try.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian Winter Cherry or Indian Ginseng, is an evergreen shrub native to India, the Middle East, and Africa. The name Ashwagandha comes from the Sanskrit ashva or “horse” and ghanda, which means “smell,” and it describes the smell of its roots – “horsey.”
In traditional medicine, Ashwagandha is considered the “queen of Ayurveda,” and it is used to treat dozens of ailments, including:
- Stress and anxiety
- Upset stomach
- Memory loss
- Trouble concentrating
- Joint pain
But recently, Ashwagandha extract has been making its way into Western medicine. Research suggests that this versatile herb is capable of reducing cortisol levels and improving stress and anxiety.
Studies show that Ashwagandha supplements may also enhance sleep quality, boost memory, and improve cognitive function. One study of 40 healthy participants suggested that when taken with other Ayurvedic medicinal herbs, Ashwagandha could promote heart health and improve muscle strength and endurance.
Another study of 64 participants found that taking one capsule of full-spectrum Ashwagandha extract daily reduced serum cortisol levels and improved stress and symptoms of depression compared to a placebo group.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant and a critical component of the human diet. Low levels of vitamin C have been associated with cognitive decline in older adults. In the brain, this vitamin essential for creating and maintaining neurotransmitters’ health and may help protect against some neurodegenerative conditions.
Taking a vitamin C supplement may help reduce the effects of both physical and psychological stress. As an antioxidant, it plays a crucial role in slowing down oxidative stress, which causes cellular damage and speeds up the aging process. Animal studies have also shown that high doses of vitamin C can decrease cortisol secretion and reduce signs of emotional stress.
Bacopa monnieri, or simply bacopa, is an Ayurvedic herb revered for its brain-enhancing effects. Preliminary evidence suggests that bacopa extract may boost brain function and enhance memory, as demonstrated by a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. In the study, 46 healthy adults experienced improvements in their memory, learning rate, and visual processing speed after taking 300 mg of bacopa for 12 weeks compared to a placebo group.
Other studies have shown similar effects. An animal study in mice found that bacopa extract improved spatial awareness and memory while increasing dendritic length and encouraged interconnectivity. Dendrites are tree-like neuron extensions that help propagate signals to other neurons. And a 2014 study of 31 children with ADHD revealed that bacopa monnieri extract successfully reduced ADHD symptoms, including inattention and impulsivity, in 85% of children.
Emerging research supports the hypothesis that huperzine A – a substance extracted from the Chinese club moss Huperzia serrata – may enhance memory and learning.
Huperzine A acts as a cholinesterase inhibitor, a type of medication that increases acetylcholine levels in the brain (a neurotransmitter essential to memory and information-processing). And huperzine A also seems to benefit individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
A review of 20 studies investigators found that Huperzine A supplementation showed a significant positive effect on cognitive function among patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Another analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews suggested that huperzine A may be beneficial for general cognitive functioning in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Perhaps one of the most popular traditional Chinese herbs, ginkgo biloba extract collected from dried ginkgo leaves, is said to act as a mental enhancer and memory booster. The ginkgo tree is one of the oldest tree species in the world and has survived major extinction events, earning the moniker “living fossil.”
According to one review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, ginkgo biloba extract is potentially beneficial for people with dementia. Taking a ginkgo supplement for six weeks may also improve memory and cognitive functioning in older adults, found a placebo-controlled study from 2000.
Taking a ginkgo supplement may also help with:
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Sexual dysfunction
- High blood pressure
Sage extract has been shown to improve memory and support brain health in several ways.
For one, it is loaded with polyphenolic acids, which are known for modulating brain functions and boosting memory and concentration. A 2012 study concluded that dietary polyphenols found in foods like sage can protect neurons against harmful toxins and promote memory, learning, and cognitive function.
And while more research is needed, two small studies of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease found that taking a sage supplement resulted in better cognitive test performance compared to those taking a placebo.
Research suggests that phosphatidylserine, a fatty substance that provides structure and protection to all human cells, may slow down age-related cognitive decline and memory loss.
In a study of older adults with early Alzheimer’s disease, those taking 300 mg of phosphatidylserine reported significant over-all improvements than those who took a placebo. In another study, patients ages 50 to 69 with mild cognitive decline signs that took phosphatidylserine also experienced significant memory improvements after six months of treatment.
Phosphatidylserine levels decrease with age, but that’s also when the brain needs it most. The highest dietary source of phosphatidylserine is soy lecithin, followed by animal proteins and some fish. But a high-quality phosphatidylserine supplement is the easiest and most convenient way to reap this compound’s brain benefits.
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is a water-soluble vitamin involved in over 100 enzyme reactions in the body. You can find it naturally in a variety of foods, including salmon, pork, poultry, bananas, and more. Evidence suggests that lower vitamin B6 levels may be associated with dementia and age-related cognitive decline. It also plays an important role in mood regulation.
Vitamin B6 on its own for treating depression hasn’t been found to be effective. However, a handful of studies have shown links between depressive symptoms and low serum levels of vitamin B6, particularly among older adults.
Preliminary evidence also suggests that consuming vitamin B6 may reduce homocysteine levels, an amino acid found in red meat that – in large quantities – can increase your risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Turmeric already has a laundry list of proven health benefits – it supports immune health, reduces inflammation, helps fight viral infections, lowers LDL cholesterol, improves arthritis and joint pain, just to name a few. And now, you can add improved brain function to the list. Ready to boost your memory and brain health?
Animal studies show that curcumin, the main bioactive compound in turmeric, may increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Several common brain disorders, like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, have been linked to low levels of BDNF.
In a small, short-term study, investigators split 60 participants with depressive disorder into three groups: one group took an antidepressant, one was given curcumin, and another group was given both. After six weeks, participants taking both curcumin and the antidepressant experienced significant improvements. Those who took curcumin alone saw similar improvements to the ones taking the antidepressant.
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