The brain is an incredibly important organ in the human body. It controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger and every process that regulates our body.
As we get older, our cognitive health declines. Researchers suggest that the brain generates fewer chemical messengers with age, and it is this decrease in chemical messenger activity—namely dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—that likely plays a role in declining cognition and memory and increasing depression.
Cognitive health can decline even more rapidly if we do not consume the right nutrients for brain health, or if we consume toxins that affect our brain function over time. If we wish to maintain optimal cognitive function, especially into our later years, then keeping the brain in good health is essential. Diet, sleep and exercise play a critical role in brain health, but certain herbs also have a unique ability to enhance brain health, memory, and cognitive functioning. In this article, we will discuss the best herbs for memory and focus, and the best herbs for overall brain health.
What Is the Brain?
We all know that the brain is the wrinkly organ inside our skull, but not everyone understands exactly what the brain does. The brain is an organ roughly the size of two clenched fists and weighs about 1.5 kilograms. From the outside, it looks a bit like a large walnut, with folds and crevices. Brain tissue is made up of about 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) and one trillion supporting cells which stabilize the tissue.
The brain works like a big computer. It processes information that it receives from the senses and body, and sends messages back to the body. But more than just a computer, the brain is the root of human intelligence, and it allows us to think, feel and experience a wide range of emotions.
What Affects Brain Health?
Brain health is affected by a number of factors. The most important factors to consider for keeping the brain healthy are:
- Diet & Nutrition. The brain functions best when we eat a nutritious and balanced diet. High-quality foods that contain fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals nourish the brain and protect it from oxidative stress—the waste produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage brain cells.
- Exercise. Exercise has many benefits for brain health. It increases heart rate, which pumps more blood to the brain. It aids the release of hormones which provide a supportive environment for the growth of brain cells. It promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. Exercise also improves memory by increasing molecular targets like the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This molecular factor increases synaptogenesis, forming new synapses that mediate learning and memory, making it easier to absorb information and form long-term memories.
- Sleep. Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other. In fact, both the brain and body stay very active while you sleep. Research shows that sleep plays a kind of housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.
- Level of Toxic Exposure. Every single day we are exposed to thousands of toxins. Depending on your personal environment, you be exposed to more or less than others. Some of these toxins can be quite damaging to brain health, especially when exposure happens for long periods of times. It is important for brain health that you avoid toxins the best you can, and regularly detox your body to clear toxic build up. Toxins tend to store in the fat of our body, and the brain is 60% fat. Toxic exposure can lead to cognitive decline and a decrease in memory, focus, and general cognitive health.
While these factors mentioned are essential for improving and maintaining brain health, there are other things you can do to improve your brain health, alertness, focus, memory and overall cognitive performance. One thing that can have a profound effect on brain health is the use of nootropic herbs.
Nootropics are natural or synthetic substances that have a positive impact on mental skills. While there are certain synthetic nootropic supplements out there, we recommend using natural nootropic substances as they are safer and gentler on the body. They can also work just as well, or in some cases even better, than synthetic nootropic supplements. Below, we’ll discuss the best herbs for memory and brain function.
Best Natural Herbs for Memory, Focus & Brain Health
Ginkgo Biloba Leaf
Ginkgo Biloba, native to China, where it has long been used to improve blood circulation, ginkgo biloba contains high levels of flavonoids and terpenoids, which are compounds known for their strong antioxidant effects.
Researchers believe that ginkgo improves cognitive function because it promotes good blood circulation in the brain and protects the brain and other parts from neuronal damage.
Periwinkle herb is a perennial herb that has long been used for improving brain health by increasing blood circulation in the brain, supporting brain metabolism, increasing mental productivity, preventing memory and concentration problems, and preventing early aging of brain cells.
Researchers believe that periwinkles brain benefits come from the active compounds in the herb, namely reserpine and vincamine. Reserpine is an alkaloid with powerful effects on blood pressure and mood. Vincamine is a compound used for general brain health. The vincamine in periwinkle is believed to be valuable for enhancing memory, which means that it may be beneficial for treating helping with degenerative brain issues. Due to these powerful compounds, research suggests that periwinkle herb may be one of the best herbs for memory recall and enhancing memory in patients with cognitive decline.
Water Hyssop Leaf
Water hyssop leaf, also known as bacopa, this herb has been prized for thousands of years among practitioners of Ayurveda, India’s traditional system of medicine, as a nootropic, supporting mental performance. Water hyssop leaf is associated with learning, memory, concentration, and knowledge, and studies show it offers antioxidant support to the brain, and may support both short and long-term brain health for people in all stages of life. It also has great potential to support cognition, especially attention, and processing speed.
A study on water hyssop leaf involving mice showed that it improved their spatial learning and ability to retain information. The study found that water hyssop leaf increased dendritic length and branching. Dendrites are parts of nerve cells in the brain that are closely linked to learning and memory.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, known to boost brain function, lower blood sugar and cortisol levels, and help fight symptoms of anxiety and depression, among other things.
Research has shown that it promotes antioxidant activity that protects nerve cells from harmful free radicals, and test-tube and animal studies suggest that ashwagandha may mitigate memory and brain function problems caused by injury or disease.
Ashwagandha has been seen to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain, which are correlated with improved memory, brain function and intelligence.
Ginseng Root (Panax)
Ginseng is an herb that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. Ginseng has been shown in numerous studies to enhance mental health and protect the brain from various disorders. It also contains healthy compounds like ginsenosides and compound K, which could protect the brain against damage caused by free radicals.
Known as the “five flavor fruit,” this powerful medicinal herb has had over 200 compounds isolated from it, of which schizandra lignans have been widely used. In the central nervous system, Schisandra was found to improve learning and memory. Schisandra also enhances memory, focus and concentration through its cholinergic functions and acts as an acetylcholine esterase inhibitor.
Interestingly, a rat study on schisandra found that it caused a significant increase in dopamine and its metabolites in the rat brain. However, human trials on this effect of schisandra are still lacking.
Skullcap has been traditionally used in herbal medicine traditions as a nervine, meaning that it supports the nervous system. It’s thought that American skullcap positively impacts mood and reduces anxiety by stimulating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps calm nerves.
A placebo-controlled, double-blind study also found that American skullcap diminished anxiety in its 19 subjects, and multiple animal studies have shown Chinese skullcap to improve cognitive function.
Zuma Nutrition’s Herbal Brain Flow Formula
In order to support brain health and function, we have created a potent herbal formula containing these 7 powerful nootropic herbs. Our Brain Flow Tonic may help the brain form new nerve connections, help with memory and motor function by increasing acetylcholine level, dissolve cellular debris that builds up in your brain cells, and increase oxygen levels and blood flow to the brain. When used alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle, this formula can offer many benefits to the body and brain, allowing you to experience life with greater energy, focus, and mental clarity.
The brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body. It is responsible for nearly all of the body’s functions, it controls and coordinates actions and reactions, allows us to think and feel, enables us to have memories and feelings, and it plays an important role in coordinating movement, posture, and balance.
As we age, our cognitive health declines. Researchers suggest that this is due to the brain generating fewer chemical messengers, and therefore decreasing chemical messenger activity—namely of dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
To keep our brains in good health, we need to follow healthy dietary and lifestyle practices, such as consuming the right nutrients, getting plenty of good quality sleep, staying active and exercising often, and avoiding toxins that can cause harm to the brain.
Additionally, many herbs have nootropic, brain enhancing, effects. Of the many nootropic herbs, the 7 mentioned in this article are our top pick based on the research available and based on our 40 years of experience in the health and wellness field.