A number of herbs and spices may help improve your brain health, and some of them may be already sitting in your fridge or pantry. Several of these herbs and spices have been studied for their effects on Alzheimer’s disease, while others have been tested for their overall effects on cognition (i.e. the mental action or process involved in thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering).
Here’s a look at some of the herbs and spices found to benefit the brain in scientific studies.
A spice known for its pungent scent, sage might also improve cognition and aid in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, a research review published in 2017, suggests sage contains compounds that may be beneficial for cognitive and neurological function.1
Try adding sage to butternut squash, roasted chicken, turkey, tomato sauce, or in a white bean soup. Sage can also be consumed in tea form.
Turmeric is a spice long used in Ayurveda. It contains a compound called curcumin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects (two factors that may benefit brain health and overall health).
According to a review published in 2010, preliminary research suggests that turmeric may boost brain health and stave off Alzheimer’s disease by clearing the brain of beta-amyloid (a protein fragment). The buildup of beta-amyloid is known to form Alzheimer’s-related brain plaques. In addition, turmeric may shield brain health by inhibiting the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain.2
Turmeric is a key ingredient in curry powder, which typically also includes such spices as coriander and cumin. To increase your intake of turmeric, try adding curry powder or turmeric to stir-fries, soups, and vegetable dishes. Include a couple of dashes of black pepper to enhance the absorption of turmeric.
Long used as a treatment for dementia, ginkgo biloba is a commonly taken remedy in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is well known for its benefits. It’s thought that ginkgo biloba might help improve cognitive function in part by stimulating circulation and promoting blood flow to the brain.
Although research on ginkgo biloba has yielded mixed results, there’s some evidence that this herb may enhance cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.3
Furthermore, a research review published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2015 suggests that a ginkgo biloba extract called EGb761 may be especially helpful in slowing decline in cognition among patients experiencing neuropsychiatric symptoms in addition to cognitive impairment and dementia.4
Tan MS, Yu JT, Tan CC, et al. Efficacy and adverse effects of ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;43(2):589-603. doi:0.3233/JAD-140837
A core feature of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, neuropsychiatric symptoms include depression and other non-cognitive disturbances.
Another Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha has been found to inhibit the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in preliminary research, according to a review study published in 2010.5
What’s more, the review says preliminary studies have indicated that ashwagandha may benefit the brain by reducing oxidative stress (a factor that may contribute to the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease).5
One of the most popular plants in herbal medicine, ginseng contains anti-inflammatory chemicals called ginsenosides. According to a review published in 2018, scientists have observed that ginsenosides may help reduce brain levels of beta-amyloid in preliminary lab studies.6
In alternative medicine systems such as Ayurveda and TCM, Gotu kola has long been used to improve mental clarity. Findings from animal-based research suggest that this herb may also help the brain by fighting oxidative stress.
In a preliminary study published in Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology in 2003, for instance, tests on rats demonstrated that gotu kola may inhibit Alzheimer’s-associated oxidative stress and improve cognitive function.7
An herb often taken in tea form and frequently used to ease anxiety and insomnia, lemon balm may help improve cognitive function.
For a study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry in 2003, 42 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease took either a placebo or lemon balm extract for four months. At the end of the study, those given lemon balm showed a significantly greater improvement in cognitive function (compared to those given the placebo).8
Should You Use Herbs and Spices for Brain Health?
While certain herbs and spices may have beneficial effects on your brain, no natural remedy should be used as a substitute for standard care in the treatment of a condition affecting brain health.
It is important to note that while adding herbs and spices in the small amounts used in cooking can be healthy and beneficial, using them in larger amounts should not be considered better. Taking herbs and spices in a more concentrated form, as found in supplements, carries more risk of adverse side effects.
Seizures have been reported in children taking sage supplements; cheilitis in adults. Concentrated (supplement) forms of turmeric, ginseng, and ginkgo have a blood-thinning effect thereby increasing the risk of bleeding, especially in people taking other blood thinners or anticoagulants.
Ginseng can cause changes in blood pressure (higher or lower), interacts with many medications, and can cause a severe allergic reaction or liver damage in rare cases. Gotu Kola has been linked to damage to the liver in rare instances.
There is no FDA regulation of the content and purity of supplements. One study found that over 20% of Ayurvedic supplements were contaminated by heavy metals like lead, mercury, or arsenic.9
- Lopresti AL. Salvia (Sage): A Review of its Potential Cognitive-Enhancing and Protective Effects. Drugs R D. 2017;17(1):53–64. doi:10.1007/s40268-016-0157-5
- Kulkarni SK, Dhir A. An overview of curcumin in neurological disorders. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2010;72(2):149–154. doi:10.4103/0250-474X.65012
- Yang G, Wang Y, Sun J, Zhang K, Liu J. Ginkgo Biloba for Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Curr Top Med Chem. 2016;16(5):520-8.
- Tan MS, Yu JT, Tan CC, et al. Efficacy and adverse effects of ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;43(2):589-603. doi:0.3233/JAD-140837
- Ven murthy MR, Ranjekar PK, Ramassamy C, Deshpande M. Scientific basis for the use of Indian ayurvedic medicinal plants in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders: ashwagandha. Cent Nerv Syst Agents Med Chem. 2010;10(3):238-46.
- Zheng M, Xin Y, Li Y, et al. Ginsenosides: A Potential Neuroprotective Agent. Biomed Res Int. 2018;2018:8174345. Published 2018 May 8. doi:10.1155/2018/8174345
- Veerendra kumar MH, Gupta YK. Effect of Centella asiatica on cognition and oxidative stress in an intracerebroventricular streptozotocin model of Alzheimer’s disease in rats. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2003;30(5-6):336-42.
- Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, Ohadinia S, Jamshidi AH, Khani M. Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2003;74(7):863–866. doi:10.1136/jnnp.74.7.863
- Saper RB, Phillips RS, Sehgal A, et al. Lead, mercury, and arsenic in US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines sold via the Internet [published correction appears in JAMA. 2008 Oct 8;300(14):1652]. JAMA. 2008;300(8):915–923. doi:10.1001/jama.300.8.915
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