7 Best Herbs and Spices for Brain Health

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Using Herbs and Spices for Brain Health

Herbs and spices
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Research suggests that 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 against 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.

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Turmeric

Turmeric
Thought to boost brain health, turmeric is the main spice in curry powder. Westend61/Getty Images

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).

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). 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.

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 dashes of black pepper to enhance the absorption of turmeric.

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Sage

Sage, Pumpkin Tortellini with Brown Mushrooms
Try pairing sage with pumpkin, squash, or sweet potatoes. Schon & Probst/Picture Press/Getty Images

A spice known for its pungent scent, sage may possess memory-enhancing properties, according to a small study published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior in 2003.

Sage might also aid in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. In fact, a research review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine identified sage as one of several herbs that may be beneficial to Alzheimer's patients. The other herbs included lemon balm and the Chinese herbs yi-gan san and ba wei di huang wan.

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.

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Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo leaves
Ginkgo leaves. Achim Sass/Getty Images

Long used as a treatment for dementia, ginkgo biloba is a commonly taken remedy in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and 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.

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.

A core feature of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, neuropsychiatric symptoms include depression and other non-cognitive disturbances.

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Ashwagandha

ashwagandha (withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha. Vaithinathan Muthuramann/StockFood Creative/Getty Images

Another ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha has been found to inhibit the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in preliminary research.

What's more, some 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).

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Ginseng

Ginseng chicken soup
In Korea, samgyetang is a traditional chicken and ginseng soup. Cheryl Chan/Moment Open/Getty Images

One the most popular plants in herbal medicine, ginseng contains anti-inflammatory chemicals called ginsenosides. In preliminary studies, scientists have observed that ginsenosides may help reduce brain levels of beta-amyloid. It's also sometimes taken to fight Alzheimer's Disease.

You can also read more about the various types of ginseng, including Panax ginseng and American ginseng.

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Gotu Kola

Gotu kola
Gotu kola leaves. Ottmar Diez/Photodisc/Getty Images

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.

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Lemon Balm

Lemon balm tea
Lemon balm tea. Ottmar Diez/StockFood Creative/Getty Images

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).

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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.

Sources:

Akhondzadeh S1, 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):863-6.

Dos Santos-Neto LL, de Vilhena Toledo MA, Medeiros-Souza P, de Souza GA. The use of herbal medicine in Alzheimer's disease-a systematic review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2006;3(4):441-5.

Kulkarni SK1, Dhir A. An overview of curcumin in neurological disorders. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2010;72(2):149-54.

Veerendra Kumar MH1, 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.

Ven Murthy MR1, 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.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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