7 Best Herbs and Spices for Brain Health
It’s possible 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 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. 1
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. 2
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. 3
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.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
A core feature of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, neuropsychiatric symptoms include depression and other non-cognitive disturbances.Ginkgo Biloba Benefits, Uses, Side Effects 4
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 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 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 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
There’s some evidence that this Ayurvedic herb can improve memory, probably through its strong antioxidant effects. In a study that gave healthy volunteers 300 milligrams of the herb or a placebo, the people who took the herb showed a significantly improved ability to process visual information, learn new material and consolidate their memory (that is, transfer short-term memories to long-term storage). 2 / 6
2: St. John’s Wort
Memory problems can be related to mild underlying depression. In those instances, buy a St. John’s Wort supplement standardized to 0.3% hypericin or 2% to 5% hyperforin and take 300 milligrams 3 times a day. The herb can interact with prescription medications, so talk with your doctor before taking it.
3: Guarana and Ginseng
Ginseng is a considered a “tonic” herb that benefits general health, while guarana, which contains caffeine, is a stimulant. One study compared an extract of guarana, 200 milligrams Pan-ax ginseng or both together in 28 healthy participants. They found that all 3 treatments improved the participants’ ability to perform certain cognitive-related tasks throughout the day. Guarana had the greatest benefit on attention tasks, while ginseng and the combination of both herbs improved the memory task most. 4 / 6
This amino acid is often included in “brainpower” and “memory boosting” supplements sold in drugstores. It plays numerous roles in helping to maintain the health of neurons and may also improve production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, important in memory. Most studies on its use have been conducted in Alzheimer’s patients, with some evidence that high daily doses can help slow the decline. Start with a modest dose of 200 milligrams 2 or 3 times a day. 5 / 6
Phosphodiesterase (PS) is a naturally occurring fat we get as part of our normal diet. It’s particularly important in enabling neuronal membranes to transmit electrical signals. In several studies in middle-aged and older people with mild memory problems, the supplement consistently and significantly improved participants’ ability to recall lists of words after 2 to 4 months of use. Take 200 to 300 milligrams a day in 2 or 3 divided doses. 6 /
This herb, derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, was developed in Hungary about 20 years ago. It’s mainly used to treat people with a loss of blood flow to the brain, a key contributor to memory and learning problems. Although there aren’t many human studies to go by, 3 studies show that taking pertinence can improve attention, concentration and memory more than a placebo. Take 2.5 to 5 milligrams 3 times a day, increasing to 10 milligrams 3 times a day if you don’t improve with the lower dose after 4 to 6 weeks.