By David Blyweiss, M.D.
As we get older, many of us quietly accept as fact that our mental capabilities aren’t as sharp as they were when we were younger. We aren’t surprised to find that our reaction speed slows, that we’re not as adept at mental tasks and that our memory isn’t what it used to be. We accept it because it seems like there’s not much we can do about it. But, while modern medicine might not be able to help prevent those “senior moments,” an ancient Ayurvedic herb called bacopa can.
Bacopa—also known as water hyssop or brahmi—is a small white flower that grows wild throughout India, where it has been used since at least the sixth century A.D. as a tonic for the nervous system and the heart. Bacopa’s secret? The saponins thought to repair damaged neurons in the brain. A recent study from the National College of Natural Medicine in collaboration with researchers from Oregon Health and Science University, both in Portland, supports that claim. A relatively modest dose of 300 mg. daily for 12 weeks improved information recall and had the added benefit of reducing depression and anxiety.
This isn’t the first study to show bacopa’s brain benefits. In an Australian double-blind study, researchers gave 46 healthy adults either 300 mg. of bacopa or a placebo. After 12 weeks, the group that took bacopa had a 13 percent improvement in learning and memory rates. But the most striking result was the significant reduction in anxiety in those who received bacopa.
Other studies have found that bacopa:
- Increases mental agility and alertness
- Improves memory
- Increases ability to grasp new information and skills
- Calms the mind, while promoting relaxation
- Improves academic performance
- Helps concentration and focus
A number of compounds have been identified in bacopa, including bacosides A and B, two chemicals that improve the transmission of impulses between nerve cells in the brain. These bacosides regenerate synapses and repair damaged neurons, making it easier to learn and remember new information. Bacopa also increases serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation.
But bacosides may not be the only compounds responsible for bacopa’s impact on cognition. A rodent study compared the effects of bacopa and deprenyl, a Parkinson’s disease drug that has been shown to extend lifespan and enhance antioxidant enzymes in the brain. Amazingly, bacopa increased antioxidant activity in all parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, (memory-storing region of the brain), unlike deprenyl, which increased activity in the frontal regions of the brain, but not the hippocampus. Because the ability of deprenyl to enhance our natural antioxidant enzymes is believed to be the reason deprenyl slows brain aging and extends lifespan, bacopa may be a natural way to not only protect our brains, but also to extend our lifespan.
Just remember, even though bacopa and other natural nutrients like ginkgo biloba and choline are proven to improve mental functions, it’s also important to exercise your brain every day. Engage in activities that utilize thinking skills to keep your mind sharp. Do crossword puzzles; play chess or bridge; learn to use the computer or video camera; play a musical instrument; square dance; play tennis; study a foreign language; write a poem. Your brain needs to be stimulated, challenged and exercised, just like the rest of your body!
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