Given our hectic, multitasking lives, most of us could use a few natural brain boosters. “Taking care of our brains is one of the most important things we can do for our bodies, yet, strangely, the brain is often neglected,” says alternative health expert Peter Bedard MA, CHt, author of Convergence Healing. “We diet and exercise because we like the way we look when we’re fit, but we do very little to support the most important organ in our bodies.”
Many natural remedies have been shown to support brain health through improved cognition, memory, and alertness. Some of them have been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda and/or traditional Chinese medicine. Here are seven of our favorite natural brain boosters:
Ashwagandha. This herb may be a mouthful to say, but it’s the “go-to” choice for many Ayurvedic healers. “If you’re feeling overworked, overwhelmed, or simply burned out from burning the candle at both ends, this herb might help,” says Bedard. “It has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to rejuvenate and enhance brain function and even prevent the deterioration of brain cells.”
A 2017 study concluded that, “Ashwagandha may be effective in enhancing both immediate and general memory in people with mild cognitive impairment, as well as improving executive function, attention, and information processing speed.”
Ginseng. Think of ginseng as the traditional Chinese medicine counterpart to ashwagandha. “This super popular herb can be found in many energy drinks,” says Bedard, pointing out that it’s often used to help support basic mental functioning. “Clarity is often a word associated with this herb. It is recognized as an adaptogen, which means that it can help you better cope with the effects of stress. Furthermore, ginseng may protect brain cells against toxins and beta-amyloid, which is integral to prevent age-related mental decline.”
Omega-3 fatty acids. One recent study shows that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA may be beneficial to patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease. And when it comes to top picks for natural brain boosters, Barry Sears, PhD, a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition and author of the Zone Diet book series, says that omega-3s are key to increasing brain function and treating neuroinflammation. “You need adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood to provide adequate levels to the brain,” he explains. “The omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks to make resolvins, a powerful group of hormones needed to resolve existing neuroinflammation.”
Sears suggests aiming for 2.5–5 grams of EPA and DHA per day from food and supplements.
Ginkgo biloba. The ginkgo biloba tree is thought to be one of the world’s oldest living organisms, so it’s no wonder that its leaves were used as a medicinal herb in many ancient healing practices. Now, modern science is proving ginkgo’s brain-health benefits.
“Some research suggests that ginkgo may help to heal and regenerate brain cells, enhance memory, improve focus, and even increase intelligence,” says Bedard. A review published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that an extract from ginkgo may help slow cognitive decline in patients experiencing neuropsychiatric symptoms, cognitive impairment, and even dementia.
A word of caution: Ginkgo is a recognized blood thinner, and should not be used in conjunction with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and aspirin; warfarin; or any other blood-thinning medications.
Rosemary. If you thought that rosemary was only for seasoning pasta and pork dishes, think again. This tasty herb can also make you smarter. “Rosemary is a brain-booster, especially when used as an essential oil in aromatherapy,” says Bedard. “Smelling rosemary essential oil is believed to improve efficiency and proficiency at mental tasks. And rosemary essential oil may also help with memory retention.” Rosemary is closely related to sage, another spice that has been shown to boost mental function.
Turmeric. Beyond adding spice to delicious curry recipes, turmeric is a tantalizing herb that has long been used in traditional Ayurveda. “Research studies are showing that turmeric may boost brain health and even stave off Alzheimer’s disease by helping to ‘clear’ the brain of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid,” says Bedard. “The buildup of this protein has been shown to contribute to Alzheimer’s-related brain plaques. In addition, turmeric may shield brain health by inhibiting the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, thus slowing down the progress of Alzheimer’s and these brain plaques.”
If you don’t want to eat a lot of curry, Golden Milk, a traditional beverage made with turmeric, is another option. (Try our delicious Pumpkin Golden Milk Smoothie recipe.) And turmeric supplements are also available.
Lemon balm. This tasty and “lemony” herb is often served as a tea to ease anxiety and insomnia and improve cognitive function. “I blend lemon balm with St. John’s wort, lavender, and orange peel,” says Bedard.
In a study from the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, 42 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease were given either lemon balm extract or a placebo for four months. At the end, those who took lemon balm showed a significantly greater improvement in cognitive function.
Non-Herbal Brain Boosters
Probiotics Numerous compelling studies have found that the makeup of bacteria in the gut has a profound impact on brain chemistry, behavior, learning, and mood. Researchers call it the gut-brain axis. Specific probiotics (beneficial bacteria) can significantly impact mental and overall brain health in a good way.
Vitamin B12 & Folate Research has clearly established that B-complex vitamins—particularly vitamin B12 and folate—help prevent mental decline. A study from Oxford University found that having higher levels of these nutrients can actually give the brain a boost in those with mild cognitive impairment.
Prevagen The active ingredient in Prevagen, apoaequorin, has demonstrated effectiveness in improving several aspects of cognitive function. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, a subgroup of adults over 40 with mild, age-related cognitive impairment showed significant improvement in memory-related measurements after taking just one Prevagen a day for 90 days.