Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
As we age, losing our faculties is high on our list of mental health concerns. And it’s not just aging that affects our brain. Many of us deal with mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. Research, though, is revealing that natural approaches can treat and prevent mental decline.
Some types of mental health issues develop when we are exposed to toxins and oxidizing chemicals in our environment. These appear to contribute to brain inflammation, scarring and mental decay. Inflammation may also result from allergies, stress or low tissue nutrients, and creating free radicals that cause damage, which may contribute to dementia.
These free radicals can be particularly damaging when brain tissues are deficient in antioxidants and other nutrients that ease the effects of chronic inflammation. Antioxidant levels in the brain have been shown to decline with age, and, the lower the level, the greater the damage to nerve cells, which is why antioxidants should top your list of brain nutrients.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is effective for addressing mild to moderate depression. It is thought to act in the brain to preserve serotonin, an important mood-regulating hormone, and it also modulates and balances the brain chemical norepinephrine, much as tricyclic antidepressant drugs do. St. John’s wort also may increase endorphin levels.
Overall, St. John’s wort is the most thoroughly researched and widely prescribed herbal antidepressant in the world. Dozens of studies have shown it to be very effective in treating mild depression, equal if not superior to comparable drugs. Plus, it’s virtually free of side effects.
St. John’s wort consistently achieves a greater than 50 percent reduction in the Hamilton Depression Scale (a series of measurements used to quantify depression) in a large number of patients, and it does better than tricyclic antidepressants without the side effects. A 2017 meta-analysis crunched the data from 5,428 papers between 1960 and 2016. The researchers concluded that, “For patients with mild-to-moderate depression, St. John’s wort has comparable efficacy and safety when compared to SSRIs.”
How to Take It: Use an extract standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin at a dose of 300 mg, three times a day, or capsules of a good quality source of the whole herb.
Ginkgo leaf (Ginkgo biloba) is another effective herb for depression, and it combines well with St. John’s wort.
Ginkgo increases circulation, particularly to the head, so it seems a natural to consider for depression. Sure enough, researchers began studying ginkgo for depression after noting mood improvements in patients taking the herb for cerebrovascular insufficiency.
One study, for example, showed that 40 elderly patients with depression, who had not benefited fully from standard antidepressant drugs, were given ginkgo. After eight weeks, the Hamilton Depression Scale average score had dropped from 14 to 4.5. A study published in Pharmacopsychiatry indicated that ginkgo significantly improved cerebral function and depression. In 2017, a research team published a paper that confirmed ginkgo’s effect in improving cognitive ability and anxiety. A 2018 paper found that ginkgo extract restores neurologic function during the treatment of depression in elderly patients.
How to Take It: Use an extract standardized to 24 percent flavonglycosides at a dose of 120–240 mg per day.
See Also 5 Benefits of Ginkgo Biloba
Mind remedies include a large array of herbs recommended to rebuild nerve tissues and restore mental equilibrium. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a top mental rejuvenator, which Ayurvedic herbalists use to re-establish long-term sleep rhythms, and for general debility and exhaustion, memory loss and nerve diseases. Modern clinicians are most likely to employ it for chronic fatigue and anxiety, as well as insomnia.
This herb, a relative of tomatoes and potatoes, is relaxing, not stimulating, allowing us to take much higher doses with no overstimulation.
Study after study confirms the stress tolerance, performance and endurance enhancing benefits of this herb. One study indicated that the herb reduced brain damage caused by stress by 80 percent.
Ayurveda considers it a “grounding” herb, one that nourishes and regulates metabolic processes and stabilizes mood. One paper looked at bipolar disorder and found Ashwagandha effective in managing it. Ashwagandha also increases memory and test performance. One recent study looked at sleep deprivation and stress and found that Ashwagandha was effective in improving sleep.
Ashwagandha is a superb treatment for chronic anxiety, which is a common problem as age advances. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that Ashwagandha intervention resulted in greater score improvements (significantly in most cases) than placebo in outcomes on anxiety or stress scales. A 2017 study in the Journal of Neuroinflammation confirmed this benefit.
How to Take It: It takes about a week to work up to the proper dose, and about another week for the herb to reach maximum effectiveness. And the fact that it’s a slow-acting herb means you may take your daily dose at any time during the day. Used this way, Ashwagandha prevents the onset of anxiety episodes. It also has antioxidant activity in the brain, which may explain, at least in part, a host of its effects, including the reported anti-stress, cognition-facilitating, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging benefits. Take 5–10 grams in capsule form.
See Also Using Adaptogenic Herbs
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) has a history of brain-building, and it’s a mainstay of herbal medicine in Ayurveda. Widely considered a superior herb for the nervous system, gotu kola has a host of benefits.
In Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is called “brahmi,” which means “god-like,” a reference to its antiaging properties and to its use as an aid to meditation. It has a bitter taste and is
cooling to the body. Gotu kola strengthens memory, concentration and intelligence, and stabilizes mood. Recently, a promising study out of Korea shows that components in gotu kola show potential for treating Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Take It: Since gotu kola is basically a mild salad vegetable, the dose can be very high. Many people use a modest dose of 1 gram per day in capsules for daily rejuvenation. Try a cup of gotu kola tea with honey before meditation.
Bacopa, or water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri), is a mainstay of traditional Ayurvedic medicine. A powerful brain food, it’s used in Asia for nerve diseases, mental exhaustion and to improve memory. Meditators use it to increase comprehension, concentration and recollection. Because it increases the ability to solve problems effectively, it is often found in Ayurvedic formulas to prevent stress.
With nearly 300 studies in the scientific literature, it has built up a solid base of scientific support for its many functions. This powerhouse also does double duty as an antistress and anxiety remedy.
How to Take It: Take 5–10 grams in capsule form.
When we need mental peace and sleep, shankhpushi (Conolvulus pluricauli) can help restore clear quality of the mind and relaxation.I t’s an outstanding rejuvenative tonic for the mind and nerve tissue. It’s especially effective for reducing anxiety and fear, as it promotes tranquility without dulling the mind. In depression, it uplifts. In stress it is calming. A couple of notable studies validated its use in depression, anxiety and stress.
How to Take It: For sleep, use about 6 grams at bedtime.
Gokshura fruit (Tribulus terrestris) is getting a reputation for promoting mental clarity, and in fact, I recommend it for its exceptional clinical effect in depression. This herb contains harmine alkaloids, which may explain its sedative properties. It may be taken with ashwaganda as a tonic nervine in nervous disorders. A study found a Gokshura combination benefitted depression and anxiety, and another found the herb reduced chronic stress and depression.
How to Take It: Use 6 grams per day of the ground fruit (seed pod) in capsules.
Our Favorite Products
The Vitamin Shoppe
St. John’s Wort Extract: Each 300 mg capsule of St. John’s wort has hypericin standardized to 0.3 percent, for mood support.
Ginkgo: Each capsule supports memory, concentration and blood flow to the brain and extremities.
Himalaya Herbal Healthcare
Ashwagandha: Provides stress relief by supporting your adrenal glands for normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Gotu Kola Herb 2000 mg: super concentratedwith each serving providing a full 2,000 mg of herb to promote healthy immune support.
These products can be found in The Vitamin Shoppe Stores or on Vitaminshoppe.com