Q and A: Herbs for Memory

Health professionals answer readers questions about the best herbs to improve memory.

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In every issue of Herbs for Health, professionals from a variety of health-care fields answer your questions about using medicinal herbs. Herbalist Mindy Green and physician Robert Rountree responded for this issue. 


I am interested in learning as much as I can about memory herbs. Are there herbs reputed to have memory-enhancing powers? Do you recommend them to patients? Can you tell me if they are effective, how they work, and which one is best?
Belfair, Washington

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica, formerly Hydrocotyle asiatica) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) are two thoroughly researched herbs taken for mental stimulation. Ginkgo is used to treat memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. It is also helpful for mental fatigue, senile dementia, and an inability to concentrate. It improves the blood supply to the brain, increases the brain’s ability to use oxygen, and increases glucose uptake and energy production, thereby increasing aptitude and alertness.

In both the Ayurvedic medicine of India and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), practitioners recommend using gotu kola for longevity and to improve mental function. They believe that it increases circulation to the brain and minimizes the effects of stress, fatigue, and anxiety by regulating the adrenal glands.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is known as the “herb of remembrance”. According to James Duke, a noted authority on herbs, it contains more than a dozen antioxidants and half a dozen compounds that retard the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. He even speculates that rosemary tea, a rosemary bath, or rosemary shampoo could help memory since the active compounds responsible are absorbed through the skin and cross the blood-brain barrier.
—Mindy Green

The research on ginkgo is fairly impressive, and I recommend it without hesitation, although it can take months to be fully effective, and an adequate dose is essential. I often use it in combina­tion with Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which seems to increase general stamina along with mental function. For more severe problems, two nutritional supplements that are worth considering are phosphatidylserine, an extract of soy lecithin, and pregnen­olone, an extract of wild yams.

While gotu kola has a long history of use as a longevity promoter, there is no good research on its efficacy as a memory enhancer. I have also been unable to find any consistent reports regarding rosemary’s use for this purpose.
—Robert Rountree

 Mindy Green is an herbalist and aromatherapist who works at the Herb Research Foundation and teaches at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado.

Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician at the Helios Health Center, a multidisciplinary holistic clinic in Boulder, Colorado. He serves on the advisory board for the Herb Research Foundation.

The information offered in Q & A is not intended to be a substitute for ­advice from your health-care provider.