Give Your Brain a Boost with Bacopa

This hot herb is getting plenty of attention as the newest and best memory enhancer.

| September/October 2005

  • Bacopa monnieri, an aquatic plant also known as water hyssop, apparently improves our ability to learn and retain new information.
    Henriette Kress

This morning, a beautifully gift-wrapped package arrived at our door, and it totally confused my husband and me. It was not until we saw the enclosed “Happy Anniversary” card that we exclaimed, “Oh, of course! How could we forget?” Only yesterday we had discussed restaurants for our anniversary dinner.

If, in nature’s bounty, there is a balm for human memory, we desperately need it. And apparently there is one — it’s called bacopa.

Bacopa monnieri, an aquatic plant also known as water hyssop, has emerged from the recesses of a 3,000-year-old Indian medicinal tradition to claim its place in today’s pharmacopoeia. It was used historically as a brain tonic for memory and learning, a nerve tonic for anxiety or epilepsy, and a cardiac and respiratory aid. Research nowadays has honed in on the herb’s prospects for improving memory, and the studies are very encouraging.

Bacopa apparently improves our ability to learn and retain new information. For example, a well-designed (double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled) Australian study of adults aged 18 to 65 indicates that taking 300 mg of bacopa extract daily for up to 12 weeks can enhance brain function. Using various tests of cognitive performance, the study revealed that subjects were able to process visual information more quickly, learn faster and consolidate new material into memory more effectively.

Calm Frazzled Nerves

Learning and memory seem to operate better when we are calm and relaxed — and one of the ways bacopa may act is by allaying anxiety. In a 1980 study, patients treated with bacopa for anxiety neurosis saw their anxiety levels lowered by about 20 percent and experienced reduced mental fatigue and better short-term memory performance. Four weeks of bacopa therapy also produced a decrease in average systolic blood pressure, from 117 mm-Hg to 112 mm-Hg, and a 37 percent increase in respiratory function, as assessed by breath-holding time. Other symptoms of anxiety, such as insomnia, headache, irritability, lack of concentration, tremors, palpitations and nervousness, also were notably relieved. In other words, bacopa may improve memory and productivity by reducing anxiety and related problems. An added advantage is that it may be a safe substitute for anti-anxiety drugs without the attendant side effects.

Another aspect of memory relates to motor function in our bodies, and bacopa may participate here as well. Memory operating at a molecular level is involved in transmitting chemicals that govern motor responses and nerve signals. Researchers believe that, among its other mechanisms, bacopa may help regulate these important chemicals by stimulating production of a neurotransmitter in the brain known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA inhibits convulsive behavior and assists locomotor function. This neurotransmitter further helps prevent pain from super-sensitive nerve endings and can serve as a sedative. So we can now understand why bacopa has been used successfully for millennia to help counteract epilepsy, a serious neurological disorder.

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