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.
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.
Bacopa’s positive influences also are seen in children. In one study from India, published in the Journal of Research and Education in Indian Medicine, healthy children aged 6 to 8 who took bacopa syrup daily for four weeks not only solved problems more quickly and accurately, but they also showed greater exploratory behavior — a key ingredient of curiosity, attention and motivation. Children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have been shown to benefit. Another Indian study of 8- to 9-year-olds, published in 2000, found that children who received bacopa extract twice daily for 12 weeks did better on tests, such as sentence repetition, logical memory and paired associate learning tasks (the ability to recall pairs of items presented together). It is not surprising, then, that bacopa syrup is commonly given to schoolchildren in India.
Scientists have really only begun to dig into the mysteries of this plant. Work is progressing on many fronts, including bacopa’s antioxidant actions, antimicrobial properties and its possible capacity to combat cancer, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal disorders and respiratory ailments. What appears to be emerging is that bacopa may have an adaptogenic effect, meaning it strengthens the body’s overall resistance to stress and disease.
Bacopa apparently provides a specialized cleansing and repair system for our nervous system. Its “memory chemicals” are unique saponins known as bacosides. Saponins are natural detergents present in many plants and are commonly used in soaps because of their foaming action. They help flush out damaging chemicals, such as free radicals and excess cholesterol, from the body, protecting molecules such as DNA from damage. The key ones in bacopa, bacoside A and B, are a mixture of saponins that further serve to repair damaged nerve cell connections by aiding protein synthesis, thereby allowing nerves to transmit signals more effectively. The bacosides, combined with many other chemicals in the plant — such as useful alkaloids, sterols and flavonoids — provide a well-stocked cache of brain and nerve foods to boost learning and memory.
What can this mean to people at risk for, say, Alzheimer’s disease? The main feature of this ailment is a loss of nerve-cell function in the brain’s hippocampus, and animal studies indicate bacosides have antioxidant activity in the hippocampus as well as the frontal cortex and striatum. This suggests they may help protect the integrity of the brain’s nerve cells in these regions and perhaps deter the onset or development of the disease.
Learning, memory, motor function and even anxiety relief — a lot of benefits from one plant, especially one considered a mere weed in its native India. This aquatic weed has now adopted many other countries, including the United States, where it is found in Florida, Hawaii and many other states. It withstands extremes of weather, temperature and elevation. In fact, it’s hard to kill a bacopa plant as long as there is sufficient water around — which is why it’s also a popular aquarium plant. In these watery environments, saponins are an advantage, because they discourage fish and microbes from dining on the plant.
Bacopa extract is available in capsules, powders, syrups and teas. According to the Alternative Medicine Review, recommended adult dosages for bacopa extracts standardized to 20 percent bacosides A and B are 200 to 400 mg daily in divided doses. For children’s syrups, follow package directions carefully. Therapeutic doses of bacopa are not associated with any serious side effects, but the herb may have a slight sedative effect, so use caution when combining it with other known sedatives. Also, bacopa may intensify the activity of thyroid-stimulating drugs or inhibit the effectiveness of thyroid-suppressant drugs.
According to Ayurvedic practices, herbs typically are taken in combination with other herbs to offset toxicities or enhance benefits. Thus, bacopa is sometimes sold in combination with other herbs. Clinical research has not yet provided proof that such combinations work. (For example, an initial study reported recently in the journal Human Psychopharmacology found no evidence for enhanced cognitive benefits using bacopa plus ginkgo, at least over the course of a few weeks’ treatment.) This kind of research is still in its infancy.
Nonetheless, it would appear that bacopa on its own can keep us sharp into our golden years. For myself, I’ll be happy if it helps me on my next anniversary!
— Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist living in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She is author of Catnip and Kerosene Grass: What Plants Teach Us About Life (www.CandlenutBooks.com).
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Bacopa,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at editor@HerbsForHealth.com.
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