Increasingly, Americans both young and old are struggling to focus on the important things around them and remember what matters. According to recent findings, diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children are on the rise. Most disturbingly, the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) findings report that in three years’ time, ADHD diagnoses for children ages 2 to 5 increased by more than 50 percent. On the other end of the age spectrum, older adults are experiencing a rise in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia diagnoses.
Looking at the symptoms of ADHD, most of us can think of at least one middle- aged adult who fits this criteria as well. Inattention as well as hyperactivity and impulsivity are the main categories examined in the diagnosis and include those who fidget, can’t remember details, lack patience and organization, and struggle to focus.
Modern medical protocols suggest long lists of prescriptions and behavioral therapies to address the mounting wave of cognitive problems. While some of the children who are diagnosed with ADHD are merely active children in need of an outlet, many of them are truly struggling with an internal conflict that they’re ill-equipped to overcome. Older adults also suffer from cognitive problems with seemingly no explanation beyond genetics.
In every case, there is a large group of possible contributors, including chemicals and dyes in food, an abundance of sugar and unnatural sugar substitutes in food and drinks, heavy-metal contamination, food allergies, too much screen time, and too little exercise. In any comprehensive, natural plan to address focus and memory issues, these inputs must be considered. But often, lifestyle and diet changes aren’t enough.
The great news is that potential treatments consist of simple herbs you can grow right in your backyard. These herbs, used on their own with diet and lifestyle changes or in conjunction with behavioral counseling, can turn the tide in the life of someone for whom day-to-day situations can be both confusing and frustrating.
As with other medications, herbs come with precautions. Always research an herb before using it alone or in combination with other medications, and consult your healthcare provider to make sure it’s right for you or a loved one.
Herbs for Focus
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Ginkgo is the most studied plant for memory and focus. Clinical trials support its ability to regulate neurotransmitters and to protect nerve cells in the brain from degeneration. It has the ability to improve blood flow and increase oxygenation to blood vessels in the brain. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. There is still much research to be done, but ginkgo shows a lot of promise in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It can also be applied to memory improvement, notably in older adults. Coincidentally, ginkgo is one of the oldest known species on the planet, perhaps holding much of the Earth’s shared memories within its DNA.
Part Used: Leaves.
How to Grow It: Ginkgo is a hardy tree. Here in the Midwest, they’re often planted along streets and in parking lots. This is possible because ginkgo is fairly tolerant of high salt content, poor soil, and pollution. It’s hardy in Zones 3 to 8 and prefers full sun. The only thing ginkgo doesn’t really like is wet feet, so plant it in a spot with good drainage. Ginkgo trees can grow to be 75 feet tall with a 60-foot spread. Be sure to place it in a landscape where it will have plenty of room.
How to Use It: I was taught to combine ginkgo and gotu kola for a highly effective brain tonic. This mix remains one of my favorite ways to support someone with general cognitive issues. The leaves can be harvested in summer when they’re green, but they have the highest concentrations of beneficial ginkgolides in fall after they’ve turned yellow. Be sure to gather leaves only from clean areas; ginkgo accumulates toxins quite readily. Those street trees you’re hoping to forage from will most likely be full of heavy salts and toxic metals. Ginkgo leaves can be made into teas, tinctures, and pills. It’s typically consumed at 40 to 60 milligrams, 2 to 3 times per day.
Note: Some people have reported bleeding after taking gingko, but studies have not gathered enough evidence to find a direct link between the two. Also, note that ginkgo seeds are toxic for humans to consume.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
“Sage-ing” is a term for aging gracefully and sharing accumulated wisdom. Studies aren’t numerous, but those that exist support the belief that sage is helpful in preserving cognitive function and memory. In several studies — some of them double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled trials — sage has proven what old herbals have always told us: Sage is effective at positively impacting cognitive function, potentially even in subjects who may be suffering from dementia or another cognitive impairment. Sage also appears to be helpful in calming the agitation that often accompanies neural degeneration.
Part Used: Leaves and flowers.
How to Grow It: If you live in gardening Zones 5 to 8, sage will grow as a perennial. However, it does benefit from winter protection. I’m on the lower end of that range and tend to trim it down and mulch the base to help it through winter. We’ve had a large plant with us for years in our unheated greenhouse, and it’s so nice to be able to gather sage for sore throats or Thanksgiving dinner. Sage likes a well-drained soil in full sun. Over time, the plant will get woody and less productive if you don’t keep picking at it.
How to Use It: Most studies use a daily tincture of about 60 drops, with the best results occurring when this is split into three doses throughout the day. If you would like to use the leaf in food or tea, add 4 to 6 grams per day.
Note: Sage is a popular “weening” herb in that it reduces the flow of breast milk. Clinical dosage is best avoided if you’re pregnant or nursing.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
I’ve been using lemon balm to support focus in all ages for years. This effect is part of the plant’s folkloric history and has been accepted as anecdotally true. With the rise in children suffering from ADHD or “brain fog,” this is one of the remedies for which I receive constant requests. In deciding which formula I would put into my own products, I came across some promising studies that affirmed the folkloric use. The strongest results came from a study that mixed lemon balm and valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). This study showed a marked increase in the ability to focus, reduced hyperactivity and impulsiveness, and improved social behavior and sleep in the primary school children who took part. (These children were not officially diagnosed with ADHD, though they did exhibit struggles with hyperactivity and concentration.)
Part Used: Everything aboveground.
How to Grow It: Lemon balm isn’t too picky about its soil, but it doesn’t like to be overwatered. If it gets too wet and is too deeply shaded, it tends to fall prey to fungal infections. After it’s established, it will spread with abandon. Some like to confine it to a pot for this reason. It’s hardy in temperate areas, such as Zones 4 to 9.
How to Use It: To duplicate any of the studies, you’ll need to use a standardized lemon balm tincture or capsule. But in my opinion, lemon balm should be used fresh whenever possible because it’s just so darn tasty. I love it in an infused tea steeped for 10 minutes and then strained. It also makes a fine addition to a fruit or green salad. There are very few recorded adverse reactions, so recommendations generally fall at 1.5 to 4.5 grams per day. To match the study done with children using valerian and lemon balm together, use 160 milligrams and 80 milligrams respectively.
Note: There is some concern that lemon balm may have thyroid inhibitory properties and thus would not be appropriate to use in clinical dosage if you suffer from hypothyroidism. This has not been substantiated in a human trial.
You shouldn’t take lemon balm while pregnant or breast-feeding.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
Gotu kola is said to be an elephant’s favorite food, and, as common belief tells us, elephants never forget a thing. It can also be referred to as “brahmi” (not to be confused with Bacopa monnieri, which is also sometimes called “brahmi”). In India, gotu kola has a long history of being used to treat a collection of ailments, including poor memory and agitation.
The leaves of the plant contain a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF) that encourages the development of new brain cells. Gotu kola has been shown to support the growth of new nerve cells and protect the ones that already exist. It also reduces the effects of oxidative stress with its antioxidant content. Multiple studies have shown its effectiveness in increasing cognition and mood in older patients.
Part Used: Leaves.
How to Grow It: This Ayurvedic favorite spreads easily as a creeping ground cover in Zones 7 to 11. We grew it in a pot for a few years here in Ohio, but you could easily grow it outside as an annual. It likes a moist soil in a shady area and does well with shade or row covers. Covering can
satisfy its preference for humidity — think tropical.
How to Use It: It’s wonderful to have a pot of gotu kola in the kitchen where you can “graze” its leaves. Add a few to a salad, toss them into a smoothie, or just munch as you go. This herb is easy to dry as well, and it makes a wonderful tonic tea infusion when steeped for just 2 to 3 minutes. If you prefer to encapsulate or buy pre-made formulas, use 60 to 120 milligrams daily.
You can read even more about gotu kola in “Healing with Gotu Kola.”
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Another great herb from the Ayurvedic tradition for memory and focus is bacopa, also called “brahmi” or “water hyssop.” In some traditions it was believed to bless newborn children with intelligence. Bacopa’s use in sharpening the mind and supporting memory can be traced back as far as 3000 B.C. in Ayurvedic texts. This succulent looks something like our temperate native purslane (Portulaca oleracea), but the two are unrelated. Bacopa contains a mixture of compounds known as bacosides A and B, which play the chief role in improving cognitive abilities. Studies have shown that the compounds improve the transmission of impulses between nerve cells, regenerate synapses, and repair neurons.
Part Used: The whole plant, though mostly anything aboveground.
How to Grow It: Bacopa is hardy in Zones 7 to 11 and likes soil to be moist. In temperate areas, it can be grown as an annual and cut for harvest up to three times. In the continental United States, bacopa is only perennial in Florida.
How to Use It: Bacopa is traditionally dried and used as a powder, tincture, tea, or combined with ghee, because it’s fat-soluble and thus recommended to be taken in something else. As an adaptogen, long-term use will only enhance its effectiveness. A typical dosage is 30 to 50 drops of tincture, 3 to 4 times per day.
Note: Peg Schafer in The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm tells us that bacopa tends to bioaccumulate heavy metals. Be sure to source it wisely. It’s also contraindicated for hyperthyroidism.