Plants to protect against cognitive decline & dementia
By Tamara Welsh, Happy Herbalist
Many people have a natural decline in memory and cognition as they age, however some people experience cognitive difficulties greater than expected for their age. This is known as Mild Cognitive Impairment. While many people worry this is the early signs of more serious cognitive decline (such as dementia), mild cognitive impairment can be due to a range of underlying factors including lack of sleep, poor nutrition, depression, anxiety and thyroid disease, to name a few. Sadly though, for a small amount of people (studies show somewhere between 5-15%), mild cognitive impairment is a sign of the early stages of dementia.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are unfortunately the leading cause of death in Australian women and second leading cause for Australian men. When you consider the complexity of these diseases as well as the lack of effective mainstream treatment options, these statistics are a scary reality for the aging Australian population.
Dementia is not a disease itself, rather it is a term to describe a group of symptoms that occur with extensive cognitive decline. There are different types of dementia and research is showing that people with dementia may suffer from a mixture of different types. Risk factors for dementia are very similar to those for cardiovascular disease including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, current smoking and hyperlipidaemia. Therefore, protecting yourself against dementia starts with reducing or eliminating these risk factors.
So, you may be wondering where do herbs come in? Well, when you consider we have wonderful herbal allies that can assist with all the risk factors of dementia (i.e. regulating blood pressure, reducing blood sugar spikes, helping with weight loss, smoking addiction and lowering cholesterol) as well as herbs that have been shown to act directly on the brain therefore boosting cognition, you can start to see there is a wealth of herbal help to protect against both mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
Hypertension, for example, is a shared risk factor for both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia and has been associated with significant memory impairments in the last decades of life. We have a wonderful herbal apothecary available for regulating blood pressure including herbs such as Hawthorn, Cramp bark, Astragalus and Dandelion leaf contributing to actions that support capillary health, circulation, reducing arterial stiffness and promoting fluid elimination.
Similarly, if we look at another risk factor of cognitive decline such as diabetes and blood sugar dysregulation, we can consider herbs such as Phellodendron, Golden seal and Barberry that contain the alkaloid berberine known to promote muscle glucose uptake and insulin sensitisation.
As well as addressing any risk factors, there are also herbs with neuroprotective and nootropic actions that can be useful in protecting against and improving symptoms of cognitive impairment. Listed below are just a few of the key herbs used for their brain protective and enhancing qualities.
Ginkgo biloba is a true stand out herb for cognition. Ginkgo biloba boosts mitochondrial function, brain trophic factors and cognitive functioning. There are now several large studies that show the ability of ginkgo to assist with mild to moderate dementia. Ginkgo biloba needs to be used long term for its effects to become evident and in some cases, it can be used as and add on agent with standard anti-dementia drugs (seek medical advice before taking any herbs alongside pharmaceutical drugs). In addition to the loose leaf herb, we have a ginkgo biloba spagyric available.
Another great reason to enjoy chocolate, cocoa is rich in polyphenols making it an excellent plant to include in your diet to enhance brain health. Good quality dark chocolate contains high quantities of flavanols and an alkaloid with vasodilation properties which allows for better cerebral blood flow. Enjoying about 20 grams of dark (85%) chocolate daily can help boost microcirculation and improve mood.
Curcumin is a polyphenol found in turmeric and thus turmeric is an important herb to consider for cognitive decline. Curcumin reduces chronic neuroinflammation and boosts brain tropic factors but it also works to reduce other risk factors associated with dementia such as insulin resistance. Interestingly, the herpes simplex virus is now thought to be a major contributory factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric is antiviral and therefore a good option for someone positive for HSV1 who is experiencing cognitive impairment or hoping to protect against it. St John’s Wort and Echinacea could also be considered for this reason. Our anti-inflammatory tea recipe infuses herbs that assist with inflammation.
Brahmi is a popular Ayurvedic herb, known for its ability to give strength to the mind and rejuvenate the nervous system. Studies are now showing it is a promising herb for improving cognition in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. More research is needed in this area, however considering the long traditional use of Brahmi, it is a worthy herb to consider, particularly for those also suffering from insomnia. Try our brahmi spaygirc for easy, on-the-go use.
As you can see, the mechanisms behind mild cognitive impairment and dementia are complex, multifaceted and highly individual. For this reason, I would recommend if you are concerned about your brain health you work with a healthcare team that includes a Naturopath or Herbalist who can advise you on the herbs that best suit your situation.
Happy Herb Co provides referenced information for educational purposes only and does not make any therapeutic claims for any of their products.
Please seek advice from a healthcare provider if you wish to use herbs for therapeutic purposes.
Savaskan, E., Mueller, H., Hoerr, R., Von Gunten, A., & Gauthier, S. (2018). Treatment effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761® on the spectrum of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia: Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. International Psychogeriatrics, 30(3), 285-293. doi:10.1017/S1041610217001892
Baker LD, Rapp SR, Shumaker SA, Manson JE, Sesso HD, Gaussoin SA, Harris D, Caudle B, Pleasants D, Espeland MA; COSMOS-Mind Research Group. Design and baseline characteristics of the cocoa supplement and multivitamin outcomes study for the Mind: COSMOS-Mind. Contemp Clin Trials. 2019 Aug;83:57-63. doi: 10.1016/j.cct.2019.06.019. Epub 2019 Jul 2. PMID: 31271875; PMCID: PMC6642834.
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Goswami S, Saoji A, Kumar N, Thawani V, Tiwari M, Thawani M. Effect of Bacopa monnieri on Cognitive functions in Alzheimer’s disease patients. International Journal of Collaborative Research on Internal Medicine & Public Health. 2011; 3(4):285-293.