Herbs For Health: Memory Enhancement

A Reuter’s news item appeared mid April this year in time for some tax-season levity: Lizard saliva may save your brain! No kidding. Apparently, a New-York-based biotechnology company has decided that ingesting the drool of the scary-looking southwest desert Gila monster may free the mind from the grip of Alzheimer’s disease (proceedings from the 7th International Geneva/Springfield Symposium on Advances in Alzheimer’s Therapy, Switzerland, April 8, 2002). Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, other natural nootropic substances, with research behind them, hold promise for keeping mental functions sharp. (For more tips on how to enhance your memory, see the Brain-Booster Checklist below.)

Gingko Biloba
Gingko is the most researched herbal medicine and the primary function of this marvelous plant is to stimulate peripheral circulation. This means increasing blood flow to the hands, feet and head. Not only is Gingko very useful for increasing memory (awesome before exams) but also helps prevent degeneration of vision, hearing, taste and smell. Studies prove that Gingko increases the flow of glucose and ATP (the main energy unit produced by our metabolism) into all cells, and also stabilizes cell membranes including those forming the blood brain barrier. Gingko has been repeatedly shown to slow the onset of dementia resulting from hardening of cerebral arteries. Gingko stimulates the biosynthesis of natural vasodilating agents, destroys free radicals, blocks the formation of free radicals and inhibits lipid peroxidation the break down of fatty tissues, which comprises 85% of the central nervous system. That’s right. Your brain and nerves are mostly made out of fat, which is why the quality of fats in your diet is critical for brain health. Avoid trans fats and hydrogenated oils (i.e. margarine). Choose fats rich in Omega 3 oils such as in flax seeds, salmon and fresh tuna. Gingko has been shown to improve the rate at which information travels from the peripheral nerves to the cells. This translates to quicker reaction time. Find a Gingko product that claims to contain 24% active ingredient (flavone glycosides) and take 120 mg up to three times daily to begin. As memory improves, reduce to maintenance dose of 40 mg up to three times daily. An infusion of fresh herb can be made (equal parts water to herb) and 60 drops of the “tea” is recommended up to 4 times daily. Rarely, gingko use can produce headaches.
Gingko References
  • Clostre F., “From the body to the cell membrane: the different levels of pharmacological action of Gingko biloba extract”. Presse Med 15/31, Sept 25, 1986:1529-38
  • Gautherie et al, “Vasodilator effect of Gingko biloba extract determined by skin thermometry and thermograph”. Therapie 27/5 Sept-Oct 1972:881-92
  • Warburton DM., “Clinical psychopharmacology of Gingko biloba extract”. Presse Med 15/31 Sept 25, 1986:1595-604
  • Allard M., “Treatment of the disorders of aging with Gingko biloba extract: from pharmacology to clinical medicine”. Presse Med 15/31 Sept 25, 1986:1540-5
  • Itil T., “Gingko nootropic potential”. Psychopharm Bull, 1995;31:147-58
  • Allain H, Raoul P, Lieury A, et al, “Effects of two doses of ginkgo biloba extract on the dual-coding test in elderly subjects”. Clin Ther 1993;15(3):549-58
  • Rai GS, Shovlin C, Wesnes KA., “A double-blind, placebo controlled study of Gingko biloba extract in elderly patients with mild to moderate memory impairment”. Curr Med Res Opin 1991;12(6):350-5.)
Huperiza Serrata
This common moss which grows throughout Asia (also called Chinese Moss) contains “Huperzine A” which improves short-term memory, increases brain acetylcholine levels and supports overall cerebral function. The active alkaloid (opposite of acidic) Hup A inhibits the enzyme which breaks down the major memory neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Alzheimer’s disease, as well as being characterized by amyloid brain deposits, is associated with a decline in the numbers of nerve cells that produce acetylcholine. Hup A prolongs the impact of acetylcholine on the central nervous system (brain and major nerves). Although the plant itself contains fairly low levels of Hup A, a bio-identical synthetic extract is available. The dosing range is wide: 50 to 1000 mcg daily. Most studies use 200 mcg twice daily, but start with the lowest dose, because that may be effective. Reported side effects include mild nausea and diarrhea. This extract should not be used by those with heart rhythm disorders or severe asthma. Discontinue for surgery and do not take along with the drugs Cognex and Aricept, which have similar mechanisms of action.
Huperizine References
  • Hanin I, Tang X., “Clinical and Preclinical studies with Huperzine”, Dept of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Loyola University
  • Tang X., “Huperzine A: A promising drug for Alzheimer’s disease”. Acta Pharmacol Nov 1996;17(6):481-484
  • Zhang,R et al., “Drug evaluation of huperzine A in the treatment of senile memory disorders”. Acta Pharmacol 12(3); May 1991:250-2
  • Cheng DH et al., “Huperzine A, a novel promising acetylcholinesterase inhibitor”. Rapid Science Publs, NeuroReprot 8(1), Dec 1996:97-101
  • Xu SS, Gao ZX, Weng Z et al., “Efficacy of table huperzine A on memory, cognition, and behavior in Alzheimer’s disease”. Chung Kuo Yao Li Hsueh Pal 1995;16:391-5.)
Ephedra Sinensis (Ma Huang)
This potent herb, widely used in Asia for centuries, is mostly known here in the “west” as a weight loss aide and stimulant, which it certainly is. However, it has long been used, in small doses, by Zen and Taoist monks before meditation to sharpen the awareness without causing agitation. It also doesn’t have a “let down” effect as it wears off. While it is indeed a stimulant and should not be used by weak or debilitated persons, it can actually relieve stress because it calms and focuses the mind. A classic 17th century Chinese formula to sharpen the memory and “quicken the mind” contains 2 parts each of Tang Kwei (Angelica sinensis) and Red Dates, and one part each of Ginseng, Lycium, Schizandra, Astragalus, Suk Gok and Ma Huang. Without the Ma Huang, the formula works more gradually. Ephedra contains alkaloids including ephedrine, whose action is similar to adrenalin. However, the effect is longer-lasting and much less potent. Ephedra increases blood flow to the brain by increasing blood pressure, so it is completely contraindicated for those with hypertension. It is an effective bronchodilator and helpful in mild to moderate asthma. Be aware that using Ephedra with aspirin, caffeine and theophylline (found in chocolate) will potentiate the herb’s ability to increase fat burning. Overdosing will cause insomnia and anxiety. Use one cup of tea daily (1 tablespoon herb per cup of water) or half the recommended dose in supplements advertising Ephedra for weight loss.
Ephedra References
  • Teeguarden R., Chinese Tonic Herbs. Japan Publications Inc, 1984. pp 136-146
  • Murray M, Pizzorno J., Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Prima Publ, 1990. p 444
  • Tilgner S., Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth. Wise Acres Press 1999. p 85-6)
Allium Sativum (Garlic)
Good old garlic, the master tonic, appears again on these pages. The ancient Egyptians revered garlic as a deity. Garlic’s powers are more than being an all-purpose anti-microbial ( anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal). Researchers supplementing a group of mice with garlic found that the mice lived longer than controls, and demonstrated significant improvements in learning new tasks and in recall. One reason garlic may enhance memory is because it reduces, even reverses, atherosclerotic plaque build-up. Therefore, blood will continue to flow steadily to the brain as you cheerfully mince your 2-3 cloves for the day. Further, garlic is known to stabilize blood sugar levels by increasing the release of insulin from the pancreas. Therefore, a garlic-eater is less likely to suffer from blood-sugar drops, which often is accompanied by mental fatigue and an inability to concentrate. Several cloves of garlic plus 50 mg of vitamin B1 before and after “partying” with alcohol will prevent a hangover is most folks. Garlic is one of the highest natural sources of selenium, a micro-nutrient critical for immune and neurological health. Garlic is high in sulfur-containing amino acids. Sulfur is a potent detoxifying agent, featured in many new compounds such as SAMe and MSM. If you don’t want to eat raw garlic (the best source), take capsules containing garlic oil according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. It’s also nice to soak equal parts of fresh chopped garlic, ginger, jalapeno pepper, horse radish and white onions for two weeks in apple cider vinegar (Bragg’s). Shake daily. Then strain off the liquid and use 1 tablespoon daily as a warming tonic. Warms up the brain too!
Garlic References
  • Grieve M., A Modern Herbal. Dover Publ 1971, p 344
  • Walker M., Garlic, Nature’s Healer. Devi-Adair Publ 1984
  • Murray M, Pizzorno J., Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Prima Publ 1990, pp 167,186,258,281,511
  • BioPharm Bulletin, 1994;17:1589-94)
Gotu Kola (Centella Asiatica)
Gotu Kola, in the parsley family, grows abundantly as a weed in many parts of the world but is best known throughout India, where it is widely employed not only as a nerve tonic, but for diseases of the skin and blood. The leaves are used for improving memory, and the tea form works well. It combines synergistically with Gingko as a memory stimulant. Gotu kola has been studied as a drug detoxifying agent (synthetic drugs), in particular for helping to clear the mind after cocaine abuse. Not only does Gotu kola improve memory, it is considered an “anti-stress” herb that has been shown to prevent adrenal hyperfunctioning. Ideally the supplement can be taken as a fresh extract of recently harvested wild Gotu kola. Non-commercial (wild or organically grown) dried powdered whole plant is also useful as a brain booster. In tincture form, 30 to 60 drops up to three times daily is an often-cited dose. It is also delicious fresh, as a salad herb. Avoid in pregnancy.
Gotu Kola References
  • Tilgner, S., Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. Wise Acres Press, 1999, p71
  • Sarma and Khosa, “Antistress Activity of Tinosporar cordifolia and Centella asiatica extracts”. Phytotherapy Research. 1996;10:181-183
  • Sarma and Khosa, “Antiulcer Activity of Tinospora cordifolia miers and Centella asiatica Linn extracts”. Phytotherapy Research. 1995;9:889-890
  • Scalzo R., Naturopathic Handbook of Herbal Formulas. Kivaki Press 1994, p90
  • Smith E., Therapeutic Herb Manual. Self publ 1989, p15
  • Davis BW., Major Herbs for Modern Times. Self publ 1989 p47
  • Dhar ML., “Screening of Indian plants for biological activity”. Indian J Exptl Biol. 1968; 6:232
  • Appa R, Usha SP., “Six months results of double blind trial to study to effect of Mandookaparni (Centella asiatica) on normal adults”. J Res India Med. 1967; 2:79
  • App R, Srinivasan K. “The Effect of Mandookaparni (Centella asiatica) on the general mental ability of mentally retarded children”. J Res Indian Med. 1973; 8:9)

Brain-Booster Checklist

  1. Take all opportunities to do simple math in your head
  2. Memorize your favorite poems and recite them often
  3. Learn a new skill each year (wood engraving, French, slide trombone, etc.)
  4. Engage in the adult continuing education opportunities in your community
  5. Get enough sleep
  6. Exercise regularly and moderately – choose something you enjoy!
  7. Use a good quality multi-vitamin
  8. Get extra B vitamins (especially B6, 250 mg daily, and B12, 1000 mcg daily)
  9. Gingko, Huperizine, Ma Huang, Garlic, Gotu kola (see article)
  10. CoEnzyme Q 10, 30-100 mg daily, to oxygenate cells
  11. Acetyl-L-carnitine, 1500-2000 mg daily, divided doses with food, a nerve nutrient
  12. Acetylcholine (the main neurotransmitter involved with memory) precursors:
  13. Lecithin, Choline and Phosphatidylserine, dosing will vary – consult a knowledgeable doctor.
  14. Avoid drugs that interfere with brain function. Particularly damaging to memory and alertness (according to Julian Whitaker, MD) are antidepressants, tranquilizers and barbiturates. Other culprits include antihistamines, ulcer drugs, glaucoma eye drops, digitalis, muscle relaxants, painkillers and some drugs for incontinence and hypertension.