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Herbs for Brain Health

By Michelle Giordano

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Best Herbs for Brain Health

Using herbal products and supplements to enhance cognitive performance has become a multi-billion-dollar industry and for good reason. There are certain plants and nutrients that promote a healthy brain. Many of these substances can be obtained by eating a healthy diet, particularly by eating a diverse set of fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, we in the United States do not consume the appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables in our daily diet. In fact, the CDC estimates that only 1 in 10 adults gets enough fruits and vegetables [1], putting our overall health, including brain health, at risk. If you are one of these Americans, there are actions you can take to promote a healthy brain.

Supplements vs. Herbs – What’s the Difference?

The Food and Drug Administration defines a dietary supplement as “a product taken by mouth that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement or enhance the diet.” [2] These ingredients include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other botanicals. In other words, an herb taken in pill form is a type of supplement.

Many individuals prefer herbal supplements as opposed to synthetic or man-made products because they come from natural sources. Herbal supplements are, indeed, better in the sense that these types of supplements may contain the entire plant or whole plant parts. This is critical because it is more likely to encompass a complex variety of micronutrients, rather than just isolating one nutrient. Researchers also believe that it is the blend of nutrients working together that produces the best health benefits.

It is important to keep in mind that natural does not necessarily equal safe. This is a common misconception among many people. Although ingesting an herb with all of its nutrients is certainly better than isolating one compound found in that herb, there are still risks associated with herbal supplement consumption. Herbs have medicinal properties, and many of them have side effects or may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Who Should Take Herbal Supplements for Brain Health?

Let’s face it – whether you’re a college student taking exams, a working mom juggling your children’s activities, or a dad working two jobs to make ends meet – we all have a valid reason to sustain a healthy brain and improve cognitive function. Today’s society demands so much from everybody, forcing many of us to constantly multi-task. Not only is this exhausting mentally and physically, but researchers have found that multitasking can harm our cognitive abilities and lead to brain damage. [3]

We are also an aging population, and with age comes a natural drop in cognitive abilities. It is important, therefore, to keep our minds sharp. We want to be independent as we age and not burden our loved ones. Supplementing with herbs may halt the progression of cognitive decline.

Benefits of Herbs for Brain Health

Many of us cannot avoid the demands of daily life, and we certainly cannot avoid aging, so it becomes essential to protect our cognitive function. Herbs, in general, may help improve cognition, including attention, learning, memory, language, decision-making, and problem-solving. Many herbs have a high antioxidant content which is beneficial to overall health and brain health.

The brain uses a large amount of energy which requires an abundance of oxygen. This process causes the production of dangerous substances called free radicals, which can trigger a number of harmful effects to the body and brain, including memory loss. They can negatively alter and/or kill brain cells. Antioxidants help rid the body of excess free radicals, and they neutralize free radicals, rendering them harmless.

It is important to note that different herbs help the body in different ways. The following herbs are useful to support a healthy brain.

Gingko Biloba

This herb protects nerve cells and enhances acetylcholine in the brain, which is known to influence cognitive processes, especially working memory. One randomized controlled study demonstrated an increased accuracy for working memory in participants who received gingko. [4]

Side effects associated with this herb include upset stomach, headache, dizziness, and an increased risk of bruising or bleeding. As a result of the latter side effect, this drug interacts with blood thinners and other medications that can thin the blood. Drugs that can thin the blood include Coumadin and NSAIDs like Motrin.



Bacopa is a fundamental plant utilized in Ayurvedic medicine. It is also known as brahmi or water hyssop. A recent study found that this herb enhanced overall cognitive performance in the elderly, especially with regard to word recall. [5] In addition to improving memory, focus and learning, bacopa may relieve symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.

Common side effects of bacopa include abdominal cramps, nausea and dry mouth, and increased bowel movements. It is considered safe to take if used for up to 12 weeks.



This amazing herb benefits the brain in a variety of ways including boosting memory, alertness and mood. It has also been shown to prevent cognitive decline and increase dopamine in the brain. One study showed rosemary extract improved cognitive deficits in rats due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. [6]

Rosemary is typically safe when taken in low doses; however, very large doses can cause vomiting, muscle spasms and a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Because large doses of rosemary can lead to a miscarriage, women should avoid supplementing with this herb during pregnancy.



Another herb used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha, works by improving the body’s resilience to stress and enhances the function of the brain and nervous system. It improves memory, focus, mental alertness and sleep quality. Although it is not completely understood how, various studies indicate that this herb protects nerve cells in the brain. [7]

Ashwagandha is considered safe when used for up to 3 months. Large doses of this herb can produce side effects including stomach discomfort, diarrhea and vomiting. Although extremely rare, liver problems may occur, so anyone with liver disease should avoid using this herb.


Our Take

We strongly support using herbs for brain health. In addition to having powerful antioxidant properties and supporting a healthy brain, herbs, in general, are beneficial to overall health. There are numerous studies demonstrating the improvement in cognitive function with many herbs.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that although they are natural, herbs have medicinal properties and may cause adverse effects and may also interact with medications. You should always speak with your doctor before supplementing with any herbs to ensure it is right for you.

Also, herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, therefore, there is no guarantee that what is on the label is what is exactly in the pill. Look for supplements that have ample information about the manufacturer. Another important characteristic to look for when selecting an herbal supplement is USP, which means that the product was produced in accordance with standards of the United States Pharmacopeia, making it a higher quality product.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between an herb and a supplement?

A supplement contains ingredient(s) intended to supplement or enhance the diet. An herbal product comes from botanicals and is a type of supplement.

Who should use herbal supplements for brain health?

Any adult that does not obtain enough nutrients from their diet, particularly the elderly.

Do herbs support a healthy brain?

Herbs are rich in antioxidants which help repair brain cells and prevent brain cell death. Also, specific herbs have other mechanisms by which they promote brain health.

What are examples of herbs that are good for cognitive funciton?

Some examples are gingko, bacopa, rosemary and ashwagandha.


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