Herbs and Natural Brain Health
“Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his scientific knowledge. Remedies from chemicals will never stand in favour compared with the products of nature, the living cell of the plant, the final result of the rays of sun, the mother of all life.” –T.A Edison
Mental health problems have been escalating dramatically over the last five years. Too many people are suffering from mental health problems ranging from autism, Attention Deficit Disorder to Alzheimer’s disease and depression. The equivalent of 500 people every day in the UK are diagnosed with cognitive impairment and/or dementia. Turning to the government to ask them “What are they doing about this?” is a reasonable question, but it is also a question that can be reflected backwards to each one of us. What responsibility are we taking for maintaining our personal mental health and even broader, our health as a whole?
In the UK alone we drink 1.5 billion caffeinated drinks a week, including tea, coffee and colas. We eat six million kilos of sugar and two million kilos of chocolate as well as 120 million alcoholic drinks every week. The reasons for doing this are many - satisfying cravings, handling stress, boosting energy when our energy has dropped, insomnia, lack of time and so on. This does not include the 1.5 billion cigarettes or the medical drugs prescribed by the doctor to help us with sleep disorders, anxiety and depression, a staggering 532 million tranquillizers, 463 million sleeping pills and 823 million antidepressants every year.
Optimum brain health is made up of a combination of things:
- Balancing blood glucose
- Feeding the brain with essential fats
- Ensuring the brain has enough amino acids which is what make up the brain’s messengers
- Ensuring the right balance of vitamins and minerals
- Maintaining overall gut health, which as we know now has a significant impact on the brain.
Glucose in the body is made from the carbohydrates that we eat. The brain has the potential to consume 40% of all the carbohydrate you eat. Imbalance of the supply of glucose to the brain leads to fatigue, insomnia, irritability, poor concentration, forgetfulness, depression, digestive disturbances and other symptoms. In order for the body and brain to receive enough glucose we need to eat slow releasing carbohydrates, such as whole grains, beans and lentils and avoid refined carbs which overload the system with sugar, thus triggering a rapid increase in blood sugar of which any excess is stored in the liver and muscles until the stores are full and then it is converted to fat.
The brain also has a massive demand for essential fats. Cutting out fat from your diet is the equivalent of dehydrating the brain! Alzheimer’s, fatigue, ADHD, depression and memory problems have all been linked to a deficiency of essential fats. Essential fats include Omega 3 and Omega 6, which because the body cannot manufacture, has to be taken in through a good diet in oily fish, flax, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Almost all neurotransmitters in the brain are made from amino acids and therefore good quality and the right quantity of protein is vital. Essential amino acids, those that cannot be made by the body can be obtained from grains and pulses, fish, especially oily fish, and white meat, nuts, seeds, eggs and some vegetables such as peas, beans, broccoli and spinach.
Brain health is also reliant upon B vitamins. These vitamins if deficient will negatively affect how you think and feel. A regular intake on a daily basis through foods, supplements or herbs is vital to supply the brain with the energy and food it needs. Good food sources of B vitamins include green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, and avocados. In addition to B vitamins, Vitamin C and zinc are also very important to maintain a healthy brain. The need to increase zinc to ensure there is enough for the brain is particularly important when you are under stress, are suffering some kind of infection or with PMS, taking the contraceptive pill, and when drinking alcohol regularly.
There are several well known herbs that can help maintain healthy brain function, including:
Gingko biloba, this prehistoric tree has been around a long time! Main actions include:
- Increasing blood circulation
- Gingko and gingko extracts are used for anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant properties, cerebral glucose utilization, reducing platelet aggregation, neurotransmitter regulation, and vasomotor effects.
Bacopa monnieri, better known as Brahmi. This herb has been used in Ayuvedic medicine for centuries to enhance congnitive function. Main actions include:
- Enhancing nerve impulse transmission by repairing damaged neurons, and stimulating neuronal synthesis
- Increasing antioxidant activity in the hippocampus, frontal cortex and striatum, decreasing loss of cholinergic activity
- Enhancing cholinergic neurotransmission = improvement of cognitive properties: memory stability and attention sharpness.
Centella asiatica, more commonly known as Gotu kola is also used in Auyvedic medicine to treat memory loss and can be found listed as treatment in the Ancient Indian Ayuvedic herbal text “Caraka Susmita” for dementia treatment. Main actions:
- Neuro-protective effects against oxidative damage of excess glutamate
- Rejuvenates nerve brain cells increasing longevity and memory
- Protects cholinergic neurons from toxic side effects of aluminum
Waiting for someone else to give direction and manage your brain health is likely to be a long wait. Treat your brain and body with the respect it deserves and look more closely at mother nature, as she has all the answers.