Forget Me Nots
Activate your mind with memory-enhancing herbs

By Lyn Dalebout

Whether you're a new mom with brain fatigue (or "milk mind" as the Nepalis call it), an 80-year-old woman writing her memoirs, or a young student staying up all night studying for exams, you have good reason for desiring a quick and focused mind. But what you want and what what you have are often two different things, which is why many would-be mind masters turn to herbs when they need an extra boost for their brains.

Good memory is tied to two important phsyiological functions: a healthy vascular network in the brain and oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood vessels. Literally billions of electrical nerve impulses crisscross the brain every second. Chemicals called neurotransmitters assist in transporting these impulses from cell to cell. Without an ample supply of nutrients, which make up the neurotransmitters, the brain's ability to function is compromised. You need a maximum amount of oxygen and nutrients in the blood vessels for adequate brainwork. For this to happen effectively, the blood-brain barrier must be open and healthy to allow certain substances to pass from the bloodstream into the brain. If it becomes clogged with cholesterol and triglycerides, for example, the nutrient-rich blood can't get through. The brain then becomes malnourished, and its functions slow to a crawl.

Besides eating the right foods, you can turn to herbs to help improve the performance of your mind and thus your memory. The chemical components of specific herbs both support the healthy infrastructure of the brain and provide essential nutrients and antioxidants for its functioning.

Remember These Herbs
Imagine this: you get a phone call while you are in the midst of writing a memo. But after you hang up, you can't remember the caller's phone number, which you didn't write down because you were certain you had committed it to memory. And what was the memo to be about anyway? Herbs can help. You need not search out the most exotic or expensive, for many commonly used and readily available herbs offer the memory-enhancing effect you want, though their physiological mechanisms for achieving the result may differ.

Brain Power
Memory-boosting herbs need not be exotic of difficult to find. In fact, they may be as close as your kitchen garden. Basil (Ocimum basilicum) calms the mind, whereas rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) stimulates the brain.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is probably the best known, and most controversial, herb for memory support. Although researchers recently studied more than 200 older people and found no improvement to memory after ginkgo supplementation, other studies have shown that ginkgo benefits people with dementia and diseased blood vessels in the brain (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2002, vol. 288, no. 7; 1997, vol. 278, no. 16). And researchers looking at healthy females did find in one study that large doses (600 mg) of ginkgo biloba extract improved short-term memory (Presse Medicine, 1986, vol. 15, no. 31). It's important to note, however, that most, if not all, studies on ginkgo have looked at the nutraceutical extract, which is much more potent than the form of the herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

More research on ginkgo's effects is needed, but Althea Northage-Orr, president of the Chicago College of Healing Arts, still thinks it's a valuable herb for the brain. "Ginkgo is a peripheral vasodilator, meaning it improves circulation in the brain by dilating the smallest capillaries and thus increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain," she says. Northage-Orr also adds that this function is particularly helpful to the elderly, whose circulation in the brain decreases over time. She recommends taking 40 mg of ginkgo a day to reinvigorate the brain; to promote better memory, mental sharpness, and alertness; and to improve concentration and focus.

In Indian medicine, or Ayurveda, herbs called "brahmi" have been used for centuries as brain herbs of choice. Houston, Texas-based chemist and herb expert Philip Duterme, PhD, describes two types of brahmi. "Bacopa (Bacopa monnier, or smooth-water hyssop) is used to rejuvenate nerve and brain cells and to enhance memory, as well as to improve intellectual and cognitive functions and to increase concentration," he says. "Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is mostly valued for its calming effects and for increasing collagen production to help maintain a better vein structure and microvascular circulation in the brain."

According to Duterme, bacopa and gotu kola are often used in combination and are "very effective" for treating attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and for preventing mental deterioration associated with aging. The young and old alike can take 2 to 3 grams per day of either brahmi herb, though Northage-Orr finds these Ayurvedic herbs especially useful for middle-age women. "Bacopa is great for hormonal support and is especially helpful for women's memory issues associated with menopause," she says.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, memory function is tied to kidney health. In other words, says Jackson, Wyoming-based herbalist Rebecca Hawkins, "to increase mental clarity, I would treat the client with kidney herbs, which relieve the phlegm in the body that can cause foggy thinking." Formulas with herbs such as schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), American ginseng (Panax ginseng), or rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) relieve blood stasis in the brain-the stagnant blood that is thought to cause senility. Professional healers, such as therapists and surgeons, might benefit from these herbs because they nourish and calm the mind, supporting discernment and clear decision making. Consult your TCM herbalist for recommendations of balanced formulas with appropriate dosages of each herb.

The beauty and mystery of herbs, according to Hawkins, is that some work specifically on certain organs in the body. Consider taking 50 mcg each day of club moss (Huperzia serrata) or the derived compound Huperzine A, both of which aid the brain and are reputed to improve concentration and focus.

Common kitchen herbs, such as basil (Ocimum basilicum) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), also can aid memory. A bath in basil (use either floating leaves or essential oil) influences the neurochemistry of the brain and provides clarity of mind. Rosemary has a more stimulating effect on the brain and has long been used to improve memory. Do you recall this line from Hamlet? "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance." Place a sprig of fresh rosemary on your desk as you work on your next masterpiece.

Be Mindful
Be aware that some herbs don't mix well with certain drugs and medical conditions. Consult your health care practitioner if you have specific health issues or are using medications. Also, most, if not all, herbalists agree that herbs should be used in balanced, prepared formulas.

The brain, like other organs and muscles, needs proper care and use to maintain its vitality and flexibility. Herbs are worth consideration as one possibility for nourishing and strengthening this most important of organs.

Lyn Dalebout is a poet, writer, and educator living in Moose, Wyoming. She is also a longtime sidereal astrologer and Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner.