Get Smart--Bacopa is a bright choice for better brainpower

By Michael Castleman

Natural Health October 2006

Years ago I asked a salesperson at a local nursery to recommend a hardy ground cover for my San Francisco yard. She suggested Bacopa monnieri, a creeping perennial with oblong leaves and delicate flowers. I had no idea that B. monnieri, also known as water hyssop, was an Indian herb with a centuries‑old reputation as a healer. Live and learn, I thought, which proved an apt phrase. Water hyssop, which ended up thriving in my garden, is a brain-boosting Ayurvedic remedy used to treat anxiety, epilepsy, and mental illness. It's similar in application to gotu kola (Centella asiatica)— so much so that both herbs are sometimes referred to by the-Sanskrit name brahmi. (To avoid confusion, most herbalists avoid that appellation.)

Nearly 40 years of research backs up B. monnieri's reputation as a cognition enhancer. According to a 2004 report published in Alternative Medicine Review, the herb contains compounds, called bacosides, that may facilitate nerve-impulse transmission, which in turn aids mental acuity. It may also act as an antioxidant in the brain, according to a report in Phytotherapy Research. However, it's not a quick fix:

When researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia gave 76 adults either a placebo or 300 milligrams of B. monnieri daily, it took about five weeks to see improvement in learning speed and other cognitive measures. Small studies on children in India in the last decade have found that it can take as long as nine months of taking the herb to improve 10 scores.

Wellness Wonder

Indian scientists consider B. monnieri an adaptogen, like ginseng, which enhances overall wellness. Though more research is needed to confirm the findings, animal models suggest that the herb may help prevent seizures; reduce blood .pressure by opening arteries; act as a bronchodilator to improve breathing in asthmatics; relax the gastrointestinal tract; and combat H. pylori, the bacteria that causes ulcers. It may also stimulate production of thyroid hormone; protect the liver from drug-induced damage; and work as well as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug indomethacin (Indocin) but without upsetting the stomach. In a 1995 Indian study, subjects suffering from severe anxiety took 12 grams per day; after two weeks, they were significantly less anxious, concluded a review in Phytomedicine.

A Proven Dosage

Over time, the dose used in the Australian study-300 milligrams per day—improved cognitive function without side effects. Traditional daily dosage for adults is about 5 to 10 grams of powdered herb in divided doses, 5 to 12 milliliters of fluid extract, or 200 to 400 mg of extract in capsules standardized to 20 percent bacosides. When using commercial preparations, follow package directions.