Natural Standard

The authority on integrative medicine.

Keeping Your Brain Sharp

Herbs and supplements that may help you stay alert

Have you ever heard someone say “I must be getting old” when they misplace something? Have you ever said it yourself after forgetting to lock the door or losing your keys for the second time in a week?

Cognitive function, also called cognitive performance or cognition, refers to a person’s ability to think, process, and store information in order to solve problems. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/conditions/all/condition...)

Disorders in cognitive function may result in dementia, a loss of mental ability that may interfere with daily functioning. Cognitive functions that may be affected by dementia include decision making, judgment, memory, spatial orientation, thinking, reasoning, and verbal communication. Dementia may also result in behavioral and personality changes, depending on the area(s) of the brain affected. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/conditions/all/condition...?)

Although progressive dementia is most common among the elderly, dementia should not be considered a part of the normal aging process. Most individuals who reach their elderly years do not develop dementia.

Still, it can be frustrating to forget appointments or misplace items. How can you help your brain stay as sharp as possible? Are there natural and alternative therapies that might enhance or maintain cognition? The answer is yes!

If you start your day with a cup of coffee, you probably feel more awake and alert afterward. Caffeine has a long history of use for enhancing mood and cognitive function. Caffeine may be useful when consumed prior to a cognition-related task. It also appears to heighten working memory and improve reaction time, but it has less effect on long-term memory. It has been studied for conditions such as Alzheimers disease. (http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/10601338909020561)

Caffeine has been given a Natural Standard Evidence Grade of A, since there is strong scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness for cognitive improvement. However, too much can cause side effects so please be sure to consume in safe amounts.(http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/caffeine.asp?)

You may be familiar with gingko, or at least have heard of it, since it is one of the top-selling herbs in the United States. The plant has been studied for the treatment of many conditions, of which dementia is one.

Overall, the scientific literature does suggest that ginkgo benefits people with early-stage Alzheimer's disease and multi-infarct dementia, and it may be as helpful as acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs such as donepezil (Aricept®). (http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/9780849354847.026) For this reason, Natural Standard has given gingko an Evidence Grade of A for its effectiveness in treating this condition. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider screen for interactions with other therapies you may be taking.(http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/ginkgo.asp?)

Maintaining a healthy diet that contains eggs, spinach, and nuts may enhance well-being. It may also have an added benefit for cognitive disorders, as these foods contain a nutrient known as lecithin. This fat has been studied in the treatment of numerous conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, liver disease, and acne. Lecithin has positive effects on blood lipids, especially in combination with plant compounds known as sterols.

There is good evidence supporting the use of lecithin for cognitive disorders, earning it a Natural Standard Evidence Grade of B. However, studies are still limited, and some study results have been mixed. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/lecithi...?)

And speaking of healthy diets, how about including plenty of soy-based foods, such as soybeans, soy milk, and tofu in the daily menu? These products contain isoflavones, nutrients that have been studied for their potential benefits on bone and heart health.

Isoflavones may improve both mood and memory in postmenopausal women. However, due to a lack of available research and varying study results, firm conclusions in this area cannot be made. Additional high-quality research is needed.

And here’s one you may not have heard of: a compound called Huperzine A, which has been used in China and is popular for its role in maintaining and enhancing memory. In traditional health practices, it has been brewed into teas and used for the treatment of fevers, inflammation, swelling, and various mental disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Early research suggests that huperzine A may be effective in the treatment of dementia (gradually declining mental ability) and dementia-related conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease. The compound has a Natural Standard Evidence Grade of B, based on good evidence supporting its effectiveness. However, further research is needed to compare its usefulness to that of other current treatments. (http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/huperzi...?)

As always, please check with your doctor and pharmacist before starting any new alternative treatments. Talking to a healthcare professional can help you determine whether an herb or supplement is right for you.

Looking into one of these natural therapies may be just the thing to help you stay alert. And maybe you’ll forget the keys just once, instead of twice...

Catherine Ulbricht, Pharm.D., co-founder of Natural Standard Research Collaboration, is the Senior Attending Pharmacist at Massachussetts General Hospital. more...

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