Brahmi, a popular ayurvedic herb, can indeed enhance memory and boost learning by fighting free radical damage in the brain, forming new nerve connections, and balancing essential neurotransmitter levels. Brahmi may even treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and improve some symptoms of epilepsy and schizophrenia.
Active ingredients in Brahmi
- Bacosides A and B: help enhance memory
- Sterols: lower cholesterol and pain
- Alkaloids: tranquilize and help reduce pain
- Polyphenols: fight free radical damage and reduce inflammation
Ever wondered if a herb could make you smarter? Sounds ridiculous, but with brahmi, it’s not impossible. Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), also called “herb of grace” or water hyssop, is famously used as a medhya rasayana (nootropic drug) in ayurveda, that is a substance that enhances memory and revitalizes brain function.
Modern science has been able to validate these uses with several studies on animals and a few on humans as well.
Here’s a look at the health benefits of brahmi for both the body and the mind.
1. Improves Memory
Ayurveda uses brahmi in brain tonics, often paired with gotu kola (Centella asiatica). The powdered herb is had mixed with milk or ghee – animal fat helps the body absorb the brahmi nutrients better.
Studies have found that long-term consumption of brahmi helps improve several parameters of memory in healthy youngsters and adults as well as elderly people suffering from age-related memory loss. Those who had about 300–450 mg of standardized brahmi extract consistently for 12 weeks or more:
- Had better mental control, that is, ability to control their thoughts and emotions
- Acquired memory faster and consolidated it better
- Had stronger logical memory
- Had improved working memory, especially spatial memory – for instance, the location of objects
- Had a low rate of forgetting newly acquired memory
- Had a lower reaction time and better accuracy while identifying objects rapidly
- Showed less delay in recalling information
Brahmi helps enhance memory in several ways. Its antioxidants fight free radicals and prevent oxidative damage in the brain, whether caused by an iron overload or toxin buildup. It also increases the levels of natural antioxidants like superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase in the prefrontal cortex, striatum, and the hippocampus – areas of the brain that are responsible for cognitive functions like information processing, mental skills, and memory.
More interestingly, brahmi helps nerve endings grow and branch out, thereby forming more synapses between nerves in the hippocampus and amygdala, areas of the brain responsible for memory formation. This increases the volume and speed of communication between nerves. Brahmi has been found to increase protein kinase activity in the hippocampus in amnesiac rats. Protein kinases help in learning and memory, and in this case helped in recovery.
Do note that brahmi has to be taken for at least 3 months for its memory-boosting benefits, but even then, it cannot improve all aspects of your memory. Brahmi improves 9 out of 17 parameters of free recall, chiefly short-term memory, but does not improve cognition significantly.
Brahmi increases the production and availability of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which helps in several functions like memory, cognition, and attention. Several medicines, including those for asthma, COPD, diarrhea, or dizziness, have been seen to lower acetylcholine levels in the brain, leading to memory loss. Brahmi also balances several other essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and glutamate, all of which have significant roles in brain function.
Experts recommend combining brahmi supplementation with cognitive training for the elderly. But not just the elderly, children can also benefit from brahmi supplementation.
2. Boosts Learning
Learning is essentially processing information, storing it as memory, and recalling it at will. Your ability to learn goes down significantly as you age. You take longer to process information and cannot remember it in time. Apparently, scholars in the Vedic ages consumed brahmi to learn long verses of sacred hymns and scriptures.
In animals, brahmi has been seen to help with learning new motor skills. In healthy humans, both young and the elderly, as well as those who suffer from anxiety, brahmi has been seen to improve:
- The rate of verbal learning – it was seen that those who received brahmi extract were less likely to forget an old list of words when a new list was introduced
- Paired-associated learning – a learning technique where one word is associated with another (say flower and bed); this is important in learning a new language
- Visual information processing – participants who had brahmi took less time to respond to visual cues
The beneficial effect of brahmi in boosting learning can be attributed to its ability to form synapses between nerve cells. In lay terms, this means that more information can be processed more quickly, so that we learn faster and recall information more easily.
3. Improves Attention And May Cure ADHD
Brahmi can also improve your attention, a mental skill necessary for both the old and the young. In one study, participants who had brahmi did not only have more focused attention but they also paid less attention to irrelevant information. One reason for this is that brahmi has both a calming and an mood-lifting effect, which helps one focus better.
When trying to purchase brahmi, look for jalabrahmi or Bacopa monnieri. Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is also often referred to as brahmi because of uts similar benefits for the brain.
Preliminary small-scale research seems to indicate that brahmi can also improve symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids. In one study, 19 kids with ADHD were given 50 mg of brahmi extract twice daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the period, they showed significant improvement in sentence repetition, logical memory, and paired associated learning. In another study, normal school kids who received brahmi showed a reduced reaction time to visual and auditory instructions.
Mixing brahmi with other ayurvedic herbs or remedies may have better effects. In one study, kids who were given an ayurvedic medicine containing brahmi, ashwagandha, and tagar (in a ratio of 1.5:1:1) showed an improvement in reaction time, which indicates focused attention. The effect was enhanced when kids were also given shirodhara treatment. Brahmi ghritam, an ayurvedic concoction of brahmi and other cognition-boosting herbs in ghee, was also as effective in reducing some ADHD symptoms as a standard ADHD drug.
4. May Treat Dyslexia
Ayurveda holds that balancing the three doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha) and the three gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) with medhya rasayana may help improve learning disabilities like dyslexia. While brahmi in itself has not been tested for this effect, researchers suggest that singly or mixed with other nootropic herbs, brahmi may help.
5. Reduces Stress
Brahmi is an adaptogenic herb, which means that it helps the body adapt to stress. Animal studies have shown that it helps reduce the markers of stress in the brain, chiefly in the hippocampus, and normalizes certain neurotransmitter levels. Though very few human studies have been performed on this front, one study has found that brahmi can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve mood in humans too.
6. Reduces Anxiety And Depression
Since brahmi can help you deal with stress, similar to the other potent ayurvedic adaptogen ashwagandha, it can also help reduce depression and anxiety which are caused by chronic stress. A few studies on the memory-boosting effects of brahmi also found that it reduced depression and anxiety in the participants after a few weeks of supplementation. Probably this also improved their memory and attention in turn. Brahmi also increases serotonin and regulates dopamine, two mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, which may explain how it reduces anxiety and depression.
7. May Prevent And Treat Alzheimer’s Disease
Since brahmi is a memory-enhancing herb, it is logical to expect it to have a preventive or healing effect on brain damage and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, which affect memory. A number of animal studies conducted to test the effect of brahmi on brain damage caused by various toxins show that brahmi has a potent, antioxidative effect. Though not many human studies have been performed, theoretically, brahmi can help in the following ways:
- Improves blood flow to the brain by dilating blood vessels: poor blood flow to the brain reduces supply of oxygen and nutrients and allows toxin buildup, which in turn causes oxidative damage
- Fights free radicals in the brain whether generated by external toxins (like lead, aluminum, mercury, or other chemicals) or an iron overload in the brain
- Protects nerve cells that produce acetylcholine (cholinergic cells) and increases its availability and use – in Alzheimer’s disease, these cholinergic cells are rapidly depleted
- Improves the balance between neurotransmitters like serotonin, catecholamines, GABA, and glutamate, all of which play significant roles in maintaining brain health and function
In fact, a preliminary study on elderly Alzheimer’s patients found that consuming 300 mg brahmi extract twice a day for 6 months improved some cognitive functions and reduced irritability and insomnia in them. More studies are required to find the appropriate dosage.
8. May Prevent And Treat Parkinson’s Disease
Animal studies show that brahmi helps prevent and treat Parkinson’s disease in several ways in addition to fighting oxidative damage caused by toxins.
- Brahmi can reduce the aggregation of alpha-synuclein proteins in the substantia nigra, a part of the brain that produces dopamine. These protein clumps kill dopamine-producing cells. Brahmi prevents the death of the dopaminergic cells and prevents the motor symptoms typical of Parkinson’s.
- Parkinson’s patients also have changes in the levels of other neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, glutamate, and GABA. Brahmi helps balance these by various regulatory mechanisms.
- Brahmi can also maintain the integrity of the fat (lipid) composition of nerve cells, which is crucial because, as per new research, changes in the lipid composition of nerve cells may also lead to the formation of protein clumps.
9. May Help Improve Some Symptoms Of Schizophrenia
Cognitive defects like poor attention, memory, and learning are central to schizophrenia. In schizophrenic rats, brahmi has been seen to improve cognition by reducing the density of glutamate-producing neurons in a certain part of the hippocampus. Too much glutamate leads to toxicity and kills nerves and affects cognitive abilities. Interestingly, brahmi was also found to increase neuron formation in another part of the hippocampus, which helped cognition. The researchers suggested that brahmi could be a novel alternative approach to improving the health condition of psychotic patients.
10. May Treat Epilepsy
Epilepsy is caused by alterations in the levels of GABA, glutamate, and dopamine. By regulating these neurotransmitters, brahmi can help reduce convulsions and inflammation brought about by epileptic seizures. It is suggested that brahmi can not only improve learning or memory deficits after an episode of seizure but consumption of brahmi ghritam can also prevent seizures to begin with.
11. Protects The Brain
While human studies are pending, in animal studies, brahmi has been seen to help restore normal brain function after a brain stroke. The lack of blood supply to the brain during a stroke can starve nerve cells of oxygen and lead to their death, while the return of blood supply (reperfusion) can damage tissues and increase free radical generation. Brain stroke can also lead to short-term memory loss and loss of motor balance.
Brahmi increases blood flow to the brain without increasing blood pressure, reduces the size of the area affected by the stroke, and improves memory and muscle coordination. It also helps fight oxidative damage following reperfusion.
12. Protects Against Gastric Ulcers
Brahmi extract may improve the symptoms of diarrhea in high doses, while the juice of the herb has been seen to protect against gastric ulcers. Brahmi has an antimicrobial effect on the ulcer-causing bacteria H. pylori as well as an antioxidant function. It also helps produce mucin (the slippery substance found in mucus) and increases the lifespan of mucous cells in the stomach. These help protect the stomach lining from corrosive substances.
An ayurvedic medicine containing brahmi and another herb called Aegle marmelos has been found to treat irritable bowel syndrome, especially the diarrhea-predominant form. However, it did not work as well for the gas-predominant and painful forms of IBS. It could not prevent a relapse in a few months either. If you suffer from IBS, it’s important to consult a doctor before taking brahmi.
13. Boosts Immunity
Brahmi strengthens the innate immune response in the body even more effectively than ashwagandha or echinacea. Antioxidants in brahmi can also scavenge free radicals and enhance the activity of the natural antioxidants in the body.
14. Prevents Inflammation
Brahmi helps lower inflammation and pain by lowering the production of prostaglandins – these are chemicals that trigger inflammation and pain – and other inflammatory proteins. Some researchers suggest that brahmi may be as effective as morphine in reducing the perception of pain but does not have the typical side effects like drug dependence.
It can be used to relieve joint pain, backache, muscle aches, and even headaches. Massaging the affected area with brahmi oil can help provide some temporary relief.
15. Protects The Heart
Brahmi helps relax the heart muscles, aorta, bronchial smooth muscles, and pulmonary arteries, and improves blood flow by increasing nitrate oxide levels but without increasing blood pressure. A smooth blood flow can help prevent cardiac events. On top of that, animal studies find that regular consumption of brahmi can protect the heart from damage and hasten recovery.
16. May Treat Hypothyroidism
At a very high dose, brahmi may have a thyroid-stimulating effect and help patients of hypothyroidism. In hypothyroid patients, levels of the T4 hormone remain low. In an animal study, brahmi increased the T4 levels by 41% without increasing the rate of oxidation in the liver. Rather, it increased antioxidant activity. It also did not affect the levels of T3. This indicates that brahmi exerts its influence directly on the thyroid gland. However, there has been no human study yet. So it’s essential to consult a doctor before you take brahmi to treat your hypothyroidism symptoms.
Combinations Of Brahmi With Other Herbs
Brahmi can be combined with other herbs for more benefits.
- Since brahmi suppresses appetite, it should be used with digestive stimulants such as ginger or cardamom.
- It can serve as a nerve tonic when combined with ashwangandha, kushta, kappikacchu, shankhapushpi, and bala.
- For skin conditions with heat signs, brahmi can be combined with neem, manjishtha, and turmeric.
- It can be combined with fennel, cumin, and ajwain to relax the intestines.
How To Use Brahmi The Ayurvedic Way
To make brahmi tea, simply steep 1/2 teaspoon of brahmi in a cup of boiling water for a few minutes.
The herb can be taken as ghrita (medicated ghee), medicated oil, churna (powder), svarasa (fresh juice), infusion, decoction, aristha or tincture (fermented beverage), syrup, tea, lepa (paste), and pill or eaten fresh (leaves).
- Combine brahmi and ashwagandha in a milk decoction to serve as a brain tonic.
- Make brahmi ghrita with sesame or coconut oil and massage this on the feet, large joints, and ears before sleeping to treat anxiety and depression. Brahmi ghrita is considered a potent rejuvenator.
- Apply brahmi paste on the neck to treat cough and pneumonia, especially in children. You can also use it to treat diaper rash in infants. It can also be used to reduce swellings.
- Juice brahmi leaves to relieve diarrhea in children.
- Use brahmi oil to relieve joint pain and headaches.
Brahmi is found in ayurvedic medicines like:
- Sarasvataristha, a fermented beverage (tincture) used in the treatment of infertility, epilepsy, and mental disorders.
- Brahmi Ghrita
- Ratnagiri Rasa
- Brahmi Vati
- Sarasvata Curna
- Smrtisagara Rasa
Side Effects Of Brahmi
Most study participants report no serious side effects of brahmi except a stomach upset when given a high dose. But men who are planning a child may want to stay away from it. Studies on male mice indicate that at high doses, brahmi may be an anti-fertility agent, given its negative effect on sperm count and motility. However, it does not affect libido or testosterone levels. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised not to take it because of lack of research. People with slow heart rates are also discouraged from taking brahmi. However, even if you are healthy, seek medical guidance before starting to take brahmi supplements.