Can Herbs Help With Memory?

Annette McDermott
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Herbs

Many factors may contribute to memory problems from stress to some prescription drugs to aging and serious disease. No matter what the reason, it's unsettling to experience forgetfulness to any degree. There are plenty of products on the market that claim to help, but can herbs really help with memory? As research shows, the answer is leaning toward a resounding yes.

Memory Improving Herbs

It's hard to say with certainty that any one herb will improve the symptoms of everyone suffering with memory problems because individual situations vary; however, there are several herbs that studies show may improve memory and brain function.

Brahmi

Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) is an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. It's used to improve memory and concentration, according to The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs (RDCIBH) from Reader's Digest. A PubMed abstract cites a study that showed brahmi improved learning and memory in mice and reversed amnesia caused by aging and the drug scopolamine. A separate randomized controlled trial determined that brahmi helps memory impairment caused by aging.

RDCIBH recommends drinking three cups of an infusion of 1 to 2 grams of dried brahmi in boiling water daily, up to a maximum of 6 grams and indicate that it may take up to three months to take effect. Commercial preparations should be taken according to the manufacturer's directions.

According to WebMD, brahmi's common side effects include increased bowel movements, stomach cramps, nausea, and fatigue. Brahmi may also slow the heart rate or cause increased secretions in the lung, intestines or urinary tract.

Gotu Kola

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) is often called brahmi but the herbs are two different species. Also used in Ayurvedic medicine, gotu kola is believed to improve mental clarity and support longevity, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM). The dosage is dependent on why you're taking the herb but UMM says it can be taken in a few ways:

  • In the form of tea up to three times a day
  • In powdered form (in capsules) 1,000 mg - 4,000 mg three times daily
  • A standardized extract 50 - 250 mg two to three times daily

When taking gotu kola, there are precautions and side effects to consider. UMM cautions that the herb should not be used for more six weeks consecutively due to the risk of liver damage. They also state that people with precancerous or cancerous skin lesions should avoid gotu kola because one of its compounds, Asiaticocide, was linked with tumor growth in mice.

Rare but possible side effects of gotu kola include burning skin, skin allergies, headache, upset stomach, nausea, dizziness, or drowsiness. UMM indicates that side effects are more likely to occur when large amounts of gotu kola are used.

Rosemary

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a popular culinary herb, but when inhaled it may also help relieve stress and improve memory. Science Daily reports that a study presented at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society suggested rosemary essential oil may "enhance the ability to remember events and to remember to complete tasks at particular times in the future."

To use rosemary in aromatherapy, add a few drops of its essential oil to a vaporizer or oil burner. Other than the slight potential for allergic reaction if you come in contact with the oil, there are no known risks to using rosemary as aromatherapy in small amounts.

Sage

Well known as a savory herb that is added to stuffing, sage (Salvia officinalis) is also thought to boost memory and concentration. One PubMed abstract determined that sage safely enhanced cognitive performance in healthy subjects and in dementia patients, although better clinical trials are needed to further prove these results.

A separate British study conducted by the Medicinal Plant Research Center (MPRC) also concluded that sage helps memory, reports Science Daily. In this study, a group of 44 young adults were given either a placebo or sage oil capsules and then given a word recall test. Those subjects who had taken the sage oil capsules did significantly better on the test than those who took the placebo.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) states on its website that a small clinical study suggests sage extract was "better than placebo at enhancing thinking and learning in older adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease." Previous MRPC studies led sage to be investigated as a potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease due to its ability to inhibit the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. A drop in acetylcholine levels is linked to Alzheimer's.

NCCAM indicates that sage is generally considered safe in amounts used in food but that large amounts and/or long time use is more likely to cause bad side effects including restlessness, rapid heart rate, vomiting, vertigo, seizures, kidney damage, and seizures. They also state that ingesting more than 12 drops of sage essential oil at once is considered toxic.

Ginkgo

Ginkgo (Gingko biloba) is a popular herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is primarily marketed as a memory-enhancing herb and has been studied extensively. According to NCCAM, some small studies showed promising results, but larger studies determined the herb did not improve memory or cognitive function. Despite the conflicting results, anecdotal evidence remains strong and many natural health practitioners still prescribe gingko for memory issues. Additional studies are ongoing.

RDCIBH recommends a daily dose of 120 mg of a concentrated gingko extract (50:1). It can take up to six weeks or more for the herb to show its maximum benefit. Potential side effects reported by NCCAM include nausea, headache, gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, dizziness, and allergic skin reactions. Gingko may also thin the blood so caution is needed if you take blood thinners or have a bleeding disorder.

Rhodiola

According to an article written by Dr. Tori Hudson, N.D., rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) has been used for centuries throughout Eastern Europe and Asia but has recently made its way to the West. The herb is considered adaptogenic, and a study showed that when taken two to three weeks prior to "intense intellectual work," rhodiola improved mental fatigue and clarity as well as general well-being.

Dr. Hudson reports that a typical daily dose is 360 - 600 mg when standardized for 1% rosavin (an active ingredient found in rhodiola that is used to set extract standardization); 180 - 300 mg when standardized for 2% rosavin, and 100 - 170 mg when standardized for 2.6% rosavin. Negative side effects may include agitation or sleep interference and rhodiola should not be taken by people with bipolar disorder.

Natural Memory Boosts

Herbs are natural wonders that can heal many ailments and several may help boost memory function. Although the above herbs are generally considered safe to use, they contain powerful compounds that might cause unwanted side effects or drug interactions. As a result, it's important that you consult your doctor or a licensed natural health practitioner before using herbs as a remedy, especially if you have a medical condition or are pregnant or breast feeding.

Can Herbs Help With Memory?