Guest writer for Wake Up World
The quality of your life is in large part a function of the health of your brain. From the more basic (but no less astounding) operations of maintaining the intricate balance of the biological network that is your body to the more sophisticated functions of perception, awareness, imagination and thought, the brain is central to your experience—and quality—of life.
And yet, life in our modern societies seems to be working, in many ways, against brain health. Powerful neurotoxins are contained in our food and emitted as gases from the myriad of synthetic materials used in houses, cars, clothes and so on. The bright, artificial lights of computer screens and cellphones alter delicate circadian neurotransmitter balances by overstimulating our optic nerves after dark. Our foods have often times been grown in devitalized soils and then further processed and packaged, robbing our bodies of essential vitamins and minerals—literally the fuel for our brains.
But this article is not meant to paint a hopeless picture or to instigate any kind of fear and worry—far from it. In fact, it’s never been easier to fine tune your brain function and bring it to extraordinary heights of health and wellness despite all these otherwise challenge circumstances. Advances in the holistic sciences coupled with the widespread availability of ‘superfoods’, medicinal plants, natural medicines, organic agriculture (in most areas of the world) and technologies for countering the negative impacts of synthetic influences of modern society allow virtually anyone with the knowledge and desire to optimize their brain health to do so.
Ironically, however, many of the substances that offer the greatest benefit for the health of our brains are ancient herbal medicines. And while these plants have been known as brain enhancers anecdotally for millennia, modern science has, in fact, been able to verify that indeed these herbs have powerful brain-enhancing effects in a number of fascinating ways.
From actually increasing intelligence to improving memory, tissue oxygenation and even regrowing neuronal connections, these four superstar herbs are in a class of their own when it comes to improving brain function and creating lasting neurological health.
Revered by Daoist masters and Yogis for thousands of years as a powerful longevity boosting herb, it comes as no surprise that Gotu Kola is one of the master plants on the planet for improving brain health. Gotu Kola has been shown in animal and human studies to increase brain cell dendrite outgrowth [1,3], meaning that it increases the neural axonal density of the brain, which has been correlated with increased intelligence and enhanced intracellular communication. Extracts of the plant have also been shown to repair damaged neurons and promote growth of new neural networks [2,3]. Studies of children fed Gotu Kola over long-term time horizons showed measurable changes in IQ and general intelligence markers . It is also believed to facilitate enhanced communication between brain hemispheres, which has been shown to stimulate greater creativity and lead to an increase in the occurrence of positive brainwave states (alpha, theta and gamma in particular) .
However, as amazing as all this is, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Gotu Kola has a number of other highly beneficial effects on the body and mind that are outside the scope of this article but that you can read about if you are interested here: consciouslifestylemag.com/gotu-kola-benefits-of-the-herb-of-enlightenment
Lion’s Mane is a medicinal mushroom that has been used for thousands of years throughout Asia as a powerful natural medicine. In recent studies conducted by Japanese Dr. Hirokazu Kawagishi, it was discovered that the mushroom stimulates the synthesis of a very unique and important compound known as nerve growth factor (NGF).
Nerve growth factor is a bioprotein that plays a critical role in the maintenance, health and regeneration of neurons in the brain and body . A lack of NGF is considered one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. NGF is required by the brain and important sensory neurons located throughout the body to keep the entire nervous system strong, robust and healthy . NGF is also known to stimulate new neuron growth in the central and peripheral nervous systems. NGF is the primary protein nutrient responsible for enhancing and repairing neurological disorders and literally rebuilding the nerve network in the brain and the body from the inside out .
The various compounds found in the Lion’s Mane mushroom mycelium are some of the most powerful NGF inducers of all natural compounds known to man. These compounds allow the NGF in Lion’s Mane to actually pass through the blood-brain barrier to encourage the production of new neurons within the brain itself, which is typically not possible due to the myelination of nerve fibers .
If that wasn’t enough, Lion’s Mane has also been shown to reduce amyloid plaques that interfere with brain neurotransmission . Essentially, amyloid plaques are clumps of proteins, which form in the fatty membrane surrounding nerve cells. As they break off, they can end up interfering with the signals between cells, which is believed by researchers to play a role in the formation of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s.
Ginkgo Biloba has been traced back nearly 300 million years, making it the oldest surviving tree species on the planet. Ingesting this primal tree’s leaves confers many biological benefits, but perhaps some of its most important are its effects on the mind. Animal studies have shown Ginkgo to boost stem cell production in the brain, which has been shown to have positive effects on memory and cognition, as well as promote general rejuvenation and repair . In addition to its remarkable effects on stem cells, Gingko also stimulates neurotransmitter production  and has been useful for treating brain-related conditions such as memory loss, concentration problems, mental confusion, depression, anxiety, dizziness, tinnitus, and headache.
Its effects are at least in part related to its ability to increase blood flow and oxygenation to various parts of the body, most notably the brain . However Gingko has also been used to treat asthma, bronchitis, fatigue, bladder irritation, low libido, intestinal parasites, and gonorrhea, among other things, making it one of the foremost medicinal herbs on the planet.
Often referred to by the traditional Sanskrit name of ‘Brahmi’ (which loosely translates to ‘sacred’), Bacopa lives up to its reputation in every sense of the word—literally being one of the most revered medicinal plants in the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine. Recent studies on Bacopa demonstrated that the herb is responsible for stimulating enhanced synaptic communication (the communication between brain cells and neurons) [13,14], which, in addition to its other amazing properties, confirmed the plant’s long standing reputation as a legendary brain tonic. Bacopa also stimulates serotonin production and reduces the rate of decomposition of dopamine, which gives it powerful mood-boosting, stress- and anxiety-reducing effects . It also contains a powerful enzyme known as Tryptophan Hydroxylase that improves memory, fact recall and the assimilation and learning of new information and data [13,14].
Moreover, Bacopa is an adaptogenic herb, which means it works to bring the body into balance. Many people with anxiety or who are stressed out report that it calms them down and inversely those with chronic fatigue often report it gives them energy. This makes it a safe and balancing addition to any brain health regimen.
While all of these herbs are amazing and powerful in their own right, it’s recommended that you start with one at a time to understand how your brain and body react and to also give your system time to calibrate and adjust. Starting a protocol with multiple herbs at once, while in general safe, makes it more difficult to discern what plants are having what effects.
Article References Veerendra Kumar MH, Gupta YK. Effect of different extracts of Centella asiatica on cognition and markers of oxidative stress in rats. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2002 Feb;79(2):253-60.  Rao SB, Chetana M, Uma Devi P. Centella asiatica treatment during postnatal period enhances learning and memory in mice. Physiol Behav. 2005 Nov 15;86(4):449-57.  Soumyanath A, Zhong YP, Gold SA, Yu X, Koop DR, Bourdette D, Gold BG. Centella asiatica accelerates nerve regeneration upon oral administration and contains multiple fractions increasing neurite elongation in-vitro. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2005 Sept;57(9):1221-9.  M.V.R. Appa Rao, et. al, The Effect of Mandookaparni (Centella Asiatica) on the General Mental Ability (Medhya) of Mentally Retarded Children, Journal of Indian Medicine (August 25, 1973), p.9-12.  Leviton R. Brain Builders!, A Lifelong Guide to Sharper Thinking, Better Memory, and an Ageproof Mind. Penguin; 1995.  Lai PL, Naidu M, Sabaratnam V, et al. Neurotrophic properties of the Lion’s mane medicinal mushroom, Hericium erinaceus (Higher Basidiomycetes) from Malaysia. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2013;15(6):539-54.  Kawagishi, H, et al “The Inducer of the Synthesis of Nerve Growth Factor from Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceum)” Explore! Vol. 11, No. 4, 2002.  Nagai, K. et al “Dilinoleoyl-phosphatidylethanolamine from Hericium erinaceum protects against ER stress-induced Neuro2a cell death via protein kinase C pathway.” J Nutr Biochem, 17 (2006) 525-530.  Mori, K et al “Improving Effects of the Mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceum) on Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Double-blind Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial.” Phytother Res, 23, 367-372 (2009).  Kawagishi, H et al “Anti-dementia effects of a low polarity fraction extracted from Hericium erinaceum.” Abstracts of the 5th International Medicinal Mushroom Conference, p. 18-19, September 5th – 8th, 2009, Nantong, China.  Wang J, Chen W, Wang Y. A ginkgo biloba extract promotes proliferation of endogenous neural stem cells in vascular dementia rats. Neural Regen Res. 2013;8(18):1655-62.  Birks J, Grimley evans J. Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(1):CD003120.  Singh RH, Narsimhamurthy K, Singh G. Neuronutrient impact of Ayurvedic Rasayana therapy in brain aging. Biogerontology. 2008 Dec;9(6):369-74. doi: 10.1007/s10522-008-9185-z.  Aguiar S, Borowski T. Neuropharmacological review of the nootropic herb Bacopa monnieri. Rejuvenation Res. 2013;16(4):313-26.
Further reading from Justin Faerman:
- 7 Sacred Herbs for Activating and Harmonizing the Chakras
- Shifting the Brainwave State – 6 Powerful Practices to Expand Your Consciousness and Harmonize Your Brain
- 3 Powerful Practices for Experiencing States of Ecstasy and Bliss
About the author:
Justin Faerman is a visionary change-agent, entrepreneur and healer dedicated to evolving global consciousness, bridging science and spirituality and spreading enlightened ideas on both an individual and societal level. He is the co-founder of Conscious Lifestyle Magazine and a sought after coach and teacher, known for his pioneering work in the area of flow. He is largely focused on applied spirituality, which is translating abstract spiritual concepts and ideas into practical, actionable techniques for creating a deeply fulfilling, prosperous life.