I want to start a new category of articles on this blog which discuss herbal medicine and regularly highlight some great, safe remedies that we can use to combat every day ailing health, depletion, and stresses.
I'd like to start by saying that NO herbal remedy - no matter how beautifully crafted by an extremely educated and experienced practitioner - can replace a healthy diet and good lifestyle practices.
Let's take a beautiful anti-inflammatory herb like Zingiber officinale (common ginger) as an example.
If you have chronic and systemic inflammation of the joints, ligaments and mucous membranes due to a poor diet full of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids such as those found in processed vegetable or seed oils, phytic acid from improperly prepared grains and legumes, and an excess of processed sugar, ginger may seem like a godsend. And in many ways, it is. Its strong anti-inflammatory actions are incredible, even at relatively low doses, and it can be used topically or internally, as an infusion, succus, or a more concentrated ethanol-based extract. It is such a beautiful, multi-action herb that it will definitely be featured in a Herbal Highlight article soon. However (and here's the kicker for all of you who love a quick fix), even though ginger is a perfectly natural, harmless, and highly effective anti-inflammatory, on its own, it will do nothing to cure the cause of the inflammation.
All herbal remedies must be prescribed with a complementary food and lifestyle plan so that the underlying imbalance may be holistically addressed and true, long-term healing may take place. Even though ginger may provide fantastic short-term relief to inflammation and its associated pain even without making any other changes, it can only do so much on its own.
This is a really important point to make. Herbal medicine and Naturopathy do not only use different substances to Western or allopathic medicine, they use a completely different philosophy. Rather than symptom management or symptom masking, we aim to treat the cause of illness holistically, whether that means adjusting the diet, the lifestyle, the type of exercise a person is taking, the quality and quantity of sleep, or prescribing supplements and herbal medicine (usually it means a combination of all of these things). We create a longterm plan for holistic, allostatic health in collaboration with the patient. The patient is not a passive recipient of our knowledge or care, but is involved 100% in their own recovery. After all, the latin meaning of doctor is 'teacher', and that is what we aim to do. To teach and empower. Nobody can heal you if you do not wish to be healed.
I can tell I'm losing you, so I will get onto the discussion of Bacopa monnieri in just a moment. The point of the long intro is to avoid having anyone finish reading this article with the impression that a single herb is going to solve all of their problems without addressing the factors that could be causing their illness or speaking to a qualified practitioner about creating a synergistic herbal formula that contains many different herbs for maximum benefit.
The herb I would like to showcase this week is Bacopa monnieri, more commonly known as Bacopa or Brahmi. I recently conducted a brief literature review for uni on Brahmi as I included it in a memory boosting and relaxation promoting infusion that I created as part of a Herbal Manufacturing project. The information in this article is my own research and work, and has been fully referenced for those of you who fall in love with this herb and wish to research further!
Let's get to it.
Bacopa monnieri (Brahmi)
According to ancient Ayurvedic practices, Brahmi improves memory, longevity, and all aspects of consciousness and mental functioning (Paranjpe 2001, p 54).
Brahmi has many active constituents, such as the alkaloids brahmine and herestine, D-mannitol, beta sitosterol, stigmasterol, stigmastanol and bacoside A and D (Paranjpe 2001, p 54).
There are other active constituents which can be extracted from Brahmi in ethanol, however as only water was used to prepare the infusion I created (and a water-based infusion or concentrated dried plant material will be all you will legally have access to without seeing a qualified herbalist), those listed above are the most relevant constituents for this discussion. The bacosides in particular have been shown to have a positive effect on mental functioning:
“Bacosides, Brahmi’s active principles responsible for improving memory related functions, are attributed with the capability to enhance the transmission of nerve impulses, thereby strengthening memory and cognition.” (Prasad et al 2008, p 100)
The antioxidant effect of Brahmi has also recently been shown to improve mental functioning by both chelating heavy metals and also by preventing and even reversing the depletion of acetylcholine in the blood. (Nathan et al 2001, p 345-346)
Heavy metals such as mercury and aluminium have a neurotoxic effect and an excess of these in the body directly and negatively impacts brain function. Brahmi's ability to chelate heavy metals shows this plant has a fascinating dual action of both cleansing the body of substances which may be inhibiting cognition, and also strengthening the neurological mechanisms for memory and cognition in the healthy brain.
Brahmi has many other actions throughout the body, including but not limited to anti-ischemic (which protects the heart from ischemia or heart attacks), anti-carcinogenic (due to the impressive antioxidant profile), and stimulating to the thyroid gland (which would make it contraindicated in anyone with an overactive or 'hyper' thyroid, but beautifully therapeutic in those with a sluggish or 'hypo' thyroid).
In my infusion blend, I added other dried herbs with known mood-brightening and relaxing qualities, and also an anti-inflammatory herb. I did this because conditions involving memory decline (such as Alzheimer's Disease) are often co-morbid with inflammatory conditions, particularly in the elderly. Inflammation and pain can also effect mood and therefore cognition so for me, it was important to combine these herbs together to synergistically cover as many therapeutic actions as possible.
As a full-time student who is also working two jobs, (slowly) learning to fly, and providing regular nutritional and lifestyle consultations to clients, Brahmi is manna from heaven. I grow it in my garden and add it fresh to salads as well as taking the dried herbal material in tablet form daily.
I take Brahmi as part of a holistic strategy created by myself and my own Naturopath along with other herbs, medicinal foods, and an ancestrally inspired wholefoods diet.
We are all different and have different needs when it comes to our herbal and nutritional medicine. For this reason, I would strongly recommend seeing a qualified Naturopath or Herbalist and getting the holistic care needed to support the entire body, not just attempting to address poor cognition by taking Brahmi alone. Having said that, I can say from both my research and personal usage experience that Brahmi is an excellent cognition booster and a safe and beautiful alternative to the mainstays of many students who need to cram at exam time - sugar and caffeine. Sugar and caffeine may provide short-term spikes in energy, but they deplete the body over time by inhibiting nutrient absorption, promoting inflammation and pain, depleting the muscles of minerals (the deficiency of which can cause painful involuntary contractions and spasms), and depleting the adrenal glands which can eventually cause persistent and even chronic fatigue. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sugar and caffeine, but maybe that is a topic for another post all together.
Please note that, like most herbal remedies, Brahmi needs time to take a significant and profound action in the body. If you are approaching a time of high stress or need to study hard and retain a lot of information, it is recommended that you start taking Brahmi at least 2-3 months beforehand to notice a marked improvement. For dosage information, speak to your Naturopath or trained staff in any Healthfood store that sells the dried plant material from Bacopa monnieri.
Never take any herbal medicine in the first trimester of pregnancy, or the remainder of pregnancy or lactation without first consulting a herbalist or Naturopath who specialises in female reproductive health. As ever, consult your own trusted health practitioner before embarking on any changes to supplements, diet, or herbal medicine regime.
Nathan, P.J, Clarke, J, Lloyd, J, Huthcinson, C.W, Downey, L, Stough, C 2001 ‘The acute effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy normal subjects’, Human Psychopharmacology, vol. 16, pp 345 – 351. Viewed: http://jerrycott.com/user/brahmiacute.pdf
Paranjpe, P 2001, Indian Medicinal Plants, Forgotten Healers, A Guide to Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine, published by Chaukhamba Sanskrit Oratishthan, Delhi IN.
Prasad, R, Bagde, U.S, Puspangadan, P, Varma, A 2008 ‘Bacopa monniera L.: Pharmacological Aspects and Case Study Involving Piriformospora indica’, International Journal of Integraive Biology, vol. 3, no. 2, pp 100 – 110. Viewed: http://ijib.classicrus.com/IJIB/Arch/2008/1074.pdf