Thursday, March 27, 2008

Elephants Never Forget—They Eat Brahmi

The word “Brahmi” means the creative energy or intelligence of the Universe. It is used to refer to plants that appear to personify this energy by revitalizing the sensory organs of the body, in particular the nerves and brain cells. Sounds pretty good, huh? Want to know how to get some of that? Let’s take a look at the two herbs most commonly given this designation that we can find in the United States today: bacopa monniera or bacopa herpestis (known as bacopa) and Centella asiatica or Hydrocotyle asiatica (known as gotu kola or pennywort). Gotu kola is supposed to be a favorite food of elephants in South India.


Bacopa is considered to be the most important Ayervedic herb for treating brain problems and age-related mental decline as well as for improving cognitive processes such as memory. It is prescribed for all body types in the Ayervedic tradition because of its balancing effects.

The Central Drug Institute of India, established in 1953 to create formal scientific studies to determine how Ayervedic herbal remedies work, has studied bacopa. They found that the herb contains chemicals that help repair damaged neurons by augmenting kinase, the protein involved in the synthesis of new neurons to replace old ones. It has a strong antioxidant effect (similar to Vitamin E) that helps the body clean up toxins that damage DNA and cell membranes. It also aids blood circulation throughout the body, a known factor in the development of dementia for some people. Studies with rats have conclusively shown that rats treated with bacopa learn new skills faster than control subjects and retain the information longer. Preliminary studies with humans indicate similar effects.

Bacopa is currently being used in India to treat ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), age-related mental deterioration, and concentration difficulties due to stress. It has a mild sedative or nerve-calming effect and has been used successfully by people with irritable bowel syndrome and by those recovering from nervous breakdown. Unlike other herbs with sedating properties, however, bacopa increases mental clarity while reducing nervous anxiety. Bacopa is commonly taken in tea with sweeteners added or in capsule form. It can be used as a salad vegetable or added to soup but by itself it is very bitter.

Side Effects and Precautions: Bacopa is a diuretic and should not be used with diuretics or anti-diabetic drugs without a doctor’s supervision. It should not be used with methotrimeprazine, a potent CNS depressant analgesic. Other central nervous system drugs have not been tested for possible interactions at this time. Use of aminoglycoside antibiotics such as clindamycin increases bacopa’s sedating effect By itself it has no known side effects or toxicity at normal dosages.

Gotu Kola

Gotu Kola is thought of as a spiritual herb in Ayurveda as well as having superior rejuvenating effects throughout the body. It is commonly used in India to improve meditation. It is said to develop the crown chakra, the energy center at the top of the head, and to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Traditionally, gotu kola is used to strengthen the immune system, the adrenals and the circulatory system, and to promote healthy skin.

Studies have found three main chemical constituents in gotu kola. One has an antibiotic effect. The second, similar to Bacopa, is diuretic and slightly sedating. The third is a strong anti-inflammatory agent. It is also high in Vitamin B and K, magnesium, and calcium. It has been found to be extremely effective for wound healing and tissue repair, even being used in India to treat second and third degree burns. Studies with rats show that rats fed gotu kola retained new information significantly longer than control subjects. Preliminary results in one clinical trial with mentally retarded children showed increased scores on intelligence tests. Gotu Kola can be found as a tea, capsules, and tincture.

Side Effects and Precautions: Although widely used for skin ailments, gotu kola has been known to be a skin irritant for some people. It can cause headaches or elevate blood pressure in high doses and might create narcotic stupor with extreme usage. Do not use during pregnancy or if you have an overactive thyroid. Avoid using it with sedative drugs as the effect may be cumulative. It should also not be used with antidiabetic or cholesterol-lowering medications without a doctor’s supervision. Older adults should start with a lower dose and increase it if necessary.

Gotu kola should not be confused with the kola nut which contains caffeine and has a stimulating effect. Gotu kola is not the same plant and contains no caffeine.

Should you use either of these herbs?

Well, it always pays to consult your doctor to make sure they won’t conflict with medications you’re already taking but after doing that why not consider it? To be perfectly honest, there is no dementia medication on the market today (2005) that offers more than temporary symptomatic relief while allowing the disease to proceed unchecked. These herbs, especially bacopa, appear to actually repair damage and improve brain function. Follow your instincts. If you try it let your doctor know and monitor how it works and how it makes you feel.

The previous article is an excerpt from The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving. Click here to buy it now.

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