Boosting brainpower

Herbs that boost brainpower have been attracting a lot of research funding in recent years. It’s not just because we want superpowers like unlimited stamina, mental acuity and brilliant concentration (though that would be very nice, thank you). It’s also to do with the rise in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and finding ways to improve recovery from strokes and brain damage.

When the right questions are asked, new answers emerge. So for example, sage (Salvia officinalis and related variations) has been used for centuries to improve alertness, and we now know that this is – at least in part – because it stimulates the release of the chemical messenger acetylcholine in the brain, and this leads to greater alertness and ability to recall. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), traditionally used for anxiety and panic attacks, stimulates the release of GABA in the brain, which promotes calm. In a similar way, many other herbs have been shown to affect neurotransmitters which boost our mood, enhance pleasure, improve social interaction and so on.

Many drugs have been developed which work in precisely this way, but they can come with unwanted side-effects. Herbs may be less powerful, but much less likely to have side-effects, because whole plant extracts contain their own buffering agents, and they are perceived by the body as food rather than medicine. Our systems know exactly what to do with food, whereas isolated chemicals can be difficult to metabolise and even cause inflammatory reactions.

Slow and steady is nearly always preferable from the point of view of wellbeing, although there is a place for first aid too: ginseng before running a marathon or sitting a major exam, for example. It will help, but don’t take it continually for too long. And if you want a tailor-made prescription that will answer your needs, consult a medical herbalist.