Recent research on boswellia, mushrooms, ashwagandha, and more.
Nootropic substances for enhanced cognition are all the buzz these days, appealing to a vast audience, from the individual looking to ward off age-related cognitive decline to the executive looking to maintain his or her mental edge at work or the e-gamer looking to outsmart and outwit the competition. Dietary supplements are an increasingly important part of the hunt for improved cognitive function, with some estimates suggesting that the global market for brain health supplements-which, according to Research and Markets, saw estimated sales of $2.3 billion in 2015-will rise to over $11 billion by the year 2024.1
Numerous botanical extracts are demonstrating ability to serve as part of the nootropic toolbox, whether one is interested in enhancing memory, attention, processing speed, or mood, or supporting other factors contributing to brain health. While herbs such as rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), bacopa (Bacopa monnieri), and Ginkgo biloba have a long history of traditional use for brain health, research is now finding that several other botanicals are increasingly important players for improving cognitive health and helping to maintain that mental edge.
1. Research and Markets. 2018. “Global $11.6 Billion Brain Health Supplements Market To 2024.” Prnewswire.com. Accessed October 4 2018.
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Boswellia and Lemon Balm Support Memory
Two herbs used to support cognitive health in traditional medicine, including in Iranian herbal medicine, are Boswellia serrata and Melisa officinalis (lemon balm). While these herbs have often been studied as individual ingredients, less research has been conducted on the combination of the two. In a recent double-blind placebo-controlled trial, Mohsen Taghizadeh and colleagues from Kashan University of Medical Sciences (Kashan, Iran) investigated the effect of the herbal combination on memory function in older adults.2
Seventy adults with an average age of 65 were randomized to receive either placebo tablets or two tablets containing the boswellia/lemon balm combination (290 mg of a standardized extract of Melissa officinalis and 27 mg of standardized Boswellia serrata extract per tablet) daily for one month. Cognitive assessment was conducted using the Wechsler Memory Scale-Revised version, which includes eight primary indices looking at verbal, general, visual, and working memory.
At the end of the study, significant improvements versus placebo were evident in verbal and visual memory in those taking the herbal combination. Furthermore, a significant increase was seen in immediate, working, and total memory scores in the boswellia/lemon balm group compared to placebo treatment, indicating significant cognitive benefits of this herbal combination in elderly individuals.
2. Taghizadeh M et al. “The effect of tablet containing Boswellia serrata and Melisa officinalis extract on older adults’ memory: a randomized controlled trial.” Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, vol. 75 (March-April 2018): 146-150
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Mushrooms Enhance Executive Function
Mushrooms have been used medicinally in traditional cultures for millennia, including in traditional Chinese medicine. Polysaccharides from Tremella fuciformis, sometimes referred to as snow fungus or white jelly mushroom, have been found to have promising neuroplastic effects in earlier studies, leading to the idea that they can play a role in supporting brain health. Soonhyun Ban and colleagues from Ewha Womans University in Seoul (Seoul, Korea) conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to assess the effects of Tremella on improvement of cognitive function.3
In the study, 75 individuals aged 40-65 with subjective cognitive decline were randomized to placebo, 600 mg, or 1200 mg of Tremella fuciformis extract daily for eight weeks. The primary outcome was change in the Subjective Memory Complaints Questionnaire (SMCQ), a validated measure assessing memory function. Secondary outcomes included changes in short-term memory or executive function assessed using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) and Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), respectively.
After eight weeks, improvement on the SMCQ was significantly greater in both the low- and high-dose Tremella groups versus placebo. Short-term memory performance also improved significantly in both treatment arms versus placebo, while executive function significantly improved in the high-dose Tremella group. Significant increases in gray matter volume in various areas of the brain were evident in both treatment groups. These results indicate that Tremella led to significant improvements in cognitive performance and memory function in individuals with subjective cognitive decline.
3. Ban S et al. “Efficacy and safety of Tremella fuciformis in individuals with subjective cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial.” Journal of Medicinal Food, vol. 21, no. 4 (April 2018): 400-407
Photo by Eduardo A. Esquivel Rios (Eduardo27) at Mushroom Observer/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0
Ashwagandha: Adaptogen for Brain Function
A botanical often used in the Ayurvedic tradition as a tonic herb or adaptogen is ashwagandha. Among its many uses is its ability to promote cognitive and brain health. A recent study led by researchers at the Department of Pharmaceutical Technology, NSHM Knowledge Campus (Kolkata, India) aimed to determine the benefit of ashwagandha supplementation for improving memory and cognitive function in adults with mild cognitive impairment.4
In the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 50 adults were randomized to supplementation with a placebo or 300 mg twice/day of an ashwagandha root extract (KSM-66; Ixoreal Biomed Inc. (Los Angeles, CA)) for eight weeks. The Wechsler Memory Scale was used along with several other measures of cognitive function, including the Eriksen Flanker task, Wisconsin Card Sort test, Trail-Making test, and the Mackworth Clock test.
The group taking the ashwagandha extract demonstrated significant improvements in both immediate and general memory versus placebo as well as significantly greater improvements in executive function, attention, and information processing speed. The results of this pilot study support the ability of ashwagandha extract to effectively enhance several aspects of memory and cognitive health.
4. Choudhary D et al. “Efficacy and safety of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) root extract in improving memory and cognitive functions.” Journal of Dietary Supplements, vol. 14, no. 6 (November 2017): 599-612
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Green Coffee Promotes Cognition
Coffee has been in the news lately as research continues to point to health benefits associated with its consumption. While caffeine is a well-known component associated with energy enhancement and cognitive benefits, research attention is shifting to other healthy compounds in coffee, including chlorogenic acids. These polyphenols are abundant in coffee, specifically in unroasted green coffee beans, and have shown promising health effects of their own as they have powerful antioxidant activity. Recently, Katsuyoshi Saitou and colleagues from Kao Corporation (Tokyo, Japan) sought to investigate the effects of chlorogenic acids on cognitive function.5
In the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 38 healthy adults aged 50-69 experiencing subjective memory complaints were asked to consume a caffeine-free beverage containing 300 mg of chlorogenic acids per day or a placebo beverage for 16 weeks. The researchers assessed cognitive function using the CNS Vital Signs battery, which is composed of seven tests assessing parameters of memory, attention, and other cognitive aspects. The group consuming the chlorogenic acids-enriched beverage showed significant increases in scores for motor speed, psychomotor speed, attention, and executive function compared to the placebo group, indicating that these compounds from green coffee may have significant benefits for brain and cognitive health.
5. Saitou K et al. “Effect of chlorogenic acids on cognitive function: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 10. Published online September 20, 2018.
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