Saturday, July 19, 2008

Brain Boosting Herbs: Memory-sharpeners ginseng and gingko biloba are used in studies for treating Alzheimer's disease

We'd all like to make the most of our mental muscles. Plenty of diet plans promise to keep us healthy and at peak levels of performance, and various "smart drugs" say they'll enhance our innate capabilities. But who wants more chemicals? What we really need is something natural to boost our brains. Fortunately, nature is up to this heady challenge, offering a handful of herbs with proven mind-sharpening powers.

Traditional and Eastern natural medicine as well as current European natural medicine have taught us about plants that can fuel our think tanks. Europe and Asia are many strides ahead of us in the use, study, and standardization of natural medicines. They provide pharmacies that dispense natural as well as modern medicines and have conducted numerous scientific studies of natural medicine's healing and restorative benefits. We can learn a great deal from their research findings.

To understand and appreciate the potential power of herbs, we need to keep some brain basics in mind. The brain never sleeps and uses about 20 percent of the body's energy. It requires constant oxygen, which it receives from the bloodstream. Because the brain uses about 25 percent of all oxygen inhaled, a plentiful oxygen supply through the blood is essential for healthful functioning.

Ancient herbal remedies such as ginseng and ginkgo, which are now becoming popular in the Western world, can energize our brains, enhance memory and performance, and aid in the fight against various deteriorative conditions.


Best known for its revitalizing properties, ginseng is a powerful and versatile herb that can increase physical performance under stress and boost energy levels. According to Chinese folklore, ginseng can extend a person's lifespan. More recently, clinical trials have revealed the herb's mental and physical revitalizing effects.

The two primary varieties of ginseng are Chinese and American. Both contain variations of phytochemical compounds called ginsenosides-two of which are designated as Rb1 and Rg1. These two ginsenosides are opposed to each other; as a result, the ratio of the two factors in the plant variety determines the plant's therapeutic function.

The American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), heavier in the Rb1 factor, is considered a restorative and relaxant. It protects against stress and ulcers, helps relieve fatigue and reduce inflammation, promotes liver functioning, and is a natural tranquilizer and fever-reducer.

The Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng), which contains more of Rg1, has an adaptogenic effect. Of the two ginsengs, it is more effective in helping the body cope with stress. It speeds nervous reflexes, increases analytical and mental performance while diminishing fatigue, is a tonic for the lungs, and stimulates sexual functioning in both males and females. Chinese ginseng has blood sugar reducing properties, an anti-diuretic action that decreases urine output, and is useful for insomnia. It also lessens the shock of allergy. Though it lowers cholesterol, especially LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, it does increase appetite. Because Chinese ginseng is a mild stimulant that causes the heart to contract more strongly, it should be avoided by individuals with high blood pressure.

Italian university students treated with Chinese ginseng showed a favorable effect in attention, mental functioning, arithmetic, logical deduction, reaction time to sounds, and integrated brain-body function. During the trials, the participants also reported a greater sensation of well-being.

Ginseng helps fight fatigue and may be useful for athletes. Soviet studies showed soldiers given ginseng extract were able to run a 3K (1.6 mile) race faster than the placebo control group. In other research studies, ginseng appears to allow people to work longer and harder at mental tasks, while making fewer mistakes.

A study of nurses who had switched from day to night shift duty revealed that the group administered ginseng had higher scores in competence, mood, well-being, and mental and physical performance than their placebo-taking counterparts.

Ginseng comes in the form of whole root, capsules, tablets, tea bags, tinctures, and extracts. The dosage depends on the concentration of ginsenoside-the active component in ginseng root. The effective ratio of Rg1 to Rb1 is 2:1. Capsules standardized for five to nine percent ginsenoside would have a 500 to 1,000 mg dose. With the higher concentrated extracts, an average dose may be as low as 200 to 400mg.

Because each individual's response to ginseng is unique, care must be taken to avoid possible side effects. Some individuals who take large amounts of ginseng over long periods of time may experience anxiety, irritability, hypertension, breast pain, and menstrual changes. It is best to begin at lower doses and increase gradually.

Although Siberian ginseng (Eleuther-ococcus senticosus), or taiga root, is not of the same plant family, it provides some similar results. In clinical tests, the extract promoted increased physical performance, stress tolerance, and stimulation of the immune system. Though Siberian ginseng is considered less potent than Chinese ginseng, it may have the same side effects.


Ginseng Root

Ginkgo biloba leaves, a product of the world's oldest tree species, may have even greater health benefits than the ancients believed. In its 200 million year history, the herb survived the ice ages and subsequent heat waves. Cultivated in China as a sacred tree, ginkgo is now found all over the world. The ancient Chinese believed ginkgo leaf tea improved brain function by increasing circulation to the brain.

The therapeutic effects of the ginkgo leaf are attributed to the whole plant and all of its constituents-not to a single chemical component. Clinical studies have been conducted with whole plant extracts commonly referred to as GBE or GBX. One of the most well-researched herbs in the world, ginkgo has been studied in France and other European countries where it is a commonly prescribed drug.

Recent European studies with young, healthy people reveal benefits from taking ginkgo on a regular basis. Ginkgo leaf extract improves short-term memory, increases concentration, quickens information recall, and enhances alertness. By aiding in the absorption and metabolism of oxygen, it has a positive effect on the body's network of blood vessels that deliver blood and oxygen to the various organ systems.

Ginkgo leaf extract protects the brain against oxygen deficiency. By stimulating blood flow in the brain, ginkgo leaf extract counteracts platelet aggregation and may reduce the risk of arterial deposits and clotting. Ginkgo also increases blood flow to the lower extremities, which helps to prevent blood clots; it has been successfully used for conditions related to poor circulation, such as phlebitis.

Ginkgo leaf extract may boost metabolism, neurotransmission and the electrical activity in the brain. It may even slow down the aging process. Isn't it appropriate that the oldest tree in the world is used to treat age-related disorders?

According to Dr. James A. Duke, medicinal plant specialist, aging may be the result of a lifetime's accumulation of oxidative damage, caused by complex chemical reactions that take place when cells produce reactive oxygen species known as free radicals. Research shows that by counteracting these free radicals before they can do damage, heart disease, eye diseases, certain cancers, liver damage from alcohol, arthritic tissue damage, and stress-produced immune system suppression may be prevented or treated. More research is now committed to unraveling this oxidation process, which can foster so many disabling changes in the elderly.

Ginkgo may also be effective in treating medical conditions common to older people, many of which relate to poor blood flow to the brain. Ginkgo increases blood fluidity, which improves circulation. Double blind studies show that patients receiving the extract experienced significant improvement in memory and attention span and continued to improve over a three month testing period. German studies indicate effectiveness in the treatment of Alzheimer's-related memory loss; in fact, ginkgo may actually slow the progression of the disease.

Other studies of the elderly have found that ginkgo may be useful in treating concentration difficulties, anxiety, headache, tinnitus, dizziness, and the effects of depression. Gingko is currently being investigated as a potential drug to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. In Europe, ginkgo has even been successfully used to treat hemorrhoids.

Ginkgo leaf extract is the best selling herbal medicine in Europe, where it is available as an approved over-the-counter and prescription drug. In the US, it is not an approved drug; it is, however, sold as a food supplement. Ginkgo comes in tablets, capsules, concentrated drops, tinctures, and extracts. Recent research applies only to standardized extracts. The recommended Dosage is 40mg of a standardized extract containing 24 percent flavoglycosides, three times daily.

Ginkgo is well-suited for long-term use, and benefits improve over time. Side effects, mild and infrequent, may include gastrointestinal upset or headache. In these cases, individuals should discontinue use. No serious side effects are associated with ginkgo's oral use. The fruit pulp, however, is toxic if ingested; contact with it may cause an allergic skin response.

We all strive to be mentally sharp. Trying herbs, in addition to eating a well-balanced plant-based diet, getting plenty of exercise, and proper rest, can make us better and brighter and able to live happier, more-productive lives.

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