The human brain is a remarkable organ. It’s our central command, governing not just our thoughts, but everything that happens in our bodies. It’s no wonder we are so concerned with natural ways to maintain our brain health at every stage of life.

While brain changes are normal over the years, the good news is that at least some of those changes are within our control. For instance, there are plenty of simple, natural steps you can take to protect your brain as you get older. And some vitamins have been shown to boost brain health and support memory.

The plant kingdom has quite a few cognition-enhancing creations as well, in the form of herbs and spices for brain health. If you’re looking for the best herbs for memory or natural herbs of brain health, read on.

turmeric in a bowl, on a wooden spoon and in a latte

Curcumin, the active component in turmeric, has several effects that may work together to boost cognitive function and support a healthy brain.

1. The brain spice: turmeric

Turmeric—the spice that gives curry its bright yellow/orange color—may be just the pick-me-up your brain needs.

The active component of turmeric is called curcumin, and it’s a darling of the supplement aisle … with good reason. More than 1,000 studies have been published worldwide on its health benefits. (1)

One major area of interest is brain health because curcumin has several effects that may work together to boost cognitive function and support a healthy brain.

How curcumin affects the brain

Part of the reason that turmeric has caught the attention of brain researchers is that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is so much lower in India, where turmeric is a culinary staple. (2) Research has also found that older adults who eat curry more often perform better on tests of cognitive function than people who eat curry less often. (3)

It turns out that curcumin’s methods of action target several of the enemies of brain health, namely — inflammation, oxidative stress, and beta-amyloid plaques. (1) Curcumin may help to clear out those plaques while also tackling inflammation and serving as an antioxidant. (4)(5) All good things when it comes to brain health!

Make sure you’re absorbing your curcumin

One thing to note about curcumin: in its unaltered state, it’s not very easy for the body to absorb. However, taking it with black pepper might help you absorb it better. Research has shown that the active ingredient in black pepper, piperine, increases the concentration of curcumin in the blood, improves bioavailability, and expands absorption. (6)

Another way to make sure you’re getting all the benefits of the curcumin you take is to choose a supplement that has been formulated to increase absorption.

2. Brain-protecting bark: pycnogenol

As we get older, our brains go through a complex array of changes. The structure of the brain itself changes, and so do the chemical and messengers in the brain.

It’s those changes that explain why as we age, our cognitive function diminishes. The old trope about walking into a room to get something and walking back out empty-handed is real. While everyone ages differently, it’s true that some changes to cognition come with the territory.

Certain researchers believe they may have found a plant substance that can help curb some of those brain and cognitive changes and help you maintain your brain function as you get older.

Old French plant-medicine enjoys a resurgence

This substance, known as Pycnogenol, comes from the bark of a maritime pine tree that grows on the coasts of France. The extract of this bark has been used medicinally for hundreds of years, but in recent years it’s received renewed attention. (7)

The reason is that Pycnogenol appears to work against some of those enemies of brain health that we discussed earlier—including inflammation and oxidative stress. It also appears to help fight the age-related damage to the brain’s vascular structures that contributes to cognitive decline. (7)

mother and son drawing together

Pycnogenol extract has been used medicinally for hundreds of years, and one study showed that it helps kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by improving their attention, among other things.

Younger people may find a brain boost from Pycnogenol as well. One study showed that it helps kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by improving their attention, increasing their antioxidant status, and improving DNA damage associated with the condition. (8)

In another study, healthy university students had better attention, memory, executive function, and mood after taking Pycnogenol for 8 weeks. (9) A similar study found similar results in professionals between the ages of 35 and 55 who took the pine bark extract for 12 weeks. (10)

Pycnogenol has a good safety record and has very few side effects. The most common complaint is gastrointestinal upset, but taking Pycnogenol with food should help with that. (7)

3. Nature’s memory-enhancer: ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) is probably one of the most well-known botanical brain-boosters. Derived from the dried leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree, GBE is often used to help with age-related forgetfulness, information processing time, and dementia. (11)(12)(13)

While there’s plenty of research backing up ginkgo’s ability to support brain function as we age, there are also some studies that don’t find it to be very effective. For instance, one large study looked at ginkgo for the prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia and found that it didn’t have any significant effect. (14)

Ginkgo biloba extract in capsules and Ginkgo biloba plant

Ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) helps with specific cognitive functions such as working memory speed.

Honing in on ginkgo’s brain benefits

The herb’s supporters argue that this study and others like it are looking at the issue too broadly. Instead of looking at overall disease prevention, they say, let’s look at how ginkgo helps with specific cognitive functions.

And in that area, ginkgo shines. Take working memory, for instance, which allows us to hold onto information for short periods of time so we can use it to process information. One study in young volunteers found that taking 120 mg per day of GBE for 30 days improves working memory speed and other cognitive functions. (15)

If you struggle with attention and focus, research shows Ginkgo biloba may offer some help there as well. (16)(17)

While it’s not entirely clear why ginkgo has these brain-supporting effects, researchers have some ideas. Some credit goes to its antioxidant properties since (as we know) oxidative stress is partly to blame for cognitive decline. But GBE also influences some of the neurotransmitters that are involved in cognitive function. (18)(19)

The bottom line

Whether you’re looking to protect your brain as you get older, are looking to heal from a concussion or other brain injury, or just want to be a little sharper or more nimble in your thinking, nature offers plenty of ways to help.

These three plant-based supplements may be able to help protect your brain from the oxidative stress, inflammation, and structural changes we all face. While there’s no miracle pill to keep your brain from aging—or to keep you from sometimes forgetting where you put your keys—there are ways to support your cognitive function, naturally.

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