Special edition: Cognitive Health

Botanical ingredients step up to battle cognitive decline

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Schisandra berries drying in India.  Photo courtesy Chris Kilham.
Schisandra berries drying in India. Photo courtesy Chris Kilham.

Related tags Cognitive health Alternative medicine

Botanical ingredients for cognitive health indications abound, and the scientific backing for these ingredients is abundant, too, if you are willing to look, experts said.

NutraIngredients-USA talked with botanical experts Chris Kilham, aka The Medicine Hunter, and Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.  Both had numerous ingredients to share that have been shown to have cognitive health benetifs.

First, to efficacy. Cognitive health is a broad brush;  it can mean anything from mild memory impairment to more serious conditions gathered under the umbrella of Age Related Cognitive Decline.  Stepping further one comes up against the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, and 1 in 3 seniors will die while afflicted with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.  A new case of Alzheimer’s crops up every 67 seconds in the US, the organization said. 

As far as this extreme end of the spectrum is concerned, even organizations favorable to dietary supplementation are cautious about recommending alternative therapies in dealing with dementia.  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health, recently rounded up the state of evidence for ginkgo, vitamin E, fish oils, curcumin and two different types of ginseng as it relates to cognitive decline. “There is no strong evidence that any complementary health approach or diet can prevent cognitive impairment," ​the Center said.

“I’m not sure NCCAM is the best source. I think even there is built into in the supposedly unbiased view a presumption that pharmaceuticals are the standard and all other agents are encroaching into the territory of credible medicine,”​ Kilham said. “If you look at the 1,500-plus studies on curcumin, the hundreds of studies on rhodiola, the hundreds of studies on other botanicals, it’s very obvious that the science is strong. It’s definitive and it shows that traditional uses written down in scriptures or other texts were right on even though people didn’t understand the mechanism of action.”

When forming his list, Kilham was quick to point out his top candidates:

Schisandra.“There are actually few if any botanicals that match the cognitive benefits of Schisandra berry,” ​Kilham said. This botanical is native to northeast China and has been a mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine for many centuries. Credited as being an adaptogen, the botanical is used in many preparations, including those meant for cognitive function. 

“This botanical probably has more studies around for functional brain parameters than any other.  Granted, many of these studies were conducted in China,” ​Kilham said. A small study published in Phytomedicine​ in 2010 found that a preparation of Schisandra, rhodiola end eluthero helped tired test subjects perform better on cognitive tasks. 

“It’s just super broad.  I think this could be the definitive replacement for Adderall,” ​Kilham said.

Ashwagandha roots. Photo courtesy Chris Kilham

Ashwagandha.​  “Ashwagandha is already well known as an adaptogen and is reasonably popular,” Kilham said. “But it is especially effective at clearing the ‘mental fog’ and boosting parameters of cognitive performance."​  A 2014 study using a root and leaf ashwagandha extract found supplementation improved performance on psychomotor skills​. Other studies have looked at the botanical’s effect in cognitive dysfunction associated with bipolar disorder​ and axiety disorders​. 

One issue with this botanical is a disagreement among suppliers over whether a root-only extract is best, or whether a root-and-leaf extract is also acceptable. “One of the challenges we face is that manufacturers who don’t use the right concentrations or right potencies of extracts,” ​Kilham said. “If you use the full dosage (500mg/day and up) you can get some very convincing results. Some manufacturers tend to cheat those concentrations.”

Vinpocetine. ​This botanical ingredient, derived from the common periwinkle plant, works on a variety of pathways, boosting overall brain efficiency. Vinpocetine, derived from the common periwinkle plant, is touted as an booster of both cerebral circulation and memory. In the United States, vinpocetine is an ingredient in dietary supplements for brain and mind enhancement.  Kilham said studies show that vinpocetine enhances blood circulation in the brain, increases production of stored energy in brain cells, improves the brain’s utilizaiton of oxygen and improves the brain’s metabolism of glucose.

“This ingredient has been shown to improve the speed at which the brain can form new thoughts.  It is expensive, but it is effective at very small doses, 10 mg, so it is affordable for everybody,”​ Kilham said.  A 2003 study validated vinpocetine’s wide ranging effects​, while another found it had significant positive effects on subjects with mild cognitive impairment​.

Curcumin.​  "We know that curcumin causes the production of neuroprotrective factors,”​ Kilham said.  “ I think we will see more studies on the ingredient’s effect on cognitive enhancement.”

Ginseng.​  Even though the rigor of the science of this ingredient has been questioned by NCCAM, Kilman said the backing for this ingredient is still strong, especially that behind Naturex’s Cereboost (full disclosure: Kilham works as a consultant with Naturex). “One thing to keep in mind is that with few exceptions natural chemicals don’t work as fast as pharmaceuticals. That is certainly the case with Cereboost, even though it showed significant improvement in memory,”​ he said.

Rhodiola rosea. Photo by Chris Kilham

Rhodiola.“Last but not least I mention rhodiola,”​ Kilham said. “This is maybe the greatest single greatest herbal medicine. In additional to its other benefits, it has specific, well-documented cognitive enhancing properties.”

Blumenthal’s list differs from Kilham’s.  Based on his review of the research, he chose as his No.1 ingredient one that Kilham didn’t mention.

Bacopa. Bacopa monnieri​ is a wetlands plant that can be found worldwide. It has a long history of use iAyurveda, Blumenthal said. “It was called ‘Brahmi’ (meaning supreme) in Ayurvedic medicine, which is indicative of the high regard it was held in.  The research coming on bacopa is fairly impressive, and it all seems to be moving in the same direction of increased cognitive function and better short term memory.” ​ Blumenthal mentioned one supplier based in Australia, Soho Flordis, that is working on the ingredient. “They definitely seem committed to a clinical trials course,” ​he said.

Ginkgo.  “I’d definitely put ginkgo on the table. Recent clinical trials on health people showed that ginkgo decreased processing times.  They used measures like memorizing shopping lists,” ​Blumenthal said. "One issue with ginkgo, as with other botanicals, is that most of the research has been pathologically oriented.  So it is helpful to have trials on healthy people." 

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