The health of our brain has engaged humanity since time immemorial. People want to be smarter, fast learners, mentally alert and sharp. And we have older segments of the population above the age of 65 years of age that are prone to cognitive health disorders. It is estimated that 13 percent of the U.S. population 65 years and above currently show some form of cognitive decline symptoms (US Census Bureau, 2010). This figure is expected to rise to 20 percent by 2050.
Modern medicine has not yet been able to discover effective medication to treat cognitive impairments. Recommendations are often restricted to interventions that will help keep the body healthy and disease-free. Neurologists will recommend exercise, to keep cardiovascular risk factors under control and engage in mentally stimulating and socially engaging activities that help keep the brain active. Drugs to provide relief in diseases like Alzheimer’s have not shown any lasting benefit or even help prevent onset of the ailment.
Research on precision medicine could give a glimmer of hope for cognitive health patients. This research seeks to find solutions to these disorders by manipulating the genome. (Reitz C, 2016) This research is still in its nascent stages. Till such time that modern and effective solutions to cognitive health disorders are discovered, herbal products are the fall back option for consumers and patients.
The retail business for memory and mood relaxing supplements is showing growths that are faster than other nutraceutical products. Euromonitor places the annual retail sale of mood and memory relaxing products at $2.7 billion.
Many of the supplements in the market have an herbal base. The most popular cognitive health focused herb supplements contain ginseng, Ginkgo biloba and Bacopa monnieri. The lion’s mane mushroom (Hericeum erinaceus) found growing in temperate locations across the world is another species and turmeric is also recommended for their cognitive health improvement property.
Ginseng has been in use in China for its strength giving and rejuvenating properties since its discovery more than 5,000 years ago. Its benefits were first documented during China’s Liang Dynasty (220 to 589 AD). The traditionally accepted medicinal properties of ginseng include its ability to improve concentration, memory, work and physical efficiency and build athletic endurance. North American tribes such as the Iroquois, Menomonee, Cherokee and the Creeks all valued the herb for its curative powers.
Panax ginseng is the most common of the ginseng yielding plants. There are 3,944 prescriptions having ginseng as an ingredient in the Korean Clinical Pharmacopia, which has been in place since 1610 AD. Ginseng is popular in South Korea and China. Around 1,000 scholars are said to be studying the herb, publishing more than a hundred research papers each year (In-Ho Baeg et al, 2013).
It has also been shown that a dose-dependent improvement in memory quality performance does occur. The highest improvement was observed in those who were given the highest dose. (Kennedy DO et al, 2001) On the other hand, no memory or cognitive improvement was noticed in post menopausal women volunteers. (Hartley et al, 2004)
A study published in 2003 indicated red ginseng leads to improvement of cognitive functions in Alzheimer’s disease patients. (Lee ST et al, 2003) An open-label clinical trial showed ginseng helped improve cognitive functions in Alzhemier’s disease patients.
Literature review indicates prolonged use of ginseng has side effects and can cause headaches, nausea, restlessness, elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, irritability, blurred vision, edema, diarrhea, excessive menopausal bleeding and other side effects. Ginseng supplements should therefore be taken under medical supervision so adverse reactions with other drugs can be prevented. (Y Lee et al, 2010)
Bacopa monnieri known as Brahmi in Ayurveda is recommended by healers as medicine to aid recovery from exhaustion, stress, debility and treat an entire range of cognitive disorders that include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimers disease, dementia Asperger’s syndrome, insomnia, depression, recovery from alcoholism or drug abuse and autism.
Stough’s study (Stough C et al, 2001) showed effects of Bacopa take months to appear. These effects take effect at 12 weeks. Another study conducted with an Ayurvedic formulation that contained Bacopa showed that memory and learning enhancing effect was observed in patients with anxiety neurosis (RH Singh et al, 1980).
Gingko biloba or maidenhair is a tree that is found growing near Buddhist temples in Asia. It is an ancient plant which botanists have categorized as a living fossil tree. This species is popular treatment for cognitive health disorders and maintaining cognitive health in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the top selling herbs in the US. studies indicate the herb can be useful in managing dementia, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. The herb is generally well tolerated but it can increase risk of bleeding if used in combination with warfarin, antiplatelet agents and certain other herbal medications. (Sierpina VS et al, 2003) There are more than 120 published clinical studies on ginkgo mainly from Europe.
The problem of cognitive health disorders continues to be intractable to modern medicine. Based on literature review, I think herbal supplements at best can act as adjuvant to the limited options currently available with modern science. Precision medicine based genetic manipulation has the potential but we appear to be still far away from making a conclusive discovery. Until then, we have little option but to rely on herbal treatment practices that humans in the first millennium BC discovered. This is a frontier that human’s need to conquer quickly.
Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Tata Consultancy Services, an IT outsourcing company in Asia, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herb, “Holy Herbs." He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service.