Smart Extracts for Smarter Supplements
The brain bone is connected to the hip bone — and just about everything else in our body. So when we think about antioxidant-rich botanicals that are good for our health, chances are they’re probably good for our brain too. Luckily, the past 20 years have given us an incredible amount of data to develop botanical-based supplements that are good for the noggin.
In just the past year or two, dozens of well-designed clinical trials have been performed on brain botanicals. While some of these ingredients are ones you might expect, others, like pygmy smartweed and king’s salad, are a bit unusual.
Those of us trying to prevent cognitive decline as we age should be encouraged by research being done around the world. Here’s a summary of just a few of these trials:
In a 2023 study with 323 older adults with mild cognitive impairment, an extract from lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) significantly improved clinical dementia scores versus placebo. this suggests that that lemon balm extract can help prevent cognitive decline.
A 2021 study found that sesame oil cake extract improved verbal memory and plasma beta amyloid in older adults with memory impairment. Sesame contains lignins and other antioxidants, such as sesamin, with an interesting bit of supporting evidence for anti-aging, vascular and brain health.
Spermidine is an endogenous polyamine which synchronizes many biological processes and is considered a potential longevity factor, like rapamycin. It’s found in cheese, mushrooms and whole grains, albeit in small amounts. A 2022 study found that a wheat germ extract containing 0.9 milligrams of spermidine per day did not modify memory or biomarkers. However, this dosage may be too small to impact cognition. Supplementing with higher doses of spermidine in clinical trials has potential to reverse memory deficit in people who are at risk of cognitive decline.
Berries are also a big focus of cognitive research these days. While much research is mainly focusing on blueberries and other anthocyanin-rich berries, some traditional berries are showing up in clinical research. One recent study in 312 healthy people found an anthocyanin-rich Mulberry milk product (Memberry®) containing improved working memory and suppressed enzymes associated with brain function including acetylcholinesterase and monoamine oxidase (MAO).
Ulam raja, or king’s salad (Cosmos caudatus) is an antioxidant rich green vegetable traditionally consumed in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, and Central America. A 2021 study found that 250 milligrams of Cosmos for 12 weeks improved mood disturbance and mental capacity in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
There’s also evidence to support another traditional Malay herb, a phenolic-rich plant called smartweed. In one study, 250 mg of pygmy smartweed(Persicaria minor) as Biokesum® improved visual memory, mood and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) after six months in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Outside of the research that helps us folks of a certain age, there’s been renewed interest in plant-derived ingredients that support a healthy mood state and sleep patterns for all ages — and without the downsides of stimulants or sedatives. One recent study looked at the effect of a multiherb extract (Euphytose®) containing hawthorn berry and ballota (Grecian horehound) for 14 days. This study in healthy people found reduced subjective anxiety versus placebo, along with lowered salivary amylase, a marker of stress that mimics cortisol.
A number of studies have focused on beneficial combinations of plant extracts for stress and mood. A 2022 study found that a combination of green tea and Rhodiola rosea combined with magnesium and B-vitamins found improved EEG theta state, and reduced stress and anxiety ratings in 100 healthy adults with moderate stress.
In another recent study, the combination of beetroot, ginseng and sage in a beverage in healthy adults was synergistically enhanced by apple and coffee berry extracts, for improvements in energy ratings and hemodynamic response.
While the attributes of corn have been extensively studied, research on other parts of the plant that are not typically eaten show promise. A standardized extract from corn leaf (as UP165) was evaluated for its impact on sleep quality in a small randomized controlled trial. Improvements in sleep quality, deep sleep time and improved mood state were observed versus placebo.
Bacopa monnieri has been studied for its improvement of higher order cognitive processes like memory and executive function. Recent studies suggest further potential on some of the more elusive emotional and sleep endpoints. A 2022 study in Australia found a Bacopa extract (CDRI 08®) improved cognitive flexibility and interpersonal problems in children with ADHD, compared to a placebo. This study adds to the oeuvre of well-designed research supporting Bacopa for the brain.
One of my favorite herbs to use for mental energy and alertness without the crash of caffeine is the spicy root known as galanga (Alpinia galanga), a cousin of ginger and turmeric. A study in healthy adults found improvements in both alertness and calmness with galanga extract (EnXtra®) compared to placebo. Notably, no increase of sleep disturbance was found, a benefit which may distinguish galanga from caffeine.
Lotus seeds are rich in phytonutrients, polyphenols, alkaloids and enzymes like superoxide dismutase – maybe partly why it’s been used as food and medicine for 7,000 years. Recent research suggests treatment with a standardized water extract of Lotus (Nelumbinis semen) seeds improved stress and depression ratings in people with mood issues.
Another 2022 study found that spirulina extract alleviated Alzheimer’s disease symptoms in people with dementia. This is the first study to show the cognitive impact of spirulina which is known more for its immune enhancing properties. This may partially explain the connection between brain health and immune health, as brain dysfunction is becoming increasingly linked to immune disorders.
Take echinacea for example. While echinacea is usually known for its immune enhancing properties, recent work suggests its impact on cognitive function as well. In a recent study, Echinacea angustifolia extract EP107™ at 40 or 80 milligrams led to improvement in emotional well-being in adults with mild to moderate anxiety.
While it’s not approved for supplements, a lot of promise is held for psilocybin, from Psilocybe cubensis. Among several studies, one studylooking at a single dose of 10 to 25 milligrams in 233 adults with treatment resistant depression was associated with lower severity of depression and anxiety, and an improved quality of life. Further research is needed to determine the best sources and doses and the right controls and setting for psilocybin research.
We don’t just have research on the botanicals we swallow. We have research on those we can inhale as well: a number of studies demonstrate the cognitive benefit of essential oil aromatherapy. Most recently, a 2022 study found that lavender or chamomile oil significantly improved ratings of stress, depression and anxiety within a month in older adults.
These days, supplementing with these herbs as part of the “king’s salad bar” may be our lotus of enlightenment on the natural path toward improved brain function and longevity.
This article was originally published in the May 2023 Natural Products Insider Digital Edition.