Herbs are the saving grace of many a strict diet plan. Constantly saluted for their calorie-free, fat-free, junk-free flavor additions, those dashes make the difference between legitimately enjoying clean eating and suffering through another baked chicken breast. (Boost your memory and age-proof your mind with these natural solutions.)
But herbs aren’t only winners for your waistline. A handful also have promising research behind them suggesting big benefits for your brain, like a sharper memory, less anxiety, and maybe even protection from brain tumors. Here are a few it can’t hurt to add to your favorite recipes.
Parsley and Thyme
A recent study from Brazil found that a flavonoid in these spices, called apigenin, strengthened connections between neurons and even coaxed stem cells—our “raw material” cells that can form other specialized ones—into becoming neurons. While these results were produced in a lab setting and not in living, breathing humans, the researchers hypothesize that a diet rich in apigenin might influence brain cell formation and communication, too, which, in theory, could help ward off depression, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Apigenin’s chemical structure is similar to that of estrogen, explains Giana Angelo, PhD, a research associate at the Micronutrient Information Center at Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute, who was not involved in the research. Estrogen’s long been known to influence neuron development, she says. “In this study, apigenin was able to mimic estrogen and elicit the same types of cellular changes.”
A perennial favorite of late-night tea drinkers, chamomile is, at least anecdotally, a tried-and-true stress destroyer. Like with apigenin, we’ve only got lab studies to go on when we think about how chamomile works its herbal magic on the brain, but it contains compounds that might bind to receptors for certain brain chemicals, reducing anxiety in the process, Angelo explains. In one study—in actual humans!—a small group of people with generalized anxiety disorder were randomized to either take a chamomile extract or a placebo. Eight weeks later, the people who had been taking chamomile reported a bigger drop in their anxiety.
Madagascar Periwinkle or “Vinca” contains more than 400 active alkaloids. Vinca improves blood supply to the brain which increases the oxygen and glucose available for your brain to perform well. Vincristine, found in Periwinkle, is known to counter the decline in intellectual and academic abilities due to cancer-causing agents in children. The alkaloids in Periwinkle also raise levels of neurotransmitter serotonin.
Ginseng (Asian Ginseng, Oriental Ginseng, or Siberian Ginseng) is an adaptogenic herb used to help resist stress and boost energy, concentration, and mood — without the negative effects found in stimulants like caffeine. Ginseng can improve memory and attention, lengthen mental and physical endurance, and ease anxiety. Ginseng has been used as a natural alternative to synthetic ADHD and ADD medications, with fewer side effects.
Gotu Kola is used to improve memory, concentration, and mental performance. This herb is another known adaptogen, which means it can lower stress. Stress affects your brain’s ability to process information and think clearly. Physical stress responses such as shallow breathing and even frowning causes the brain to release cortisol, which is detrimental for brain. Gotu Kola can help minimize your stress response, which in turn boosts mental performance.
Rosemary is known as the “herb of remembrance,” and is used in aromatherapy for improving memory, concentration, and mental clarity. 1,8-cineole, the chemical constituent of the plant is responsible for this effect, and it becomes more concentrated when produced in essential oils.
This scent of Rosemary has been shown to improve speed and accuracy in mental tasks. In one study, the more 1,8-cineole was absorbed by a participant through smelling rosemary the higher they scored on tests.
Many studies show Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) to be beneficial for improving memory and concentration; and can also help regenerate brain cells.
This herb improves cognitive function especially when used together with Ginseng. In a study by David Kennedy at Northumbria University, researchers found marked improvements to mental performance and speed when completing tasks.
If you’re taking blood thinning medications please check with your doctor before ingesting; Ginkgo can cause brain bleeding if the two treatments are used together.
Yerba Maté is a shrub that can be used to stimulate the mind, increase concentration, and ease depressive moods. Studies found positive effects on learning and memory from consuming Yerba Maté tea; reserpine, one constituent of the tea, demonstrated the ability to improve short-term memory.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is an herb often used as a supplementary treatment for mild to moderate depression. The herb has been shown to promote relaxation and relieve tension headaches — which in turn helps you to focus.
Golden Root (also known as Arctic Root, Roseroot, or Rhodiola Rosea) is another potent adaptogen that helps lower cortisol. Expert Zakir Ramazanov notes in his book, Rhodiola Rosea for Chronic Stress Disorder that in reducing chronic stress responses, users will experience increased physical energy, and improvements in cognitive function.
Parsley and Thyme
Adding herbs like parsley and thyme to your diet it may help boost your brainpower. This is due to a flavonoid, apigenin, found in these herbs. The flavonoid is also found in other plants like chamomile, and vegetables like celery and red pepper. In a recent paper published in the journal Advances in Regenerative Biology, scientists found that apigenin boosts neuron formation and creates strong connections between brain cells.
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) also known as waterhyssop, is an Ayurvedic herb native to the wetlands of six continents. It has been utilized used by Indians for thousands of years.
Acting as a “micronutrient” Ayurvedic therapies known as Rasayanas, which included Brahmi, were shown in studies to “retard brain aging and help in regeneration of neural tissues” while also “producing an anti-stress, adaptogenic and memory enhancing effect.” In another study (using female rats), the long term consumption of bacosides (a class of chemical compounds in the plant) was shown to promote healthy brain aging.