As our population ages, declining mental faculties can take first place on the list of one’s health concerns. Alzheimer's disease and other forms of senile dementia affect some 25 percent of all people over 80.1 Research, though, is revealing Ayurvedic approaches in helping to support the natural strength of the mental faculties.
Mental Rejuvenation with Ayurveda
Medhya is an Ayurvedic concept that implies intellect, or wisdom. Medhya remedies promote mental development and act as mental rejuvenatives, and they also suggest a mind that is mighty, vigorous and pure.
There are many ways to bring medhya into play in the mind. Anything that promotes the sattva guna can help in our quest, and the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali are aimed at this. Ayurvedic herbal medicines also play a role. They engender and summon intelligence, memory and mental perception. They make the mind worthy of sacrifice to higher consciousness.
Bitter taste is made from air and space energies, and these forces predominate in the mind. Bitter foods and herbs open the mind, increase sensitivity, awareness and mental functioning. Since bitter herbs are cooling and calming they combat mental dullness, allowing us to reach our full potential, becoming radiant and elevated.
Mind supplements include a large array of herbs and foods recommended to rebuild body tissues and restore lubricating juices.2 Five of these mind-nourishing herbs stand out as pillars of an Ayurvedic lifestyle.
Ashwagandha, sometimes named “winter cherry” or “Withania”, is a top mental rejuvenator. Ayurvedic herbalists use the herb to reestablish long-term sleep rhythms. Ayurvedic herbalism also uses ashwagandha for general strength for support in times of occasional fatigue and exhaustion; and to support healthy memory and a strong nervous system.
This tonic herb, a relative of tomatoes and potatoes, is not stimulating, but rather relaxing. That allows one to use this in larger amounts on a regular basis without concern for overstimulation, so this root is a superb remedy for nervous system support.
Study after study continues to confirm the benefits of this herb on stress tolerance, performance and endurance.3,4,5 One study indicated that the herb supported the brain in times of stress.6 In another, ashwagandha was shown to support strength and physical working capacity.7,8
Ayurveda considers it a “grounding” herb, one that nourishes and regulates metabolic processes and supports a naturally balanced mood. Ashwagandha also supports memory, helping those such as students for whom learning and testing are priorities.9 One recent study looked at sleep and stress. Ashwagandha was effective in supporting naturally healthy sleep patterns.10
As well as being a slow-acting tonic herb, ashwagandha is a superb herb for balancing elevated vata, a common problem as age advances. It takes about a week to work up to an appropriate amount, and about another week for the herb to reach maximum effectiveness. Since ashwagandha is a slow-acting herb, you may take your daily serving at any time during the day.
A typical serving of ashwagandha is about a gram per day, taken over long periods, up to many years, as a rejuvenator, but, since ashwaganda is very safe, larger quantities are often used short term. In India, Withania is given with pungent, heating herbs (ginger, pepper, etc.) to ensure that it gets sufficiently digested.
Conscious communication is the essence of yoga. From your chakras to your nervous system to the words you speak, your very molecules are vibrating with the energy of your being, and transmitting that energy to all the other parts of our bodies and to people in your life.
Yoga exercises, pranayama and lifestyle practices all support conscious communication, and there is one special herb that yoga reveres above all others for clarifying and expanding that special spiritual voice we all share.
Calamus root is a major herb for the mind and meditation, and is highly revered by yogis. Though it is not clearly allowed for internal consumption in the US, it can be used topically, either as a dry powder, paste, or as part of an herbalized oil. As a historical and international perspective, ancient yogis and seers used this herb, and it was said to stimulate the power of self-expression and to enhance intelligence. Calamus historically was used to promote a healthy brain, sharpen memory, enhance awareness and increase communication and self-expression. The yogic name, Vacha, means “speech”, referring to its action on the fifth chakra and is propensity to help you speak from your highest consciousness.
This herb was often combined with gotu kola, which is cooling and mild. The complementary energetics made the combination suitable for a wide variety of people. To support attention and focus, it was combined with gotu kola, shankpushpi and licorice. Over the long term, calamus warms the body and pacifies the mind. Vacha was also combined with triphala as a general rejuvenative that bestows intelligence, longevity and good memory.11
Vacha has a long and very special history in Ayurveda. For meditating yogis, it was quite a boost.
Brahmi (Gotu Kola)
Thinking about thinking? Feel like you’re about to max out your personal hard drive? Gotu kola is an herb with a long history of brain support. Gotu kola, also called Mandukaparni, is a mainstay of herbal medicine in Ayurveda. Widely considered a superior herb for the nervous system, gotu kola has a host of benefits.12
In Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is called “brahmi”, which means “godlike”, a reference to its support of graceful aging and to its use as an aid to meditation. It has a bitter taste and is cooling to the body.
Gotu kola supports healthy memory, concentration and intelligence, as well as the voice, physical strength and the complexion.
Gotu kola is a jungle creeper that grows in hot moist climates. After all, it’s the food of the elephants, and we all know about their memories! Fresh, it’s a delicious salad vegetable. The juice of the fresh leaves is available at some juice bars.
More recently, a study out of Korea shows that components in gotu kola show potential for supporting healthy memory, a very promising direction.13
Since gotu kola is basically a mild salad vegetable, the serving can be a larger quantity. Try one to four teaspoonfuls of fresh juice every morning. Many people use a modest amount of 1 gram per day in capsules or tablets for daily rejuvenation. Try a cup of gotu kola tea with honey before meditation.
Water hyssop (Bacopa monniera), also refered to as brahmi in certain parts of India, is a steadfast mainstay of traditional Ayurvedic medicine. An indication of the respect for this herb is the name: “brahmi” means “god-like”. It’s used in Asia for support of the nervous system, mental energy, and healthy memory—it’s a powerful brain food. Meditators use it to increase comprehension, concentration and recollection. Because it traditionally supports a person’s natural ability to solve problems effectively, it is often found in Ayurvedic formulas to cope with stress.
With nearly 300 studies in the scientific literature, it has built up a solid base of scientific support for its many functions.
In support of the traditional use for promoting healthy memory, Australian researchers recently gave Bacopa to seventy-six adults, aged 40 to 65 years, in a double-blind randomized, placebo control study in which various memory functions were tested. Numerous memory tests before and after taking the brahmi showed that the herb significantly supported the learning process.14
Brahmi has traditionally been used for children as well. Indian schoolchildren take it at home. In 1987, Indian scientists gave brahmi to 40 schoolchildren aged 6-8 in a single-blind trial. The study showed support of learning, memory and perception. The dose was 1 gram per day for three months, of the dried plant extracted into a syrup form, and no side effects were recorded.15
The traditional serving can be up to two grams of the whole herb, in capsules, tablets or tea, twice a day with warm water.
When we need mental peace and sleep, we may call upon shankhapushi to help restore clear quality of the mind and relaxation. Its flowers resemble the shankha or conch shell, thus the name. It usually is a foot tall plant, with dome of flowers, in open fields in North India.
This herb is an outstanding rejuvenative tonic for the mind and nerve tissue. The plant is said to have profound mystical properties, with an affinity for the heart, throat, third eye and crown chakras.
The herb is especially effective for mental peace and tranquility. Often taken with or prepared in ghee, it promotes serenity without dulling the mind. As it is balancing, its effect can be both uplifting and calming. Students traditionally use it to support a calm mind during exams. For support of focus and attention, it combines well with brahmi and licorice. For support of healthy sleep patterns, use shankpushpi at bedtime (traditional use allows for up to 6 grams). According to the Astanga Hridyam, ghee, cooked three times with shankpushpi juice and milk, makes even the dullest mind sharp.
Ayurveda places special attention on the health of the mind, and fundamentally teaches that, ultimately, all physical imbalances start in the mind, so a healthy mind is at the forefront of Ayurvedic practices. These five herbs form the core of a superb mental rejuvenative chest. They are waiting to help us stay calm, centered, intelligent and exalted, so now might just be the time to give this collection of herbs a try.
1 Jill Stansbury, N.D., Sustain the Brain, Nutrition Science News, February, 2001, http://www.healthwellexchange.com/
2 Sharma, Ram, and Dash, Bhagwan, Caraka Samhita, Chowkhamba, Varanasi, 1992
3 Archana R, Namasivayam A. Antistressor effect of Withania somnifera. J Ethnopharmacol 1999 Jan;64(1):91-3
4 Singh B, Saxena AK, Chandan BK, Gupta DK, Bhutani KK, Anand KK. Adaptogenic activity of a novel, withanolide-free aqueous fraction from the roots of Withania somnifera Dun. Phytother Res 2001 Jun;15(4):311-318
5 Venkatraghavan S, et al, J Res Ayu Sid, 1, 1980:370. [from: Bone K, “Withania somnifera”, Clinical Applications of Ayurvedic and Chinese Herbs, (Queensland, Australia: Phytotherapy Press), 1996:137-41.]
6 Jain S, Shukla SD, Sharma K, Bhatnagar M. Neuroprotective Effects of Withania somnifera Dunn. in Hippocampal Sub-regions of Female Albino Rat. Phytother Res 2001 Sep;15(6):544-548
7 Dhuley JN. Adaptogenic and cardioprotective action of ashwagandha in rats and frogs. J Ethnopharmacol 2000 Apr;70(1):57-63
8 Bhattacharya SK, Bhattacharya A, Chakrabarti A. Adaptogenic activity of Siotone, a polyherbal formulation of Ayurvedic rasayanas. Indian J Exp Biol 2000 Feb;38(2):119-28
9 Dhuley JN. Nootropic-like effect of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera L.) in mice. Phytother Res 2001 Sep;15(6):524-528
10 Kumar A, Kalonia H. Effect of Withania somnifera on Sleep-Wake Cycle in Sleep-Disturbed Rats: Possible GABAergic Mechanism. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2008 Nov;70(6):806-10.
11 Srikantha Murthy, K.R. Vagbhata’s Astanga Hrdayam. vol. 3. Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy. 1995. p. 387
12 Vaidya, Ashok D.B. The Status And Scope Of Indian Medicinal Plants Acting On Central Nervous System. Indian J Pharmacol 1997; 29: S340-S343
13 Mook-Jung I, Shin JE, Yun SH, Huh K, Koh JY, Park HK, Jew SS, Jung MW. Protective effects of asiaticoside derivatives against beta-amyloid neurotoxicity. J Neurosci Res 1999; Nov 1;58(3):417-25
14 Roodenrys S1, Booth D, Bulzomi S, Phipps A, Micallef C, Smoker J . Chronic effects of Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) on human memory. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2002 Aug;27(2):279-81
15 Sharma R, Chaturvedi C, Tewari PV. Efficacy of Bacopa monniera in revitalizing intellectual functions in children. J Res Edu Indian Med. 1987;1:12