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You’re in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, nervously tapping your foot on the patterned carpet and grinding your teeth until they finally call your name. You didn’t floss enough. You didn’t take care of that molar sensitivity when it first popped up three months ago. And you definitely didn’t schedule this cleaning a prompt six months after the last one. In short, you’re anxious.

Stress comes in many forms, and paths to relief are equally varied. Between the dizzying sound of the drill, you notice a fish tank: bubbles from the filter, fish floating through plastic pirate ships, swaying underwater plants. Interestingly, the simple sight of a fish tank can be a form of stress relief (maybe that’s why so many doctors’ and dentists’ offices have them). Hypnotic aquatic environments can lower your blood pressure and produce a state of relaxation.OHaire2010 But if you really need extra tension relief, you may be better off reaching into the tank, pulling out the greenery, and feeding it through your chattering teeth.

Bacopa monnieri (buh-COH-puh moh-nee-AIR-ee) is an aquatic creeping perennial plant commonly sold to decorate fish tanks; but it can be used for much more than just underwater interior design. It can have a significant effect on cognitive function.

Let’s discuss how this powerful little plant can reduce anxiety and depression while enhancing memory and attention.

Bacopa Background

Before diving into the benefits, it’s best to know a bit more about why this herb has been used in medicine for centuries.

Bacopa: The Herb of Many Names

Native to the lush wetlands of South Asia, East Asia, and Australia, Bacopa monnieri has been an essential herb in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It joins a family of common medicines, Rasayanas, known for their youthful and rejuvenating enhancements, which is why they’ve primarily been prescribed to the elderly community.Kulkarni2012

However, Bacopa monnieri is also part of the coveted Medhya Rasayana group along with another notorious nootropic, Ashwagandha. The prefix, “medha”, means “mind.” Thus, Medhya Rasayanas are prescribed to people of all age groups needing a mental boost. The list ranges from those recovering old memories to those recovering from brain injuries.Kulkarni2012

Ayurvedic physicians in India have used Bacopa monnieri in combination with other herbs to treat conditions of the mind, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and dementia. The herb has also been used for inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and ulcers.Nemetchek2017,Rastogi2012,Viji2011

Bacopa monnieri goes by many names. If you’re buying it in a shop, you can ask for the classic carpeting varieties: moneywort or water hyssop. If you're researching its extracts, search for bacosides. If you’re talking to an Ayurvedic physician about it, try asking about Brahmi—a nickname based on the Hindu creator god, Brahma. Or if you're looking for the form of Bacopa monnieri extract, try changing a single letter: Bacopa monniera.

You won’t have to remember all those names to get through this article. But if you wanted to, you should consider taking a dose of Bacopa monnieri to help.

Bacopa Monnieri Mental Benefits

From memory to anxiety, supplementing with Bacopa monnieri can be a powerful tool for the mind.

An illustration of a brain with all the memory-boosting effects of bacopa monnieri in the middle

The Herb You Can’t Forget

It’ll take more than just a single dose to feel the full effects, but research has shown that regularly taking Bacopa monnieri for eight to twelve weeks can improve your memory.Stough2008,Neale2013,Pase2012,Stough2001,Roodenrys2002

Human studies have found that supplementing with Bacopa monnieri can greatly increase your chances of acquiring and remembering new information.Roodenrys2002,Stough2001 A 2001 double-blind study on healthy adults found that subjects increased their learning rates after Bacopa monnieri supplementation. While the results were evident in as little as five weeks, the most significant improvements were noted after the full twelve-week course.Stough2001

Not only was the information acquired more easily, but it was accessed from long-term memory more effortlessly.

A 2002 study echoed these findings after testing Brahmi’s memory capabilities in middle-aged adults.

Testing showed that Brahmi had significant effects on decreasing the rate of forgetting newly acquired information.Roodenrys2002

Even after experiencing short delays to refocus the mind on other tasks, participants of all ages were able to recall new information more readily and fully after supplementing with Bacopa monnieri, including verbal processing.Roodenrys2002 A 2012 meta-analyses of six memory intervention studies found that Bacopa monnieri can improve free memory recall.Pase2012 Imagine being able to actually remember the name of the road your maps app told you to take before your phone died. Or even just the name of that really cool plant you saw in a nature documentary last night. It could have been Bacopa monnieri.

Elderly participants even found Bacopa monnieri to be a very effective treatment for the unavoidable age-associated memory impairment (AAMI), enjoying increased memory procurement and retention.Morgan2010,Raghav2006 Grandma probably won’t stop confusing you with your sibling by taking Bacopa monnieri, but she will be more likely to remember the details of your life over time.

Commit this to memory: Bacopa monnieri can help the process of converting your short-term memories into long-term memories, known as memory consolidation.DepartmentofBiochemistryandMolecularBiophysics2000

Every time you studied for a test, you engaged in this process. There’s a reason cramming the night before isn’t as efficient as studying over the period of a couple weeks. Your brain hasn’t had a chance to repeatedly fire this information on a pathway in your brain. The more frequently you study something, the stronger the pathways between the synapses in your brain become. That’s why mnemonic devices and other repetitive practices are suggested to help you rapidly store facts and figures. When it’s test time, strong pathways will allow you to more readily access information as needed.Bellezza1981

If you’re ready to spice up your daily routine a little, try testing your spatial memory in your current environment. Take a mental picture of your surroundings, close your eyes, and challenge yourself with questions: how many plants are on the window sill? What color is the book on the end table? Are the stripes on the area rug running vertically or horizontally? Then, open your eyes and see how you did. Supplementing with Bacopa monnieri could drastically improve your spotting skills because it boosts your spatial working memory. Working memory is about as straightforward as it sounds—it’s the part of your short term memory working to immediately process information. Add the spatial component, and you get an enhanced ability to remember things inhabiting space around you.Stough2008

Paying Attention

We can train many parts of our bodies, but Bacopa monnieri can help us focus on a soft spot: our eyeballs. Evidence supports that this herb can improve rapid visual information processing and speed of information processing.Neale2013 Translation? You can concentrate on what you’re seeing and comprehend it more quickly.

If faster processing didn’t get your attention, this will: elderly subjects also performed better on the infamous Stroop Test when taking the plant extract.Neale2013,Calabrese2008 You may have taken this tricky test yourself at some point. In it, participants are required to say the color of a word rather than reading the word itself. Easy, right? But all the words are colors…and the word does not match its hue. For instance, if the word "BLUE" is boldly scrawled in the color red, the subject should say ‘red.’ The test was developed to convey that embedded information about our environment strongly influences how we interact with it.

Doing well on the Stroop test assesses a few key things: cognitive processing speed, cognitive control, and attentional capacity, all of which were improved with Bacopa monnieri as an aide.Calabrese2008,Neale2013

These promising improvements are in line with the traditional Ayurvedic uses for the plant, further demonstrating why it’s been used as a memory aid for such a long time.

If you’ve been missing out on your memory’s potential, give Bacopa a try.

Anxiety and Stress

From the start, you were hooked with the promise of this plant being able to reduce anxiety. Like your hand in the fish tank, let’s dive right in.

Three illustrations of a heart, a head and a scale with a happy and sad face, showing how bacopa can improve mood by decreasing stress and balancing serotonin levels

In patients with anxiety, Bacopa monnieri had an anxiolytic effect, simply meaning an anti-anxiety effect. Participants in clinical trials experienced reduced heart rates and anxiety levels.Calabrese2008 These physiological effects point to the adaptogen potential of Bacopa monnieri.Rai2003 Note the word “adapt” nestled inside. Adaptogens are classified by their abilities to help us adapt to stress by normalizing the body’s physiological responses to them.

But the criteria for being labeled an adaptogen are rather strict. The herb must not only be able to assist the body in coping with stress but also decrease stress-induced damage and produce beneficial effects over time.Tripathi2011 The kicker? Adaptogens must be devoid of significant negative side effects.

One of Bacopa monnieri’s adaptogenic effects is cortisol reduction.Benson2014 Although cortisol is the infamous “stress hormone,” it’s responsible for numerous processes—many of them beneficial. Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands and released into the bloodstream to transport it all over your body. Most of our cells contain cortisol receptors, which allows cortisol to have different effects depending on which cells it acts upon. The hormone can manage blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, and influence blood pressure. Our cortisol levels are constantly fluctuating, but they generally cycle in a sensical way for a steroidal hormone, like being higher when we first wake up. Don’t worry if you’re not eager to jump out of bed every morning, though; cortisol doesn’t quite have the same vigor as caffeine.

When we feel stressed, we release cortisol to help us respond appropriately to the situation.

Fight-or-flight response, anyone? This reaction is very important for our survival. But we aren’t really supposed to engage this response over a long period of time, and elevated cortisol levels from chronic stress can negatively impact your body’s systems. On the minor side, you may suffer from digestive distress, such as diarrhea or constipation.Mayer2000 Muscle tension could lead to daily soreness, headaches, or even migraines.Leistad2006 On the major end, you could experience higher blood pressure, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease.Dimsdale2008

In a 2013 study examining the anxiolytic effects of Bacopa monnieri supplementation, human subjects dosing with 640mg of the herb experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels in as little as two hours after taking it.Benson2014

Depression

Bacopa monnieri’s calming effect may also be attributed to its modulation of serotonin levels, which Bacopa monnieri has been shown to regulate.Stough2001,Calabrese2008 Serotonin is the targeted neurotransmitter for the most successful antidepressive agents: the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (or SSRIs).

Antidepressants also often increase the availability of dopamine in synapses, which is another neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood and motivation. Both dopamine and serotonin levels can decline with age, but Bacopa monnieri may be able to mitigate this decline by protecting dopaminergic neurons from death.Aguiar2013

In animal models, bacosides isolated from the Bacopa monnieri plant exhibited antidepressive effects.Zhou2007 Better yet, human subjects reported a significant improvement in depression symptoms after supplementing with Bacopa monnieri for a twelve-week period.Calabrese2008

Bacopa Monnieri Physical Benefits

We can’t just let the brain have all the fun. Bacopa monnieri is a strong fighter for the body as well.

Radical Agent: Bacopa as an Antioxidant

Twelve weeks may seem like a long time, but Bacopa monnieri does its best work when given ample time to shine. Remember that in order for Bacopa monnieri to be classified as an adaptogen, it must be able to decrease stress-induced damage and produce beneficial effects over time. If you’re patient, it will react like an antioxidant in your system.Tripathi1996

Joining the ranks of other common antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, Bacopa monnieri can help remove free radicals such as nitric oxide from your system. Free radicals are unstable molecules missing an electron, which they attempt to take from our lipid membranes (known as lipid peroxidation). Over time, lipid peroxidation can cause tissue and muscle damage and contribute to a scary list of diseases: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.Tripathi1996

A male weight lifter putting chalk on his hands, showing the physical benefits of bacopa

Treat Yourself: Bacopa as Anti-inflammatory

If one disease-reducing quality wasn’t enough, here’s another.

In vivo studies on rats found that Bacopa extracts inhibit the release of cytokines and enzymes associated with inflammation in the brain, leading to an overall reduction in inflammation of the central nervous system (CNS).Nemetchek2017,Viji2011

A 2016 study on the effects of Bacopa on signaling enzymes and inflammatory markers found that Bacopa monnieri targeted specific inflammatory mediators found in the central nervous system and the periphery that are linked to arthritis and neuroinflammation.Nemetchek2017 Similarly, a 2011 in vivo study found that the isolated bacosides prevented age-dependent elevation of pro-inflammatory markers in the aged cortex.Rastogi2012

While this doesn’t imply that Bacopa monnieri reduces aging, it does encourage further research into using the herb to reduce systemic inflammation.

This is especially promising because reducing inflammation can assist with the treatment of serious CNS disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and multiple sclerosis.Nemetchek2017,Viji2011

Epilepsy: Bacopa Beginnings

While the research on Bacopa monnieri’s effects in individuals with epilepsy is in its infancy, the herb’s mechanisms are promising.

Epilepsy is a neuronal disorder often characterized by memory and learning impairments.Holmes2015 Frequent recurrent seizures can adversely affect cognition and contribute to brain injuries associated with cognitive degradation. For genetic epilepsies, the mechanisms of seizure activity are actually quite similar to the mechanisms of cognitive impairment.Holmes2015 These mechanisms appear to occur as a result of abnormal signaling patterns, which result in modified synaptic function and hyperexcitability. Don’t get too excited—normal cognitive function requires a stable balance of excitatory and inhibitory drive.Yizhar2011

In epileptic animal models, Bacopa monnieri treatment significantly reversed the down-regulation of essential gene expression during seizure activity. In other words, neuronal cell receptors appeared to function normally again.Paulose2008

Bacopa monnieri’s effects on epilepsy behavioral deficits were also researched in 2010. Because the herb has been tested for its antioxidant, anticonvulsant, and cognition improving properties, the authors posit that it may be a beneficial herbal medicine for ameliorating the neuronal deficits associated with frequent seizure activity.Mathew2010

Supplementing with Bacopa Monnieri

Daily doses range from 200mg - 400mg of the standardized extract with no major adverse effects reported. Minor side effects include diarrhea, nausea, and an upset stomach. The extract is also not known for having the most pleasant flavor.

Bacopa monnieri is generally considered safe to pair with other medications and supplements.Morgan2010

Remember: Bacopa monnieri is most effective after being used consistently for an eight to twelve week period. With its hefty list of benefits, this is one herb that’s worth the wait.

Testing Your Memory

Whether you need to train your brain to process new information more quickly or train your body to process new movements more gracefully, adding Bacopa monnieri to the mix can help you achieve your memory goals and boost cognitive function.

You may not have started supplementing yet, but try to see how many of Bacopa monnieri’s benefits you’re able to remember on your own:

  • Increased memory acquisition and retention
  • Defense against age-associated memory impairment
  • Increased verbal processing
  • Increased rapid visual information processing
  • Increased spatial working memory
  • Increased memory consolidation
  • Defense against lipid peroxidation
  • Reduced inflammation in the central nervous system
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased depression
  • Potential for those with epilepsy and seizure activity

Bacopa monnieri's cognitive enhancement and protective effects won’t get you out of going to the dentist. But it could help you remember to floss and keep you calm while the dental hygienist does it for you anyway.

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