The 4 Best Herbs and Spices for Brain Health

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPNutrition

Herbs and spices are a natural pharmacy. If you consume a wide variety of herbs and spices every day, their vast pharmacological effects will work wonders for your overall health. It’s impossible to pinpoint the best and healthiest herb or spice. They are all incredible! However, studies of certain herbs and spices have uncovered impressive benefits in regards to brain health. If you are looking to support your brain and enhance your cognition, start incorporating the following four herbs and spices that have been well studied for their impressive brain health benefits.

Curcumin

Curcumin is a potent polyphenol found in turmeric root. Both turmeric and curcumin are celebrated for their vast pharmacological benefits. Most notable is curcumin’s potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidative capabilities. At lower doses, curcumin reduces systemic inflammation and fights oxidative stress. As inflammation and oxidative stress are primary drivers of Alzheimer’s disease, these benefits are highly coveted. At higher doses, these benefits are lost, but are replaced with curcumin’s ability to bind and clear beta amyloid plaques in the brain. It is curcumin’s unique molecular structure that contributes to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-amyloid brain effects (1). The o-methoxy group that lies on either side of the curcumin base molecular structure makes it a strong free radical scavenger (1).

Beyond acting as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-amyloid compound, curcumin also helps to activate enzymes that synthesize glutathione, which is the body's master antioxidant (1). Glutathione not only reduces reactive oxygen species, but also protects proteins from oxidative damage. Through these mechanisms and others, curcumin improves working memory and mood (2). Research shows improved long-term storage retrieval, verbal, visual memory and cognitive delay and attention with Theracurmin supplementation (Theracurmin is 27x more bioavailable than curcumin alone, whereas black pepper is only 2x as bioavailable) (3). Theracurmin supplementation was associated with decreases in plaque and tangle accumulation in the brain regions modulating mood and memory (3).

Curcumin can be taken in supplement form, but can also be consumed by eating turmeric root. Eat turmeric root thinly shaved on top of a salad, boiled in a tea, or powdered as part of a curry. Adding black pepper to your turmeric will help you increase the absorption of curcumin.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon has numerous mechanisms of action which support brain health. Cinnamon improves cognition and reduces oxidation in the brain (4). It also has a potent anti-neuroinflammation effect (6). Many individuals with or at risk of Alzheimer’s disease have neuroinflammation, even those without peripheral inflammation, meaning that inflammatory processes can be surging in the brain even without having elevated biomarkers of inflammation in the blood. Thus, incorporating cinnamon in the diet can aid in reducing this brain inflammation.

Additionally, cinnamon improves the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar (5), which is especially important for individuals who have or are at risk of subtype 1.5, or glycotoxic Alzheimer’s disease, which stems from insulin resistance and a generalized disruption in blood sugar homeostasis. Finally, cinnamon is high in manganese, which is an antioxidant important for brain health (7,8).

The uses for cinnamon are endless, but cinnamon is particularly enjoyable when sprinkled onto fruits, mixed into your morning coffee, or when used as a rub on fish, tofu, or meat along with other spices like cardamom, clove, ginger, and bay leaf.

Saffron

Saffron is the crimson colored spice from the flower Crocus sativus. It is most commonly sold in small, dried threads. There are vast medical uses for saffron, and much research to suggest that saffron can be a therapeutic agent in treating Alzheimer’s disease with some research to suggest that saffron has a similar effect as the commonly prescribed anti-Alzheimer's medication donepezil, with fewer adverse side effects (15). Some possible mechanisms behind saffron’s benefits in regards to Alzheimer’s disease include research that shows that saffron may inhibit amyloid-beta aggregation (9), lessening the burden of plaques in the brain. In clinical trials, participants given saffron showed improved cognitive function over placebo (10). Additionally, saffron has been shown to improve symptoms of depression by balancing the levels of neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin (11,12).

Saffron is traditionally used to flavor and color rice dishes. While this is a delicious and authentic way to utilize saffron, those following a lower carbohydrate diet to maintain mild ketosis can use saffron to flavor proteins and vegetables when cooked over slow, moist heat.

Sage

Sage is an under appreciated herb for support of brain health. Sage can be of particular benefit for those suffering or at risk of subtype 1, inflammatory Alzheimer’s disease. This subtype is characterized by chronic, systemic inflammation. Sage potentially protects the brain from amyloid-beta induced neurotoxicity by inhibiting inflammatory markers such as TNF-alpha and Interleukin-6, two biomarkers regularly elevated in Alzheimer’s with an inflammatory etiology (13, 14).

Sage is often used along with other aromatic herbs in cooking savory dishes. However, another great use of sage is to boil it along with black tea for a fragrant and brain boosting tonic.

Alzheimer’s disease is a complex chronic illness. It goes without saying that Alzheimer’s cannot be reversed by simply including herbs in one’s diet. However, along with a comprehensive program to address the root causes of cognitive dysfunction, herbs and spices can be helpful adjuncts. The herbs and spices listed above have potent brain health promoting capabilities and should be included in the diet of anyone wishing to prevent and reverse Alzheimer’s disease.


References:

  1. Sarker, M. R., & Franks, S. F. (2018). Efficacy of curcumin for age-associated cognitive decline: A narrative review of preclinical and clinical studies.GeroScience,40(2), 73–95.https://doi.org/10.1007/s11357-018-0017-z
  2. Cox, K. H., Pipingas, A., & Scholey, A. B. (2015). Investigation of the effects of solid lipid curcumin on cognition and mood in a healthy older population.Journal of Psychopharmacology,29(5), 642–651.https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881114552744
  3. Small, G. W., Siddarth, P., Li, Z., Miller, K. J., Ercoli, L., Emerson, N. D., Martinez, J., Wong, K.-P., Liu, J., Merrill, D. A., Chen, S. T., Henning, S. M., Satyamurthy, N., Huang, S.-C., Heber, D., & Barrio, J. R. (2018). Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled 18-Month Trial.The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,26(3), 266–277.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2017.10.01
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  5. Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes.Diabetes Care. 2003;26(12):3215-3218. doi:10.2337/diacare.26.12.3215
  6. Chen, Y.-F., Wang, Y.-W., Huang, W.-S., Lee, M.-M., Wood, W. G., Leung, Y.-M., & Tsai, H.-Y. (2016). Trans-Cinnamaldehyde, An Essential Oil in Cinnamon Powder, Ameliorates Cerebral Ischemia-Induced Brain Injury via Inhibition of Neuroinflammation Through Attenuation of iNOS, COX-2 Expression and NFκ-B Signaling Pathway.NeuroMolecular Medicine,18(3), 322–333.https://doi.org/10.1007/s12017-016-8395-9
  7. Coassin M, Ursini F, Bindoli A. Antioxidant effect of manganese.Arch Biochem Biophys. 1992;299(2):330-333. doi:10.1016/0003-9861(92)90282-2
  8. Horning, K., Caito, S., Tipps, K., Bowman, A., & Aschner, M. (2015). Manganese Is Essential for Neuronal Health.Annual Review of Nutrition,35(1), 71–108.https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-nutr-071714-034419
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