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The Science on Ashwagandha and Brain Health
Ashwagandha is perhaps the world’s most studied adaptogen. And it makes sense that there’s so much interest in it– it has the ability to help ward off the woes of stress, something we all need after a year of COVID and a struggling economic recovery.
I’ve written about studies that have linked ashwagandha to better and deeper sleep, a longer life, better handling of stress, fighting fatigue and burnout (through adrenal support), thyroid health, sexual virility, easing symptoms of anxiety, and supporting immunity, and now recent research has found that this calming herb may provide powerful support for the brain, memory, and cognitive function. In fact, these benefit of ashwagandha may outcompete the benefits it provides for the adrenals, thyroid, and reproductive organs altogether!
In studying this herb for its brain-boosting benefits, researchers may have uncovered the underlying mechanism for how ashwagandha can impact so many different organs and organ systems, as it can cross the brain-blood barrier (more below).
In the well-studied context of stress reduction, ashwagandha has been shown to affect how the brain and central nervous system react to mental, physical, and emotional stressors.
It has been a mainstay herb in Ayurveda for thousands of years. While the full understanding of how it affects the whole body is still being investigated, the current research presented here makes the case that its underlying mechanism may in fact start in the brain, rather than the adrenals as previously thought.
6 Established Brain-Boosting Benefits of Ashwagandha
- Neural-Protective Properties: Some of ashwagandha’s most potent constituents have been found to cross the blood brain barrier and have a direct impact of the chemistry of the brain. In one study done several years ago, mice were given a human equivalent dose of ashwagandha and researchers measured the effects on their brains. The study found that withanamides, the active ingredient in ashwagandha, crossed the blood-brain barrier and were responsible for supporting the natural neural protective properties of the brain.
- Improved Overall Cognitive Performance: In a 2014 double-blind, placebo controlled crossover study, 20 healthy male human adults were either given 250 mg of an ashwagandha extract twice daily or a placebo for 14 days. It was found to support, even improve, healthy cognitive performance by increasing reaction time, discrimination, and perseverance. The subjects also scored significantly higher on a variety of brain function tests. The study concluded that ashwagandha extract may improve cognitive and psychomotor performance.
- Boosts BNDF: Ashwagandha has been shown to boost a brain cell rebuilding protein called brain derived neurotrophic factors or BDNF.
- Increases Antioxidant Levels: Ashwagandha has been found to support a healthy brain response to toxic-substance exposure by boosting brain antioxidant levels.
- Has a Calming Effect: A 2015 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology showed that ashwagandha attached to GABA (gamma aminobutryric acid) and while providing a calming of the brain it does not sedate or slow brain function but enhances cognitive performance.
- Supports Neurotransmitters: A 2012 study found that ashwagandha supports healthy levels of acetylcholine by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks it down. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter important for brain cell communication and optimal cognitive function.
The Age of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
The baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, have come of age—the age where the risk of severe cognitive decline skyrockets. According to statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 76 million baby boomers in America and researchers are expecting 28 million of them to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Other surveys and research have estimated that one in every two baby boomers older than 85 will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In 2020, only 1.2% of baby boomers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but in 2050, they are predicting that number will go to 50.1% of all living baby boomers.
The medical costs to care to the elderly diagnosed with dependent dementia is staggering. One study reported that in 2020, $241 million was spent on caring for Alzheimer’s patients. Unless there is a cure in the near future, researchers are predicting the cost to rise to $1,078 trillion by 2050.
Currently, there is no cure for age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, but these statistics should motivate all of us to re-evaluate the foods we eat, the things we drink, and the lifestyles we lead.
The Best Diet for Your Brain
The MIND Diet has been endorsed by many experts as the way to stem the tide of cognitive decline. It’s a mostly plant-based diet with small amounts of animal products and saturated fats. It’s rich in fruits and vegetables and includes three servings of whole grains a day, which is more than the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet, which suggest two servings. While reducing animal protein, the MIND Diet encourages antioxidant- and polyphenol-rich foods, such as olive oil, berries, whole grains, and green veggies.
Researchers created the MIND Diet by combining the Mediterranean Diet with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. In a 2015 study, scientists compared all three diets for 4.5 years, observing 923 adults from 58 to 98 years old. While all three diets decreased risk of age-related cognitive decline, the MIND diet had the best results, reducing risk of cognitive issues by a whopping 35-52%!
3 Things to Avoid for a Healthy Brain
- Processed, refined, and non-organic foods
- Being sedentary