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An Introduction to Bacopa: Brain Benefits, Uses and Side Effects

bacopa

While ancient medicine may have a bad reputation for being based in anecdotes, not science, research shows us more and more how beneficial these timeless remedies may be. Bacopa, an herb used in Ayurveda, is one such remedy.

For centuries, Ayurvedic practitioners have been “prescribing” this herb to improve mood and brain function.

With the incredibly limited benefits offered by modern pharmaceuticals to help with anxiety, depression, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and more…Clinicians have found an alternative in the bacopa herb.

What is bacopa good for? One review conducted in 2013 suggests that bacopa might have an impact on: (1)

  • Brain function, memory, and learning
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Seizures/epilepsy
  • Parkinsonian symptoms
  • Oxidative stress
  • Digestive problems
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Bacterial imbalances
  • All-body inflammation
  • Chronic pain
  • Heart health

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that, if all of that’s true, I’m going to get some right now. But first, let’s see what the science says.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The way bacopa interacts with the brain
  • Conditions bacopa can effectively treat, according to research
  • How to use it, and what to keep in mind

 

What is Bacopa monnieri? 

The full plant name of bacopa is Bacopa monnieri (not to be confused with the bacopa caroliniana plant used in aquariums). The beautiful white bacopa flower is also called “water hyssop,” Bacopa monniera Linn., or “Brahmi.” The latter name was to qualify the bacopa plant as derived from the Hindu god “Brahma.”

Bacopa is grown natively in India and has long been thought of as a beneficial herb for the elderly, as they lose their memory and sharp cognition. Some sources claim it’s the same as an herb called pennywort or Gotu kola, but these are actually two different plants.

What else is bacopa used for? Other traditional uses of bacopa include for anxiety, digestion, heart disease, asthma, epilepsy, and mental instability. (2)

As it turns out, bacopa is great for people of all ages. Biohackers have found that bacopa can be a useful nootropic herb for improving memory and mood.

There are a few ways bacopa works as a mental herb.

First, bacopa functions as an antioxidant. Like other antioxidants, it reduces oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Consuming plenty of antioxidants helps your body fight disease by reducing your chance that free radicals will interfere with genetic markers you might carry for certain conditions. (It’s not just blueberries anymore.)

Second, research shows that bacopa functions as an adaptogen. Adaptogenic herbs also include ashwagandha, licorice root, astragalus, rhodiola, and more. These plants have a generalized, all-body effect that improves your ability to deal with stressful situations. Regularly consuming adaptogens eliminates some of your overwhelming stress response, which can help you to think more clearly.

Next, your dopamine and serotonin levels are increased when you consume bacopa. That’s why it’s thought to be so powerful in improving mental conditions.

Finally, bacopa can improve the communication of your neurons with one another. How? It works by promoting nerve ending growth (known as “dendrites”) in order to allow more efficient “talking” between neurons. This is thought to increase the memory and cognition of people taking bacopa, since the neurons don’t have to work as hard to pass information.

There are a number of compounds found in bacopa, but the most potent active compounds are:

  • Apigenin: Also present in chamomile and “adult” drinks, apigenin helps relax the body. There’s some evidence it’s beneficial against cancer growth but very selective to leave healthy cells alone.
  • Bacosides: Bacosides A and B are among the most significant in research on this herb. These compounds are found only in the Bacopa monnieri plant. They’re groups of triterpenoid saponins, plant compounds that have a mild foaming effect. Triterpenoid saponins are especially significant in recent cancer research.
  • Bacosine: Also unique to the bacopa plant, bacosines are another triterpene compound. Most notably, these are known for lowering blood sugar levels.
  • Brahmine: Brahmine is an alkaloid, meaning it’s a plant compound that has a nitrogen-containing base. The impact of brahmine on the human body isn’t well understood.
  • Luteolin: One of the antioxidant compounds in bacopa, luteolin may also be a useful anti-cancer treatment.
  • Quercetin: This super-longevity nutrient is present in just about every type of superfood. It’s powerful against cancer cells, inflammation, bacteria, and allergy-causing toxins.

 

The Cognitive Effects of Bacopa Monnieri

The largest body of research on bacopa centers on its impact on the brain and neurological functions of the body. In particular, scientists have long been investigating how bacopa might reduce the burden of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Even when you’re not talking about a disease, bacopa is a powerful cognitive booster. Known as a popular nootropic (a medicinal plant that improves brain function), bacopa has a unique ability to help you think more clearly.

That’s because it incorporates the benefits of stress relief with improved dopamine and serotonin levels, then helps your neurons along by growing their dendrites.

Most nootropics contain one or two of those properties, but rarely all three.

Although stress relief might not sound like a major factor in brain function, consider this: When you’re stressed, your reactions aren’t quick, your thinking is unclear, and your decisions aren’t always logical. Because bacopa is an adaptogen among its other properties, it helps to clear your head of stress-induced thinking.

That may be one reason scientists have started ADHD-related trials with students who don’t respond to medication.

Impressively, bacopa is even being studied in the context of major neurological diseases like epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia. All of these conditions can, to varied extents, debilitate people who suffer with them.

One important thing to note is that bacopa supplementation isn’t fast-acting. For most issues, it will take several weeks before bacopa notably affects conditions. Results are different based on the specific condition.

Let’s look at the research behind each of the neurological and brain-related conditions bacopa may be able to help resolve. Keep in mind, there are very few double-blind trials on bacopa in humans. Some of the primary researchers in this field that you may want to search for include:

  • Stough C.
  • Roodenrys S.
  • Downey La.
  • Bulzomi S.
  • Singh H.

 

8 Bacopa Benefits for the Brain

1. ADHD

Over the years, many studies have observed bacopa’s impact on attention. While it seems to have an overall positive effect on focusing the mind, not much was known until recently about its condition-specific impact. (3)

However, a clinical trial was published in 2014, following 31 students with ADHD on a dose of 225 milligrams of an extract of Bacopa monnieri per day. Students were on this regimen for six months.

Scientists found a drastically marked improvement in most of the symptoms of ADHD, including: (4)

  • Restlessness
  • Self-control
  • Attention deficit
  • Learning problems
  • Impulsivity
  • Psychiatric problems

It’s unclear whether or not the students were also taking other psychiatric drugs to manage their condition. However, the supplement was incredibly effective. Three quarters of the kids saw an overall reduction in symptoms by up to 20%, while the remaining quarter had an improvement in symptoms between 21-50%.

For families struggling to handle this frustrating illness — or trying to comfort children who can’t handle the harsh side effects of ADHD medications — an option like bacopa might make all the difference.

 

2. Memory

There is evidence that taking bacopa in the long-term can help to improve human memory retention. This memory booster supplement has been studied more extensively in the elderly than the general population, but people of all ages have found its nootropic effects to help with memory. In adults with non-dementia, age-related memory impairment, bacopa (given at 250 milligrams per day over 12 weeks) improved memory along with other learning markers. (5)

A similar study used 300 milligrams per day over the same time period, discovering that all cognitive performance improved in the majority of participants. (6)

But there’s not much in the way of human trials on where this might be most important for the general population — Alzheimer’s research.

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia in older adults. Over time, patients with this disease become forgetful, unable to think through decisions, and may behave oddly.

Many methods of treatment have been proposed to treat Alzheimer’s, but all of these are mostly unproven at the moment. The good news, though, is that bacopa is one of those burgeoning areas of Alzheimer’s research.

This disease is characterized by the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain. When developing Alzheimer’s treatments, scientists are looking for compounds that may slow, stop, or reverse this plaque buildup.

While the following results are promising, keep in mind that these are all in rodent models, not human trials.

A 2010 trial found that giving rats Bacopa monnieri over several weeks resulted in a slower onset of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and protected the brain from some of the expected damage. (7)

Texas A&M researchers published results in 2007 that using bacopa in a rodent model resulted in lower levels of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. (8)

The bacosides found in bacopa protected rat brains in one study from the complications of aging and onset of dementia. Most interesting about this study was how significantly bacopa protected the subjects’ brains from the classic inflammation that was expected. (9)

One major target of many Alzheimer’s drugs (which are only partially effective, but may still slow the disease progression) is inhibition of acetylcholinesterase. Shorted simply as AChE, this compound begins to degrade within the brain early in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. (10) That’s where AChE inhibitors come into the picture.

Sadly, most pharmaceutical AChE inhibitors have many unpleasant side effects and aren’t easily absorbed by the body. However, there’s early research into the possibility that bacopa may act as a well-absorbed, all-natural AChE inhibitor. In the study, bacopa was effective at stopping the normal progression of AChE and caused no noticeable side effects. (11)

 

3. Anxiety

anxiety

One additional benefit of bacopa in a study I mentioned earlier for elderly people with cognitive impairment was a reduction in anxiety levels. (6) Since memory loss and other issues with aging can be highly anxiety-inducing, this may give some hope to elderly patients struggling to cope.

However, anxiety affects many people of all ages. Natural anxiety relief has been a hot topic of discussion as a whopping 18.1 percent of adults in the US deal with this condition.

A 1998 animal study examined bacopa alongside lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug that’s also used as an antipsychotic medication. They found that the animals observed improved just as much with bacopa as with the drug comparison, but without causing memory loss or motor deficits. (12)

As an aside: those motor deficits are often why patients on antipsychotics (namely, Lorazepam) stop taking their medications. Losing control of your bodily movements can be nearly as debilitating as the conditions that required medicating in the first place.

Indian researchers investigated how bacopa might help subjects with both anxiety and depression. Its anti-anxiety effects were all extremely positive, with the subjects exhibiting less of all related symptoms without the loss of motor function. (13)

 

4. Depression

Another mood disorder that touches many families is depression, or major depressive disorder. Similarly to other mental concerns, depression doesn’t always respond well to the medications developed to treat it. Even in the best circumstances, antidepressants have a laundry list of nasty side effects and withdrawal symptoms. This pushes health care providers and researchers to plumb the boundaries of what other options might be available.

In an animal study, a four-week dose of bacopa resulted in less symptoms of depression across the board. These results were also correlated with reduced inflammation within the brain. (14)

A similar study was conducted in 2002. After only five days, the animals in the study showed far less depressive behavior. In fact, the results were comparable to a common antidepressant. (15)

We’ll talk more about epilepsy in a moment, but another study on bacopa for depression focused on subjects with epilepsy and subsequent depressive behavior. In the study, the depression symptoms were almost completely eliminated after they were given bacopa. (16)

 

5. Epilepsy

Another brain benefit of the Brahmi herb may be a reduction in epileptic seizures. Epilepsy affects one in every 26 people in the United States at some point during their lives, although many children eventually grow out of the disorder. At any given time, about 1.2 percent of people are actively dealing with this condition, about 25% of those being children. (17)

In epilepsy research, it’s important for scientists to consider depression and anxiety as well—about a third of people with epilepsy also have these mood disorders. (18)

As I mentioned, one study in animals found that the anxiety and depression common to epilepsy was slowed when rats were treated with bacopa. (16)

In addition, many other studies have found that, at least in animals, bacopa drastically reduces or eliminates seizure activity in the brain. (19202122)

Since these studies haven’t been reproduced in humans yet, we don’t know if these benefits extend to people. However, if you suffer from epilepsy, you may want to talk to your doctor about incorporating a bacopa supplement.

 

6. Parkinson’s disease

People who develop Parkinson’s disease experience a slow degeneration of control over their bodily movement. This happens because this condition affects the nervous system and causes the death of neurons that produce dopamine over time, resulting in tremors among many other symptoms. (23)

While there has been very little research on bacopa and Parkinson’s, the way that bacopa acts on both neurons and the dopamine system has made it a promising prospect. The lab study linked above suggests that the active compounds in the Bacopa monnieri plant might be potent against the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

 

7. Schizophrenia 

When natural treatments are suggested for schizophrenia, many people find it laughable. After all, the powerful medications we use for this condition barely work, right?

Actually, natural schizophrenia treatments might offer much more hope than previously thought. The ketogenic diet, for example, has shown promise in reducing some schizophrenia symptoms. (242526)

Brahmi, too, might be one way patients who suffer schizophrenic hallucinations and delusions could find relief. Three studies, all in animals, have found that an extract of Bacopa monniera enhances cognition and eliminates some of the neurological damage from schizophrenia. (272829)

Because of the nature of schizophrenia, it’s important to talk to your doctor before making any changes to the medications or supplements you take for the condition. Bacopa research for schizophrenia is limited, at best, but it’s something to consider.

 

8. General Cognition

While it might seem like the only people looking for cognition and memory enhancing supplements have a disease, that’s definitely not true! In general, many people value natural methods to eliminate brain fog and think more clearly.

In healthy adults without any issues like dementia, bacopa extract seemed to improve “higher order cognitive processes that are critically dependent on the input of information from our environment such as learning and memory.” (30)

What does that mean, exactly? Essentially, researchers found that bacopa can help improve thinking and cognitive process that are affected by the information you take in each day.

 

Other Bacopa Health Benefits

1. Diabetes

diabetes diagnosis can feel like a death sentence, but it doesn’t have to. There’s a lot of hope for managing this condition with dietary and lifestyle changes. Natural medicines for diabetes like bacopa might give diabetics another way to naturally manage blood sugar.

In healthy subjects, bacopa doesn’t seem to have any impact on blood sugar. However, there’s a bit of animal research that suggests it does help to lower blood sugar in diabetics. (35)

One reason the bacopa leaf might impact diabetes has to do with the way it inhibits AChE. By managing the way the cholinergic receptors are expressed in the brain, bacopa (along with vitamin D3) might help improve brain health in diabetes. (36)

Before taking any supplements that might lower your blood sugar in diabetes, talk to your doctor first. S/he can help you avoid developing dangerously low blood sugar by keeping an eye on how your medications and supplements could interact.

 

2. Chronic Pain

chronic pain

People with chronic pain have few options for treatment, particularly because non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs aren’t safe to take as often and in the quantities needed to solve the pain. However, bacopa might be one way to manage chronic pain because of not only its ability to reduce pain responses, but also to counteract depression.

As over three quarters of people with chronic pain are also regularly depressed, this is a significant opportunity. (37)

To date, no animal or human trials have been published to determine whether or not bacopa extract truly impacts chronic pain.

 

3. High Blood Pressure

When looking at treatments for high blood pressure (hypertension), researchers often investigate ways to increase nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide (NO) is a major factor in managing blood pressure levels.

In a 2011 animal study, Brahmi helped to release more nitric oxide into the bloodstream, resulting in a reduction in blood pressure. Researchers believe this warrants more research on how bacopa might be able to protect the heart by managing blood pressure. (38)

 

4. Stress

Energy boosters like bacopa are one novel way to deal with stress. We’ve already talked about bacopa supplements for their adaptogenic qualities, improving your ability to handle stressful situations.

There is a significant effect of bacopa on stress levels and the symptoms caused by stress in animal subjects because of the way it impacts dopamine production. (39, 29)

One human trial on bacopa and stress tested “multitasking stress reactivity” in healthy people. Subjects were given tests to determine their physical response to the stress of being required to multitask. Over seven days, both the 320 mg and 640 mg per day dose of bacopa extract seemed effective to improve stress response. (40)

 

Bacopa Side Effects and Dosage

Looking at studies on bacopa can be a bit tricky. This is because, in many cases, studies are too short to note the impact a regular Bacopa monnieri dose has on particular conditions.

Although bacopa can help with anxiety and stress response in the short-term, its other cognitive effects take more time to be noticeable. A study of six weeks or less is far less likely to yield results; but when bacopa is used for 8-12 weeks, the chronic effects of Brahmi are much more pronounced.

That being said, if you decide to try taking a regular bacopa dosage, give it time before deciding it doesn’t work for you.

Bacopa monnieri dosage isn’t well-established, mostly because much of the current research has been done in animals only. In ADHD and memory improvements, between 225-300 mg doses of Bacopa monnieri seemed to be effective.

There’s one minor item on the list of Bacopa monnieri side effects to consider: upset stomach.

While a digestive issue may seem like a lot better than most drugs’ adverse effects, many people take this supplement to deal with other health conditions that make one more symptom feel like the end of the world. To minimize this, think about when to take bacopa.

Take bacopa with food, especially alongside healthy fats (avocado, grass-fed butter, etc.). This helps it absorb more efficiently and may offset the stomach issues.

Because of the way it functions, bacopa pairs well with other adaptogenic and antioxidant herbs, such as curcumin (in turmeric), milk thistle, and ashwagandha.

Want to know where to buy bacopa? It’s available at many online retailers and health food stores. My recommendation would be to ensure you’re getting a bacopa supplement from a trusted retailer with plenty of positive online reviews.

One standardized extract of bacopa you may want to look for is called CDRI 08. CDRI 08 is one of the bacopa extracts that’s commonly used in research, and some supplements available online are made specifically with this extract.

 

Conclusion

Bacopa monnieri is an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine that may help improve brain and overall health without significant side effects. Most notably, bacopa acts on cognitive function by reducing stress, increasing dopamine and serotonin production, reducing oxidative stress, and elongating dendrites between neurons.

Brain benefits of bacopa include treatment of:

  1. ADHD
  2. Memory impairment
  3. Anxiety
  4. Depression
  5. Epilepsy
  6. Parkinson’s disease
  7. Schizophrenia
  8. General cognition

Bacopa may also help with other conditions, like:

  1. Diabetes
  2. Chronic pain
  3. High blood pressure
  4. Stress

Remember to give bacopa at least 8-12 weeks to work, and always take it along with food.

Summary:

  • Bacopa monnieri, or Brahmi, is an Ayurvedic herb used for brain and overall health.
  • The most well-researched benefits of bacopa are for brain health, particularly ADHD and Alzheimer’s.
  • It takes time for bacopa to build up in your body, so give it 8-12 weeks.

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