Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Bacopa Monnieri has been used in Ayurveda for centuries. However, people in the West have been slow to latch on to its merits, and in this post I’ll detail why you should consider supplementing with this herb. We’ll focus on studies in which Bacopa Monnieri has been used in isolation. We won’t look at including Bacopa Monnieri as an adjunct therapy in treating diseases, but I’ll note that the herb may be useful in countering dementia (including Alzheimer’s), depression, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s (1). Let’s begin.
BENEFITS OF BACOPA MONNIERI
To get a sense of what most people can expect when they take this herb, scientists aggregated the results of studies in which adults took Bacopa Monnieri or placebo for at least 12 weeks. Nine studies were included, and Bacopa Monnieri consistently reduced reaction time and the speed at which people connect items in a trail (they were asked to complete the task as quickly as possible) (2).
In another review article, a research team carefully selected well-designed studies on Bacopa Monnieri to compare the magnitudes of its effects to those of two other cognitive enhancers – Panax ginseng (a plant) and Modafinil (a drug) (3). Each of the compounds topped the tables for different outcomes, and Bacopa Monnieri appeared to most positively affect performance in delayed word recall tests, which measure a specific type of verbal memory.
I’ll add that whereas people generally agree that it takes several weeks of repeated use to realize the full benefits of Bacopa Monnieri, the plant probably does have subtle immediate effects too. Specifically, within hours of taking it, this herb appears improve multitasking performance and reduce anxiety during cognitively demanding tasks (4).
I’ll also mention that kids and adolescents reap the advantageous effects of Bacopa Monnieri too. In one article, researchers systematically reviewed all of the literature on this topic to summarize the findings of the best studies. Of the five studies included, the scientists concluded that Bacopa Monnieri improves kids’ language skills, namely their vocabulary, spelling ability, and ability to process sounds and understand words.
Were that not enough, the herb apparently boosts some aspects of memory too, particularly the number of items that youngsters accurately recall in memory tests (5).
These results are really encouraging, even if some of the studies have considerable limitations, such as small participant numbers. But how does Bacopa Monnieri exert these improvements?
HOW DOES BACOPA MONNIERI IMPROVE BRAIN HEALTH AND FUNCTION?
Plants like Bacopa Monnieri often contain numerous chemicals that influence human biology. However, a group of triperpenoid saponins called bacosides appear to underlie many of the benefits of this herb. (Triterpenoids are compounds containing three terpene structures. Saponins are compounds that foam like soap when shaken in solution.) Just know that this is relevant to picking the best Bacopa Monnieri supplements.
Normal metabolic reactions produce free radicals. These radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons in their outer shells that then attack double bonds in other molecules to pinch an electron for themselves, initiating a cascade of damaging reactions. We call this oxidative stress, and our cells generally cope with it fine by way of antioxidant defenses. However, excessive oxidative stress instigates degeneration and hence contributes to aging and disease. Studies of rodents have shown that Bacosides bolster levels of antioxidants in the brain, including catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione – the primary antioxidant in our cells (6). Furthermore, Bacopa Monnieri contains some other antioxidants too. As a result, neurons are protected from insults incited by things like toxic levels of minerals and cigarette smoke. This is key, for such damage summates and hence worsens brain function.
Communication between brain cells
Neurons communicate with each other by sending chemical signals (neurotransmitters) from the terminals of one neuron across junctions (synapses) to the dendrites of a receiving neuron. Think of the transmitter as sounds and the dendrites as ears. Studies of rats have shown that long-term Bacopa Monnieri supplementation stimulates the branching of dendrites in brain regions important to engraining memories (7).
Neuromodulation and adaptation to stress
Bacopa Monnieri appears to affect levels of several neuromodulators – chemical messengers that neurons release to signal to groups of other neurons (as well as other cells with certain receptors). Specifically, Bacopa Monnieri may activate choline acetyltransferase (an enzyme involved in acetylcholine synthesis) and inhibit acetylcholinesterase (an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine) (1). Both of these actions raise brain levels of acetylcholine, a chemical with important roles in things like attention and memory.
Bacopa Monnieri seems to increase brain synthesis of serotonin too, while also improving serotonin transport. Like all neuromodulators, serotonin has a diversity of context-dependent actions on many processes, but it’s perhaps best known for its roles in mood regulation. Many antidepressants increase serotonin availability in synapses. Interestingly, some antidepressants also increase dopamine availability in synapses. Dopamine is a neuromodulator heralded for its effects on regulation of motivation and reward. Like serotonin, levels of dopamine tend to decline with age, and Bacopa Monnieri may offset this by keeping dopaminergic neurons alive (1).
Although not always thought as one, these effects on neuromodulation show that Bacopa Monnieri is an adaptogen. As the name implies, adaptogens enhance how we adapt to stressors by increasing resistance to these insults (technically this is in a nonspecific way). A study of humans that I mentioned earlier is another example of adaptogenic activity, for after taking Bacopa Monnieri participants had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol during a cognitive task (4).
Other mechanisms: reducing β-amyloid accumulation and enhancing blood flow
You may have heard of β-amyloid in the context of Alzheimer’s disease. β-amyloid is the main constituent of the plaques that engulf the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Although some β-amyloid is not always a bad thing, people are avidly seeking interventions to reduce β-amyloid accumulation, for certain forms of it may be causative in Alzheimer’s. It is therefore exciting that Bacopa Monnieri seems to inhibit the formation and aggregation of β-amyloid in mice (8).
Finally, it’s important to understand that reductions in brain blood flow deprive brain cells of oxygen and nutrients while also accelerating the buildup of metabolic waste. Not good. Bacopa Monnieri enhances brain blood flow, perhaps by stimulating release of nitric oxide from blood vessel walls (9).
Sure, the studies that have looked at mechanisms have used other animals, so we can’t simply extrapolate that we will