WTF is Bacopa?! As told by Herbalist JD Vines
Is Bacopa the new smart pill? The question begs a reality check. There isn’t anything new about Bacopa. Indians have been consuming this remarkable plant for over three thousand years. Bacopa is an important component of India’s traditional medical system, Ayurveda.
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And those Buddy boosts read like a ‘who’s who’ of the world’s top nutritional ingredients. There are so many great choices, you might miss bacopa. Maybe you haven’t heard of bacopa. Well, we’re going to fix that right here. Let’s start with the good stuff; what it will do for you.
The Impressive Health Benefits of Bacopa
The National Institutes of Health database includes over 900 references to bacopa. Over 100 of those studies are focused specifically on bacopa. A review of the conclusions of these studies, combined with the traditional findings of tens of thousands of Ayurvedic case histories, confirms the following consensus of health uses and benefits:
1. Brain (cognitive) enhancement – Animal studies have shown improved spatial learning and increased ability to retain information. Dendrites, components of nerve cells closely linked to learning and memory, showed increased length and branching. Human studies have shown improved speed of processing information, learning rate, and memory compared to placebo. This includes targeted studies on adults, 60 years and older.
2. Anti-inflammatory – Science has now linked inflammation to nearly every acute and chronic illness. Bacopa appears to suppress the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines – molecules that trigger the inflammatory immune response. In vitro studies have shown that it inhibits certain enzymes that play key roles in inflammation and pain. Bacopa has been shown to be comparable in effectiveness to Diclofenac and Indomethacin, two common anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals.
3. Antioxidant – Bacopa contains bacosides, saponins which have been shown to neutralize free radicals and prevent fat molecules from reacting with free radicals. The damage caused by free radicals in the brain has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.
4. Adaptogen (anti-stress) – Two 12-week human studies found that bacopa significantly reduced anxiety and depression compared to placebo. Another study showed a lowering of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.
5. Lower and regulate blood pressure – In one animal study, bacopa was shown to release nitric oxide, and it lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels. Another animal study showed bacopa to lower blood pressure in rats with elevated levels, but it had no effect on rats that had normal levels to begin with.
6. Anti-cancer – Test-tube studies have shown bacosides to have both anti-tumor properties and anti-cancer properties against breast and colon cancer cells. Another live animal study showed similar results.
Nootropics and Smart Drugs
Nootropics are natural and synthetic substances that can be used to improve cognitive function in healthy people. They are used primarily to boost memory, concentration, creativity, intelligence, and motivation.
Caffeine, found in coffee, cocoa, tea, and guarana, increases alertness, but has been shown to decrease reaction time. L-Theanine and Creatine are amino acids which have been shown to have some cognitive benefits, including short-term memory. Rhodiola rosea, panax ginseng, and ginkgo biloba are botanicals that have also been shown to have some limited cognitive benefits.
A class of nootropic pharmaceuticals includes Noopept, Piracetam, Phenotropil, Modafinil, Adderall, and Ritalin. While these drugs have been shown to have some nootropic effects, they are all dangerous, with a wide array of serious side effects, including psychosis, seizures, high blood pressure, hallucinations, insomnia, headache, loss of appetite, low sex drive, and risk of abuse.
Compared to the natural alternatives, bacopa stands out with the broadest wealth of scientifically-substantiated cognitive benefits.
Bacopa’s History and Tradition
Ayurveda literally means, “The Knowledge of Long Life”. The Ayurvedic system was developed both as a practical system to support health and well-being through diet, and as a medical system, utilizing plant medicines to help cure and prevent illness. Longevity is one of the primary objectives of Ayurveda.
Bacopa was initially described around the 6th century C.E. in texts such as the Charaka Samhita, Athar-Ved, and Susrutu Samhita as a medhya rasayana–class herb taken to sharpen intellect and attenuate mental deficits. The herb was allegedly used by ancient Vedic scholars to memorize lengthy sacred hymns and scriptures.
The ancient texts of Ayurveda were originally written by the “rishis”, or sages, almost 2500 years ago, and were incorporated into the Vedas, the bedrock of Hindu culture and philosophy. Over the centuries, Indian healers documented the benefits of nature’s bounty of foods and herbs, and Ayurveda developed into a comprehensive system of health and healing. Optimal physical well-being was viewed as an essential component on the path to spiritual awakening and the realization of one’s divine potential.
“If one way is better than another, you may be sure it is nature’s way.” - Aristotle
Over the millennia, Ayurvedic healers did not have the benefit of science and technology to establish medical knowledge. They utilized trial and error, observation and documentation, to catalog and formulate their system. We sometimes wrongly think we’re smarter today than our ancestors. We have the internet, after all, and we can dial up knowledge with the click of a mouse.
Ancient peoples had to work for their knowledge. Archeologists and scientists, who have studied some of the edifices built by ancient peoples, are baffled by what they were able to achieve. Even with our modern technologies and construction equipment, today’s builders can’t duplicate some of it. Ancient peoples were highly intelligent and used the resources they had at their disposal to great advantage. The Ayurvedic system is clear evidence of their ability to discern and catalog knowledge in the healing arts.
Today, we have the combined benefit of both science and Ayurveda. We have a time-honored tradition, founded on millions of case observations, plus we have the benefit of modern scientific disciplines and methods to verify utility, safety, and efficacy.
Bacopa monnieri is sometimes referred to as ‘waterhyssop’ or ‘moneywort’, and is often confused with another therapeutic herb, gotu kola, since Indians often refer to both plants as ‘brahmi’. The two plants are actually related somewhat, botanically, and they share some of the same properties. But bacopa’s unequivocal ability to boost human cognitive function dwarf’s it’s botanical cousin by comparison.
“These results show that Bacopa treatment significantly improved discrimination learning, memory, and cognitive function in the subjects.”
Bacopa is considered an ‘adaptogen’, meaning that its use facilitates one’s ability to adapt to every-day stresses and the ups and downs of human life. In the West, we might refer to bacopa as a ‘tonic’, meaning that it affords a broad spectrum of health and nutritional benefits. In more technical terms, we would say that an adaptogen promotes the stabilization of physiological processes and the homeostasis of physiological systems.
Bacopa is also classified as a ‘nootropic’ herb for its ability to help repair damaged neurons and improve cognitive function.
The Science Behind Bacopa
There is a wealth of scientific data that supports bacopa’s ability to boost brain function. It has been shown to enable synaptogenesis, the formation of synapses between neurons. It also increases serotonin levels in the hippocampus. It has strong antioxidant properties that protect memory function. It also inhibits various neurotoxins. It has been shown to stimulate the production of important enzymes that help us deal with stress. The bacosides in bacopa also help to protect the synaptic functioning of nerve cells.
Bacopa has also been shown to have significant synergistic effect when combined with a number of nutraceuticals, including green tea, ashwagandha, milk thistle, and curcumin.
The wealth of scientific findings includes the following studies from the National Institutes of Health database:
1. “The effect of Bacopa monnieri on gene expression levels in SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells”.
“Pathway analysis using the Ingenuity platform suggested that Bacopa may protect against brain damage and improve brain development.”
“Traditional claims have recently been supported by several animal and clinical studies. Animals treated with Bacopa showed better acquisition and improved retention in learning tasks.”
“Similarly, randomized control trials also demonstrated that administration of bacopa over 12 weeks to healthy subjects resulted in improvements in the subjects’ information processing speed, free recall, verbal memory, and learning. Treatment also resulted in a decrease of anxiety, which improved learning.”
2. “Neuropharmacological Review of the Nootropic Herb Bacopa monnieri”
Numerous animal and in vitro studies have been conducted, with many evidencing potential medicinal properties. Several randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have substantiated Bacopa’s nootropic utility in humans. There is also evidence for potential attenuation of dementia, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy.
“Bacopa demonstrates immense potential in the amelioration of cognitive disorders, as well as prophylactic reduction of oxidative damage, neurotransmitter modulation, and cognitive enhancement in healthy people. The social implications of cognition-enhancing drugs are promising but must be appropriately tempered with ethical consideration as researchers enter the brave new world of neural enhancement.”
3. “The Ayurvedic plant Bacopa monnieri inhibits inflammatory pathways in the brain”
The current study examines the ability of Bacopa to inhibit the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines from microglial cells, the immune cells of the brain that participate in inflammation in the Central Nervous System.
“Bacopa inhibits the release of inflammatory cytokines from microglial cells and inhibits enzymes associated with inflammation in the brain. Thus, Bacopa can limit inflammation in the Central Nervous System, and offers a promising source of novel therapeutics for the treatment of many Central Nervous System disorders.”
Additional studies conducted around the world have resulted in similar outcomes.
1. A controlled study at Swinburne University in Australia concluded that Bacopa consistently improved higher order cognitive processes, including;
- Improved speed of visual information processing
- Learning rates
- Memory consolidation
- Anxiety reduction
2. A six-month study of 48 elderly subjects at Helfgott Research Institute in Portland Oregon, showed significant benefits over placebo in;
- Memory concentration testing
- Anti-depressant scores
- Anxiety scores
- Decreased heart rate
- Cognitive performance in older, aging people
3. Another Swinburne University study showed bacopa out-performing Panax Ginseng and the nootropic drug, Modafinil as a cognitive performance enhancer. Bacopa was superior in the delayed word recall test, which is a task where a subject memorizes a sequence of words, then is distracted with an unrelated task. Then after some time, he comes back to the sequence of words and tries to recall them again. This test suggests bacopa’s ability to assist in multi-tasking.
4. A study at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, on 76 healthy adults, showed that bacopa improved the long-term memory and retention compared to placebo. This suggests the benefits of bacopa in tasks like language-learning.
The Role of Plant-Based Medicines in the Modern World
The World Health Organization defines Herbal Medicine as a “system that includes herbs, herbal preparations, herbal materials, and finished herbal products that contain plant material as an active ingredient”.
Traditional Medicine, also known as indigenous or folk medicine, has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years. While there are many traditional systems in the world, the three dominant systems are “Traditional Chinese Medicine”, the “Unani Medicine” of Arab cultures, and “Ayurveda”, originating out of India.
In the U.S., Europe, and other developed societies, the terms “complementary medicine” and “alternative medicine” are used interchangeably with “traditional medicine”, when describing systems that not a part of the dominant, allopathic health care system. But in Asia, these traditional systems are the dominant health care systems and it is the allopathic medicines; pharmaceuticals, that play the role of “complementary medicine”.
Herbal medicines have been long-established and widely acknowledged for their safety and efficacy by cultures and national health authorities throughout the world. According to WHO, 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care needs. Today, they are commanding increased attention due to the application of scientific inquiry, which has validated a wealth of nutraceutical potential.
Bacopa’s Side Effects and Contraindications
Bacopa has been widely studied with some studies involving high dosages taken over long periods of three months, six months, and longer. It is generally considered safe. The only significant side effects reported have been mild stomach upset, cramping, and nausea. Bacopa may also diminish sperm potency. Bacopa may interact unfavorably with certain medications, including the pain medication, amitriptyline.
Written by JD Vines, Herbalist