Updated: Dec 2, 2020
There's a lesser known herb that grows in the wetlands across southeast Asia, and India, that has been used for many years for it's calming and focusing benefits. Bacopa monierri, also known as brahmi or the water hyssop, is commonly used in Ayurvedic herbal formulations to improve memory, intelligence, and appears to provide overall cognitive benefits. Apart from the medicinal side of things, bacopa also has a long history in Hindu religious and social practices as well (1). Even with a somewhat mystical past there's growing scientific evidence that makes bacopa a promising herbal remedy, especially in combination with other proven herbs and nutrients.
How does bacopa work?
The roots and leaves of the bacopa plant are full of bioactive compounds called saponin bacosides and bacopasaponins (2-4). There are other bioactives such as betulinic acid, wogonin and oroxindin in the stem and flowering portions of the plant but these are less studied and the overall benefits bacopa are less attributed to these parts (5). Future research may show the entire plant plays just as important of a role as the bacosides from the roots and leaves.
Studies have shown the bacosides have a broad range of antioxidant activities that results in general cellular protection and prevent cell death (6), and more specific protection in the liver and nervous system (7). The benefits to the nerves appear to be where most of the cognitive, calming and focusing effects come from. Because of these benefits bacopa has been used for:
-Anxiety and Depression
-Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
-Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Some have even used bacopa for low back pain, hoarseness, mental illness, epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, sexual dysfunction, and as a general "nerve tonic" or "adaptogen" for fighting stress, as a "cardiotonic", and as a diuretic. Most of the application falls with in the cognitive categories (ADHD, memory and stress/anxiety).
How does bacopa benefit anxiety?
Bacopa falls into a category of herbs called "adaptogens" which many use for fighting stress. In animal studies, bacopa has been shown to normalize cortisol and neurotransmitters (dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin) levels in models of stress (8). Population research has found that taking 30 mL of bacopa syrup in two divided doses daily for 4 weeks might reduce nervousness, palpitations, insomnia, headache, lack of concentration, fatigue, anorexia, tremors, dyspepsia/flatulence, and irritability in patients with anxiety compared to baseline (9).
How does bacopa benefit the brain?
Bacopa has gained a lot of interest for for enhancing learning and memory. Growing evidence shows that bacosides A and B, and bacopa extract may facilitate learning ability, memory, and cognitive performance (10). These benefits seem to be facilitated by bacopa's ability to modify acetylcholine release (brain neurotransmitter), choline acetylase (enzyme that makes acetylcholine) activity, and nerve receptors where acetylcholine can bind and trigger a response (11). Due to these effects mentioned and it's neuroprotective effects seen in cell studies scientists are also exploring it's use in Alzheimer's disease, especially since memory in animals has been show to improve with its use.
What studies show bacopa works memory and focus?
Multiple studies have shown that bacopa extracts at 300-450 mg daily for 12 weeks improved measures of verbal learning, memory, and information processing in healthy men and women (12). Another clinical trial showed that 300 mg daily for 12 weeks also significantly improves verbal learning, memory, and retention in healthy adults over 55 (8). Further preliminary clinical studies show that in children aged 6-8 years, taking one teaspoon of bacopa extract three times daily for 3 months improved visual motor function and immediate memory compared to groups that didn't receive the bacopa extract (14). The research on bacopa continues to grow with learning, memory and focus all being major areas of focus.
In the real world I've seen multiple patients take a product with bacopa and they reported reduced anxiety, better sleep and the ability to focus under pressure within a few days. The best products are those that actually have standardized extracts used in clinical studies with a given amount of bacosides shown on the label. Here's a few product recommendations:
1. Stough C, Singh H, Zangara A. Mechanisms, efficacy, and safety of Bacopa monnieri (bacopa) for cognitive and brain enhancement. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2015;2015:717605.
2. Samiulla DS, Prashanth D, Amit A. Mast cell stabilising activity of Bacopa monnieri. Fitoterapia 2001;72:284-5.
3. Garai, S., Mahato, S. B., Ohtani, K., and Yamasaki, K. Dammarane-type triterpenoid saponins from Bacopa monniera. Phytochemistry 1996;42(3):815-820. 4. Garai, S., Mahato, S. B., Ohtani, K., and Yamasaki, K. Bacopasaponin D--a pseudojujubogenin glycoside from Bacopa monniera. Phytochemistry 1996;43(2):447-449.
5. Chaudhuri, P. K., Srivastava, R., Kumar, S., and Kumar, S. Phytotoxic and antimicrobial constituents of Bacopa monnieri and Holmskioldia sanguinea. Phytother.Res. 2004;18(2):114-117.
6. Singh M, Murthy V, Ramassamy C. Modulation of hydrogen peroxide and acrolein-induced oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunctions and redox regulated pathways by the Bacopa monniera extract: potential implication in Alzheimer's disease. J Alzheimers Dis 2010;21:229-47.
7. Uabundit N, Wattanathorn J, Mucimapura S, Ingkaninan K. Cognitive enhancement and neuroprotective effects of Bacopa monnieri in Alzheimer's disease model. J Ethnopharmacol 2010;127:26-31.
8. Morgan A, Stevens J. Does Bacopa monnieri improve memory performance in older persons? Results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. J Altern Complement Med 2010;16:753-9.
9. Singh, R. H. and Singh, L. Studies on the Anti-Anxiety Effect of the Medhya Rasayana Drug, Brahmi (Bacopa monniera Wettst.) - Part I. Journal of Research in Ayurveda and Siddha 1980;1(1):133-148.
10. Singh, H. K. and Dhawan, B. N. Effect of Bacopa monniera Linn. (brahmi) extract on avoidance responses in rat. J Ethnopharmacol. 1982;5(2):205-214.
11. Kishore, K. and Singh, M. Effect of bacosides, alcoholic extract of Bacopa monniera Linn. (brahmi), on experimental amnesia in mice. Indian J Exp.Biol 2005;43(7):640-645.
12. Roodenrys, S., Booth, D., Bulzomi, S., Phipps, A., Micallef, C., and Smoker, J. Chronic effects of Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) on human memory. Neuropsychopharmacology 2002;27(2):279-281.
13. Sharma, R, Chaturvedi, C, and Tewari, PV. Efficacy of Bacopa monniera in revitalizing intellectual functions in children. J Res Edu Ind Med 1987;1-12.