A Comprehensive Guide to Reducing Fatigue and Improving Brain Function with Nutrition, Herbs and Lifestyle
Fairly common side effects of many medical treatments include fatigue and decreased cognitive function including memory loss and brain fog. This is particularly true for those undergoing hormone therapy (Androgen Deprivation Therapy) for prostate cancer, and those undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Diminished brain function is the hallmark of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, MS and others, for which no curative or disease reversing medications are yet available. Natural methods can have a significant impact, however, and in this article, I provide a guide to reducing fatigue, improving brain function and memory through nutrition, herbs and lifestyle.
The human brain serves as the primary control center for your body. It’s the original portable computer: weighing in at just a few pounds (a small percentage of your total body weight), it contains 100,000 miles of blood vessels and 1 quadrillion neurons. The brain consumes 25 percent of our body’s oxygen and nutrients, and 70 percent of its glucose - the brain’s preferred fuel source. Our brain is what makes us human and defines our identity. Alongside all the complex calculations and overview of all body functions, our brain is an electric neural network rich with memories, emotions, dreams, and desires. It controls how you see the world, taste your food, hear music, smell aromas, and absorb the wonders of the world around you.
It’s easy to take our brain for granted, until it starts to falter: flighty attention, difficulty remembering names and where you left the keys, or the inability to perform cognitive tasks for work and play. Our neural network begins to degrade into a jumble of tangles that interfere with data transmission. Problems with memory and cognition come in many forms and for many reasons, from side effects of medical procedures, chronic or acute stress, to brain trauma or aging. As we age, the health and functioning of our brain becomes a greater priority, especially if dementia or Alzheimer’s runs in the family. But whether you’re 20 or 90, it’s never too early or too late to start taking simple steps to improve your brain function.
Neurons and neurotransmitters
Memory and cognition are functions of the brains neural network, the web of neurons (nerve cells) that make up the brain and innervate the body. Neural signals fly through our brain and body via electrical impulses that jump across gaps (synapses) between one neuron and another. They’re lightning fast - one nerve impulse can travel at a rate of up to 100 yards a second.
As the name would imply, neurotransmitters are largely responsible for facilitating brain function by transmitting these electrical impulses across the neural synapses. When their job is done, enzymes (their names often end in -ase) or neurotransmitter transporters (a type of protein) break down the neurotransmitters. Reuptake inhibitors - including the well-known antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs) - inhibit the breakdown of specific neurotransmitters so that more of those neurotransmitters will be present in the body.
Neurotransmitters do a wide range of things, and an excess or deficiency of them plays a role in many different diseases. Acetylcholine (ACh) is a major transmitter for basic body functions, including contraction and control of muscles and involuntary actions. Low ACh levels are associated with Alzheimer’s, and many herbs in the mint-family for example (sage, rosemary, lemon balm, mint) boost ACh levels by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks it down, and in the process improve brain function. Other cognition- and mood-related neurotransmitters include adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine, GABA, serotonin, glutamate, and endorphins. In this article, we’ll focus on the neurotransmitters that contribute to cognition and memory, and the things that you can do to naturally improve brain function and protect these critical areas of the brain.
The Foundations of good Health: Nutrition & Lifestyle
Throughout this website we talk about diet and lifestyle as the foundations of health, vitality, and well-being, and these topics come up repeatedly in terms of their importance for each of the body’s major systems. Well, here they are again. These factors play a major role in the overall health and functioning of the brain, and in particular memory and cognition. There are, of course, herbs, remedies, and pharmaceuticals you can take that combat oxidation, enhance circulation, reduce inflammation, and boost mood, all of which will improve brain function and support good memory and cognition, but without a healthy diet, lifestyle, and mind, these remedies will tend to address symptoms, not the core problems. So begin your journey toward a better-functioning brain here, with the following guidelines.
Remember that the food you eat provides your body with the raw materials it needs to make cell and nerve linings, neurotransmitters, enzymes, fuel, and more. Therefore, what you eat plays a significant role in improving brain function. A poor diet gums up the works, while a healthy diet gives your brain and nervous system exactly what they need to thrive.
High-Quality Fats (see related article - Omega-3s and Omega-6s: The Basics)
About 60 percent of our brain is made of fat, and the myelin sheath that protects nerve endings is also primarily fat. Additionally, the lining of all our cells includes fatty acids (lipids).
The types of fat available for use by the body to construct and cushion all of this come primarily from your diet, and the quality of the fat matters - a lot! Omega-3 and monounsaturated fat-rich food are the most important for brain health. These include cold-water wild fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. A diet rich in these fats is associated with a 40 percent reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, better brain volume, improved performance on memory and reasoning tests, and reduced levels of beta-amyloid plaque (which interferes with nerves and brain function). Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with reduced brain function and shrinkage, memory loss, declines in cognitive function, and a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, trout) are the most important source of omega-3s. Studies show that in parts of the world with the greatest fish consumption, people have better moods and fewer cognition issues. Plant sources of omega-3’s include flax, hemp, and chia seeds (and the oils made from them), walnuts, and pasture-raised eggs - though the omega-3’s from these are less effective compared to fish sources.
Omega-3 supplements can serve as backup and work best when taken daily, 1.5 to 3 grams of total EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the most efficiently utilized forms of omega-3s. Most omega-3 supplements are some form of fish oil. Get a freshly made product from a quality manufacturer and store it in the fridge. (see related article - Fish Oil)
“Bad fats” increase inflammation and lead to damage to the brain. So fried foods, packaged foods, and trans fats should be kept to a minimum. Saturated fats (animal products, coconut oil, palm oil) and polyunsaturated fats (soy, corn, and most vegetable oils) have positive and negative effects on brain function, so enjoy them in moderation.
Neurotransmitters (among many things in your body) are made with amino acids, the building blocks or protein. You don’t necessarily need mega doses of protein, just a steady, adequate amount of complete protein to improve brain function and memory. Aim for 0.8 gram of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight, which comes to 60 grams daily for a 150-pound person. Animal products contain complete protein, but it may be even better to get it by combining sources of vegetarian proteins such as beans and grains, nuts and seeds - see related article Complete Proteins that Aren’t Meat. Eggs are an amazing brain food - besides offering easily digested complete protein, they contain high omega-3s (if raised on a pasture or given omega-rich feed), choline in the yolks (which helps you make acetylcholine), and vitamin D.
Even though glucose is the brain’s primary fuel, most of us eat too much sugar, which increases blood sugar levels, aggravates inflammation, and can worsen mood and brain health. Stick to low-glycemic foods and “slow burn” carbs from whole foods to optimize brain function and memory. See related articles The Sugar & Cancer Connection & This is Your Body on 'Junk Food
Pesticide and herbicide residues are associated not just with poor memory and cognition but also with low acetylcholine levels, Alzheimer’s disease, reduced brain processing speed, and lower IQ. They pose the greatest risk for children and the elderly.
Key in on organic grains, dairy, and meat, and avoid the “dirty dozen” fruits and veggies to improve brain function and overall brain health (identified by the Environmental Working Group as the foods with the highest levels of pesticide and herbicide residues; see the EWG website for rankings).
Found in berries, veggies, beans, herbs, and spices - especially those with a bright color or flavorful aromatics - these compounds fight oxidative damage that can worsen brain function.
Garlic, onions, hot peppers, and other pungent, spicy foods and herbs improve blood flow throughout the body, including the brain.
When you exercise your body, you exercise your brain. No matter what your age or mental capacity, getting your body moving improves your brain function and adds years to your life span. Exercise stimulates your brain to produce more neurons, provides a positive challenge, and protects your neurons from damage.
Going from couch potato to cardio king increases brain volume and nervous system well-being in just 6 months. Exercise also balances neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine that play a role in mood as well as overall function. Numerous studies find a correlation between activity level and healthy brain function in older adults.
Exercise helps your brain produce more brain-derived neurotoxin factor (BDNF), which is like fertilizer for your brain. BDNF boosts structural growth, creates new neurons, improves signal strength, and prevents damage, all of which can help with day-to-day brain function, improve memory and cognition and reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. The more you change up your fitness routine, learn something new, or introduce more complicated exercises, the better the results. Exercise is essential for a healthy brain (and body!), but here’s another axiom to keep in mind: Use it or lose it. Using your brain - challenging it, testing it, learning with it - has been shown to prevent losses in memory and cognition. There are many, many ways to keep your brain actively engaged:
Learn a new language
Play an instrument
Take up an art or craft
Spend time in nature
Spend time with animals
Do crosswords, games, puzzles—mix it up!
Brain Boosting Herbs
Mint-Family Memory Tonics
Several common mint-family garden herbs help keep your brain function young and improve memory and cognition. They notably inhibit acetylcholinesterase (AChE) - an important component in aging and Alzheimer’s - and they also have circulation-enhancing, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, mood-boosting properties. Work them into your daily routine as tea, tincture, or food.
Lemon balm. Best known for its anti-anxiety and uplifting properties, lemon balm also improves the ability of acetylcholine (ACh) to do its job. In one study, lemon balm improved cognitive performance and lengthened attention span. Improvements were seen in as little as one dose in 1 hour! And the higher the dose, the better the response. Use the fresh or recently dried herb for tea, or take a tincture. It blends well with holy basil, skullcap, bacopa, and milky oat seed, especially for improving attention while decreasing hyperactivity in children and adults.
Rosemary. In “seasoning” doses of around 750 mg, rosemary has been shown to improve memory recall speed in elderly patients. Simply inhaling the aroma of the herb or essential oil perks up the senses and significantly improves memory. High doses (around 6,000 mg) are not recommended, however, as it may dampen memory.
Spearmint. Spearmint extract was shown in one study to boost memory, brain function and scores in cognitive tests designed to measure reasoning, attention, and planning, with some benefit seen within just 1 day. Attention and concentration scores more than doubled after 30 days, and reasoning scores improved dramatically, too.
Peppermint. Peppermint essential oil, as aromatherapy, has been shown to improve many aspects of alertness and memory, including recall and reaction time.
Nootropics are “smart herbs” (or drugs) that improve memory, brain function, and intelligence. As brain tonics, these remedies help maintain and improve memory and cognitive ability while improving levels and function of neurotransmitters. Many herbs work as nootropics, in particular bacopa, gotu kola, and holy basil, as well as rosemary, lavender, ginkgo, rhodiola, and, from the fungal world, reishi, lion’s mane, and cordyceps.
Herbs to Improve Circulation, Reduce Oxidation & Inflammation
Our brain requires voluminous blood flow to function properly. Blood delivers essential nutrients, including oxygen and glucose; shuffles out waste; and transports hormones. Tiny blood vessels network throughout our brain, so micro-circulation and the health and strength of those capillaries is crucial. Herbal cardiovascular tonics, therefore, play a major role in preserving brain health.
Likewise, oxidation and inflammation gum up the works, inhibiting blood flow and creating roadblocks in your neural roadways. Some damage may become obvious immediately, but long-term signs - including Alzheimer’s and dementia - take decades to accumulate and are revealed only in your elder years, when it is more difficult to reverse the pattern. Diet, stress, sleep, and exercise have the most profound effects on inflammation and oxidation in your body; however, several brain herbs - like the nootropic gotu kola and ginkgo, described below, may provide benefit.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
This herb has an impressive history of use in India. It has been revered as a memory and brain tonic for at least 2,500 years. Sanskrit texts claim that gotu kola juice will improve memory and intellect in just 1 week, and with long-term use, photographic memory and longer life span. Studies appear to support gotu kola’s ability to improve mood and cognitive brain function while decreasing anxiety in the elderly, and it also improves circulation and blood vessel integrity, as well as the body’s ability to use glucose (the primary brain fuel) for energy when blood sugar levels are low. Gotu kola also acts as a calm-energy adaptogen to relieve stress. It decreases anxiety without making one sleepy. It supports the health of connective tissues and the repair of tissue damage.
Preparation: Tea, tincture, capsule, juiced, powdered in smoothies, or as food. The leaves have a peppery flavor that easily blends with other herbs. Gotu kola and bacopa both go by the name brahmi, so when you’re buying, check the Latin name to ensure you have the right herb.
Cautions and Considerations: Generally safe for all ages, but it shouldn’t be used during pregnancy or nursing without supervision, may thin blood, and interacts with a few medications.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Ginkgo is perhaps the most well known herb for improving memory, with a particular affinity for the elderly and onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Traditional Chinese medicine has relied on ginkgo seeds for thousands of years, but the use of ginkgo leaves for memory is a newer invention of European phytopharmacologists. Ginkgo has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and circulatory effects, boosting micro-circulation to the brain. It decreases platelet aggregation (blood cell clumping); improves the way your brain uses glucose, oxygen, and ATP for energy; prevents strokes; and delays or improves the early stages of senile dementia. Though the research is mixed, it’s worth considering in the early onset of dementia and generally quite safe when used as a standardized extract.
Preparation: The standardized extract in capsules or tinctures are best; following the dosage instructions on the product label.
Cautions and Considerations: It may interact with some medications, thin the blood, and increase bleeding. The crude leaves contain mild toxins that are removed during standardization. You may experience a dull frontal headache, but this typically passes with extended use.
Other Brain Herbs and Tonics to Consider
Turmeric, abundant in Indian and Okinawan diets, contributes to the incredibly low incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia in those regions. In addition to supporting brain health with its potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and circulation-enhancing properties, this bright yellow spice also helps keep beta-amyloid plaques from forming in the cerebral cortex. Turmeric has many other benefits, including liver protection, detoxification, improved digestion, antidepressant effects, anti-cancer activity and pain relief.
Berries, and especially blueberries, may perhaps be one of our most delicious brain foods. Several research studies have demonstrated blueberries’ ability to reverse age-related mental decline, reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and enhance cognition and improve memory, including word recall and associate learning. The potent antioxidant and blood-sugar-balancing effects of the berries surely help, and other berries offer similar benefits.
Green tea, well known for its antioxidant content, has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment in the elderly. For healthy adults, green tea improves brain function, activity and working memory and scores on cognitive tasks. Researchers suspect that green tea improves the “effective connectivity,” or how well one area of the brain can connect with and influence another. Japanese researchers testing elderly patients with mild to severe dementia found that those who supplemented with green tea extract (equivalent to 2 to 4 cups of tea daily) for 3 months had improved dementia assessment scores and short-term memory. Green tea also has many other benefits, including improved mood, increased energy, decreased inflammation, weight loss and better metabolism, and reduced blood sugar.
All the brain herbs discussed so far are excellent for promoting brain health, but any herb that offers circulation support and anti-inflammatory effects will, as a good side effect also promote healthy brain function. With that in mind, consider adding herbs such as hawthorn, garlic, ginger, black pepper, cacao, and cayenne - in fact, most culinary herbs and spice - to your blends and daily diet.
Herbs For Reducing Stress and Fatigue
Chronic and acute stress degrade your memory, especially if sleep deprivation enters the mix. So it’s not surprising that most of our stress-relieving adaptogens do double-duty as brain function tonics.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
This plant shares the name brahmi with gotu kola. Bacopa improves memory and focus, slows the progression of Alzheimer’s, and promotes recovery from brain trauma. Though it has a long history of use, research studies have yielded only moderately enthusiastic results. It appears to work best at improving retention of new information, regardless of age or mental capacity. Bacopa is known for its ability to calm without sedating. It blends well with gotu kola, holy basil, lemon balm, ashwagandha, and milky oat seed. It works best for improving brain function when taken regularly for months at a time.
Bacopa is also used as a nervine and adaptogen for anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity (including attention deficit hyperactivity in children and adults).
Preparation: Tincture or capsule. Try it in tea blends, but it can get bitter. Some companies sell both bacopa and gotu kola as brahmi, so check the Latin name to know which you’re buying.
Cautions and Considerations: No major known issues. It’s even used for children. If it upsets your stomach, take it with food.
Other Stress-Relieving Brain Tonics
Other anti-stress herbs that improve brain function include gotu kola, lemon balm, holy basil, ashwagandha, reishi and rhodiola. In contrast to the calm-energy effects of bacopa, rhodiola provides a more energetic physical and mental energy boost, and it works quickly. It seems to protect and may help regenerate nerves. The herb also protects against cognitive deficits, oxidative stress, and inflammation, among other nerve and brain benefits. In highly stressed women, it has been shown to improve attention, speed, and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks. Rhodiola for may be especially helpful with menopausal or post-chemotherapy brain fog. Rhodiola also improves ATP synthesis, which boosts energy on a cellular level, and it increases stamina while decreasing fatigue.
Other stimulating adaptogens that support the brain and memory include ginseng, eleuthero, cordyceps, jiaogulan, and codonopsis.
Repairing Brain Damage & Activating Neural Regeneration
The following brain herbs may also help your brain heal and restore memory and cognitive function.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
This mushroom helps nerve cells regenerate, something generally considered impossible. Preliminary yet impressive research suggests that it contains nerve growth factors that help stimulate nerve growth, heal nerve damage, improve brain function and cognition, and fight dementia. In a small study, 30 older Japanese men and women who took 3 grams of powdered lion’s mane (in capsules, divided up throughout the day) performed significantly better on cognitive tests at 2, 3 and 4 months compared to the placebo group. Unfortunately, the benefits diminished once the treatment ended, so one needs to continue taking it, at least in the face of dementia. Clinically, herbalists are seeing good results with lion’s mane tinctures and capsules for clients with disease or trauma-related nerve damage.
Additional Benefits: Although lion’s mane and its Hericium relatives have become recently famous for their nerve- and cognition-enhancing effects, these bright white, tender mushrooms are primarily known as gourmet edibles. When sautéed in butter, they offer a flavor and texture akin to lobster or crabmeat. In traditional Chinese medicine, lion’s mane is used for healing digestion and ulcers as well as a nerve and general tonic.
Preparation: Studies used 3 grams powdered, in capsules, divided throughout the day. You can also try it in food or as a tincture or tea, in standard herb doses.
Cautions and Considerations: None known and it has a long history of safe use as food. In cases of dementia, you must continue to take it to maintain the results.
Reishi mushroom also offers restorative, neuro-protective effects and has long been regarded as a mushroom of longevity and immortality.
Shiitake helps release or activate a compound called beta-secretase 1 (BACE1) that breaks down beta-amyloid plaque associated with brain aging and Alzheimer’s. Cook or use hot-water extraction for these mushrooms.
St. John’s wort may heal nerve damage and encourage healthy nervous system function. It appears to soothe irritation while promoting healing. For improving brain function and memory support, take as a tincture, capsule, or tea. Internal use of St. John’s wort interacts with many medications and, in rare cases, can make fair-skinned people extra sensitive to the sun.