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Bacopa for Neuroprotection, Stress, and More

Evidence-based Reviewed Article

An image of a Bacopa plantUsing medicinal herbs to manage different health conditions is certainly not a new concept, with some Ayurvedic practices dating back thousands of years. However, the last few years in modern medicine have witnessed a significant uptick in the research interest of these herbs. Bacopa is one key area that scientists suggest can rejuvenate mental healthcare. Is this herb a viable prospect in mental health management?

What Is Bacopa?

Bacopa, also known as brahmi, is one of the oldest herbs used in Ayurveda medicine. A native plant to India and other parts of Southeast Asia, Bacopa monnieri is a creeping perennial with small leaves and white to purple flowers. For medicinal purposes, the leaves of the plant are utilized.

The use of bacopa among Ayurvedic practitioners centers on its perceived ability to treat mental conditions and improve brain function. However, the herb has also been used for managing other health conditions, including elevated blood pressure.

While there have been many ways of using bacopa, typically it is used as an herb powder mixed with tea, milk, or even water. It is also commonly used as a liquid extract for internal use or as a concentrated oil for external use. It has also been typical for Ayurvedic practitioners to combine bacopa with other herbs to potentiate its effects and maximize the bacopa benefits.

Benefits of Bacopa

Although bacopa has been a staple of traditional medicine for thousands of years, its health benefits are more anecdotal than scientific. This has prompted a series of studies and these benefits are as follows:

Boost Memory

This is one of the primary uses of bacopa, both nowadays and thousands of years ago. Studies show that this use is justified, as bacopa has been found to enhance spatial learning and memory retention in animal models. Similar studies on humans also support that bacopa can indeed help boost memory and enhance brain function as a whole.1

Although there is no consensus on the mechanism of action by which bacopa improves memory, researchers attribute this property to the presence of saponins, which are secondary metabolites. The saponins in bacopa are known as bacosides, and bacosides A and B, in particular, have been identified as the drivers of bacopa’s memory-enhancing effects.2

Bacosides act by reducing oxidative stress and preventing conditions that reduce cognitive ability. Also, studies show that bacopa can help raise glutathione levels in the brain, which is relevant considering that glutathione is one of the most potent antioxidants in the body. By implication, the brain is in a better position to resist the action of free radicals and limit oxidative stress.2

Another mechanism of action that researchers believe is responsible for the cognitive improvements associated with bacopa is related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. By modulating the release, binding, and activity of this neurotransmitter, bacopa may improve cognition.2

Neuroprotection

The active principles in bacopa are saponins, alkaloids, flavonoids, glycosides, and phytochemicals. All of these constituents may work together to confer neuroprotective properties. More specifically, they help prevent lipid peroxidation, which is a chain reaction that occurs when oxidants attack lipid molecules.

An image of a shocked woman holding her hearBy preventing this oxidative damage in various regions of the brain, bacopa can slow any damage that neurodegenerative disorders would have caused.3 This is further supported by research showing significant reductions in the effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy when bacopa is used.4

Aside from the protection against neurodegenerative conditions, bacopa may also help prevent other serious health conditions, one of which is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). This condition is a non-Addison's type of adrenal dysfunction in which the body’s stress response cannot keep up with the chronic stressors in life. While the body has a natural stress response mechanism, the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, in the face of chronic stress, one or more of the NEM circuits may dysregulate.

There are six of these circuits, comprising various organs and systems of the body, and their primary aim is to reduce stress in the body. One of these circuits is the neuroaffect circuit, consisting of the autonomic nervous system, the brain, and the microbiome. In light of bacopa’s neuroprotective and antioxidant properties, it can keep the neuroaffect circuit optimally functioning, significantly reducing the risk of adrenal fatigue.

Reduce Stress and Anxiety Levels

Bacopa benefits can have a generally calming effect on the body due to the herb’s ability to promote the production of GABA, the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. With increased GABA activity, there is an increase in sedation and a reduction in anxiety and stress levels.5

Anecdotally, traditional health practitioners considered bacopa an adaptogenic herb, implying that it can increase the body’s resistance to stress. Moreover, the stress and anxiety-relieving effects of this herb are well-backed by research.6 An added advantage to bacopa’s adaptogenic properties is reducing the risk of AFS, as it can similarly help increase resistance to chronic stress.

Regulate Blood Pressure

Animal and human-model studies show that bacopa can lower blood pressure. This is due to the herb’s ability to improve the body’s use of nitric oxide and enhance the activity of the cardiovascular muscles.7 While the saponins were at the fore of bacopa’s neuroprotective and cognitive benefits, its flavonoids contribute more to its vasodilation.

Despite these results, not enough human studies are available to ascertain the blood pressure regulatory effects of bacopa. In fact, some studies show no clinically significant effect of the herb on blood pressure.8 Still, bacopa is a promising option for naturally reducing blood pressure, and more research may reveal how to derive these benefits.

Ashwagandha and Bacopa

Ashwagandha and bacopa are two of the most popular herbs among Ayurvedic and traditional medicine practitioners. Although there is an overlap in some of their health benefits, they are different herbs. While both can help improve cognitive function and reduce stress and anxiety, bacopa is more suited to enhancing memory and neuroprotection. In contrast, Ashwagandha is better for stress and anxiety reduction.

For even better results, it is possible to combine both these herbs. The synergistic effects between them can support better brain function as well as a relaxed body state. Since they both have high safety profiles as well, there is a lot of leeway in their dosing and incorporation into diets.

Bacopa Side Effects

Generally, most people tolerate bacopa well, but some individuals may still experience certain side effects with its use. They include:

  • An image of a man about to throw upNausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue

If you notice any of these side effects, you should stop using it immediately. These side effects will typically resolve a day or two after cessation of use.

However, some more serious side effects may arise in some individuals. These include a slow heart rate, reduced intestinal transit, increased ulcer pain, and urinary obstructions. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is not enough to stop using the herb; you should seek medical care as well.

Bacopa Risks and Precautions

Being a herb with a high safety profile, there is little to worry about on the risks front. However, there is a tendency for bacopa to interfere with certain hormones and neurotransmitters in the body, leading to detrimental effects. For instance, there is a risk of thyroid hormone levels significantly increasing after taking bacopa.

The risk is minimal, but people on thyroid hormone medications should still avoid this herb while taking the medication. To be on the safe side, you should consult your medical practitioner if you are also on blood thinners or psychotropic medications.

Bacopa is possibly safe for all populations except children below six months and pregnant or breastfeeding women as there isn’t enough information as it concerns these groups. As far as dosage is concerned, a maximum dose of 600mg daily is possibly safe, although most studies limit the herb’s use to 300mg daily for adults.

Conclusion

Bacopa is an ancient herb used in Ayurvedic medicine that has shown recent promise in improving mental health. Its potential benefits include memory enhancement, neuroprotection, stress reduction, and blood pressure regulation. This herb can also help in the prevention of other serious conditions like adrenal fatigue. Despite being generally safe, there are a few risks, like thyroid hormone interference. Therefore, as with any other herbal supplement, be sure to talk with a healthcare provider before use.

For more information about bacopa, the team at Dr. Lam Coaching can help. We offer a free, no-obligation phone consultation at +1 (626) 571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and various options. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2024 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
References

Fatima, U., et al. "Pharmacological Attributes of Bacopa Monnieri Extract: Current Updates and Clinical Manifestation." Front Nutr., vol. 9, 18 Aug. 2022, 972379. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36061899/

Walker, EA, and Pellegrini, MV. "Bacopa Monnieri." StatPearls [Internet], Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, updated 17 Mar. 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36943953/

Simpson, T., Pase, M., and Stough, C. "Bacopa Monnieri as an Antioxidant Therapy to Reduce Oxidative Stress in the Aging Brain." Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2015, 615384. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26413126/

Shalini, V.T., Neelakanta, S.J., and Sriranjini, J.S. "Neuroprotection with Bacopa Monnieri–A Review of Experimental Evidence." Mol Biol Rep, vol. 48, 2021, pp. 2653-2668. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33675463/

Mathew, J., et al. "Behavioral Deficit and Decreased GABA Receptor Functional Regulation in the Hippocampus of Epileptic Rats: Effect of Bacopa Monnieri." Neurochem Res., vol. 36, no. 1, Jan. 2011, pp. 7-16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20821261/

Shetty, SK., et al. "The Effect of Brahmi (Bacopa Monnieri (L.) Pennell) on Depression, Anxiety and Stress During Covid-19." Eur J Integr Med., vol. 48, Dec. 2021, 101898. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8696156/

Kamkaew, N., et al. "Vasodilatory Effects and Mechanisms of Action of Bacopa Monnieri Active Compounds on Rat Mesenteric Arteries." Molecules, vol. 24, no. 12, 15 Jun. 2019, 2243. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31208086/

Calabrese, C., et al. "Effects of a Standardized Bacopa Monnieri Extract on Cognitive Performance, Anxiety, and Depression in the Elderly: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial." J Altern Complement Med., vol. 14, no. 6, Jul. 2008, pp. 707-13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18611150/

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Bacopa’s benefits extend beyond neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and it has shown promise in relieving stress and regulating blood pressure. However, more human studies are necessary before definitive claims can be made about the full range of bacopa’s health benefits.

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