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   Jun 12

Herbal remedies hokum? Nonsense, says a neuroscientist, they can boost your brain

  • Herbal remedies have been around for millennia — now science is catching up
  • New book explains how plants affect the brain and simple ways you can use them
  • They can help boost mood, improve sleep and memory

Herbal remedies have been around for millennia — now science is catching up. In a new book, a leading professor of neuroscience and a pharmacognosist (who studies medicines derived from plants) explain how plants affect the brain and simple ways you can use them to boost mood, improve sleep and memory. . .

We’re all familiar with the idea that plants provide our bodies with nutrition, but less well known is the fact that many plants also contain chemicals that reach our brain cells and affect different pathways linked to being calm, sleeping well and feeling positive.

They do this by increasing or reducing neuron (nerve cell) activity, more specifically mimicking, boosting or blocking transmitter signals between brain cells.

Botanical brain balms — as we call them — work in a different way from conventional medicine because plant extracts are ‘multi-drugs’ which means they contain a range of ingredients, each with different health benefits, unlike single drug medicines. This means they can work on more than one aspect of the brain to beneficial effect. Traditional plant medicines, as long as they are produced, prescribed and used correctly, have a long legacy of safe use simply because they have been taken for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Most plant medicines have fewer side-effects compared with chemical drugs, and some have none at all.

Plant medicines are also generally pleasant to take — certainly more agreeable to make part of your daily life than some prescription drugs for minor ailments, and for long-term use as remedies to protect your health.

Here, we show you how to harness the power of plants — from making soothing teas and a herbal pillow for sleep to a pain-relieving ointment — and reveal the latest science behind why these work.


You might think of it as something you eat, but chilli oil is a simple but effective skin ointment for aches and pains.

Cayenne pepper — a common, moderately hot type of chilli — is used in herbal medicine for pain and topically for wounds, bruises, burns, sciatica, neuralgia and muscle spasms.

In controlled trials, it has been shown to reduce post-shingles pain, diabetic neuropathy (a complication of the condition, causing nerve damage, often in the feet and legs) and back pain.

The hot pungency of cayenne is due to chemical compounds called capsaicinoids, such as the active capsaicin. This is the key to its painkilling benefits.

In lab tests, cayenne’s capsaicinoids have been found to knock out a receptor in the brain (TRPV1) effectively — normally this receptor releases a chemical called substance P that transmits pain signals to the brain. Capsaicin also depletes substance P itself.

Fresh chilli pods, dried pods and ground cayenne pepper (not chilli powder, which is a mix of cayenne and other spices) can be used in chilli oil. Chop three fresh or dried chillis and stir into 50ml (2 fl oz) olive oil. Add 1 tsp of dried cayenne pepper if you like it hot. You can use as a skin ointment or on food. Keeps in the refrigerator for three to four days.


People reaching middle age begin to notice they don’t remember things quite as well as they used to, so this is the time to start using plants to protect the brain.

Our research has shown that sage (both Salvia officinalis and S.lavandulaefolia) and other well-known household herbs, such as lemon balm, work on certain chemical messengers in the brain to improve memory.

This everyday household cleaning spray uses several plants — sage, pine and mint — that make it a useful household cleaner as well as having brain-boosting properties. For example, in controlled trials — the gold standard for medical evidence, typically involving a placebo for comparison — sage has been found to enhance memory and alertness in healthy people. It also improves attention in the elderly and counters cognitive impairment as well as improving behavioural measures in Alzheimer’s.


The most famous anti-inflammatory plant is white willow (Salix alba) — aspirin is derived from the chemical salicin in its bark and is still the world’s most widely used drug.

The bark itself — which is a traditionally used medicine for joint pain, headaches, gout, lumbago, sciatica, inflammation and fevers — could make a comeback on account of its superior safety as pain relief.

The few controlled trials in humans on willow bark show it reduces lower back pain, joint pain and treats osteoarthritis. One study which compared willow bark (at a dose equivalent to around 240mg salicin) to a prescription-only painkiller (a type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) found it was as effective when given for more than six months to people with lower back pain.

Willow bark works for pain the same way as aspirin, by regulating prostaglandins (hormones released when cells are damaged). But the whole bark also lowers multiple inflammatory markers and has been shown to be as good as, if not more effective than, aspirin.

Willow bark takes longer to act but its effects last longer than aspirin. Also, willow bark does not cause internal bleeding — as can sometimes happen with aspirin — because salicin in willow bark is absorbed in the small intestine rather than the stomach.

Fresh or dried bark can be made into a decoction — a concentrated liquid for pain. Use 20g dried (or 40g fresh) finely chopped white willow bark in 750ml water simmered to 500ml water. Take 120ml three times daily.

If you have been prescribed aspirin, you should not switch or stop taking it, or take the two together, without consulting your GP.

In a pilot trial we carried out last year at Dilston Physic Garden (where we collaborated with medical herbalists, universities and other research bodies to widen understanding into medicinal plants), sage taken with lemon balm and rosemary improved the ability to recall a list of words by more than 50 per cent in 63-year-olds.

Add equal amounts of the pure essential oils of sage, pine and mint to an alcohol base such as vodka (it should be about 40 per cent proof). Use 1–2 parts oil per 100 parts base (or adjust proportion to preferred scent). Shake and leave to disperse. Bottle in a dark container with spray attachment. Spray liberally over working surfaces (test a small area first). The spray can be stored for a year.


Calming plants often enhance the activity of a chemical messenger in the brain called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is how anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines also work. GABA prevents brain cells from firing too often and is essentially the brain’s main decelerator.

Bergamot — a citrus fruit that’s a hybrid of bitter orange and lemon — is a key remedy in Italian folk medicine, and gives Earl Grey tea its distinct aroma. A small number of studies in humans confirm that bergamot can relax you when it is used with other calming plants (typically these include lavender and ylang ylang).

In preliminary studies, it has been found to lower pulse rate and blood pressure when massaged into the skin with lavender, and is also relaxing when inhaled.

Calming bergamot teamed with mood-boosting banana makes a satisfying cake-like bread.

For the bread

250g (9oz) plain flour

125g (4½oz) light brown sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tsp baking powder

3 medium-ripe bananas

1 tbsp grated zest of bergamot orange

50g (2oz) butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

For the topping:

5 drops bergamot orange essential oil

4tbsp lemon curd

85g (3oz) walnut halves

1 banana, sliced.

Preheat the oven to 190c (375f) and line the base and sides of a 450g (1lb) loaf tin with baking paper. Sift dry ingredients into a bowl and mix well.

Place the bananas in a bowl and mash with a fork then add the grated zest, melted butter and beaten eggs.

Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and loosely combine. Pour into the prepared loaf tin and bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool in the tin then transfer to a wire rack.

For the topping, add the bergamot oil to the lemon curd and spread thinly on top of the loaf. Decorate with walnut halves and pieces of sliced banana.


The bitter taste of hops is well known to beer drinkers, so it will come as no surprise to them, at least, that this plant has a marked relaxing and tranquillising effect on the central nervous system.

That’s why it’s used extensively (often with valerian) in herbal medicine for insomnia. Tests have shown hops depress the central nervous system, and increase the calming neurotransmitter (GABA). It also boosts levels of hormones such as melatonin and adenosine (both promote sleep).

You can take hop as a tea or you can sew the flowers into a pillow.

Use fresh flowers, or buy them dried. With right sides together, machine sew three sides of a folded rectangle of muslin.

Teas to improve your memory and sleep

For a quick DIY brain pick-me-up, try these herbal teas. All the doses here have been checked as far as possible to be consistent with those used in clinical trials.


In a number of studies comparing sage to a placebo, sage enhances memory and alertness. It also improves calmness and contentedness.

HOW TO MAKE IT: Use 20g of fresh sage leaves or 4-6g dried per 240ml water. Take three times daily. It is particularly good with honey.


For a quick DIY brain pick-me-up, try these herbal teas

The Ancient Greeks gave the herb to students to improve their memory — today clinical studies have shown rosemary extract can strengthen attention and memory, including in the elderly. Used combined with lemon, orange and lavender may also improve cognitive function in people who are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

HOW TO MAKE IT: Steep 4-6g of fresh leaves and flowers (or 2-3g of dried) in 240ml water. Take three times daily.


A trial carried out by researchers at the University of Michigan in 2011 found that chamomile modestly improves daytime function in insomniacs. Other research has suggested the tea also reduces sleep problems and depression in post-natal women compared with those who are not taking it (and when they stopped drinking it, their improved sleep ended).

HOW TO MAKE IT: Steep 2-3g fresh (4-6g dried) chamomile flower heads or leaves per 240ml water. Drink three times daily, with honey if required to sweeten.

Turn right side out, fill with hop flowers and machine sew the fourth side. Dab with a few drops of hops and or lavender essential oil before use.


Wake up and go to sleep with happiness in a jar! The widely recognised anti-depressive St John’s wort used in this face cream leads the way when it comes to plants that lift mood and alleviate mild to moderate depression (severe depression shouldn’t be self-treated). Other plants that have had some success in human studies include turmeric and saffron.

Thirty clinical studies show the efficacy of St John’s wort, and in controlled trials for mild to moderate depression it is as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, but with fewer side-effects.

Although adverse effects are rare, St John’s wort can interfere with other medications, including the Pill. Particular caution should be taken if you are on anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications (especially SSRIs). Always consult your doctor or registered medical herbalist before taking any plant at a medicinal level first.

This lovely cream lifts the mood as the essential oil constituents permeate the skin. Use a commercial base face lotion which contains natural ingredients.

Mix in pure St John’s wort essential oil to a proportion not exceeding 1 per cent of the entire mixture (for instance for a 125 ml jar of cream you’d need 1-2 ml — about 40 drops). After thorough mixing, add the cream to dark brown or black jars. When using, inhale deeply as you massage it over your face.


Scientific evidence for plants that works against ‘mental fatigue’ and ‘lack of vitality’ is harder to establish. However, there is some research to suggest that plants such as garlic and nettles can be revitalising — though exactly why is less clear.

Japanese studies on 1,000 patients with fatigue, depression and anxiety, found that garlic extract (with vitamins) reduced all these symptoms in the majority of people.

In patients with stress-related symptoms, the same combination relieved symptoms such as general fatigue, headache, dizziness and appetite loss.

In lab tests, garlic extracts seem to affect adrenal gland molecules that govern the stress responses and blood pressure (the adrenal glands are located above the kidneys and produce many of our hormones, including cortisol, sometimes called the ‘stress hormone’).

This soup, made with wild garlic, nettles, as well as ginger, is a lovely tonic. Lab studies suggest nettles can act on acetylcholine receptors — the brain’s memory messenger.

Nettle & wild garlic soup

Serves 3-4

Knob of butter or 1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

2-3 small potatoes, sliced

1 tsp fresh ginger, chopped

1-2 tsp dry or fresh turmeric, chopped

1l vegetable stock

400g (14oz) nettle tips and Garlic leaves, chopped.

Pick the youngest garlic leaves and (wearing gloves) the tips of nettles before they are more than about 30cm (12in) high.

Heat the butter or oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, carrot, celery, potatoes and ginger and cook for 10 minutes.

Add turmeric and stock and cook for a further 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are soft. Add the nettle and garlic leaves and cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat, liquidise and season to taste.


Some plants, such as lavender, lemon balm and cocoa, are brilliant all-rounders, affecting many areas of mental well-being. This makes sense scientifically — first because each plant contains more than one active ingredient that can target different systems, and second because the health of one part of the body is affected by other parts.

The brain is the most highly connected living system. So depression can impair cognitive function, and stress can interfere with memory or increase the feeling of pain.

These truffles are made with several ingredients that help with four or more of the calm, memory, mood, sleep, pain or energy functions. Lavender has been found to improve sleep in cancer patients, and improve sleep quality and energy in students. Inhaled lavender oil has also been found to improve working memory after an episode of stress.

Brain balm truffles

Makes 24

450g (16oz) stoned dates

100g (3½oz) ground almonds

15g (½oz) chia seeds

15g (½oz) linseed

3 tbsp cocoa powder

4 tbsp agave syrup

2 tbsp cashew milk

1 tsp lavender flowers

1 tbsp lemon balm leaves

1 tsp roseroot powder or ginseng

Put ingredients in a food processor and pulse until they stick together. Divide mixture into 24 small balls and roll in cocoa powder. Store in fridge for five days.

Adapted from Botanical Brain Balms by Nicolette Perry & Elaine Perry (Filbert Press, £14.99). © Nicolette Perry & Elaine Perry. To order for £11.24 (25 pc discount), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid till June 19, 2018.Please check with your doctor before trying any herbal remedy if you are taking any medication.

Source: Daily Mail

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