Herbs for Brain Health

Herbs and spices are not just useful for adding flavor to your favorite dishes. They offer health benefits and medicinal purposes that go far beyond simple culinary applications. Oregano, sage and thyme are particularly beneficial for brain health. They are rich in nutrients and phytochemicals (disease-fighting compounds found in plant foods) that may preserve cognitive function and protect brain cells from free radical damage. Free radicals are charged oxygen molecules we are exposed to on a daily basis (from environmental pollutants, cigarette smoke and other toxins). They attack and damage healthy cells.

Oregano for Brain Protection

Oregano contains phytochemicals, such as rosmarinic acid and carvacrol that function as antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. A study published in “Planta Medica” in November 2006 tested the essential oil of oregano for its antimicrobial and antioxidant activity. Carvacrol, a main compound in oregano oil, was found to be particularly effective at scavenging free radicals. The brain is made up (structurally) of roughly 60 percent fat; therefore, it is very susceptible to oxidative damage. Oregano is also a food source of omega-3 fatty acids, offering .12 g per 2 tsp. dried, or 5 percent of the Recommended Daily Value (RDV) for this essential fatty acid. According to an article published in “Acta Neurologica Taiwanica” in December 2009, omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for the body to make neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, are responsible for regulating mood, appetite, sleep and hunger.

Sage for Memory

Like oregano, sage contains many phytochemicals, including rosmarinic acid. A research study published in “Pharmacological Biochemical Behavior” in June 2003 investigated the benefit of sage on memory. This study involved two trials using 45 young adult participants. They were given either a placebo or a standardized extract of Spanish sage essential oil in doses from 50 to 150 microls. Cognitive tests were conducted at one, two, four, five and six hours post ingestion. In both trials, even for the lower dosage, sage extract significantly improved participants’ short-term memory. In addition, Chinese sage contains active compounds similar to those used in modern-day drugs designed to treat Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

Thyme for Brain Cells

The volatile oil components of thyme include carvacrol, borneol, geraniol and, most importantly, thymol (after which this herb is named). A research study published in the “British Journal of Nutrition” in January 2000 investigated the effect of thymol on age-related changes in the brain cells of rats. As rats (and humans) age, naturally-occurring antioxidant enzymes that protect the brain (specifically, superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase) decline significantly, exposing brain cells to free radical damage. Brain cells are the only cells in the human body that do not regenerate. Thus, damage to brain cells contributes to cognitive decline and decreased function. However, rats treated with thymol extract had higher levels of these antioxidant enzymes in their brains than their untreated counterparts, showing promise that thymol can help stave off age-related cognitive impairment.

About this Author

Michele Turcotte is a registered, licensed dietitian, owner of A Perfect Plate, Inc., and a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She has over 12 years of experience in clinical and corporate settings, and has extensive experience in one-on-one diet counseling and meal planning. She has written freelance food and nutrition articles for Trouve Publishing, Inc., since 2004.