Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine. When our early ancestors foraged for plants to eat, they encountered some that had benefits other than curbing hunger. Maybe it was pain relief from the mandrake root, or ginseng to boost energy, or cannabis to offer delight. By 1500 BC the Egyptians had amassed a wealth of information about medicinal herbs as documented in the famous Ebers Papyrus. It described the use of botanicals such as myrrh, cardamom, dill, fennel, thyme and frankincense for various ailments ranging from intestinal problems and breathing difficulties to crocodile bites. It also alluded to treating infections with moldy bread some 3500 years before Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. But, curiously, the Papyrus also featured magic spells to combat demons.
Then some 2000 years ago, texts of Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional form of healing in India, also described all sorts of herbal remedies, many of which are still used today by Ayurvedic practitioners. But longevity of use does not equate to evidence. That can only be arrived at through proper scientific studies. Mounting such studies is important because they can either dismiss or validate the effects of herbal remedies. As we well know, many of the drugs used today in conventional medicine were developed based upon investigations stimulated by folklore.
In Ayurvedic medicine extracts of Bacopa monnieri, a plant we know as “water hyssop,” have long been used with claims of memory and cognitive function improvement. This is of interest to researchers because of our aging population, and goodness knows, we could use some brain function improvement in the world. There actually have been several proper clinical trials carried out, all showing some signs of improvement. In the latest study, 81 healthy Australians over the age of 55 were treated either with Bacopa or a placebo. After 12 weeks, Bacopa significantly improved verbal learning and some aspects of memory on standardized tests, but that does not necessarily mean that Bacopa extracts have a significant effect when it comes to daily life. Except for one. Subjects taking the extract were more likely to suffer from increased stool frequency, abdominal cramps and nausea. Like any plant product, Bacopa contains numerous compounds, including a variety of triterpene glycosides that can enhance nerve impulse transmission and possibly affect brain function. Perhaps those that have specific activity can be isolated, standardized and used as a true memory pill. Dr. Oz has spoken favourably about the Bacopa extracts now available, but his claim that Bacopa can make you smarter is kind of dumb.