“Biological aging is not tied absolutely to chronological aging, and it may be possible to slow biological aging and even reduce the possibility of suffering from age-related diseases such as dementia,” writes Ruth Peters from Care of the Elderly, Imperial College Faculty of Medicine, London.
As we age, our brain shrinks, and cognition, as well as vascular (blood vessels) arrangement in the brain undergoes change.
Aging increases the risk of stroke, lesions in the white matter in the brain, and dementia. It can also impair memory and cause hormonal changes and changes in neurotransmission. But it is not a lost cause, as Peters explains. Making necessary changes in life like eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, reducing drinking and smoking, engaging cognitive funtions—basically choosing to live mentally and physically well—can go a long way in delaying aging or stalling premature aging.
In this, Ayurveda can play an important role in delaying the onset of neurodegenerative disorders by bringing a holistic focus with the right diet, panchakarma therapies, cleanses, mind-body discipline tailored to an individual’s dosha constitution, along with some age-appropriate lifestyle changes.
An Ayurvedic Understanding of Brain Aging
There are startling parallels to be drawn between the Ayurvedic study of brain diseases and its study in modern medicine, in terms of nomenclature, symptom study, and diagnosis. Aging is mentioned as Jara in Ayurvedic texts and depends on the strength of two subtle concepts of ojas (the essence of the seven dhatus) and tejas (the essence of agni or digestive fire) in you.
So, part of the secret to good brain health lies in strengthening these two and bringing the three doshas or fundamental bio energies in perfect balance. Like modern medicine, Ayurveda also mentions that the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s usually start after 40 years of age.
A key component of the brain is fat, and essential fatty acids are important for the maintenance of brain health and its integrity. According to Ayurveda, the formation of fatty tissues depends on food essence. This is why it is so important to be a conscious eater if you want a robust and age-proof brain. Ayurveda also recommends personalized treatments based on the imbalances, diet, and lifestyle of an individual to address brain aging-related concerns, particularly in the middle-aged-to-senior group.
The Ayurvedic Secret
Ayurvedic texts describe as many as 5,000 symptoms, 700 herbs, and more than 6,000 medicinal formulations for treating various diseases. And more recently, scientists have shown an interest in studying the uses of phytochemicals in dealing with brain aging as more of us look for healthier, sustainable, and non-invasive options to take care of brain health and diseases in ways that do not have long-term debilitating side effects on other bodily functions.
Oxidative stress, or molecular attack from free radicals, are said to speed up aging. Ayurveda mentions rejuvenating polyherbal formulations called Rasayana that come with specific benefits to delay aging and increase vitality. The herbs that specifically support brain and cognitive functions involving intellect, memory, learning, and neurological health are called Medhya Rasayana. Medhya connotes intellectual or mental vigor in Ayurveda. These herbs and herbal formulations help delay aging, support regeneration of neural tissues, reduce stress, have adaptogenic properties, and improve memory and learning.
Here are some of the Medhya Rasayana herbs mentioned in classical texts that have also found renewed interest from the scientific community in exploring its efficacy and prophylactic benefits.
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)
Also called the herb of grace in Ayurveda, brahmi is loaded with antioxidants that help counter oxidative stress, a major contributing factor in premature aging, and several neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. For example, a 2018 French review study mentioned that oxidative stress can increase the accumulation of amyloid plaques that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. As a result, it is important to load up on herbal and dietary sources of antioxidants like brahmi.
The main compound of bacosides present in brahmi defuse the rogue free radicals and prevent their interaction with fat molecules helping stop lipid peroxidation, a process that has been associated with multiple neurodegenerative conditions. Brahmi also improves brain function and special learning, preliminary animal studies show. It increased the length and network of dendrites, nerve cells associated with memory and learning.
Mandukaparni (Centella asiatica)
Mandukaparni helps calm anxiety, which is listed as a neurological disorder in Ayurveda. It manages the function of certain neurotransmitters by releasing hormones that reduce stress and anxiety. This herb is also an excellent source of antioxidants and helps reduce fatigue, blood sugar levels, lowers bad cholesterol, and synthesizes nitric oxide that prevents blood clotting. It can also improve cognitive function and mental alertness when taken together with other herbs like ashwagandha.
Shankhapushpi (Convolvulus pluricaulis)
This is a timeless remedy for improving brain function. The flavonoids present help improve memory, learning, and focus; reduce mental fatigue, stress, and depression; help fight various psychotic disorders; and increase mental clarity. But most importantly for those who battle with constant throbbing headaches, shankhapushpi provides relief from stress headaches. It also helps you sleep better and deal with eating disorders linked to your mental health, as it is a good appetizer.
Ashwagandha (Indian ginseng or Withania somnifera)
This is one of the most widely researched Ayurvedic herbs sold today in the form of supplemental gummies, powder, tincture, and capsules for its plethora of benefits for modern-day lifestyle diseases, the most important being in increasing longevity and delaying brain aging. With neuroprotective properties, it helps enhance memory, improve learning, reduce oxidative stress in the brain, and stalls nervous degeneration. Many studies have found it to be an effective remedy for anxiety, due to its anti-anxiolytic properties. It is known to reduce stress by lowering the secretion of cortisol by 26 percent. This is helpful if you are someone who is constantly exposed to a high-pressure environment. Japanese researchers have found that this Indian herb can help those with sleep problems like insomnia, as it is a natural relaxant, and de-stressor. Studies have also shown it can stabilize moods in clinically depressed patients just as well as some OTC medicines.
Jyotishmati (Celastrus paniculatus)
As the name suggests, jyotishmati means that which enlightens (jyoti) the mind (mati). Though the herb’s veerya, or energy, quality is one of extreme heat, it has long been popular as a brain tonic. It has medhya properties, that is, it improves intellect. It is usually consumed in the form of a powder with milk. It has powerful antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress. But it is not recommended for those with a high pitta dosha. It helps stimulate the nervous system, liver, and counters plaque formation in the arteries. The oil from the plant has been historically used for memory enhancement and clarity of mind. It is also said to promote lucid dreaming and helps retain dream memory, though this detail may call for a deeper scientific exploration.