What are the smartest botanical ingredients for brain health?

20 Jun 2018

As the population ages, botanical ingredients to maintain and improve cognitive health are on the rise. What are they, and what evidence is there to support their claims?

What are the smartest botanical ingredients for brain health?

A growing body of evidence suggests a strong link between a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of cognitive decline. But beyond this, many studies have identified individual botanical extracts that may also help maintain good brain health into old age. Ginkgo biloba, resveratrol, Theobroma cacao, Bacopa monnieri, Crocus sativus, ashwagandha, rosemary, ginseng and curcumin are among those that have shown promise for delaying the onset or progression of neurodegenerative disorders. Many of these have established antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects.

However, research is still at an early stage, and even organisations that are generally supportive of complementary therapies have been hesitant to endorse botanicals’ potential role in cognitive health. In March 2018, the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) summed up its position on studies of gingko, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B and E, Asian ginseng, grape seed extract and curcumin, saying, “To date there is no convincing evidence from a large body of research that any dietary supplement can prevent worsening of cognitive impairment associated with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.”

This is not to say that evidence is not forthcoming, but it may be some time before food, drink and supplements companies working with such ingredients can rest their claims on truly solid clinical results. A major challenge for those working in the field is that these ingredients aim to prevent cognitive decline, meaning it is difficult to pin down measurable improvements in human study subjects because they need to be healthy to begin with. Even with a strong correlation between certain compounds and lower dementia rates, it is hard to prove cause and effect.

Meanwhile, the International Food Information Council says there are “hints in the literature” about potential links between brain health and certain foods, including a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, whole grains and nuts, and low in meats. It says, “When it comes to diet and exercise, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” With that in mind, it is interesting to note that some of the most promising botanical ingredients for brain health, such as resveratrol, Theobroma cacao and curcumin have shown promise for heart health too.

Some of the latest research in the healthy ageing field highlights the complexity of pinning down ingredients’ mechanisms of action. For example, Evolva is one company looking at resveratrol’s potential role in improving brain function. In collaboration with Northumbria University’s Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the UK, it is looking at how resveratrol influences gut health and its relationship with brain health, as emerging evidence suggests a symbiotic relationship between gut microbiota and cognitive function.

Meanwhile, companies like Ixoreal, which sells ashwagandha under its KSM-66 brand, and Theravalues, which sells curcumin under its Theracurmin brand, focus on their ingredients’ long history of use and documented effects, while also undertaking clinical trials to support functional claims.

This approach appears to be paying off in the supplements sector, as it continues to attract new product development, according to Euromonitor International. However, the market researcher says food and drink positioned for brain health and memory is only set to grow at a CAGR of 0.4% from 2013-2018, and the issue of tangible efficacy must be addressed before the category can reach its full potential.

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