Botanicals: Cognitive enhancers top of mind

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17 Jul 2017 --- Often seen as a more holistic solution to improving health and wellness, botanicals have a fixed spot in the dietary supplement space. Moreover, following increased consumer demand for clean label and natural ingredients, botanicals are receiving their fair share of attention from the scientific community and supplements producers alike. 

Speaking on some of the up-and-coming botanicals, medicine hunter Chris Kilham, who lectures about holistic wellness and botanical medicines, tells NutritionInsight that a number of cognitive boosting ingredients are fast gaining recognition.

“In the nutritional space, we are seeing recognition of brain-enhancing agents, how various nutrients and herbs can enhance brain function. I think in part that’s due to aging populations of people who are better informed about all things natural than they were 20 years ago, plus the sobering fact that there’s a growing awareness and incidence of disorders of the brain,” Kilham says.

Click to EnlargeRhodiola
The well-studied rhodiola, also known as golden root, arctic root, and roseroot, offers very broad benefits to a user’s body and mind, according to medicine hunter Chris Kilham. Specifically, Kilham has stated that it helps the user to adapt better to all forms of physical and mental stress.

In Russia and Scandinavia, rhodiola has been used for centuries to cope with the cold Siberian climate and stressful lives. It is also used to increase physical endurance and resistance to altitude sickness. The plant has also been used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is called hong jing tian.

Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen, an agent that can help to provide non-specific resistance to a wide range of adverse influences of all kinds, including harmful factors that are physical, biological and chemical.

Under stress, many different compounds increase in the body. One substance, corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), increases in the body as a result of stress, and can in time also lead to impaired sexual function. Rhodiola lowers levels of CRF specifically.

The root of rhodiola rosea contains a group of compounds which have not been found in other plants. These include rosin, rosavin and rosarin, all known as “rosavins.” Studies have shown that each makes a significant contribution to the plant’s unique anti-stress properties. 

Schisandra
Schisandra is a berry, but it is not most famous for its use in food. Rather, it is usually made into various medicines for longevity and overall vitality. It is also said to help to fight fatigue and increase energy.

Known in Chinese as wu wei zi, or “five flavor berry,” schisandra is a so-called “adaptogenic” herb. To be classified as an adaptogen, an herb must be completely safe and non-toxic, must have broad uses for health and must specifically reduce mental and physical stress.

The berry helps to fight stress by reducing the levels of stress hormones in the blood, Kilham says. Additionally, schisandra is said to offer great benefits for athletes. In human studies, the schisandra berry and its extracts have improved performance among long distance runners, skiers and gymnasts. For this reason, the schisandra berry is often used by Chinese athletes.

Schisandra’s mind-sharpening effects have been demonstrated in many clinical studies with doctors, students, soldiers and other groups. It has been shown to decrease mental fatigue and increase sharpness and quality of work. The berry can be found in a couple of forms – the dried berries are typically found in Chinese medicine shops and schisandra supplements.

Sceletium
Sceletium tortuosum is native to South Africa and also known as kanna. The American Botanical Council has stated that it is used to relieve thirst, hunger and fatigue. It is also utilized to elevate mood and as a sedative.

The plant’s potent effects are no recent discovery, and it has a long history of use – as early as 1662, the native San people of South Africa used to pick the plant, bury it to ferment it and then dry it. Once it was picked, the plant was eaten, used as a snuff or even smoked to produce its potent effects.

The proprietary extract improved cognitive flexibility and executive function in healthy adults, according to a study co-authored by Heather S Oliff, Ph.D. It was also found to have a strong effect on processing speed and a small effect on psychomotor speed and attention.

“[With] sceletium, the succulent from South Africa, you don’t need to wait two weeks to see improvements. It works within 25 minutes, firing up your brain,” Kilham says.

Ashwagandha
The most in-demand of all the important herbs in India’s tradition of Ayurveda, ashwagandha is known as a rasayan, an herb for rejuvenation and extending one’s life. In fact, ashwagandha is frequently referred to as “Indian ginseng” because of its rejuvenating properties, even though ginseng and ashwagandha are unrelated botanically.

The exact reasons for the plant’s rejuvenating qualities seem to be unknown to scientists. It does contain a large number of compounds, known as withanolides, which are novel to the plant. Whether one or two of these compounds are responsible for the plant’s remarkable versatility, or whether ashwagandha’s value is due to a synergy of all its natural constituents, is a matter that scientists may take a long time to solve.

This article is based on a longer feature on healthy aging to appear in the July/August issue of The World of Food Ingredients (NutritionInsight).

by Lucy Gunn and Paul Creasy

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