Looming exams or work deadlines can really run riot with our nervous system and ramp up our stress levels. When you then add into the mix the thought of having to memorise or regurgitate reams of information, the stress can become unmanageable.
It’s always tempting to burn the midnight oil and reach for the classic stimulants such as coffee, sugar and chocolate. While they might provide some short-term relief, the long-term effects can be somewhat harmful and make us feel more exhausted and stressed. Thankfully, there are some top herbal heroes that you can try that will not only target the stress but also improve overall memory and cognition. Here are our top five brain-boosting herbs:
The mind enhancing, and nervous system soothing effects of this plant are legendary. Brahman is the Hindu name given to the universal consciousness and Brahma is the divinity responsible for all ‘creative’ forces in the world. Brahmi literally means the ‘energy’ or ‘shakti’ of Brahman. With brahmi deriving its name from these roots it has a lot to live up to, and it does. Brahmi is documented in ancient Indian texts as far back as the 6th century is widely used to promote intellect.
This herb improves circulation to the brain, positively impacting upon cognitive functions such as memory through improving movement between nerve cells in the brain. Brahmi is also balancing the response of stress hormones.
Brahmi is the excellent long-term choice for boosting overall brain performance and increasing your capacity to learn and memorise. Try taking this in a supplement form at the beginning of the day, at least a week before the exams get started.
Gotu kola has been used in Asia for thousands of years, both as a medicine and as a food. One of the earliest Ayurvedic medical texts compiled around 300 C.E, ‘Sushruta Samhita’, describes this herb as being able to improve mindfulness, revitalise consciousness and maintain youthful wit!
Gotu kola improves circulation to the brain, supporting cognitive functioning such as memory and concentration whilst also protecting the brain tissue from damage caused by free radicals. The plant has distinctive round leaves, often described as ‘brain-shaped’, which interestingly conforms with the ‘doctrine of signatures’ – an ancient belief that herbs resemble parts of the body that they are used to treat.
Gotu Kola is very similar in some ways to brahmi, in terms of its physiological effects on the brain. But, interestingly, gotu kola also has an effect on skin quality and so is excellent for people who experience skin break-outs as a result of stress. So, if you notice you accumulate a couple of extra spots, or your eczema flares up around exam time – this herb could be the perfect solution. Try taking this in a supplement form at the beginning of the day, at least a week before the exams get started.
Tulsi, also known as ‘holy basil’ is a very special plant. It’s believed to awaken the mind bringing mental clarity whilst also relaxing the nervous system, allowing time for the restoration of adrenal glands that may have become exhausted by stress or anxiety.
It modulates the stress response, increases adaptive energy and nourishes the vital spirit. It is the perfect antidote to the pressures of modern life. It has adaptogenic qualities and improves the systemic response to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stress enabling one to enjoy more stamina and less stress.
Tulsi is an excellent option for those of us who become very anxious about looming exams or challenges. Tulsi is perfect for the emotional distress that can be caused by exam stress. The added benefit is that tulsi will also improve the physiological functioning of the brain and still support the enhancement of memory and learning capacity. Tulsi can be taken short and long term. It tastes delicious as a tea, so why not try Pukka's Tulsi Clarity when you feel yourself becoming a little anxious about the day ahead, or as a night-cap to stop a racing mind at night.
Turmeric is a renowned super-spice. It targets almost every body system and works as an all-round anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. But why is this beneficial for the brain? Well, the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric, combined with its antioxidant capability mean that it is incredibly protective to the brain. It also boosts cardiovascular health and the circulation, including circulation to the brain. So, it has the ability, like brahmi and gotu kola, to enhance overall cognitive functioning whilst also providing a high level of protection.
Turmeric is an excellent all-rounder and tastes delicious both in food and in tea, but can also be taken in supplement form. It can also prove very beneficial for the digestion, so it might be a good option for those who find that their digestion becomes a bit unsettled in times of extreme stress. Also, if you enjoy exercise as a form of stress relief, turmeric is well-known for improving athletic capability, through increasing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles and joints.
Both green tea and matcha are produced from the same plant, but matcha is more concentrated. Both are packed with antioxidants, which help protect the system from free radical damage. Green tea and matcha also contain various compounds that are associated with improving heart health in addition to reducing stress and increasing alertness.
Green tea and matcha naturally contain caffeine as they are both made from the same plant that you get regular black tea from. However, the difference between green tea, matcha and coffee is that the green tea and matcha contain a compound known as L-theanine, which is an amino acid that works synergistically with other compounds present in the plant such as caffeine to increase serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, all of which significantly boost mood.
In addition to this, L-theanine, balances the effect of caffeine and helps prevent the characteristic ‘crash’ that you get associated with coffee.
Green tea and matcha taste great and are the perfect alternative to coffee and energy drinks. Try and replace at least one with a cup of so that you still get your energy boost but are also giving your brain a boost too.
If you have an oil burner at home, add a couple of drops of rosemary oil to boost brain power. As Shakespeare once said ‘Rosemary, that’s for remembrance’. Rosemary improves circulation to the brain and has been shown to boost memory.
Keep an oxygenating plant nearby, or on your desk to help keep your environment fresh and healthy. Top oxygenating plants are aloe vera, ferns, bamboo and spider plants.
Cook with herbs. Common spices such as , black pepper, chilli and turmeric all boost circulation and can be great for boosting energy. Try and incorporate them into your daily cooking routine.
In Ayurveda, there are three different health constitutions or ‘types’ known as dosha that can be used to help identify why people certain people are affected by specific health conditions and how we can treat them. The three dosha are vata, kapha and pitta. Here is how each of the doshas is likely to be affected by stress and how you can help support them. Take our dosha quiz to find out which is your dominant dosha.
Vata types tend to be affected the most by anxiety and can become quite stressed by the thought of looming exams. They may also tend towards ‘panic’ studying and burn the candle at both ends out of a fear or concern over not passing the exams.
For strong vata types, tulsi is the perfect herb as it helps tackle the emotional stress associated with exams. Vata types will also really benefit from a daily mindfulness practice, or a stress-balancing exercise such as yoga to help calm frazzled nerves.
Pitta types are typically hot and fiery in their emotions and are likely to either be pretty ‘gung-ho’ in their reaction to revision, due to their naturally competitive streak or, they may air on the slightly more care-free side.
Either way, they can become irritable, angry or hot-tempered when stressed. So, cooling and protective herbs for the brain such as brahmi and gotu kola will help boost their cognitive capacity whilst also keeping them cool and calm.
Pitta types will really benefit from making sure they take some time out and about in nature, whether that be a gentle stroll or a sprint. It will help clear excess heat and melt away any irritation or frustration.
Kapha types are normally pretty laid back and can have a relatively lazy approach to revision, avoiding the inevitable. However, kapha types can also be very determined and set themselves strict and well-organised revision timetables.
Either way, the issue with kapha types often centres on energy levels, as they tend to be quite low. So, herbs that help boost overall energy, as well as brain power, can be very useful here such as green tea, matcha and turmeric.
Kapha types benefit from structure, so try making yourself a revision plan with timed breaks so that you can manage the thought of the day ahead without feeling overwhelmed. Also, time the revision to a time of day that works for you. If you’re not a morning person then why not take a break in the mornings and work later into the evening.
Marion is Senior Herbal Specialist at Pukka and a practising medical herbalist dedicated to furthering herbal knowledge and understanding. Degrees in pharmacology (UCL) and herbal medicine and a masters degree in plant chemistry and medicinal natural products (UCL) mean she is well placed to help plan Pukka’s extensive programme of herbal research, as well as advising across Pukka on herb benefits. She has worked on the Journal of Herbal Medicine since its launch in 2011 and is currently Associate Editor.
BSc qualified in herbal medicine (Middlesex Uni, 2009), MSc (mCPP) qualified in pharmacology & physiology (UCL, 2002), MSc medicinal natural products and phytochemistry (UCL, 2016)
12 years in medical herbalism
Member of College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy