The best herbs and spices for optimal brain health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published January 19, 2021

Key Takeaways

A corpus of research focuses on the use of nutraceutical cognitive enhancers to treat and prevent dementia, and improve memory in otherwise healthy people. Research demonstrates that even healthy middle-aged women usually exhibit some form of cognitive impairment affecting attention, calculation, and immediate recall, as assessed by the mini-mental state examination (MMSE). Nutraceuticals used for cognitive benefit can target oxidative stress and inflammation, which play a role in cognitive impairment.

The following six nutraceuticals have been proven to benefit cognition.


Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric. Turmeric imparts curry with its yellow color, and works as a flavoring, preservative, and herbal treatment for cancer, arthritis, and heart diseases. According to the results of Indian population-based studies, those who consumed curcumin in the form of curry exhibited a lower prevalence of Alzheimer disease, while older adults exhibited enhanced cognitive performance.

In a small study (n=40) published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, participants aged between 51 and 84 years either ingested supplements containing 90 mg of curcumin twice daily or placebo for 18 months. The authors found that the curcumin supplements “may lead to improved memory and attention in non-demented adults. The FDDNP-PET findings suggest that symptom benefits are associated with decreases in amyloid and tau accumulation in brain regions modulating mood and memory.”


Few therapeutic options exist for those with late-stage Alzheimer disease. In a randomized study published in Human Psychopharmacology, 68 patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer disease were administered either 20 mg/day of the drug memantine or saffron extract (30 mg/day) for 12 months.

Based on cognitive testing, the investigators found that after one year of administration, both agents comparably reduced cognitive decline in the study sample.


The herb rosemary was once found only in the Mediterranean, but has now spread worldwide. This herb has culinary, medicinal, and commercial uses, with the European Union approving the use of rosemary extract as a natural antioxidant for the preservation of foods.

Both in vivo and in vitro, the diterpenes found in rosemary inhibit neuronal cell death caused by various agents. These diterpenes are mainly responsible for the herb’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties can mitigate amyloid-beta formation, aggregation, and toxicity in Alzheimer disease, according to the authors of a review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

“Given that AD [Alzheimer disease] is a complex disease involving many pathological processes, treatment with multifunctional drugs like those demonstrated by rosemary diterpenes constitutes a viable therapeutic approach,” they wrote.

“The cascade of neurodegeneration process[es] in AD has lots of similarities with other diseases like Parkinson's disease. Interestingly, some of the rosemary diterpenes such as carnosic acid have been shown to have [a] beneficial effect in [the] Parkinson's disease model,” they added.


Salvia species, commonly referred to as sage, have long been used as European folk treatment. Recent trials have demonstrated that the cholinergic properties of sage extract boosted cognitive function in young adults. To determine whether these effects held in older populations, investigators publishing in Psychopharmacology tested the memory outcomes of 167-, 333-, 666- and 1,332-mg active doses in 20 elderly volunteers in a randomized-controlled trial with crossover. On days of cognitive testing, the researchers gave these treatments after a baseline assessment of cognitive function

“The overall pattern of results is consistent with a dose-related benefit to processes involved in efficient stimulus processing and/or memory consolidation rather than retrieval or working memory efficiency,” the authors wrote. “These findings extend those of the memory-enhancing effects of Salvia extracts in younger populations and warrant further investigation in larger series, in other populations and with different dosing [regimens].”


The neuroprotective actions of cinnamon mitigate oxidative-stress and pro-inflammatory pathways. The active ingredients in cinnamon seem to be effective and safe in treating and preventing Alzheimer disease. Intriguingly, these effects may be epigenetic, benefiting future generations.

“Various cinnamon species and their biologically active ingredients have renewed the interest towards the treatment of patients with mild-to-moderate AD through the inhibition of tau protein aggregation and prevention of the formation and accumulation of amyloid-β peptides into the neurotoxic oligomeric inclusions, both of which are considered to be the AD trademarks,” according to the authors of a review in Pharmacological Research.


Ginger has been used as a spice and medicine in Asian, Arabian, and Indian cultures. It possesses antilipidemic, antiemetic, and anti-inflammatory potential in combating disease. 

In an experimental study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers examined the potential cognitive benefits of ginger extract in 60 healthy, middle-aged women randomized to either placebo or extract dosages of 400 mg or 800 mg once daily for two months.

“[G]inger extract enhances both attention and cognitive processing capabilities of healthy, middle-aged women, with no side effects reported,” the authors concluded. “Therefore, our data reveal that Zingiber officinale extract is a potential brain tonic to enhance cognitive function for middle-age women. However, further study about the precise underlying mechanism, especially the effect of the extract on the alteration of acetylcholine and monoamine transmitters, should be performed.”

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