Memory is an important brain function and is a somewhat useful marker as to brain function and its deterioration in old age.
Importantly, the herbs and formulas used in the treatment of Memory disorders may be applicable to other Brain disorders including Dementia and Alzheimer’s, as poor Memory is often a symptom associated with such conditions.
Traditional Medicine has a long history of treating Poor, Failing or Lost Memory. In this article we will look at some of the main herbs and formulas used to treat disorders of Memory.
What is the Memory?
Memory is the storage and recollection of knowledge of things experienced. It is therefore essential to proper mental functioning.
Causes of Failing Memory
Memory failure or deterioration can be caused by several factors. Poor cerebral circulation, obstruction of the finest capillaries by plaque or former unresolved trauma causing blood stagnation are all common causes. Deterioration due to age is normally secondary to one of the preceding factors.
Deterioration of the substance of the brain and nerves occurs in old age and can be associated with Yin and Essnce deficiency.
Herbal Functions which benefit the Memory
1. Opening the Orifices
This refers to opening the fine channels of consciousness that effect the Brain and Senses. The medicines used for this purpose are pungent, aromatic and uplifting. Musk and Camphor are potent examples, but the most clinically useful and applicable today is Calamus, Storax and other vegetable aromatics.
2. Move the Blood
Medicines which move the Blood are important to help Brain function. It is contentious as to which herbal medicines may actually cross the Blood-brain barrier. Certain constituents of herbs such as Hyperforin from St. Johns wort and Kavalactones from Kava have demonstrated the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier (Herbalism, Phytochemistry and Ethnopharmacology, Saroya, CRC press, 2011).
Herbs that especially benefit brain circulation including Calamus, Frankincense, Saffron and Rosemary.
3. Clear Phlegm and Damp
Brain deterioration in a cold or phlegmatic individual usually indicates obstruction of the finest capillaries by Phlegm or Damp. Therefore, warming pungent or aromatic medicines that resolve Phlegm and Damp are beneficial.
Medicines include Calamus, Cyperus, Valerian, Indian Spikenard, Nutmeg, etc.
Inflammation causes destruction of the tissues when chronic, and chronic inflammation either in the brain, or more likely, the blood vessels attending to the brain is also a pathological factor in Brain deterioration and failing Memory.
It is relevant that a number of the medicines commonly used for treating Memory have demonstrated potent anti-inflammatory effects. These include Cyperus and Frankincense.
Of course, antioxidant effects are useful to protect against all types of degeneration associated with oxidative stress. They can help clean-up damaged cells, repair damage, and clean debris that may result in obstruction of the finest capillaries.
Herbs with anti-oxidant effects that benefit Memory include Balm, Rosemary, Cyperus, Centella, and Valerian.
Modern Implications for Herbs and Formulas that Treat Memory
As stated above, Memory can be a useful marker as to brain function, and especially Brain deterioration in old age, for example, Senility, Dementia and Alzheimers disease.
In these disorders of degeneration of the brain, medicines which benefit the Memory could be expected to show benefit. For example, Powder of Trithemius, listed below, was stated to be especially beneficial for failing memory in the aged, suggesting Memory loss due to Brain degeneration.
These herbs and formulas therefore suggest a good starting point in the treatment of people with degeneration of the brain function due to age or injury.
Herbs commonly used in the Treatment of Memory disorders
Calamus is a special medicine for the Brain and Memory. It is warm, dry and aromatic, and has been used in all medicine traditions for increasing Memory as well as for other disorders of the Brain. For example, it has proven its efficacy in post-traumatic Epilepsy in Chinese research.
Its light, aromatic nature puts it in the class of medicines which ‘Aromatically Revive’, or ‘Open the Orifices [of the Brain]’. These medicines revive the mental functions and stimulate the brain and senses. They are used for Coma, loss of the senses, poor memory and related disorders.
All Traditional Medicine systems including TCM, Traditional Western Medicine, Ayurveda, Unani and Tibetan Medicine have all used Calamus for these purposes.
A formula which has Calamus as one of its main ingredients (DX-9386, consisting of Calamus, Ginseng, Polygala and Poria) has been shown to Improve Memory and enhance Learning Performance. (Nishiyama et al. Biological Pharmaceutical Bulletin, Dec. & Nov. 1994)
Frankincense has a long history of use for benefiting the Memory, especially in the West. It is lighter and more aromatic than its partner, Myrrh, and therefore has a more uplifting and aromatically opening and dispersing effect. It is very effective to move the Blood and clear stasis, and also has a potent Anti-inflammatory effect. Interestingly, it has demonstrated effects against Brain tumors, suggesting it may cross the blood-brain barrier.
The following is taken from The Secrets of Art and Nature:
Finely powdered white Frankincense is take with wine. It is best taken in Summer for this purpose, and is taken in the increase of the Moon at morning, noon, and night. This will ‘wonderfully increase the Memory, and profit the Brain and Stomach.’
3. Cyperus rotundus
Cyperus is warm and aromatic, and moves the Qi. It has been traditionally used to enhance Memory and Brain function. It likewise has shown potent anti-inflammatory effects, and has also shown lipolytic and anti-platelet effects which may suggest an effect of cleaning the finest capillaries which supply the Brain.
Rosemary is warm and moves the Blood. It has a long history of use to benefit the Brain and Memory, and has been used for various Brain and Nervous disorders. It promotes cerebral circulation and is very rich in antioxidants.
Centella is said in Ayurveda to enhance Intellect and Wisdom, to prevent Senility and increase Memory. It is also used for Insanity and Mental Illness. In addition, it is regarded as Adaptogenic and a Longevity tonic. It has demonstrated adaptogenic activity in research.
In India, it is often combined with Calamus for Brain and Memory disorders.
Balm, like Rosemary, has a history of benefiting the Brain and Nervous system. It has been regarded as useful for Longevity. It is rich in anti-oxidants, and has demonstrated efficacy in the treatment of Dementia, Alzheimers Disease and in benefitting Cognitive functioning. (Ballard et al., Clin. Psychiatry, Jul 2002; Kennedy et al., Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav., Jul., 2002; Akhondzadeh et al., J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry, Jul., 2003)
Valerian and Indian Spikenard are often used, these having a beneficial effect on the Brain and Nervous system. They move Qi and regulate the Brain. Due to their warm nature, they are especially suited to cases with Cold, Damp and Phlegm. Valerian has demonstrated Neuro-protective effects against Parkinson’s disease. (de Oliveria et al., Neurochem Res, Feb, 2009)
Nutmeg and Mace both have a close association with the Brain and Nerves. Mace has a signature of the fine capillaries that surround and enter the Brain. They are very warm, pungent and aromatic, and therefore penetrate, uplift, and clear Cold and Phlegm, as well as settling Wind.
Ginger and Pepper are often used in Memory formulas for 3 reasons: they are warm and pungent, and therefore clear Cold, Damp and Phlegm; secondly they clear Ama (toxic residue from undigested food) from the capillaries; thirdly, they enhance bioavailability of the other medicines they are combined with.
Sample Formulas for the Treatment of Memory
1. Confection of Coriander and Almond
Coriander seed 2 parts
Bitter Almond 1 part
Powder, and with an equal amount of sugar, form a confection.
It strengthens the Brain and increases Memory.
Dose: ½ dram (Wirtzung)
2. Electuary of Frankincense
Frankincense 1 dram
Black Pepper 1 scruple
Powder and mix with sufficient Honey.
This moves the blood and improves circulation. It is obviously more suited to cases with Cold and Phlegm obstruction. This was taken out of Wirtzung, although he mentions it was used by the ‘Ancients’.
Dose: ½ dram.
3. Electuary of Frankincense #2
Myrrh equal parts
Powder, and with clarified Honey, form an Electuary.
This is an expanded version of the preceding. It is stronger to move the Blood and Qi, and both Cyperus and Myrrh also have demonstrated potent anti-inflammatory activity. (Wirtzung)
Dose: ½–1 dram
4. Electuary for Amnesia (Unani)
Cyperus root 30 grams each
Black Pepper 15 grams
Honey 200 grams
Powder the herbs and mix with Honey to form an Electuary.
This, again, is a expanded version of the preceding. The fact that this is of Arab origin suggests that the preceding may also have originally been of Arab origin.
This benefits greatly from the addition of Calamus.
Dose: 1 dram
5. Powder Against Forgetfulness
Cubeb 1 ½ oz.
Caraway seed 1 oz.
Clove 1 dram
This is interesting in that it doesn’t rely on standard Memory medicines like Calamus and Frankincense. It is obviously suited to cases with Cold and Phlegm obstruction.
Used for loss of Memory associated with Mental deficiency, Cold and Phlegm.
Dose: 1 dram with Wine.
6. Pills to Increase Memory
Ambergris 1 ½ drams
Musk 5 grains
Powder, then with Marjoram water, form Pills. This can be made without Musk and Ambergris, or Camphor may replace the Musk.
This is used for Cold, Damp and Phlegm obstructing the Brain. It not only benefits the Memory, but is useful for Lethargy, Mental Dullness and dullness of the Senses.
Dose: 1 scruple–½ dram
7. Powder of Trithemius
Clove 7 drams
Crystal of Tartar 6 drams
Parsley seed 4 drams
Cubebs 2 drams
This was one of the better known compounds in use to increase Memory. It has its name from Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim in Wurzburg (1462–1516).
Dose: 1 dram was taken morning and night for 1 month; the next month, it is given in the morning only; in the 3rd month, only 3 mornings a week; in the 4th month, only 2 mornings a week, and then once a month in the increase of the Moon for the rest of their life.
‘In restoring lost Memory, especially in the Aged, Powder of Trithemius, so called, will much help’. (Hartman, Practical Chymistry, 1670)
8. Memory Powder
Senna leaf 3 oz.
Dill seed 1 oz.
Ginger ½ oz.
Aniseed 2 drams
Sugar 3 oz.
This is an interesting formula as it is different from most other formulas used to increase Memory. It doesn’t rely on the standard medicines such as Cyperus, Frankincense or Calamus, even though the latter appears, it is in a very small dose.
I have used this formula for a number of years in my clinic both in powder and tincture form and have found it very effective.
One elderly lady I regularly treated would often come for her appointment either on the wrong day or at the wrong time. One day she frustratedly asked ‘Have you anything to help my Memory?’ I gave her this formula. A month later I asked ‘How’s the Memory?’ She replied ‘Well, I’ve been coming at the right time haven’t I?’ She then stated that her Memory had greatly improved and that she wasn’t forgetting the little things that she had become so accustomed to forgetting.
This was used for a number of purposes:
1. Strengthen the Brain and benefits and increases the Memory
2. Dizziness, Vertigo and like disorders of the Head
3. Cleanses the Blood, benefits complexion, and cleanses the skin in Acne
4. Benefits the Stomach, enhances Digestion
5. Strengthen the Uterus
6. Preserves and cleanses the Lungs; good for Coughs
7. Pain of the Liver, Spleen and Gall Bladder.
8. Good for ‘all diseases of the Heart’.
9. Good for all types of Swellings
10. Preserves in time of Infection
11. Held in the mouth, it is good for toothache and stinking breath.
Dose: ½–1 dram in wine. (Wirtzung)
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