“Biological aging is not tied absolutely to chronological aging and it may be possible to slow biological aging and even reduce the possibility of suffering from age-related diseases such as dementia,” writes Ruth Peters from Care of the Elderly, Imperial College Faculty of Medicine, London.
As we age our brain shrinks and cognition, as well as vascular (blood vessels) arrangement in the brain undergo change. Aging increases the risk of stroke, lesions in the white matter in the brain and dementia. It can also impair memory, cause hormonal changes and changes in neurotransmission. But it is not a lost cause as Peters explains. Making necessary changes in life like including a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, reducing drinking and smoking, cognitive engagement-basically choosing to live mentally and physically well can go a long way in delaying aging or stalling premature aging. In this, Ayurveda can play a very important role in delaying the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, by bringing a holistic focus on the right diet, panchakarma therapies, cleanses, mind-body discipline tailored to an individual’s dosha constitution along with some age-appropriate lifestyle changes.
An Ayurvedic Understanding of Brain Aging
There are startling parallels to be drawn between the Ayurvedic study of brain diseases and its study in modern medicine, in terms of nomenclature, symptom study, and diagnosis. Aging is mentioned as Jara in Ayurvedic texts and depends on the strength of two subtle concepts of ojas (the essence of the seven dhatus) and tejas (the essence of agni or digestive fire) in you. So part of the secret to good brain health lies in strengthening these two and bringing the three doshas or fundamental bio energies in perfect balance. Like modern medicine, Ayurveda also mentions that the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s usually start after 40 years of age.
A key component of the brain is fat, and essential fatty acids are important for the maintenance of brain health and its integrity. According to Ayurveda, the formation of fatty tissues depends on food essence. This is why it is so important to be a conscious eater if you want a robust and age-proof brain. Ayurveda also recommends personalized treatments based on the imbalances, diet, and lifestyle of an individual to address brain aging-related concerns, particularly in the middle-aged-to-senior group.
The Ayurvedic Secret
Ayurvedic texts describe as many as 5000 symptoms, 700 herbs and over 6000 medicinal formulations for treating various diseases! And more recently, scientists have shown an interest in studying the uses of phytochemicals in dealing with brain aging as more of us look for healthier, sustainable, and non-invasive options to take care of brain health and diseases in ways that do not have long term debilitating side effects on other bodily functions.
Oxidative stress or molecular attack from free radicals is said to speed up aging. Ayurveda mentions rejuvenating polyherbal formulations called Rasayana that come with specific benefits to delay aging, and increase vitality. The herbs that specifically support brain and cognitive functions involving intellect, memory, learning, and neurological health are called Medhya Rasayana. Medhya connotes intellectual or mental vigor in Ayurveda. These herbs and herbal formulations help delay aging, support regeneration of neural tissues, reduce stress, have adaptogenic properties and improve memory and learning.
Some of the medhyarasayana herbs mentioned in classical texts that have also found renewed interest from the scientific community in exploring its efficacy and prophylactic benefits are
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)
Also called the herb of grace in Ayurveda, brahmi is loaded with antioxidants that help counter oxidative stress, a major contributing factor in premature aging, and several neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. For example, a 2018 French review study mentioned that oxidative stress can increase the accumulation of amyloid plaques that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. And so it is important to load up on herbal and dietary sources of antioxidants like Brahmi.
The main compound of bacosides present in brahmi defuse the rogue free radicals and prevent their interaction with fat molecules helping stop lipid peroxidation, a process that has been associated with multiple neurodegenerative conditions. Brahmi also improves brain function and special learning, preliminary animal studies show. It increased the length and network of dendrites, nerve cells associated with memory and learning.
Mandukaparni (Centella asiatica)
Mandukaparni helps calm anxiety, which is listed as a neurological disorder in Ayurveda. It manages the function of certain neurotransmitters by releasing hormones that reduce stress and anxiety. This herb is also an excellent source of antioxidants and helps reduce fatigue, blood sugar levels, lowers bad cholesterol, and synthesizes nitric oxide that prevents blood clotting. It can also improve cognitive function and mental alertness when taken together with other herbs like ashwagandha.
Shankhapushpi (Convolvulus Pluricaulis)
This is a timeless remedy for improving brain function. The flavonoids present help improve memory, learning, focus, reduce mental fatigue, reduces stress and depression, helps fight various psychotic disorders, and increases mental clarity. But most importantly for those who battle with constant throbbing headaches, it provides relief from stress headaches. It also helps you sleep better and deal with eating disorders linked to your mental health, as it is a good appetizer.
Ashwagandha (Indian Gensing or Withania somnifera)
This is one of the most widely researched Ayurvedic herbs that is sold today in the form of supplemental gummies, powder, tincture, capsules for its plethora of benefits for modern-day lifestyle diseases, the most important being in increasing longevity and delaying brain aging. With neuroprotective properties, it helps enhance memory, improve learning, reduce oxidative stress in the brain, and stalls nervous degeneration. Many studies have found it to be an effective remedy for anxiety, due to its anti anxiolytic properties. It is known to reduce stress by lowering the secretion of cortisol by 26%. This is helpful if you are someone who is constantly exposed to a high-pressure environment. Japanese researchers have found that this Indian herb can help those with sleep problems like insomnia since it is a natural relaxant, and de-stressor. Studies have also shown it can stabilize mood in clinically depressed patients just as well as some of the OTC medicines.
Jyotishmati (Celastrus paniculatus)
As the name suggests, Jyotishmati means that which enlightens (jyoti) the mind (mati). Though the herb’s veerya quality is one of extreme heat, it has been popular as a brain tonic since time immemorial. It has medhya properties, that is, it improves intellect. It is usually consumed in the form of powder with milk. It has powerful antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress. But it is not recommended for those with high pitta dosha. It helps stimulate the nervous system, liver and counters plaque formation in the arteries. The oil from the plant has been historically used for memory enhancement and clarity of mind. It is also said to promote lucid dreaming and retain dream memory, though this detail may call for a deeper scientific exploration.
Nurturing our mental health with Ayurveda is an incredibly powerful way to deal with the brain chemistry related to brain aging and the prevention of mood disorders like anxiety and depression. To deal with mental health at large, Ayurveda recommends three-step treatment.
Here, the inclusion of practices like mantra chanting, auspicious fire ceremonies, fasts, and other spiritual activities are encouraged to calm and center the mind. In fact, pivotal studies have shown that Om chanting can activate the vagus nerve, also called the wellness nerve, which connects the brain to the rest of the body. “The neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting indicate limbic deactivation,” the study said, “As similar observations have been recorded with vagus nerve stimulation treatment used in depression and epilepsy, the study findings argue for a potential role of this ‘OM’ chanting in clinical practice.”
Here, you are recommended a specific diet and Ayurvedic medicines to address your mental health concern and in general to enhance brain health. In general, for diet or improving ahara rasa, the following foods can be had:
- Raw or organic and non-homogenized milk
- Ghee or clarified butter
- Grapes and berries like gooseberries, cherries, blueberries,
- Ash gourd
You can include a variety of fruits, colorful vegetables, nuts, other sources of healthy fats and plant-based proteins to support and reinforce cognitive development.
Next, you are also taken through drug therapy where the toxins are removed from your system through panchakarma treatments, and after panchakarma cleansing, you are given palliative care, rasayanas as discussed above, with the aim of maintenance of good mental and physical health, improved vitality and positive state of mind.
Ayurveda is a holistic science where all the parts of the treatment including the mind and body are important. So, it is just as important to be mindful of one’s thoughts, behavior in relationships, and practicing seasonal regime or ritucharya sincerely. Apart from this, some of the panchakarma treatments that help clear up the toxins in the mind-body complex are:
This is a widely popular relaxation therapy that involves deep tissue massage using carefully formulated and warmed herbal oils. This increases blood circulation through the body and brain. It activates specific energy points and neural pathways to support a deep sense of relaxation, stress reduction, and lightness. It brings vata dosha in balance, which is associated with many mental health disorders.
In this process, a steady stream of lukewarm oil is poured on the forehead and scalp of the individual, stimulating relaxation points in the forehead region. It reinvigorates the central nervous system and detoxifies it. This therapy is recommended for various nervous system-related conditions with roots in vitiated vata dosha.
Nasal therapy clears out the mucus and other toxins from the nasal passages, lubricates them, reduces Vata imbalance. Pouring herb-infused oils through nasal passages also relieves migraine headaches, clears sinuses, reduces anxiety, and clears the mind. This must be done under the supervision of a seasoned Ayurveda therapist.
Some other ways you can delay brain aging and keep it fighting fit include
- Engaging in activities that stimulate the mind. Studies have found that engaging in activities like solving puzzles, math, learning new skills, or drawing, that require mental sharpness and alertness stimulate neural connections and have a regenerative benefit for the brain.
- Getting enough exercise. Physical exercises or yoga can help you work up muscles as well as relax your mind instantly, which supports brain health. Studies say that regular workouts can increase the number of blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood to the brain.
- Keep your blood pressure low. You can try various mind-body practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi, mandala art, among other forms to control the release of stress hormones that push up blood pressure. High blood pressure has been associated with a higher risk of premature cognitive decline. Studies say, practicing meditation can actually change structural changes in the brain, like the cerebral cortex can thicken in long time meditators, an area related to attention and emotional understanding. According to Sara Lazar, a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” In fact, a key task in managing brain health is reducing stress levels. Studies show, higher stress, poor sleep, and high anxiety levels led students to fare poorly on cognitive tests.
- Reign in blood sugar levels. Diabetes mellitus is linked with the onset of dementia. So it is important to make sure your lifestyle supports diabetes management as well. Here’s your total guide to managing diabetes with the help of non-invasive complementary and alternative therapies.