Bacopa monnieri is easily one of the most effective nootropics in existence. It is an ingredient in pretty much every high-quality daily nootropic stack in the world today. Many once-daily brain supplements use Bacopa monnieri as a central ingredient because of its ability to reliably enhance memory function.
Because Bacopa monnieri has become so widely used, there is a lot of information available online now about Bacopa monnieri. However, not all of this information is accurate. Much of it is downright misleading; as always, with a rapid growth of information output comes an exponential increase in misinformation!
I was recently asked whether Bacopa monnieri works by increasing neurotransmitter levels. In particular, an IJEST reader asked me whether Bacopa works by boosting dopamine. Clearly, there is not a lot of good information available out there regarding how Bacopa works!
So, how does Bacopa monnieri work? Does it increase neurotransmitter synthesis? Does it support dopamine levels? If not, what does it do?
What is Bacopa monnieri?
Bacopa monnieri is a perennial creeping herb that has long been used in traditional medicine, particularly in traditional Ayurvedic Indian medicine. Bacopa is native to the wetlands of southern and Eastern India, Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America.
Bacopa is known by many names: Water hyssop, brahmi, Indian pennywort, herb of grace, and thyme-leaved gratiola, although you will almost always see it referred to as either Bacopa monnieri or Brahmi.
Today, Bacopa monnieri is being investigated for its positive effects on cognition. Several studies have found that Bacopa monnieri supplementation significantly improves memory function. A number of clinical trials have found that Bacopa monnieri improves memory retention and recall in older people struggling with memory impairment or mild cognitive decline.
This is why Bacopa monnieri is now used in so many natural nootropic stacks. The evidence is pretty unequivocal that Bacopa is effective for enhancing memory function. But how does it work?
How does Bacopa work?
There is some disagreement over how Bacopa monnieri works. It isn’t that we do not know enough about how Bacopa monnieri affects the brain. The issue is that there are a number of different mechanisms of action of Bacopa monnieri which have been identified, and any one of them could feasibly explain its positive effects on memory.
Some people have suggested that Bacopa monnieri is, first and foremost, and adaptogen. This means it works by making the body better able to deal with stress, which ultimately improves cognitive performance.
Others have arghued that Bacopa monnieri primarily works by protecting brain cells from damage. Some studies have found that Bacopa monnieri has some mild antioxidant properties, meaning it prevents nerve cells from being damaged by free radicals. This would protect brain structures over the long-term, supporting memory and cognition more broadly.
But neither of these mechanisms can account for Bacopa monnieri’s powerful and rapid effects on memory function.
The most likely mechanism of action of Bacopa monnieri is dendrite arborization. Clinical trials have shown that Bacopa monnieri triggers the process of dendrite branching. In simple terms, Bacopa makes the branch-like structures which connect your neurons – your dendrites – grow and multiply. This increases the number of connections between neurons, which means more interneuronal communication, which in turn means better cognitive function.
Does Bacopa monnieri increase dopamine?
It seems unlikely that Bacopa monnieri increases dopamine in any meaningful way.
There is some evidence to suggest that Bacopa can increase neurotransmitter levels, including dopamine levels. One study conducted on rats found that Bacopa monnieri supplementation increased levels of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline.
However, not only has this relationship never been observed in humans, but the effects of Bacopa monnieri use do not map on to what we would expect from significantly increased dopamine levels. Using Bacopa does not normally boost motivation, drive, confidence or mood.
Instead, Bacopa improves memory retention, recall and formation; it supports learning in a deep, lasting way, and does not do anything we associate with dopamine.
If you are interested in boosting your dopamine levels in a safe, natural way, then a good way to go about it is to supplement with Tyrosine. Or, better yet, use a comprehensive nootropic stack which supports dopamine and acetylcholine production while also enhancing brain health and functionality more broadly.
Does Bacopa lower dopamine?
Some readers have asked me whether it could be that Bacopa actually lowers dopamine rather than boosting it. This question was raised because a small number of readers found that taking Bacopa monnieri in large doses for long periods left them feeling demotivated and with impaired cognitive performance.
However, there is no evidence that Bacopa monnieri lowers dopamine. The only studies which look at Bacopa’s effects on dopamine indicate that it may slightly elevate dopamine, but not enough to cause any kind of downregulation or crash.
Instead, it is likely that users are experiencing the side effects of other supplements or lifestyle factors, and the use of Bacopa is incidental to their perceived loss of dopamine.
Paul Tardner is the Head Writer at IJEST.org. Paul is a former academic and research scientist. He now dedicates his time to his own research into nootropics, with a particular focus on cognitive enhancement in old age. You can learn more about Paul from his profile page.