In nature, form follows function. It should come as no surprise then, that one of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine’s most treasured herbal medicines, Gotu Kola (Sanskrit: Brahmi, Latin: Centella asiatica), is highly reminiscent of the shape of the human brain. After all, it has been revered for thousands of years for its ability to enhance cognitive function. But Gotu Kola’s impressive list of benefits go much further than that—in every sense, this herb is a veritable panacea of healing; a true adaptogen (a term used to describe herbs that have a balancing and harmonizing effect on the mind, body and spirit). For this reason, it was highly prized in both ancient India and China, with references to the plant showing up in classical Ayurvedic and Daoist medical texts.
In both countries and across Asia on the whole, Gotu Kola was known as a longevity herb. The Daoist master and herbalist Li Ching-Yuen was, in his time, a famous proponent and user of the plant. Ancient Chinese medical texts report that he died at the ripe age of 256 years old and attribute his longevity in large part to the use of Gotu Kola on a daily basis. While the accuracy of these records is clearly up for debate, the fact is that Gotu Kola is a well studied herb, and the vast majority of its healing and therapeutic properties, including its ability to measurably prolong life, have been documented and validated by the scientific community. It’s life-extending properties are most likely due to a synergistic combination of its powerful effects on the mind, body and spirit—in every sense, the whole person. The plant’s benefits range from greatly improving memory and restoring brain cell and nerve function to improving blood quality and circulation, restoring digestion and speeding the healing of wounds.
Of particular interest in our fast-paced, intellectually demanding modern world is Gotu Kola’s ability to enhance nearly every aspect of mental functioning. Typically herbs or substances that can achieve such feats are highly stimulating; however, Gotu Kola is centering, which makes it ideal for anyone looking for a cognitive boost without any of the unwanted and imbalancing side effects of stimulants. In one study, children who took a half a gram of Gotu Kola extract powder every day for one year demonstrated significant improvement of their intellectual level. After six months, there was a substantial improvement in intelligence, cognitive function and concentration.
In Ayurvedic medicine, Gotu Kola is classified as a rasayana, or rejuvenative, due to its ability to restore functioning, balance and health to many parts of the mind and body. For example, it is an extremely healing herb for the nervous system and has been shown to repair and restore axons, which are used to transmit nerve impulses throughout the brain and body. As such, it has been used as an anti-anxiety, anti-stress and anti-insomnia medicine throughout its long history of human use. The ability of Gotu Kola to improve blood quality and circulation is likely one of the main components of its rejuvenative effects, as our blood comes into contact with and nourishes nearly every single area of our mind and body, supplying oxygen and other essential nutrients.
Legend has it that Sri Lankan’s observed Elephants eating wild growing Gotu Kola and decided to try it themselves, then discovering the plant’s medicinal properties. photo: schmodder photocase.com
Gotu Kola has long been a favorite herb of Daoists, monks, yogis and sages due to its unique cerebral effects. Many Ayurvedic texts reference the herb’s spiritually enhancing properties, poetically referring to it as the ‘Herb of Enlightenment’. Meditators in particular have sought the plant out for its ability to harmonize the right and left brain hemispheres, which produces a heightened state of awareness, commonly seen in people demonstrating what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has popularized as flow states—states where one becomes intensely absorbed with the activity at hand, in which learning and brain circuitry are significantly enhanced.
Gotu Kola grows widely throughout Central Asia and parts of Africa and is native to China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and various islands in the South Pacific. It’s a small green plant similar on a genetic level to carrots that thrives in wet areas and is used in much the same way as one might use cilantro or parsley in the West. Many health conscious locals add Gotu Kola leaves to salads as a general life-enhancing tonic and preventative. So the story goes, Sri Lankans noticed elephants regularly eating leaves of the plant, and after trying it themselves, discovered the quite noticeable and profound effects it had on memory and lifespan, which gives credence to the fact that the elephant has been mythologically associated with these qualities throughout human history.
Choosing a Quality Product
Due to Gotu Kola’s long history of safe use and the massive amount of research supporting its sizeable list of health benefits, the herb is grown widely and is readily available in most locations worldwide. However, as with any herb, quality, freshness and potency are of utmost importance. With much of the world’s supply originating in Asia, it is important to look for the standard markers of herb quality, such as the organic or wildcrafted label and to only purchase products from reputable suppliers. Indian Gotu Kola is usually of good to excellent quality with the wild-growing Himalayan varieties being rare and highly sought after.
If you are purchasing tablets or capsules be sure to look for brands with minimal additives and fillers, although this is less of a concern when purchasing powdered herb. Gotu Kola has a very mild to slightly bitter taste, meaning it can be consumed as a tea or simply in a glass of water enjoyably. The traditional Ayurvedic method of preparation is to mix Gotu Kola powder with a teaspoon or so of ghee (clarified, medicinal butter). Ghee has a penetrating effect and helps the herb move deeper into bodily tissues. Ghee also enhances the digestive healing properties of the herb and for those sensitive to taste, may make it more palatable.
As with any new herbal product it is recommended to start off slowly and work up to higher dosages as you become familiar with its effects on your mind and body. Gotu Kola is safe to take long term, but many Ayurvedic practitioners recommend taking a few days to a week break in between periods of extended use, ranging from two to four weeks at a time.
Although not quite as widely known in the West as more popular herbs like Echinacea and Ginseng, Gotu Kola is one of the planet’s true medicinal treasures and is well worth investigating for anyone looking to fine tune their health.