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Medicinal plants for relaxation & mental fitness and vital substances with a well-documented effect on the nerves and cell protection

Ginseng occurs in a variety of forms in the mountains and forests of Northeastern China and Eastern Siberia. “Real ginseng”, Panax ginseng C. A. Meyer, grows mainly in Korea. Ginseng is one of the longest-used medicinal plants and, around 5,000 years ago, was viewed as a “panacea” in Chinese and Japanese medicine.

An extract is obtained from the roots of this perennial plant (which is about 40-90 cm high) and is used as a tonic and fortifying remedy. The use of ginseng for fatigue and weakness, as well as for declining performance and concentration has been scientifically investigated. Ginsenosides are important components of ginseng, representing a mixture of various triterpene saponins.

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is native to Central Europe and grows on dry soil, embankments, next to paths and on roadsides. The nerve-soothing effect of St. John's wort has been known since ancient times. The essential ingredients of the medicinal plant include hypericins, flavonoids, essential oil and tannins.

In herbal medicine, the above-ground parts of the plant are used – these are harvested at flowering time. The soothing effect on the nerves is scientifically documented. St. John's wort lifts the mood and provides “inner peace”, relaxation and balance. Because of this, it also has a favourable effect on the stomach and intestines.

Valerian is a herbaceous plant which is found in many countries. The variety used as a medicinal plant with a long tradition is Valerina officinalis. The roots are used, since they contain sesquiterpenes – with their soothing and hypnotic effects. Valerian is often used in combination with hops as a mild-acting drug for treating nervous sleep disorders and anxiety-related conditions.

The genuine hop plant (Humulus lupulus) has been used since the Middle Ages, and is now cultivated in special hop farms. The shoots grow up to several metres in height and need a structure to climb up on. The importance of hops in brewing beer is well known. Hops not only give the beer its typical bitter taste, but also have an antibacterial and preservative effect. Extracts with soothing and soporific effects are also produced from hops. The value of the hop plant as a medicinal product is demonstrated by the fact that it was voted Medicinal Plant of the Year in 2007.

Some vitamins are vital for the various functions of the brain and the nervous system. There is a reason why B vitamins are also called “nerve vitamins”. The water-soluble vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12 are partially responsible for a normal functioning of the nervous system and contribute to a normal energy metabolism. A functioning energy metabolism is also important for the energy supply of the brain.

Together with vitamins B6 und B12, folic acid contributes to a normal mental function, and to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue. In addition, sufficient red blood cells are required to carry sufficient oxygen to the brain. Insufficient oxygen supply to the brain can affect our ability to concentrate. Vitamins B6 and B12 contribute to a normal formation of red blood cells.

Vitamin C contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress. In addition, vitamin C plays a role in the normal functioning of the nervous system, supports a normal mental function (like some B vitamins), and contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.

If consumed in a daily dose of 250 mg, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) contributes to the preservation of a normal brain function. Good sources of this omega-3 fatty acid include fatty fish (e.g. herring, mackerel or salmon) as well as a fish oil with a highly concentrated DHA content.

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Interesting facts about the brain

The human brain is the control centre of the whole body. It works incessantly: it coordinates the activity of the nerves in the organism, processes all sensory perceptions, and is the seat of our consciousness, our thinking and feeling, as well as our memory.

The brain contains several billions of nerve cells that are interconnected via an intricate network to receive, process and transmit impulses. Each of these cells is itself in direct contact with up to 10,000 other nerve cells.

The brain is one of the most active organs in the body. Even though it only makes up about 2% of our bodyweight, its share in our energy and oxygen consumption is around 20%. This is why an uninterrupted supply of blood saturated with oxygen is absolutely vital. If the oxygen supply to the brain is interrupted for only a few seconds, we lose consciousness.

In order for the brain to work properly, it is also dependent on a constant supply of energy sources, especially glucose, and sufficient nutrients (e.g. antioxidants, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and lecithin).

A poor cerebral blood flow causes a slow, steady loss of brain functions. This can manifest itself in very different ways, for instance as impaired concentration, fatigue, depression, nervousness and irritability. In the long term, it may lead to memory loss and confusion.

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Tips for staying mentally fit – well into old age!

Regular exercise and daily mental exercise:
These both increase blood circulation in the brain and stimulate brain functions such as memory and the ability to concentrate. Regular endurance exercise, like walking, cycling or jogging, is particularly well suited. The cerebellum and the cerebral cortex can also be trained by the coordination of muscle movements.

In addition, exercise helps to reduce daily stress. And mental exercise (e.g. crosswords or adding up prices at the supermarket) are the best brain jogging to also stay mentally fit.

A varied and balanced diet:
An adequate supply of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other nutrients is needed in order for the brain to function properly. Glucose (dextrose) is the main source of energy for the brain. Foods that can be recommended therefore include fruit and vegetables, wholegrain products and pulses, vegetable oils (e.g. rapeseed oil, walnut oil) and fatty fish with a high proportion of omega-3 fatty acid (herring, mackerel, and salmon).

Among other things, specific dietary supplements consisting of vital substances with well-documented effects to support the functions of the brain and the nervous system are useful.

Avoiding wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels:

In susceptible individuals, a steep increase in blood sugar levels leads to an excessive production of the hormone insulin. Since excessive insulin also opens more gateways for blood sugar to enter the body's cells, this can, in turn, lead to a vast drop in blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia).

This can result in poor concentration, nausea and food cravings – especially for sweets. After consuming sweets again, the blood glucose level rises rapidly, before it drops again. Blood sugar levels experience a “roller-coaster effect”, which disrupts the balance of the brain's energy supply (and thus the brain function).

The intake of slowly metabolised carbohydrates, for instance in the form of fibre from wholegrain products, and eating a number of smaller meals can be recommended. However, there is no need to renounce white flour products or sweets completely – what counts is how much of them you consume; and do not forget the motto: “Consume in moderation, not in bulk!”

Healthy lifestyle:

Obesity, smoking, too much alcohol, day to day stress and a hectic lifestyle affect long-term mental fitness. To relax, you may enjoy a flavoursome cup of tea in the evening, a fragrant bath, a walk outside or a soothing massage. A healthy lifestyle and an inspiring living environment have positive impacts on preserving mental performance.

Drinking sufficient liquids:

A lack of water lowers the ability to concentrate. The blood gets thicker, meaning that the brain is supplied with less oxygen and fewer nutrients. You should drink at least 1.5 to 2 litres of fluid (around 3 to 4 pints) every day. Preferably water, unsweetened fruit teas or herbal teas or fruit juice spritzers (juice with mineral water).

Alcohol and drinks containing caffeine are also included – but as stimulants they should be consumed in moderation. Anyone who finds it difficult to drink enough may find that having a drinking schedule often helps.

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