Gotu kola is a popular herbal remedy in Asia that most of us in the West have gotten all wrong. The word “kola” makes most people think it contains caffeine, but, in fact, gotu kola is a relaxant that contains no caffeine whatsoever. Plus, it’s sometimes confused with another herbal remedy that shares the same common name.
In a large part of the world, gotu kola is both an important traditional herbal remedy and a versatile cooking ingredient. In this article, I review some of the many claims made with regards to gotu kola’s healing properties — focusing on brain and emotional health — that are now backed by science.
The Historical Benefits Of Gotu Kola
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is a perennial ground covering plant that’s a member of the same family as parsley and carrots. It grows abundantly in the wetlands of Asia, South Africa, and Australia (1).
Gotu kola is an important natural remedy in Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian Ayurvedic medicine — its health benefits are legendary. In traditional Chinese medicine, gotu kola is believed to promote longevity and, in fact, its Chinese name means “fountain of youth.” Legend has it that herbalist and martial arts master Li Ching-Yuen lived to be 200 years old (more or less) in part due to the longevity-promoting benefits of gotu kola. A Sri Lankan legend says that elephants live exceptionally long lives because they eat gotu kola.
Gotu kola has a particularly long list of traditional uses. It has been used to treat disorders of the mind, including mental fatigue, anxiety, depression, memory loss, and insomnia. Yogis have used it as a meditation aid and it has been thought to restore balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain (2). For the physical body, it’s been used for asthma, colds, diarrhea, fever, hepatitis, stomach ulcers, and syphilis. It has even been used as an antidote for snake bites, toxic mushrooms, and arsenic poisoning (3).
Gotu Kola in the Kitchen
Few herbal remedies are used as food mainly because, frankly, they don’t taste very good! But that’s not the case with gotu kola. This mild-tasting plant has the texture and appearance of watercress and a taste similar to parsley. It’s a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines where it’s added to salads, rice, and curry dishes. It’s also blended into cold smoothie-like drinks and made into tea.
Gotu Kola — Don’t Confuse It With…
For many, gotu kola is confused with kola nut (Cola nitida), a caffeine-containing member of the cocoa family used to flavor cola soft drinks. It’s often assumed that gotu kola is related to kola nut, but it’s not. To further add to the confusion, gotu kola is sometimes added to energy drinks. This reinforces the erroneous belief that gotu kola is a source of caffeine and an energy booster, when in fact it’s a caffeine-free relaxant (4).
Two popular common names for gotu kola are Asian pennywort and Indian pennywort. But there are many plants called pennywort that are totally unrelated to gotu kola, including an invasive North American lawn weed. Another common name for gotu kola is brahmi — a name shared by Bacopa monnieri, another Ayurvedic remedy. Not only do they share a common name, they share similar properties — both are safe and effective cognitive enhancers. These herbs are so similar that they are sometimes used interchangeably (5).
Evidence-Based Brain Benefits Of Gotu Kola
Today in the West gotu kola is most often used to treat varicose veins. Its main active ingredients are compounds known as triterpenes that increase the strength and volume of collagen, an important building block of skin (6).
Gotu kola is anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, insecticidal, and antifungal — all beneficial properties for the health of your skin (7). These properties make topical application useful for minor wound healing, burns, psoriasis, stretch marks, scars, cellulite, and scleroderma (8, 9). But the proven benefits of gotu kola are more than skin deep. Gotu kola is used as a brain tonic in Ayurvedic medicine and offers many neuroprotective and mental health benefits.
Gotu Kola Stimulates Growth Of New Brain Cells
Gotu kola activates the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that acts like fertilizer for your brain encouraging new brain cell formation. In this way it works similarly to the “other brahmi” — Bacopa monnieri. It takes a few weeks for gotu kola’s effects to kick in and it seems to work by encouraging dendrite branching, increasing brain plasticity and communication between brain cells. Gotu kola also increases nerve growth factor (NGF) which stimulates the growth of new nerve cells and safeguards existing ones.
Gotu Kola Protects The Brain From Toxins And Oxidative Stress
Gotu kola protects your brain from damage incurred by the assaults of everyday life. So far, studies show it protects the brain from neurotoxins like lead, arsenic, aluminum, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a ubiquitous food additive that causes brain fog, migraines, and mood swings (10, 11, 12).
Another way gotu kola protects the brain is by reducing the effects of free radicals (13). Free radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, occurs when unattached oxygen molecules attack cells much in the same way they attack metal causing it to rust. Antioxidants neutralize damaging free radicals rendering them harmless. Most plants have some antioxidant capacity, but gotu kola excels as a neuroprotective antioxidant.
Gotu Kola Can Improve Your Mood
If you are one of the millions of people coping with stress, anxiety, or depression, gotu kola can help. Gotu kola has an anti-anxiety effect in chronically and acutely stressed animals (14). In human studies, gotu kola has increased calmness, contentedness, and alertness by 100 percent and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression by 50 percent (15). It has been shown to lower symptoms of anxiety and stress in persons with generalized anxiety disorder. It significantly reduces the startle response caused by sudden noises within 30-60 minutes after ingestion (16). Since the acoustic startle response is a reliable way to tell if someone is anxious, this is another indicator that this herbal remedy could be useful for treating anxiety.
Gotu Kola Will Help You Sleep
Getting adequate sleep is one of the best things you can do for your brain. Even one bad night of sleep can leave you unable to concentrate and in a brain fog the following day. Insomnia is a common modern malady but the usual solution, sleeping pills, is a terrible idea since they rob you of restorative sleep and can cause significant memory loss (17). The popular sleep drug Ambien has been called “the amnesia drug” and sends thousands of people to the emergency room every year (18). Gotu kola has safely been used as a natural sleep aid for thousands of years (19). Traditionally, gotu kola tea is sweetened with a little honey as an Ayurvedic remedy for insomnia (20).
Gotu Kola Enhances The Brain Benefits Of Vitamin E
Vitamin E is known mostly as a heart-healthy vitamin, but it’s equally important for your brain. This fat soluble vitamin slows down age-related mental decline, particularly when paired with vitamin C (21). When taken together, “E + C” is linked to improvements in memory. It slows memory loss, and lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by 60 percent (22). Gotu kola shows similar synergistic effects with vitamin E making “E + gotu kola” another powerful brain enhancing duo (23).
Gotu Kola Improves Memory And May Help With Alzheimer’s
Gotu kola can enhance mood and cognition in both healthy seniors and those with Alzheimer’s disease (24). Alzheimer’s patients have significantly reduced levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory and learning (25). Alzheimer’s drugs like Aricept work by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine. Triterpenes are steroid precursors found in gotu kola that are beneficial for Alzheimer’s in two ways. Similar to Aricept, these compounds inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine (26). They also prevent the formation of amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients (27, 28, 29).
How To Use Gotu Kola
While you certainly can eat gotu kola, it’s unlikely you’ll find it at your local grocery store, at least here in the United States. But you can buy seeds or plants and grow your own. If you live in a warm, moist climate, you can grow it as a perennial ground cover. If not, you can grow it in a pot as you’d grow any herb.
You can also find an assortment of gotu kola teas, as either a single ingredient tea or in combination with other herbs. Some brain-boosting teas contain gotu kola with ginkgo biloba, an important memory-enhancing herb. Sometimes it’s added to holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), a revered adaptogenic herb also known as tulsi (30).
Gotu kola supplements are sold in the form of capsules, tablets, and tinctures. It can also be found as an ingredient in topical ointments and creams.
Gotu Kola Side Effects And Warnings
Gotu kola is extremely safe. It’s been eaten as a food and drunk as a tea by millions of people for thousands of years. Most side effects are very minor, usually an upset stomach or headache.
However, there are a few precautions to take with gotu kola supplements. They should not be mixed with central nervous system (CNS) depressants. This group includes sleeping pills like Ambien or anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium (31). When taken together, the combination can make you too drowsy. Gotu kola should be used with caution by anyone with a history of liver problems or skin cancer, and should not be taken by women who are pregnant (32).
Gotu Kola Benefits: The Bottom Line
Gotu kola has a long history of safe use as both an herbal remedy and a food throughout much of Asia. Although it’s a relaxant herb, it unfortunately gets confused with kola nut, a caffeine-containing plant that’s similar in name only.
Gotu kola is mainly used in the West for healing varicose veins and skin conditions but one of its main traditional uses — as a brain tonic — is often overlooked. Gotu kola can improve your mood and memory, protect your brain from toxins and free radical damage, and help keep you mentally sharp for life. Consider gotu kola supplements or tea if you are looking for a cognitive enhancer that smooths away the edges of stress, anxiety, or insomnia.