When it comes to nootropics (purported cognitive enhancers) this herb from Ayurveda is perhaps the most popular.
Sure, there are plenty of other nootropics like ashwagandha, magnesium threonate, and rhodiola rosea which have some compelling research about them. But almost none have the amount of research that Bacopa monnieri does.
PubMed lists 18 clinical human trials for it, many of which are double-blinded and placebo controlled. From the elderly with senile dementia of Alzheimer’s type, to young children with symptoms of ADHD, the trial objectives are diverse (1) (2).
The majority of those trials are just looking at mental performance among healthy individuals. None of the suspected benefits of bacopa are proven by government standards, but the preliminary findings remain intriguing nonetheless.
When you expand your search in the PubMed database outside of the human trials, you get nearly 400 results. Many of them are animal studies.
Like the 2017 published rat study about the herb extract reportedly improving sperm quality in adult male mice (3). Or measuring how it benefits advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and oxidative stress in diabetic mice (4).
There is also a plethora of in vitro (think Petri dish) research that is exciting to read. Like it showing “anticancer potential” when tested against cultured MCF-7 and MDA-MB 231, which are two of the most common breast cancer cell lines used in research (5). They suspect the cucurbitacins and betulinic acid in it may be responsible for what they observed.
When it comes to antioxidants, the standardized extract has tested out as having an insanely high ORAC value of 169,800. That’s 20x what ashwagandha root measures out at, which is 8,487.
You don’t hear about much about these other things. It could turn out that the purported advantages of mental enhancement are not even be the best thing about it!
But not everything about this plant is good news. For some people, taking bacopa supplements may actually do more harm than good.
Is bacopa poisonous?
Even in high dosages, the research does not suggest it’s toxic.
In a rat study, extremely large dosages were used of up to 5,000 mg/kg. That’s 5,000 mg per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight. (6)
To put that in perspective, it would be the equivalent of a 150 (68 kg) man taking 340,000 mg at once!
Of course rodents are not humans, so you can’t compare the two as being analogous. But it’s still good to hear that such a high dose of bacopa “did not cause any serious undesirable effects” in the rats.
Now that was just a single dose test. They also used lower dosages ranging from 30 to 1,500 mg/kg of body weight for 270 consecutive days. Not even that was said to produce any toxicity in the rats.
No mutagenic activity of the herb’s standardized extract has been observed in research. That’s not something you can say about every “natural” product. The public is entirely oblivious to the mutagenic side effect of stevia.
Based on human studies and other published data, side effects of Bacopa monnieri supplements may include:
- Upset stomach
- Frequent bowel movements
- Slower heart rate (bradycardia)
- Increased fluid secretions in the lungs, stomach, and intestines
- GI tract blockage
- Interference with thyroid hormones
- Dry mouth
- Heavy metal poisoning
- Unknown pregnancy safety
This list may sound scary – and it potentially is – but some of these are based off of very theoretical data sources.
For example, WebMD lists most of those but when you examine their drop down list of references, you discover their most recent citation is 2002. Out of the 18 human clinical trials on PubMed, only 3 were published in 2002 or earlier, the other 15 come after. Most of WebMD references are for non-human data and some are quite old, dating back to 1960’s. They seriously need to do an update.
In the human studies, the most common side effects seem to be upset stomach and diarrhea.
Take the 2010 published Australian study as case in point. It was large (98 people) and when compared to placebo, they said bacopa “caused gastrointestinal tract side-effects of increased stool frequency, abdominal cramps, and nausea.” (7) Another with 62 participants noted diarrhea (8).
If you’re isolating your adverse reactions to actual human data, these GI symptoms have the best support.
As far as the heavy metals, no one else lists that as a side effect, but it seemed necessary to add that in here.
Research published in 2016 out of India tested 12 samples for lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and common pesticides (9).
Fortunately those 12 all tested below the legal limits (for that country) but this is still a real risk with low quality supplements.
Bacopa monnieri grows in marshy wetlands, which may make it even more susceptible to industrial runoff. It’s no surprise these researchers concluded “…evaluation of heavy metals and pesticide residue in every batch is necessary.”
My personal review
Yes, there are a fair number of studies when compared to many other herbal extracts, but there isn’t nearly enough data to conclude bacopa is safe. Or at least safe for every scenario.
Bacopa extract and pregnancy has never been studied. The same can be said about the vast majority of supplements and foods, but that doesn’t mean they should not be studied in that scenario. Pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding should avoid this supplement to be safe.
Pregnancy risk is perhaps the most obvious example of an unknown. How about all those other reactions in the list above? Although not common, they all have at least some data to support their possibility.
This extract has long been on my to-do list for personally reviewing. How long it takes bacopa to work and show maximum benefits is reported to be 8 to 12 weeks.
It’s been difficult finding 2 to 3 months of consecutive normality in my schedule to do that recently (e.g. no supplement changes or recent surfing head injuries). That’s why I have held off so long on using it. Because if I’m going to do a review, I want to do it the right way.
The product used
When not one, but two free bottles ended up on my doorstep, I decided it was worth reviewing even if the circumstances weren’t ideal. Because by the time they would be, these bottles would have probably expired!
What happened was that for my Amazon order of this astaxanthin supplement, I was accidentally sent two bottles of bacopa from the same manufacturer (Nutrigold). They were nice enough to tell me to simply keep the wrong product, rather than hassle and send it back. I wonder if the fact that I buy practically everything on there had any influence on how that was handled?
Even though the advantages are believed to be best over the long run, short term benefits are still notated in research, just not as profound.
My goal was to start with 14 days of supplementation which coincided with international travel. That way I could evaluate the benefits when I would need them the most – during a 9 hour time change.
That may sound like an abnormal circumstance, but being used to this, it actually offers a familiar baseline scenario.
Each capsule of Nutrigold contains a 500 mg dosage of bacopa; 320 mg of standardized extract and 180 mg of whole plant powder.
Nutrigold’s source for the extract portion (the 320 mg) is Synapsa, who along with BacoMind are two of the largest suppliers in the world. Each own patent for their extraction methods.
It’s similar to how supplement companies don’t make ubiquinol CoQ10 and instead, buy it from Kaneka. The same thing goes on with bacopa; the best supplement brands often buy it from Synapsa or BacoMind.
Should you take bacopa at night or day? These instructions say to take one v-cap per day with breakfast. Some supplements are silent on telling you the best time of day to take it, but any brand worth their salt will say you need to take bacopa with a meal. The reason is because it’s fat soluble.
Following the dosage instructions, I started with one capsule during breakfast on the tail end of my flight from LA to London.
There are around a dozen compounds which may be active ingredients in this plant, but research suggests the bacosides are the heavy hitters when it comes to the neurological effects.
Each of these is a long conversation for another time, but the point is that measuring the half-life of bacopa is not easy since some of the active ingredients are actually created during digestion. The bacosides and other components do not all stay in the bloodstream for the same amount of time.
Even though much of the focus is on bacosides A and B for benefits, who knows if one or more of the other dozen constituents might be responsible for adverse reactions in some? Just because they’re small in quantity, it doesn’t mean they’re small in effect.
Some report the half-life of bacopa as being 2 to 4 hours, but they either say that number without a source or the one they list is this study:
Cognitive effects of two nutraceuticals Ginseng and Bacopa benchmarked against modafinil: a review and comparison of effect sizes (12)
It’s probably this quote they’re using to come up with that number:
The human pharmacokinetic profile is known, with peak effects between 2–4 h after oral ingestion and a half‐life of 12–15 h
The problem is that quote is in reference to modafinil, a pharmaceutical drug. How long bacopa lasts in your system may be two days for some compounds (13). There’s really just too little data on blood serum levels after dosage to determine the half-life. Another reason why it’s premature to conclusively say bacopa is safe or good for you.
Within 3 to 4 hours of my initial dosage, I felt extreme tiredness. This was not the normal jet lag of mental exhaustion, but rather extreme tiredness – as if you’re going to fall asleep and can’t control it. Like Benadryl, but much more severe.
That might make sense if I needed sleep (I didn’t) or if I had experienced that before during overseas travel (I haven’t). This fatigue was not normal. British Airways has a good bed so I was sufficiently rested.
Perhaps this was just a fluke, caused by something else?
To play it safe though, I decided to skip the next dosage 24 hours later. By no means was I convinced the bacopa caused that side effect, but when you want to bring your A game, you’re just not going to take any chance, no matter how remote it may be.
Without it, my morning workout overlooking the Zambezi river was excellent. There was no mental fatigue beyond the customary jet lag.
The next time I took it, the exact same thing happened – extreme tiredness for no justifiable reason. Working out was a disaster and throughout the mid-day I was extremely drowsy.
This type of experience is very unusual for me. No matter how little sleep I get during a given night, I can never nap during the day because I can’t shut my brain off. When bedtime rolls around, the same thing applies. Even if I had just 4 or 5 hours the night before, when I go to bed 18 or 20 hours afterward, I still have a difficult time falling asleep. Worldwide travel doesn’t change these.
The point I’m trying to make is that my brain telling me it wants to clock out at 11 am in the morning is bizarre. Regardless of circumstances or travel schedule, it’s just not something that ever occurs.
Although I was not convinced this adverse reaction was from the bacopa supplements, I didn’t want to gamble on this trip any further. I postponed further usage until getting back to California.
The final attempt
On a normal morning at home, with a normal schedule, I took one capsule with my other supplements at breakfast.
By late morning, I felt like I could fall asleep while standing up! The usual coffee alternatives had no offsetting benefit.
By 3 to 4 pm, the extreme fatigue had mostly dissipated. The length of time that side effect lasted was similar to before.
For memory boosting, it is believed that increasing the expression of the serotonin transporter (SERT) is a primary way how bacopa works.
If true, that may also explain the purported anti-anxiety benefits. Aside from playing an important role in sleep regulation, higher serotonin correlates with lower feelings of stress (14).
However, being de-stressed too much from it can also mean apathy, lethargy, and other traits which can actually make you a less productive person.
When you’re too relaxed, you don’t care as much about stuff. You can also fall asleep at the drop of a hat.
If bacopa was causing this for me, I’m certainly not the first. Just comb through the supplement ratings and commentary for a given brand. There’s a good chance you will come across this complaint at least once. On Reddit, you have people like BigBoss 18 who report (15):
“The longest I have ever been able to take bacopa was about two months. This is due to constant fatigue and lack of motivation whenever I was using it. I ultimately had to give it up completely and just accept that it wasn’t worth it. I was also unable to counter the fatigue with a stimulant…”
Some people seem to use this to their advantage. They report taking bacopa at night as a sleep aid, because it knocks them out.
Should you take it?
I would be foolish to believe my three bad experiences with bacopa are proof of this side effect. Where there’s smoke there’s not always fire, but there is at least a reasonable body of evidence – including from human trials – which suggest that for some people, the opposite is happening… extreme fatigue.
In extreme cases, the adverse effect of being sleepy or drowsy could be quite dangerous if you are driving, using machinery, playing sports, or doing other activities where it could increase the chance of injuring yourself or others.
So should you try it or not?
The good news is that it seems only a tiny sliver of the population experience sleepiness with acute usage of this herbal extract. Most likely, you won’t experience it.
Still, it’s a possibility to be aware of. Rather than buy a Costco-sized bottle of this stuff, it would be a wise to start with a small quantity, to make sure you don’t experience anything negative.
Despite my personal experience, I have no reason to give Nutrigold a negative rating. If what I experienced is related to bacopa, I don’t have any reason to believe it’s unique to their product or supplier.
That being said, their bottle is a quantity of 90 capsules. Instead, it’s probably a better idea to start with a smaller bottle like this one from Doctor’s Best.
If you already know that you can handle this herb, then a combo supplement would be your best bet. Neuro-Peak is manufactured in the US and contains bacopa plus rhodiola rosea, ginkgo biloba, DMAE, and vitamin B12. Here it is on Amazon.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.