As we advance in age, we start to notice the loss of working memory or rather short-term memory such as inability to recall names or events, finding the right words and direction to new places and more typically, where did we leave the house or car keys. This has an adverse effect to the productivity of working adults as they are perceived to begin to fall behind younger and more agile co-workers! With the ability to learn and remember new information, the older and more experienced population is given a new lease of life! It is scientifically proven that new brain neurons are regenerated when the brain is challenged to perform non routine activities. Imagine being able to re-train for a new skill at work which prolongs independence. Additionally, loneliness associated with the empty nest syndrome, loss of employment or a life partner, can be dealt with the hope of re-generation. One is still able to make new friends and have the mindfulness to keep them! Improved cognition is also associated with improved self- esteem and quality of life as one can continue to be independent for a longer period of their lives.
It is typical to find ‘ulam’ (vegetables, fruits or herbs eaten raw) in a Malaysian meal. Apart from adding colour and taste to Malaysian cuisine, recent evidence have shown these herbs to be high in antioxidants and possess health-promoting properties. Kesum (Persicaria minor, syn Polygonum minus), used as a flavouring in laksa (noodle soup) due to its peppery flavour, is among herbs of Malaysia found to have high levels of antioxidants.
Antioxidants are important in neutralising the damaging effects of free radicals by reducing oxidative stress, which can otherwise cause cell damage. Oxidative stress is one of the culprits that speed up the ageing and age-related diseases such as neurodenegeration, inflammation that cause osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, compromised immunity and is worst cases, cancer.
Scientific investigation of Kesum has demonstrated the ability of the herb to protect living cells against damage from oxidative stress. The assay demonstrated the protection of livings cells from chemically induced oxidative stress from within by the application of the extract. This ability of active compounds to penetrate living cells further compounded the antioxidative effects of the herb. It was also shown to inhibit acetylcholinesterase activity. The enzyme acetylcholinesterase metabolizes acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain related to learning and memory. Inhibition of acetylcholinesterase is presently the most accepted and recognised therapeutic marker for the development of memory-improving drugs. Herbal plants with acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity will open new possibilities for improving cognition and, therefore, memory.
Professor Suzana Shahar of National University of Malaysia conducted a clinical trial, reported in the Sains Malaysiana in 2017 on middle-aged populations, with one group taking an extract of kesum daily and the other, a placebo. This group was selected based on the assumption of high stress levels inherent in their job that entails unrelenting multi-tasking. Multi-tasking often leads to one or more occurrences of forgetting. The subjects were given a series of psychological and intelligence tests at the commencement of the study, after three weeks and after six weeks. The group receiving Kesum extract scored higher in overall good mood (calming effect), short-term memory and intelligence quotient. It was found that several parameters of cognitive function improved. As Stanford University stress expert Robert Sapolsky explains, stress can energize the brain. The body responds to stress by releasing sugar into the bloodstream and sending extra blood to the brain, essentially giving brain cells a feast of energy. Meanwhile, the stress hormone cortisol helps alert the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s crucial for storing and retrieving memories. A little stress sharpens all of the senses, but we’re not well-equipped to face stress over the long haul. After just 30 minutes of continuous stress, the body stops sending extra blood to the brain. As a result, the brain no longer has a jolt of sugar to keep it alert and focused.
In the US, the herb was developed into a multiherb formula that improved mood; cognitive flexibility, reaction time and working memory measured as early as four hours after consumption (published in Evidence based Alternative and Complementary Medicine). The US conducted clinical study on the improvement of memory using a combination of seven herbs found in Malaysia, namely sireh (Piper betle), turmeric (Curcuma longa), pegaga (Centella asiatica), curry leaf (Murraya koenigii), selasih (Ocimum basilicum), kesum (Polygonum minus) and ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus) pointed to neurostimulatory as well as blood circulating and memory enhancing properties which led to an improvement in a broad spectrum of cognition.
Among those who have shown clear interest is ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, dubbed the “Medicine Hunter”, who was in Malaysia early last year to gain a better understanding of the herb. In a recent write-up on this experience in the American Botanical Council website, Kilham notes that kesum is also known as pygmy smartweed and has been linked to several highly effective health-benefiting properties. Published studies have shown the herb to possess anti-inflammatory effects via the inhibition on cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase enzymes and immunostimulatory effects published in the BMC Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. An overstimulation of inflammatory responses may lead to arthrosclerosis, neurodegeneration and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, joint pains which are especially recurrent in the older generation are currently treated with NSAID drugs such as ibuprofen and paracetamol. A prolonged and excessive use of such drugs to dull out the pain may be potentially toxic to the liver since the drug is self-administered. An herbal remedy can be a safer alternative to joint pains. Recent advances in kesum has demonstrated anti-cancer properties in a variety of cancer cell lines.
Perhaps Kilham puts it best when talking about the benefits of kesum in a February segment of Fox News’ Health Talk last year “What has been ‘kitchen medicine’ … is also transitioning, thanks to pharmaceutical technology, into forms that, if you are not eating southeast Asian food, you can also enjoy as a supplement.”