Gotu kola is a relaxant herb with a long history as a natural remedy for conditions affecting mental health. Learn how it help anxiety, stress, and more.
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 at all.
Additionally, it’s sometimes confused with another herbal remedy that shares the same common name.
In a large part of the world, however, gotu kola is both an important traditional herbal remedy and a versatile cooking ingredient.
In this article, we review some of the many claims of gotu kola as a healing herb — focusing on brain and emotional health — that are now backed by science.
The Traditional Benefits of Gotu Kola
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is a perennial groundcover that’s a member of the same plant 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 is considered a miracle elixir of life.
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)
Physical ailments that gotu kola has been used for include asthma, colds, diarrhea, fever, hepatitis, stomach ulcers, and syphilis.
It has also been used as an antidote for snake bites, toxic mushrooms, and arsenic poisoning. (3)
Gotu Kola: Don’t Confuse It With . . .
Gotu kola is often confused with kola nut (Cola nitida), a caffeine-containing member of the cocoa family used to flavor cola soft drinks.
Because the names are so similar, 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)
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7 Evidence-Based Brain Benefits of Gotu Kola
Today, gotu kola is most often used to treat varicose veins.
Its main active ingredients are compounds known as triterpenes that increase 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)
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.
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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 facilitating communication between brain cells.
Gotu kola also increases nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein which stimulates the growth of new nerve cells and safeguards existing ones.
Gotu Kola Increases Blood Flow
Gotu kola is well regarded for its ability to improve circulation and maintaining optimal brain circulation is one of the most important things you can do to keep your brain healthy and fit. (10)
A steady flow of blood to the brain delivers life-giving oxygen and nutrients and removes carbon dioxide, toxins, and other waste products.
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Gotu Kola Protects the Brain from Damage
Most plants have some antioxidant capacity, but gotu kola excels as a neuroprotective antioxidant.
Gotu kola protects your brain from damage incurred by the assaults of everyday life.
Studies show that 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. (11, 12)
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Gotu kola protects the brain from the harmful 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, thereby rendering them harmless.
Gotu Kola Alleviates Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
If you are one of the millions of people coping with stress, anxiety, or depression, gotu kola can help.
Research indicates that gotu kola increases levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, while reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (14)
By bringing balance to these brain chemicals, gotu kola can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
Additionally, gotu kola protects the brain from inflammation.
Chronic inflammation of the brain is now thought to be an underlying cause of depression.
Gotu kola has an anti-anxiety effect in chronically and acutely stressed animals. (15)
In human studies, gotu kola has increased calmness, contentedness, and alertness by 100% and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression by 50%. (16)
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It has been shown to lower symptoms of anxiety and stress in persons with generalized anxiety disorder.
Gotu kola significantly reduces the startle response caused by sudden noises within 30-60 minutes after ingestion. (17)
Since the acoustic startle response is a reliable way to tell if someone is anxious, this is another indicator that this herbal remedy may be useful for treating anxiety.
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Gotu Kola Helps You Sleep
Getting adequate sleep is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
It’s been said that one bad night of sleep can impair your mental faculties as much as being drunk! (18)
The popular sleep drug Ambien has been called “the amnesia drug” and sends thousands of people to the emergency room every year. (20)
Gotu kola has safely been used as a natural sleep aid for thousands of years. (21)
Traditionally, gotu kola tea is sweetened with a little honey as an Ayurvedic remedy for insomnia. (22)
Gotu Kola Improves Memory and Mood in Alzheimer’s Patients
Gotu kola can enhance mood and cognition in both healthy seniors and those with Alzheimer’s disease. (23)
Alzheimer’s patients have significantly reduced levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter strongly associated with memory and learning. (24)
Alzheimer’s drugs like Aricept work by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine.
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Triterpenes, steroid precursors found in gotu kola, are beneficial for Alzheimer’s in two ways.
Similar to Aricept, these compounds inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine. (25)
Vitamin E + Gotu Kola: A Brain-Enhancing Duo
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. (29)
When taken together, “E + C” is linked to improving memory, slowing memory loss, and lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by 60%. (30)
Gotu kola shows similar synergistic effects with vitamin E, making “E + gotu kola” another powerful brain-enhancing duo. (31)
How to Use Gotu Kola
Few herbal remedies are used as food 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.
In the US, it’s unlikely you’ll find gotu kola at your local grocery store, 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 groundcover.
If not, you can grow gotu kola in a pot like you’d grow any herb.
Gotu Kola Tea
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 highly regarded adaptogenic herb also known as tulsi.
Penn State University recommends drinking 3 cups per day to benefit a variety of health conditions. (32)
Gotu Kola Supplement Dosages
You certainly can eat gotu kola, but for most of us, it’s a lot easier and more convenient to take it as a supplement.
Gotu kola supplements are sold in the form of capsules, tablets, and tinctures.
The recommended dosage for cognitive enhancement is roughly 2,000 to 4,000 mg depending on your weight.
The dosage for reducing anxiety is 500 mg twice a day. (33)
Gotu Kola Side Effects and Interactions
Gotu kola is extremely safe as it’s been consumed as 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. (34)
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. (35)
Gotu kola supplements should not be given to children, pregnant and breastfeeding women since there’s little reliable information available about the safety for these particular situations.
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 sometimes 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 and, unfortunately, 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 you stay mentally sharp.
Consider gotu kola supplements or tea if you are looking for a cognitive enhancer that smooths away the rough edges of stress, anxiety, or insomnia.