Huperzine Deserves a Little Hoopla!

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“Dear Pharmacist,

“I read in your recent column that huperzine improves memory. When I did an Internet search, I learned that the herb has been used for centuries to relieve colds/fever, inflammation, pain and menstrual cycles. My question today is about my mother, who doesn’t even recognize me. Can it help her?”

–F.A.  Santa Barbara, California

Answer: I do believe in miracles, but I can’t promise that “huperzine A” (pronounced HOOP-ur-zeen A) will help your mother because she may be too far along. The column I wrote discussing 9 powerful memory boosters is now posted on my website and your mom would likely benefit from the combination of several supplements, rather than huperzine all by itself.

There are approximately 5 million people in the United States who have Alzheimer’s Disease and even more that have some degree of cognitive decline so I’ll delve deeper into huperzine, which does not require a prescription. It’s a natural plant extract that comes from Chinese club moss, Huperzia serrata. The data conflicts, but I feel there is enough evidence to support huperzine and it’s ability to improve learning and memory, both short-term (as in preparing for an exam) and long-term dementia.

Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of interest surrounding huperzine for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease because it works like prescription drugs and temporarily blocks an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. This action slows down the breakdown of acetylcholine, which in turn, preserves our memory. Not to get terribly scientific on you, but I’m impressed that huperzine acts a bit like an “NMDA receptor antagonist,” which in my world means it can bring calm to overexcited nerve pathways and increase ‘plasticity” which boosts learning, mental clarity and memory function. Huperzine contains some antioxidants, so it neutralizes free radical ‘bombs’ that seek to destroy your brain cells. All those benefits, and very few side effects as compared to prescribed memory medications.

One study in 1995, found that almost 60 percent of participants improved while taking huperzine. In 2008, researchers did a general review of six randomized controlled trials, and concluded that huperzine had some beneficial effects. An ongoing study in the U.S. is being conducted by the National Institute on Aging to determine the best dosage for huperzine, and how it improves our activities of daily living.

Huperzine is sold at health food stores nationwide, and online. If you take too much, you may experience side effects such as sweating, nausea, dizziness or abdominal upset. Do not combine huperzine with either ‘cholinergic’ or ‘anti-cholinergic’ medications until you ask your pharmacist and physician.

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