Herbs for Nutrition to Benefit Brain Function – Common Culinary Herbs – by Minette Tonoli

Herbs are busy little plant factories, producing a myriad of phytochemicals that benefit the body and mind in different ways. Alongside the undeniable nutritive benefit herbs and spices have with their plethora of vitamins and minerals (generally in easily absorbed forms), the chemical constituents of edible plants enable body systems to function at their optimum – often strengthening and invigorating the cardiovascular, digestive, respiratory, immune and neuroendocrine systems to maintain a healthful state of being.

And you don’t need to look to exotic herbs either! Most of our common culinary herbs are rich in vitamins and minerals, and are particularly beneficial to aid digestion, encourage detoxification, are rich in antioxidants, combats inflammation, and shows adaptogenic and tonic qualities too!

Adaptogen herbs: (in herbal medicine) a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress.

Tonic Herbs: a medicinal substance taken to give a feeling of vigour or well-being.

These herbs for the brain and body are also not a bitter pill to swallow – most of these kitchen herbs are used in foods exactly because they taste so delicious! Nor do you have to be a trained cook, or Michelin star chef to know how to use them – just be willing to try, expand your taste buds, and be creative! A pinch here, a snip there, a sprig of this, a sprinkle of that… before you know it, you’ll be looking for more ways to add herbs to your daily food and drink.

Here then are a few ideas to get you started – these were specifically chosen because they are common to find, easy to grow and use, and have a positive effect on the digestion and are herbs for the brain that enhance memory and mental clarity:



A sturdy kitchen garden plant with a robust flavour, Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), has been in use as a culinary herb and domestic remedy since ancient Greek times.

Lovely cultivars exist with either creeping, prostrate stems, or tall upright growth. All are perennial (live for many years), and like a warm and sunny spot in a well-drained soil. Cut back regularly to ensure it does not become woody, and to promote new growth.

“Rosemary for remembrance” said Shakespeare, and it holds true!

For our brain and mental health, Rosemary is tonic and can be used as a pick-me-up when feeling depressed, mentally tired, or nervous. It has been shown to improve digestion and enhance memory and concentration.
This common culinary flavouring also has
anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, detoxifying, anti-stress and healing properties. It has exceptionally high levels of antioxidants too.

Research indicates that it is also a mild parasympathomimetic – an agent which helps the body regulate its nervous system so that a person can stay in “rest and digest” longer, and not revert to “fight or flight” mode so prevalent with our modern-day lives.

Rosemary is excellent in almost any cooked dish – from roast potatoes to grilled fish, or in meatballs, in tomato-based sauces, as part of a chicken herb rub, or in breads and even sweet baked goods.

Recipe – Rosemary Baked Fish


  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin, local olive oil
  • 1 large firm fish fillet from sustainable fish stock
  • 6-8 whole sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 Lemon
  • freshly ground salt and black pepper to taste


1. In a medium skillet, sear the seasoned fillet in the olive oil for 2 minutes on each side.

2. Lay rosemary sprigs in the bottom of a lined baking dish and transfer the fish on top of the rosemary.

3. Sprinkle with the chopped rosemary, and place sliced lemon on top.

4. Bake in a preheated oven at 180C for about 10 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and flakes away easily.


Another everyday cooking herb from the Mediterranean, Sage has had a prime place in herb gardens for many ages – both for its flavouring and for its medicinal value.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) has grey-green leaves, but the purple (S. officinalis ‘Purpurpea’) and golden-variegated (S. officinalis ‘Icterina’) varieites are also popular to grow and contain the same properties as the species plant. Similar to rosemary, grow sage in a dry, hot, well-drained spot. They dislike extreme cold temperatures, and overly long periods of wetness. 

Sage gets its Latin name, Salvia, from the word Salvare, which means “to be saved”, alluding to its benefit as an herb for a good healthy and long life.

Besides its nutrient content, it is also strongly antiseptic, and has astringent and relaxing actions. Another member of the herbs for the brain family, Sage is an outstanding memory enhancer, high in antioxidants that fight free radicals and thus protecting the brain and preventing neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. “Thinker’s Tea” is made from sage leaves and shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s patients and alleviating depression.

Oftentimes sage is added with onion to stuffing, or marinades for chicken or other poultry dishes. It also pairs beautifully with pumpkins and squash and its strong flavour makes it an excellent herb for savoury soups and stews. Many sausage recipes call for sage too.

Recipe – Roast Butternut with Sage Burnt Butter


  • 1 butternut squash, or other firm, sweet-fleshed pumpkin/squash
  • 100g pure butter
  • 15-20 fresh sage leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil


  1. Peel and cut the squash into bite-sized chunks, add to a lined baking tray and season with salt and drizzle with a bit of olive oil.
  2. Bake the pumpkin in a preheated oven at 180C for about 20 minutes, until cooked through, but still firm.
  3. Cut the butter into a saucepan over medium heat and cook until melted, swirling the pan often, add the sage leaves and continue to cook until the sage is crispy and the butter has turned a nutty flavour and slightly brown – take off the heat immediately – don’t overcook.
  4. Drizzle a few teaspoons of sage butter, including the crispy leaves, over roast pumpkin.


A popular garden herb, mint (Mentha spp) has a great many cultivars commercially available, these include, among others, common garden mint, peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, ginger mint, chocolate mint, and wild mint.

Exceptionally easy to grow – so easy as a matter of fact that it is always advised to grow mint in a container to stop it from taking over a garden. They thrive in full sun or partial shade, prefer moist environments and can grow in almost any type of soil.

While they are all rich in B vitamins, vitamin A and C, and minerals such as iron, manganese, and potassium, it is mostly peppermint (Mentha x piperita) that is used as a medicinal herb because of its high percentage of the active compound, menthol. 

Peppermint is a common domestic remedy for digestive and stomach problems, and to alleviate symptoms of congestion.

Research from the International Journal of Neuroscience indicates that mint leaves may bump up brain power and improve cognitive function. In recent studies by the North American Journal of Psychology it has been shown that mint increases alertness and reduces fatigue and anxiety.

Mint can be added fresh to smoothies or detox waters, or simply enjoy a cup of peppermint tea after dinner.

Recipe – Mint Sauce Chimichurri Style


  • 3 chopped cloves garlic
  • 1 cup fresh mint (garden mint or spearmint)
  • 1 cup fresh parsley (curly or flat-leaf)
  • 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 small fresh chilli (or to taste)
  • 6 Tbsp extra virgin local olive oil


1. In a food processor, pulse garlic a few times until chopped.

2. Add herbs and pulse until finely chopped.

3. Add the vinegar, salt, and chilli and stir.

4. Stir in the olive oil.

Goes perfectly well with lamb, over steak, on chicken, or simply toss with pasta or potatoes.


Arguably the most commonly grown culinary herb worldwide, but sadly it is mostly used, almost as an afterthought, as a garnish on the plate. Not that it isn’t pleasing and fresh, but parsley packs so much more of a nutritious punch than simply being a sprig of decoration!

Simple to grow, both the curly and flat-leaf varieties of parsley (Petroselinum crispum) are easy to find in garden centres or started from seed (with some patience as they take a while to germinate). Biennial, it will produce leaves for two seasons before sending out flowering stalks and completing its lifecycle by setting seed. Grow in full sun, in well-drained soil.

Rich in minerals and vitamins (1Tbsp contains almost 80% of your daily recommended dose of Vitamin K), parsley is also antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, digestive, diuretic and tonic. Its rich in antioxidants which helps protect the body against neurodegenerative diseases.

Chop fresh parsley into egg and cheese dishes, add to green salads, sprinkle over roast meats, add into savoury smoothies, or chop over rice and pasta.

Recipe – Parsley and Pear Salad with Walnut


  • 2 cups Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 large fresh pear
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnut halves
  • 2 Tbsp raisins
  • Olive oil and balsamic dressing (2 Tbsp vinegar to 4 Tbsp oil)
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper to taste


In a medium bowl, mix coarsely chopped parsley with sliced pear, walnuts and raisins. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over dressing.


Quintessential to the summer herb garden, and a favourite with all Italian fare – basil, the king of herbs.

Basil is another easy to grow herb – quite happy in the herb or vegetable garden and can be grown on the kitchen windowsill too. Full sun, plenty of water and free draining soil and you are good to go. As an annual plant, sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) completes its lifecycle in one year, but you can encourage longer production and bushier growth by pinching out flowering stems as they form.

Vitamins A, C, and especially K are found in good quantities in basil as are minerals Manganese, Calcium, Iron and Manganese.  Basil has a long history of traditional household medicinal use, principally working on the digestive and nervous systems. It is said to relieve cramps and colic, alleviate depression and treat exhaustion.

Basil is great with any tomato-based dish, or tossed fresh into salads, on pizzas, or with roasted Mediterranean vegetables.

Recipe – Tomato Basil Juice


  • 2 tomatoes (try orange coloured heirloom tomatoes high in lycopene; or black/purple coloured heirloom tomatoes high in anthocyanins)
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • Pinch of sea salt


  1. Add all ingredients to vegetable juicer. Gently stir juice and drink immediately.


Hate it or love it. And it is all got to do with your own genetics (gene variants dictate how you interpret the smell and taste of this plant!).

A common culinary herb (when we use the dried seeds, we call it a spice), coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is also known as cilantro or dhania. Another annual like basil, grow this herb in cooler seasons like spring and autumn, or in a semi-shaded position to ensure it does not bolt (go to seed) too quickly in the summer heat.

Again, an herb that is rich in vitamins and minerals, it is also a natural cleansing agent, helping the body to detox (especially from heavy metals). It is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and shows promise to alleviate anxiety and improve sleep.

Use fresh coriander in vegetable juices, chopped into salads, over roast kumara, or with beef or seafood.

Recipe – Coriander-Lime-Chilli Cashew Pesto


  • 2 cups fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 cup fresh parsley leaves
  • 1 cup cashew nuts
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 small hot chilli (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste


Pulse all the ingredients together in a food processor until the mixture is smooth. Add more olive oil if it is too thick.

Wonderful as a pasta pesto for seafood or serve with crackers and cheese.

Other herbs for the brain and a healthy diet

Oregano, thyme, dill, tarragon, fennel… these herbs are all wonderful additions to your healthy diet for the benefit of your body and are great herbs for the brain. All of them have strong medicinal actions, including being antibacterial, anti-antioxidant and digestive. They contain vitamins and minerals and are wonderful to help reduce inflammation in the body.

Final thoughts

I encourage you to find a space for a few herb plants in your life – even if it is just growing some of the abovementioned culinary herbs in a pot or two in your kitchen. The act of nurturing a plant is in itself a mindful exercise, connecting you with nature and her rhythms, with incredible benefits to the body, the mind and the soul.

Herbs for the brainReferences