As I move through my home, I sway to make my way around the hanging tendrils of the gotu kola plants taking refuge from the New Hampshire winter. Gotu kola would much prefer its native lands in India where it grows as a creeping vine in dappled sun. Here in the northeast, it’s a more persnickety plant than I would normally fuss with as an indoor plant, but gotu kola is worth it.
In spite of its lack of hardiness and need for intense soil nutrition and moisture, gotu kola is among the easier adaptogens to grow and harvest. Adaptogens are a broad class of herbs that support the body in a variety of ways, most notably improving the way we respond to stress. Adaptogens bring the nervous and endocrine systems into a state of better balance and generally promote energy.
Many of our most famous adaptogens are the roots of slow-growing perennial plants from mountains and harsh climates such as ginseng, rhodiola (roseroot), eleuthero, and maca. These can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to grow and harvest in any useful quantity. From India, however, we get some tonic adaptogens that are a little more easy-going to grow and offer medicine in their above ground parts. Holy basil and gotu kola top my list.
Gotu kola deserves some fuss. As an adaptogen, it does indeed support the stress response when taken regularly. But all of our adaptogens do this. One of the things I like to look at when choosing which adaptogenic herb to use is its side benefits. I put gotu kola in the category of a calming and balancing adaptogen (in contrast to the zippier ones like rhodiola and ginseng). Much like holy basil and ashwagandha, gotu kola improves energy while promoting calm and relieving anxiety and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, it also has some unique properties.
Gotu kola has gained a greater reputation in Ayurveda and herbal medicine for its ability to enhance brain function than for stress. Folk stories tell us that elephants don’t forget because they eat lots of gotu kola. Old Sanskrit texts credit regular consumption of gotu kola juice (also called brahmi and pennywort) with near-miraculous cognitive benefits including photographic memory. Preliminary studies support many of the traditional claims and have determined that gotu kola improves mitochondrial function and acts as a neuroprotective, nootropic (smart drug), antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory, encourages nerve regeneration, and lessens beta amyloid plaque’s negative effects.
Though only a few human studies have been done, the herb has a long history of use as well as many supportive preliminary studies. In clinical studies, working memory and mood improved for elders who took 750 mg of gotu kola extract daily, children with mental impairment showed better memory and overall mental ability, and healthy adults had a reduced startle response to loud noises.
Gotu kola also supports circulation, wound healing, and connective tissue vitality. Not only does it improve blood flow but it also improves the strength, flexibility, and lining of capillaries and blood vessels. It improves collagen synthesis, wound and bone healing, and connective tissue vitality.
I use it topically and internally for clients with injuries in need of repair. This can range from simple wounds and scar healing/prevention to varicose veins, vascular insufficiency, stretch marks, aging skin, leaky gut, ulcers, brain injury, after strokes, for gingivitis and gum health, and for general cardiovascular health.
Gotu kola tends to be a slow, tonic plant that gradually accumulates and shows benefit in the body. You probably won’t notice much from one cup of tea, but give it time. One or two months later, you might be surprised by how much things improve!
Gotu kola is generally well-tolerated and safe, even for children and the elderly; however, it may inhibit conception and should not be used during pregnancy. Concerns of liver toxicity stem from three case studies in Latin American women involving gotu kola weight loss supplements, which suggests an adulteration or quality issue (common with weight loss supplements) rather than an issue with gotu kola safety itself… not to mention the fact that gotu kola isn’t really a weight loss herb in the first place. Isolated compounds in gotu kola are reported to promoted tumor growth in mice, yet studies of gotu kola and its constituents found anti-tumor, anti-cancer activities (also see this study on asiaticosides and this study on asiatic acid).
Growing, Harvesting & Buying Gotu Kola
Gotu kola grows much like strawberry plants, sending out root runners that can sprout into new plants. This growth looks lovely spilling out of a pot and reminds me a bit of bundles of nerves in the brain. I imagine it growing out into a network to support the healing and connections of the body.
Growing gotu kola requires near-daily watering and very rich soil (approximately 100 percent compost). It takes some time to find the perfect spot – not too sunny, not too shady, and as warm as possible. If you’re in zone 8 or warmer, it might survive the year outdoors, preferably in moist, rich soil in dappled sun, though it may tolerate full sun. I hang mine to protect them from roving, hungry woodchucks, but this requires even more attention to soil nutrition and water needs and may limit its ability to spread and produce lots of medicine.
When harvesting gotu kola, you can use only the leaves and vines, cutting back to the base, or the entire plant. Gently brush or wash off any dirt with cold water. You can harvest gotu kola whenever it’s happy and green. It will bounce back from a serious cutting as long as you leave some leaves behind and give it some TLC.
The little green leaves taste a bit like celery and watercress and can be nibbled plain, juiced, or incorporated into raw and cooked dishes like other edible greens. When I introduced gotu kola to new students, one of them recalled eating it sautéed with garlic and onions in his native Sri Lanka. When I purchase dried gotu kola (because I never seem to grow enough to meet the needs of my students and clients), I notice that these often have a seaweed-y flavor that my own fresh plants do not have. Perhaps it picks up flavors from the soil and fertilizers?
Quality on the market is varied and questionable. It likes to grow in sewage sludge and can easily take on contaminants like E. coli. My teacher Michael Moore once found a Calcutta race ticket in his batch of India-grown gotu kola, which makes you question the harvest location cleanliness! Seek organic gotu kola from suppliers that test their product for contaminants, such as Mountain Rose Herbs and Gaia Herbs. Gaia Herbs and Avena Botanicals are among the few companies that grow their own.
If you’re buying gotu kola, note that both bacopa and gotu kola can be called “brahmi.” If you see a plant labeled as “brahmi,” check the Latin name and look for Centella asiatica. Bacopa offers similar brain and anxiety benefits but not the connective tissue and circulation support.
How to Use Gotu Kola
Tea: 1 teaspoon/cup, infusion, 1-3 cups daily.
Nice blended with mint, green tea, or holy basil since gotu kola is somewhat bland. It can be added to super infusions as well as simmering broths.
Tincture: 1-4 ml, 1-3 times daily or in formula
You can make it with dry gotu kola, but a fresh 1:2 tincture in 95% organic alcohol is superb.
Capsules: 500 to 1000 mg daily, for standardized capsules follow label directions
Food: Nibble a few leaves or use in larger amounts as a leafy green, smoothie, juiced.
Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), clinical herbalist, runs Wintergreen Botanicals, nestled in the pine forests of New Hampshire. Her business is devoted to education and empowerment via classes, health consultations, and writing with the foundational belief that good health grows in nature. She is the author of Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care. Learn more about Maria and herbs at www.WintergreenBotanicals.com