I have been interested a lot recently in restoration of a damaged nervous system with natural methods. Nerves may become damaged or impaired in various disorders including; neuropathy, brain trauma, and the cognitive disorders, like Alzhemers and dementia. Similar herbs are indicated for these disorders in traditional medicine, and in Ayurveda they are called the, ‘medhya rasayana’ herbs, or rejuvenative herbs for the brain and nervous system. I will now describe 5 regenerative herbs for the nervous system in more detail referring to both traditional and scientific knowledge. Having personally experimented with all of these herbs on myself, I can say perhaps my two favourites are ashwagandha and St. John’s wort. These two seem to pair nicely together for overall nervous system support.
Ashwagandha is classified as a rasayana herb in Ayurvedic medicine, this means it has rejuvenating qualities that increase life-span, improve overall health, and fight disease (Ven Murthy et al., 2010). Ashwagandha is considering an adaptogen, a term that refers to a nontoxic medication that normalises various functions perturbed by body stress. It is hypothesised to do this by correction of imbalances in the neuroendocrine and immune system. The winanosides are thought to be the primary active compounds of ashwagandha and are found in the root. Alzheimer’s disease is hypothesised to be caused by deposition of amyloid β-peptide in plaques in human brain tissue (Hardy et al., 2002). In one study, the authors found that an ashwagandha root extract was capable of reversing amyloid induced toxicity in human neuronal cells (Kurapati et al., 2013), therefore supporting the potential for this herb to be a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Ashwagandha also has anti-oxidant properties (Bhattacharya et al., 2001), and oxidative stress is associated with neurodegeneration (Federico et al., 2012). Another interesting study, in an animal model, found a withanoside from ashwagandha increased regeneration of a damaged nerves after injury (Nakayama et al., 2007). These studies point to the value of ashwagandha in restoring the health of the nervous system.
I have found ashwagandha is a deep acting versatile tonic herb capable of acting on many systems of the body, it appears to leave effects that last long after the treatment ends. It nourishes individuals who have been sick for some time, weak, or elderly.
2. Gotu kola
Gotu kola, similar to ashwagandha, is classified as a medhya rasayana herb in Ayurveda. Originally it was used by local people in Sri Lanka as a tonic herb for longevity (Castleman, 2001). It was incorporated into both traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for longevity and to treat cognitive problems. Impaired anti-oxidant mechanisms have been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease (Markesbery, 1997). More recently, in animal models, it has shown to have anti-oxidant activities in the brain and to exert a protective effect against cognitive problems (Kumar et al., 2003). Another study found both in cellular ex vivo and in vivo animal models that gotu kola facilitated axon regrowth and remyelination after damage (Soumyanath et al., 2005). Although these were animal or cellular studies they point to the medicinal potential of gotu kola to restore a damaged nervous system.
I have found gotu kola to be more subtle than other restorative herbs, but it’s gentle property is also an advantage as does not over stimulate like many of the adaptogens do. It is best to be patient with gotu kola as it’s benefits may occur later after a few months time.
Ginkgo is a giant tree which grows up to 125-foot-tall and lives up to 1000 years (Castleman, 2001). It has survived since the Jurassic period, 170 million years ago (Zhou et al., 2003). Ginkgo, otherwise known as the maidenhair tree, has changed very little morphologically over 170 million years. It has long been used in Chinese and Indian traditional medicine (Castleman, 2001). However, it is the concentrated leaf extract that has been used in more recent times which has potent anti-oxidant properties (Bridi et al., 2001) and stimulates the circulatory system. This leaf extract could be considered a modern ‘medhya rasayana’. It has convincing support in human studies to reduce the severity of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Le Bars et al., 1997). A study using experimental models, found that ginkgo extracts enhanced axonal extension in Schwann cells and promoted peripheral nerve functional recovery (Hsu et al., 2004). Like ashwagandha and gotu kola, ginkgo is another herb with great potential to help restore the nervous system.
Gingko has perhaps the best scientific support of any herb I know of. When taking it I could certainly feel increased cognition and wakefulness. This is likely at least partially due to increased oxygen in the brain. Note, that ginkgo should be used as a concentrated leaf extract in capsule or pill form.
Bacopa is classified as a medhya rasayana in Ayurveda (Russo et al., 2005). Bacopa can be found in the Caraka Samhita a text from the 6th century A.D. In this key text, it is recommended to treat cognitive problems. Bacopa has been found to have anti-oxidant activities in the rat brain (Bhattacharya et al., 2000). Well conducted human clinical studies support Bacopa as having cognitive boosting effects (Roodenrys et al., 2002). Bacopa has been shown to inhibit acrylamide (a toxic chemical) induced neuropathy in drosophila likely via raising anti-oxidant levels (Kunnel et al., 2013). Another study found that an extract of bacopa could reduce neuropathic pain in rats (Sahoo et al., 2010). These studies underscore the potential for bacopa to heal damaged nerves and boost cognitive faculties.
5. St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort’s importance in herbalism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks (Castleman, 2001). The Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it for sciatica, a nerve related disorder. St. John’s wort has anti-oxidant abilities (Zou et al., 2004), which may be related to its health promoting effects on the nervous system. A human clinical trial studying the effects of St. John’s wort on polyneuropathy found that it reduced pain with patients suffering from polyneuropathy, although the effect was not quite significant (Sindrup et al., 2001). This implies that if repeated with a higher patient number and a higher dosage the effects would be significant.
In another study using animal models, it was found that St. John’s wort reduced neuropathic pain (Galeotti et al., 2010), thus supporting the traditional use of the herb. St. John’s wort also has anti-depressant activity, these classes of medicines are linked to reducing neuropathic pain (Saarto et al., 2007). Additionally, treatment with the anti-depressant fluoxetine is linked to increasing neural plasticity in the mammalian brain (Vetencourt et al., 2008). St. John’s wort may function in a similar, but more complex manner.
I think St. John’s wort is best used in a tincture made from fresh flowers which has a deep red color. I believe it’s rich colour indicates its potency. Overall, St. John’s wort is one of the most important nervine tonic herbs in our materia medica. It can help uplift individuals who have been suffering for some time.
Ashwagandha, bacopa, gotu kola, ginkgo, and St. John’s wort are some of the strongest tonics for the nervous system we have as herbalists. David Winston has reportedly used St. John’s wort with bacopa, ginkgo, and holy basil for brain injury with remarkable success (Groves, 2016). Holy basil is a notable omission to this article, as alongside gotu kola, it is one of the most gentle and less stimulating tonic herbs from the Ayurvedic system with wide ranging medicinal properties. In treating complex difficult nerve related conditions a combination formula seems best to stimulate restoration through multiple pathways. For more detail on constructing a formula, I would refer you to an excellent book by Maria Groves called ‘Body into Balance’. Also, each of these herbs has a specific entry in my herbal encyclopedia. I wish you all the best on your healing journey.
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