The Science Behind the Powerful Healing Effects of Adaptogens
We live in a world where environmental stressors and toxins are rapidly increasing in tandem with incidences of novel neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases; modern society is turning to several herbal reagents that have been indicated by experimental research to possess neuroregenerative and neuroprotective properties to combat some of these disadvantageous elements of our new world. Of these herbal reagents, a certain class known as adaptogens have certainly found their way into the spotlight.
People everywhere use adaptogens for various purposes such as studying for exams, boosting physical performance in sports, clearing their mind when overloaded with tasks, calming one’s self after a stressful day at work, falling asleep at night, or even to have better sex. Adaptogens are often described as tools to help build an individual’s body to be more resilient to day-to-day stressors (physical, biological, chemical, and psychological) in addition to bolstering the body’s immune response. As the name might indicate, they help the body to adapt to imbalances that may be taking a toll on one’s vitality and performance by bringing the body back to a level of homeostasis, or balance. This compensatory, homeostatic mechanism of action of these herbs takes place throughout the entire body, as opposed to substances which only exert a particular influence on certain physiological processes. As you may be aware, our bodies have innate, or built-in, mechanisms for attaining homeostasis when something within the body goes awry- whether it be with respect to neurotransmitter levels, under or over-active nervous systems, or hormonal imbalances. However, sometimes our body needs a push in the right direction, and that is where these herbal tonics come into play.
What They Do
Adaptogens are in a class of their own, as they work to bring the overall state of the body back to a core balance, as opposed to other non-adaptogenic substances that may simply patch up symptoms or provide short-lived improvements on top of a crumbling interconnected foundation. Clinical research suggests that these herbs work through the stimulation of an individual’s nonspecific stress response through something known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Stay with me here! This HPA axis, with it’s complicated name, is a major part of the neuroendocrine system. The neuroendocrine system is responsible for a variety of physiological processes; it is said to play a role in mitigating (alleviating) the stress-response through its effect on the hormone cortisol, maintaining homeostasis of the body, regulating eating and drinking behavior, and monitoring when and how much energy is used at any given time. As one may be able to deduce, and as the research indicates, adaptogens bringing into balance all of these physiological processes can result in increased concentration, performance, endurance, and overall vitality. Now, of course, the exact effects are dependent upon which adaptogen one consumes. There are many adaptogens out on the market, and even more compounds that have yet to be discovered with adaptogenic properties. That being said, we will focus here on a core three: ashwagandha, bacopa monnieri, and l-theanine.
Ashwagandha (withania somnifera), also known as “Medhya Rasayan” or mind rejuvenate, is a subject of great discussion in the scientific literature for the stress-alleviating, neuroregenerative, and homeostatic-conducive properties of its leaves and roots. Pretty incredible, right? There’s much more. Multiple studies have shown the leaves of ashwagandha to possess biologically active constituents known as saponins, composed of steroidal lactones and alkaloids. Although, what it’s made of is not as important as the amazing effects that they create in the body. Saponins are known to possess anti-depressive, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory (helps the immune system), hematopoietic (blood cell formation), and anti-tumor properties that make it an extremely viable treatment option for a number of central nervous system disorders, ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disorders to drug addiction and neurodegeneration. Furthermore, a number of recent studies have indicated ashwagandha to enhance memory and overall brain functioning. It is suggested that Ashwagandha’s ability for memory enhancement is a result of it’s enzyme withanoside IV producing a metabolite in the body known as sominone. Sominone has been found to increase the density of neuronal axons which improves memory impairments, even in Alzheimer’s models!
Moving on, the literature states that ashwagandha has constituents promoting both mental and physical health, defending against harmful environmental toxins and disease, and significantly slowing the aging process through depleting pro-inflammatory cytokines via its potent anti-inflammatory properties. These diverse pharmacological effects are attributed to the herb’s antioxidant effect within the brain brought about by the two active compounds within the leaf known as glycowithanolides- the aforementioned withanoside IV falling into this category. The urinary content of tribulin, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), has been found to be increased in both humans and animals undergoing significant physical or emotional stress- thus it has been deemed a stress-marker with which scientists can use to determine the stress-alleviating properties of potential anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) compounds. A clinical study was performed with Ashwagandha that found reduced urinary tribulin in stressed-out subjects following the consumption of this herb, thus proving in their study that ashwagandha reduces stress on the mind at a physiological level. In both children and the elderly experiencing memory deficits, ashwagandha exhibited a cognition-enhancing effect that is posited to be a result of its ability to increase the capacity of muscarinic receptors in the brain. Ashwagandha has been shown time and time again to have substantial nootropic properties in healthy human participants, improving both cognitive and psychomotor performance.
L-theanine is a major free-form amino acid primarily found in green tea, and has a long-standing reputation as an adaptogen that promotes relaxation and surges of feel-good neurotransmitters. Studies surrounding the neurochemistry of this amino acid indicate that it can increase brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels dependent upon what your brain needs more or less of to attain a state of homeostasis and function optimally. These effects on GABA levels indicate the potential for anxiolytic effects following consumption of L-theanine. It is suggested that L-theanine has affinities for AMPA and NMDA (glutamate) receptors, as well, modulating cell excitability to produce the at-ease sensation that has earned this amino acid an enduring spot in many of our supplement repertoires. Through its antagonistic effects on glutamate receptors, is has been shown to be neuroprotective. Additionally, behavioral studies in animals has suggested an improvement in memory and learning, consistent with the findings showing increased levels of monoamines.
Investigations into L-theanine’s effects on neurotransmitters indicate that it can increase serotonin levels in the hippocampus, striatum, and hypothalamus (commonly referred to as the emotional center of the brain). Considering dopamine and serotonin have been repeatedly found to improve overall cognitive functioning- particularly in the way of attention, learning, and memory- it is suggested that L-theanine’s manipulation of these neurotransmitters could be responsible for why is has such profound effects on learning acquisition and memory processes! Oh, and there are presently no reported adverse effects in either humans or animals from L-theanine administration- it was actually found to enhance the therapeutic efficacy of cancer chemotherapy. Despite its tendency to put individuals at ease, no studies report that L-theanine induces any form of drowsiness- it was actually found to boost alpha waves to make for a state of mental relaxation & simultaneous concentration- making it that much more appealing an option for an anxiety-reducing, cognitive-enhancing delight!
Bacopa monnieri, often referred to as Brahmi, is a small herb found throughout India. It is a well-known cognitive enhancing plant brimming with a widespread number of beneficial qualities. It has nootropic, neuroprotective, hepatoprotective (preventing damage to the liver), antioxidant, and tranquilizing properties attributed to various constituents of this marshy herb, and has been found to have a very low toxicity. Bacopa monnieri is rich in saponins, and its bacosides (which are saponins specific to bacopa monnieri) are suggested to be primarily responsible for its nootropic properties in alcoholic extract form. Studies have shown that these bacosides can modulate the activity of cytochrome P450 (enzymes that mediate potential toxicity from foods we consume) and increase memory retention capacity and cognitive functioning, while simultaneously ameliorating the symptomology of retrograde amnesia; bacopa is widely used in the attenuation of numerous attention and memory disorders.
Bacopa monnieri is an ancient nerve tonic that has renowned memory-enhancing properties brought about by the aforementioned bacosides; these constituents also enhanced protein kinase activity and induce an increase in protein of the hippocampus, the brain’s primary nexus for memory. Numerous studies have exhibited this adaptogen’s capacity for improving spatial learning performance, reading comprehension, and other facets of cognitive function. A neuropharmacological review examining the nootropic-like effects of bacopa monnieri indicated its potential for alleviating symptoms associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. It is suggested that this herb acts through increasing cerebral blood flow, modulating neurotransmitters (acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin through 5-HTP), β-amyloid reduction, and neuroprotection through potent antioxidant properties. Additionally, bacopa monnieri acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor (acetylcholine is commonly referred to as the “learning and memory neurotransmitter”) which basically means that it prevents acetylcholine from leaving the cell cycle so there is more of it to be used by the brain- thus, improving memory encoding, recall, and attention factors. Bacopa has further been shown to inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-α and IL-6, making it a viable option in helping to ease symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and even improve brain fog!
In summary, L-theanine helps focus, bacopa monnieri helps with clarity, and ashwagandha helps with relaxation… most of the time! Remember they also work based on what your brain needs at the moment, so these can change depending on your state. Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, I think I have a pretty firm grasp on what these adaptogens do, but how can I use them to better my life and optimize total performance?” Well, the three adaptogens we covered here possess great neuroprotective and nootropic properties. They are all zero risk ways to improve your brain health. As a neuroscientist, I would like to also add that the previous statement is assuming you are not taking any prescription medications that could possibly have adverse interactions. However, many people have stopped using prescription medications for things such as anxiety or depression by taking adaptogens. So it is up to you and what your health goals are.
Adaptogens can be fantastic for optimizing cognitive performance, inducing neuroregeneration, boosting the immune-system, and eradicating pro-inflammatory cytokines- which have been posited in some theories to be the cause of symptoms associated with depression- so you may just feel happier, too. Regardless, adaptogenic compounds are a great safe-guard to assist your body in maintaining a state of homeostasis and bolstering your immunity and resilience in times of stress or high energy demands; who wouldn’t want that?
On the last note, working as a neuroscientist for Nootripure Laboratories, I help make sure that each of the products include a sufficient amount of adaptogens needed to not only balance the physiological stasis of the brain, but to also negate any possible side effects of the other nootropics. This isn’t my job in particular, but I am glad that this company sources the highest potency available of all the adaptogens. This keeps the products we create as safe and enjoyable as possible for people to use. Feel free to check out any of the products and notice that they are mostly adaptogens!
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