Ayurvedic medicine and philosophy has been around for over 3000 years and herbs have been part of this therapy for centuries. Herbs such as Ashwagandha and Bacopa Monnieri have been a robust part of this Ayurvedic medicine for this time and are traditionally used as a Rasayana (tonic) for their wide-ranging health benefits. Rasayana is described as an herbal or metallic preparation that promotes a youthful state of physical and mental health and expands happiness.
They are used particularly for supporting anxiety, depression and also cognitive health. These benefits have been long ignored by western medicine, however research is beginning to highlight the beneficial functions of these plants and support the long term Ayurvedic use for them particularly for nervous and cognitive support.
Ashwagandha or Withania somnifera is very revered herb of the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine and is used for various kinds of disease processes especially as a nervine tonic. Its main use currently, within Nutritional Therapy, is as an adaptogen, this means that it is able to support the body adapting to environmental and physiological changes, specifically stress on the body. Studies also indicate Ashwagandha possesses anti-inflammatory, antitumor, anti-stress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, hemopoietic, and rejuvenating properties.
Effect on stress
Recent studies have shown that Ashwagandha enhances the body’s resilience to stress; in experimental models, it increases the stamina of rats during swimming endurance test and prevents adrenal gland changes of ascorbic acid and cortisol content produced by swimming stress. Therefore it is useful for supporting and protecting adrenal function in periods of stress.
It is thought that Ashwagandha is useful for adrenal dysfunction (there is an imbalance of stress hormones either too high or too low due to prolonged stressful periods). Studies have shown that Ashwagandha can:
- Prevent decrease of adrenal cortisol and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which occurs due to stress.
- Be useful in the prevention of stress-induced ulcers of the gastrointestinal tract
- Significantly increase in the body weights of Ashwagandha treated rats as compared to control for a period of 3 months
- In a human randomised control trial, it was shown that Ashwagandha root extract can be used for body weight management in adults under chronic stress (Chowdry et al, 2017)
Nervous system and cognitive health
There are dozens of studies that show that Ashwagandha slows, stops, reverses or removes neuronal atrophy and synaptic loss. Research has specifically demonstrated:
- Ashwagandha, its constituents and the metabolites of its constituents promote the growth of nerves after taking it for 7 days
- Appears to mimic the neurotransmitter GABA and therefore may promote calm and restful sleep
- Derivatives have been shown to increase cholinergic activity, stimulate neurite outgrowth and regenerate both axon and dendrites, therefore promoting neuronal growth
- methanol extract of Ashwagandha showed neurite outgrowth-promoting activity in human neuroblastoma SK-N-SH cells
- Ashwagandha extract promotes Aβ clearance in the brain via upregulation of liver LRP
- Memory improvement; root extract ameliorated hypobaric hypoxia induced memory impairment and neurodegeneration in hippocampus through NO mediated modulation of corticosterone levels
These capabilities suggest that Ashwagandha may be extremely useful in the protection and modulation of cognitive disease.
The neuroprotective effects of Ashwagandha may also be due, somewhat, in its antioxidant capabilities. It had been shown that Ashwagandha can increase levels of the antioxidants Super oxide Dismutase, Catalase and Glutathione within the brain of rats and therefore can potentially have an antioxidant effect in the brain which may be responsible for its diverse pharmacological properties.
Ashwagandha has effectively been used in a variety of rheumatological conditions, its success is in part due to its anti-inflammatory properties. In vivio studies have shown that administration of Ashwagandha resulted in a reduction of the inflammatory serum proteins a2-glycoprotein, pre-albumin and a2-macroglobulin. The anti-oxidant properties will also be beneficial for modulating inflammation.
Ashwagandha’s general use as a tonic may be attributed to the effect that it has on the immune system. Studies have shown that:
- Mobilisation and activation of macrophages, phagocytosis and increased activity of lysosomal enzymes.
- Significant increases in hemolytic antibody responses towards human erythrocytes.
- A significant increase in hemoglobin concentration (P < 0.01), red blood cell count (P < 0.01), white blood cell count (P < 0.05), platelet count (P < 0.01), and body weight (P < 0.05) was observed in Ashwagandha-treated mice
- A significant modulation of immune reactivity was observed in all the three animal models used. Ashwagandha prevented myelosuppression in mice treated with all three immunosuppressive drugs tested (Ziauddin et al, 1996)
Another recent clinical trial was conducted to investigate the effects of Ashwagandha root extract consumption on muscle mass and strength in healthy young men engaged in resistance training. It was concluded that Ashwagandha supplementation is associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength and suggests that Ashwagandha supplementation may be useful in conjunction with a resistance training program. Therefore, it may be very useful as part of a sports nutrition support. This is likely to be due to its ability as an adaptogen and therefore increasing the body’s resistance to stress created by intense training.
Bacopa Monnieri (BM) also known as brahmi, is a creeping perennial with small oblong leaves and purple flowers, found in warm wetlands, and native to Australia and India. It is another Ayurvedic herb which has been used traditionally as a memory enhancing, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic, sedative and antiepileptic agent. Again, these traditional uses are now becoming supported by recent studies and current research is supporting its anti-oxidant, hepatoprotective, and neuroprotective activity.
Bacopa contains many different active chemical constituents including steroidal saponins and Bacosides A and B, it is thought that these are the molecules involved in improving both learning and memory. Other constituents include bacopasaponins D, E and F as well as alkaloids, flavonoids, and phytosterols.
The functions and therefore potential therapeutic uses for Bacopa Monnieri will be discussed below.
Neuroprotection and cognitive health
As with Ashwagandha, Bacopa has been shown to have a significant effect on the protection of the brain and nervous system as well and improvement in cognitive performance. Bacosides within Bacopa are believed to repair damaged neurons by enhancing kinase activity and neuronal synthesis contributing to the restoration of synaptic activity, leading to improvement of nerve impulse transmission. Emerging research demonstrates several further mechanisms of action by which Bacopa Monnieri may support cognitive function including;
- Acetylcholinesterase inhibition (this can prevent b-amyloid induced cell death)
- Choline acetyltransferase activation
- β-amyloid reduction and removal of amyloid deposits (pathology of Alzheimer’s disease)
- Increased cerebral blood flow, increased nutrients and removal of waste products aiding over all brain health.
- Monoamine (neurotransmitter) potentiation, therefore improving communication within brain cells
All of these factors are involved in reduction of risk for cognitive diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Therefore, Bacopa may be a useful therapy in the prevention and modulation of cognitive disease.
Inflamamtion and oxidative stress have long been considered drivers of cognitive decline and supporting anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative activity within the brain is really important in helping to maintain long term cognitive wellness. Many of the constituents of Bacopa are lipophilic and therefore have the ability to cross the blood brain barrier.
Studies have demonstrated that Bacopa Monnieri has the ability to increase antioxidant levels (glutathione, catalase, superoxide dismutase and Vitamins C, E and A) and that they independently decrease lipid peroxidation (oxidation and therefore damage to fat i.e. cell membranes) within the brain, therefore contributing to neuroprotection.
Bacopa has also shown anti-inflammatory as well as heavy metal chelation capabilities and can therefore be involved in the removal of heavy metals from the body which can lead to increased oxidative stress and inflammation, again providing further protection to cognition and the nervous system.
Learning and memory
Human control trials have shown that there is evidence that Bacopa may improve memory “There is some evidence to suggest that Bacopa improves memory free recall with evidence for enhancement in other cognitive abilities”. (Pace et al, 2012)
A study in 2014 also showed that Bacopa may be useful for patients with ADHA, the clinical trial showed improvements learning problems, impulsivity, and psychiatric problems in significant percentages of the group. “Standardized extract of B monnieri was found to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of ADHD and was well-tolerated by the children”. (Dave et al, 2014)
It can be seen that both Ashwagandha and Bacopa Monnieri have multiple actions on many aspects of heath particularly cognitive function as well as improving resistance to stress due to their adaptogenic qualities. Many of the human studies have so far been small but there is growing interest in gaining further understanding as to how these herbs can be unlisted for promoting wellness and attenuating cognitive decline.
- Both Bacopa Monnieri and Ashwagandha have adaptogenic properties, therefore improving the body’s resistance to stress, leading to numerous health benefits.
- Both possess antioxidant capabilities and have been shown to improve antioxidant activity within the brain
- Both possess neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties and may also stimulation neuronal growth
- Bacopa Monnieri has been associated with improved memory and can been shown to be useful for patients with ADHD
If you have any questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Helen) by email at any time.
Helen Drake and the Cytoplan Editorial Team
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