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Neuro-Pharmacognosy: Is It Nature’s Answer For Neuropathy?

Neuropathy literally means diseased nerves. There are several reasons why people develop neuropathy. Neuropathy is usually associated with diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, nerve inflammation, and toxins that poison the nerves. We have discussed many of the conditions that cause nerves to become sick in patients in other articles. Patients suffering from the signs and symptoms of neuropathy experience pain, burning, numbness and other strange sensations known as paresthesias that usually start in the feet and progress throughout the rest of the body. Pain and other symptoms can be debilitating and disabling regardless of the cause of the neuropathy.

The nervous system in higher animals such as humans is a highly complex collection of specialized cells known as neurons. Neurons have many unique features, including a wire-like process known as an axon. The axon works much like an electrical wire and carries coded electrical signals known as nerve impulses throughout the body. Just like a copper wire, the axon has insulation around it, known as myelin. Unlike a copper wire, a nerve cell and its axon wire are living tissue. The neuron contains all the necessary cellular machinery to produce energy, maintain itself, and generate energy to support its function of transmitting and receiving electrical signals. Each neuron is an electrochemical marvel and is essentially a living battery. This amazing communication network occurs at the microscopic level and consumes incredible amounts of energy to function properly.

The myelin insulation that surrounds the nerve axon is also a living tissue, and the nerve cell and its myelin cell partners are tightly arranged to maintain and support each other.

The nervous system usually does a remarkable job of sending and receiving input from different parts of the body and acts as both a sensor system to monitor what is happening in the body and an effector system to drive the necessary changes in the body based on the input from the sensors. .

Because of its complexity, the nervous system and its supporting myelin cells are vulnerable to the slightest disturbance of metabolism. Axons are like a tiny spider web but travel long distances through the body. They can become maladjusted very easily from trauma or compression.

Think of the nervous system as a living, sensitive, vulnerable communication network that consumes extraordinary amounts of energy to function and maintain properly. It’s no wonder that the nervous system is prone to injury, disease, metabolic abnormalities, immune problems, and many other conditions that can make it sick and malfunction.

Dysfunction of the peripheral nervous system occurs frequently, and when this occurs people develop the core symptoms of polyneuropathy.

Despite the fact that polyneuropathy is one of the most common diseases of the peripheral nervous system, there are few FDA-approved drugs available to treat it. Many patients who try traditional prescription drugs to relieve neuropathy symptoms are disappointed with the results.

All too often newer research drugs look promising but fail due to unwanted side effects. Research and data obtained from failed drug development experiments can sometimes be applied to herbal medicine where natural substances can work in a similar way to man-made chemicals, but with less harsh side effects. The scientific study of natural substances that can mimic artificial drugs is known as Pharmacognosy. When this knowledge is applied to the nervous system we call it Neuropharmacognosy. You can translate it as the study of the pharmacology of natural substances that can affect the functioning of the nervous system. There are a number of natural substances that may mimic the pharmacology of drugs used to treat neuropathy. We’ve discussed them in other articles, but we’ll go over them together here.

Based on experimental data on nerve function and disease, a number of broad classes of chemicals may have theoretical application in alleviating the symptoms of neuropathy.

When nerves become diseased, it appears that increasing a chemical known as GABA can calm irritable and inflamed nerves and provide relief for people struggling with neuropathy symptoms. You can think of GABA as a brake pedal that slows down the symptoms of neuropathy. There is research that suggests that the herbs valerian root and lemon balm may increase GABA, thereby putting the body’s brakes on nerve pain while running. Valerian root can block an enzyme known as GABA-T that breaks down and neutralizes GABA in the nervous system. By inhibiting the breakdown of GABA, valerian root can prolong the inhibitory effect of GABA on the nerve and slow neuropathy symptoms. Lemon Balm seems to increase the effect of GABA in a slightly different way. Instead of blocking the breakdown of GABA, Lemon Balm can stimulate an enzyme known as GAD which is responsible for building GABA. Thus the inhibitory action of GABA on the diseased nerve is supported by the increased production of this neurotransmitter

If GABA acts like the body’s brake on a nervous system, glutamate is the nerve’s gas pedal. Studies indicate that injured nerves become hypersensitive because glutamate is released after nervous system stimulation. This has the effect of sensitizing the nerve and contributing to the signs and symptoms of neuropathy. There are two potentially important herbs that may block the effects of glutamate on the nervous system in neuropathy. The first is theanine, a protein derived from green tea. Theanine is believed to act as a glutamate analog. This means that theanine is processed by the body like glutamate, but does not have the neurostimulatory effects of glutamate. Think of Theanine as a hollow sphere that has the net effect of reducing the actions of glutamate. Another herb that can reduce the stimulant effects of glutamate is magnolia bark. Magnolia bark is believed to bind to a specific glutamate receptor and block it. This suggests that Magnolia Bark is a specific glutamate antagonist and may be a more specific way to take the foot off the gas pedal in nerves damaged by neuropathy.

In our car analogy, if GABA is the brake on the nerve in neuropathy and glutamate acts like the gas pedal, a third chemical known as Glycine can be thought of as the transmission. Glycine slows down the nervous system. Consider changing the nerf to low gear. Glycine downshifts the nerve in neuropathy directly by slowing and inhibiting the painful transmission of nerve signals, but also can indirectly antagonize glutamate. The mechanism by which glycine may provide relief to patients suffering from neuropathy is a little less straightforward. If a patient took a large dose of glycine, the nerves would slow down. However, this effect would not last long because in the nervous system glycine is removed from the nerve by what is known as the Glycine Transporter. Glycine Transporter has the net effect of getting rid of glycine, which effectively shifts the nervous system back into high gear. This glycine transport system is so efficient that it makes glycine as a treatment for neuropathy impractical. Because of the Glycine Transporter, the nerve simply cannot keep enough Glycine in the nerve to slow down a hypersensitive nerve in a meaningful way. However, there are substances that can inhibit the Glycine Transporter and this appears to be a promising way to enhance suppression of nerve overexcitability as occurs in neuropathy. The herb Prickly Ash Bark appears to be an important glycine transport inhibitor. Prickly Ash has a long history of use for pain relief. Similarly, the natural compound Sarcosine is a known inhibitor of the Glycine Transporter. Both of these naturally occurring substances appear to be candidates for relieving the signs and symptoms of neuropathy.

Another pathway that can be tapped to alleviate neuropathy is the endogenous cannabinoid receptor system. This system is activated by marijuana and is believed to suppress pain at the highest levels of the nervous system. Endogenous cannabinoid system receptors can be activated to relieve pain without causing the “high” and side effects associated with marijuana drug use by certain fatty acid breakdown products in the nervous system. Substances that block the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase, or FAAH, appear to activate the endogenous cannabinoid system and are currently being investigated for the treatment of neuropathic pain. There appear to be natural FAAH inhibitors in red clover and the herb MACA. This suggests that these herbs through their ability to modulate FAAH enzyme activity may be able to activate the endogenous cannabinoid system and provide neuropathic pain relief.

Finally, with particular reference to neuropathy associated with diabetes, the enzyme Protein Kinase C or PKC and its relationship with T-type calcium channels may be therapeutic targets. It appears that elevated blood glucose does not modulate PKC in diabetic nerves. PKC appears to drive specific calcium channels in diabetic nerves known as T-type calcium channels. These changes are thought to cause hypersensitivity and excitability at least in nerves affected by diabetic neuropathy.

Chelidonium Majus is a herbal medicine that can regulate PKC. The alkaloid chelerythrine found in this herb is a potent antagonist of Protein Kinase C. This suggests a potential benefit of this herb in polyneuropathy. Although generally safe, some reports of liver toxicity associated with Chelidonium Majus appear in the medical literature.

Picrorhiza Kurroa is an herb that contains the phytochemical Apocynin. At least one study suggests that apocynin prevented or significantly reduced the upregulation of Cav3.1 and Cav3.2 T-type calcium channels. This suggests that Picrorhiza Kurroa may be able to regulate the overexpression of Cav3.2 T-type calcium channels thought to contribute to the nerve hyperexcitability seen in diabetic neuropathy.

A final note and warning about using information on the Internet to try to treat a medical condition. Do not do it! Use of this article is provided solely for patients to discuss the information contained with their authorized health care provider. Herbal remedies while generally safe can have unwanted or unpredictable side effects. Only a licensed medical practitioner familiar with your particular health care condition can safely diagnose and advise you on treatment for your particular condition. Always consult and inform your doctor before making additions or changes to your treatment regimen.

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