For generations, medical professionals and researchers have asserted that once your brain and nervous system are developed, you can’t grow lost or damaged neurons. This meant that once the destruction is done, there’s no way to really heal it. However, new research is turning up some promising findings, showing that there may be hope for those who struggle with long-term neurological damage.
Not a new idea
As far back as the 1970s, a Nobel-nominated physiologist and physician from Venezuela, Fuad Lechin, M.D., Ph.D., asserted in his work that the brain could repair itself, given the right conditions.
Researchers have known that repair of the nervous system in adults occurs in only a few specific regions of the brain like the olfactory bulb, where epithelial cells and the neurons associated with them are constantly being replaced. The mechanism behind this type of neuroregeneration comes through special cells called neural stem and progenitor cells. These special cells are actually found throughout the central nervous system, but they seem unable to form new neurons in most brain regions. What was discovered recently is that these cells are actively repressed.
One of the main areas of focus in neuro research is the hippocampus, a region of the brain that transforms short-term memory into long-term memory. Damage to this area is believed to account for memory problems associated with age-related (as well as chronic-stress-related) neurodegenerative diseases, fast becoming epidemic in the industrialized world. What researchers are finding is that this area of the brain appears to be able to undergo regenerative repair. But creating the right environment for this regeneration is crucial.
The deadly roles of inflammation and oxidation
The main forces driving neurological degeneration in most people are oxidative stress and inflammation, and they go hand in hand. These two factors play key roles in the progression of numerous chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Many of the nutritional and lifestyle therapies that reduce risks to cardiovascular, cellular and metabolic health also promote a beneficial environment for neuroregeneration to occur. They do this by reducing damage to the delicate tissues of the central nervous system caused by chronic inflammation and free radicals.
Botanical compounds for neuroregeneration
Certain botanical compounds are being investigated for their neuroregenerative abilities. Several compounds derived from Panax ginseng have been shown to be very effective in promoting repair and protecting the brain from the effects of oxidative damage. One compound in particular, Rg3, has been found to help clear the “brain fog” that accompanies many neurodegenerative conditions, by decreasing inflammation and reducing the self-destruction, or “apoptosis,” of neurons.
A unique program headed by Andrew Heyman, M.D., director of Integrative and Metabolic Medicine at George Washington University, is currently underway. This program will be studying the use of the Rg3 ginseng compound in combat veterans returning with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The compound is being given orally and, in another of his research projects as a nasal spray.
Other ginseng extracts are showing effectiveness in improving memory, reaction time and decision-making as well as increasing a sense of calm. Another finding from an animal study showed that one of the ginseng compounds promoted regeneration of injured peripheral nerves.
There are a number of herbal compounds and other nutrients that have been found to have beneficial effects on the health of brain cells, most likely because of their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. One of my top recommendations used extensively in my clinic practice for its broad range of benefits is honokiol, derived from the bark of the Magnolia officinalis tree. Magnolia bark has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine as a common ingredient in many herbal formulas for neurological and digestive health. Now we have a purified extract available that offers more powerful, targeted support against inflammation and oxidative stress. In addition, honokiol is known for aiding sleep and promoting relaxation — all positive effects on the brain. It also offers potent anticancer effects. Studies have confirmed that honokiol crosses the blood-brain barrier, so we know that therapeutic levels are able to reach the delicate tissues of the brain to provide protection and support.
I am very encouraged by the research on botanical approaches to neurological health and especially by the emerging evidence that neuroregeneration is not just a wishful idea, but an emerging reality. Research is also showing that lifestyle factors like regular exercise, meditation, yoga, social support and healthy stress relief, along with an anti-inflammatory diet, also support neurological health and regeneration, along with overall vitality.
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