By Stacey Littlefield
A healthy and normally functioning nervous system is something that many of us take for granted. We move our hands when we need to, without thinking about it; we feel sensations, such as hot and cold, and don’t think twice about it. When the nervous system is functioning normally, electrical signals are running to and from the brain, facilitating our sense of touch and movements. But what happens when that matrix of communication is not running so smoothly?
Imagine having the constant feeling of pins and needles in your feet, or the sense that something is burning in your legs; or even a sensation of pain in your feet that makes it difficult to walk. These are the things that can happen when there is a miscommunication between the nerves in the body and the brain.
While all of us need to be concerned about the health of our nervous systems, there are certain segments of the population that need to pay extra attention and these groups include: diabetics, people at risk of B vitamin deficiencies, those recovering from physical trauma, and people who use certain prescription drugs, like statins. Thankfully, the right combination of vitamins, amino acids and herbs can offer benefits to the nervous system and the underlying body systems that support it.
SUPPORTING THE NERVE STRUCTURE
The peripheral nervous system, comprised of nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, is the communication highway for your body. Electrical signals travel along nerve cells, called neurons, to relay messages to the brain. When these nerves are damaged, they cannot communicate properly and the miscommunication can cause sensations, such as numbness or pain. Neurons are protected by a coating called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is very similar to the plastic coating found on electrical wires. It is designed to both protect the neuron and prevent signal interference in the nervous system.
Myelin is comprised of 76 percent lipids (fats). The high fat content provides extra protection for the nerve fibers beneath the myelin sheath. There are different types of lipids found in the myelin. One group is called phospholipids and another is called sphingolipids. There are different types of phosphatidyl compounds that help manufacture the phospholipids found in the myelin sheath. Supplementing with a phosphatidyl complex will provide the many different types of these phospholipids.
B vitamins are likely the most important vitamin group to the health of the nervous system. Deficiencies of many B vitamins cause damage to the nervous system. Vitamin B6 is particularly important to diabetics, as many people with diabetes have been shown to be deficient in this vitamin. Studies show that supplementation with vitamin B6 can promote nerve health in diabetics.
Vitamin B12, folic and thiamine (vitamin B1) are also important to the structural integrity of the fats found in the myelin. If the lipids in the myelin are not formed properly, the myelin itself is defective. This can be compared to a crack in an asphalt road. Over time, as more and more traffic runs over the crack, it soon turns into a hole. Degradation of the myelin sheath can happen in the same fashion.
Alpha lipoic acid has recently gained much popularity as a potent antioxidant, but its benefits in the body go beyond the destruction of free radicals. Alpha lipoic acid supplementation is a major method to support the health of the nerves in Germany. Numerous studies show positive results with alpha lipoic acid in different types of nerve-related issues. Research has shown that one of alpha lipoic acid’s positive actions is its ability to promote healthy, normal nerve fibers. Another nutrient that has been shown to have the same action is acetyl l-carnitine. L-carnitine is an amino acid required for the use of fatty acids in the body. The best form of l-carnitine for nervous system support is acetyl l-carnitine, which shows the most positive results in clinical research. Many double-blind, placebo controlled studies show that acetyl l-carnitine can stimulate the health of nerve fibers in diabetics. These same studies show that acetyl l-carnitine can normalize pain sensations.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, nerve health is though to involve variable issues, one of which is poor flow of qi (energy) and blood to the extremities. This stagnation is said to bring about burning pain, tingling and numbness that gets worse at night. Phellodendron amurense and Atractylodes lancea are two herbs found in an official Chinese medicine called Er Miao San, or Two Marvels Powder. This herbal combination is routinely recommended in China to support a healthy nervous system. In fact, Er Miao San is recommended in the Chinese-English Manual of Commonly Used Prescriptions in Traditional Chinese Medicine for “swelling, pain and increased temperature over…the legs.” The primary benefits of these herbs come from the promotion of normal and healthy circulation to the peripheral nerves and the increased flow of qi to the extremities.
Along with its support of the nerve structure, studies show that alpha lipoic acid can also promote healthy circulation to the peripheral nerves. By promoting healthy blood flow, normal nerve conduction is promoted after three months of supplementation.
PROTECTING THE MYELIN SHEATH
Myelin can be slowly destroyed by harmful free radicals. Free radicals are by-products of our own bodies’ everyday processes, and they must be “harnessed” before doing damage. The myelin is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage.
Alpha lipoic acid is a potent biological antioxidant because it is both water soluble and fat soluble. Furthermore, it has the ability to recycle other antioxidants, like vitamin C and vitamin E. Most of alpha lipoic acid’s benefits in the peripheral nervous system come from its antioxidant properties. By protecting the myelin sheath from free radical damage, it prevents a cascade of events that would otherwise cause more nerve problems.
Plants provide powerful and effective antioxidants that our bodies cannot create. Again, we look to Traditional Chinese Medicine for an herb that has been proven to possess beneficial antioxidant compounds. Scutellaria baicalensis, also known as Baikal skullcap, is a Chinese herb with a large appetite for free radicals. This plant contains polyphenols, a class of plant-based antioxidants. Studies show that this herb has great potential in providing cells with antioxidant protection.
Curcuma longa, or turmeric, is an Ayurvedic herb with particular importance as an antioxidant in diabetes. Studies show that compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are linked to the development and severity of diabetic complications. AGEs are proteins that are very efficient in producing free radicals. Studies show that curcumin, an antioxidant component of turmeric, promoted normal levels of AGEs, which in turn promoted the health of the nervous system and cardiovascular system.
In our bodies, areas of trauma are usually accompanied by inflammation. It just so happens that plants that are high in antioxidants can also support normal inflammation in the body. This is true of Baikal skullcap and turmeric. Baikal skullcap’s primary use in Traditional Chinese Medicine is to promote normally inflammatory pathways. Studies have shown that Baikal skullcap promotes normal expression of the COX-2 enzyme, which is responsible for inflammation, by modifying the production of prostaglandins.
A large body of studies shows that turmeric promotes normal inflammation pathways by modulating many different compounds that play a role in inflammation, such as COX-2 and nitric oxide.
An unhealthy nervous system can be a painful problem for many people. A supplement designed to support the normal function of the nervous system should address several problems facing the peripheral nerves. The production and maintenance of healthy nerve tissue within the nervous system is complex and involved. Using a combination of vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants and herbs can enhance the body’s ability to maintain health.