Neuropathy literally means diseased nerves. There are a number of different reasons why people develop neuropathy. Neuropathy is quite often associated with diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, inflammation of the nerves, and toxins that plague the nerves. We have discussed many conditions that cause nerve disease in patients in other articles. Patients with the signs and symptoms of neuropathy experience pain, burning, numbness, and other strange sensations called paresthesias most often starting in the feet and progressing throughout the rest of the body. Pain and other symptoms can be debilitating and incapacitating regardless of the reason for the neuropathy.
The nervous system in higher animals like humans is a very complex collection of specialized cells called neurons. Neurons have several unique characteristics, including a thread-like process called an axon. The axon works very well like an electric wire and it carries coded electrical signals called nerve impulses throughout the body. Much like a copper wire, the nerve axon is surrounded by insulation known as myelin. Unlike a copper wire, a nerve cell and its threadlike axon are living tissue. The neuron contains all the cellular machinery necessary to produce energy, maintain itself and generate energy to support its function of transmitting and receiving electrical signals. Each neuron is an electrochemical wonder and is in essence a living battery. This amazing communication network occurs at the microscopic level and consumes incredible amounts of energy to function properly.
The myelin isolation surrounding the nerve axon is also living tissue, and the nerve cell and its myelin cell partners are intimately arranged to maintain and support each other.
The nervous system generally does a remarkable job of sending and receiving training from various parts of the body and acts both as a sensor system to monitor what is going on in the body and also as an effector system which brings about the necessary changes. in the body according to the input of the sensors.
Due to its complexity, the nervous system and its supporting myelin cells are vulnerable to even the slightest disturbance in metabolism. Axons are like a microscopic spider’s web, but they travel great distances in the body. They can become dysregulated very easily by trauma or compression.
Think of the nervous system as a living, delicate and vulnerable communication network that consumes extraordinary amounts of energy for proper operation and maintenance. It’s no wonder that the nervous system is susceptible to injury, disease, metabolic abnormalities, immune problems, and many other ailments that can make it sick and defective.
Peripheral nervous system dysfunction occurs frequently and when it does, people develop the cardinal symptoms of poly-neuropathy.
Although poly-neuropathy is one of the most common diseases of the peripheral nervous system, there are few drugs approved by the FDA to treat it. Many patients who try traditional prescription drugs to relieve their symptoms of neuropathy are disappointed with the results.
Too often, new drugs in the research pipeline 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 the same as artificial chemicals, but with less severe 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 this by studying the pharmacology of natural substances that can influence the functioning of the nervous system. There are a number of natural substances that can mimic the pharmacology of drugs used to treat neuropathy. We’ve discussed this in other articles, but we’ll go over them together here.
Based on experimental data on nerve function and disease, a number of major classes of chemicals may have theoretical application in relieving symptoms of neuropathy.
It seems that when nerves get sick, raising a chemical known as GABA can calm irritable and inflamed nerves and provide relief for people struggling with symptoms of neuropathy. You can think of GABA as a brake pedal that slows down the symptoms of neuropathy. There is research that suggests valerian root and lemon balm may increase GABA, thereby applying the body’s brake to leaking nerve pain. Valerian root can block an enzyme known as GABA-T which breaks down and neutralizes GABA in the nervous system. By blocking the breakdown of GABA, valerian root can prolong the braking effect of GABA on the nerve and slow symptoms of neuropathy. Lemon balm appears to increase the effect of GABA in a slightly different way. Rather than blocking the breakdown of GABA, lemon balm can stimulate an enzyme known as GAD which is responsible for building GABA. Thus, the braking action of GABA on the diseased nerve is supported by the increase in the production of this neurotransmitter
If GABA acts as the body’s brake on a packed nervous system, glutamate is the nerve’s accelerator pedal. Studies suggest that injured nerves become hyper-sensitive because glutamate is released after irritation of the nervous system. This has the effect of sensitizing the nerve and contributing to the signs and symptoms of neuropathy. There are two potentially important herbs that can 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 an analogue of glutamate. This means that theanine is processed by the body like glutamate, but does not have the nerve stimulating effects of glutamate. Think of theanine as a virgin ball which has the net effect of reducing the actions of glutamate. The other herb that can reduce the excitatory effects of glutamate is magnolia bark. It is believed that magnolia bark binds to a specific glutamate receptor and blocks it. This suggests that Magnolia Bark is a specific glutamate antagonist and may be a more specific way to get your foot on the gas pedal in nerves damaged by neuropathy.
Consistent with our car analogy, if GABA is the brake on the nerve in neuropathy and glutamate acts as the gas pedal, a third chemical known as glycine could be seen as the transmission. Glycine slows down the nervous system. Consider shifting the nerve down a gear. Glycine directly retrogrades the nerve in neuropathy, which slows down and inhibits painful transmission of nerve signals, but it can also compete indirectly with glutamate. The mechanism by which glycine might provide relief to patients with neuropathy is somewhat less straightforward. If a patient took a high dose of glycine, the nerves would slow down. This effect would not last long, however, because in the nervous system, glycine is carried out of the nerve by what is called a glycine transporter. The glycine transporter has the net effect of getting rid of the glycine which effectively brings the nervous system into high gear. This glycine transporter system is so effective that it makes glycine impractical as a treatment for neuropathy. Due to the glycine transporter, the nerve simply cannot keep enough glycine in the nerve to significantly slow the function of a hypersensitive nerve. However, there are substances that can inhibit the glycine transporter and this appears to be a promising way to improve the suppression of nervous hyper-excitability as occurs in neuropathy. Barbary ash bark appears to be a significant inhibitor of the glycine transporter. Prickly Ash has a long history of use for pain relief. Likewise, the natural compound Sarcosine is a known inhibitor of the glycine transporter. These two natural substances appear to be candidates for the relief of the signs and symptoms of neuropathy.
Another avenue that could be exploited for neuropathy relief is the endogenous cannabinoid receptor system. This system is activated by marijuana and is believed to suppress pain at higher levels of the nervous system. Receptors in the endogenous cannabinoid system can be activated for pain relief without producing a “high” and the side effects associated with marijuana use by certain fatty acid breakdown products in the nervous system. Substances that block the fatty acid amide hydrolase enzyme or FAAH appear to activate the endogenous cannabinoid system and are currently being investigated for the treatment of neuropathic-type pain. There appear to be natural FAAH inhibitors in red clover and MACA grass. This suggests that these herbs, with their potential to modulate the activity of the FAAH enzyme, may be able to activate the endogenous cannabinoid system and relieve neuropathic pain.
Finally, with particular reference to neuropathy associated with diabetes, protein kinase C or the enzyme PKC and its relationship to T-type calcium channels may be therapeutic targets. It appears that high blood sugar deregulates PKC in diabetic nerves. PKC appears to cause specific calcium channels in diabetic nerves called T-type calcium channels. These changes are believed to cause hypersensitivity and excitability at least in the nerves affected by diabetic neuropathy.
Chelidonium Majus is an herbal remedy that can modulate PKC. The alkaloid chelerythrin found in this plant is a potent protein kinase C antagonist. This suggests a possible benefit of this plant in polyneuropathy. Although generally safe, there are reports of liver toxicity associated with Chelidonium Majus 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 T-type calcium channels Cav3.1 and Cav3.2. This suggests that Picrorhiza Kurroa may be able to down-regulate the overexpression of T-type Cav3.2 calcium channels believed to contribute to the hyper-excitability of the nerves seen in diabetic neuropathy.
One final note and warning about using Internet information to try and treat a medical condition. Do not do that! Use of this article is provided only for patients to discuss the information contained with their licensed healthcare provider. Herbal treatments, while generally harmless, can have unwanted or unpredictable side effects. Only a licensed practitioner familiar with your specific medical condition can safely diagnose and advise you on the treatment of your particular medical condition. Always consult and inform your doctor before making any additions or changes to your treatment regimen.