By Craig Gustafson
Is it only imagination, or do the disclaimer lists on televised drug ads seem to be getting longer?
Through various media, drug companies prey on our insecurities and fears with ever-escalating quantities of ads touting the wondrous potential drugs have to affect our lives. Unfortunately, the real potential can actually be heard in each ad’s final three seconds.
A recent survey conducted by supplement ingredient manufacturer Kyowa Hakko put the population’s concern squarely in perspective. It found that 57 percent of Americans fear reduction in brain function more than physical decline (43 percent have stronger fear of the latter). Just more than half of those surveyed already acknowledge trouble remembering names, birthdays, and location of keys or cell phones.
A group comprised of 57 percent of Americans is a significant market, and both the pharmaceutical and supplement industries stand ready to provide answers.
As a refined, synthetic product, drugs pack a potent punch. But here’s the catch: That punch is often a left-right combo, ending with side effects that can range from nuisance-level to fatal, stomach upset to cancer—and everything in between.
Supplements generally work in a much more subtle manner—as evidenced by the number of “Western” studies that claim ineffectiveness or inconclusiveness. But can the impression left by generations of use really be that wrong?
Have We Forgotten Herbs?
When the subject of herbs comes up, odds are likely that your mouth starts to water. For most Americans, their culinary use is about as far as our understanding extends.
When the focus shifts to medicinal value, however, most of us are largely in the dark. Whether it is the unpronounceable Latin names or the perception that herbal remedies lack “science,” something has kept herbals from becoming the first line of defense for healthy living.
The truth of the matter is that, despite the perception, many herbals have been thoroughly researched. Ironically, this research has often been done by pharmaceutical companies. Common medications, such as aspirin and statins, were originally isolated from herbs (white willow bark and red yeast rice, respectively). Ongoing research continues to chase botanicals as a source of chemical templates that can be used to derive new synthetic patent drugs.
The Evidence of Herbs
Far removed from the formal double-blind placebo-controlled study, ancient cultures used trial and error and observation to identify the beneficial effects ascribed to many herbs. Through the “n of 1” (referring to the size of the statistical test sample), those who were paying attention recognized the empirical significance of an herb’s effect and filed away that knowledge for future use.
The observations collected by these individuals evolved into complex systems of remedies, particularly in what has become traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and ayurveda. Some organizations have now begun using modern science to evaluate the traditional herbal remedies. While admittedly the results can be mixed, there are examples that stand up to the test.
A recent scientific review by Zhuoting Yao, et al., examined an herbal blend used in TCM called Yang-Xue-Qing-Nao (YXQN), which has a long history of use for circulatory issues, headaches, dizziness, and insomnia. Modern research has validated its effects in mitigating some varieties of cognitive impairment, including vascular cognitive impairment and vascular dementia.
The authors point out that vascular dementia is the second most common class of dementia, comprising 20 to 30 percent of all cases. Its primary cause is the restriction of blood flow to the brain. Current evidence reveals that decreased cerebral blood flow may progress to Alzheimer’s disease and, while the evidence is not strong enough to implicate the former as the cause of the latter, there may be enough of a connection to consider decreased cerebral blood flow as a predictor for Alzheimer’s.
Accumulating evidence confirms the role of oxidative stress as one cause of restricted blood flow to the brain, while a few studies have gone farther, reporting improvement in cognitive deficits and brain damage after treatment with antioxidants. To date, this evidence is not enough to declare a treatment breakthrough for Alzheimer’s, but it does support the case for considering oxidative stress as a direct cause of cognitive impairment.
Herbs in Yang-Xue-Qing-Nao:
- Chinese Angelica (Dong Quai)
- Szechuan Lovage (Chuan Xiong)
- Chinese Peony Root (Bai Chao)
- Chinese Foxglove (Shu Di Huang)
- Cat’s Claw (Gou Teng)
- Chinese Senna (Jue Ming Zi)
- Zhen Zhu Mu (Pearl Shell)
Getting back to our herbs, the authors discussed the effects of YXQN in a study that artificially blocked the flow of blood to the brain in rats. Control rats and those treated with YXQN were observed navigating a maze. Those that were treated with the herbs showed significant improvement in learning and memory—improvement similar to that of a third group, which was treated with a drug thought to apply a similar mechanism of action. When the researchers looked at levels of oxidative stress, all three groups showed elevated levels, but only the YXQN group had levels lower than the controls.
The conclusions drawn by the authors of the review suggest that use of YXQN can support circulation in the brain, enhance blood-vessel function, and protect the blood-brain barrier (a function that keeps neurotoxic substances away from your brain), as well as offer a promising therapy for actually treating cognitive impairment due to circulative insufficiency. For those seeking a natural way to promote peak brain function and delay or sidestep potential causes of dementia, YXQN could be a solution.
While ayurvedic herbs have a growing following in America, the herbal blends of TCM lag a bit behind in recognition and access. In 2014, the Tasly company launched an American subsidiary to make herbal supplements based on TCM more widely available. The company recently introduced its first three products, marketed under the Deepure brand, of which its Re-Memory PLUS is based upon the YXQN blend of herbs.
The Herbal Alternative
The scourge of chronic diseases continues to push more and more members of our society to find solutions for managing life with these conditions. Medical doctors continue to rely on pharmaceutical solutions, but recognition is growing for the toll these solutions take from our bodies. Herbs offer a time-honored way to support the body and actively address the functional causes of chronic disease and, although mild adverse effects can be attributed to some, many have none at all.
TCM offers a significant collection of empirical data on herbs that represent a large step in the right direction. These blends are becoming increasingly validated as methods to address disease in the body. If you are pulled toward an intervention with a gentler, more harmonious action, the herbal blends of TCM may be just what you are looking for.