The word ‘quantum’ has fast become part of conversation in modern times. Strictly speaking, the word quantum refers to “the smallest physically realizable unit of something”. In the plant world this amounts to the conversion of tiny photons of light from the sun’s energy into glucose through the process of photosynthesis. With the popularization of quantum physics though films like ‘What the Bleep Do We Know’, quantum physics has not only become synonymous with the study of the sub-atomic world, but a movement for personal realization and change within individuals. It is in this spirit that we look at the molecules and compounds that plants create, and their remarkable effects on our mind and body. In our first quantum plants edition, we look at compounds found specifically in African plants that support the human brain and enhance our state of mind.
The human brain is a fine tuned electrical and chemical masterpiece, it utilizes glucose for energy, amino acids as building blocks and a range of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters to set thousands of electrical messages off each second (each traveling at about 100 meters per second!). Unfortunately our brain can for one reason or another become depleted of some of these chemical messengers; stress, malnutrition or even toxins can result in neurotransmitter deficiencies, creating symptoms such as depression, poor concentration or fatigue. Thankfully , the plant kingdom comes to our aid, producing a range of compounds referred to as “Nootropics” – substances that increase the functioning of the mind by increasing the vital building blocks required to make more neurotransmitters or by stimulating the flow of more neurotransmitters.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid for those who speak Dr. Seuss, or GABA for the rest of us, is used by plants for metabolic and developmental processes and even as part of the defense mechanism against insects. The human body uses GABA for development of the nervous system and functions as an inhibiting agent; in other words GABA is the “chill out” neurotransmitter, it helps us to relax and counters anxiety. Any one who has had a glass or three of wine after a long day would have felt the effects of GABA.
GABA is found in two notable South African medicinal plants; Sutherlandia frutescens and Withania somnifera. Sutherlandia frutescens functions as a superb adaptogen and contains GABA within its leaves. It is used in a number of immune boosting products and can be taken as a bitter tasting tea. Another adaptogenic herb that contains compounds that create “GABA like” effects is Withania somnifera. Known in India as “ashwaganda”, Withania is used as a general tonic and immune booster; its calming effects can be attributed to compounds found within the roots of the plant.
Serotonin is a critical neurotransmitter affecting as many as 500 000 target neurons (for those of us who avoid complex anatomical speak, neurons are the millions of ‘wires’ that the nervous systems uses to send messages throughout the body). The general lack of serotonin in modern society is apparent, with millions of people suffering from depression, anxiety and mood swings. While there is evidence of serotonin being present in plants, the plants that increase serotonin circulation in humans do not necessarily contain serotonin. Instead they carry compounds that allow us create more serotonin within the brain.
Griffonia simplicifolia is a shrub that can be found in western and central Africa. Griffonia’s hard coin-like seeds contain an amino acid called 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). Normally the body utilizes an amino acid called tryptophan as raw material for the manufacture of serotonin, but 5-HTP will do much the same job, providing more material to make more serotonin. 5-HTP has also been used to assist people suffering from sleep difficulties. Another way to increase the availability of serotonin is by limiting the reuptake or re-absorption of it by the brain. Sceletium tortuosum is a succulent that manufactures an alkaloid (a plant compound that contains nitrogen) called mesembine and is said to function as a natural serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). There is also evidence to suggest that Sceletium increases levels of dopamine and noradrenalin, two neurotransmitters that sit in the ‘adrenaline’ family of neurotransmitters. This could explain why there is anecdotal evidence of Sceletium being used successfully by children that exhibit symptoms of the dreaded Attention Deficit Disorder.
So far we have explored four nootropic plants that create the availability of four different neurotransmitters (a trifling amount considering South Africa alone contains 25 000 plant species). There are many more plants that supply many more neurotransmitters affecting critical functioning such as memory and concentration. There is little doubt that in years to come these plants will provide valuable molecular resources to assist man to evolve in an ever challenging environment.