Nervous System Function
Divisions of the nervous system
Our nervous systems are one of the most complex structures that we know to exist. Broadly, they are separated into the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes the nerves that originate from the brain and spinal cord. Beyond this simple division there are many others: the autonomic (think automatic) nervous system, and the somatic (think voluntary) nervous system; within the autonomic nervous system lie the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems; within the somatic nervous system lie sensory and motor divisions; within the gut lies the enteric (inside) nervous system. What do they all have in common? They are all composed of neurons, and they communicate information, like a switchboard, to and from the brain.
Functions in the nervous system
Many, many processes are necessary for this communication to function well enough for us to think, feel and act in the world. First and foremost, every neuron requires a cell membrane, a barrier between inside and outside the cell. This membrane allows neurons to create intentional imbalances of electrolytes (think sodium and potassium) on each side of the membrane so that nerve impulses can be generated. Every neuron has a synapse, or connection, with at least one other neuron, and this synapse can accumulate junk that needs seasonal cleaning. We also need the right neurotransmitters, at the right time, for our neurons to talk to each other. Each cell needs to produce energy, pulling in resources from the blood, using mitochondria. And neurons need constant signals to grow, without which they slow down and die.
Nervous System Dysfunction
With so many requirements for normal function, it should be no surprise that things can go wrong. A major concern is oxidation, or oxidative stress, a version of which we are familiar with as the rust that can form on metal surfaces. There is a constant influx of oxidative stress in our cells, and under normal conditions, every cell has the tools to fight it off. Sometimes, however, our natural defenses are overwhelmed, and things go south. Our normally healthy membranes become damaged and have trouble maintaining their essential role in keeping inside in and outside out. Our ability to clean out the junk is compromised, and damaged proteins accumulate in between our cells, in our synapses, which leads to more damage, and impairs our neurons’ ability to communicate with each other. Our mitochondria can accumulate damage and become leaky, further contributing to oxidation, and impairing our ability to generate energy. As we age, our ability to maintain normal neurotransmitter levels can deteriorate as well, further challenging our neurons’ ability to communicate.
All of the changes we’ve discussed, including membrane damage, abnormal protein (junk) accumulation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and loss of normal neurotransmitter levels, make it hard for our brains, and nerves, to do their job. This process can take decades, and often makes itself known long after we could have prevented it. Most commonly, it manifests with age as changes in normal cognitive function, changes in the maintenance of memory, and mood changes. Fortunately, mushrooms have an important role to play in maintaining nervous system health. We picked three to include in our formula based on the available scientific evidence, at doses reflected in the clinical research and traditional use.
The BRAIN & NERVES Formula
Oyster mushroom contains ergothioneine, a special molecule that helps maintain normal levels of oxidative stress in cells. Through a stroke of evolutionary coincidence (perhaps), humans have cellular transporters that move these molecules into our cells, where it is a powerful regulator of oxidation. While many antioxidants also generate oxidation, ergothioneine is unique in its ability to eliminate it without causing damage itself. Furthermore, it remains in cells for a long time, serving as a back-up source, or reservoir, in case our other defenses are exhausted. Ergothioneine supports cellular glutathione levels as well, bolstering our natural defenses, and even chelates metal ions that can cause oxidative damage. Human research suggests that higher levels of ergothioneine correlate with healthy memory and motor function, and also suggests a positive relationship between levels of ergothioneine in the blood and the brain, indicating its ability to pass the blood-brain barrier.
In the brain, ergothioneine wards of oxidative damage in our neurons. Oxidative damage hurts many parts of our cells, including cell membranes, proteins, mitochondria, and other organelles. Damaged proteins like beta-amyloid can accumulate in and around neuronal membranes and lead to changes in normal neuron function, memory, and cognitive function. Damage to mitochondria leads to changes in their ability to keep cells alive and healthy. Ergothioneine can move into cells through a specific transporter, OCTN1, that is present in many human cell types. These transporters are found in kidney cells, lung cells, immune cells, cells of the cerebellum, and red blood cells. When these transporters break down, there are changes in normal immune regulation, suggesting it is essential for health. Higher levels of ergothioneine are associated with higher levels of glutathione, a major antioxidant. Overall, the ergothioneine in oyster mushrooms maintains healthy levels of oxidation in our cells, helping to regulate and maintain normal nervous system and memory function.
Lion’s mane contains a few important molecules that help maintain nervous system health. These molecules are found in the body of the mushroom (hericenones) and the mycelium (erinacine). Hericenones inhibit inflammatory transcription factors that lead to the expression of inflammatory signaling molecules. They also lead to the production of nerve growth factor synthase, an enzyme that makes nerve growth factor, which helps neurons grow and prevents them from dying. Loss of normal nerve growth is associated with changes in memory function, and nerve growth factor also helps damaged nerves heal. Importantly, nerve growth factor cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so we can’t just take it as a supplement. Hericenones and erinacines can both stimulate the production of nerve growth factor by themselves. Clinical trials show that lion’s mane helps support normal nerve regeneration and maintain normal cognitive function, memory, and mood.
Tremella contains a large amount of polysaccharide (sugars) compared to other mushrooms. It helps support normal acetylcholine levels in the hippocampus, the center of memory in the human brain. The loss of acetylcholine in the hippocampus is associated with changes in normal memory function. Tremella also improves the utilization of glucose in neurons, a key marker of brain health. A clinical trial with 75 human subjects found that tremella helped support short term memory and executive performance, which was associated with an increase in the brain’s gray matter volume in multiple brain regions.
The Big Picture
Our brains and nervous systems are complex, and as we age we pick up bumps and bruises in the form of accumulated oxidative stress and damage, abnormal proteins in and around our neurons, and the loss of the growth signals needed for maintenance and repair. Oyster mushroom provides a natural buffer against oxidative damage, keeping all of the parts of all of our neurons safe and protected. Lion’s Mane provides a push towards growth and maintenance of the brain and the nerves and helps bolster normal memory, cognitive function, and mood. Tremella supports the memory centers of our brain, the production of important neurotransmitters, and our gray matter, as well as supporting normal memory and executive performance. Together, they make a powerful formula to keep you, your brain, and your nerves strong and healthy, so you can be the best you that you can be.