First sold under the brand name Valium®, diazepam is a drug with many uses. It is used for assisting people with anxiety, insomnia and a host of other issues. It also has recreational abuse potential and some people - even those legitimately prescribed by their GPs - suffer side effects including depression, impaired motor coordination and somewhat ironically, insomnia. Diazepam works via manipulation of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It does this by binding to a part of the GABA receptor, called the benzodiazepine site. In doing so it potentiates the effect that GABA when it too binds to the receptor.
Magnolia bark extract has been used in traditional medicine for centuries for its relaxing effects.
It appears to have very similar effects to diazepam in this regard and science has been looking specifically at how it works. There are two primary constituents in magnolia believed to be involved. One is magnolol, the other is honokiol. While both have shown relaxant properties I’ll focus primarily on honokiol here.
Honokiol has been compared to diazepam in several studies, showing that the actions of anti-anxiety (referred to as anxiolytic in scientific literature) are similar. Their mode of action, however, is somewhat different. While diazepam can disrupt motor activity, honokiol does not. Diazepam can also lead to a residual hangover the following morning, whereas honokiol seems to be much more forgiving if higher doses are taken. Honokiol also appears to lack the dependence-potential that diazepam has, and does not cause depression or amnesia (memory loss) as a side-effect of its anxiolytic action. Some new research conducted in Taiwan has suggested why this may be the case.
Their research investigated the effects that honokiol and diazepam had on the enzyme that converts glutamate into GABA, called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). There are two isoforms of GAD, named simply after their molecular weights: GAD65 and GAD67. On a quick side note, it needs to be said that glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. Stimulants increase its activity in the brain, which is what makes you alert and in some cases anxious or nervous. As you would expect, if GAD activity increases in certain parts of the brain, glutamate levels reduce and GABA levels increase, thus the relaxant qualities. And that is apparently exactly what honokiol does. The researchers found that activity of hippocampal GAD65 was increased in response to honokiol treatment, but not diazepam treatment. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that the hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in long-term memory formation and spatial awareness/navigation. It appears as though increasing GAD65 activity in this part of the brain may be what helps to protect memory and coordination. Incidentally, valerian is also a popular alternative herbal preparation used for its relaxant qualities and it too increases GAD activity in the brain.
Magnolia bark extract is available widely as a dietary supplement, as is a very high standardization for honokiol.
Once again I’d like to highlight that I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. Diazepam is used clinically for a range of ailments not just limited to anxiety. Honokiol has not been cleared for any of these issues. I discuss this purely in the purpose of interest.
Source: Ku TH, Lee YJ, Wang SJ, Fan CH, Tien LT. Effect of honokiol on activity of GAD(65) and GAD(67) in the cortex and hippocampus of mice. Phytomedicine. 2011 May 9.
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