Ayurvedic Plants Boost Stress and Depression Resilience

Summary: Researchers discovered that chronic stress induces depression-like behaviors in fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, affecting their motivation and activity.

The study found that Ayurvedic medicinal plants, particularly Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) and Centella asiatica, can improve the flies’ resilience to chronic stress when used prophylactically.

Interestingly, the team identified chlorogenic acid, found in Centella asiatica and other botanicals like coffee beans, as a key anti-stress substance.

This research highlights the potential of traditional medicinal plants in treating stress-related disorders and sheds light on the biological mechanisms of stress resilience.

Key Facts:

  1. Chronic stress led to depression-like behaviors in fruit flies, but prophylactic treatment with Ayurvedic plants improved their resilience.
  2. The study identified chlorogenic acid in Centella asiatica as an effective anti-stress component, also targeting the protein phosphatase calcineurin in flies.
  3. This research offers insights into the biological mechanisms of stress and potential natural treatments, linking Ayurveda and modern neuroscience.

Source: Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz

Chronic exposure to stress can lead to the development of depression-like disorders that manifest as a lack of motivation – even in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. As a result, the insects show less courtship behavior, are less interested in stopping to ingest sweet nutrients, and are less willing to climb a gap in the experimental setup.

Traditional medicinal plants, however, can – to some extent – alleviate some of the associated symptoms, as observed by researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany in collaboration with the BENFRA Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center in Portland, Oregon.

This shows plants.
These so-called adaptogens can help our bodies adapt to increased physical and emotional stress. Credit: Neuroscience News

The researchers have shown that two plants used in Ayurvedic medicine can improve resilience to chronic stress when used prophylactically in the flies. Despite their stressed state, they then no longer displayed behavior consistent with depression.

Papers on their studies of the two plant materials have been published in Nutrients.

Plants containing biologically active ingredients can help the organism deal with stress

The JGU research group led by Professor Roland Strauss has been using the Drosophila melanogaster model to analyze the underlying mechanisms involved in resilience to stress and the effects of stress on the nervous system.

“Chronic stress can induce depression-like states also in the fruit fly, and these become apparent in changes to their behavior,” explained Strauss. In this most recent research context, his group cooperated with the BENFRA Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center in the United States of America. The center investigates botanicals that enhance neurological and functional resilience in aging.

The Mainz-based researchers focus on testing extracts of botanicals and natural substances that are known to be used in traditional Asian medicine and are also marketed as dietary supplements.

The idea is that certain plants contain above average amounts of active constituents or substances that themselves demonstrate particularly high levels of biological activity. These so-called adaptogens can help our bodies adapt to increased physical and emotional stress.

“An advantage over conventional drugs could be that medicinal plants contain blends of various active botanical substances that act on different sites of the stress axis,” said Helen Holvoet, a doctoral candidate in the team of Professor Strauss and lead author of the two papers.

“Because they have a synergistic effect on counteracting stress, they may cause fewer undesirable effects than if the substances themselves were administered alone in pure form.”

Another potential advantage is that dietary supplements can be used as complementary medication in association with pharmacotherapies.

In the joint project, Strauss’ team tested their approach for the treatment of stress using two Ayurvedic medicinal plants, namely Withania somnifera (known as ashwagandha or the sleep berry) and Centella asiatica (the Indian pennywort).

The research partners were able to demonstrate that, when administered prophylactically, both plants enhanced the resilience to chronic stress so that the flies exposed to stress did not get into a depression-like state in the first place.

Chlorogenic acid identified as substance relevant to the treatment of stress

“In the case of Withania somnifera, we found that the way of preparing the root makes a difference – as aqueous extracts provided better prophylactic effects than extracts in alcohol,” explained Dr. Burkhard Poeck, who was also involved in the experiments.

This surprising result does indicate how important it is to pay attention to the production methods used for dietary supplements.

The team in Mainz and their cooperation partners in Portland obtained an even more impressive result when experimenting with Centella asiatica. They were actually able to identify a specific component, chlorogenic acid, acting as a prophylactic, anti-stress substance.

Chlorogenic acid is present in many botanicals, in particularly high levels in coffee beans, for example. It is also found in traditional medicinal herbs such as valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), the stress-relieving potential of which have long been known.

The analysis of such medicinal substances not only provides general information on their effects on neuronal stress, but it can also offer starting points for fundamental resilience research.

“In this case, we were able to pinpoint a relevant target protein for chlorogenic acid in Drosophila, the protein phosphatase calcineurin,” said Professor Roland Strauss, explaining additional research results.

In humans, calcineurin is present in many body organs and there are exceptionally high concentrations in the nervous system. There it interacts with numerous other proteins and mediates many signaling pathways.

About this psychopharmacology and depression research news

Author: Kathrin Voigt
Source: Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz
Contact: Kathrin Voigt – Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Chlorogenic Acids, Acting via Calcineurin, Are the Main Compounds in Centella asiatica Extracts That Mediate Resilience to Chronic Stress in Drosophila melanogaster” by Roland Strauss et al. Nutrients


Chlorogenic Acids, Acting via Calcineurin, Are the Main Compounds in Centella asiatica Extracts That Mediate Resilience to Chronic Stress in Drosophila melanogaster

Common symptoms of depressive disorders include anhedonia, sleep problems, and reduced physical activity.

Drugs used to treat depression mostly aim to increase serotonin signaling but these can have unwanted side effects. Depression has also been treated by traditional medicine using plants like Centella asiatica (CA) and this has been found to be well tolerated.

However, very few controlled studies have addressed CA’s protective role in depression, nor have the active compounds or mechanisms that mediate this function been identified.

To address this issue, we used Drosophila melanogaster to investigate whether CA can improve depression-associated symptoms like anhedonia and decreased climbing activity.

We found that a water extract of CA provides resilience to stress induced phenotypes and that this effect is primarily due to mono-caffeoylquinic acids found in CA.

Furthermore, we describe that the protective function of CA is due to a synergy between chlorogenic acid and one of its isomers also present in CA. However, increasing the concentration of chlorogenic acid can overcome the requirement for the second isomer.

Lastly, we found that chlorogenic acid acts via calcineurin, a multifunctional phosphatase that can regulate synaptic transmission and plasticity and is also involved in neuronal maintenance.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.