Flavonoids seem to work mechanistically similar to anti-anxiety drugs: They are able to pass the blood-brain barrier but without the side effects of medications.
Benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium) are well-known drugs to help people feel calmer through their sedating, hypnotic, anti-anxiety, muscle-relaxant effects. These effects are thought to occur, at least in part, because of the drug’s ability to enhance the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at a specific receptor site in the brain.
As it turns out, certain members of the class of phytochemicals called flavonoids seem to work mechanistically similar to benzodiazepines: They are able to pass the blood-brain barrier (and the blood-brain barrier is notoriously “picky” about what it lets in!) and even sit on brain receptors.
One of the first research studies published on plant flavonoids binding to these anti-anxiety receptors was from a Danish group back in 1988. They were able to identify one of the most active compounds in Karmelitergeist, an alcoholic extract of several plants, including lemon balm, nutmeg, cinnamon, and angelica root.
It was a flavonoid called amentoflavon(e), and it was as potent as diazepam (Valium) in binding to certain brain receptors. Since then, the large family of flavonoids have been explored, and some popular types have been identified: kaempferol, myricetin, quercetin, apigenin, luteolin, hesperetin, naringenin, catechins, epicatechins, anthocyanidins, and cyanidins, to name a few.
Select flavonoids from botanicals have been reported to influence brain receptors including the following:
- Chrysin, from the traditional medicine plant bluecrown passionflower (Passiflora coerulea L.)
- Apigenin, from the dried flower heads of German chamomile (Matricaria recutita L., Asteraceae)
- Flavones from an extract of sage leaves (Salvia officinalis L.)
- Apigenin, from an extract of dried flowers of chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.)
- Epigallocatechin gallate, which is concentrated in green tea
- Gabrol from licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- Quercetin and kaempferol in linden flowers
- Quercetin in heather.
- Flavonoid glycosides in ginkgo biloba extract
- Baicalein from baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)
Anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines have many side effects, like sedation, amnesia, and ataxia [the loss of full control of bodily movements], which is why some researchers are exploring safer options.
In fact, one animal study suggested that, in contrast to diazepam, flavonoids like chrysin and apigenin have no amnesia-like effect on learning tasks even at higher doses relative to the levels shown to be effective for anti-anxiety effects. Apigenin had a slight enhancing effect on training-session performance.
Overall, cell and animal research has shown that flavonoids found in foods and herbs may have beneficial effects for brain and nerve health. We still don’t know whether these results translate to humans, but until we know the definitive answer, it might be worthwhile to get more of flavonoid-containing foods in your everyday diet. Here are some examples of the foods highest in flavonoids (milligrams of flavonoids per 100 grams of fresh weight of edible portion):
Deanna Minich, PhD, FACN, CNS, is an internationally known functional medicine nutritionist and author. This article was originally published on GreenMedInfo.com. Join the free GreenMedInfo.com newsletter.