BotanicalsStress and Relaxation

Magnolia Bark to Weather the Storm

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Honokiol and magnolol to soothe stress, mood, and neuroinflammation

The bark of the magnolia tree (Magnolia officinalis) is native to China, where it is known as Hou Pu and has been used as a health supplement for thousands of years.

Traditionally, magnolia bark has been shown to help with conditions of “nervous tension.”[1] This historical use has been supported by modern-day studies on magnolia extracts. Specifically, magnolia extracts have been shown to relax the nervous system by modulating GABAA receptors, thereby alleviating anxiety, sleep problems, pain, depression (including postpartum depression), and even seizures.[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9]

Magnolia extracts have been shown to relax the nervous system, thereby alleviating anxiety, sleep problems, pain, depression (including postpartum depression), and even seizures.

While traditional herbal preparations use whole magnolia bark extract in the treatment of a variety of ailments,[10] our modern-day understanding of magnolia’s medicinal properties focuses on two active compounds: honokiol and magnolol. Both of these constituents naturally occur together in the magnolia plant, and are in fact structural isomers of one another.

Much of the research on honokiol and magnolol is focused on their potential to fight cancer,[11],[12],[13],[14],[15],[16],[17],[18],[19] yet magnolia bark constituents are also appreciated for their neuroprotective properties – meaning that they can safeguard nerve cells against damage and degeneration.

Anxiety

Despite magnolia’s rich history of medicinal use, the scientific literature offers us curiously few clinical trials on magnolia bark performed on human subjects – though some do exist, thankfully.

In one such study, 26 pre-menopausal women between the ages of 20 and 50 took a combination of 250mg of magnolia and phellodendron (Phellodendron amurense) bark extracts or a placebo three times daily. The women who took the magnolia and phellodendron supplement were found to have greater relief in temporary, transient anxiety than those who took placebo.[20]

In another study of the same herbal supplement,[21] the authors assessed the salivary cortisol levels and psychological mood reports of 56 subjects (35 men and 21 women) with moderate stress levels. After four weeks of supplementation with 500 mg of the extract per day, the cortisol levels of those in the treatment group were significantly lower (-18%) than of those in the placebo group. Those who took the herbal supplement also reported lower subjective feelings of overall stress (-11%), tension (-13%), depression (-20%), anger (-42%), fatigue (-31%), and confusion (-27%), than those who received placebo, along with higher indices of global mood state (+11%) and vigor (+18%).

Seven days of treatment with honokiol alleviated anxiety about as effectively as a single dose of the benzodiazepine drug diazepam.

Honokiol’s anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties have also been observed in several rodent studies.[22],[23] In one such study,[24] seven days of treatment with honokiol alleviated anxiety about as effectively as a single dose of the benzodiazepine drug diazepam. Like diazepam and other anxiolytics, honokiol’s effects at reducing anxiety were attributed in part to its activity at GABAA receptors. Unlike diazepam, however, honokiol did not affect the mice’s motor function. (In other words: honokiol did not make the mice clumsy.)

Sleep

Magnolia bark and its extracts can also help improve sleep quality.[25] A study mice have found that supplementation with magnolol decreased sleep latency – meaning that magnolol significantly shortened the amount of time it took the mice to fall asleep – and increased both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Curiously, the magnolol seemed to increase the number of times the mice woke up during the night, but decreased the length of time they stayed awake.[26] These findings were echoed in another mouse study on honokiol.[27] These studies suggest that magnolia bark extracts may be useful in the treatment of insomnia – especially in cases where people have a hard time falling asleep at bedtime and/or falling back asleep if they wake up in the middle of the night.

Pain

Honokiol has also been observed in rodent studies to support the survival and growth of neurons, as well as to alleviate pain.[28] It likely does this through a variety of mechanisms – including anti-inflammatory activity, influences at the NMDA receptor, and inhibition of glutamate and substance P, two well-known mediators of inflammatory pain.[29]

Depression

Honokiol and magnolol’s ability to fight neuroinflammation[30] is also of great significance when it comes to mood: A large body of evidence has illuminated the connection between inflammation and depression.[31] (We now know that inflammation and infections can trigger inflammation in the nervous system, predisposing individuals to depression and other mood disorders.[32])

Honokiol may also support the immune system. The constituent has been shown to have general antimicrobial activity,[33] exert antiviral effects,[34] and fight oxidation.[35] (Besides honokiol and magnolol, magnolia also contains eudesmol, another antioxidant compound.) This is important in the context of mental health, as oxidative stress, like inflammation, plays a role in chronic pain conditions and mood disorders.[36]

In a study performed on mice whose brains were subjected to oxidative damage,[37] the mice pre-treated with oral honokiol were found to have higher brain levels of the antioxidant glutathione than the mice who did not receive honokiol. The honokiol pre-treated mice were also more likely to survive after oxidative insult – only 10% of them died, as compared to 60% of the mice in the control group.

Postpartum depression

Hormone status and stress can also affect depression, as is often seen in new mothers. In a study exploring the efficacy of magnolia tea in the treatment of postpartum depression,[38] it was found that the new mothers who drank magnolia tea for three weeks had better sleep quality and fewer symptoms of depression than those who did not drink magnolia tea.

New mothers who drank magnolia tea for three weeks had better sleep quality and fewer symptoms of depression than those who did not drink magnolia tea.

In closing

Magnolia may also get the “chi” flowing by literally supporting the flow of blood through the circulatory system – specifically by fighting coagulation and reducing the risk of clot formation.[39],[40] For that reason, extracts of magnolia bark may be contraindicated in those with blood clotting conditions.

In general, however, magnolia bark has been used therapeutically for thousands of years, and observed to have a rather impressive safety profile in the treatment of anxiety, sleep trouble, pain, depression, and other nervous conditions in the dose range of around 250mg twice daily.

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