Modern Resurgence of Herbal Medicine
Today, there is an amazing resurgence among both consumers and the medical community in the medicinal use of herbs. The are many reasons for this phenomenon.
First, the current crisis in health care calls for more cost-effective remedies, and an emphasis on prevention. Second, consumers are looking at the rise in popularity of alternative and conventional medicine that has brought herbal medicine to the attention of millions of consumers and health professionals. Third, the enormous body of research from around the world has finally shown the medical community that herbal medicine has moved beyond folk medicine and anecdotal reports.
Finally, consumers are looking for safer remedies that do not have the dangerous and troubling side effects of many conventional drugs. For example, Prozac, the most popular SSRI (Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitor) anti-depressant drug in the United States for depression, has had a controversial history of serious side-effects, whereas the herb St. John's wort, which research has demonstrated to be as effective as Prozac, has little known side effects.
The larger percentage of current research validating herbal medicine has been conducted abroad, particularly in Germany, Japan, China, Taiwan, France and Russia, with the German Commission E Monographs1 being probably the single most powerful collection of herbal research. As a result, we are now able to identify some of the specific properties and interactions of botanical constituents, as well as to better understand why certain traditionally used herbs are effective against specific conditions. Still, only about 5,000 of the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 plants (variation due to including or excluding subspecies) on the earth today have been extensively studied for their medicinal applications.
Herbs for Treating Depression
Depression is an illness, which involves the entire body. In naturopathic as well as Chinese medicine, herbs and herbal combinations may be used to bring balance back into the body, as well as counter fatigue and debility often associated with depression. I recommend, however, in using herbs for depression, that a person who is on antidepressant drugs should not stop or alter any currently prescribed medication without consulting with the physician.
Chinese medicine has long believed that certain physiological imbalances may lead to psychological depression. For example, if the energy of the liver is "stuck" you will more likely be chronically irritated and often depressed. If herbals are taken to "release" this block than according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that you will feel better physically as well as psychologically.
In my own practice of twenty years, I have seen this proven time and again. Not too long ago, John, a thirty-six year-old male came to see me who had been on the anti-depressant drug, Paxil for two and half years. He said that he felt relief from the depression for the first year and a half, but now it had returned and his sex drive, which historically had been strong, had ceased for the last three years. John was also suffering from digestive problems. He was fearful of going off the Paxil because of his rage and what he called his "rager fits." In the past, he experienced such intense anger, anxiety and agitation that he scared himself. After much discussion about going off the drug with his psychiatrist, she agreed to wean him slowly off the Paxil. As John decreased his dosage, he also began taking herbal and nutritional supplements.
When the day came for his last dose of Paxil, John came into my office angry and frightened, announcing: "Look at me, all 6"4" and 225 pounds of me, when I get angry, I can not only be a horrible sight but dangerous, truly dangerous." In Chinese medicine the diagnosis for John was "stuck liver qi" leading to agitation, irritability and anger, accompanied by a variety of digestive problems. He was given an herbal combination to "quiet and rebalance his liver qi." Although this treatment plan may sound strange, Traditional Chinese Medicine has successfully used this methodology for over two thousand years.
After three weeks he came bouncing into my office and asked, "I feel better than ever but is this going to last?" I saw John once a month for the next three months. By his own admission, he claimed he was a "new man." I placed him on a maintenance program for three months. John not only recovered his desire to live and his sex drive, he lost his chronic agitation and negativity, and went from chronic digestive problems to occasional discomfort when he overate.
Herbal medicine is perhaps one of the most respected of the ancient natural therapies that has stood the test of time. Today there is an enormous interest in medicinal plants, and a rediscovery of many traditional applications of therapeutic herbs. The World Health Organization reports that eight-five percent of the world's population uses herbs as their main form of medical treatment. Here in the United States we are fortunate to be able to combine the best of modern medicine with the folklore of ancient herbal therapies.
Herbs are very much like the foods we eat, and in fact some of what we eat such as parsley, ginger, garlic, onion, thyme, rosemary are actually herbs and can be used therapeutically. Like food, herbs contain different therapeutic substances such as: vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, and active ingredients such as: volatile oils, alkaloids, flavonoids, bitters, mucilage, saponins, anthraquinones and tannins. Herbs may be used in many forms, such as teas, tinctures, capsules, tablets, caplets, lozenges, syrups, compresses, poultices, sprays, liniments, and oils.
It is important to remember that herbal preparations, whether they are intended for the common cold or depression, cannot stand alone in their effectiveness as a treatment. Herbs are a piece of the puzzle which includes a balanced diet suitable to one's lifestyle and body type, exercise, and designated periods of rest in whatever form that may take (i.e. meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, sitting and reading a book, etc.)
Herbs are frequently divided into four main categories: relaxants/sedatives, restoratives, stimulants and anti-depressants. Some herbs may be easily grouped into more than one category because of their broad effectiveness. The following herbs are successfully used in treating various forms of depression.
Within the herbal kingdom there are many nervous system relaxants/ sedatives primarily used for their anti-anxiety effect, including: Valerian, kava kava, hops, passion flower, chamomile, and Linden blossom. It is believed that herbs, which contain volatile oils, can directly affect the limbic system of the brain and induce a more relaxed state.
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
Native to the South Pacific islands, kava has been used in ceremonial beverages for centuries. The active principles in the root are a number of lactones known as kava pyrones. Through its relaxing effect on the central nervous system kava is beneficial in reducing anxiety, tension and restlessness. Kava kava is not generally used to treat clinical depression but to mitigate common stress related anxieties.
Kava is excellent for helping to relax because there is no loss of mental clarity. It is also helpful in dealing with insomnia as it promotes restful sleep. What is most remarkable about Kava, however, is that it not only does not produce toxic side effects, there are no symptoms of withdrawal, such as found with drugs like benzodiazepine.
For example, several years ago, Elizabeth, a thirty-eight year old female, came into my office complaining of anxiety and difficulty calming her mind, and also reported bouts of insomnia. She was a successfully Hollywood talent agent and would often keep late hours. "I'm not crazy, like I don't feel I need psycho meds, I just need to be toned down a notch." After a week of 37.5 mg of kava in the morning and 75 mg. at night, Elizabeth phoned and said she was considerably more relaxed and her sleep was normal. She continued this dosage of kava for three more weeks, and then decreased it until she was only using it once in a while when she felt she needed it.
As for the chemistry of kava, we know that psychotropic drugs effect brain chemistry. The drug, Benzodiazepine, for example, increases the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA in the limbic system, producing a sense of calmness. The amygdala, a small organ the size of a large pea in temporal lobe of the brain, regulates sensations of anxiety, and is also a site for benzodiazepenes. In 1991 a study was done that identified amygdala as the preferential site for kavalactones, the active ingredient in kava.
It is recommended to avoid using kava with alcohol, antidepressants or other drugs, which can affect the central nervous system. In Germany, kava extracts are approved for use with nervous anxiety, stress and unrest, but not to be used in cases of pregnancy or while a mother is lactating.
Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)
With a long history of use in European traditional medicine, valerian root is a strong calmative that exerts a mild sedative effect on the central nervous system. The active ingredients of valerian, valepotriates, and its sedative properties were discovered in 1966, and quickly became the subject of a large amount of scientific research in Germany.
Valerian root is most helpful for insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety. It helps one to fall asleep faster and provides a deeper, more restful sleep. In Germany, valerian root is approved as an over-the-counter medicine for "states of excitation" and insomnia due to nervousness.2 A scientific team representing the European community has reviewed the research on valerian and concluded that it is a safe nighttime sleep aid. These scientists also found that there are no major adverse reactions associated with its use, and unlike barbiturates and other conventional drugs used for insomnia, valerian does not have an adverse reaction with alcohol, and is not addictive like some conventional benzodiazepine medications. 3
Approximately one-third of the adult population suffers with some kind of sleep disorder. I have found valerian to be very useful for helping to gently regulate sleep. In fact, I have a very personal story about valerian. When I first met my husband, I noticed that he had a bottle of Xanax and Valium in his bathroom. I asked him what he did with these and he said, "What do you think?" I explained to him that if he was thinking about being my husband, I didn't think it was acceptable for him to be taking Valium at bedtime. "Are you serious?" he responded. "Yes," I answered. Well, to make a long argument and story short, it has been ten years and my husband sleeps regularly with the occasional help from a valerian herbal combination, and on the rare evening when he is very stressed he may add a kava combination as well. What he most likes about not using Xanax and Valium is the fact that he wakes up feeling fresh instead of drugged or confused.
Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata)
Passion flower has a long tradition of use for its mildly sedative properties. This herb has been approved in Germany as an over-the-counter drug for states of nervous unrest.4 Passion flower is very often combined with other calmatives, including chamomile, skullcap, and valerian. These calmatives are even more effective when they are combined with calcium and magnesium. Research also shows that passion flower extract has antispasmodic and hypotensive properties.5
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Skullcap is a calmative that has traditionally been used to relieve tension headaches, anxiety, insomnia and premenstrual tension. Skullcap's effectiveness is enhanced when combined with such herbs as valerian, chamomile, passion flower and/or vervain. The herb also has a tonifying effect on the liver, helps regulate cholesterol, and has been shown to increase the high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or good cholesterol.