Sage ad­vice: do plant reme­dies re­ally work?

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Elaine Perry is a pas­sion­ate be­liever in the heal­ing pow­ers of botan­i­cals . . . but not ev­ery­one is con­vinced

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health / Plant Health - Áilín Quin­lan

Twenty years ago, neu­ro­sci­en­tist Elaine Perry be­gan to plant a rather un­usual gar­den. It was a “physic gar­den”, which, she ex­plains, is a gar­den that is “full of the plants that doc­tors used as medicine prior to the use of chem­i­cal drugs”.

To this day, such plants, which in­clude ev­ery­thing from the hum­ble herb sage to the pop­u­lar curry in­gre­di­ent, turmeric, are used to help with heal­ing and to pro­mote gen­eral well­be­ing.

That’s some­thing we of­ten for­get these days, says Perry, who is now emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of neu­ro­science at New­cas­tle Univer­sity and whose well-known gar­den is called the Dil­ston Physic Gar­den. Or­di­nary plants can help to heal us – and help us main­tain good health, she says.

Elaine and Dr Ni­co­lette Perry have just pub­lished a book on medic­i­nal plants for me­mory, mood and mind, based around these plants, many of which fea­ture in the Dil­ston Physic Gar­den in Northum­ber­land, near New­cas­tle.

“It’s worth know­ing about this so that you’re em­pow­ered to use plants for your own health,” she says, adding that more and more peo­ple are wak­ing up to the fact that, whether in the form of a food, spice, tinc­ture or cap­sule, bioac­tive botan­i­cals can have a pos­i­tive im­pact on our health – as pre­ven­ta­tive medicines, to en­hance brain func­tion or to help with con­di­tions such as anx­i­ety or in­som­nia.

And, it seems, look­ing at the grow­ing world­wide mar­ket, peo­ple are buy­ing into the pro­mo­tion of plant-based health-pro­mot­ing prod­ucts.

First port of call

How­ever, warns GP and life­style ex­pert Dr Mark Rowe, it is im­por­tant that peo­ple un­der­stand their in­di­vid­ual phys­i­cal, men­tal and emo­tional health.

“If you are strug­gling and hav­ing symp­toms of some­thing, par­tic­u­larly in the area of men­tal health – such as anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion – your first port of call should be your GP,” he says.

“Your doc­tor can help you as­sess the sever­ity of your symp­toms and de­cide what the best treat­ment plan might be. It is very im­por­tant to have your symp­toms looked at, be­cause it is re­ally only in con­sul­ta­tion with your doc­tor that you can as­sess where you are.”

In terms of de­pres­sion, he says , there is no doubt that some peo­ple can ben­e­fit from con­ven­tional medicine, many from cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy and most from pos­i­tive life­style changes.

Whether you take a plant or a pill, he adds, you may only be ap­ply­ing a stick­ing plas­ter which does not deal with the real cause of the prob­lem.

“If a per­son is suf­fer­ing from chronic sleep de­pri­va­tion, for ex­am­ple, you re­ally need to get down to look at the root cause of this. You can re­ally only do this ef­fec­tively in con­sul­ta­tion with your doc­tor. The same goes for sig­nif­i­cant symp­toms of anx­i­ety, stress or de­pres­sion.

“There is a per­cep­tion out there that pre­scribed medicine is ‘bad’ for you and that nat­u­ral reme­dies are ‘good’, but it is im­por­tant to know that nat­u­ral herbs or plants may not be of ben­e­fit to you; there may be neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tion, for ex­am­ple, with other medicines you may be tak­ing, if you do not con­sult your GP.

“Peo­ple tak­ing plant-based reme­dies will of­ten for­get to tell their GP or even dis­cuss it with them,” he said, adding by ex­am­ple that the pop­u­lar plant rem­edy, St John’s Wort can in­ter­act neg­a­tively with the con­tra­cep­tive pill to ren­der it in­ef­fec­tive.

It is very im­por­tant for peo­ple to have a good “health IQ” and have the knowl­edge, at­ti­tude and the aware­ness to make the right choices for that.

“In or­der to make the right choice and de­ci­sions for your long-term health and wel­fare, it is re­ally im­por­tant to do so in con­sul­ta­tion with your GP, who can be a trusted part­ner in the process.”

Anx­i­ety: Pas­sion­flower

What is it: A calm­ing plant with beau­ti­ful flow­ers, used to soothe the mind, re­duce anx­i­ety and can also be used to help with oc­ca­sional in­som­nia. “Pas­sion flower helps to re­duce anx­i­ety – it con­tains chem­i­cals that work on the brain sys­tem that con­trols anx­i­ety lev­els,” ex­plains Prof Perry.

What the sci­ence says: A num­ber of con­trolled stud­ies sup­port claims about pas­sion flower’s calm­ing ef­fects on the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem. It can re­duce gen­eral anx­i­ety as well as anx­i­ety be­fore anaes­the­sia, den­tal treat­ment and surgery. Other claims in­clude that it can lower emo­tional and be­havioural prob­lems in anx­ious chil­dren, is use­ful for pain re­lief, can lower in­sulin re­sis­tance in di­a­betes and lessens asth­matic symp­toms.

How to take it: Dried leaf tea, 2-3g or 4-6g fresh per 240ml wa­ter, twice daily. Leaves, flow­ers or pow­dered fruit peel, used in cap­sules, tablets and tinc­tures are com­mon over-the-counter reme­dies. Dif­fi­cult to beat the fresh fruit, how­ever.

Safety: Listed in the nat­u­ral phar­ma­copoeias of France, Ger­many and Switzer­land. Ex­tract is clas­si­fied as “gen­er­ally re­garded as safe” by the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Cau­tion with ben­zo­di­azepines, seda­tives and monoamine ox­i­dase in­hibitors. Pos­si­ble cau­tion in car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­or­ders. Large doses can cause drowsiness.

Me­mory and con­cen­tra­tion: Sage

One of Prof Perry’s favourite plants for the im­prove­ment of me­mory and con­cen­tra­tion. “Ev­ery­one knows what sage is. Peo­ple know about putting sage in the stuff­ing at Christ­mas, but you can make a lovely sage tea with honey in it, for ex­am­ple. If you take it ev­ery day it should sharpen your brain,” she says. What is it: Euro­pean sage is ex­tolled by some for ap­par­ently hav­ing so many virtues re­lat­ing to the well­be­ing of mind and body that it is con­sid­ered a “cure-all”. “Our orig­i­nal re­search on sage, driven by its cen­turies-old rep­u­ta­tion for en­hanc­ing me­mory, seeded the idea for Dil­ston Physic Gar­den,” says Prof Perry.

What the sci­ence says: Sev­eral stud­ies have shown that sage en­hances mem­o­ries and alert­ness in healthy peo­ple. It also im­proves at­ten­tion in the el­derly and coun­ters cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment, as well as help­ing to im­prove be­havioural mea­sures in Alzheimer’s dis­ease. It can, ap­par­ently, lower throat pain and has been shown to have pos­i­tive ef­fects on blood lipid and an­tiox­i­dant pro­file in con­trolled tri­als. It boosts the me­mory and aware­ness sig­nal (ace­ty­choline) by block­ing en­zymes that break it down.

How to take it: Teas from leaves fresh (20g) or dried (4-6g) per 240ml of wa­ter three times daily, with honey. Cap­sules, tablets, tinc­tures or sprays can also be used. Ef­fec­tive medic­i­nal doses may not be reached with­out reg­u­lar con­sump­tion.

Safety: Safe at rec­om­mended dose and with­out side ef­fects for most peo­ple. Not suit­able for chil­dren, preg­nant women or those with epilepsy. Cau­tion in cases of

It’s worth know­ing about this so that you’re em­pow­ered to use plants for your own health

raised blood pres­sure and in di­a­betes med­i­ca­tion.

Sleep: Va­le­rian

“Our med­i­cal herbal­ist rec­om­mends va­le­rian – you take it as a tinc­ture and it im­proves the qual­ity of sleep,” ex­plains Prof Perry. “Per­son­ally, I al­ways use laven­der. I buy es­sen­tial oil and sprin­kle a few dots on the pil­low, or a laven­der spray that you can spray on the pil­low. I find that within 20 min­utes of us­ing laven­der, I go back to sleep.”

What is it: An el­e­gant plant with roots which most peo­ple con­sider foul-smelling, Va­le­rian is renowned as a tra­di­tional seda­tive and sleep­ing aid. Has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in re­cent years as sci­ence has shown that it pro­motes rest­ful sleep and re­laxes the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem.

What the sci­ence says: Stud­ies in Ger­many and Switzer­land since the 1960s have shown that va­le­rian en­hances sleep and treats in­som­nia. A meta-anal­y­sis from more than 16 con­trolled tri­als con­cluded that va­le­rian im­proves sleep on­set qual­ity and length, low­ers pe­ri­ods of wake­ful­ness and has few side ef­fects.

How to take it: The root tea may be ef­fec­tive, but cap­sules, tablets and tinc­ture may be more palat­able. In herbal medicine, it is rec­om­mended to start with a low dose and work up.

Safety: Do not take with other sleep-in­duc­ing drugs, al­co­hol or anaes­thet­ics. Not usu­ally ad­vis­able in de­pres­sion and not usu­ally rec­om­mended in preg­nancy. Rare liver tox­i­c­ity has been re­ported, pos­si­bly due to adul­ter­ation of the prod­uct. Tak­ing va­le­rian oc­ca­sion­ally pro­vokes in­di­vid­ual re­ac­tions such as headaches. Listed in Bri­tish and US phar­ma­copoeias and has UK Tra­di­tional Herbal Medicine reg­is­tra­tion for sleep. Not to be con­fused with the highly poi­sonous hem­lock, which looks sim­i­lar and also has a mal­odor­ous root.

Blues buster: St John’s Wort

“As a sci­en­tist, I have checked the med­i­cal sci­ence for this and it does work,” says Prof Perry. “It ac­tu­ally works as well as most anti-de­pres­sants, and does not have many of the side ef­fects.”

What is it: The most fa­mous plant for mild to mod­er­ate de­pres­sion and the pre­scribed drug of choice in parts of Eu­rope. It acts on a num­ber of the brain’s sig­nals in­volved in de­pres­sion and is also a pow­er­ful anti-in­flam­ma­tory.

What the sci­ence says: Sev­eral clin­i­cal stud­ies have shown its ef­fi­cacy and, in con­trolled tri­als for mild to mod­er­ate de­pres­sion, it was as ef­fec­tive as some anti-de­pres­sant drugs, but with fewer side ef­fects. In one Aus­trian study, de­pres­sion lev­els im­proved in two-thirds of peo­ple tak­ing St John’s Wort.

How to take it: Cap­sules or tablets. It also makes a woody but bit­ter tea of leaves and flow­ers. Take a tinc­ture of 150g fresh plant per 500ml of 40 per cent al­co­hol, 2.5ml three times daily. Make a happy face cream: thor­oughly mix St John’s Wort es­sen­tial oil into a com­mer­cial base face lo­tion which is either or­ganic or con­tains nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents. The pro­por­tion of St John’s Wort es­sen­tial oil used should not ex­ceed 1 per cent of the en­tire mix­ture. In­hale deeply as you mas­sage over your face.

Safety: Side ef­fects are usu­ally mi­nor, such as an up­set stom­ach, though it is also blamed for wors­en­ing feel­ings of anx­i­ety. How­ever, as Dr Rowe warns, tak­ing any plant-based rem­edy such as St John’s Wort can in­ter­fere with other medicines. Your doc­tor should be kept up-to-date.

Perry’s favourite all-rounder: Laven­der

“It is so gen­tle and so safe, it has all sort of pos­i­tive ef­fects, from calm­ing the brain and im­prov­ing sleep to re­duc­ing in­flam­ma­tion and pain – it can even re­pel in­sects,” says Prof Perry.

What is it: One of the most fa­mous Euro­pean medic­i­nal plants, and the most used es­sen­tial oil, laven­der has a wide range of ben­e­fits for brain and mind.

What the sci­ence says: Con­trolled tri­als showed laven­der pro­moted calm and re­duced anx­i­ety and re­lated rest­less­ness in sev­eral set­ting. And it is also cred­ited with re­liev­ing anx­i­ety be­fore and af­ter surgery and dur­ing den­tal treat­ment. In preg­nancy, de­pres­sion and hos­pice pa­tients, there is ev­i­dence the plant re­lieves de­pres­sion and im­proves well-be­ing. Laven­der cap­sules have been shown to im­prove sleep, and in­hala­tion of laven­der im­proves sleep in coro­nary in­ten­sive care and can­cer pa­tients in con­trolled tri­als.

How to take it: Use the es­sen­tial oil in aro­mather­apy by putting three-four undi­luted drops di­rectly on a pil­low, cloth­ing, tis­sue or bath. Flow­ers are used to make teas and tinc­tures as well as in culi­nary dishes and drinks.

Safety: Laven­der is one of the safest plants and its es­sen­tial oil can be ap­plied, undi­luted, though it can oc­ca­sion­ally cause skin ir­ri­ta­tion. May ex­ac­er­bate the ef­fects of seda­tive or anti-con­vul­sant drugs and be­cause of oe­stro­genic prop­er­ties, it is not rec­om­mended for young males. There are hazards as­so­ci­ated with tak­ing French laven­der in­ter­nally, with re­ports of tox­i­c­ity in chil­dren.

is pub­lished by Fil­bert Press

Elaine Perry’s Dil­ston Physic Gar­den (left); Ni­co­lette Perry and Elaine Perry (above) whose book Botan­i­cal Brain Balms: Medic­i­nal Plants for Me­mory, Mood and Mind (be­low),

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