Herbs That Ease the Mind

Sweet dreams valerian, which grows wild in both North America and Europe, may be nature's best sleeping pill. While other herbs, like chamomile and hops, for instance, have traditionally been used as "beddy-bye" aids, modern research gives the nod to valerian.

At a Swiss research lab, 128 volunteers were given extracts of valerian for three nights and a sugar pill on other nights. They didn't know which pill they were taking on any given night, to defeat the effect of pure suggestion.

The herb clearly beat the sugar placebo, with 37 percent saying they fell asleep faster (vs. 23 percent for the placebo) and 43 percent reporting "better sleep" (vs. 25 percent for the placebo).

The best results were seen — no surprise — with people who considered themselves poor sleepers.

Among this group, 54 percent got better sleep. And among the older poor sleepers, good results were reported in 63 percent. A Swedish study showed even better results. Some 21 of 27 patients said that valerian beat the placebo. In this case, not even the doctors knew who was taking what till after the experiment. What's more, 44 percent said that had "perfect sleep," and no side effects were reported.

Why the better results in the Swedish study?

Simple. These were all problem sleepers to begin with. If you're already sleeping like a baby, in other words, valerian is not going to make you sleep like a fetus. Leave well enough alone.

If you do take valerian, our advice is to take it only when really needed, not on a permanent basis. A reasonable dose is a cup or two prepared with a teaspoon of the dried root. Another reasonable dose would be about 200 to 300 milligrams of an extract containing 0.8 percent valerenic acid. Don't take more — it won't work better, and more may be too much for your system.

As always with herbs, discontinue if you note any unusual symptoms.

One more thing. Valerian stinks. I mean it smells really bad, so don't worry if you open a bottle of pills and get hit with a nose-spazzing odor.

The miracle of St. John’s. St. John's wort is another oldie-but-goody herb. "Wort," by the way, does not mean that St. Johns had warts — it simply means "plant." Researchers usually call it hypericum, its Latin name.

A couple of dozen studies have been done using hypericum extracts on depressed people, and the results have been generally very good.

Roughly two out of three patients with milder forms of depression and symptoms like fatigue and disturbed sleep were helped with hypericum extract, in carefully controlled European studies.

Another study from Europe (where herbs are much more commonly used than in the United States) compared hypericum with imipramine, a drug often used to treat depression. This research was carried out at 20 different health centers, with 135 depressive patients.

After six weeks of treatment, the St. John's wort extract proved just as effective as the drug, but with fewer side effects. The same result was achieved comparing the herbal extract with another drug, maprotiline.

Prevention herbal adviser Varrow Tyler, PhD., points out that St. John's wort has a generally stimulating effect, so it shouldn't be taken at bedtime. He adds that cases of severe depression probably won't be helped by the herb — seek medical attention without delay.

While the pick-me-up effect of St. John's wort is known best, it also has a knock-it-down effect that could prove far more important.

The herb possesses an unusual ability to take the "bite" out of some viruses. At New York University Medical Center, it has been shown that a smidgen of hypericin, a component of St. John's wort, put in a test tube with blood infected with HIV cells renders the blood free of any active virus.

Some day soon, it may be possible to protect blood stored for transfusion by the single expedient of adding a bit of hypericin, suggests Daniel Meruelo, PhD., professor of pathology at NYU. Hypericin is a "broad-spectrum veridical agent," he explains.

In blood samples, besides inactivating AIDS-causing HIV, it can also knock out hepatitis C. Whereas modern testing has reduced the incidence of HIV in blood transfusions to an infinitesimal 1 in 450,000 to 660,000, hepatitis C is more common. Plus, hypercin might also be able to turn off any new viruses that could creep into our blood supply, the way HIV once did.

As for therapeutic use, the only real results have been achieved with experimental animals. If given the right after injections with certain strains of leukemia virus, hypericin completely blocks disease. And combined with AZT, the result is a virus fighter stronger than either one alone.

Research is under way already to see just how useful this amazing herbal extract will be in human beings.

The caution with St. John's wort is (a) not to take huge doses (no more than 300 mg. a day) and (b) not to sunbathe after taking it. That's because hypericin is photreactive, going into super high gear when exposed to the sun. Be especially cautious, advises Dr. Tyler, if you're taking another photoreactive drug already, like tetracycline.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License