Fratellone Medical Associates

Herbs and the Nervous System

Nervous system drugs are grouped into different categories: tranquilizers, anti-depressants, sedatives, barbiturates and narcotics. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a sedative. In pharmacology and phytotherapic medicine, it is the name of a herb or dietary supplement prepared from roots of the plant, which, after maceration, trituration and dehydration processes, are conveniently packaged into capsules that may be used for certain effects including sedation and anxiolytic. Valerian has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. If you are already taking a prescription sedative, please consult your health care practitioner before taking any herb. The nervous function is suppressed when used appropriately. Sedatives induce sleep but I have found that some people get the opposite reaction. Some take valerian and get nervous. This is an idiosyncratic reaction.

Passion Flower or passion vines (Passiflora) are a genus of about 500 species of flowering plants, the namesakes of the family Passifloraceae. They are mostly vines with some being shrubs and a few species being herbaceous. Traditionally, the fresh or dried whole plant has been used as a herbal medicine to treat nervous anxiety and insomnia. The dried, ground herb is frequently used in Europe by drinking a teaspoon of it in tea. I have used passion flower in combination with valerian and lemon balm (Melissa offincinalis) to treat restless leg syndrome. Studies have been done using Passion Flower for alcohol and opoid dependence. I use 1/2 to 1 ml of tincture 2 – 3 times a day for patients with anxiety disorders.

California Poppy (Eschscholyzia california) is a member of the Poppy Family. Like the opium poppy, it also contains alkaloids with sedative and hypotic properties. Compared to the other poppies and their alkaloids, this poppy is relatively safe to be used. It brings the body to a state of equilibrium and it is not narcotic like the phenanthrene alkaloids of morphine and codeine. It is important for those reading not to confuse the California Poppy with that of the Opium Poppy.

Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the species of plant from which opium and poppy seeds are extracted. Opium is the source of many opiates, including morphine, thebaine, codeine, papaverine and noscapine. The Latin botanical name means, loosely, the "sleep-bringing poppy", referring to the sedative properties of some of these opiates. The poppy is the only species of Papaveraceae that is an agricultural crop grown on a large scale. Poppy seeds of Papaver somniferum are an important food item and the source of poppyseed oil, a healthy edible oil that has many uses. It is widely grown as an ornamental flower throughout Europe, North America, South America, and Asia.

A tisane made with fresh HOPS is a remedy for sleeplessness. Hops (Humulus lupulus) is a sedative herb used in beer brewing. Hops are used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer, to which they impart a bitter, tangy flavor. Hops are used extensively in brewing today for their many purported benefits, including balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, contributing a variety of desirable flavors and aromas and having an antibiotic effect that favors the activity of brewer’s yeast over less desirable microorganisms. The hop plant is a vigorous climbing herbaceous perennial, usually trained to grow up strings in a field called a hopfield, hop garden or hop yard when grown commercially. Many different varieties of hops are grown by farmers around the world, with different types being used for particular styles of beer. The effect of hops on the finished beer varies by type and use, though there are two main hop types: bittering and aroma. Bittering hops have higher concentrations of alpha acids and are responsible for the large majority of the bitter flavor of a beer.

The degree of bitterness imparted by hops depends on the degree to which otherwise insoluble alpha acids (AAs) are isomerized during the boil. Hops are also used in herbal medicine in a way similar to valerian, as a treatment for anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. Hops may be used alone but are more frequently combined with other herbs such as valerian. The relaxing effect of hops may be due, in part, to the specific chemical component dimethylvinyl carbinol.

It is estimated that 19 million Americans suffer from depression. Do you know the common depression symptoms? Do you know about different types of depression? If you think you have depression, then you need to talk openly with your doctor. There are many different types of depression. Some are major, chronic, atypical, bipolar, seasonal and psychotic types. Some types of depression run in families, indicating that a biological vulnerability to depression can be inherited. This is especially with bipolar disorder. Major depression also seems to occur in generation after generation in some families, although not as strongly as in bipolar I or II. A serious loss, chronic illness, difficult relationship, financial problem, or any unwelcome change in life patterns can trigger a depressive episode. Very often, a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors is involved in the onset of a depressive disorder. Stressors that contribute to the development of depression sometimes affect some groups more than others. The 100-plus chemicals that circulate in the brain are known as neurochemicals or neurotransmitters. Much of our research and knowledge has focused on four of these neurochemical systems: norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. Different neuropsychiatric illnesses seem to be associated with an overabundance or a lack of some of these neurochemicals in certain parts of the brain. Repeated use of drugs or alcohol, however, desensitizes the dopamine system, which means that the system gets used to the drugs and alcohol. Therefore, a person needs more drugs or alcohol to achieve the same high feeling. Thus, the addicted person takes more substance but feels less and less high and increasingly depressed. This is usually when the addict has hit "bottom".

Certain medications used for a variety of medical conditions are more likely than others to cause depression as a side effect. The beta blockers, which decrease heart rate and blood pressure, have been a cause of depression in the elderly. Specifically, some medications that are used to treat cancer, seizures, extreme pain and to achieve contraception can result in depression.

The treatment of depression is varid. It can range from individual therapy with psychologist or psychiatrist, group therapy, conventional anti-depressant medications, herbal preparations, meditation, yoga and acupuncture. The newer anti-depressants or serotonin uptake inhibitors have changed how we treat depression.

You need to recognize the symptoms in yourself or another person and start to seek medical attention. In traditional homeopathy, there are the seven chakras, the four elements (earth, water, fire and air), the senses and the eight principles of Chinese Medicine. When a peron’s emotions are depressed, the second chakra flower essences will emotionally stimulate them. The second chakra deals with the sensations connected with emotions of anger, fear, sadness, grief, shame, guilt and joy. For every chakra, that are particular flower essences to be used. The color for this chakra is orange and the essences are California Poppy, Calendula, Echinacea, Blanketflower and even Pomegranate. Homeopathy and flower essences are another field of medicine in which medical health professionals treat a variety of diseases.

In order to deal with depression, the emotions of sadness, grief, and fear need to be understood and put into proper perspective. All of our emotions depend on the driving force of the energy that moves it. Herbs can assist in the healing process. The nervines or herbs for adaptogens or to assist anxiety/stress are passionflower, lemon balm, and hawthorne. Others that can help are linden flower, skullcap, motherwort and milky oats. Chamomille can assist in anxiety and sleeplessness.

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a herb I commonly use for extra heart beats, or palpitations. I usually combine this with hawthorne, night blooming cactus and scotch broom when used to slow down fast heart rates, as in atrial fibrillation. When I use it as a nervine, I combine it with vervain (Verbena hastata). When reading about motherwort, it is often used for women with premenstrual syndrome or menopausal irratability. I have been using motherwort for those with "white coat hypertension" or "doctor anxiety". The herb contains the alkaloid leonurine, which is a mild vasodilator and has a relaxing effect on smooth muscles. For this reason, it has long been used as a cardiac tonic, nervine and an emmenagogue. It also contains bitter glycosides.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) has many uses in gastrointestinal illnesses as well as a nervine. There are studies for use of this herb in mental and psychiatric disorders. I like it when combinbed with Valerian for anxiety or stress states. Skullcap is a powerful medicinal herb used as an anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, slightly astringent, emmenagogue, febrifuge, nervine, sedative and strong tonic. Some valuable constituents found in the plant are Scutellarin, Catalpol, Volatile oils, and Tannins. It is used in the treatment of a wide range of nervous conditions including epilepsy, insomnia, hysteria, anxiety, delerium tremens, withdrawal from barbiturates and tranquilizers. I have never used it for females but many herbalists have made a medicinal infusion of the plant is used to promote menstruation. As with most herbs, it should not be given to pregnant women since it can induce a miscarriage. Skullcap is currently being used in combination with other herbs and supplements to treat ADD and a number of nerve disorders. I have used it in combination with the following: Ginkgo, Gotu Kola, Rosemary and Prickly Ash.

One of the most oversought herbs has been St Johns Wort. St John’s Wort is in the plant species Hypericum perforatum and is also known as Tipton’s Weed, Chase-devil, or Klamath weed. St. John’s Wort is widely known as a herbal treatment for depression. There are studies in progress at the following sites:

  1. Effect of St. John’s Wort University at Buffalo
  2. Effect of St. John’s Wort on Oral Contraceptives NIH/Columbia University
  3. Efficacy of St. John’s Wort for Smoking Cessation Martin Mahoney, M.D., Ph.D
  4. Effects of St. John’s Wort on Women Receiving Estrogen University of Illinois
  5. The Influence of St. John’s Wort on the Pharmacokinetics and Protein Binding of Imatinib Mesylate New York State Council of Health-System Pharmacists/NIH
  6. St. John’s Wort Effects on Emergency Contraceptive Pills The University of Utah – College of Nursing

There are more than 370 species of the genus Hypericum (St. John’s wort), several of which are not pharmacologically active. The vast majority of OTC St. John’s wort formulations are made with aerial parts or “grind”, which means the whole ground-up plant and not the small red and white dots in flowers that contain the precious napthrodianthrones. Grind does not contain hyperforin. Grind contains zanthrones found in the stems, which are the source of the controversial MAO inhibitors. This type of antidepressant has some contradictions, especially dietary. If anyone on a MAO inhibitor has a food containing tyramine, then there can be deadly consequences as severe high blood pressure. MAO inhibitors were the number one cause of drug overdoses in the early days of prescription anti-depressants.
Extracting high quality hyperforin (which is the active ingredient) is difficult and costly. First, the plant must be of superior quality, preferably grown in non-phosphate fertilizers. Upon harvest, the flowers must be carefully dried so the hyperforin can be extracted via methanol extraction process. Some combine St. John’s Wort with other herbs and some use it alone. An effective time period for use is 2-3 months. The first effects are noted in 2-3 weeks. Some consider St. John’s Wort to be a psychotrophic drug. In addition to the it being used in depression, I have used it for circulation problems and nerve injury. I have seen cancer patients using this herb for its anti-tumor effects.

Kava or kava-kava (Piper methysticum) is used to produce a drink with mild sedative properties. It is primarily consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity. Its active ingredients are called kavalactones. A Cochrane Collaboration systematic review of its evidence concluded that it was likely to be more effective than placebo at treating short-term social anxiety. Safety concerns have been raised over liver toxicity largely due to the use of stems and leaves by supplement makers, as opposed to solely the root of the plant as dictated by traditional uses, although the ultimate long-term safety of the herb is not settled. The important compounds in the kava kava are the lactones, which are known as kava pyrones. The most important is kavaine but there are many compounds that are active. I prefer to use kava in increasing doses. Studies reveal that the sedative effect is 180 – 210 mg, two to three times a day.

Another mild sedative is Indian Snakeroot (Rauwolfa serpentina). Although not used as often for sedation as it is for high blood pressure, I believe it deserves some mention in this section. Indian Snakeroot is used to reduce fevers, promote menstruation and treat diarrhea and dysentery. An extract of the root has been used to calm irritable or colicky babies. It was discovered that reserpine, an alkaloid in the root, is a powerful depressant and sedative and was once the only treatment for calming seriously disturbed patients.

Today, reserpine has transformed the treatment of mental illnesses and hypertension (high blood pressure). While the beneficial effects and the time honored and traditional uses of the plant are well documented, the active principles responsible for the plants beneficial effects remained unknown for a long period of time. One of the compounds isolated from extracts of the plant is the alkaloid called reserpine, which is one of the fifty active chemical substances that were isolated from the herb’s root. This compound revolutionized the alleviation and treatment of mental illness as well as high blood pressure problems. The side effects can include edema and nightmares.