Are herbal treatments for mental health issues myth or magic?

Is there any science proving that any herbal treatments for stress, anxiety, and depression actually work?
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Is there any science proving that any herbal treatments for stress, anxiety, and depression actually work?

Stress, anxiety, and depression. Three mental health issues that are widely felt amongst New Zealanders, yet often go unchecked.

For anybody who suffers with their mental health, herbal and off-the-shelf remedies and supplements are often the first thing they seek out before discussing their needs with a professional healthcare provider.

But is there any science proving that any of these herbal treatments actually work?

It's essential to know that just because a product is natural, herbal, or available without a prescription, doesn't mean it's safe. Some products can also cause negative interactions when used with other drugs.

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You must also be aware that no herbal or natural supplement will address the underlying cause of any kind of mental illness. You may be provided with a temporary solution, but it's value will likely be short-term.

LEMON BALM

Use of Melissa officinalis, or lemon balm, dates back to the Middle Ages for stress and anxiety relief.

This herb is part of the mint family and some small scientific studies have shown consumption of it can produce slight feelings of calmness for several hours.

Positive effects are only felt when consuming a lot of this herb (1600mg has been linked to six hours of calmness), but luckily, no scientific studies have shown adverse effects of lemon balm even in high doses.

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ST. JOHN'S WORT

Commonly found as a tea or in pill supplement form, St. John's wort has been proven in some clinical trials to help with some types of depression because it can raise serotonin levels. However, it's potentially very dangerous, too.

St. John's wort interacts with many prescription medications, and should never be taken without your doctor's consent if you're being prescribed anything.

Particularly, if combined with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs such as fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine, and other antidepressants, St. John's wort can trigger psychotic events, autonomic dysfunction (sweating, increased blood pressure), and motor effects, because your body struggles with such an increased level of serotonin.

VITAMIN B

Many Vitamin B supplements are marketed for stress relief in New Zealand. Fatigue and low energy are scientifically linked with a Vitamin B deficiency, but it is plentiful in the average diet and only usually recommended for vegetarians, vegans, and other vulnerable groups.

There's very little scientific evidence that stress increases a person's need for Vitamin B, or that a big dose of it is required to "get through" times of stress.

However, one promising Australian study from 2014, which looked specifically at work-related stress, saw reductions in it between weeks four and 12 when taking a regular Vitamin B supplement.

PROBIOTICS

Though the link between the gut and mental health is an emerging issue in the health industry, there's no clear evidence that probiotics (e.g. as a pill supplement form) reduce symptoms of stress or anxiety.

However, one University of California Los Angeles study has found that it found people that consumed two cups of probiotic yoghurt per day (which contained four types of live bacteria: Bifidobacterium, Streptococcus, Lactococcus, and Lactobacillus) had calmer reactions to stressful situations than those who didn't eat the yoghurt. What constitutes a "calmer reaction", however, is subjective so we can't take this as conclusive evidence.

The only known side effects of probiotics are bloating and digestive gas.

VALERIAN ROOT

There's not enough evidence to show that valerian root – a common ingredient in natural sleeping medications – actually works.

Limited research shows it can reduce heart rate and feelings of stress when put under pressure, and there's even one study that showed it was more effective that diazepam for anxiety during a two-week period, when used alongside St. John's wort.

Low doses are considered to be safe, but high doses can result in blurred vision, headaches, and lethargy.

KAVA

Kava, a plant (and mild intoxicant) that grows in some Pacific nations, is supposedly useful in treating anxiety.

It can bring about feeling of relaxation, and sometimes even euphoria, as it causes the body's dopamine levels to rise. There is also some clinical evidence that it helps with stress, insomnia, and depression and is generally considered safe in when consumed occasionally.

However, it's potential to interact with other drugs is high. It can be addictive, and can't be combined with alcohol, dopamine, haloperidol, acetaminophen, and benzodiazepines. It can cause excessive drowsiness when used alongside SSRIs, and it can injure the liver in healthy people.

Lee Suckling has a masters degree specialising in personal health reporting. Do you have a health topic you'd like Lee to investigate? Send us an email to life.style@fairfaxmedia.co.nz with Dear Lee in the subject line.

 - Stuff

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