Woodland Herbs
February 2013
In this issue

Welcome to your regular newsletter from Woodland Herbs. We hope you will find it interesting, entertaining and useful. If you do not wish to continue to receive this newsletter please use the link at the bottom of this email.

Good Mental Health in 2013

Our mantelpieces are long bare of Christmas cards, but friendly wishes for “health and happiness in 2013” hopefully still resonate with us.  Are these two highly valuable things related? Though the precise mechanism remains elusive, there’s general agreement that such a relationship does exist.  Countless conditions are reported as being aggravated when the sufferer is experiencing negative emotional states such as low mood or stress, and there have been numerous studies showing a concurrence of depression and impaired immunity. Many point to insufficient Vitamin D during winter; Vitamin D is unique as once ingested it converts into a hormone (called 1.25 dihydroxycholecalciferol or 1.25-(OH)2-D3).  Like other hormones, Vitamin D functions within a feedback cycle responsible for regulating many body functions. Many are implicating D deficiency in many illnesses, most notably in the UK, osteoporosis, MS and the return of rickets.

It’s very common to feel less chirpy and energetic at this time of year. This is because darkness stimulates the conversion of serotonin to melatonin, the chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that promotes drowsiness and sleep. In some people when there’s consistently not enough strong light to halt the production of melatonin, this can lead to low seratonin and result in symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) such as fatigue, compulsive eating, anxiety, social withdrawal and loss of libido. Some say that SAD affects over half a million people in the UK each year.  

Many of the things we instinctively reach for when we’re stressed or feeling down can actually make our situation worse.  Alcohol and smoking tobacco damage the nervous system and deplete the body of vital nutrients, including those needed to make serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters involved in regulating our moods. Sweet and carbohydrate-rich foods can make us ‘crash and burn’, giving us a spike in energy before making us feel even more tired than before.  Caffeine increases the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into the blood, and can make feelings of worry worse.

In 2011, the Office for National Statistics reported a dramatic four year rise (43%) in the prescriptions for drugs to help manage common conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.  We hear these labels a lot, and often an individual’s experience will encompass elements of all three.  
Stress: Stress is an individual’s response to physical, emotional or intellectual demands. Very generally, the body initially treats such demands as ‘danger’ to be confronted or escaped from.  The adrenal glands (two small glands on the top of each kidney) release hormones that provide the body with the energy needed to ‘fight or flight’. This can be a very useful response in the short term (say slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident), but long term high levels of stress can damage the adrenal glands and deplete the body of essential nutrients.  

Anxiety: Anxiety is a feeling of fear and tension that interferes with normal life, physical symptoms from tense muscles and poor concentration to digestive problems and headaches are often present too. Anxiety can manifest in many different forms including Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which involves a recurring sense of foreboding and panic attacks which can come on suddenly.  Prolonged stress or anxiety impairs the immune system, negatively affects digestion and can affect glucose levels in the brain,impairing memory and mental ability.  

Depression: A persistent feeling of low mood that affects the sufferer on a physical, mental and emotional level.  Over 80 million work days are taken off in the UK annually due to depression, with women three times more likely to be sufferers than men. 

Depression is not a sign of weakness or insufficient ‘stiff upper lip’.  Sometimes it can indicate an individual having been ‘strong’ for too long and looking after everyone else instead of themselves. Depressive periods may not have one single cause.  Triggers can include significant life events such as bereavement, birth, divorce and losing your job.  In addition heredity, upbringing, environment, medication, other illnesses, diet, lifestyle can all influence whether a person develops depression.

Depression can be seen as an imbalance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). These neurotransmitters include serotonin, which influences mood and sleep, and adrenalin and noradrenilin both of which influence motivation. Prescription anti-depressants may prolong the action of serotonin (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs) or both serotonin and noradrenaline (Serotonin-Noradrenaline Re-uptake Inhibitors or SNRIs). The principal active ingredients in St John's Wort, Hypericin and hyperforin, act in a similar way. See below for more on this popular herb.  

Supplemental support for good mental health

Omega 3 fats, in particular eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are widely thought to be essential for optimal brain health. Rather than helping to make serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline themselves, EPA and DHA help build good quality receptor sites for these neurotransmitters.  By binding more efficiently to the receptor sites, the neurotransmitters can exert more influence in the body and so better regulate mood, motivation and our daily rhythms of wakefulness and sleep. In a study of patients with Major Depressive Disorder ‘highly significant improvements’ in symptoms were noted by those supplementing Omega 3 fats in addition to their prescribed anti-depressant medications.

-  The process of making serotonin, adrenaline and noradrenalin requires certain nutrients such as the amino acid tyrosine, Vitamin C, Zinc and the B-vitamins, especially B2, B6, B9 and B12.   Ensure you’re getting enough of these important cofactors in your diet or consider supplementation.

- If the cold and dark has you craving sweets and carbs, try Helix Slim, which is made from Jerusalem artichoke extract and can help to reduce dips in blood sugar.  It’s available from Vogel in drops and tablets.

-  5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a derivative of tryptophan, an amino acid commonly found in turkey meat.  The molecules of 5-HTP are small enough to cross the bloodstream into the brain where it’s converted into serotonin.  In recent years, 5-HTP has been much studied as a treatment for depression, anxiety, panic, insomnia, migraines, fibromylagia and ME, PMS and eating disorders. 5-HTP is typically sold in 50mg and 100mg strengths so you can start with the smaller dose and increase it if you need to. Don’t take 5-HTP on top of or instead of prescribed anti-depressants or St John’s Wort without checking with your doctor or herbalist first.

- Borage (Borago officinalis) is used in herbal medicine to help nourish adrenal glands when there has been prolonged stress. Ancient Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that 'Borage cheers the heart and raises drooping spirits'.

Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea which is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the production of alpha waves, the brain pattern associated with the calm wakefulness of meditation.  

- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) contains compounds called rosavin and salidrozid which appear to help the transport of tryptophan and 5-HTP into the brain.  It’s available in dried herb form and in capsules

- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is popularly used to reduce insomnia and feelings of anxiety.  It’s available in dried herb form, tablets from Potters and in liquid form from Vogel.

- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has a long history of use in both North America and Europe.  Its root contains compounds which mimic and/or increase levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which promotes sleep and eases anxiety.  It’s often taken as a decoction of the root. Valerian is also available in capsule form from Viridian.  Vogel do two combinations of Valerian with Hops (Humulus lupulus)Dormesan for sleep disturbance and Stress Relief Daytime.

If you or someone you know needs help coping with depression contact your GP or one of the organisations below.

Scottish Association for Mental Health

Samaritans 08457 90 90 90

Anxiety UK 08444 775 774

Breathing Space 0800 83 85 87 (Scotland)

Supplement of the Month: Vitamin B6

B vitamins are often taken in times of stress as they help support the nervous and immune systems.  Pantothenic acid, or B5, is often called the ‘anti-stress’ vitamin as it helps support the adrenal glands in the production of adrenaline and cortisol.  Another important B vitamin in managing stress and balancing mood is B6, which is also an essential coenzyme involved in many functions including metabolism and the synthesis of haemoglobin.  B6 has long been taken by those suffering premenstrual syndrome (PMS), symptoms of which often include depression, anxiety and irritability.  Over two-thirds of women with PMS are thought to have excessive levels of oestrogen, and B6 may address this imbalance by helping the liver process oestrogen and promote the production of progesterone. An imbalance of these reproductive hormones is associated with a disruption in the regulation of mood and the perception of pain as well as an increase in prolactin, the hormone responsible for the breast pain that many women experience before menstruation.  

B6 is required for many brain functions, including the manufacture of serotonin from 5HTP and the production of melatonin.  Therefore, if you’re considering a nutritional approach to balance your mood, ensure you’re getting adequate levels from foods such as wheatgerm, pulses, brown rice and poultry or consider supplementation.  Please note that high doses of single B vitamins can deplete other B vitamins, so if you’re taking a high dose of one, also consider a good quality multivitamin or B complex. Be aware that in spite of the many potential benefits of B6, long term intake of 500mg a day or more may cause nerve damage.


Herb of the Month: St John's Wort

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has over two and a half thousand years of recorded use.  The ‘St John’ very likely refers to St John the Baptist, who was said to have been born at the summer solstice when the plant is in bloom.  When rubbed between the fingers, the buds of this cheery looking plant release a deep red pigment. This pigment gives St John’s Wort infused oil (used externally) a vibrant orange colour and contains the active constituent called hypericin. Interestingly, a very old name for the plant is 'Fuga daemonum', meaning ‘Scare Devil’, indicating that it was thought to drive out demons.

St John’s Wort is used by medical herbalists for a wide range of conditions including nerve damage, inflammation and infection, however to most people, it's commonly associated with ailments relating to mood, such as feeling low or anxious. Several trials have indicated the efficacy of St John's Wort in helping to alleviate mild to moderate depression, anxiety disorders and disrupted sleep, and recent research has focused on the herb’s ability to inhibit the re-uptake of serotonin and dopamine.  Its actions are mainly due to two of its constituents, hypericin and hyperforin. Though the mechanism of this herb is similar to that of many commonly prescribed anti-depressants, an analysis of many studies shown that St John’s Wort is better tolerated with less side effects and isn't thought to be habit forming. In Germany, it’s the leading treatment for depression. It’s available in dried herb form and tablets and drops from Vogel. 

St John’s Wort should be taken with caution as it increases the breakdown of a number of prescription drugs and should only be taken in addition to other medicines on the advice of your GP or Herbalist.  Never stop taking prescribed medication unless under medical supervision.  

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, are on any medication or have a medical condition, always consult a healthcare practitioner before taking any dietary supplement or herbal remedy.

Bremner JD (1999), ‘Does stress damage the brain?’, Biological Psychiatry, April 1, 45 (7), pp797-805
The Endocrine System, Solgar Gold Training Course, Module VI
Cass H, St John’s Wort: Nature’s Blues-Buster, 1997, Avery Publishing
Davies, Jill Rosemary, St John’s Wort, 1999, Element Publishing

Linde K, Berner MM, Kriston L. St John's Wort for major depression. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews 2008, Issue 4.
Nemets B et al (2002), ‘Addition of Omega 3 fatty acids to maintenance medication treatment for recurrent unipolar depressive disorder’ American Journal of Psychiatry, 159 (3), pp477-9
The Nervous System, Solgar Gold Training Course, Module VII
Sapolsky RM (1996), ‘Why is stress bad for your brain?’ Science, 273, 5276, pp749-50
Vitamins Manual: An Encyclopedia Of Vitamins, Solgar
Walton RG (1993), ‘Adverse reactions to aspartame: double blind challenge in patients from S vulnerable population’, Journal of Biological Psychiatry vol 34 (1-2), pp13-17.  
Woelk H (2000), ‘Comparison of St John’s Wort and Imipramine for treating depression: randomised controlled trial’, British Medical Journal, 321 (7260), pp536-539

Cautions and Contraindications: This newsletter does not substitute the advice of a healthcare professional. We recommend you consult your GP or Medical Herbalist before self-treating with herbs and/or supplements.