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Things to consider when dealing with herbal medications

Posted on 05-26-15 in Behavioral Health, Mental Health, Recovery

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For someone who is recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction, it can be tempting to avoid drugs of all kinds, even medication that is provided via a doctor’s prescription. Mood altering drugs, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, can be particularly intimidating. For this reason, many recovering addicts prefer to stick to herbal supplements, such as St. John’s wort or melatonin, to treat any underlying mental health issues that might have contributed to their addiction. But are these all-natural herbs really the solution they’re looking for?

Considerations

Take for example valerian root. Valerian root is an herbal supplement – also known as a botanical – derived from the valerian plant. Valerian’s therapeutic use dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who recognized that the dried root of the plant caused sleepiness and helped reduce insomnia.

In the modern day, valerian root is still used as a sleep aid and can be purchased over the counter as a pill or in a tea. Because valerian root is a sedative – in other words, it relaxes the system – people have also used it to calm anxiety, stress and racing thoughts. It might also ease some depression symptoms. Research has indicated that valerian root functions by modulating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity, a neurotransmitter that depresses neural activity. This is the same mechanism by which alcohol, benzodiazepines and other sedatives affect the brain.

Some researchers believe that valerian takes about two weeks before it starts showing positive effects, whereas other studies have found that it works almost immediately.

However, even though valerian root doesn’t seem like a real drug, anything that is strong enough to affect the brain can also cause side effects or negative reactions. Most of valerian root’s side effects are common to sedatives, such as nausea, drowsiness, headache or dry mouth. Valerian root can also interact with sedatives such as alcohol, anti-anxiety medication or other herbal supplements, potentially causing an overdose.

Like all medications, valerian root can also result in a rare allergic reaction. Valerian root might not be safe to take during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Even though herbal supplements seem inherently safe, it is important to investigate both the benefits and the risks before taking them. Clinicians or pharmacists will be able to determine whether or not it is safe to take valerian root given a patient’s medical history.

Uncertainties

The benefits and risks associated with herbal supplements are not as well understood as those associated with traditional medications. This is because herbal supplements do not need to be researched just as intensely before hitting the market.

Although valerian root has a long history of helping sleeplessness, there is insufficient evidence for whether it reduces the symptoms of anxiety, depression or any other mental illness. Medicinal use of herbal supplements is also not approved by the FDA and there are no regulated manufacturing standards for producing and distributing supplements.

What does this all mean?

Herbal medication is still medication. Although valerian root is mostly safe, it can still occasionally carry the risk of side effects or a negative reaction. Because research on herbal medication is not very strict, valerian root might or might not reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. For this reason, valerian root should be taken with caution and should not be a patient’s only form of treatment. If a patient is reluctant to try more traditional medications, a combination of valerian root and therapy will be more helpful than valerian root alone.

Although it can be intimidating for a recovering drug or alcohol addict to take medication for mental health issues, the majority of traditional medications are non-habit-forming and difficult – if not impossible – to abuse. Here at Sovereign Health Group, we do our very best to help our patients find a treatment plan with or without medication that is right for them. For further questions on our programs for addiction, mental health disorders or co-occurring disorders, please call 866-754-3385.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, Sovereign Health Group writer