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Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs: A Scientific Analysis of Herbal Remedies for Psychiatric Conditions
Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs

Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs: A Scientific Analysis of Herbal Remedies for Psychiatric Conditions.Ethan Russo. Hawthorn Herbal Press, 2001, 352 pp., softcover. ISBN 0-7890-1088-7. $29.95 ABC Catalog #B477S. Hardcover ISBN 7890-0718-5 $69.95.

The explosive growth of the herb industry in the United States in the past decade has been accompanied by a virtual epidemic of herbal publications. Although a few titles stand out, many herb books are, basically, regurgitations of old data from earlier publications, covering a wide range of herbal materia medica, folklore, personal experience, and, more recently, scientific literature. Many of these books are indistinguishable from each other.

This book, however, is rare. While some books have focused on herbs for specific ranges of use (e.g., men's health, women's health, herbs for children, tonic herbs, etc.), this book is one of very few to compile scientific and clinical data solely on herbs with central nervous system (CNS) effects.

A joke that runs in medical circles hits very close to home for many of my physician friends: "How do you keep a secret from a neurologist or a neurosurgeon? Answer: You publish it!" Apparently, some professionals in this field are characterized as somewhat smug and having little interest in learning new information. Not this author. Unlike a growing number of writers on the herbal scene who are physicians (or other conventional healthcare practitioners) with little experience with herbs, Dr. Russo, a neurologist, is no stranger to herbal medicine, having used phytomedicines in his clinical practice and studied much of the contemporary scientific data available on these natural products. What's more, Dr. Russo has spent a period of time with the indigenous Machiguenga tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, a testament to his willingness to learn new information from a variety of sources.

The author employs the term psychotropic for these agents, that is, literally, agents that "turn" the mind. They are not to be confused with psychedelic or hallucinogenic -- referring to plants and derived substances previously associated with ritual use and/or abuse -- the so-called "recreational" drugs. In the sense that Russo uses the term, psychotropic herbs can be employed as stimulants, sedatives, anxiolytics, antidepressants, etc. both in clinical medicine as well as in self-medication. Most of these herbs are relatively mild, and are relatively safe when used responsibly, especially when compared to their pharmaceutical counterparts.

With his vast clinical experience, Russo is well aware of the potential and actual effects of conventional pharmaceutical drugs as well as the relative safety of appropriately used, gentle herbal remedies. He offers numerous case studies as examples of rational clinical applications of botanical preparations with positive outcomes -- resulting in the overall benefit to the patient.

Russo's treatment of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the most complete reviews of the clinical literature currently available in the English language. The same can be said of his sections on passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), kava (Piper methysticum), lavender oil (Lavandula officinalis), and even the controversial, yet clinically useful, marijuana (Cannabis sativa).

The issue of substances that influence the central nervous system and mental functions have either fascinated or repelled people throughout history. Human experience is inextricably linked to the use of psychotropics, whether for religious and ceremonial use or, later, for medically approved therapeutic applications, as well as for their more controversial recreational uses.

Andrew Weil, M.D., and Ronald Siegel, Ph.D., have written about the universal human drive for altering the normal waking state of consciousness. This need has manifested in the use plants for a wide variety of effects: stimulants like coffee (Coffea arabica) and khat (Chatha edulis), narcotics like opium (from opium poppy, Papaver somniferum) and radically mind-altering psychedelic or "entheogenic" substances like mescaline from peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and psilocybin from "magic" mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.).

Unfortunately, for serious researchers and clinicians, in the realm of public opinion, psychotropic plants are sometimes shrouded in the mysteries of the stereotyped anorexic opium addict curled up on the floor of some Far Eastern opium den, or the half-crazed, hopped up, hashish-eating "assassins" from the Tales of the Arabian Nights. As anyone familiar with the ubiquitous "war on drugs" in America knows, it has been virtually impossible to hold a rational public discourse about the potential benefits of psychotropic agents. Anyone suggesting such is often shouted down as being someone who has a far more nefarious agenda: the legalization of illicit drugs.

However, there is another, possibly more gentle aspect of the discussion about psychotropic agents that, until recently, has been virtually ignored in the medical literature in the U.S. -- the safe and responsible use of commonly sold herbal preparations that affect central nervous system activity.

To the bibliophile interested in the history of psychoactive plants and their derivative drugs, this book can be viewed as joining some of the classics of the genre: Ernst Von Bibra's Plant Intoxicants (1855), Mordicai C. Cooke's The Seven Sisters of Sleep (originally published in 1860 and reprinted in 1997), Louis Lewin's Phantastica (1924), Marek Kohn's Narcomania (1986), and Jonathan Ott's magnum opus Pharmacotheon (1993). It also joins two more recent volumes on this subject written by a contemporary physician and a researcher: Andrew Weil's From Chocolate to Morphine (1998) and Ronald Siegel's Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise: Why We Seek Drugs (1989).

Like his predecessors, Dr. Russo has compiled a comprehensive review of each botanical agent. However, unlike its predecessors, this book deals with plants that are not considered, by today's norms, as being controversial, illicit, addictive, or the domain of the morally depraved. In these pages is sound advice on the rational use of safe and effective herbs to help alleviate a wide range of neurological disorders, from migraine headache to anxiety and mild or moderate depression. Health professionals and lay people can use this book as an authoritative guide in an area where solid, reliable information is often difficult to obtain.

-- Mark Blumenthal(adapted from the foreword to Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs)