Herbs for the Mind: What Science Tells Us about Nature’s Remedies for Depression, Stress, Memory Loss and Insomnia, by Jonathan R.T. Davidson, Kathryn M. Connor. Guilford Press: New York; 2000. 278 pages paperback $14.95 ISBN 1-57230-476-6. Hardcover $33.00 ISBN 1-57230-572-X [out of print].
Despite large gaps in our knowledge, interest in herb use is still strong as people grow increasingly dissatisfied with conventional mainstream medicine. This is particularly true for indications generally considered to be within the realm of mental health and psychiatry, namely anxiety and depression. To help sort out the rational from the irrational, two respected Duke University psychiatrists, trained in conventional medicine, have written Herbs for the Mind. They provide practical guidance from our current knowledge of four popular herbal remedies: St. John’s wort for depression, kava for stress or anxiety, ginkgo for memory loss, and valerian for insomnia. They also provide plain language overviews of the symptoms, causes, and traditional treatments for these ailments.
Herbs for the Mind is a valuable resource if you’re a person with symptoms of anxiety or depression and considering using natural remedies to treat the symptoms. It offers guidance to decide whether you are or are not a candidate for self-treatment, where herbs fit into an overall treatment plan, and how and when to enlist a doctor’s help. Getting your own physician on board can be important not only for those who have significant disorders, but also very useful for helping to determine if an herb is working, when to increase or decrease the dosage or switch brands, and when to give up and try another route. The book points out the pitfalls of both drug and herbal use and what potential problems might result from long-term use. A glossary defines commonly used terms, and a resource section provides a list of recommended herbal and mental health textbooks, journals, and organizations for additional information.
The fact that pharmaceutical companies don’t put research funds into products they can’t patent means that results from large scale clinical trials are not available to direct decisions about herbals. While substantial clinical trials are available for the herbs covered in this book (with the exception of valerian), results are often inconclusive due to small sample size and sometimes contradictory findings. Here, the authors’ experience is most valuable. Two psychiatrists, they are able to make use of all of the current information by combining evidence from controlled clinical studies, herbal literature, and from their own practices. The result is a very useful guide, containing no hyperbole, yet making use of the rich anecdotal and folkloric information available for these herbs. Davidson and Connor explain what the herbs do, how they may work, how to take them, and what to expect from them. While the herbs don’t always work for everyone, neither do their pharmaceutical counterparts. When they do work, experience has shown that the herbs were generally as effective as drugs, while having far fewer unpleasant side effects. This information will be welcomed by the many people who prefer to self-medicate these conditions. For almost every salient point made in the book, there is an example given from the authors’ own practice that helps to illustrate the point being made, greatly facilitating the comprehension of the shadowy areas of the mind that are otherwise difficult to convey to consumers.
This book is not a scientific treatise; it is clearly targeted to the general public. However, it is sufficiently scholarly for physicians and other healthcare professionals to find it useful, particularly for showing how these agents might be rationally incorporated into their practice. I highly recommend it to all mental health professionals and consumers who are interested in this subject.
–Jerry Cott, Ph.D.
Pharmacologist, U.S. Food and Drug Administration