Tag Archives: depression

Ashwagandha for Stress and Brain Health

If stress is at all a significant issue in your life, ashwagandha is an herb you should consider trying. We all know the negative effects stress can have on our lives. Not only do we feel stressed and tense, but long-term stress also contributes to the development of many common chronic diseases, such as depression, high blood pressure, cardiac diseases and metabolic disorders.

There are many herbs that help combat the negative consequences of stress, but ashwagandha stands out from the crowd because of its mood and memory benefits.

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By helping us combat stress, ashwagandha may:
• Reduce fatigue
• Improves learning, memory, and reaction time
• Reduces anxiety and depression
• Rejuvenate the brain
• Improve immune function
• Help prevent cancer
• Stabilizes blood sugar
• Protect the heart
• Improve thyroid function
• Reduce inflammation in the body

I have been taking ashwagandha for less than a month now and am already noticing its benefits. I still have a ton of work on my plate, especially since in the garden at this time of year, but I feel a little calmer and less overwhelmed by it all. Many people note a greater sense of well-being from taking ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha also stands out as a memory herb. Some people even categorize it as a nootropic herb, meaning it improves cognitive performance and memory. Part of this benefit is from stress reduction. Long-term stress actually causes shrinking of some of the memory centers of the brain, like the hippocampus. But clearly, ashwagandha is doing more that just preventing this damage because cognitive improvements were seen in as little as 2 weeks in one study. In a comparison study between ginseng and ashwagandha, the participants taking ashwagandha showed improvements in mental abilities while the ginseng group didn’t. So though ginseng might be another great herb for stress, it lacks ashwagandha’s full brain benefits.

Ashwagandha might also be one of our key herbs for preventing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. In studies done with mice, ashwagandha contributed to improvements in cognitive abilities and cellular markers in the brain. Ashwagandha is loaded with brain protecting antioxidants and may even help with the regeneration of nerve networks in the brain.

So try ashwagandha, and see if you feel it deserves its ancient reputation as a rejuvenating herb.

Brighten Your Day with Lemonbalm!

Meet lemonbalm. She could be your new best friend especially if you are dealing with a lot of stress. Many of us push ourselves so hard everyday, and this can contribute to mood issues. So we need an herbal best friend to bring a little sunshine to our days.

Lemonbalm

Lemonbalm is just such a friend. Her bright lemon taste sums up her personality. Lemonbalm can work to both lift low spirits and help calm us when the stress just gets to be too much. And then when you hear her scientific name, Melissa officinalis, you will definitely want to invite her over for a cup of tea (a cup of lemonbalm tea that is). Her name Melissa means honeybee because bees love lemonbalm so much, and I hope you will too.

Lemonbalm can help calm the nerves and is used for anxiety, nervousness, and irritability. Lemonbalm is wonderful for digestive problems and headaches, especially when they are caused by nervousness. Lemonbalm also mildly reduces blood pressure that is elevated due to stress. Some cases of mild insomnia respond well to lemonbalm. Lemonbalm is also a mild anti-depressive, making it a good choice for people who have a mixture of anxiety and depression. Lemonbalm is a nootropic herb meaning it can enhance memory and cognitive functioning. So, lemonbalm is for both brighter mind and brighter mood.

I feel that we can get more out of our herbs when we taste them. We learn more about their nature than if we are taking capsules of herbs. Try lemonbalm and you will see how the flavor really matches her uplifting nature. You can also taste and smell the essential oil in lemonbalm that help ease an upset stomach.

You can make a tea out of the dried or fresh leaves. I also like to add a few dropperfuls of lemonbalm tincture to a whole glass of water when I don’t have time to make tea. I prefer the brands like Herb Pharm that use both alcohol and glycerin to make their tinctures because this improves the taste significantly or you can add a few drops of stevia to sweeten it a little. Lemonbalm has such a delicious taste that is often used to improve the flavor of herbal blends.

Lemonbalm is a gentle herb that requires either large doses for acute issues or long-term use for optimal results. You can use it either way but since you have just found a new herbal best friend, I bet you are going to want to hang out everyday. Lemonbalm has no side effects except for possibly very rare cases of allergic reaction. Theoretically, lemonbalm could suppress the thyroid, but no cases have been reported of worsening symptoms with hypothyroidism.

So try a little lemonbalm, and make your brain and taste buds happy.

Have a Healthier Winter with Vitamin D

We have been lucky this January to have so many sunny days, but are we still getting enough vitamin D? I know that most days I am working inside and only see the sun when I am taking care of my chickens in the morning. If we don’t get enough sun and our vitamin D levels go down, we can start suffering from the winter grumpies, or seasonal affective disorder, as it is technically known.

I often encourage my patients to take a low dose of vitamin D during the winter or all year long, especially if they are taking a calcium supplement. I am not necessarily a fan of the higher doses such as 5000 IU once a day, since too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Vitamin D is actually a hormone that regulates calcium metabolism, and as with hormone replacement therapy, there is a normal range for our bodies. Unless someone is deficient, the higher doses might actually reduce some of the vitamin D benefits. Additionally, sometimes we need to dig deeper. If someone is vitamin D deficient, it can be due to excessive inflammation in the body, and this may need to be addressed more than the vitamin D levels

Adequate vitamin D is associated with many health benefits including stronger bones, lower rates of influenza, reduced blood pressure, and reduced breast and colon cancer risk, but some of the benefits go away if people take too much. Therefore, I have been encouraging people who don’t know their vitamin D levels to stick with doses around 1000 IU. One study demonstrated that just 800 IU a day slightly reduced mortality due to any cause in elderly people, mainly women.

So if you are dealing with the wintertime blues, considering adding a little vitamin D to your routine, but remember don’t overdo it.

And get some sun when you can!

Winter Trees at Sunset

A Connection between Depression and Heart Disease

In popular culture, the heart is often considered to be the seat of our emotions. We love and grieve with our hearts. From a biological point of view, we understand the heart as the organ that pumps blood through our bodies. But there is something more than that to the heart. I know I am not the only one who has experienced chest pain due to a stressful situation. I was too young to really worry that it was heart disease, but did still consider that possibility because of my family history. Ultimately, I made some changes in my life and the chest pains went away completely. The reason for this phenomenon is that stress changes the signals that the heart gets from the brain. While theses signals might be useful if we need to run from a bear, they can be detrimental when we are sitting at a desk.

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Not only can stress affect our hearts, but depression can too. A large study examining English civil servants showed found participants that showed signs of depression were more likely to have heart attacks. Another study demonstrated that using therapy to depression helped prevent the development of heart disease. In fact, the participants who did not have heart disease at the beginning of the study and received counseling where 47% less likely to have a major cardiovascular event compared to those who didn’t get the same treatment for depression.

This connection between heart disease and depression might explain why some supplements are good for both the brain and the heart. A prime example is fish oil, which is probably one of the most popular cardiovascular health supplements. Countries that consume more fish and have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have lower rates of coronary artery disease. Another major use of fish oil is to help treat mood issues and depression. Could this last benefit contributing to the cardiovascular advantages of taking fish oil? And to learn more about one possible genetic contribution to both depression and heart disease, check out my recent blog on methylfolate.

An important consideration for depression is that not everyone manifests the same symptoms. Generally the signs to look for are feeling sad, hopeless, anxious and sleeping or eating too much or too little, but some people’s depression manifests as tiredness, irritability or even angry. While there are different causes of depression from situational issues like loss of a loved one to genetic and brain chemistry variations, some of these symptoms seem to be connected to lack of fulfillment in life. It can be hard to find truly fulfilling roles and careers in our modern world and too many people end up working at a job just because that is the one available. I am not saying quit your job, but if you can, weigh these possible long term health concerns when choosing a career. And know that counseling and learning stress coping skills can be genuinely useful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Methylfolate for You?

I’ve been wanting to write a blog about methylfolate for a while since the genetic variation in how we process folic acid can sometimes have a huge impact on heart, mood, and overall health. I’ve been delaying because it is not a simple topic, but here is a basic introduction to it.

Our bodies use several active forms of folic acid, one of these being methylfolate, or more scientifically 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. Methylfolate is necessary to activate B12 and make SAMe, which in turn is necessary for some detoxification processes, neurotransmitter production, and proper genetic expression. Methylfolate is also used to neutralize of homocysteine, an amino acid derivative that is possibly implicated in heart disease. B12 is also needed for this last process.

DNA image courtesy of Svilen Milev

DNA photo courtesy of Svilen Milev

Between 10-20% of the population has a genetic variation in their ability to make methylfolate. Most people with this genetic variation will still have one gene that is functional and probably make adequate methylfolate. Other people have two bad copies of the genes and will be deficient in this active form of folate.

Especially with this last case, these genetic variations can lead to very serious health conditions. These can range from common mood issues like depression to serious mental health disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I also see these genetic differences more commonly in my patients with ADD and autism. Because of the reduced ability to neutralize toxins, people with these genetic issues can have increased rates of autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Another variant in this gene can lead to an increase in conditions that are caused by blood clots like heart attacks and strokes. Finally, this genetic variation can cause an increase in birth defects and miscarriages.

So the solution to this genetic issue can be simple sometimes and more complex for others. Since the eventual end product of this gene is methylfolate (or more precisely 5-methyltetrahydrofolate), we can take this as a supplement and bypass the problem. The dosage can depend on the person so I start low unless there has been adequate testing. Where this gets challenge is that this genetic variation isn’t always the only one. Taking methylfolate can help us make epinephrine, an excitatory brain chemical. For some types of depression, this can be very useful, but others have trouble breaking down epinephrine due to other genetic mutations. For these people, they can build up too much of this stimulating epinephrine and experience anxiety.

For people who are really curious about these possible genetic variations, the good news is that genetic testing in now really inexpensive. For $119, you can get a full panel from 23andme.com, which is then translated by the Sterling App. This approach can help you and your doctor better understand how to balance your supplements for your genes.

Build a Better Brain with the Mineral Lithium

No, I am not crazy (or no more so than the average person), but you might describe me as very excited by the potential brain benefits of lithium. While lithium is most famous for its use in large doses for bipolar disorders, lower doses can have an impressive array of benefits for mood and long-term brain health. Lithium is a mineral just like potassium or magnesium and can be taken in doses of 5-20 mg per day. With these lower doses, there is not the concern about toxic side effects as with the prescription doses.

I first became interested in lithium because of its ability to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and possibly other types of dementia. Lithium appears to protect against Alzheimer’s in at least three ways. It may help protect the brain against aluminum, which could be implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s. Lithium also may protect the brain against damage from excitotoxins, compounds that in excess can induce nerve damage. Monosodium glutamate is one of the best-known excitotoxins. Studies have indicated that lithium may inhibit the build up of beta-amyloid and tau proteins, the main components of the plaques and tangles that form in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease.

Even if you are not particularly at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, lithium may improve brain function. Lithium plays important roles in communication between cells in the brain, which is the basis of how we think and feel. It is well known that the brain tends to shrink as we age, but one small study actually showed that this mineral increased brain grey matter. Lithium might also protect the brain from numerous damaging compounds by increasing bcl-2, a protein that may improve the survival of brain cells even possibly from damage cause by a stroke. Because of these benefits, one group of researchers recommended that anyone taking medication for mood or seizure also take lithium to help protect against toxic medication side effects.

Finally, lithium can improve moodiness and irritability. Lithium influences serotonin pathways, and numerous people have noted that it has helped them feel calmer and less angry without feeling sedated. For alcoholics, lithium has been shown to reduce alcohol cravings and improve mood. These benefits combined with the potential brain protecting attributes makes lithium a mineral that could benefit many people.

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Save American Ginseng: Save Yourself

A new show on the History channel, Appalachian Outlaws, highlights the politics of one of this region’s most valuable herbs, American ginseng. Many of us here in the Ozarks also have a personal attachment to this medicinal plant. A good friend of mine had the ginseng patch he had nurtured for over 20 years decimated by poachers looking to make quick cash by illegally harvesting his ginseng out of season. On top of trespassing and stealing, poachers like these are endangering future ginseng harvests. There is a ginseng season, legally mandated by the state, to ensure the ginseng plants have mature seeds that can be planted in place of the roots that are harvested. My husband’s great uncle, Lloyd Brisco, taught my husband how to ethically hunt ginseng or as he called it “sang.” Since we use the roots of ginseng, the plant is killed during harvest so either the smaller roots need to be replanted or the seeds placed in the hole left by pulling the roots. Ethical wildcrafters also don’t take every single plant. Ideally, you only harvest 1 out of every 20 plants.

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt "sang"

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt “sang”

American ginseng is in such demand because it is one of the true longevity herbs. American and Korean ginseng are both known to compensate for the impact of stress on the body. They do this by modulating our cortisol levels. Ginseng can reduce elevated cortisol, which is implicated in many chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. By reducing the impact of stress, American ginseng can improve digestion and immune function. American ginseng can also help symptoms related to insufficient cortisol due to prolonged stress like fatigue and some types of depression. I find that it gives me more stamina and helps me work long days in the office and on the farm.  American ginseng is also a nootropic herb that helps enhances cognitive function and memory.

American ginseng is so monetarily valuable because it has these amazing medicinal benefits but takes a long time to grow and grows best in the wild. A lot of our American ginseng is exported to China and wholesale prices are on the rise, but people looking to make quick cash off the high demand for ginseng are putting this native treasure at risk. Local herb enthusiast, Madison Woods, has published a short book on Sustainable Ginseng available online as a paperback or ebook that can help people who want to grow wild-simulated ginseng on their own property. She also offers ginseng habit consultations where she personally helps you find the right wooded areas to plant ginseng for future harvest or preservation purposes. So let’s do what we can to protect this local jewel so we can continue to benefit from it for generations.

American Ginseng

American Ginseng

Healthy Hints for Holiday Happiness

The holidays can be a time to relax and enjoy time with your family. And they can be a time to run yourself ragged trying to make holiday magic happen for others. On top of this, some struggle with seasonal depression from reduced sunlight and fewer opportunities to exercise. While winter can be an enchanting time, the additional stress to take a toll on our health. Stress reduces our ability to fight off infections making us more susceptible to winter colds and flu. In addition, long-term stress can increase the risk for diabetes, ulcers, osteoporosis, certain cancers, heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease. Stress can also contribute to mood issues such as anxiety and depression.

So as the holiday season gets into full swing, it is time to come up with a plan to reduce the negative impact so you can enjoy the good parts of the season.

First, give yourself some “me” time. As I mentioned in my last blog, you deserve the time to be healthy.

Practice your stress coping skills. Choose what works for you and make some time for it. Laughter, journaling, reading, prayer, meditation, imagery, writing, exercise, deep breathing, cultivating positive attitudes, and physical expressions of emotions are some of the more common techniques people have found to creatively manage their stress.

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Try calming herbs. Herbs taken as supplements or teas can help calm the mind. Popular calming herbs like kava, skullcap, and California poppy can be found in capsules or liquid tinctures. Or make your own tea blends from relaxing herbs like lemon balm, catnip, passionflower, lavender, st. john’s wort, and chamomile.

Here is my recipe:

¼ cup chamomile flowers

¼ cup lemon balm leaves

¼ cup passionflower leaves

2 Tbs catnip leaves

2 Tbs lavender leaves

Mixes these together. To make the tea, place 1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of the blend in one cup of water that was just boiling. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably covered. Strain the tea, or remove the tea ball if you were using one. Sweeten with honey or stevia if desired.

You can also try your own creation. You might like it so much that you decide to share it with someone on your gift list. Include a tea ball or strainer and a recipe card so they can make more for themselves.

If all else fails, buy yourself a present.

Omega-3s for Mood

Fish oil has numerous well-documented benefits for our health. It is probably best known for its cardiovascular advantages of decreasing cholesterol and clotting. Here I am going to focus on its mood supporting qualities, because there have been a number of exciting recent studies. In one study following patients with major depression, the likelihood of also having anxiety was much higher in those with the lowest blood levels of EPA and DHA, the major omega-3 components of fish oil. A second study found that in women a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids reduced the incidence of elevated depressive symptoms by 49%. This study also pointed out the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids was important. This means you can support your mood by both taking fish oil and reducing intake of omega-6 fats like those found in meat and most oils including corn, soy, and vegetable oils.

Fish oil may even be able to reduce suicidal tendencies. It has long been noted in epidemiological studies that low omega-3 levels are correlated with increased rates of suicide. Researchers have also found higher levels of a marker called SAT1 in people with strong suicidal ideation. This marker and related ones were also associated with stress, mood disorders, anxiety, and hallucinations. In mice that were genetically altered to have abnormal expression of these biomarkers, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids brought their levels of the troublesome markers back to normal. All of this very promising research reinforces the use of fish oil as part of the plan to support mental health for even very serious mood disorders.

salmon

Herbs of the Ozarks

I believe that if we know the local herbs in any region well enough, we can rely on them nearly exclusively to treat most common complaints. This holds true for the Ozark region, where many classic American herbs grow and many introduced species also tend to flourish. In fact, the Ozarks are part of the native range for herbs in very high demand—like goldenseal and American ginseng.

Another well-known plant from this part of the country is black cohosh. This herb is found in nearly every blend for menopausal symptoms, but it is most effective for women that have a particular constellation of symptoms, such as hot flashes, depression, and achy muscles or joints. Studies are showing that black cohosh may reduce the hormone surges associated with hot flashes. Black cohosh might also have constituents that act similarly to the medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which could explain its possible mood benefits. Furthermore, black cohosh also has pain-relieving attributes that make it an ideal herb to choose for discomfort and complaints not related to menopause. It contains analgesic and inflammation modulating constituents that make it a promising consideration for joint and muscle pains. Women can use it to address menstrual cramps because it relaxes smooth muscles, such as those found in the uterus. Black cohosh is also an herbal option for men who have low back and knee pain, especially if they also have prostate issues or are under a lot of stress.

 Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.


Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.

Japanese honeysuckle is a plant that is probably known to every Arkansan, but few know about its health benefits. Japanese honeysuckle isn’t native to the Ozarks. It was introduced and is now invasive, but one way to combat invasive plants is to harvest them for herbal medicine. The flowers of Japanese honeysuckle are antimicrobial, antiviral, inflammation modulating, and mildly detoxifying. The most common traditional use of honeysuckle flowers is as a component of Chinese herbal blends for colds and flu. A modern use of honeysuckle flowers is as an addition to pharmaceutical or herbal antimicrobial agents to increase their effectiveness. Additionally, Japanese honeysuckle flowers can help block the pumps that harmful bacteria use to disseminate the antimicrobial agents out of themselves. Apart from supplementation, Honeysuckle flowers are also mildly cooling and can make a refreshing summertime iced tea.

So we don’t necessarily have to search exotic lands for our medicinal herbs. Instead we can use our local plants provided by Mother Nature to help our environment and ourselves.

And you can check out my recent appearance on a local Harrison TV station talking about some other common herbs found here in the Ozarks.