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A Guide to Botanicals for Seniors

Mental Botanicals for Seniors

Lately, many people have turned to herbal medicines as an alternative to prescription drugs like Zoloft and Prozac. Read on to learn about about botanicals that can affect your mood.

Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)

An herb so nice, they named it twice. At least that's what some people say. This herb, which has origins in the islands of the South Pacific, has long been thought to have a beneficial effect on health. The Hawaiians used it to soothe nerves, aid sleep, counteract fatigue, and treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for weight loss.


European research shows it can reduce anxiety without drowsiness and enhance the quality of sleep without side effects. One German study found that after only one week of treatment with a standardized kava extract, patients experienced a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to those getting a placebo, or dummy pill. Phytochemicals called kavalactones have been identified as the ingredient most likely to produce these effects.

In Germany, kava is sold as an over-the-counter remedy for anxiety and stress. It is also promoted as a pain reliever, but there is little research to back up that claim. You'll find it in health food stores in tablet or capsule form, as a tincture, or as a dried herb. Whichever you choose, look for a product that is standardized to 70 percent kavalactone content.

A typical dose is 100 milligrams, three times a day. Don't take kava if you're also taking drugs such as alcohol, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines, all of which affect the central nervous system, or if you have been diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, or Parkinson disease, as kava can exacerbate the problem.

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

This herb has been used as a nerve tonic since Greek and Roman times. Today it is often referred to as "nature's Prozac" and is widely used as an antidepressant in Europe. In fact, in Germany, St. John's Wort is the most commonly used antidepressant. Several studies, which included almost 1,800 people, found St. John's Wort to be much more effective than a placebo, or dummy pill, in treating mild to moderate depression.

The herb was also found to be just as effective as some commonly prescribed antidepressant medications. St. John's Wort appears to be effective in treating depression in 50 to 80 percent of those who take it. Experts aren't sure exactly how it works, but doses of 300 milligrams of an extract standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin, the active ingredient, taken three times a day, appear to be effective.

Though hypericin is thought to be the active ingredient, even that hasn't been firmly established. There are other constituents, such as hyperforin, that may be just as important. If you do take St. John's Wort, stick to the 0.3 percent standardized dose, since that has been studied the most. But most experts caution about self-prescribing for depression.

If you suffer from depression, it's best to seek the advice of a qualified health professional and discuss St. John's Wort as a part of your treatment. Some research also suggests that St. John's Wort may be effective against infections and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Research is also being done on its potential to fight viruses, such as HIV. The herb appears to be safe, though a few people have reported fatigue, itching, and weight gain as side effects.

And, in large doses, St. John's Wort can cause sensitivity to the sun. Because of its antidepressant effects, it should not be combined with narcotics, amphetamines, over-the-counter cold and flu medications, or alcohol. And, just so you're forewarned, St. John's Wort has an awful aroma; it's been compared to the smell of sweaty socks

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Probably the most effective of the herbs classified as anti-anxiety and sleep aids, valerian has been used for more than 1,000 years. German officials have approved valerian for use as a mild sedative and sleep aid, based on the positive results of several European clinical trials.

Two well-controlled studies found that 400 to 450 milligrams before bedtime can significantly improve sleep quality and length of sleep and shorten the length of time it takes to fall asleep, with no hungover feeling in the morning. It is also effective for anxiety as a tea prepared from 1 teaspoon of the dried herb and drunk several times a day.

Valerian appears to be quite safe even in large doses, but it should not be taken with other sedatives, before driving, or in any situation in which your full concentration is needed. It appears to be quite safe, but it can cause mild stomach upset in some people. Like St. John's Wort, it has a less-than-agreeable odor.

Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe)

Touted as the herbal Viagra, yohimbe comes from the bark of the West African tree of the same name. It has been used in Europe for most of this century to stimulate sexual appetite and enhance sexual performance. Yohimbe contains several compounds that may increase blood flow to the genitals, and as a result, it may help men achieve an erection.

These compounds may also affect the central nervous system directly. Research suggests that yohimbe is helpful for erectile dysfunction in about one-third of men who use it. In fact, its active compounds are sold as prescription drugs in the United States for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. While yohimbe herbal preparations are readily available over the counter, they may not be purified for safety and standardized for effectiveness.

Unfortunately, because of several potential side effects, the herb is not recommended for those who would most likely want to try it -- older men and those with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and prostate conditions.

Additional caveats include not mixing it with antidepressants or foods that contain tyramine, a compound that could clash with the active compounds in yohimbe. Among the most common tyramine-containing foods are aged cheeses, red wine, and liver. Unless you're in excellent health, yohimbe may not be the safest choice.

Yohimbe has been known to cause changes in blood pressure, rapid heart rate, tremors, anxiety and panic attacks, nausea, and vomiting. Better to check with your doctor about getting the prescription drug form of the active compounds in yohimbe and have your doctor follow up for any side effects.

To learn more about senior health, check out the helpful links below.


Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., is a nutrition consultant and writer. She is the author or coauthor of five books, including Super Nutrition After 50 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Ward is the nutrition editor of Muscle & Fitness Hers, a contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition, and a contributing writer for

Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., F.A.C.N., C.N.S. is a professor of nutrition science and policy and is the director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory in the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. In addition to publishing more than 180 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, he has served on the Surgeon General's Workshop on Health Promotion and Aging, the Sports Medicine Committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Board of the American Aging Association, the WHO/FAO Consultation on Preparation and Use of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, the Food Advisory Committee of the FDA, and the WHO Expert Consultation on the Development of Nutrition Guidelines for the Elderly. He serves on the editorial board of several scientific journals, including the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the Journal of Nutrition for the Elderly, the Journal of Medicinal Food, and Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.

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