Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Increasing Anxiety in Recent Decades

Another question from a visitor:

Shifts towards higher anxiety and neuroticism: Twenge** has noted an increase in anxiety and neuroticism in recent decades. Is this the failure of psychiatry/psychology?

Here's the reference:

This is a good and important article by Twenge, showing that anxiety and neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotion) have increased substantially in the past 5 decades, such that, for example, normal children in the 90's had similar scores on anxiety tests as child psychiatric patients from the 50's. The author finds that economic factors are not associated with this change, but that decreased social connectedness, and an increased sense of environmental danger or threat, are associated.

Here's a related comment:
Baumeister* suggests that purpose, values, sense of efficacy, and self-worth are needed for a meaningful life. Religions and spiritual belief-systems have long provided meaning and more. Nietzsche has supposedly said: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how". How do you think one can live a meaningful life? *Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder& S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 608-618). Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
I have always felt that a strong sense of belonging, safety, meaningfulness, and community is necessary for mental health. Modern culture supports independence. Perhaps modernity also encourages the solitary pursuit of wealth, educational success, etc., in an increasingly competitive and busy culture. People are less likely to join community organizations or visit friends. People are more likely to remain single or live alone for longer periods of their lifetime (in their 20's and beyond). There are more activities that can absorb time and attention while alone (e.g. video games, recreational drugs). Even music--an aspect of life that was previously associated strongly with social connection--has become a medium in which a person can disappear alone, disconnected from the social milieu, thanks to portable music players. A cost of sexual or relationship freedom, particularly in the internet age, can be a tendency for people to have brief, less committed relationships, in the quest for variety, or in the quest for an "ideal mate." Intellectual freedom and advanced knowledge, while possibly allowing for heightened meaningfulness and enlightenment, may also shatter previous bastions of meaningfulness (such as religious dogmas), and may finally cause one to confront the absurdity and seeming empty arbitrariness of the universe. Owen Barfield, in his book Saving the Appearances, described modernity as a "shattering of idols", leaving a spiritual emptiness which science cannot fill.

I guess this is a failure of psychiatry/psychology. Not because the therapies don't work, but because the issue is one of public health and culture. I think this type of evidence emphasizes the importance of encouraging social connectedness and community involvement--to whatever degree is possible--as essentials in a therapeutic prescription for treating anxiety or depression.

In this regard, I encourage involvement in volunteering, community organizations, churches, sports teams, activity clubs, etc. It may be necessary to change one's personal culture in order to change anxiety or depression. You must be wary about being swept up in the prevailing culture, and must instead make active choices about what is healthy and meaningful for you.

*As an addendum here, I have to say that research data of this type may be biased by a variety of factors which differ between one time period and another, including use of language, cultural acceptance of symptoms, etc. Therefore, the children in the 50's may have had lower anxiety scores because they were less familiar with the language associated with anxiety symptoms, were less likely to admit such symptoms on a questionnaire, were more likely to deal with the underlying cause of such symptoms in a different way, etc. We now realize many terrible problems which were going on in the 50's (such as abuse), but which people did not talk about as openly back then. A questionnaire on these issues done at that time might have underestimated the degree of such problems.

**Here's another article, showing increasing life satisfaction over the past decades:

Intuition in Psychiatric Practice

Another question from a visitor:

Evidence-Based Medicine: Do you find that intuition has its place in practice of clinical psychiatry? Despite years of positive experience with a certain technique or medicine, would you decide against it if the only study done on it finds it harmful or useless? If not, how do you go about qualifying your sense of intuition and personal experience?

Good question. I think the crucial point here is "what constitutes evidence?"

Years of positive personal experience with something is itself a strong type of evidence. A negative study is another type of evidence. In all logical assessments of treatments, we must weigh the positive evidence against the negative.

If there was such a strong negative study, particularly if it was done with scientific and statistical rigour, it should lead to a critical re-appraisal of one's own practice, to examine reasons why one's own experience was so different from what another study shows. We should always be prepared to change our ways if strong evidence challenges the status quo.

I don't think "intuition" need be placed in opposition to "logic" or "evidence." I like to think that healthy intuition is a way to incorporate logic and evidence in a way which is flexible and open-minded, and which allows room for creativity.

In clinical practice, a manifestation of "intuition" may at times be a product of a great deal of experience or mastery in something (with the acquisition of "formal operations" in one's area of specialty, in a Piagetian sense), such that pattern recognition and responses can happen very quickly. We can see this in chess players, musicians, auto mechanics...any type of acquired expertise. Things appear to happen effortlessly, seemingly without a thought--certainly without the laborious calculations or stilted rumination which a beginner might apply to the task. These "formal operations" though, represent a great efficiency of weighing evidence and decision-making, not an absence of reason. Those who reject formal evidence in favour of their supposed "intuition" are in a different camp. This would be like the chess player or musician who does not pay attention to his or her weaknesses of technique, or like the auto mechanic who doesn't bother to check the oil. I consider this practice to be inefficient and potentially quite dangerous. There are studies which show that "intuitive" diagnostic impressions in psychiatry are often inaccurate (I'll have to find some references); yet I return to my claim that intuition can be a manifestation of our ability to process information quickly, efficiently, even subconsciously, and often with a natural grace and ease which can be a joy of life to practice or witness.

But intuition cannot be used recklessly or with disregard for other types of evidence.

Conversely, over-reliance on non-intuitive evidence can also be stilted and inefficient. The musician who has note-perfect technique, without grace, is uninteresting. A physician who goes through a symptom checklist meticulously, but fails to attend to alarming non-verbal cues, may entirely miss the underlying problem--a problem which is not detectable by a checklist, because checklist data may not be valid or relevant in cases where process is not attended to.


Here's another question from a visitor:
You note that you like using metaphors in psychotherapy. Can you elaborate more on the use of metaphor. I personally find that using metaphors can have its downside. Some metaphors, once useful--or helpful to those who never heard of them--can become quite trite and cliché. They may even take on negative connotations if associated with unpleasant memory or a disagreeable person from the client's past.
To some degree it is a personal indulgence on my part to attempt to use metaphors. I think you're quite right that this could be unhelpful or annoying to others, and at the very least trite or cliché. I would need to keep this tendency of mine healthily reigned in when necessary. It is, however, very characteristic of me, and a pleasure of mine, to seek out a new metaphor, and therefore an aspect of genuineness that I would attempt to share with patients at times.

Theoretically, it has been part of a larger world-view of mine, that a great deal of wisdom is couched in metaphorical language, yet this language is often taken literally by dogmatic adherents. The dogmatism intensely suppresses the wisdom. This happens frequently in religion, politics, and even in science and medicine. Joseph Campbell was one of my influences: I think he had a great balance of wisdom, humour, and story-telling ability--these are qualities of a good physician, thinker, or healer. Campbell himself was influenced by psychoanalytic thinkers such as Freud, and particularly Jung, but in my opinion his writing never had the annoyingly dogmatic and preachy tone characteristic of these psychoanalysts. Yet, Campbell's ideas are intellectually limited, and I think one should be wary of going too far with them (I find many styles of therapy which are overtly about "exploring myths", etc. to be tiresome, ignorant of modern scientific evidence, and overburdened with jargon). But I liked Joseph Campbell's style, and maybe this is one of the reasons I like "indulging in metaphor" at times as part of my work.

Psychologists Prescribing Antidepressants?

Here's another question from a visitor:

Your views on psychologists' obtaining the right to administer antidepressant.

I don't have any problem with this. If psychologists, or anyone else, were to have prescribing privileges, I do think there should be an educational program with a licensing exam, with continuing education requirements for maintaining licensure, etc., to ensure that the prescribers are up-to-date and knowledgable about the medications and risks, etc. At that point, it could be up to an informed patient to decide whether to trust and accept a prescription from a psychologist. As far as I'm concerned, this is a fair balance between regulation and individual rights in a freedom-oriented society.

I think some psychiatrists' opposition to psychologist prescribing has a lot to do with wanting to hold on to more influence, authority, power, or perhaps a greater sense of importance or exclusivity. There may be elements of narcissism and insecurity which underlie this position. It reminds me of the history of modern medical opposition to midwifery.

While many patients need complicated regimes of medication, may have complex comorbid medical problems, and may therefore require a highly specialized expert in psychopharmacology to prescribe for them (actually, the level of expertise in this area among psychiatrists is very inconsistent), the majority of patients who might benefit from antidepressants require a very simple regimen. Such a regimen does not require many years of advanced education to competently administer. It seems a waste of time and health-care expense for those individuals to have to seek out an MD for their prescriptions.

Furthermore, many antidepressant prescriptions are currently written by a gp who may have only seen the patient for a few minutes--if psychologists were prescribing, this would most likely be in the context of knowing the patient very well, with hour-long appointments, and offering very good follow-up care.

There are risks associated with prescription antidepressants, and there are bound to be patients who run into problems after being prescribed antidepressants from a psychologist. But I am doubtful that these risks would be higher than if antidepressants were only available from an MD, particularly if prescribing privileges required passing a licensing exam, etc.

Future of personalized antidepressants

Another question from a visitor:

Advances in psychiatrist medications: Holsboer has recently elaborated on the future of personalized antidepressants designed using genotype and biomarkers. Where do you think psychiatry is headed, in terms of ideology, but also medications and treatments?

Here's the reference:

It's an interesting and important subject. In current practice, it can be hard to find medications or other types of therapy which are helpful. It would relieve a great deal of suffering much more quickly to have some way of determining, in advance, which particular treatment for psychiatric illnesses might help best.

Also, the article emphasizes the need to search for treatments outside of the current pharmacological paradigms; we probably have enough medication choices affecting serotonin uptake, etc. It will probably be important to search for pharmacological treatments which affect other systems in the brain.

I don't feel very well-informed about the cutting edge of this science (translating genetic research into pharmacological treatments), but I can see this being a huge advance in the coming decades.

Are Psychiatrists Professionals, Friends, or Healers?

Another question from a visitor:

Are psychiatrists professionals, friends, or healers? I personally believe that healing occurs in a time and place beyond professional rules and regulations. Even friendships can be healing. I wonder if professionalization of medicine is antithetical to a healing process that is dependent on...deep human connection.
This is a good question, one I've often thought about.

The standard of practice in psychiatry, and in other areas of medicine, is for the therapeutic relationship to be "well-boundaried." Mind you, this seems like an obvious truth; furthermore, any healthy friendship also needs to be "well-boundaried." Many unhealthy friendships or family dynamics are problematic due to unhealthy or absent boundaries. But in psychiatry, there are formal legal and professionally-mandated restrictions around the type of relationships permitted between therapist and patient, or between therapists and former patients. In general, I would say the rule is that any interaction between psychiatrist and patient (or between psychiatrist and former patient) needs to be considered a "therapeutic action," or at least an attempt to be a "therapeutic action," and if this interaction cannot be justified as such, it would be considered outside a healthy boundary. These rules protect patients from unethical practioners.

But I do consider any type of healthy human interaction to be a manifestation of a type of friendship. And I consider it a healthy way to live, to consider that all of one's interactions in the world are "friendship-building" activities. To experience the very personal relationship of psychotherapy as strictly bereft of "friendship" seems wrong to me.

Different individuals will have different needs or wishes in this regard. For many people, they prefer to interact with a psychiatrist or other professional in a polite but formal and distant way. Many people would not want to have a friendship with their psychiatrist or physician.

For many others, closeness and trust in a therapy relationship is extremely important to nurture.

One thing I strongly feel to be true is that the therapy relationship needs to be a setting in which growth of healthy relationships outside of the therapy relationship can be encouraged.

I am reminded of some of the psychiatric theory from the previous century about "object relations." This theory generally considers that relationships become "internalized" as abstract mental models, during the course of development. Relationships with parents during early childhood become the first internalized models. Recent evidence establishes that early peer relationships are extremely important in psychological development, perhaps having an equal or larger effect than parental relationships in many cases. Included in these internalized relationships are a sense of "other," a sense of "self," and a sense of expected dynamics between "self" and "other." Future relationships then develop which tend to be in synchrony, or in a type of resonance, with the internalized models. If these internalized models are disturbed by unhealthy relationships, absent or neglectful caregivers, abuse, environmental adversity, or inherent neuropsychiatric symptoms (such as innate tendencies to be anxious, irritable, depressed, etc.), then future relationships are likely also to be disturbed. This leads to a vicious cycle of unhealthy relationships and escalating symptoms.

In a therapeutic relationship, I think this "object relations" idea is important. The therapeutic relationship should aim to be one in which previous vicious cycles are not allowed to repeat. Over time, if the therapeutic relationship is healthy, it could perhaps become "internalized" as well, hopefully as a model of comfort, stability, nurturance, respect, trust, and healthy boundaries. In this way, I think the role of therapist is a bit more like the role of a parent, in that there is an element of friendship, a strong expectation of nurturance, a benevolent "paternalism" to some degree (some desire this element more or less than others), but also the observation that the "parent" becomes less and less necessary for meeting personal needs as the relationship develops over time.

There can sometimes be experiences of very great personal need. The experience of therapy can partially meet this need. The boundaries of the therapy can feel tremendously frustrating for a patient if this need is only partially met. Yet I feel that part of the growth experience in therapy can be to come to terms with this frustration, i.e. that the therapist is a positive, caring figure, but also that the therapist is limited and unable to meet any need completely or perfectly. If the therapy is to be truly effective or "healing," then the more complete or "perfect" satisfaction of needs eventually could occur outside of the therapy, during daily life.

Here's a light-hearted poem about this theme. It's by Hal Sirowitz, from the collection My Therapist Said.
You shouldn't tell everyone that you're
in therapy, my therapist said. Some people
might think you're crazy. If
someone asks why you go to the city
at the same time each week, you should
just tell him that you have an appointment
with a friend, which is not really a lie,
because I'm your friend. But I'm also
so much more. You can insult me, & I'll
never get mad. I'll just say that you're
transferring again. I'll never leave you,
but you can leave me. One day you'll
tell me that you don't need to see me anymore,
& instead of being mad, I'll be happy,
because that'll mean you're cured. But
I wouldn't advise you to do that
in the near future. You still have problems.

* I like this poem but it's okay with me if you tell people you're in therapy!
**Thank you to the reader who found the author's name & info for me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Political Involvement of Psychiatrists

Here's another excellent question from a visitor to the site:

Political involvement of psychiatrists: We live in a "therapeutic culture". [There] are changing sociocultural norms for what is considered normal and acceptable. Are--and should--psychiatrists be aware of the sociological and political changes occurring as a result of the millions taking antidepressants or receiving psychotherapy? Should psychiatrists take a more active role in managing forces that influence communities, given the positive therapeutic effects of unconditional positive regard, hope, trust, interpersonal connection, and belonging (some of the common factors)?
Psychiatrists as a group are extremely heterogeneous, in terms of personality style, intellectual background, and political beliefs. Those who involve themselves in administration or politics may do so in a loving attempt to help their community, but may also do so due to a need to have more influence, control, money, or self-aggrandizement (to be fair, I suppose most people would be motivated by all of these factors, to some degree). There are a lot of big egos in psychiatry, just like everywhere else.

I've often thought of the ideal role of psychiatrist (politically) as some kind of monastic figure ("Jedi-like", if I could indulge in a popular culture metaphor): serenely outside the political machine, possessing wisdom but healthily setting aside the need to exert power or control at all. This type of paradigm is in conflict with the competitive and ambitious world of politics or administration.

I do agree that we all need to be more active in informing ourselves about political concerns, and attempting to help not only individuals, but also groups, communities, or nations. And psychiatry as an organized group most definitely needs to be aware of large-scale social effects of treatments such as psychotherapy and medications.

In very dark and troubled times, or in dark and troubled parts of the world, very bad things can happen politically. The institution of psychiatry has sometimes been involved in these events. At other times, psychiatrists or therapists are themselves persecuted. It is a luxury to live in a peaceful and free nation, and we need to be vigilant to maintain social and political freedom.
Here are a few articles about this: (an essay about psychiatry in Nazi Germany) (an 2003 excerpt published in the New York Review of Books about psychiatry in China)

Neurology & Psychiatry

Here's another question from a visitor to the site:

"Neurology and Psychiatry: ...I continue to read the scientific literature and I find it somewhat arbitrary how different fields are divided up. What do you think of joining psychiatry and neurology?"

The field of "neuropsychiatry" is extremely interesting. At UBC there is a specialized ward devoted to helping patients who suffer from a combination of neurological diseases (such as epilepsy, head injuries, etc.) and psychiatric illnesses. Some "neuropsychiatrists" have completed specialty training in both neurology and psychiatry. At UBC a particular focus in neuropsychiatry has been the treatment of severe somatization and conversion disorders: these are psychiatric illnesses which present with severe physical or neurological symptoms (such as paralysis, blindness, or seizures). In conversion disorders, symptoms such as paralysis, blindness, or seizures, are not caused by neurologic problems such as stroke or epilepsy, but by severe, complicated depression in most cases. Treatment of the underlying psychiatric illness causes the neurological symptoms to disappear.

So, neurology and psychiatry do have an intersection in current practice. However, many neurologists may not be predisposed to dealing with psychiatric problems, or may not be willing to offer the type of regular follow-up which I believe is a healthy standard of care in psychiatry (unfortunately, the same could be said of some psychiatrists). Conversely, most psychiatrists would be uncomfortable dealing with acute or esoteric neurological problems.

So, in practice, while neurology and psychiatry have an overlap, the areas outside of the overlap are sufficiently large for the specialties to exist separately.

Passion Flower

There's not a lot of research information about passion flower's medical effects.

It's a beautiful flower though! I would encourage having some in your garden if possible.

Here's a reference to a 2007 Cochrane review:

Passion flower is mentioned in a good 2006 review article on complementary medicines in psychiatry, from The British Journal of Psychiatry:

Here's a reference to a 2001 study from Iran, showing that passionflower relieved anxiety to a similar degree as oxazepam (a benzodiazepine), over a 4 week trial.

The same author published a study suggesting that passionflower could help with opiate withdrawal symptoms:

In conclusion, not a lot of evidence. The existing studies are only of short duration. But passionflower extract does look like an interesting substance to research further.

"Micronutrient Treatment"

There are examples of "micronutrient treatments" being marketed to help various mental health problems.

These treatments may be marketed aggressively: there may be slick internet sites, perhaps with an enthusiastic following of people who believe strongly in the product.

If the manufacturer of such a product is quoting "research studies," I encourage you to look carefully at the studies referred to. If you are seriously considering products of this type, I would suggest looking at the articles in their entirety at a library.

I encourage anyone interested in pursuing treatments of this sort to ask the following questions:

1) What type of evidence exists regarding effectiveness & safety? Is the evidence from large, double-blinded, randomized, controlled studies conducted by researchers who do not have financial connections with the manufacturer?

2) Is the research pertaining to the product published in a journal with high scientific standards? (In order to answer this question for yourself, I would invite you to leaf through numerous issues of the journal, and compare this with an independent, peer-reviewed journal such as Lancet or The New England Journal of Medicine).

2) Is the evidence mainly from enthusiastic testimonial accounts or case studies? Is this type of evidence reliable enough for you?

3) How much money is required to purchase the treatment? Does the manufacturer encourage you to involve yourself in a long-term financial commitment?

4) After acquainting yourself with common sales and marketing tactics (for a primer on this subject, see Robert Cialdini's book, The Psychology of Persuasion), do you see evidence of highly persuasive or biased sales tactics being used in the marketing of the product? Are vulnerable people being taken advantage of in the marketing of the product?

Have a look at this link, which gives a brief history and overview of charlatanism--being familiar with this history may allow you to make more informed choices about your own medical care:

I do not mean to single out alternative remedies in this post--I encourage the same critical standards to be applied regarding all types of therapy. Mainstream pharmaceutical manufacturers and other providers of mainstream therapies may often be guilty of devious marketing behaviours. In my opinion, though, mainstream pharmaceutical manufacturers have a much harder time getting away with overt charlatanism at this point, compared to many manufacturers of alternative remedies.

Also, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that there can be alternative remedies which are helpful, and which are marketed ethically.

Here in Canada, we live in a free society, with a strong emphasis on freedom of speech. Imposing more strict legal restrictions or regulations upon health choices would limit freedom. I support maintaining a free society, but the presence of charlatanism is one of the costs of this freedom.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Inositol is chemically similar to glucose (the type of sugar required by the brain for energy). It is a precursor in a so-called "second messenger system," which cells require to communicate with each other. In the brain, these second messenger systems are activated by various neurotransmitters including serotonin. There is some evidence that brain levels of inositol are reduced in depression and anxiety disorders. Inositol is present in a typical diet, in amounts of about 1 gram per day. Doses of supplemental inositol are typically 10-20 grams per day.

A Cochrane review from 2004 concluded that there was no clear evidence of supplemental inositol being beneficial in the treatment of depression:

Here's a 2006 reference from Bipolar Disorders showing that supplemental inositol could help treat bipolar depression in some patients already taking lithium or valproate. In 4 out of 9 patients taking 6-20 grams per day of inositol, their depression substantially improved over 6 weeks, with continuing improvement over an additional 8 weeks. However, the other 5 out of 9 patients either did not improve, or actually had worse symptoms. The patients who got worse had more manic or irritable symptoms at the beginning of the trial. When the results were averaged, the inositol did not appear to help significantly--however, it is notable that a subgroup of patients appeared to benefit significantly.

This 2001 study from the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology compared 1 month of inositol (up to 18 grams per day) with fluvoxamine (up to 150 mg per day) in the treatment of panic disorder. Both groups improved similarly. The fluvoxamine group had more side effects of tiredness and nausea. The study is limited by its short duration.

This 1995 study from the American Journal of Psychiatry compared 12 grams per day of inositol with placebo, for one month, in the treatment of panic disorder. The authors conclude that inositol was effective with no significant side effects. Mind you, when eyeballing the chart of data from individual patients, the results did not look very impressive.

Here's a negative study, showing no difference between inositol and placebo, when added to antidepressant therapy for OCD:

The same author as above published a study in 1996 showing that inositol on its own was superior to placebo for OCD treatment. However, despite "statistical significance" being found, eyeballing the data from each patient (presented in the body of the paper) reveals doubtful clinical significance (that is, the amount of benefit looked quite unimpressive to me):

Here's a reference to a 2001 study showing that inositol was superior to placebo in treating binge eating and bulimic symptoms. In this case, I found the data to be clinically significant. However, the study was limited by its small size.

Here's a small 1995 study showing that 4weeks of inositol (12 grams per day) was superior to placebo in treating depressive symptoms. The data appeared clinically significant, though modest.

Here's a 2004 reference from a dermatology journal showing that inositol supplementation led to improvement of psoriasis in patients taking lithium:

In conclusion, inositol may be modestly effective for treating anxiety, eating disorder, and depressive symptoms. It may perhaps be quite variable in its effectiveness, i.e. some individuals might have much more benefit than others. It appears to be well-tolerated with few side-effects. I could not find good data on long-term safety though. The quality of the evidence is not very robust-- the studies have involved only small numbers of patients, for short periods of time. More research is needed.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Kava is a perennial shrub native to islands of the South Pacific. It has been ingested there as part of local culture. It has a relaxing effect.

Kava has been associated with liver toxicity: there have been cases of liver failure necessitating liver transplant, and there have been fatalities. As a result, the sale of kava is restricted in Canada.

Here is a reference about the liver toxicity issue:

In this 2008 article from a liver disease journal, cases of kava toxicity are reviewed. It is concluded that liver damage is a rare side effect of kava. It also found that many of those experiencing liver toxicity had used higher doses of kava, for longer periods of time, than recommended.


Here is a 2009 prospective, randomized, controlled study from Australia, in which 3 weeks of kava treatment (250 mg kava lactones per day) had minimal side-effects and led to substantial, clinically significant improvements compared to placebo in generalized anxiety symptoms and depressive symptoms:
As a critical commentary here, I think that 3 weeks is a VERY short study period, and therefore has limited clinical relevance. A great many approaches can relieve anxiety over a brief period of time (e.g. benzodiazepines); it's of much greater interest to see what happens after 3 months, or after 3 years!

Here is a 2003 Cochrane review, showing significant benefits in anxiety symptoms from kava treatment:

Here is a negative study from 2005, which showed that neither valerian nor kava differed from placebo in relieving anxiety or insomnia. The study participants were recruited on the internet, and were sent the blinded medication or placebo through the mail (another example of an interesting new study design):

In conclusion, kava seems promising as a treatment for anxiety. But there appears to be a small risk of very dangerous liver toxicity. It will require ongoing study to clarify risks vs. benefits, or to discover ways to minimize the risk of liver damage.


Valerian is a perennial flowering plant native to Europe. Its sweetly-smelling flowers have been used to make perfume. Extracts from valerian root have been used as natural remedies in the treatment of insomnia and anxiety since ancient times.

Here is a review of the evidence:

This is a reasonably-done randomized 2009 study showing no effect of valerian vs. placebo in arthritis patients with insomnia:

This interesting 2007 study--in which subjects were recruited via a TV health program, randomly mailed placebo or valerian, with results collected on-line--showed a very slight improvement in symptoms with valerian, with no differences in side effects, compared to placebo. Subjects in the valerian group took 3600 mg of Valeriana officinalis one hour before bedtime, for 14 days. Perhaps the most significant bottom-line result from the study to report here is that 9.1% of the valerian subjects reported feeling "better or much better", compared to 3.7% of the placebo subjects, after the end of the study period.

Here is a 2007 review from a sleep medicine journal, concluding that valerian is safe but not effective in the treatment of insomnia:

Here's a 2006 Cochrane review, showing no evidence of valerian helping with anxiety disorders (mind you, the amount of data is very small):

Here's one positive 2005 study from Sleep, showing a modest benefit in sleep parameters and quality of life, from 28 days of a valerian-hops combination, compared to placebo, in the treatment of mild insomnia:

Here's an interesting reference suggesting that valerian could have been the first treatment for epilepsy: but its potential benefit would have been extremely inconsistent, and at this point it is certainly not a practical treatment for epilepsy.

There are some other articles of dubious quality, which I found in some of the herbal medicine journals.

There could be dangerous interactions between valerian and other medications:
This is a case report of side effects with valerian + lorazepam:

In conclusion, I am not impressed with the evidence about valerian. It does appear to be quite safe. Mind you, there does not appear to be a good evidence base about possible dangerous interactions with other compounds. I recommend avoiding it, or using it with extreme caution, if you are taking other psychotropic medications. It may have modest benefits for some people, but for the vast majority the evidence suggests that it does not differ from placebo.

Valerian-based perfumes or scented oils might be pleasant and safe to use as aromatherapy for insomnia or anxiety, in conjunction with other relaxing activities.

Herbal Supplements & Vitamins

I'm starting a series of posts based on some questions that were sent in by a visitor (A.E.).

Here's the first question:
1. Herbal supplements and vitamins: What are your views on therapeutic value of multivitamins, Valerian, Kava, Inositol, Passion Flower, and so on?

-I think the risk:benefit ratio of multivitamins is quite favorable. I've written a few other posts about vitamins. With respect to mood or brain function in general, there may be particular benefit from folic acid, thiamine, and higher doses of vitamin D. Standard dose vitamin-mineral supplements are probably harmless at worst (as long as you get a good-quality brand--there's some evidence of dangerous impurities such as lead, in some ). Many people have poor diets, and a supplement could at least help prevent deficiencies in vitamins and iron which may further obstruct recovery from mental health problems. Supplements should not be a substitute for improving the healthiness of one's overall diet (you still need to eat your vegetables even if you're taking vitamins!)

Selling supplements is a huge business: the world market has about $180 billion of annual sales, and is rapidly growing (reference:
This is comparable in size to the $440 billion annual market size of the pharmaceutical industry (reference:

I think we need to be wary of the sales tactics that go on in the dietary supplement business, especially since the quality of research in this area is, for the most part, quite primitive. If you walk into the nutritional supplement area of a health food store or pharmacy, you may be bombarded with advertising, possibly a sales person offering you attention, concern, and apparent expertise--and all of this is in the context of all sorts of other obviously healthy things, perhaps organic vegetables, right next to you. It is a biased environment. Proximity to healthy food and healthy people does not constitute evidence of effectiveness! Yet, there are some supplements that could be helpful. Just be wary of the hype, pseudo-scientific claims, and sales jargon, etc.

I'll write separate posts about valerian, kava, passion flower, and inositol.

In the meantime, here's a reference to a 2006 review in The British Journal of Psychiatry about complementary medicines in psychiatry. I recommend having a look at the whole article at a library:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sleep & Napping Improve Memory & Learning

Sleeping after learning improves consolidation of memory. Slow-wave sleep, which tends to occur in the first few hours after you fall asleep, is particularly important for memory consolidation. In one clever 2007 study published in the presitigious journal Science, subjects were exposed to an odor when learning a task. If they were exposed to that same odor during subsequent slow-wave sleep, their retention of the learning task was significantly improved. Here's the reference:

This suggests a simple aromatherapy technique to enhance your studying: infuse your study environment with a distinct, pleasant fragrance (for example, try an aromatherapy oil) -- then infuse your pillow with the same fragrance afterwards. During an exam or test, try infusing the same fragrance on your skin or clothes (just don't overdo it, or you might irritate the people writing their exams next to you!)

Furthermore, there is evidence that brief naps (60-90 minutes) in the middle of the day can help with memory consolidation, motor learning, and can also prevent the deterioration of mental and physical performance which tends to happen in a long day. Here is one reference about this:

There's a lot more research on sleep & learning. All of it supports the practice of healthy sleep habits in the life of a successful student. Many students have a very unhealthy, disrupted, perhaps heavily-caffeinated sleep schedule, particularly while "cramming" during the week of exams or other tests. This is hard on the body, physically and emotionally; it also leads to inefficient learning.

So, consider good sleep to be a component of your studying. And a nap after a bout of hard academic work can help you learn better.