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: http://www.nutraceuticalsworld.com/articles/2008/04/dietary-supplements-the-latest-trends-issues).
This is comparable in size to the $440 billion annual market size of the pharmaceutical industry (reference: http://www.valuenotes.com/Prabhudas/pl_pharma_31Mar09.asp?ArtCd=143465&Cat=I&Id=12).
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: