Plant medicine, psychiatry and me 

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Owen Ó Tuama

This story begins in 1994, when I first began to hear voices and see visions. I received psychiatric treatment for five months as an inpatient in 1996. I was on thiorazine or chlorpromazine, haloperidol, Risperdal and Amisulpiride, one after the other. I’m currently taking Amisulpiride. I’ve also been administered ECT and have been on an antidepressant. I was in a chronic state at that time. I was five stone above my ideal average and smoking. Significantly, I wasn’t aware of what had happened me nor had any idea about mental health. 

A Eureka moment occurred when the Irish Advocacy Network, then in its early stages,  held an AGM around 2003, near where I live in Donegal. It was like seeing the light for the first time. I was able to find out much about mental health conditions, treatments etc, and also network with other service user/survivors. Subsequently,  whilst training for a Certificate in Peer Advocacy with IAN, I learned of a General Practitioner who specialised in vitamin therapy for mental health. 

I undertook a regime of vitamin supplements and oils about seven or eight years after I had been in hospital. The GP had based this regime on bloods. I began ordering some B vitamins, fish oil, evening primrose oil and some other mineral elements from Holland & Barrett – style outlets. The doctor who specialised in vitamin therapy, maintained that Niacinamide, or vitamin B3 (note: not Niacin) was a natural antipsychotic. I am not sure if this has been effectively studied. He also said that the effects of the vitamin therapy would not be seen for several months. 

Eventually, after a few years,  I was able to reduce and tweak my vitamin regime, to the point where I was taking one good quality multivitamin, fish & evening primrose oil, vitamin c and some b vitamins. This I was taking along with a major tranquilliser (to keep voices and visions at bay). During this time, with the help of a smoking cessation officer, I was able to successfully quit smoking. Giving up smoking allowed me to invest more in plant medicine for my health. 

Currently, I take a pint of water with a dash of good quality apple cider vinegar (with the mother) and a dropper each of Ashwagandha and Astragaus, first thing in the morning. The benefits of apple cider vinegar have been known for thousands of years. Ashwaghanda is one of the best known Ayurvedic (Indian) medicines, an all-round strengthener, normalises the brain and steadies moods and thoughts. Astragalus, another Ayurvedic herb is a modulator of the immune system, and helps to keep it strong. The immune system is key in health. 

Then, as mentioned above, I take one good quality mens multivitamin (I’m in my fifties), some high potency magnesium (25 years of Psych Meds take it out of you, joints start wearing down, aging also; and magnesium is good for this), evening primrose oil and fish oil. Note: with the decline and overfishing in the world ocean ecosystems, fish oil these days is not thought to be as good. I also take Vitamin D (as sunlight is scarce here). Vitamin D also sends calcium in the body to the bones.

A Note on vitamin supplements: Many vitamin supplements contain calcium based bulking agents. These can lead to calcification of the body, which can be a precursor to more serious conditions. Checking the ingredients and monitoring your intake is important.  Calcium, along with excessive vitamin c,  can also lead to kidney stones. Many supplements are available without high levels of calcium, and many more types are based on natural products. There are a good range of decent quality multivitamins available from online outlets such as Iherb etc.

When I 45, I discovered CBD (or cannabidiol). This is an extract from the cannabis plant but does not contain the intoxicating compounds that some cannabis strains contain. I found that the CBD had an immediate calming effect on my nervous system, and helped sleep and appetite in a big way. While I had been in psychiatric hospital I had effectively been ‘cured’ of voices i.e. the neuroleptic medication I was on was sufficiently heavy to quell my voices and visions for four years.  After that I began to hear voices again, when I was 30. For the next fifteen years I experienced roughly one episode of (persecutory) voices or psychosis practically every second day, for durations of three to seven hours at a time. When I began taking CBD, I found my episodes ameliorated in both frequency and duration. Soon, I was having roughly one episode, lasting one to two hours, every five to ten days. I used progressively stronger CBD, starting at 4% (I currently use 10%). Note: cost is a factor with cannabis products; they are quite expensive. Anecdotally, CBD with thc (tetrahydracanabidiol: the intoxicating part of the plant) is popular with some mental health service users, in areas where it is legal. Note: if taking psychiatric medication, a person needs a three week break from CBD after three months of usage. This is because CBD blocks the CYP 450 enzyme pathway in the liver, a pathway that removes toxicity from the body.

Western medicine targets the specific at the expense of the whole, whilst holistic medicine looks at the whole. For the most part, the two traditions do not work together.  While Western medicine is relatively new at around 100 years old, plant or holistic medicine date back thousands of years. 

Medicinal mushrooms are known in Chinese medicine as key immuno-modulators. Reishi, cordyceps, lions mane are among a few of the best known of these. Reishi in particular is known in China as ‘the mushroom of immortality’. Medicinal mushrooms are available from several outlets in the UK as well as North America. In general mushrooms are known in China as a ‘cold’ food, which means they are better taken in warmer weather, whilst food like chilli is considered a ‘hot’ food, and is deemed more beneficial to be taken in cold weather. However I wouldn’t stick too strictly to this wisdom.

Generally speaking, the more you cook and bake yourself,  the more control you have over what you put in to your own body. As mentioned above,  chilli based foods are reckoned to be more beneficial in colder weather (though I wouldn’t hold too hard and fast to this). Other ingredients from Indian cooking are also beneficial e.g. turmeric,  ginger, coconut (milk and water) are all good for health. When I’m taking curries, I tend to drink one spoon of spirulina powder mixed in a glass of coconut water. Spirulina (blue-green algae) is a major superfood. It is a source of protein,  essential fatty acids,  vitamins and minerals. It is reputed to work well for people with underlying anxiety issues. 

Human beings, as well as other chordates, are evolved for occasional high stress encounters.  Adaptogens such as Ashwagandha are good for stress and are also good for anxiety. Tulsi or ‘holy basil’, reishi and nervines such as hawthorn are also highly beneficial in this regard. 

For general brain health, there are culinary plants such as rosemary, sage, ginger and saffron which are good. Goadacola and ashwagandha are good also. In general what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,  as the mind is rooted in the heart. Other useful substances for memory and cognition are the amino acid theonine, calamus and the adaptogen bakopa.

Please be careful if taking psychiatric medication, as contraindications can occur with some herbal medicines. Cava cava and St John’s Wort are known to have potentially serious interactions with some psych meds. Ashwaghanda on the other hand has few if any contraindications. Most of the herbal medicine that I’ve listed here is known to be fairly benign, but use these substances sparingly and consult apothecaries. There is a degree of complexity involved where psychiatric drugs are being taken.

Bodywork is also important in general as well as mental health. Reflexology, massage, physiotherapy, chiropractic; there are a few different types. An hour of bodywork can be quite expensive,  it helps if you get a special rate. Personally I find spending an hour or two rolling the body out on tennis balls, as well as other exercises such as ‘cores’ (which are known to build emotional strength) each evening to be quite effective.

I acknowledge that I have arrived at the above wisdom through my own trial and error but also with the help of online health series such as Remedy – Plant Medicine. I have also found that the above regime works for me. I’m not saying that it will work for everybody, or that it is the only way. I’m just sharing my twenty or so years of experience. People will find their own ways through what is a complex, myriad world of human nutrition. It may be wise to consult a herbalist, and certainly conduct as much research as you can.

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