In their new book, two professors apply pharmacology expertise to herbal supplements

July 01, 2012

By Donna Peck

Stata Norton, Ph.D., and S.J. Enna, Ph.D.
Stata Norton, Ph.D., and S.J. Enna, Ph.D.

Ginko to improve memory. St. John's Wort for depression. Valerian for insomnia.

For thousands of years, humans have used herbal supplements culled from plants to improve brain function, relieve pain, promote sleep and treat depression and anxiety. However, botanical supplements have not been subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as pharmaceutical drugs and are not required to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Many people have questions about whether herbal supplements actually work — and what the potential dangers and side effects are. That's why two University of Kansas Medical Center pharmacologists have written the new book, Herbal Supplements and the Brain: Understanding Their Health Benefits and Hazards.

"It's essentially a science-based book on herbal supplements for the non-scientist," says S.J. Enna, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics, and one of the book's co-authors.

The genesis of Herbal Supplements and the Brain began six years ago, when the book's other co-author, Stata Norton,  Ph.D., a professor emeritus of pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics, learned that the Spencer Library at the University of Kansas had a manuscript called the Jesuatti Book of Remedies. The manuscript was a compilation of medical treatments that the friars of the Order of Saint Jerome had used to cure sick people around the 16th century. Written sometime before 1562 by Friar Giovanni Andrea from Lucca, Italy, the book is organized according to the condition for which the remedy was employed and what herbs or herbal mixtures were used to treat the disorder.

Norton, who was 83 at the time, says she was looking for a new project and decided to translate the manuscript from Renaissance Italian in to English.

"I first had to teach myself Renaissance Italian," Norton says. "Then it took me four years to translate word-for-word the more than 2,000 different plant treatments the order had used to treat illness and to care for the body."

Throughout her translation project, Norton kept in touch with Enna, her KU Medical Center colleague. Their discussions about her work on the manuscript led to the idea of a book that would help educate consumers about the potential benefits and dangers of herbal remedies.

"I think many people assume because herbal supplements come from plants, they are natural and, therefore, must be safe," Norton says. "But some can have serious side effects, some are not effective and some may interact with other drugs you are taking, and we wanted to write a book that explores those issues."

Enna says he and Norton were not interested in writing an encyclopedic volume on all herbal remedies.

"The book's opening section is a history of how herbal supplements affecting the brain have been used by humans through time — and a scientific explanation of how the central nervous system can be affected by supplements," Enna says. "The second section then delves more deeply into 10 major herbal supplements — some of which many people will recognize, but a few that are less commonly known."

Among the herbal supplements the book investigates are ginkgo biloba, kava, lavender, St. John's wort, valerian, lemon balm, kudzu, daffodil, and passion flower.

Norton and Enna also devote a section to the most popular herbal supplement in the world: caffeine.

"Although most people don't think of their morning coffee as an herbal supplement that affects the brain, it definitely is," Norton says. "Caffeine is a natural substance found in coffee beans, tea leaves and cocoa nuts, among other plants."

In analyzing the possible effectiveness of the botanical supplements, Enna says it was important that he and Norton remained as objective as possible.

"Yes, we are both pharmacologists and our background is in studying more traditional drugs and medications," Enna says. "But we wanted to make it clear from the start that we had no vested interest in whether herbal supplements work or not."

For example, in the section on ginkgo, Enna and Norton discuss its various uses over the centuries. In Chinese medicine, ginkgo has been used to treat a range of maladies including migraines, chronic bronchitis and Parkinson's disease. Only in the West has ginkgo been touted as a supplement that can improve memory function. Citing previous research, Norton and Enna conclude that its usefulness for treating central nervous system disorders remains unproven and that any effects are minor, subtle or evident only in certain types of individuals.

However, in exploring whether valerian can help relieve insomnia, Enna and Norton cite the length of time valerian has been used for its central nervous system effects, laboratory studies and positive clinical results to conclude that it is a relatively safe and pharmacologically active plant extract that can be beneficial in helping some people who experience sleep problems.

Overall, Norton and Enna agree there is strong evidence that some herbal supplements can benefit some people — and equally strong evidence that others have little or no effect. The important thing is that consumers make informed decisions about which supplements they take — or whether they take them at all.

"People who use herbal remedies tend to be well-educated and are interested in getting as much information as possible about what goes into their bodies," the authors say. "We hope the book provides them with just that."

Last modified: Jul 12, 2012