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COLUMN

Over-the-Counter Herbal Hazards

Veena Thomas

Brave New World, written in 1932 by Aldous Huxley, provided readers a shocking portrayal of a future in which all babies come from test tubes, free love prevails, and citizens are bred according to letter-graded castes. Though almost 70 years old, certain aspects of the book ring startlingly true now.

The government in Brave New World kept the population artificially happy and complacent by the use of soma, a mind-altering drug. It was given to people in reward for excellent service to the government, and allowed them to go on a “soma holiday.” As someone told the protagonist of Brave New World, Bernard Marx, “Glum, Marx, glum what you need is a gram of soma. Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.” The government hypnotized citizens from birth into believing such sayings as “One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments,” and “A gram is better than a damn.” Little tablets of soma provided a pleasant, mindless escape from the real world, and kept society complacent and docile. At any sign of unhappiness, people instinctively took a little soma, and escaped their troubles.

Frightening, isn’t it? The use of a government-sanctioned, mood-altering drug keeps an entire population of people artificially, chemically happy. People are urged to never feel unhappy, and to quickly remedy the situation by the use of other substances.

Modern psychiatric medicine prescribes drugs such as Prozac to those people who feel down or depressed due to chemical imbalances in their brain. Prozac is an example of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), meaning it works by blocking the reuptake of serotonin in the synaptic clefts after it has been released. This allows serotonin to remain present longer after the firing of neurons, producing an effectively greater concentration of serotonin. For people with naturally low levels of serotonin, which often results in depression or feelings of despair, drugs like Prozac prove to be the solution to let them lead a normal, happier life. Available by prescription only, Prozac should only be used in those cases where it is medically necessary.

But what about the rest of us, who have normal levels of serotonin but still aren’t satisfied with the ups and downs of daily life? For those people, the latest industry craze is St. John’s Wort, touted as a natural, herbal way to lift your mood. The pretty little yellow flowers on the St. John’s Wort plant seem innocent enough. In reality, however, St. John’s Wort acts as a mild SSRI, like a gentler form of Prozac.

You’d think that a mild form of Prozac would be heavily regulated by the government to prevent excess and potentially unsafe usage. However, exactly the opposite holds true. No regulation of St. John’s Wort exists. The Food and Drug Administration cannot regulate what it deems as “herbal supplements.” Therefore, no safe dosage has been established, the claims of St. John’s Wort have not been officially tested, and manufacturers and distributors of St. John’s Wort are free to do as they please, make outrageous claims, and sell dosages as large as they wish.

Since when does being “herbal” make something safe? Once the drug Ecstasy was banned, another commercially available drug called “Herbal Ecstacy” [sic] was heralded as its substitute. The “natural” ingredients in Herbal Ecstacy and its wide availability lead many to believe in the safety of the drug. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. The drug, while containing plant-derived substances, is far more dangerous than your garden variety mint sprigs. It has been cited in the death of at least one person, and is responsible for adverse effects in hundreds of other people. Yet the FDA cannot regulate it, because it still qualifies as an “herbal supplement.”

People need to stop believing that anything “natural” is completely safe to use casually, and they need to use a bit more caution before consuming herbal products. Otherwise, the social repercussions can be downright scary.

Consider the Fresh Samantha line of beverages, which believes in using only natural ingredients in their juices. “We believe that Fresh Samantha Juices must bring joy and health to the human body and soul,” reads the propaganda on their website, http://www.freshsamantha.com. Perhaps that’s why they created “Oh, Happy Day,” a mixture of apple juice, bananas, blackberries, and blueberries. Oh, and St. John’s Wort, 0.05 grams per serving. The label on the back of the bottle explains that they formulated the drink because people in Maine seemed so down in the wintertime and they wanted to make something to cheer them up. Somehow slipping mind-altering substances into their drinks doesn’t seem to be the way to go.

What if, Oh, Happy Day contained 0.05 grams of Prozac per serving? Imagine the furor and controversy it would cause. Why not so with St. John’s Wort, if both substances have the same effect? One bottle of Oh, Happy Day contains two servings, for a total of 0.1 grams of St. John’s Wort per bottle. So then are ten bottles of Oh, Happy Day better than a damn? If “one cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments,” can one bottle of Oh, Happy Day cure a single gloomy sentiment?

Mind-altering substances, herbal or not, should not be allowed to run rampant in our food and drink. Otherwise we enter into the kind of society predicted by Huxley nearly 70 years ago, except that people drink a little Fresh Samantha now and then instead of soma to escape from reality. It’s a scary new world, indeed.