Ayurvedic medicine for mental illness is commonly prescribed, but it may not be a safe option if you have a psychiatric diagnosis. A psychiatric or clinical diagnosis means that a health professional like a medical doctor, a psychiatrist or a psychologist has diagnosed you with a mental health disorder. For example depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, and so on.
Widespread use of ayurvedic medicine for mental illness
Popular ayurvedic herbs like Ashwagandha (also known as Indian Ginseng and Winter Cherry) are frequently used to treat a wide variety of issues, from fatigue, skin problems, stomach issues, pain, and inflammation to diabetes and arthritis.
Ashwagandha is also given as a health tonic. It’s supposedly helpful to manage stress and anxiety disorder, amongst other psychiatric diagnoses. It’s a kind of anti-inflammatory that acts to increase steroids but decrease the activity of white blood cells.
The media tends to downplay the negatives
There are some small clinical studies that support the positive effects of Ashwagandha as a medicine. The problem is that most websites touting ayurvedic medicine for mental illness focus on these positives and don’t mention anything else.
Advocates of alternative medicines tend to rely on anecdotal evidence, which can’t be verified, and which mention only the successes and not the failures. Yet when taking Ashwagandha, there’s a potential for some unpleasant side effects. These include weight gain, interference with the natural steroid cycle, and more seriously, it can cause liver disease.
Herbal medicine is fascinating, but not for mental illness
I’ve always been fascinated by the whole idea of natural medicines and using herbs to cure ailments. Since natural remedies were the only medication available for most of the history of human beings, herbal medicine holds an important place in most cultures.
When I trained as a clinical psychologist in a psychiatric hospital, however, I saw too many instances of severely ill patients who had gotten worse instead of better after taking ayurvedic or other herbal remedies to treat their mental illness. They followed the advice of their alternative medicine practitioner rather than the advice of a psychiatrist. Eventually they got so sick they had to be admitted to hospital.
Important considerations if you have any kind of mental health issue
When it comes to the use of ayurvedic medicine for mental illness (or any herbal medicine for that matter), there are some important considerations to keep in mind. If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness of any kind, the most important thing is to consult your doctor before taking any over-the-counter, natural, or alternative remedies.
There isn’t much research out there
You might feel rightly outraged that ‘Big Pharma’ isn’t interested in studying the many natural and inexpensive cures for illness. Yet outrage doesn’t change the reality that not many ayurvedic or other herbal medicines are studied at all.
The research into non-traditional cures is generally based on small sample sizes, with relatively few participants (<100). And these participants are most often from a non-clinical population. In other words, no one had a psychiatric diagnosis. Also, most of these studies don’t have clear reporting of adverse side effects or strong follow ups to see the effect of these medicines over time.
Research results can’t be applied to the greater population
This means that results from these studies can’t easily be generalised to a wider population. And almost definitely can’t be generalised to children. The study might yield very different results if the exact same medicine was tested in a large clinical population with psychiatric diagnoses, using a proper double-blind, randomized, controlled scientific trial.
Ayurvedic medicine and herbal supplements aren’t regulated
According to Dr Kenneth Mitchell, a leading psychiatrist in Dubai, UAE, another major issue is the lack of regulation, quality controls, or standards in the manufacture of these herbal products. He points out that many other ingredients are added to the main ingredient of most health supplements, and these can also be harmful.
There might be hidden toxic chemicals
Dr Mitchell explains that there’s no way to identify the hidden risks from toxic chemical contamination such as pesticides and toxic heavy metals in the cultivation of herbal supplements. There is also the risk that what you think of as your safe, natural medication might have serious adverse effects on your developing baby if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Manufacturers aren’t regulated
One would hope that manufacturers of herbal remedies are highly ethical and use their own time, money and effort to self-regulate and self-enforce high quality control. However, since there is no controlling body to enforce such standards, this seems a bit unlikely to say the least.
Far more likely is that cultivation and manufacture of these medicines varies quite a lot in terms of quality, quantity, strength, production methods and storage. It’s probable that the consistency and therefore safety of these products differs even within the same product with the same main ingredient.
Mental illnesses tend to get worse if not properly treated
Dr Mitchell explains that mental illnesses benefit greatly from early intervention. If not correctly treated they get progressively worse over time.
Proper medical oversight of the treatment of a mental illness protects patients from unnecessary suffering, which could go on for years. When you take a natural medicine that you buy online, from a health shop or from an ayurvedic practitioner, you don’t have a qualified, certified health professional supervising your treatment.
Taking ayurvedic medicine for mental illness could even hinder your recovery
Taking herbal supplements may prevent you from seeking proper help, because you believe you just need to take it for longer, get the dose right or make the right lifestyle changes. Or, you might feel that you don’t need to report ‘natural’ medicines to your doctor, because they’re light and ‘harmless’.
Natural medicines contain chemicals
Yet natural medicines are drugs that contain chemicals just like pharmaceutical medicines. And these chemicals might have dangerous interactions with your prescription medication. Natural substances like arsenic and botulism are fatal, and there is a long list of plants that harbour the most deadly of poisons along with poisons that might not be deadly immediately but can definitely kill you over time.
So, natural doesn’t always equate to safe. However, if you’re an adult, aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding, aren’t taking other medicines, aren’t planning a surgery and don’t have any health condition including a mental illness, you might still benefit from alternative medicines if you stick to well-recognised brands from proper health shops.
Blue-Footed Booby Success formula: How to avoid damaging your mental health with natural medications
- If you suspect you might have a mental illness, don’t try to self-medicate. Reach out to your board-certified, licensed, healthcare practitioner by searching a reputable website.
- Be extremely wary of any medicines that haven’t gone through stringent testing on large swathes of the population, or where you can’t be sure if the manufacture is quality controlled (especially when buying online, where it’s a lot easier to fake things).
- Always divulge any ayurvedic remedies, herbal supplements or alternative medications as well as any over-the-counter medicines you’re taking to your doctor or psychiatrist.
Mental illness should be treated by licensed health care professionals
Mental illness doesn’t have to be a life sentence, and too often, psychiatric drugs have an unfairly bad reputation. A trained professional (who is ethically bound to treat you properly or risk losing their licence) will prescribe you the right medication, which can be truly life-changing.
Psychiatric medicine in combination with talk therapy is the evidence-based treatment for most psychiatric diagnoses.
When you have a mental illness like anxiety or depression, it hijacks your life and prevents you from enjoying your life and functioning properly. Proper medication doesn’t change who you are, it just makes you more yourself.
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I agree that mental health is not to be taken lightly and proper evaluation and assessment by doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists is absolutely necessary. An informative and helpful article.
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