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It’s an herb. It’s much sweeter than sugar. It’s almost calorie-free. It does not cause the after-eating spike in blood sugar that aggravates diabetes.

Wait. There’s more.

It’s  actually good for you.

It reduces blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosts immune function. It’s safer than other artificial sweeteners.

And you can  grow it yourself. (see below)

It’s stevia (Stevia rebaudiana).

Stevia had to go through a long U.S. regulatory review, but you can find it now in products.

I have a gardener’s interest in herbs and  natural healing. As with many herbs, Americans are late to the game in using stevia. It is actually native to Paraguay and Brazil. There, the Guarani Indians called it kaa-he-e, meaning sweet herb, or honey leaf.

stevia-packsPart of the delay in getting approval in the U.S. to use stevia as a food additive was a complaint to FDA that tried to link it to cancer and genetic mutations. Those charges turned out to be  false, and some suspect that the whole thing was a plot (conspiracy theorists enter here) to protect the lucrative, existing artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘N Low (saccharine), NutraSweet (aspartame) and Sunette (acesulfame K).

It was banned until 1994, though you could buy it as a “supplement” in health food stores.

Last year, the FDA  ruling was reversed and 2 stevia sweeteners have been approved as food additives (SweetLeaf and Truvia).

Beyond using it as a sweetener, studies show that it has other natural healing effects. According to Mother Earth News:

1. Researchers in Taiwan gave 106 people with high blood pressure, ages 28 to 75, either a placebo or stevia extract (250 milligrams three times a day). After three months, blood pressure in the stevia group dropped significantly, with no side effects.

2. Other Taiwan scientists gave 168 adults with high blood pressure, average age 52, either a placebo or stevioside (500 milligrams three times a day). After one week, the stevia group showed lower blood pressure, and it remained low for the two years the study lasted.

3. Danish researchers gave a dozen type-2 diabetics a test meal plus a placebo or stevioside (1 gram). Thirty minutes later, the stevioside group had significantly lower blood sugar. The researchers said stevia may be “advantageous in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.”

4.  Indian researchers have discovered that stevia is rich in antioxidants, which means that it should help prevent the nation’s three top killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Indeed, a Chinese animal study shows that a compound in stevia, isosteviol, helps prevent brain damage from stroke.

5. An Indian animal study shows that stevia boosts immune function, particularly the ability of white blood cells to devour invading germs.

Stevia-seedlingsAmerican gardeners can grow stevia. Down South it would be treated as perennial that would need to be replaced every few years, and in other parts of the country it’s treated as an annual that would be planted in the spring after the last frost as with many vegetables and flowers.

There are amazingly 280 species of stevia that grow throughout North and South America. But only Stevia rebaudiana, is sweet.

Most people buy plants because he seeds are difficult to germinate for a home gardener.  They look similar to mints. Space them a foot apart, mulch, water once or twice a week and treat them as you would most of your vegetables. It can also be gown in containers.

The plant grows to 3 feet. You harvest the leaves as flowering begins around in midsummer to late fall when the sweetness peaks.  The leaves right off the plant are 15 times sweeter than table sugar. You can also dry and powder the one inch leaves and use them as you would use sugar.

A muffin and cookie recipe using stevia

Stevia seeds

Stevia Rebaudiana : Natures Sweet Secret

The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs

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Some years ago I went down the therapy and medications path to combat depression. It was a frustrating process. I thought the medications did help, but they were not a solution. Since then I have looked into natural supplements that supposedly help combat stress, anxiety and depression.  There are five that I have tried that seem to have some positive effects in studies. Certainly, this is not a medical blog and I don’t know any more than what I have read, researched and observed with myself.  Those 5 are St. John’s wort, ginkgo, kava, tyrosine and SAM-e.

St. John’s wort is an herb of the genus Hypericum. It is named for John the Baptist because traditionally the herb was supposed to be collected on St. John’s Eve (June 23).

It has been used widely and studied more outside the United States and shown to improve mild to moderate depression. I have found it to be effective. But, if I had a major bout of depresssion, I would not expect it to lift me from it. It seems that we still are not sure of how St John’s wort works. Of course, that is also true of any number of commercial drugs used for depression. It seems that it probably acts as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [SSRI], which would make it similar to Prozac.

One general warning for any of these natural supplements is not to mix them with other antidepressants. I always tell my doctor what supplements I am currently taking, and I stop them two weeks before I have blood work done so that they don’t throw off any tests. St. John’s wort is listed as causing sun sensitivity and it may interfere with anesthetics. After using it successfully for a number of years, I became concerned when I read that though it rarely causes sun sensitivity (photosensitivity) which would make you more susceptible to sunburns, there was secondary concern. Some recent studies concluded that it reacts with visible and ultraviolet light to produce free radicals. Those are molecules that can damage cells and react with vital proteins in the eye which, if damaged, precipitate out causing cataracts. Natural supplements have side effects just as any other medication.

Another popular supplement is ginkgo. This ornamental tree native to eastern China, is now grown in many countries worldwide, including the United States. Ginkgo’s earliest known medicinal use dates back to 2800 B.C., when members of the royal court were reportedly instructed to eat the leaves to combat senility.

Today it is suggested as a way to relieve mild depression.  It increases blood flow to the brain because it acts as a blood thinner and it also increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported in the blood. It is also considered to be an antioxidant.

Because it is a blood thinner, if you have hypertension, a history of stroke or are on prescription blood thinners like Coumadin, you need to be careful with ginkgo.  If you are having a dental procedure or a surgery, you also would want to avoid adding gingko.

Kava is a bit different.  It inhibits the enzyme that is involved in producing anxiety. That makes it similar to Valium and Halcyon. Anxiety is not depression, though they can be linked. I often see it advertised as a sleep aid. (So, warnings will say to avoid taking it if driving and similar situations.)

Like the others, this supplement has a long history of use. Captain James Cook was the first Westerner to encounter the herb, on a voyage to the Pacific Islands in 1768.

Someone told me that it had been “banned” from sale because it could cause in extremely high doses, ataxia and paralysis, and could be addictive. It is sold in many health food and vitamin stores, so I don’t know about any ban. You will find warnings about daily use or using it in higher dosages – which is good common sense for ANY type of  medicine.

The oddly-named SAM-e is actually S-adenosylmethionine, which is a chemical compound formed from the amino acid methionine and present in protein-rich foods, as well as in our bodies and brains.

Low levels of SAM-e in the body are associated with depression, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and liver disorders. So,  SAM-e has been used (again, more so outside the U.S.) to treat depression and also arthritis pain. It was approved as an over-the-counter dietary supplement here only recently. I tried it for a short time and did not find any effect. It costs much more than St. John’s wort.

Tyrosine is one 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of all bodily proteins. You find it in dairy products and meats like chicken and turkey. It is a key amino acids for proper brain functioning. Because it is essential in the production of three neurotransmitters –  dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) – it has been used as a  “stress buster. ”  Tyrosine can be depleted during periods of stress. The body cannot dopamine or norepinephrine without tyrosine.

Studies were done by the military during repetitive stress situations to see if it could prevent “fatigue depression” that occurs when someone is so exhaused that they become depressed and just want to give up.

There is plenty of information on all of these supplements online – maybe too much.

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