Sage advice: passionate about plant remedies

Neuroscientist Elaine Perry is a believer in the healing powers of botanicals . . . but not everyone is convinced

Twenty years ago, neuroscientist Elaine Perry began to plant a rather unusual garden.

It was a “physic garden”, which, she explains, is a garden that is “full of the plants that doctors used as medicine prior to the use of chemical drugs”.

To this day, such plants, which include everything from the humble herb sage to the popular curry ingredient, turmeric, are used to help with healing and to promote general well-being.

That's something we often forget these days, says Perry, who is now emeritus professor of neuroscience at Newcastle University and whose well-known garden is called the Dilston Physic Garden. Ordinary plants can help to heal us – and help us maintain good health, she says.


Elaine and Dr Nicolette Perry have just published a book on medicinal plants for memory, mood and mind, based around these plants, many of which feature in the Dilston Physic Garden in Northumberland, near Newcastle.

“It’s worth knowing about this so that you’re empowered to use plants for your own health,” she says, adding that more and more people are waking up to the fact that, whether in the form of a food, spice, tincture or capsule, bioactive botanicals can have a positive impact on our health – as preventative medicines, to enhance brain function or to help with conditions such as anxiety or insomnia.

And, it seems, looking at the growing worldwide market, people are buying into the promotion of plant-based health-promoting products.

First port of call

However, warns GP and lifestyle expert Dr Mark Rowe, it is important that people understand their individual physical, mental and emotional health. “If you are struggling and having symptoms of something, particularly in the area of mental health – such as anxiety or depression – your first port of call should be your GP,” he says.

“Your doctor can help you assess the severity of your symptoms and decide what the best treatment plan might be. It is very important to have your symptoms looked at, because it is really only in consultation with your doctor that you can assess where you are.”

In terms of depression, he says , there is no doubt that some people can benefit from conventional medicine, many from cognitive behavioural therapy and most from positive lifestyle changes.

Whether you take a plant or a pill, he adds, you may only be applying a sticking plaster which does not deal with the real cause of the problem. “If a person is suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, for example, you really need to get down to look at the root cause of this. You can really only do this effectively in consultation with your doctor. The same goes for significant symptoms of anxiety, stress or depression.

“There is a perception out there that prescribed medicine is ‘bad’ for you and that natural remedies are ‘good’, but it is important to know that natural herbs or plants may not be of benefit to you; there may be negative interaction, for example, with other medicines you may be taking, if you do not consult your GP.

“People taking plant-based remedies will often forget to tell their GP or even discuss it with them,” he said, adding by example that the popular plant remedy, St John’s Wort can interact negatively with the contraceptive pill to render it ineffective.

It is very important for people to have a good “health IQ” and have the knowledge, attitude and the awareness to make the right choices for that. “In order to make the right choice and decisions for your long-term health and welfare, it is really important to do so in consultation with your GP, who can be a trusted partner in the process.”


What is it: A calming plant with beautiful flowers, used to soothe the mind, reduce anxiety and can also be used to help with occasional insomnia. "Passion flower helps to reduce anxiety – it contains chemicals that work on the brain system that controls anxiety levels," explains Prof Perry.

What the science says: A number of controlled studies support claims about passion flower's calming effects on the central nervous system. It can reduce general anxiety as well as anxiety before anaesthesia, dental treatment and surgery. Other claims include that it can lower emotional and behavioural problems in anxious children, is useful for pain relief, can lower insulin resistance in diabetes and lessens asthmatic symptoms.

How to take it: Dried leaf tea, 2-3g or 4-6g fresh per 240ml water, twice daily. Leaves, flowers or powdered fruit peel, used in capsules, tablets and tinctures are common over-the-counter remedies. Difficult to beat the fresh fruit, however.

Safety: Listed in the natural pharmacopoeias of France, Germany and Switzerland. Extract is classified as "generally regarded as safe" by the US Food and Drug Administration. Caution with benzodiazepines, sedatives and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Possible caution in cardiovascular disorders. Large doses can cause drowsiness.

Memory and concentration: SAGE

One of Prof Perry’s favourite plants for the improvement of memory and concentration. “Everyone knows what sage is. People know about putting sage in the stuffing at Christmas, but you can make a lovely sage tea with honey in it, for example. If you take it every day it should sharpen your brain,” she says.

What is it: European sage is extolled by some for apparently having so many virtues relating to the well-being of mind and body that it is considered a 'cure-all'. "Our original research on sage, driven by its centuries-old reputation for enhancing memory, seeded the idea for Dilston Physic Garden," says Prof Perry.

What the science says: Several studies have shown that sage enhances memories and alertness in healthy people. It also improves attention in the elderly and counters cognitive impairment, as well as helping to improve behavioural measures in Alzheimer's disease. It can, apparently, lower throat pain and has been shown to have positive effects on blood lipid and antioxidant profile in controlled trials. It boosts the memory and awareness signal (acetycholine) by blocking enzymes that break it down.

How to take it: Teas from leaves fresh (20g) or dried (4-6g) per 240ml of water three times daily, with honey. Capsules, tablets, tinctures or sprays can also be used. Effective medicinal doses may not be reached without regular consumption.

Safety: Safe at recommended dose and without side-effects for most people. Not suitable for children, pregnant women or those with epilepsy. Caution in cases of raised blood pressure and in diabetes medication.


“Our medical herbalist recommends valerian – you take it as a tincture and it improves the quality of sleep.” explains Prof Perry. “Personally, I always use lavender. I buy essential oil and sprinkle a few dots on the pillow, or a lavender spray that you can spray on the pillow. I find that within 20 minutes of using lavender, I go back to sleep.

What is it: An elegant plant with roots which most people consider foul-smelling, Valerian is renowned as a traditional sedative and sleeping aid. Has become increasingly popular in recent years as science has shown that it promotes restful sleep and relaxes the central nervous system.

What the science says: Studies in Germany and Switzerland since the 1960s have shown that valerian enhances sleep and treats insomnia. A meta-analysis from more than 16 controlled trials concluded that valerian improves sleep onset quality and length, lowers periods of wakefulness and has few side effects.

How to take it: The root tea may be effective, but capsules, tablets and tincture may be more palatable. In herbal medicine, it is recommended to start with a low dose and work up.

Safety: Do not take with other sleep-inducing drugs, alcohol or anaesthetics. Not usually advisable in depression and not usually recommended in pregnancy. Rare liver toxicity has been reported, possibly due to adulteration of the product. Taking valerian occasionally provokes individual reactions such as headaches. Listed in British and US pharmacopoeias and has UK Traditional Herbal Medicine registration for sleep. Not to be confused with the highly poisonous hemlock, which looks similar and also has a malodorous root.

Blues buster: ST JOHN’S WORT

“As a scientist, I have checked the medical science for this and it does work,” says Prof Perry. “It actually works as well as most anti-depressants, and does not have many of the side-effects.”

What is it: The most famous plant for mild to moderate depression and the prescribed drug of choice in parts of Europe. It acts on a number of the brain's signals involved in depression and is also a powerful anti-inflammatory.

What the science says: Several clinical studies have shown its efficacy and, in controlled trials for mild to moderate depression, it was as effective as some anti-depressant drugs, but with fewer side-effects. In one Austrian study, depression levels improved in two-thirds of people taking St John's Wort.

How to take it: Capsules or tablets. It also makes a woody but bitter tea of leaves and flowers. Take a tincture of 150g fresh plant per 500ml of 40 per cent alcohol, 2.5ml three times daily. Make a happy face cream: thoroughly mix St John's Wort essential oil into a commercial base face lotion which is either organic or contains natural ingredients. The proportion of St John's Wort essential oil used should not exceed 1 per cent of the entire mixture. Inhale deeply as you massage over your face.

Safety: Side-effects are usually minor, such as an upset stomach, though it is also blamed for worsening feelings of anxiety. However, as Dr Rowe warns, taking any plant-based remedy such as St John's Wort can interfere with other medicines. Your doctor should be kept up-to-date.

Prof Perry’s favourite all-rounder: LAVENDER:

“It is so gentle and so safe, it has all sort of positive effects, from calming the brain and improving sleep to reducing inflammation and pain – it can even repel insects,” says Professor Perry.

What is it: One of the most famous European medicinal plants, and the most used essential oil, lavender has a wide range of benefits for brain and mind.

What the science says: Controlled trials showed lavender promoted calm and reduced anxiety and related restlessness in several setting. And it is also credited with relieving anxiety before and after surgery and during dental treatment. In pregnancy, depression and hospice patients, there is evidence the plant relieves depression and improves well-being. Lavender capsules have been shown to improve sleep, and inhalation of lavender improves sleep in coronary intensive care and cancer patients in controlled trials.

How to take it: Use the essential oil in aromatherapy by putting three-four undiluted drops directly on a pillow, clothing, tissue or bath. Flowers are used to make teas and tinctures as well as in culinary dishes and drinks.

Safety: Lavender is one of the safest plants and its essential oil can be applied, undiluted, though it can occasionally cause skin irritation. May exacerbate the effects of sedative or anti-convulsant drugs and because of oestrogenic properties, it is not recommended for young males. There are hazards associated with taking French lavender internally, with reports of toxicity in children.