How to keep calm the natural way - or not: Herbal tranquillisers are sold as a healthy answer to stress. But do they work? Callum Murray finds out

Callum Murray
Sunday 06 June 1993 00:02
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WENDY LAMPLOUGH was a London-based editor, providing 24-hour financial bulletins to bankers around the world. Her job imposed strict deadlines on her. Also, there was the stress of living the life of a young single woman in the city: buying a house, maintaining relationships, and so on. All this made her a perfect candidate for the makers of herbal tranquillisers.

'Hassle at work? Broken up with a boyfriend? House burgled? You can cope with Kalms,' said a newspaper advertisement. Wendy was tempted. Tension was giving her frequent stomach upsets and was stopping her from sleeping.

She decided to give Kalms a try, and took them for several months. She thought they had some beneficial effect, allowing her to sleep. Then, she says, her lifestyle went through a change - she bought her house, or got a new boyfriend (she can't remember which) - and the Kalms were allowed to 'peter out'. Since then she has decided their effect was probably psychological.

As last week's Mintel market research report showed, herbal remedies of all kinds are gaining ground. The market in multivitamins, fish oils, evening primrose oil, garlic and so on is worth pounds 227m a year.

Among them, coming on strongly, are the herbal tranquillisers - or 'sedatives', as the manufacturers prefer to call them. Sales of brand leaders like Kalms, Natracalm, Quiet Life and Naturest have gone up by 25-30 per cent in the last couple of years. According to market research by English Grains Healthcare, maker of Natracalm, 78 per cent of buyers are women, mostly aged between 31 and 60.

The 'active ingredients' in herbal tranquillisers are herbs such as valerian, gentian, hops powder, motherwort and wild lettuce. Most have been in the herbalists' pharmacopoeia for hundreds of years. (Valerian was used in Victorian times to treat hysteria, 'morbid nervous vigilance' and hypochondria, and even received a mention in The Canterbury Tales. Hitler swore by valerian when feeling a bit worked up.)

But nobody is precisely sure of the chemical composition of these substances or how they act. The question is, do they actually work at all? Indeed, failure to give any effect is a possibility acknowledged in the advertising for Quiet Life tablets, for example. 'They could (our italics) help you stay calm and in control, even gently help you sleep' is their somewhat diffident claim. Certainly, it is not difficult to find people who have tried products like these without success.

A surprising number of users were unearthed in a hugely unscientific straw poll at the Independent on Sunday. The following verdicts are typical, although their high levels of scepticism may not be representative of the wider community.

Senior, careworn, executive figure, male: 'They didn't do me any harm, but how much good is impossible to quantify. I mean, I might have felt more agitated without them. I think it was the act of taking them that made me feel better. Classic placebos, I would have thought.'

Hard-pressed editorial assistant, female: 'They had absolutely no effect on my nerves - they just gave me a dry mouth. I gradually upped the dose until I was taking twice as much. When that did nothing I gave up on them and switched to gin.'

Troubled section editor, female: 'I've used medically prescribed tranquillisers and the effect is absolutely nothing compared to them. Maybe we're used to stronger drugs and expect a quick, noticeable effect.'

We had to travel outside the office to find the true believers. Lois Elliott is a former dancer who swears by Quiet Life. 'They certainly work and they are the only ones I have tried that don't make you feel like death the next morning. I passed ballet exams on pointe shoes on Quiet Life. They don't tranquillise, they just make you normal.'

Vere Awdry, marketing manager for G R Lane Health Products, which makes several herbal sedatives, is quick to point out that the anecdotal evidence against them tends to come from people who have only tried them for a day or two. Normally, he says, at least seven to 10 days are required for the product to have the desired effect.

Nearly everyone agrees that sales of herbal tranquillisers were given a boost by the discovery that drugs such as Valium and Mogadon are addictive. After that scare there is perhaps a subconscious notion that since herbal remedies are 'natural' they cannot harm you.

'That's complete rubbish,' says Peter Woodruff, lecturer in psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. 'Some of the most potent medicines known to man come from plants.'

Dr Woodruff tends to discourage his patients from using herbal tranquillisers - not because he distrusts the remedies per se (though he does) but because medicines have a tendency to interreact, and he cannot be sure that they will not interfere with his own prescriptions.

The 'normal' person who is perhaps just feeling a little tense is not likely to consult a psychiatrist before taking herbal tranquillisers. In Wendy Lamplough's case, part of the reason for turning to a herbal remedy was her belief that they would not affect any other medicines she might take. 'Besides,' she says, 'I would never go to my doctor unless I felt really, really ill. I don't think things like that count.'

Dr Woodruff's view is that 'all of these herbal remedies should be regarded as medicines, with the inherent quality of medicines of having side-effects. They wouldn't have any therapeutic effect unless they had the potential for side-effects.'

Wendy Lamplough, at least, seems unharmed by her brush with herbal remedies. She now has a young child, while maintaining her job on the editing service - rather like the woman in the advertisement. The only difference is she no longer takes the tranquillisers.

(Photograph omitted)

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