Tuesday, May 22, 2012

St. John's Wort: a cautionary tale

Thursday, May 17, 2012
A few weeks ago, I spent a few hours taking photos outside. It was a bit chilly, about 7°C. When I returned home, I noticed the backs of my hands felt very prickly and tingly (like when your foot falls asleep) as well as strangely itchy under the skin. This feeling did not go away after several hours… or several days. When I washed my hands with cold water, the backs of my hands felt extremely cold, like they were covered with strong mint.
I assumed I had given myself frostbite, or rather what they call "frostnip". Over the next week, my hands continued feeling strange, tingling, prickling, or sending the occasional sharp pain along the fingertips or fingers. I went to the doctor, who thought my symptoms were odd, but didn’t think it was frost bite. She said maybe it was carpal tunnel, as that can cause numbness in the hands, but it didn’t really fit, because my symptoms got severely worse whenever my skin had contact with cold temperatures. She referred me to a nerve specialist.
In the meantime, I started to suspect I had all kinds of diseases. Poor blood circulation, vitamin B12 deficiency, parasthesia, the beginnings of MS, a stroke… every time I went outside, I started to wear heavy gloves, even though it's spring.
One time, I was out for a walk wearing a t-shirt, and noticed that the backs of my arms, as well as the skin on my face, was also tingly/prickly.
I googled my symptoms repeatedly, hoping to find someone, somewhere, that had experienced these strange symptoms. It was starting to frighten me.
Quite by accident, I stumbled across a website describing a woman who had symptoms almost identical to mind, and the culprit: St. John’s Wort.
One of the common side effects of St. John’s Wort is sensitivity to the sun. I wasn’t able to find any medical journals fully explaining this (but my search was cursory so they are probably out there) but the watered-down scientific explanation is this: the compounds in the St. John’s Wort plant, when exposed to the sun through your skin, interact with the sunlight and produce oxygen molecules. This chemical reaction destroys the myelin (protective fatty sheath) around the nerves under your skin. When myelin is destroyed, you feel the electrical activity of your nerves - this is the pins and needles, prickling, pain, itchiness, and burning.
I had started taking St. John’s Wort (in pretty high doses) about two weeks before the appearance of my symptoms. It fits: The backs of my hands, backs of my arms, and face are all areas exposed to the sun – the herb compounds interacted with the sun only in these areas, causing the pins and needles.  (I'm assuming this side effect would not happen in the winter, when our skin is not really exposed to sunlight all that much.)
I stopped taking St. John’s Wort immediately; apparently, the nerve damage is reversible and my myelin should regenerate in a couple of months. For now, I’m stuck wearing gloves in the spring/summer and looking ridiculous, although I have noticed that it's already starting to be a bit less severe.
Crazy, huh?  I never in a million years would have thought an herbal remedy could cause such damage!
I decided to share this to create a little more awareness about herbal remedies.  I know many people say that they’re “natural” and therefore can’t cause you any harm; obviously these plants have powerful compounds that can interact with our bodies either positively or negatively – just like any synthetic drug. Many people don’t even think to mention to their doctors that they’re taking herbal remedies, but this is important information for a doctor to have, especially if you’re taking other drugs. (In my case, my doctor did know, but I guess she doesn't know enough about it or it just didn't clue in for her.)
I suppose I should have seen a naturopath doctor to monitor me, as it probably would have clicked for them right away!
In the meantime, does anyone know where I can get waterproof gloves? Canoeing season is almost here but I can’t touch cold water…

Updated August 16th 2018:  Since I wrote this post 6 years ago, so many people have found it and been relieved to find the source of their strange symptoms.  Please always follow up with your doctor just to rule out any other possible reasons.  Here is a good journal article that explains the science of it better than I could: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4664572/

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Will to Believe

Thursday May 3, 2012.

I am reading “The Will to Believe” by philosopher William James, first written at the turn of the twentieth century. I have only just started it but already an idea has gripped me that my mind can’t quite wrap itself around.

So far he has been making a logic argument for why scientists should not be afraid of having faith in spiritual matters. I will get to his ideas in a moment, but I will provide some background information first.  

There is a popular idea in the New Age community and other spiritual circles that proposes that our thoughts and beliefs “create” our realities. So, for example, if someone “believes” that they will never find a high-paying job or the love of their life, these things will never come to pass because the thought/belief “creates” the reality. Conversely, if one believes whole-heartedly that they will find a good job/spouse/etc., these things will naturally come into their lives.  (This is called “The Law of Attraction” in many circles). This is an interesting idea and has gripped many people –it’s alluring to think that to achieve all we desire, we need just believe it is possible.

I myself have struggled with this idea, as it falls short for me for many reasons. If we take the idea to its logical conclusions, it proposes that anyone in dire circumstances does not have what they desire due to a personal weakness. I have seen many people become extremely self-depreciating and unnecessarily hard on themselves because of this. This idea also implies that starving children in third world countries, for example, do not have access to better circumstances because of their belief that their state of not-having-access-to-food is something they cannot change. Clearly, even the most staunch believers in “the law of attraction” should be uncomfortable with where this idea can go if applied indiscriminately. 

 It also promotes apathy, even among members of the same community – if someone is struggling, the thought is that "it is only up to them to change their beliefs" and thus eliminate the struggle. I have seen supposed good friends act indifferently to each other’s hardships based on this principle.

Nevertheless, it has its appeals and seems to have empowered many people to believe they have the power to change their lives. 

Now, back to James. In his very first essay, he proposes an “insane logic” which has turned my scientific tendencies and commitment to empiricism a bit upside-down. He says that in everyday social interactions, we cannot act based on the scientific principles of only believing something to be true based on sufficient evidence. For example:
Do you like me or not?... Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence… ten to one your liking never comes.”
A whole train of passengers will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because… each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before anyone else backs him up. If we believed the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming… faith in a fact can help created the fact

… often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.

This has captivated me because while it seems to be, as he put it, an “insane logic”, it is indeed a logic I cannot find a loop hole in, and it puts a crack in my wholehearted embracing of the scientific method. (This, by the way, pleases me at the same time it unnerves me – if I have any purpose at all in this life I feel it is to tread the very fine line between all opposites and be a perpetual dichotomy; in this case, spirituality and science are the two things I am trying to precariously balance myself between. While in my younger years I was too deeply immersed in the former, I fear in recent years I have stumbled too far into the latter.)

In the first example, the only thing that causes even the possibility of someone else liking us is if we believe beforehand that they do, without hard evidence. As he explains, if we are cold, aloof, indifferent, until we gather enough evidence that the other likes us, the liking never comes. Belief in the unseen, unascertainable is the only thing that causes it to exist at all.

He continues to apply this logic to the existence of a God/unseen spiritual world. He did not quite take it in the direction I am about to, but it follows that, based on this logic, belief in a God is necessary for us to even hope to glimpse or experience him/her/it/etc. If we do not believe a God is possible (as a scientist), “the God will never come”. It may still be a possibility, but it is unknowable to us.

He says, therefore, that the scientific method is flawed, because by only believing what we have evidence for, we are denied the possibility of discovering things we do not already believe in.

You can see how this has (quite delightfully) tangled up my mind.