Is there a way to scientifically self-study the effects a herb has?
April 16, 2010 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Is there a way to scientifically self-study the effects Rhodiola Rosea has on me?

I am going to be growing Rhodiola Rosea, a herb with numerous purported medicinal effects, for my own curiosity and fun. However, I would like to harvest it and partake in it knowing that this herb will have legitimate medicinal effects. I planned on visually documenting its growth for the curiosity of others, but I wanted to log some other things as well.

(1) Can I assume I can't study the presence of any specific molecule in this herb here in my house as a simple 18 year old?

(2) One of the purported effects of this herb is affecting dopamine and serotonin levels. Can I objectively test this without relying on my own feelings and hoping (a) my mood doesn't change for the better for a few continuous days and (b) placebo? What about testing for the presence of rosavins (antidepressants), or increases in neurotransmitter activity?
posted by SollosQ to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, you are completely biased, based on your question. A scientific study is done blind.
posted by sanka at 9:39 PM on April 16, 2010

1. That's a pretty safe assumption, since this kind of analytical chemistry usually involves techniques like HPLC to separate molecules of interest from leaf/root extracts, blood, urine, etc. An HPLC is not the kind of thing you can hack together at home. There may be ELISA tests for some of compounds you're interested in (dunno - I didn't check), which you could conceivably run at home since they are colorimetric and you could get a qualitative answer by eyeballing the plate, but those kits are expensive and not the kind of thing a newbie could just waltz through.

2a and 2b. No. This is why we have to do double-blind tests on humans. Good for you for thinking about it, though - most people don't understand bias and the placebo effect.

2 post-b. Again, you're probably looking at blood or urine analysis by HPLC, ELISA, mass spectrometry or other sophisticated (=$$$) methods.

Actual chemical analysis is beyond your technical grasp right now and unless you can beg a real lab to run some samples for you, you won't have any quantitative results for your study. Also, unless you can arrange it to be double-blinded (which means you need to get at least 2 other people involved, one of whom can keep their mouth shut for the duration of the study), the whole thing will be scientifically sketchy.

Another problem is that your dosage levels will be unknown because you have no way of testing the strength of your preparations (how do your backyard herb plants compare with commercially grown plants? are they making the same amounts of active ingredients? how stable are the actives in storage? do you even have a decent analytical balance to weigh out a known amount of herb?). So you won't be able to do another fundamental pharmacological analysis, the dose-response curve.

But you could still have fun with it, providing you understand the shortcomings of your methodology. Keep daily records of your mood, energy levels, whatever, see if you notice anything interesting. Just remember that it's a qualitative assessment which will probably be biased all to hell, and treat it like a fun summer hobby. Then take a bunch of college courses on chemistry, physiology, molecular biology, biophysics and the like, and learn how to do it for real.

Seriously though, this is pretty good thinking for an 18-year-old. You're already way ahead of the pack, pondering things like analytical methods and experimental bias. I hope you stick with it and choose a career in science - despite the head-slamming frustrations, the "aha!" moments make up for it, and heaven knows we'll need more science in the future, not less. Good luck, and let us know how the hobby project turns out.
posted by Quietgal at 9:48 PM on April 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

Quietgal's answer is excellent, but as she notes, you could still have fun with this (in a scientific way) even if you don't have access to a spectrometer.

Can you take this herb and put whatever amount you're interested in into caplets? If so, I actually think you could potentially set up some interesting experiments, particularly if the effects of this thing don't take that long to be felt and don't last long after discontinuation. Consider this:

Find something that looks like whatever RR looks like when it's chopped up (without any known effects on mood). Get a bunch of both and put them in caplets. Create a cross-over dosing schedule in which you take one kind of caplet for X weeks, then the other for X weeks, then the other for X weeks, crossing over multiple additional times. Place the pills in order in a dispenser then have a friend remove a secret number of pills from the first batch. Get started and record whatever symptomatic outcome you're interested on a scale (mood from 1-10 or some such). If you want to put more effort into it, you can use a pre-existing validated depression scoring tool like those found here. Then after enough cross-overs, unblind yourself to how many tablets your friend removed, and plot your daily mood along with the intervals of the RR and "placebo."

That might lead to some very interesting results. Of course, the rigorous statistics necessary to analyze that data may be inaccessible to you, and with most pharmacological agents that affect mood, this is also problematic because those initial assumptions don't hold (antidepressants can take many weeks to work, and there effects last long after discontinuation).
posted by drpynchon at 10:19 PM on April 16, 2010

A big problem with drpynchon's idea is that the amount and mixture of active ingredients in each subset of herb will be very different, probably different enough that you couldn't compare them even if you were doing a rigorous trial. This is one of the reasons why herbal supplements suck, having the same amount of plant material doesn't necessarily mean anything. The part of the plant, the age of the material, the growing conditions, the storage conditions (many compounds will degrade over time), all have an effect. And the ingredients interact with each other, so even if the thing you think is important is there in the same amount every time varying all the other stuff can (and probably will) change how it works. And, as Quitegal has pointed out nicely, you can't measure this stuff at home, or even in many labs actually (my plant extracts are analysed by HPLC and GCMS by two different research groups, and that only gets some of the active ingredients). Even ELISA is pointless, you'd need one made with antibodies from the correct species which probably doesn't exist.

At the very least you'd want to be making an extract of the plant material, all at once for the whole trial. That will help normalise the active ingredients and remove some of the confounding factors. Then store it in appropriate conditions so it doesn't break down, which will depend on what type of extract you made (which will, in turn, depend on the chemical properties of whatever you think the active ingredients are). Then you'd need to figure out the best way to dose the extract to make it bioavailable (a caplet is often fine) and also some kind of dose range that's likely to be effective. This is where the pharmacokinetics come in, although there are studies in the literature already so you can use doses from there. Actually making appropriate extracts isn't difficult and you don't necessarily have to understand what's in it as long as you know it's standardised and treated appropriately. But that would involve lab grade reagents and measuring equipment, probably things like rotary evaporators or freeze driers to concentrate it down and nitrogen for storage.

If you were able to prepare something to the appropriate level of standardisation (which, again, does not mean just chopping up the plant into even piles) then you could do a longitudinal study. You won't find any quantitative data but that's actually OK, you wouldn't anyway with a group size of 1. It would be more of a hypothesis generating study, looking to see if there is anything even there to ask questions in the first place. Having a two test periods with a washout in the middle and someone else setting up which test period gets the ingredients and which gets the placebo would be a good idea. If you can do the study more than once, each time long enough to actually see any effects that might happen, then that's a way to increase your sample size. It wouldn't tell you anything about effects of the herb in general but can tell you something about the effects of the herb on you, if that makes sense, and so I think you're better off making the data for you stronger rather than trying to increase the number of people since that will add so much noise from inter-individual variation that it will become meaningless.

I agree that you're thinking about all this in the right way which is awesome. A quick search on google scholar showed me a lot of research done on this plant so there's lots for you to read about if you're interested in seeing what other people have done. My PhD project involves testing the biological activity of fruit extracts, so very similar to what you're talking about except I don't work with human subjects and I'm looking for a different type of activity (I'm interested in immune modulating effects). If I sound pessimistic about using the plant material it's because I know first hand how important it is to standardise the ingredients which you're dosing with otherwise the noise added from there will drown out any possible results that you might get in the actual trial, and this is from much more rigorous, statistically powered experiments in much simpler experimental system. Just eating a plant on it's own really won't tell you anything meaningful.
posted by shelleycat at 11:55 PM on April 16, 2010

If you're going to mess around with with herb which may or may not act on serotonin, you should educate yourself about the symptoms and risks of serotonin syndrome.

If you take any other medicines, ask a pharmacist about relevant drug interactions before you start. Be prepared to explain what Rhodiola Rosea is and which neurotransmitters it's thought to act on, because the pharmacist may never have heard of it. Perhaps you could politely request the advice of Metafilter's resident poison expert, Carol@ILPoisonCentre?

Get your information about dosages and expected effects from published articles in scholarly journals, not from Wikipedia or herbalism sites. (Handy hint: sites that use the word "adaptogen" are unlikely to offer evidence-based advice). You should also let someone else know what you're doing, so that they can help you if this all goes horribly wrong.

You seem like a bright and sensible 18-year-old, so I'm not saying you shouldn't do this experiment. I'm just saying, do your research, and don't approach this with the assumption that "herbal" necessarily means "safe". Herbs, especially herbs with psychoactive effects, can be as dangerous as prescription drugs if you use them carelessly.
posted by embrangled at 12:02 AM on April 17, 2010

My answer to question 1 is Yes. My answer to question 2 is Maybe.

Pretty much everything that everyone has said here is true, and you should
read and understand it all.

If you were careful, you could do a double blind test on yourself with
this plant. It involves the use of a digital camera, to record whether or not you
got the placebo or the actual drug, and some masking materials to help prevent
your differentiating between the drug and the placebo (like peppermint).
You have to do the experimental design yourself, though.

There are some problems. You could poison yourself. Your plant is an MAO inhibitor,
and if you don't know what that means and entails before you start, you are a
fool to mess with it. Some stuff can fuck you up permanently,
which could be as long as fifty years, and nobody but you will take the time to
really figure out if something is good for your or bad for you.

If you're depressed, and are seeking to self-medicate, then perhaps you should
figure that out and talk to somone about it.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:09 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The herb is an MAOI? Yeah, this could be dangerous. MAOIs can have complex side effects and interactions with other substances. Are you willing to avoid all foods containing amines for the duration of your experiment?

Also bear in mind that there are HUGE gaps in mainstream scientific knowledge when it comes to folk herbs and safe dosages, side effects, interactions and symptoms of overdose. If you screw up while taking some herb you grew in your garden, you could get very sick and your doctors might not know how to help you.
posted by embrangled at 2:30 AM on April 17, 2010

Um, yeah, in all the blather I left out the usual warning to make sure you're not going to hurt yourself with this stuff. Seems like you're doing your background research pretty thoroughly so I expect you'll look carefully at recommended doses (which will be difficult to translate into "grams of fresh chopped-up leaves", but you can make some estimates based on the literature - post back here if you need help with this). I also expect you'll approach this sensibly and cautiously, aiming for low doses and long intervals, and tell a bunch of friends what you're doing in case anything freaky happens and they need to haul your anaphylactic ass to the ER.

Since this is a folk medicine herb (i.e., people have eaten it and not suffered any obvious immediate problems), chances are you'll be fine. Maybe I'm just a crusty old grouch who's marinated in lab reagents for too long, but I don't get too worried about chemicals.* Do your background reading, pay particular attention to descriptions of any side effects or interactions and ask yourself if you're willing to risk those, and proceed prudently. Stop if anything seems weird. Keep meticulous records (knowing how to keep a good lab notebook is a great skill anyway), and make sure your buddies toss your lab notebook into the ambulance with you. Just kidding - you'll probably be fine, just like all the other people who've eaten this herb over the centuries. Be careful and sensible, and have fun.

*As a biochemist, my professional knowledge makes chemicals familiar tools, not scary unknowns. I know how to safely handle compounds that literally could kill me, and I can read ingredient labels and not think "OMG TOXINZ IN MY FOODZ!!!!1!!" Don't get me wrong, I'm not cavalier about chemical safety - I'm always careful and my lab technique is meticulous - but my personal comfort threshold is higher than most laymen's because I know what I'm doing.
posted by Quietgal at 10:03 AM on April 17, 2010

Yeah, I wouldn't worry too much about serotonin syndrome or the MAOI effects. Serotonin syndrome is rare, and it usually only happens in individuals taking multiple sertonergic drugs, or very high doses of a single drug. You're talking about using a natural herb, which typically have very low concentrations of their not-very-active-or-selective chemicals.

If this was a prescription MAOI, I'd say don't play around with it. But I can tell you that the active substances in Rhodiola Rosea aren't much to worry about for the very simple reason that you can buy it at GNC. If Rhodiola Rosea contained a potent MAOI, lots of people would be getting sick, and it'd get pulled from the shelves pretty quickly.

There's something else to keep in mind. When you go to Wikipedia and read that X chemical in Y plant has been found to have Z activity, that actually tells you very little. In order to be a useful drug, a given chemical must be active at very low concentrations, it must be highly selective for its target, and it must be able to distribute properly throughout the body. Those qualities aren't at all trivial. Typically, the sort of studies that involve testing natural products for specific kinds of pharmaceutical activity involve in vitro assays and use concentrations that wouldn't be safe or achievable in the body. In other words, they don't really tell you anything about whether the drug would actually work in a living organism. They're only meant as a stepping stone to further study, so you really need to take that sort of info with a grain of salt.

If you do end up experimenting with this, I would suggest tracking the number of hours you sleep at night. If Rhodiola Rosea really is increasing dopamine transmission, you'll most likely experience some insomnia.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:34 PM on April 17, 2010

And again, grams of chopped up plant doesn't mean anything. The amount and mixture of active ingredients being administered in this way will fluctuate widely over time with the possibility of overdose just as likely as underdose. Bioavailability will be all over the show, interacting compounds will come and go, bioactive compounds will degrade and change over time (with changes in activity in either direction). You can't work within safe dosage levels if you have no idea how much you're taking.

The literature shows extracts of this stuff being given to humans, there is pharmacological activity in there and it is worth being careful with. And a large part of being careful is understanding that herbal supplements based on a set amount of plant matter rather than an understanding of active ingredients suck, and yes people do get sick occasionally, simply because no one actually knows what dose is being given at any time. If you're not going to standardise what you're taking then there's no point tracking it's effect. The noise is too high and you can't draw even a qualitative conclusion from that. Imagine giving a person randomly changing doses of antidepressants every day, that's what you'd be doing by relying on amount of plant material for your dose.

I'm also a biochemist except that my background is in physiology and I directly study the effects of bioactive plant compounds, so I appear to be a lot more circumspect about this stuff than Quietgal. If you can't standardise the dose (which, really, you can't without a lab) you shouldn't be experimenting with this stuff.
posted by shelleycat at 3:22 PM on April 17, 2010

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