a cautionary tale about organic and natural things

teacup One day last week I learned a valuable lesson: just because something is “natural” or “organic” does not mean it is good for you. To the contrary, it can be dangerous in the extreme.

A little background: for a long time, I had high blood pressure. I was on Lisinopril for a while, and eventually I managed to get it under control through changes in my diet, exercising and learning how to control my temper (which has always been extremely bad). When I was running frequently and eating a more-or-less vegetarian diet, I managed to get it well under normal. With a slump in my diet and exercise over the last couple of years – which started out as simply a slowing-down of my heavy workout schedule and recently has turned into an honest-to-God slump – it crept back up a bit, but not too much. At my most recent checkup, it was (after a few readings) 130/85, 128/87, etc. Not great, but certainly nothing to get worried about.

Last week I started feeling crummy and decided to check my blood pressure while waiting at the pharmacy. Boom! My blood pressure had shot WAY up, to 150/100. That’s a desperately high number. Subsequent readings didn’t get much better although some of that is probably thanks to the fact that I got nervous. Very nervous.

So I tried to analyze what I had done in the last 2 months that made it shoot up so far. I’m not exercising as much as I should, but I still do a lot of walking and climbing stairs during my commute. I was eating nothing but raw fruits and vegetables for breakfast and lunch several days a week (occasionally I would have an omelet for breakfast) and maintaining my lifestyle otherwise. I hadn’t taken up snorting glue or anything like that.

So for a couple of headachey days I wondered what was going on while I tried to analyze what had changed. After some real serious consideration I realized a few bad mistakes I had made.

  1. The salad bar at work had added jalapenos. I knew they were pickled (are they cooked? I don’t know) and I love spicy food. I was pouring them on like they were shredded carrots. They are not. I was eating a good fistful of jalapeno slices on my salad every day.
  2. Over the holidays I took a week off and overate, drank a lot of hard liquor – which I seldom do anymore – and didn’t stir much from the house.
  3. I was sleeping a lot less from being busy late in the evenings with the blog.
  4. For some reason, I have felt a lot more internal stress over the last few weeks. It’s probably due to feeling behind on my “global” to-do list. I have big plans for some projects but I don’t feel I’m making enough progress on them.

However, the real problem still eluded me, because these are the types of things which would ramp up blood pressure over time, not overnight. Then I remembered that I was drinking a new kind of organic tea. It tasted wonderful and packed almost as much punch as coffee – sometimes even more. It was flavored with fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, cloves and pepper, but the primary ingredient was St. John’s Wort. I thought “maybe there’s something about that tea”?

Bingo.

Some brief research on the Internet showed me I was right, but this line was the kicker:

There is a risk of hypertension if it is taken with food that contains the natural chemical tyramine, found in beer on tap, red wine, liquors, aged meat and cheese, yeast extract, and soy sauces (link).

I drink two glasses of wine every evening. Over the last couple of weeks, I had something with all of those ingredients. We at aged meat and cheese in abundance over the holidays. We had stuff with soy sauce. I had beer on tap, and red wine. Yeast extract? Probably in something I ate. As I sat there with a headache going down this list, I thought “uh-oh.”

So after reading this article and several others, I quit drinking the St. John’s Wort tea and I can already feel my hypertension fading away. I quit adding jalapenos and I am sleeping and relaxing a bit more, but the main change has been dumping the tea. I plan to go check my blood pressure soon, but I feel much better already. I am back to eating plain salads and drinking white tea and water.

I am not trying to dissuade anyone from taking St. John’s Wort (which can be very helpful for people suffering from depression, for example – although I am not a doctor and you should verify that with someone who is). I just hope that nobody has to discover the hard way like I did that just because something is “organic” automatically means it is “good for you.” I will approach other herbal teas, for example, with a great deal more caution in the future.

(photo credit: australian_overanalyzer)

6 comments

  • Ohmygoodness! I gues this just reminds us that you should always check with your doctor before taking supplements!

    BTW–Trader Joe’s has a great Jasmine Green Tea that is inexpensive and delicious.

  • Great post. Let me add something though – the problem isn’t “natural” or “organic” ingredients, the problem is drug interaction. You could have had the same problem with, for example, certain types of migraine medications. The difference though is that (hopefully) your doctor wouldn’t be prescribing drugs with adverse interactions. So this, of course, highlights the reasons why we should tell our doctors about ALL the things we eat and drink.

    All that being said – there actually isn’t very strong evidence that St. Johns Wort has an effect on blood pressure (unless you are on MAOIs). It can however, interfere with blood pressure medication. In general, St Johns Wort doesn’t differ much from placebo when taken on its own, but can result in a number of interactions with other drugs.

  • Indeed. If I was taking a much stronger antidepressant I could go into a seratonin coma with too much St. John’s wort. And I’m not supposed to take wine either…

    I mean it’s good stuff if you don’t mix it with bad stuff and if you need it. But you’re right, it’s definitely worth being careful.

    My mom always used to point out that deadly nightshade is also natural and organic.

  • Remember that your blood pressure will rise and fall during the day for a number of reasons. Last week I had a biopsy done, and it was fine, 120/72. The next day when I went in for the results it was 170/100 (I was very nervous, but it turned out OK). You should take it daily when you are calm, and track it.

  • “One day last week I learned a valuable lesson: just because something is “natural” or “organic” does not mean it is good for you. ”

    You’re kidding, right? Strychnine is derived from the nux tree and is as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ as the day is long. And that’s just one of hundreds of compounds that are natural/organic which are ‘bad for you’. C’mon bripblap, you’re smarter than your post!

  • @Andy: oh, true. I should have said “foodstuffs that are advertised as organic or natural” or something along those lines.

    As far as being smarter than my post, I’m not sure anyone who blithely gulps down herbal supplements believing them to be universally safe is all that smart. But I hope I’m smarter than my post. 🙂