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The Dangers and Effects of Herbal Drugs

We have all used oregano, parsley, and basil in the spaghetti sauce, or sprinkled nutmeg on our holiday eggnog. These are herbs, which are plants grown for their culinary, medicinal, or spiritual value. Herbal supplement use as an alternative to mainstream medications has increased significantly among adults over the past 15 years, with products such as Echinacea for colds or ginger for nausea now in common use.

Just as the recreational use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs among teens is on the rise, there is also a growing trend toward teen use of herbal drugs for the psychedelic, stimulant, and euphoric effects they may cause. One reason for this shift from street drugs to herbal recreational drugs is that teens (and adults) tend to think of herbal products as natural and safe. But many of these products can be dangerous and even deadly, particularly when used in combination with other drugs or alcohol.

Teen use of herbal products may also be a result of Internet marketing of these products for a "natural high." In addition, many herbal recreational drugs go undetected in routine drug screenings.

What kinds of herbal drugs are teens abusing? Here are some of the most common ones:

Herbal Ecstasy - This product is created by combining herbs that are sold in various colored pills, which are swallowed, snorted, or smoked. The effects may include euphoria, increased awareness, and enhanced sexual sensations.

The active ingredient in herbal ecstasy is ephedra or ma huang, an herb that has been used in the past as a supplement for weight control, but was recently banned due to cardiovascular and neurological side effects such as heart attacks, strokes, increased blood pressure, seizures, and death. However, the ban only pertained to dietary supplements and not to other herbal remedies such as teas and traditional Chinese preparations.

Herbal ecstasy can be purchased in gas stations, record stores, health food stores, nightclubs, and online. Common names for the herbal concoction include "Cloud 9," "Ultimate Xphoria," and "Rave Energy."

Salvia - This herb belongs to the mint family and was historically used by the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico, for ceremonial purposes. Today it is grown in the United States and is sold in tobacco shops, herbal remedy stores, and online as dried leaves, extract, seeds, or whole plants. Users smoke or ingest the plant to produce an intense hallucinogenic experience.

The active ingredient in salvia is salvinorin-A, which acts much like a spinal pain reliever, potentially causing loss of control over the body and severe anxiety, as well as accidents and injuries. Salvia is sometimes referred to as "Magic Mint," "Shepherdess's Herb," or "Sally-D."

Morning Glory Seeds - Also known as tlitlitzin, these seeds were traditionally used in Aztec rituals in ancient Mexico. The seeds are pulverized to improve absorption, and are then ingested to produce visual imagery and hallucinations.

The active ingredient in morning glory seeds is lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide (LSA), a less potent form of a chemical related to LSD. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Amanita Mushrooms - These mushrooms are eaten or sometimes smoked to cause euphoria and sensory alterations, especially of hearing.

The active ingredients in amanita mushrooms, which are sometimes called "Japanese Panther" and "Fly Agaric," are ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscazone. Side effects can include nausea, problems with balance and coordination, and drowsiness. With increased dosage, mushrooms can result in coma or even death.

Nutmeg - This is the kernel of the fruit of an evergreen tree indigenous to the Spice Islands. Popular as a spice for baked goods, it is ingested in large amounts in powdered form as a paste or combined with other ingredients (to increase palatability) in an effort to cause euphoria and hallucinations.

The active ingredients in nutmeg are alkyl benzene derivatives and terpenes, which cause effects in the central nervous system. Side effects such as blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, lowered blood pressure, and rapid heart rate may occur.

Peyote - This is a type of cactus that grows in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Peyote has been used for thousands of years by certain Native American tribes for ceremonial or religious purposes. The top of the cactus is dried and ground into a powder, which is ingested or smoked to cause hallucinations.

The active ingredient in peyote is mescaline. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, dizziness, sweating, restlessness, and palpitations.

Betel Nut - After caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, betel nut is the fourth most abused substance in the world. It is produced by the areca palm tree and cultivated in India, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Asian Pacific. Betel nut is chewed alone or in a mixture of other spices, leaves, or tobacco to produce a stimulant effect. It can be purchased in ethnic grocery stores or online.

The active ingredient in betel nut is arecoline, which may cause side effects such as rapid or irregular heartbeat, lowered blood pressure, vomiting, dizziness, and seizures. Chronic use of betel nut can cause addiction, as well as red staining of the teeth and gums and the potential for oral cancers.

Recognizing the problem of recreational abuse of herbs in teens is the first step in getting help. Only by educating yourself about this potential problem can you educate and safeguard your teen.