“I was like a bulldozer,” says Marianna Lot. “I had a problem with everyone. I wouldn’t even speak. Tablets didn’t help, but once on kougoed I forgot about pills. Five minutes brewing in tea or one minute chewing in the mouth. Straight away you sit still for five or eight minutes without moving. You feel like your body is going to sleep. Then you feel like a person.”
Marianna’s transformation is just one of many cures which the Nama, Khoi, and San people of Paulshoek, South Africa, attribute to kougoed, a local wildflower. Jacobus Claassen, a 63-year-old farmer, remembers his father saying it made teeth strong, and his grandfather putting it in honeybee beer to get more drunk. It’s used by men who’ve eaten bad meat, pregnant women with morning sickness, and mourners seeking to ease the pain of bereavement. Hendrik Brandt, a caretaker, makes it into a tea to sooth stomach and headaches. Jacobus Brandt, 51, recalls how, to calm his child, he would wrap “kougoed in a piece of cloth, dip it into breast milk, then squeeze four drops into a tea spoon for the baby.”
“I was looking for a new high,” says Alan Sonnenberg, a botanist in Cape Town. “We prepared kougoed by sweating it in a bag underground and drying it in the sun. Then we milled it into a fine powder, snuffed it and counted the seconds until we got high. It’s like a line of coke, but doesn’t last as long.”
“Straight away you sit still for five or eight minutes without moving. You feel like your body is going to sleep. Then you feel like a person”
Marianna Lot, 47, Paulshoek, South Africa
Better known by its other Afrikaans name, kanna, kougoed grows everywhere – beneath bushes, in backyards, on scrubland. Drying it out takes time, so a local healer, Jab Jab, sells two weeks’ worth for 100 rand (US$13). This may sound cheap, but Jab Jab has raised his prices 2,000 percent in the past two years. Although more than half of Paulshoek’s inhabitants are unemployed, few ever considered cultivating kougoed. Now they no longer can. Since 2010, when the South African government granted exclusive commercial rights to HGH Pharmaceutical, anyone who wants to pick kougoed has to have a license. In 2012, HGH’s new kanna extract, Zembrin, will go on sale internationally as an antidepressant dietary supplement.
Sonnenberg has known of kanna’s antidepressant potential for a while: “I’ve been taking it everyday for the last 10 years. It’s a proven natural serotonin uptake inhibitor.” Serotonin carries out many functions in the body, but many believe it plays a crucial role in contentment; selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by slowing serotonin’s progress through the brain so that good feelings last longer. The world’s favorite SSRI is Prozac: US$1.2 billion worth of it is consumed each year.
The problem is, SSRIs don’t seem to work. A 2010 University of Pennsylvania survey found that the difference in effect between placebos and SSRIs is “minimal or nonexistent,” and for most of the one in ten Americans who take it, Prozac’s green-and-white capsules might as well be empty. That’s not to say that placebos aren’t valuable. In a 2010 survey of 3,000 people at Harvard Medical School, USA, taking a placebo proved a much better cure for depression than doing nothing at all, and raising the price of a sugar pill labeled “antidepressant” may make it more effective still: a MIT study found that volunteers given an “expensive” placebo painkiller felt less pain than those told their placebo pills were cheap.
Back in Paulshoek, 73-year-old Johanna Jass may be part of the last generation to take wild kougoed, which the San tribe have been using for at least 400 years. Regardless, she is unperturbed by the fuss around the flower, and clear on what this latest antidepressant is good for: “When I don’t get out of bed with the right feet on me, kougoed helps.”
How to self-medicate
Every year, worldwide, one in 15 people will suffer a depressive episode, and about US$25 billion will be spent on antidepressants to help them feel better. Most antidepressants increase levels of serotonin, a lack of which is widely believed to cause depression. In fact, research increasingly finds that serotonin probably has nothing to do with depression, but in the absence of anything better, these serotonin-boosters may help. In many tests, even placebos are found to have a strong effect.
Prozac’s active agent fluoxetine is the only approved medication for depression among children in the USA. This despite the fact that, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, SSRI antidepressants like Prozac cause a 200 percent increase in suicidal impulses among children under 18.
No Japanese word for depression existed until 1999, when pharmaceutical company Meiji Seika Kaisha introduced the problem “kokoro no kaze” (“your soul has a cold”), along with the solution: Depromel. On average, pharmaceutical companies spend almost twice as much on promotion as they do on research.
This herbal remedy has proved as effective as SSRIs in clinical tests. A 13th-century drug inventory from Salerno, Italy called it “the herb that chases the devil,” and in 15th-century witch trials, accused women had their mouths stuffed with the plant to force confessions.
A 2011 review of nine clinical studies found saffron to be as effective as Prozac at regulating cerebral serotonin levels. But it’s expensive: one kilogram will take 165,000 flowers to make and can cost up to US$10,000.
In 2009, Japanese researchers claimed that natural lithium in Oita Prefecture’s drinking water had caused a decrease in regional suicides. A year earlier, researchers had found that suicide, murder and rape occurred more frequently in parts of Texas without lithium in the water supply.
Mice injected with M. vaccae – a common bacterium in dirt – have been found to produce more serotonin in the prefrontal cortex, the part of their brains that regulates mood and cognition. It’s possible that humans get the same benefit from gardening.