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Can Herb Counter Memory Loss After Surgery?

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Q. I have had six surgical procedures in as many months, the last being a quadruple bypass. My memory and cognitive thinking has diminished considerably, and I'm wondering if gingko biloba will help that.

A. During bypass surgery a machine takes over the function of pumping blood throughout the body. Cardiac surgeons have known for years that some people experience memory and other cognitive problems after such surgery. Recent research has shown that such deficits can last a long time.

Physicians are trying to understand what causes this condition and how to prevent it. Cooling people during surgery, with slow re-warming, may provide some protection.

There is no data to suggest that the herb ginkgo can counteract this problem. On the other hand, it may be worth discussing with your physician since this herb does appear to increase blood flow to the brain. Make sure it won't interact with any of your other medications.

Q. My husband has trouble sleeping. Sometimes he can't fall asleep because he's fretting about work problems. Other times he wakes up in the wee hours and can't get back to sleep.

We've seen ads on TV for a drug called Ambien, but he refuses to go to his doctor for a prescription. He says he would prefer a natural approach, but hasn't done anything about it. I know this lack of sleep is bad for his health, but I feel helpless. Any ideas?

A. One reader recently wrote, "I used to toss and turn for hours, going over the day's events in my mind. I finally found a product that works for me. It contains valerian, passionflower and magnesium. It's completely natural and non-addictive."

Valerian and passionflower have a reputation for helping people relax, and magnesium has also been used as a sleep aid. Too much can cause diarrhea, however.

A hot bath a few hours before bedtime can also help relax people. As the body cools, it produces more of the natural sleep hormone, melatonin.

We discuss a number of natural approaches to overcoming insomnia as well as sleeping pills in our Guide to Getting a Good Night's Sleep. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $2 in check or money order with a long (no. 10) stamped (60 cents), self-addressed envelope: Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. I-70, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

Ambien can be an effective sleep aid for people who have a hard time falling asleep. A shorter-acting drug, Sonata, is helpful for those who wake up too early. Both medications require a prescription.

Q. A few weeks ago on the evening news there was a segment suggesting the use of omega 3 fatty acid for the treatment of depression. How much is needed and where can I get more information?

A. Researchers reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry (Oct. 2002) that one gram of fish oil daily reduced symptoms of depression in people who had not responded to standard drug therapy. Fish oil is a rich source of omega 3 fats.

We recently heard from a reader about her experience: "I have been taking salmon oil to combat depression since August, 2002. It has been a godsend and beats taking antidepressant medications with all their side effects."

Depression is a serious condition that calls for medical supervision. But if the doctor agrees on a trial of fish oil, it may have heart benefits as well.

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