Thursday, May 17, 2012
A few weeks ago, I spent a few hours taking photos outside. It was a bit chilly, about 7°C. When I returned home, I noticed the backs of my hands felt very prickly and tingly (like when your foot falls asleep) as well as strangely itchy under the skin. This feeling did not go away after several hours… or several days. When I washed my hands with cold water, the backs of my hands felt extremely cold, like they were covered with strong mint.
I assumed I had given myself frostbite, or rather what they call "frostnip". Over the next week, my hands continued feeling strange, tingling, prickling, or sending the occasional sharp pain along the fingertips or fingers. I went to the doctor, who thought my symptoms were odd, but didn’t think it was frost bite. She said maybe it was carpal tunnel, as that can cause numbness in the hands, but it didn’t really fit, because my symptoms got severely worse whenever my skin had contact with cold temperatures. She referred me to a nerve specialist.
In the meantime, I started to suspect I had all kinds of diseases. Poor blood circulation, vitamin B12 deficiency, parasthesia, the beginnings of MS, a stroke… every time I went outside, I started to wear heavy gloves, even though it's spring.
One time, I was out for a walk wearing a t-shirt, and noticed that the backs of my arms, as well as the skin on my face, was also tingly/prickly.
I googled my symptoms repeatedly, hoping to find someone, somewhere, that had experienced these strange symptoms. It was starting to frighten me.
Quite by accident, I stumbled across a website describing a woman who had symptoms almost identical to mind, and the culprit: St. John’s Wort.
One of the common side effects of St. John’s Wort is sensitivity to the sun. I wasn’t able to find any medical journals fully explaining this (but my search was cursory so they are probably out there) but the watered-down scientific explanation is this: the compounds in the St. John’s Wort plant, when exposed to the sun through your skin, interact with the sunlight and produce oxygen molecules. This chemical reaction destroys the myelin (protective fatty sheath) around the nerves under your skin. When myelin is destroyed, you feel the electrical activity of your nerves - this is the pins and needles, prickling, pain, itchiness, and burning.
I had started taking St. John’s Wort (in pretty high doses) about two weeks before the appearance of my symptoms. It fits: The backs of my hands, backs of my arms, and face are all areas exposed to the sun – the herb compounds interacted with the sun only in these areas, causing the pins and needles. (I'm assuming this side effect would not happen in the winter, when our skin is not really exposed to sunlight all that much.)
I stopped taking St. John’s Wort immediately; apparently, the nerve damage is reversible and my myelin should regenerate in a couple of months. For now, I’m stuck wearing gloves in the spring/summer and looking ridiculous, although I have noticed that it's already starting to be a bit less severe.
Crazy, huh? I never in a million years would have thought an herbal remedy could cause such damage!
I decided to share this to create a little more awareness about herbal remedies. I know many people say that they’re “natural” and therefore can’t cause you any harm; obviously these plants have powerful compounds that can interact with our bodies either positively or negatively – just like any synthetic drug. Many people don’t even think to mention to their doctors that they’re taking herbal remedies, but this is important information for a doctor to have, especially if you’re taking other drugs. (In my case, my doctor did know, but I guess she doesn't know enough about it or it just didn't clue in for her.)
I suppose I should have seen a naturopath doctor to monitor me, as it probably would have clicked for them right away!