This common plant — a condiment enjoyed by millions — is reputed to make you psychotic.

This month, we’re playing a guessing game. And if you guess right, you get a free Jennie’s macaroon. Really: just come in and say you got it – we’ll believe you – and we’ll hand you your macaroon.

So here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to give you the description of a medicinal plant from www.LiveStrong.com (a health website affiliated with Lance Armstrong, but owned by social networking giant Demand Media). You just have to guess what the plant is. And here’s the big hint: you already know this one. Chances are, you’ve ingested it. Many times. Although you probably thought of it as a food, rather than a medicine. (Here’s the other big hint: it gets an honorable mention next month on my list of the “Ten Healthiest Foods.”)

I’ll quote the LiveStrong entry in its entirety, editing out only two give-away sentences about where it grows, and how it’s used as a food. Good luck.

What is [Mystery Plant]?

There is currently insufficient available evidence in humans to support the use of [Mystery Plant] for any indication.

Side Effects

Anorexia, anti-diuretic effects, anxiety, bronchospasm, cough, difficult or painful urination, dizziness, decreased white blood cell count, excitability, flushing, genital pain, headache, head twitching, high blood pressure, increased heartbeat, insomnia, irritability, lupus-like syndrome, manic episodes, muscle aches, nausea, nervousness, panic attacks, potential to trigger psychoses, rash, rhinorrhea, skin eruption, seizure, stimulation of the nervous system, tremors, vomiting.

Reactions / Interactions

Drugs that are broken down by the liver, ethanol (alcohol), adrenergic or anti-adrenergic drugs, benzodiazepines, blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, linezolid, morphine, opioid antagonists, naltrexone/naloxone, phenothiazines, physostigmine, sympathomimetic drugs, diabetic drugs, antihistamines, amphetamines, anti-muscarinic agents, caffeine-containing agents, over the counter (OTC) stimulants, tyramine-containing foods, and other herbs or supplements with similar effects.

Whoa – sounds dangerous!

Any guesses? No? So, are you ready for the answer?

This is Wasabi. You know: the “Japanese horseradish” you get with sushi. Looks like play dough, tastes like distilled fire? That’s the one.

Although now since we’ve solved that riddle, I have to admit I do kind of question some of what I just quoted. Even if it is written by “professionals [who] bring experience from some of the world’s most respected publications and medical institutions.”

If you believe the part about not consuming Wasabi with ethanol, caffeine-containing agents, or tyramine-containing foods. That would effectively rule out rice wine, green tea, and soy sauce – the Japanese culinary equivalent of saying that peanut butter is contraindicated with jelly. (And yet, oddly, there’s research showing that Wasabi protects the liver from alcohol and caffeine…)

Or how it can cause anorexia (and yet, paradoxically, it makes me more hungry).

Then there’s the part about how you can’t eat it if you’re on meds for ADHD, allergies, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, or congestion. It’s wonder those sushi places ever have a customer at all!

Or the part about how it gives you a rash? Well, I suppose every food gives someone a rash. But when I went looking for research, all I could find on Wasabi was one study in mice where it reduced eczema.

Of course some of it is right on the mark. Like the part about “rhinorrhea”? Couldn’t be truer. Of course most of us just call that a “runny nose.”

             *            *            *            *            *

A few months ago, I wrote about the Açaí berry, the Amazonian fruit that’s currently being hyped as a solution for obesity and fatigue, and loss of sexual vigor, and to detox your colon, etc. I spent three pages of the newsletter debunking all those claims, and more. There’s a certain pleasure in cutting through the hype.

But we should remember that hype can run both ways. For every hypester trying to talk you into buying some herbal cure-all, there’s another one trying to talk you out of even considering it.  They’ll fill your mind with so many side effects and contraindications, and the scaaaary dangers of herbal medicine, you’ll start to wonder if maybe Grandma wasn’t trying to poison you with that cup of chamomile tea at bed-time.

When it comes to Wasabi, we can all have a good laugh, because we see through the scare tactics to a food most of us have enjoyed without undergoing a major medical crisis.

But what if we were talking about Black Cohosh?-[1] Or St. John’s Wort?-[2] All of a sudden, we’re out of our comfort zone, and the laughter can quickly turn to fear.

It’s hard, sometimes, to distinguish hype from reality, especially when most of the negative hype is coming from the mainstream research and medical community. Not that there aren’t loads of great docs and researchers out there, of course; just that a lab coat and a set of credentials is no guarantee.

It makes you wonder why the mainstream medical and research community is so eager to point out even the most improbable, purely theoretical, wholly unsubstantiated possibility that natural medicine will hurt us. And then why, when it comes to the very real possibility of that medicine actually us some good, do they fall back on that old saw, “insufficient evidence”?

That was a rhetorical question. You’d don’t get a macaroon for that one.

-[1] LiveStrong says: “Bleeding, osteoporosis, bruising, constipation, dizziness, headache, liver damage, lower blood pressure, muscle damage, nausea, seizures, skin rash, slow heart rate, stomachache, sweating, vision changes, vomiting, weight gain.”

-[2] “Anorexia, anxiety, bone marrow necrosis, burning sensation, constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, flushing, hair loss on the scalp and eyebrows, headache, heartburn, increased blood pressure and pulse, increased sweating, increased thyroid levels, insomnia, muscle cramping, numbness, rash, restlessness, sedation, sensitivity to sunlight, serotonin syndrome (which causes rigidity, hyperthermia, delirium, confusion, autonomic instability, or coma), sexual dysfunction, skin reactions, stomach upset, swelling, tingling and nerve pain or damage, tremors, weakness, weight loss.”

… Adam Stark