Better Moods in a Bottle: Is This Herb Really Nature’s Prozac?
How often have we all heard stunning claims made about different supplements? That a certain herb or vitamin can help you decrease your dose of a prescription drug – or replace it all together?
Unfortunately, most promises like this are pure bunk.
They’re claims made by overeager marketers looking for a quick buck, not grounded in science.
Well, if something – especially a supplement – seems too good to be true, it usually is.
Every now and then, though, there are exceptions to this rule. And St. John’s wort is one herb that truly lives up to most of the hype surrounding it. In fact, this humble herb may be a godsend for many people with mild to moderate depression.
But a slew of potential interactions mean that, no matter how impressive, St. John’s wort requires caution.
Herbal Help for a Troubled Mind…
St. John’s wort isn’t new. In fact, the herb has long been used medicinally, primarily as an anti-inflammatory, astringent, and antiseptic. Interestingly, the herb’s first use as a treatment for mental health concerns occurred in ancient Greece: St. John’s wort was recommended as a remedy for “demonic possession” and “melancholia.”
Sound a little far-fetched?
Sure. But such problems may simply have been early medical interpretations of mental health woes, including depression.
More recently, St. John’s wort has been shown to be a valuable tool in the fight against depression, with study after study suggesting a link between the herb and brighter moods.
Today, the esteemed German Commission E recommends St. John’s wort for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Many physicians in that country actually use the herb as a first-line therapy for the condition, saving prescription antidepressants only for cases where St. John’s wort has failed.
You don’t see that very often!
One of the World’s Best-studied Herbs…
And here’s what else you don’t see very often: An herb that doesn’t just have a long history of use, but a long history of scientific study behind it, too.
See, the extensive use of St. John’s wort for depression in Germany has made it one of the most-studied herbal supplements in the world.
Research suggests that the herb contains hyperforin and other compounds that appear to make the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine more readily available to the brain, which helps improve mood.
And study after study shows a real benefit.
In fact, one large 2008 analysis of 29 trials found that St. John’s wort was superior to placebo (sugar pill) in patients with depression. Even more impressive, the herb was shown to be as helpful as conventional antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression – with fewer side effects.1
Plus, a number of recent individual studies have helped cement St. John’s wort’s role as a viable alternative to prescription antidepressants.
For example, in a 2010 study of 154 patients, those with moderate depression who supplemented daily with St. John’s wort for 6 weeks were less likely to see their symptoms recur than those who took a placebo.2
Likewise, a 2006 study of 332 people with mild to moderate depression found that a daily dose of the herb was both safe and more effective than placebo.3
And a 2004 study of 140 depressed patients found similar effects for St. John’s wort.4
I could keep listing studies, but you get the idea. St. John’s wort is backed by an impressive body of research.
Better than Prozac…
It’s no wonder that many German physicians prescribe St. John’s wort before standard antidepressants. Studies have shown that the herb is just as effective as these drugs in the treatment of mild to moderate depression.
For example, one study that looked at the effects of St. John’s wort as compared to fluoxetine (Prozac) on 240 people found that the herb worked just as well as the drug at treating mild to moderate depression, but had fewer side effects.5
Some research even suggests that St. John’s wort may work better than Prozac!
A 2005 study of 135 depressed people found that St. John’s wort taken daily for 12 weeks was not only safe, but was also more effective at treating symptoms than fluoxetine.6
Now that’s impressive.
Using St. John’s Wort Safely…
St. John’s wort doesn’t just appear to work as well as or better than prescription drugs. It may be safer, too.
Standard prescription antidepressants can have a whole host of side effects, including headaches, nausea, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, sedation, “drugged” feeling, agitation, heart arrhythmias, weight changes, short-term memory loss, and rashes.
In comparison, St John’s wort appears to have only mild side effects, such as upset stomach, dry mouth, vivid dreams, skin rash, and extreme sensitivity to sunlight.
But, unfortunately, this herb isn’t without its own potential problems.
The main concerns about St. John’s wort involve its potential to interact with medications – and there’s a whole laundry list of possible interactions.
For example, the herb is believed to affect the body’s ability to metabolize certain drugs, including warfarin and other blood thinners, birth control pills, HIV medications, and certain heart and blood pressure drugs. The concern about interactions is so great that France has banned the use of St. John’s wort.
So despite its efficacy, I still recommend caution, especially if you are already taking medications. If you do decide to try St. John’s wort, it’s important to check with your health care provider, particularly if you already take medications.
You also shouldn’t take this herb if you also take prescription antidepressants, since it may intensify their effects to unhealthy levels. Also skip St. John’s wort if you have been diagnosed with manic depression, since the herb may worsen this condition.
If you’ve been given the go-ahead to supplement, look for products that contain 0.3 percent hypericin, the herb’s active ingredient. The standard dose is 300 mg, three times a day. Give it a few months to see what it does for you.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 Linde K, Berner MM, Kriston L. St John’s wort for major depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Oct 8;(4):CD000448.
2 Singer A, Schmidt M, Hauke W, et al. Duration of response after treatment of mild to moderate depression with Hypericum extract STW 3-VI, citalopram and placebo: a reanalysis of data from a controlled clinical trial. Phytomedicine. 2011 Jun 15;18(8-9):739-42.
3 Kasper S, Anghelescu IG, Szegedi A, et al. Superior efficacy of St John’s wort extract WS 5570 compared to placebo in patients with major depression: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial. BMC Med. 2006 Jun 23;4:14.
4 Uebelhack R, Gruenwald J, Graubaum HJ, et al. Efficacy and tolerability of Hypericum extract STW 3-VI in patients with moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Adv Ther. 2004 Jul-Aug;21(4):265-75.
5 Friede M, Henneicke von Zepelin HH, Freudenstein J. Differential therapy of mild to moderate depressive episodes (ICD-10 F 32.0; F 32.1) with St. John’s wort. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2001 Jul;34 Suppl 1:S38-41.
6 Fava M, Alpert J, Nierenberg AA, et al. A Double-blind, randomized trial of St John’s wort, fluoxetine, and placebo in major depressive disorder. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2005 Oct;25(5):441-7.
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