The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that this herb could deter evil spirits. Today, St. John's wort has found new and widespread popularity as a natural antidepressant – a gentle alternative to conventional medications, with far fewer side effects.
What it is?
A shrubby perennial bearing bright yellow flowers, St. John's wort is cultivated worldwide. It was named for Saint John the Baptist because it blooms around June 24, the day celebrated as his birthday. 'Wort' is an old English word for plant. For centuries, St. John's wort was used to soothe the nerves and to heal wounds, burns and snakebites. Supplements are made from the dried flowers, which contain a number of therapeutic substances, including a healing pigment called hypericin.
What it does?
St. John's wort is most often used to treat mild depression. Scientists aren't sure exactly how the herb works, though it's believed to boost levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is one of the keys to mood and emotions.
A recent analysis of 23 different studies of St. John's wort concluded that the herb was an effective as anti-depressant drugs – and more effective than a placebo – in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. (Few studies have examined its usefulness for more serious depression, though it may prove beneficial for this as well.) St. John's wort may be helpful for many conditions associated with depression, too, such as anxiety, stress, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), fibromyalgia or chronic pain. It may even have some direct pain-relieving effects. This herb promotes sound sleep, and may be especially valuable when depression is marked by fatigue, sleepiness and low energy levels. It may also aid in treating 'wintertime blues' (seasonal affective disorder, or SAD), a type of depression that develops in autumn and winter and dissipates in the bright sunlight of spring and summer.
Some people are wary of conventional antidepressants because of their potential for causing undesirable side effects, especially reduces sexual function. St. John's wort has fewer troublesome side effects than these drugs. In addition, although St. John's wort may interact with antidepressant medications, it doesn't appear to interact with most other conventional drugs, making it useful for older people who may be taking multiple medications.
St. John's wort fights bacteria and viruses as well. research indicates that it may play a key part in combating herpes simplex, influenza and Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of glandular fever), and preliminary laboratory studies reveal a possible role for the herb in the fight against AIDS. When an ointment made from St. John's wort is applied to haemorrhoids, it relieves burning and itching. Taken along with the herb ephedra, St. John's wort may also be useful as a weight-loss aid. Hypericum oil, applied to the skin, is very effective at relieving the pain of shingles.
- Treats depression.
- Helps to fight off viral and bacterial infections.
- May help to treat premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and fibromyalgia.
- Helps to relieve chronic pain.
- Soothes haemorrhoids.
- May aid weight loss.
- If you're taking conventional antidepressant drugs, be sure to consult your doctor before adding or switching to St. John's wort.
- If you develop a rash or have difficulty breathing (rarely, people have allergic reactions), get immediate medical help.
- Reminder: If you have a medical or psychiatric condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
The recommended dose is 300 mg of an extract standardized to contain 0.3% hypericin, taken three times a day. supplements containing 450 mg are also available and can be taken twice a day.
Guidelines for use:
Take St. John's wort close to mealtimes to reduce stomach irritation. In the past, people using the herb were advised not to eat certain foods, including aged cheese and red wine – the same foods best avoided by those taking MAO inhibitors (a type of antidepressant). But recent studies suggest that these foods do not present a problem for those on St. John's wort.
Like a prescription antidepressant, the herb must build up in your blood before it becomes effective, so be sure to allow at least four weeks to determine whether it works for you. It can be used long term, as needed. Unless you are under the care of a doctor familiar with both conventional antidepressants and St. John's wort, the medication and the herb should not be taken together because of the potential for adverse reactions.
Even though no adverse effects have been reported in pregnant or breast-feeding women using the herb, there have been few studies in this group of patients, so caution is advised.
Possible side effects
While uncommon, side effects can include constipation, upset stomach, dry mouth and dizziness. Fair skinned people are advised to avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight while taking St. John's wort, but increased sensitivity to the sun doesn't appear to be much of a problem at recommended doses.
Facts and Tips
- Choose preparations of St. John's wort that are standardized to contain 0.3% hypericin, the therapeutic ingredient found in the herb.
- In Germany, where doctors prescribe herbal remedies routinely, St. John's wort is the most common form of antidepressant – and much more popular than conventional drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft.
- In one recent US study, 50 participants with depression were given either St. John's wort or a placebo. After eight weeks, 70% of those on St. John's wort showed marked improvement, versus 45% of those receiving a placebo. No adverse reactions to the herb were noted.
- Although presently used only for mild and moderate depression, St. John's wort may one day prove effective for more severe cases. A study of 209 people with serious depression found the herb as effective as conventional antidepressants. But more research is needed before the supplement can be recommended for this purpose.