I can't believe it! I feel normal for the first time in a long, long time-maybe ever.-
Cindy, a 35-year-old working mother
Can a natural and inexpensive supplement actually relieve depression? Yes, it can. For thousands of years, people have enjoyed the health benefits of a wide variety of plants. Garlic, ginger, and willow bark are just a few of the natural remedies that have been used by people all around the world in an effort to fight off illness and preserve health. Like our ancestors, we too can find remedies within our natural surroundings. Herbs offer solutions to some of modern society's most pressing problems, including stress and depression.
One such powerful herb is St. John's wort ("wort" is Old English for plant). Known botanically by its Latin name, Hypericum perforatum, for its seemingly perforated leaves, it may have gotten its common name because it blooms around June 24, the Feast of St. John. It is native to many parts of the world, including the United States. The ancient Greeks utilized this herb for everything from the healing of wounds to the treatment of melancholy. St. John's wort is one of many herbs used by natural or holistic physicians for years as a prime example of the healing power of nature.
In this chapter, I'll first discuss the benefits and uses of St. John's wort as a part of a natural approach to psychiatry, followed by an overview of depression and its various treatments.
The Benefits of St. John's Wort
Contemporary herbalists have focused most of their attention on St. John's wort's ability to alleviate depression. For a fraction of the cost, this herb can be as effective as the prescription antidepressants and without the numerous side effects that often accompany these drugs. Dozens of clinical studies have demonstrated St. John's wort's remarkable ability to alleviate mild to moderate depression, as well as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is depression brought on by the absence of sunlight. In Germany, where much of this research has taken place, prescriptions for St. John's wort now outnumber those for Prozac (fluoxetine hydrochloride) by a ratio of at least 4 to 1, and possibly greater than that. As word has spread across the Atlantic, millions of Americans are switching from drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft (sertraline hydrochloride) to St. John's wort.
This powerful herb has a number of other medical uses, too. It can help the body fight off disease through its strong antiviral and antibacterial properties. Scientists have also confirmed the herb's value for such historical uses as wound healing, insomnia relief, and even treatment of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstrual cramps (see St. John's Wort: The Versatile Herb).
Making the Natural Choice
Sometimes, choosing a natural therapy such as St. John's wort means going against a doctor's advice, as Nancy did.
It was 9 p.m., and I was still working at my computer when the phone rang. I was surprised to hear my childhood friend, Nancy-who generally calls only to announce births, deaths, and engagements-at the other end of the line. Her urgent tone concerned me. "What do you think about St. John's wort?" she blurted out. "I know you use herbal medicines in your practice, and I have a professional question to ask you about my dad. He's been getting more and more depressed of late, so I took him to see his doctor, who recommended an antidepressant-on top of Dad's heart and blood pressure medications. I wasn't comfortable with this approach."