Meta-study reveals St. John’s Wort is better than placebos and just as effective as SSRIs at treating depression with few side effects

A whopping 150 million are afflicted by depression globally. In addressing a problem of such massive proportions, doctors throw a mouthful of anti-depressants at anyone who claims to be experiencing the blues. These prescriptions are often excessive, unnecessary, have their own side effects and merely mitigate, rather than treat, the underlying problem. As a result, many people have consulted Mother Nature to address their mental health issues.

Technically considered a weed, the plant hypericum perforatum, more widely known as St. John’s Wort, has been shown to be as effective at treating mild to moderate depression as conventional anti-depressants and placebos. With roots tracing book to ancient Greece, St. John’s Wort has been used to treat a host of health problems, including nerve pain, anxiety, depression, bruises and shingles. It was even used by Dioscorides and Hippocrates to cast out evil demons from the body.

In a meta-analysis conducted in 2008 and published online in the Cochrane Library, researchers reviewed 29 studies (5489 patients), which compared the effects of St. John’s Wort for 4 to 12 weeks to placebo treatments and standard antidepressants. The studies were conducted in various countries, tested multiple St. John’s Wort extracts and largely consisted of patients with mild to moderate depression.

St. John’s Wort vs places and SSRIs

On the whole, the researchers found that the St. John’s Wort extracts tested were better than the placebo group and just as effective as conventional antidepressants. These findings held especially true in Germany, where St. John’s Wort products are commonly prescribed by physicians. Differences in the the effect St. John’s Wort had on depression may have been due to differences in the severity of depression on a case by case basis.

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In 2000, St. John’s Wort constituted approximately 25 percent of all antidepressant prescriptions in Europe. In a more recent Australian study, approximately 4.3 percent of 17,780 participants who had seen a GP for depression had or were taking St. John’s Wort, reports IFL.

St. John’s Wort possesses hypericins like pseudohypericin and hyperforin, which synergistically work together to deliver an antidepressant effect. Hypericin and flavonoids are present in several fruits and vegetables. They are believed to help treat depression by changing the way in which neurotransmitters function.

Why St. John’s Wort works

St. John’s Wort has been demonstrated in non-human studies to help disseminate four essential neurotransmitters, including serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid, at doses that combat symptoms of depression. No other drug has been shown to influence all four neurotransmitters at comparable doses.

Antidepressants like Celexa and Zoloft are part of a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They work by increasing levels of feel good chemicals in the brain like serotonin. SSRIs increase serotonin levels by blocking the re-absorption of the neurotransmitters, which helps brain cells send and receive chemical messages more efficiently.

SSRI’s have been linked to numerous side effects, including erectile dysfunction, fatigue, weight loss, insmonia and more. Pregnant women taking SSRIs also have an increased risk of their unborn babies developing autism and birth defects.

According to a systematic review carried out in 2009, St. John’s Wort extract was better at curbing the symptoms of severe depression than placebos and just as effective as SSRIs. They also discovered that fewer people stopped taking St. John’s Wort because they experienced fewer side-effects than people taking SSRIs. In addition, the review did not find a significant difference between the effectiveness of St. John’s Wort and an older class of antidepressants known as try-cyclic.

Like a drug, St. John’s Wort is not without its potential side-effects, including mild gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, restlessness, skin reactions and dry mouth. These side effects are minor and uncommon. With these facts in mind, St. John’s Wort may be an effective treatment option for anyone seeking an alternative to SSRIs.

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