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St. John's Wort for Depression: Increase Your Happiness

Updated on May 20, 2013

St. John’s wort, also known as Hypericum perforatum, is a perennial herb commonly grown for its bright, yellow flowers. Native to ancient Europe, the herb was first used to ward off evil spirits. The word “wort” is Old English for “herb.” The plant is named such because it was harvested on St. John’s Day and burnt to purify the air and keep malevolent spirits away from cities and towns. The herb was first used to treat insomnia, depression, anxiety and bedwetting. One of the safest and most effective herbs for depression, St. John's wort is used regularly in many countries, especially Germany.

St. John's Wort Flower
St. John's Wort Flower | Source

How it Works:

There are several active ingredients in St. John’s wort that may contribute to its antidepressant properties. These include hyperforin and hypericin. While the other chemicals may also contribute to this effect, these are the two that receive the most attention.

The herb itself works in a manner similar to most over-the-counter antidepressants. It boosts the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, which are neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. More specifically, it prevents these neurotransmitters from being absorbed, which extends their effects. It also helps prevent the breakdown of these chemicals, and over a long period of time, causes brain adaptations that create the antidepressant results.

Clinical Research:

Numerous clinical trials have been performed to study the effects of St. John's Wort on patients with varying degrees of depression. One meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials published in BMJ in 1996 found that St. John's Wort extract was far superior to placebo and just as effective as standard antidepressants. The analyzed studies included 1757 patients with mild to moderate depression. In addition, researchers found that the herb had far fewer side effects than traditional drugs. A little less than 20 percent of patients experienced side effects on St. John's Wort, while more than 50 percent of patients on antidepressant drugs experienced side effects.

In a systematic review of St. John's Wort published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2000, researchers found that in three of four clinical trials, patients taking the herb experienced a significantly greater response rate than those taking a placebo. All studies found St. John's Wort to be well-tolerated by patients with very few side effects. According to the review, patients taking tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were 78 to 33 percent more likely to experience adverse side effects than patients taking St. John's Wort.

St. John's Wort Leaves
St. John's Wort Leaves | Source

Effects of St. John's Wort:

St. John’s wort has a number of other non-detrimental effects on the body. Several studies have shown that continued use of St. John’s wort increases the time that you spend in sleep stages 3 and 4, which is when the brain has minimal activity and sleep is deep and restful. Those with depression often enter the REM, or dream phase, of sleep far too quickly. Continued use of St. John's wort normalizes the amount of time it takes to travel from one stage of sleep to the next.

St. John’s wort has no effect on cognitive functions, and can be taken during the day with no adverse effects on job performance or the ability to operate a motor vehicle. Attention, reaction time and concentration all operate at normal levels while taking St. John’s wort. Throughout numerous studies, St. John’s wort has proven to treat depression the majority of the time. Test subjects taking a placebo had a much lower success rate than those taking the real herb, further concreting the study.

St. John's Wort Dosage:

Ideally, St. John’s wort should be taken two to three times per day, at a dosage between 300 and 1200 milligrams each time. (Check with your health care provider for a specific dosage, and always follow the manufacturer's directions when taking supplements.) Space the time you take each dose evenly to ensure the herb is able to maintain a steady level in your blood stream. Additionally, only whole St. John’s wort should be taken, as individual chemicals taken from the plant will not be absorbed into the body as well, and will have reduced effects. Because St. John's Wort is a slow-working herb, it may take several months before its full potential is achieved. In most cases, you can expect to notice a difference in mood after two to three months.

If you intend to take St. John's Wort to treat depression, make sure to consult your health care provider before you begin. Some individuals may experience side effects and drug interactions may also occur.

St. John's Wort Plant
St. John's Wort Plant | Source

Side Effects and Drug Interactions:

St. John’s wort has no serious side effects, though a few minor problems may occur. These include photosensitivity and a potential conflict with another medication or treatment. People who take large amounts of St. John’s wort may experience periods of photosensitivity, where prolonged exposure to the sun may cause slight irritation or a rash.

Side effects increase with larger doses, so the herb should never be taken without consulting your health care provider first. St. John’s wort should never be taken with another antidepressant medication, as this is essentially doubling the dosage, and may result in serious illness or death.

Herbal Plant Remedies: St. John's Wort for Depression

This video featuring nutraceutical expert Dimple Singh Bindra explains how St. John's wort works and how it can be safely taken.


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    • Terrylee5151 profile image

      Terrylee5151 7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Hi Willow,

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      Thanks Terry