St. John’s Wort

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The St. John's wort plant has yellow flowers and is sometimes thought of as a weed in some parts of the United States. It has been used for medical purposes in other parts of the world for thousands of years. Many studies have been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of St. John's wort. Some studies have suggested benefit, but other studies have not.The flowers are used to make liquid extracts, pills, and teas. The popular herbal therapy is often used to ease symptoms of depression.

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The most famous use of St John’s Wort is as a remedy for mild to moderate depression. It is perhaps the most studied herb for this complaint, with literally thousands of studies and clinical trials performed to assess its usefulness as an antidepressant.

It contains the active phytonutrient hypericin, which together with hyperforin, is one of the principal active constituents found in St John’s Wort. Many studies have found the herb to be equally as effective as traditional antidepressants, but with fewer side effects in mild to moderately depressed patients. Whilst researchers aren’t exactly sure how St John’s Wort actually works its magic, some have postulated that it acts in a similar way to SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), because it makes serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine available to the brain.

Preliminary research suggests that St. John's Wort also lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol and enhances the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally occurring tranquilizer in the brain. It is a very mild, clinically insignificant monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor. MAO is responsible for the breakdown of two brain chemicals - serotonin and norepinephrine. By inhibiting MAO and increasing norepinephrine, St. John's Wort may exert a mild antidepressive action. The antidepressant or mood elevating effects of St. John's Wort were originally thought to be due solely to hypericin, but hypericin does not act alone. St. John's Wort relies on the complex interplay of many constituents such as xanthones and flavonoids for its antidepressant actions. St. John's Wort may also block the receptors that bind serotonin.

It is important to note that St John’s Wort is useful in treating mild to moderate depression – day to day blues which can still be debilitating and affect your life in a negative way. For major, suicidal depression it is recommended that you speak to your health care professional.

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

Recent research has found that SSRI’s are effective against OCD, leading researchers to speculate about the potential of St John’s Wort as a natural alternative. A small clinical study was done where 13 people with OCD received St John’s Wort, twice daily, for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, clinicians rated 42% of the participants as “much” or “very much improved”, 50% as “minimally improved” and 8% (one person), as “unchanged”. It was concluded that at the very least, St John’s Wort warrants further study as a treatment for this debilitating condition.

PMS Symptoms

A 2010 study by S Canning and N Orsi et al at the Institute of Psychological Sciences, University of Leeds, looked at the efficacy of St John’s Wort for the treatment of PMS. The results of this randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial found that: “St John’s Wort was statistically more beneficial than the placebo for food cravings, swelling, poor co-ordination, insomnia, confusion, headaches, crying and fatigue”.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

This type of depression that only occurs in the winter due to lack of sunlight, has also been found to respond favourably to St John’s Wort. Whilst one of the most effective treatments for SAD is to spend time every day in full spectrum light, research has found that using this herb in combination with phototherapy works even better. Whilst one of the side effects of this plant can be increased photosensitivity, lightbox therapy can be safely combined with St John's Wort because lightboxes do not produce ultraviolet light.

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