In the past few years, much interest has risen in the use of herbs in the treatment of both depression and anxiety. St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), an herb used extensively in the treatment of mild to moderate depression in Europe, has recently aroused interest in the United States. St. John's wort, an attractive bushy, low-growing plant covered with yellow flowers in summer, has been used for centuries in many folk and herbal remedies. Today in Germany, Hypericum is used in the treatment of depression more than any other antidepressant. However, the scientific studies that have been conducted on its use have been short-term and have used several different doses.
NIH Study on St. John's Wort Herbal Remedy
Because of the widespread interest in St. John's wort, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a 3-year study, sponsored by three NIH components: the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Office of Dietary Supplements. The study was designed to include 336 patients with major depression of moderate severity, randomly assigned to an 8-week trial with one-third of patients receiving a uniform dose of St. John's wort, another third sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) commonly prescribed for depression, and the final third a placebo (a pill that looks exactly like the SSRI and the St. John's wort, but has no active ingredients).
The study participants who responded positively were followed for an additional 18 weeks. At the end of the first phase of the study, participants were measured on two scales, one for depression and one for overall functioning. There was no significant difference in rate of response for depression, but the scale for overall functioning was better for the antidepressant than for either St. John's wort or placebo. While this study did not support the use of St. John's wort in the treatment of major depression, ongoing NIH-supported research is examining a possible role for St. John's wort in the treatment of milder forms of depression.
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Note: In February 2000, the Food and Drug Administration issued a Public Health Advisory. It stated that St. John's wort appears to affect an important metabolic pathway that is used by many drugs prescribed to treat conditions such as AIDS, heart disease, depression, seizures, certain cancers, and rejection of transplants. Therefore, health care providers should alert their patients about these potential drug interactions.
Some other herbal supplements frequently used that have not been evaluated in large-scale clinical trials are ephedra, gingko biloba, echinacea, and ginseng. Any herbal supplement should be taken only after consultation with the doctor or other health care provider.
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