St. John's Wort Benefits: Natural Therapy

Millions of Americans suffer from depression

| November/December 1997

One Saturday last June, a stream of customers filed through Larry Schaefer’s health-food store in Sun City, Arizona, seeking St.-John’s-wort, the herb rapidly becoming known for its ability to combat depression.

“I sold every single bottle I had,” says Schaefer, owner of The Almond Tree, where St.-John’s-wort products normally sell at a rate of thirty bottles a week. On this June Saturday alone, he sold sixty bottles, the result, he says, of a national television broadcast about the herb. The following week he sold a total of 125 bottles—more than four times the weekly average. “People didn’t really care what form I had it in,” Schaefer says. “They just wanted it.”

Schaefer wasn’t the only one whose supplies of St.-John’s-wort were scooped up. Shop owners and manufacturers across the country reported phenomenal increases in sales of St.-John’s-wort products last summer—as much as 700 percent in some cases. Richo Cech of HerbPharm, a botanicals supplier based in Williams, Oregon, estimates that his company pressed 10,000 pounds of fresh St.-John’s-wort flowers into extracts this year, five times the company’s annual average of 2,000 pounds.

It Works: The Evidence

The St.-John’s-wort fervor was fanned by the ABC television news program 20/20, which in June described, for millions of viewers, the herb’s ability to fight mild depression as effectively as and more safely than synthetic antidepressants.

Until that broadcast, most Americans knew St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) only as a noxious weed. But convincing news of the herb’s ability to beat depression had reached the U.S. medical establishment in 1996, when the British Medical Journal published a scientific analysis of twenty-three clinical trials of the herb as a depression treatment. The authors concluded that St.-John’s-wort extracts were as effective as standard antidepressants and caused fewer side effects, including nausea and dizziness. ­Patients who took St.-John’s-wort felt less sad, less anxious, and more hopeful, among other improvements.

The National Institute of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Office of Dietary Supplements are collaborating to fund research on St.-John’s-wort and issued a request for proposals last June. But substantial research already exists in Europe, and German doctors commonly prescribe preparations made from the flowering tops of St.-John’s-wort to treat anxiety, mild depression, and sleep disorders. In 1994, German physicians wrote prescriptions for nearly sixty-six million St.-John’s-wort products worth about $35 million, according to the British Medical Journal.

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