St. John’s Wort: Depression Treatment Options

Updated February 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Natural remedies and alternative medicine can be tricky subjects to address. Many of these substances have not been researched adequately, and they are not recognized as a form of prescription medication by the Food and Drug Administration. On the other hand, many people are suspicious of modern medicine and may prefer natural remedies. This may be because pharmaceutical giants have a less-than-optimal reputation for being more interested in your money than your well-being. If you are from the latter school of thought and live with depression, you might consider some of these alternatives. One of the most popular supplements people turn to is St. John's Wort. You can usually find it in the supplement aisle of your nearest grocer.

St. John's Wort is a wild plant that grows in parts of Europe and Asia. The plant is cultivated, the flowers dried, and then packaged into capsules or processed into oils and sold. The active ingredients are said to relieve symptoms of depression. Today, we are going to weigh the pros and cons of using St. John's Wort. Before you use this information to aid in your decision to consider using St. John's Wort, it can be wise to consult with a health specialist as it relates to your depression treatment plan, as they know your personal medical history and can advise you properly.

Considering Using St. John’s Wort To Treat Your Depression?

St. John's Wort: The Good

A few clinical trials have demonstrated that St. John's Wort can effectively reduce the symptoms of mild depression. The supplement effects were observed to be greater than that of a placebo but not by a wide margin.

Modern anti-depressant medication has been known to bring with it a few side effects, one of which is a reduction in your sex drive. It has been suggested that you will not experience this problem when using St. John's Wort to treat symptoms of depression. This can have various implications for different people. If you are concerned about a lower libido, you might appreciate using this instead of prescription medications. Lowered sex drive, or a complete lack thereof, can have a negative effect on the health of a relationship or marriage as well.

People who take St. John's Wort for depression seem to be more willing to commit to the treatment, as well. At least one trial has demonstrated that fewer people stopped their treatment midway when using this substance than when using anti-depressant medication. This could be due to various reasons, including third variables such as insurance hurdles or other financial stressors. Some people attribute it to fewer negative side effects. Since treatment efficacy depends on the patient's adherence to the treatment, St. John's Wort can certainly be more effective.

St. John's Wort: The (Potentially) Bad

It is natural to be skeptical of the substances you’re putting into your body. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding St. John's Wort to manage depression, and it may be useful to keep that fact in the front of your mind.

While some clinical trials have been conducted on St. John's Wort, there have not been nearly enough of them for the medical community to reach a solid consensus. As mentioned before, the Food and Drug Administration does not consider this a form of medication. They have not allocated as many resources to researching it as they have to clinical anti-depressants.

In the trials that have been conducted, the results have not always been definitively clear. Some tests report a higher level of effectiveness than anti-depressants; other studies indicate a lower level of efficacy than anti-depressants. Yet other observations of St. John's Wort demonstrate that the effects are comparable to those of a placebo if there is any difference at all. The mixed results of these various studies suggest that the theory on which this treatment is based is not as sturdy as we might like it to be.

The purported lack of side effects can seem positive, but it might not be that simple. Our bodies exist in a constant struggle to maintain homeostasis or balance. The reason medications have side effects is that the substances you ingest shift your body's resources from one place to another in favor of "fixing" what is "broken." St. John's Wort may help depression by supplying your body with something it is lacking. Should that not be the case, however, a lack of side effects might suggest that the substance is nothing more than a placebo. If no substantial change occurs in your body due to the supplement, is there any reason to assume it affects you?

Furthermore, the lack of clinical trials means we cannot be completely certain of how it reacts with other medications. If you take it while receiving treatment for other conditions, such as cancer, there is no telling how the different treatment programs can be affected. This adds an element of risk that may not be tolerable for everyone, depending on your aversion to risk.

St. John's Wort: The Ugly

Speaking of risk, there are some ways in which taking St. John's Wort can be dangerous. Again, a lack of clinical trials makes these conclusions hard to support empirically, but it cannot hurt to stay on the safe side. These are a few things that one might consider before undergoing this form of treatment.

If for some reason you are taking the supplement along with anti-depressants, the consequences can be severe. Combining these substances in your body can cause your brain's serotonin levels to rise to potentially fatal levels. That being said, if you are going to treat your depression, you may want to pick one option or the other rather than both. You can discuss this further with your doctor. Taking them simultaneously will not increase your recovery time or amplify any positive effects that you might experience.

While the side effects are reported to be fewer than anti-depressants, this is not the case for everyone. Some people report bouts of insomnia, nausea, and skin irritation. Everyone's body chemistry is different. Thus, there is variance in the ways people react to treatment. This is, of course, also true of anti-depressant medications. If you are choosing this alternative option as a means of sidestepping the side effects of anti-depressants, it can be important to remember that you are not automatically in the clear.

Some people who have taken the supplement have reported experiencing withdrawal symptoms once they stop. These can range from mild nausea to debilitating anxiety. As with any other form of pharmaceutical treatment, it is advisable to wean off the supplement gradually rather than quit cold turkey.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that St. John’s Wort has never been asserted as a method for treating severe depression. In many clinical trials conducted, the effects have only been shown to assist those with mild symptoms. If your condition is life-threatening, it’s vital to consult a mental health professional rather than trying to take the matter into your own hands. 

What Should I Do?

Given the circumstances outlined above, proceed with caution when considering the use of St. John's Wort to treat depression. Consult your doctor, medical professional, or mental health professional first if you are seriously considering this as a potential treatment option for yourself. If you are experiencing mild symptoms that St. John's Wort allegedly treats, there are a number of steps you can take. Being social, doing enjoyable and healthy activities, and being physically active are just three of many methods empirically proven to manage depression. Not only can you be sure of their effectiveness, but they could also end up costing you less than the supplements would.

Online Counseling With BetterHelp

While there are many different treatment methods for depression, some work more effectively than others depending on a person’s needs and the severity of their condition. By speaking to a professional, you can discover which treatment might work most efficiently for you. BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that can connect you with a therapist who specializes in disorders like depression. Although depression can make it hard to get out of bed in the morning, online therapy can allow you to get mental health support from your home. 

The Efficacy Of Online Counseling 

Research has shown that online therapy can be just as effective at reducing symptoms of depression as face-to-face interventions. In a review of six decades of clinical studies, researchers found strong evidence for “the safety and clinical effectiveness of administering evidence-based psychotherapy for anxiety and depression via clinical videoconferencing among heterogeneous populations and age ranges, and in multiple care settings, with similar outcomes to in-person care.” They found that the videoconferencing intervention was feasible, acceptable, and safe in each setting. 

The Takeaway

St. John’s Wort is just one potential treatment option for depression. However, it is not a substitution for professional care and support. If St. John’s Wort and other treatments do not help you find relief from your depressive symptoms, it can be helpful to get advice from someone who is trained to help. By connecting with an online therapist, you can receive care from your home and discover new methods of treatment that may help you heal effectively. 

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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