If you’ve been investigating mood altering herbs, then you’ve no doubt at least heard of St. John’s Wort.
It’s been hailed as something of a depression cure all, and while there is some evidence suggesting that it does provide significant neurological effects, these claims are still being explored.
On top of that, there is a distinct possibility that its interactions with some pharmaceuticals could limit the plant’s effectiveness as a mood enhancer.
What is St. John’s Wort?
St. John’s Wort is a plant of the Hypericaceae family, distinguished from similar varieties as Hypericum Perforatum, or perforate St. John’s Wort.
It has value as a medicinal herb, believed to have abilities as both an antidepressant and anti-inflammatory agent.
Analyzing various studies, at least one team of researchers has concluded that the plant is as effective as standard pharmaceuticals when it comes to combating depression (and with fewer side effects).
In some countries, physicians are already using it clinically to treat various forms of depression.
Despite these facts, some professionals still have concerns over using St. John’s Wort wholesale to treat depression.
In spite of the aforementioned review that indicated St. John’s Wort was superior to placebo during trials, the NIH maintains that:
“Two studies, both sponsored by NCCIH and the National Institute of Mental Health, did not have positive results. Neither St. John’s wort nor a standard antidepressant medication decreased symptoms of minor depression better than a placebo in a 2011 study. The herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity in a large 2002 study.”
They bring up some other valid points too, such as the fact that the herb might not help with all forms of depression and that current evidence is encouraging but not definitive.
There’s also the potential for St. John’s Wort to interfere with other medications, which they believe could result in some dangerous side effects.
Add on the fact that it isn’t approved by the FDA (meaning there are no standards in regards to how it is processed) and you can see why there might be trepidation about using it as a remedy.
Still, it is legal to obtain and use in the United States, and the compounds contained within are supposedly powerful in their effect.
Other Names for St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is alternatively known as Perforate St. John’s Wort, Common St. John’s Wort, and its Latin name, Hypericum Perforatum.
The hype around St. John’s Wort is substantial, and I’d already heard plenty about its effects, so I went in expecting something to happen. Nothing transcendent, mind you, perhaps just a mild mood boost, I thought.
I got some of the 350 milligram capsules and got to work. The dosing information I had read mentioned that those treating anxiety would take 900 milligrams twice daily, but I don’t have anxiety, so I reasoned the lower dose would be enough to see if I felt anything at all (better to play it safe, anyways).
I had read going in that it took a few weeks to start feeling the effects. Within about fourteen days I could feel a definite boost.
Not so much energy-wise, but I did notice I felt more motivated and a bit more personable as well.
Throughout that fourteenth day, I was cheery and felt ready to get stuff done. Didn’t experience any sort of heavy come-down or crash, and took another dose later in the day as normal. The effects kept right on rolling until bedtime.
I was impressed, so I kept up a similar routine for a few more weeks and achieved pretty level results the whole way through.
I’m thinking the St. John’s Wort did something, but to what degree it was just placebo and me priming myself to believe something was happening I’m not exactly sure.
After all, the effects weren’t anything miraculous, it just felt like a standard, even mood boost that didn’t have much in the way of peaks or valleys.
Combined with the conflicting research, I could easily say “who knows?” The fact that there’s so much positive press, though, has me thinking maybe more research will show that this stuff is the real deal.
St John’s Wort Reviews
You’ll find a lot of positive words regarding St. John’s Wort while you’re scrolling around the Internet.
I read over forums, blogs, and more, making note of a similar theme: a lot of folks who felt like they would receive some benefit from St. John’s Wort did:
“I was taking 4-5 normal St Johns Wort capsules a day, the Swanson brand to be exact. About 14 days in I began to notice the difference. I was in several social situations and there was a noticeable difference of me feeling less anxious and less depressed. Not just a normal less anxious evening, but a noticeable lock on my normal anxiety.”
Even those that reported some side effects still mentioned that the stuff did help them out. The most commonly reported side effects I saw reported included bad interactions with other drugs and a potential for overstimulation/irritability. Some folks reported not feeling anything at all with St. John’s Wort as well.
Benefits and Effects
The primary benefits associated with St. John’s Wort are the mood altering ones. There are some other supposed positives, mind you, but mood enhancement is the only one that has been studied in any great detail.
It is a commonly held belief that St. John’s Wort is effective at boosting overall mood and countering symptoms of mild and moderate depression.
As previously mentioned, a review of 29 studies showed that St. John’s Wort was superior to placebo and as or more effective than standard pharmaceutical antidepressants.
This study was careful to note, though, that there was a slight uptick of favorable results in “German-speaking countries where these products have a long tradition and are often prescribed by physicians.” Also important to take into consideration is the NIH stance:
“a recent reanalysis of the 2002 study on St. John’s wort for major depression showed that the study participants’ beliefs about whether they were taking a placebo or St. John’s wort influenced their depression more so than what they actually received. Even how a clinician talks with patients may lead to a positive response unrelated to the treatment.”
Which gels with my earlier question about whether or not I was fooling myself into thinking St. John’s Wort was working. Hopefully, further study can clear that up.
St. John’s Wort has long been used as a traditional treatment for arthritis and is believed to have substantial anti-inflammatory properties.
At least two studies cite the herb as having potential in this regard, though they are not conclusive evidence of the claims, and more study will need to be performed before a more definitive judgment is reached.
There’s a long list of additional benefits ascribed to St. John’s Wort that have limited (if any) research backing them up.
These include treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, nerve pain, OCD, menopause, psoriasis, and HIV, to name a few. Definitively assessing if St. John’s Wort is effective with any of these conditions is still aways off.
How It Works
The current understanding of St. John’s Wort is incomplete. Researchers know that it contains chemicals like Hypericin, Hyperforin, and Flavonoids. Of those, Hyperforin is believed to be the major psychoactive compound within the plant.
Researchers believe that Hyperforin can cause “an influx of ions (primarily sodium) into various cells such as neurons due to acting on channels which mediate their uptake.” This is what they believe triggers the mood elevating and antidepressant effects.
It is also surmised that the Hyperforin induces reuptake inhibition of monoamines like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which helps to control mood and promote positive states of thought.
St. Johns Wort is normally administered via regular oral ingestion. Normally, it takes a few weeks for the positive effects to manifest themselves. These effects will then maintain until a user stops supplementing with St. John’s Wort.
The recommended dosages of St. John’s Wort can vary wildly. Take a look at this listing from Mayo Clinic.
The amounts vary depending on your intended treatment goal, but since we’re mainly talking about supplementing for mood enhancement, it looks like 20-1800 milligrams is the range to work with.
The effects I received came with about 700 milligrams twice daily, but I’ve seen reports of people using much more to no detriment. The supplement does not need to be taken with food, nor will you have to account for sex or size differences.
As St John’s Wort supplements are typically taken in capsule form, obtaining the appropriate dosage should be a simple task. If using the raw herb or an extract, you might have a more difficult go of it. If you’re using the powder, make sure to weigh it out with a scale before ingestion.
This is where you’ll have to watch out with St. John’s Wort the most. There are a few standard side effects that you might experience while taking St. John’s Wort, including gastrointestinal distress, dizziness, fatigue, irritation, restlessness, and headache.
In rare cases, you might experience photosensitivity, psychosis, or schizophrenia. Perhaps more alarming, though, are the possible interactions St. John’s Wort can have with different drugs.
Currently, it is believed that St. John’s Wort can reduce the effectiveness of various antiretrovirals, benzodiazepines, contraceptives, immunosuppressants, antiarrhythmics, beta-blockers, statins, and a few others. You can see a more complete listing here, courtesy of the University Of Maryland.
Because of the potential for interactions, you’ll have to be extra careful if planning any stacks involving St. John’s Wort. It goes without saying that you should avoid sedatives, SSRIs, and MAOIs.
What you might try stacking it with is the old standby: caffeine. A cup or two of coffee or tea along with your normal St. Johns Wort dose could help provide an energy boost in addition to that general mood elevation.
You could also try Ginseng (I prefer the Panax form), which is known to help with concentration and immune function. It’s another herb, so if you’re looking to complete an “all-herbal” stack, this might be the way to go.
Alternatively, you might want to combine St. John’s Wort with Melatonin. The mix should confer some of Melatonin’s sleep and hormone regulating abilities in addition to the enhanced mood you’ll experience.
You might be concerned about the possible interactions with St. John’s Wort and other substances. In that case, check out these other options:
Racetams come in several varieties, and this one, Aniracetam, has been shown to have an effect on mood.
It can swing you out of a lazy funk and provide you with that extra kick of motivation that you need to get stuff done without bringing you crashing down or giving you the jitters like some stimulants.
The degree of mood enhancement isn’t universal, but consistent enough that many see this as an alternative to stuff like St. John’s Wort.
You can get 5-HTP right over the counter, and a sizable body of anecdotal and research data shows that it can have a marked effect on mood.
The compound works in the brain to increase serotonin levels, decreasing stress and reducing negative or complacent thoughts.
More powerful than the Racetam style drugs but with a similar effect. Noopept stimulates the dopamine and serotonin sites in the brain and boosts mood while having a simultaneous enhancing effect on your overall sense of well-being.
It seems evident to me that St. John’s Wort does something. What that something is might still be up for debate, but there’s evidence supporting that its ability to counter some forms of depression are real.
This hope should be tempered, mind you, by other research showing the contrary, but with time, further studies may yet tip the scales one way or the other.