The experience of emotional and psychological depression has been noted and subjected to various explanations since the dawn of recorded history and quite probably before. The current model, which reduces all depression to a deficiency in serotonin, seems as overly simplistic and inadequate as those before it. This is to say, at least in part, that depression is a complex and age-old illness with a storied history of treatment. There are a number of herbs that have been used successfully to help relieve symptoms of depression, and thoughtful consideration of various root causes of psychological malaise can serve to steer one toward improvement.
Recent studies have reinforced the potential efficacy of a number of traditional herbal aids for depression.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
One of the most widely known herbs purported to help with depression; St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been the subject of much debate in recent years. While the data on St. John’s Wort is confusing to say the least, it is worth noting its long and extensive use throughout the world, along with several independent investigations reinforcing its efficacy. A 2009 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that “Overall, the St. John’s wort extracts tested in the trials were superior to placebo, similarly effective as standard antidepressants, and had fewer side effects than standard antidepressants .”
Another thoughtful and extensive meta-analysis published by four physicians in the British Journal of Psychiatry considered 37 prior studies and found that “Hypericum perforatum extracts improved symptoms more than placebo and similarly to standard antidepressants in adults with mild to moderate depression .” Furthermore, hypericum extracts caused fewer adverse effects than questionable antidepressants.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Lesser known, but also an interesting aid in depression is the adaptogen Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). In a very well designed and executed study of Rhodiola rosea, 89 individuals, male and female, ranging from 18-70 years of age and selected according to DSM-IV criteria for depression, were divided into three groups. One group received 340 mg of rhodiola per day, in two tablets, a second received 680 mg/day in two tablets and a third received two placebo tablets. Both groups receiving the rhodiola experienced significant improvements in overall depression, insomnia, emotional instability and somatization as scored in the Beck Depression Inventory and Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAMD) questionnaire. The placebo group showed no such improvement. No serious side effects were reported among any of the three groups .
Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
This herb has been used extensively to relieve depression that occurs during menopause or in other times of hormonal fluctuation. Recent debate about possible liver damage resulting from long-term and excessive use is worthy of note, but certainly not reason to disregard the potential benefits of this herb. Like all herbal remedies, responsible use requires responsible consideration of the whole cost-benefit picture.
Rhaponticum (Rhaponticum carthanmoides)
Another interesting alternative for menopause related mood disorders is Rhaponticum (Rhaponticum carthanmoides): in a study of 109 women, published in 2007 in the journal Menopause, over 80% of women who took Rhaponticum daily for twelve weeks reported a “a marked improvement in health state and general well-being.”
Lavender and Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Two lovely herbs to investigate: Lavender and Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). A fascinating study from the Neuroscience Unit of University of Northumbria in Newcastle found that a 600 mg serving of melissa officinalis alleviated the physiological effects of laboratory induced stress in healthy individuals, suggesting that the herb may have great potential in mitigating deleterious effects of stress outside the laboratory .
Researchers in Korea investigated the effects of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) aromatherapy on insomnia and depression among 42 female college students, and found that both maladies showed improvement . In another study that suggests lavender may have more powerful effects than previously speculated, Japanese scientists found that lavender “may have beneficial acute effects on coronary circulation.”
Other herbs frequently used by herbalists to reduce depressive symptoms include:
- Mimosa (Albizzia julibrissin)
- Pulsatilla (Anemone pulsatilla)
- Tiger Lily (Lilium lancifolium)
- Cactus (Selenicereus grandiflorus)
- Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Linde K, Berner MM, Kriston L. St. John’s wort for treating depression. Cochrane Summaries. 2009 October 7.
- Klaus Linde MD, Michael Berner MD, Matthias Egger MD, Cynthia Mulrow MD MSc. St John’s wort for depression meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2005) 186: 99-107 doi: 10.1192/bjp.186.2.99.
- NYU Langone Medical Center. Rhodiola rosea. 2012 July.
- Kennedy DO, Scholey AB, Tildesley NT, Perry EK, Wesnes KA. Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm). Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2002 Jul;72(4):953-64.
- Lee IS, Lee GJ. [Effects of lavender aromatherapy on insomnia and depression in women college students]. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006 Feb;36(1):136-43. Korean.