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7 March 2005
LONDON – The well-known herb St John’s wort is as effective in treating depression as the widely-prescribed antidepressant drug paroxetine, a team of German researchers has found, according to a report in the British Medical Journal.
“Our results support the use of St John’s wort as an alternative to standard anti-depressants in moderate to severe depression, especially as it is well tolerated,” co-author Meinhard Kieser said.
The study comparing the herb with paroxetine – also known as Seroxat – was undertaken by Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals of Karlsruhe and the Institute for Medical Research Management and Biometrics in Nuremberg.
The team concluded that the herb was just as effective, if not better, than paroxetine, and patients experienced fewer side- effects – usually stomach disorders with both types of medication.
The findings helped to enhance the reputation of the herb – taken in extract form to ensure accurate dosage – as an aid in combating moderate to severe depression.
The two substances were given to the patients, aged 18 to 70, for six weeks. At the end of the trial half of those taking St John’s wort – 61 out of 122 – found their depressive symptoms were in decline.
This was true of only a third of the patients on paroxetine – 43 out of 122.
The paroxetine group suffered more side-effects, with 269 adverse effects reported during the six-week trial. Those on St John’s wort reported 172 adverse effects.
But the team stressed that “as in any effective antidepressant, potential interactions with other drugs deserve clinical attention”.
The widespread use of drugs like Seroxat – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs – has been causing concern in Britain for some months.
Up 3.5 million people in England and Wales alone have been prescribed SSRIs for the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Regulators called last year for doctors to exercise greater caution in prescribing these medications and urged the greater use of counselling rather than medication in treating moderate depression.
Philip Cowen, a member of the British Association of Psychopharmacology, said the study should not alter professional thinking, as a problem with St John’s wort was ensuring a regulation dose.
And a spokeswoman for Britain’s Depression Alliance said: “There is evidence it can be used to treat mild to moderate depression but the problem with St John’s wort is that it is not regulated. You just don’t know what you are getting.
But she also said regulators should take a close look at the study.