Depression – Herbal Medicine-Phytotherapy

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Herbal Medicine / Phytotherapy

The use of herbs forms part of the medical systems of many different countries and their effectiveness cannot be discounted. Many of these natural remedies can be used to treat depression. Patient QI has compiled a list of the remedies that have been involved in recent studies and show some evidence of benefit in treating depression. However, some plants can interact adversely with other drug treatments so it is vital to discuss them with your medical practitioner before beginning to use them.


There was tremendous enthusiasm for the use of 5-HTP products about a decade ago. 5-HTP  is a chemical by-product of the protein building block L-tryptophan and can also be produced from the seeds of an African plant - Griffonia simplicifolia. It is a substance involved in making some of the most important brain neurotransmitters including serotonin. However, further research has discovered that it can also cause serious side effects including myalgia and blood abnormalities and can react badly with other antidepressant medications. Current recommendations are to avoid 5-HTP until considerably more detailed research has been undertaken.


This spice has been used in Ayurveda medicine as a remedy for depression for centuries. A recent trial in mice appears to confirm that nutmeg does have an effect. The scientists concluded that the antidepressant-like effect of nutmeg extract seemed “to be mediated by interaction with the adrenergic, dopaminergic, and serotonergic systems.” More research is recommended.

St John’s Wort - Hypericum

This is a red hot favourite with herbologists but it does interact badly with many prescribed drugs, expecially  warfarin, ciclosporin, oral contraceptives, anticonvulsants, digoxin, theophylline, or certain anti-HIV medicines. Also, you should not take it at the same time as certain other prescribed antidepressants. Having said that, there is evidence to suggest St John’s Wort may have part to play in treating mild depression symptoms, but because it interacts with light it is not recommended if you are also using a lightbox. 

In a large systematic review of studies using human subjects published in 2011, St John's Wort was found to be equivalent to antidepressant drugs but with fewer side effects .

Other studies have found that taking St. John’s Wort extracts improves mood, and decreases anxiety and insomnia related to depression and is about as effective in treating mild depression as many prescription drugs. Although St John’s Wort is better tolerated than many anti-depressant medications, it may also interact with other drugs as well as light. (See section on Caution)


Extracted from the root of an exotic orchid, Chinese medics have used Gastrodin for thousands of years to treat cognitive problems ranging from headaches to seizures. A recent study investigated the method by which Gastrodin may act as an antidepressant and results showed that it has a neuroprotective effect on brain cells in the hippocampus, in particular protecting from inflammation.


Patient QI found two studies that reported on the use of Lavender in patients with depression.  The first study assessed the effects of using Lavandula angustifilia infusions as a supportive treatment to patients with depression.  The study compared two groups, those taking Citalopram alone and those taking Citalopram plus 2 cups of an infusion of 5g of lavender per day.  Results showed that lavender plus Citalopram group had less signs of depression after eight weeks of treatment than the Citalopram alone group.

The second study investigated the effects of lavender oil capsules in patients suffering from major depressive disorders. Patients with major depression were given lavender capsules to help combat the agitation, anxiety and insomnia that are common in patients starting psychiatric treatment for depression. Results showed that the combination of the capsules with an antidepressant resulted in a reduction of depression and anxiety and an improvement in sleep.

Rosmarinic acid

Rosmarinic acid is found in many plants including basil, holy basil, lemon balm, rosemary, marjoram, sage, thyme and peppermint.  It is an important constituent of many Chinese medical remedies and has been shown to have antidepressant properties. Patient QI found a new study that has shown that the antidepressant effects of rosmarinic acid are due to its neuroprotective effect in the hippocampus.

Acanthopanax koreanum

Acanthopanax koreanum is a fruit that is used in Japan, Korea and China for its properties as a tonic and for its anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects. Patient QI found no clinical studies to support its use, however, a recent lab study showed that Acanthopanax extract can reduce the behavioural and biochemical changes related to stress and major depressive disorders.


The root, and sometimes the flower and seeds of this plant, are used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine to treat problems of depression. A recent study has shown that Paeoniflorin (the main glycoside in Peony) increases the levels of serotonin (5HT) and serotonin metabolites in the hippocampus and that this may be the mechanism of its antidepressant- like effects.

Tumeric - Curcumin

Curcumin is fast becoming one of the most studied traditional medicines. Along with its antiviral and antiinflammatory effects it can also act as an antidepressant. A recent study has shown that it has a lasting effect on changing depressive symptoms and it produces a neuro-protective effect by increasing levels of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor.

Bitter Orange  - fructus aurantii

Bitter orange is used in traditional Chinese medicine and in the Amazon for nausea, indigestion and constipation.  It also has antidepressant effects.  Patient QI found one recent study that investigated the antidepressant action of Bitter Orange extract.  The study showed that the extract has a monoamine oxidase inhibitor type activity.

Free and Easy Wanderer’s powder – Xiao Yao Wan

Xiao yao wan is traditional Chinese medicine formula made from a variety of herbs (bupleurum root, peony root, angelica root, white atractylodes rhizome, Tuckahoe mushroom, fresh ginger rhizome, liquorice root and wild mint). The compound  is used for irritability, depression and moodiness as well as fatigue, headaches and dizziness amongst other things.  It is also known as Free and Easy Wanderer’s powder. Although there are few clinical trials available a 2005 trial on some of its main ingredients concluded that “Xiao Yao Wan containing Chai Hu regulates nervous and endocrine systems.”, a further lab trial also showed that Xiao Yao Wan produced an antidepressant effect in animals.

Day Lilly – Hemerocallis citrina

Day Lilly is another traditional Chinese medicine and Patient QI found a study that showed that an ethanol extract of the plant has a monoamine oxidase inhibitor like activity that explains its use as a remedy for depression.


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