Seasonal Affective Disorder – Herbal Medicine / Phytotherapy

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Seasonal Affective Disorder Herbal Medicine Phytotherapy

The traditional use of herbal medicine forms a part of medicine systems in many different countries (China – TCM,  Japan – Kampo, India – Ayurveda).  Many of these natural medicine remedies can be used to treat depression.  Patient QI has compiled a list of the remedies that have recent studies that show some evidence of benefit in treating depression.  A word of warning … do not use any of these treatments without first discussing them with a qualified traditional medicine practitioner.


Gastrodin is the active ingredient in the Chinese medicine Tianma and it has been shown to have antidepressant activities in an animal model. 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 disorder. Patients with major depression were given lavender capsules to help combat the agitation, anxiety and insomnia that is 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 reduced anxiety and 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 medicine 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 factor 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. WPatient QI found no clinical studies to support its use, however, a recent study lab study showed that Acanthopanax extract can reduce the behavioural and biochemical changes related to stress and major depressive disorders.


Peony is another traditional Chinese herbal medicine that is used 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.


Curcumin (turmeric) is fast becoming one of the most studied traditional medicines. Along with its antiviral and inflammatory effects it can act as an antidepressant. A recent study has shown that it has a lasting effect on changing depressive symptoms and it has 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 san is traditional Chinese medicine formula that 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. There are very few clinical trials available on its use but Patient QI did find a lab trial which showed that Xiao yao san did produce an antidepressant effect in an animal

Day Lilly

Hemerocallis citrina or ‘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.

St John’s Wort

There is evidence to suggest St John’s Wort may have part to play in treating mild depression symptoms associated with SAD, 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 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)

The Seasonal Affective Disorder  Herbal Medicine Phytotherapy page is updated regularly as new information is published in the medical journals.

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