As the days become shorter and we move into the latter days of autumn, the decrease in sunlight can affect our moods. Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as S.A.D., is a form of depression from which many suffer during the darker days of winter. There are many other causes of depression as well, a condition that has become pervasive in our society and is rapidly increasing. The National Institutes of Health has estimated that over 20 million (one in twenty) Americans may be suffering from depression that is serious enough to require professional treatment. Depression is now something that even our children are experiencing in greater numbers. Teenage suicide rates are escalating, as the stresses of daily life have become overwhelming for so many.

Conventional medical treatment for depression has often been the prescription of antidepressant medications that alter the brain chemistry by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters seratonin and norepinephrine. in the brain. Seratonin is known as a “feel good” hormone that enables us to relax and enjoy life. norepinephrine. is a stimulant to the body and mind. The popular SSRI drugs Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil work by blocking the re-uptake process of seratonin so that more will accumulate in the brain. Other drugs such as Elavil, Adapin, and Aventyl are known as tricyclic antidepressants. They work by preventing seratonin and norepinephrine. from returning to the nerve cells that released them. The class of drugs known as MAO inhibitors, such as Nardil and Parnate act by indirectly stimulating the production of norepinephrine. and seratonin in the brain by inhibiting the enzyme that normally breaks them down.

Though many people experience some symptomatic relief from their depression, others feel worse when taking these drugs. All of these medications can have serious side effects with long-term negative consequences to overall health. SSRI drugs such as Prozac have caused tremors, nausea, headaches, changes in weight, decreased libido, dizziness and insomnia. Tricylcic medications can produce adverse reactions in the cardiovascular system such as high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and in some cases, heart attack and stroke. MAO inhibitors can cause insomnia, constipation, difficulty focusing, uncoordination, and a serious reaction called hypertensive crisis, which occurs when the blood pressure climbs so high it can trigger bleeding in the brain. Ironically, some MAO inhibitors can also inhibit the action of vitamin B6, which is essential for the production of seratonin and other neurotransmitters that are vital to mental health.

A more natural approach to the treatment of depression would include lifestyle changes such as improving diet and nutrition, addressing emotional issues such as frustration and anger, and employing the use of herbs to cleanse the body of toxins (including medications and other toxic chemicals) that can contribute to emotional and mental imbalance. Herbs in particular can have dramatic effects on the mind and emotions. One such herb that has recently received a lot of attention for its success with depression is St. John’s Wort.

St. John’s Wort (wort is an old English word for plant) is a rapidly-spreading perennial that grows about one foot tall with numerous bright yellow flowers displaying small black dots on its five petals, and long numerous stamens. The leaves have tiny transparent oil glands that look like holes, similar to windows letting in the light. When pinched, the leaves and flowers release a red oil. Early Christians named the plant in honor of John the Baptist because it was said to first bloom on his birthday on June 24, and to bleed its red oil on August 29, the anniversary of his beheading. In medieval times it was believed that if one slept with a piece of the plant under one’s pillow on St. John’s Eve, the Saint would appear in a dream, give his blessing, and prevent one from dying during the following year. For centuries it was thought St. John’s Wort had the power to drive out evil spirits. (It is interesting to note that native shamans and traditional medicine men and women treat depression by extracting negative entities from the depressed person’s energy field.)

Of the 100 or so varieties of St. John’s Wort, it is hypericum perforatum that has the most potent medicinal value, and is the species used in the research done on treatment for depression. The plant is harvested when in flower, and all above ground parts are utilized in medicinal preparations. Historically, St. John’s Wort has been used for numerous ailments, most notably for regenerating the nerves and for dispelling pain. Burns, wounds, bruises, urinary disorders, nervous coughs, menstrual cramps, menopausal distress, anemia, gastric problems, sciatica, recurring fevers, melancholy, epilepsy, anorexia, and parasite infestation have all been helped by this healing herb. The Latin name for this plant, hupereikon, meaning “over an apparition” refers to the traditional use of this plant for dispelling evil spirits and restoring balance to the mentally ill.

The oil of St. John’s Wort is made by infusing the fresh flowers in olive oil. The yellow flowers turn the oil red, and the result is a powerful remedy for wound healing, sunburn, sprains, muscle and joint inflammation, and neuralgia. There have even been reports of St. John’s Wort oil being applied in cases of severed fingers or limbs to assist in remarkably fast regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. Apparently, if you make the oil from dried herb, it won’t turn the oil red unless you put the bottle in the sun. This is another “signature” of this plant’s connection to light. The flower essence of St. John’s Wort is also used as a vibrational healing remedy for shedding light onto a dark situation, enabling one to see problems from a more positive perspective.

Homeopathically, hypericum perforatum is considered to be the “arnica” for injuries to the nervous system. This remedy is called for when there has been trauma to the body due to surgery, lacerations, toothache, deep needle prick, or for numbness and pain that radiates along a nerve pathway.

Research in Europe shows that a substance in St. John’s Wort called hypericin helps to increase the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain. Studies show that hypericin and other components of St. John’s Wort help to inhibit the breakdown of seratonin in the brain. The standardized extract of St. John’s Wort containing 0.3 percent hypericin is identified in German studies as having significant support in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Since over 25 double blind studies have confirmed this property, St. John’s Wort is widely used in Europe for this purpose. Many of these studies actually evaluated the effectiveness of St. John’s Wort in lifting depression compared to that of antidepressant drugs, and found that the herb was more effective than the drugs and did not have the harmful side effects attributed to the medications.

Research has shown that most adults respond to St. John’s Wort for depression at a dosage of 0.3 percent hypericin (in 300 mg of the dried herbal extract if taken in capsules), one to three times daily. If taking the liquid alcohol extract, one dropperful one to three times a day would be adequate. Tea preparations were not as effective in alleviating depression in research studies. The effect of St. John’s Wort will be different with everyone, and while some will feel better rather quickly, others may take up to two months to experience the full benefit. Those who are currently taking an antidepressant drug should consult their physician before beginning to use St. John’s Wort. Some medications must be discontinued a few weeks before taking the herb. Other drugs can be gradually reduced while slowly increasing the dosage of the herb.

Because the plant increases sensitivity to sunlight, St. John’s Wort can be particularly beneficial for those who suffer from S.A.D. during the winter months. In fact, one of the side effects of St. John’s Wort when taken internally in large amounts (exceeding the recommended dose) is hypersensitivity to sunlight, which can cause sunburn or a rash. Should this happen, the skin will return to normal within a few days after discontinuing the herb. In “light” of the more serious side effects of antidepressant medication, this should be of little concern to those taking the recommended dosage.

It should be noted that St. John’s Wort can be of great benefit for stress and anxiety as well as depression, as it helps to balance the emotions, increase confidence, and make everything look brighter.