A Natural Treatment for Depression: St Johns Wort

An natural treatment for depression is St. John’s-wort. “St. John’s-wort is the preferred treatment for mild depression in Europe,” says Plant physiologist Stephen O. Duke who heads the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Natural Products Utilization Research Unit at Oxford, Mississippi. “Physicians there choose it four to five times more often than synthetic drugs because they believe it has fewer side effects. Europeans get their supply from Albania, but it grows wild in the United States.”

Much to the chagrin of ranchers who know St. John’s-wort as a pest, horses and cattle that eat the plant develop a sensitivity to light, resulting in a rash, Duke says. Understanding the biochemistry involved might help reduce the effects.

But now, however, Duke’s main concern is extracting a red pigment from the plant to benefit people.

St. John’s-wort tablets are standardized by the amount of the red pigment, called hypericin, which some researchers suspect is the active ingredient. Hypericin is being studied as both an anti-viral and anti-cancer drug.

St. John’s-wort has yet to receive FDA approval for use as a treatment for depression in the United States. But several companies are doing phase I and II clinical trials, a step toward gaining approval. Currently, Americans can buy St. John’s-wort as a diet supplement.

Finding an economical extraction method for hypericin would be helpful in developing St. John’s-wort both for medicinal purposes and as an anti-viral agent. Since plant extraction and physiology are aspects of Duke’s work, he began with research on the plant.

It was already known that hypericin was concentrated in small black and red dots found on the flowers and leaves of St. John’s-wort and that it was effective in pest control. But hypericin, if given in a high enough concentration, is toxic to all living things, including St. John’s-wort. The plant protects itself by sealing the hypericin dots off with a thin cell layer.

Normally, hypericin is extracted by chopping the plant up and extracting it with ethanol. But Duke may have a better way.

“The plant has other enzymes that can destroy hypericin when the cells containing the toxin are breached,” he says. “Crushing the plant releases these hypericin-destroying proteins, defeating your purpose. We are looking at chemical extraction methods that may work better—like soaking the leaves in a solution that gently removes the hypericin without having to cut them.”

Jill Lee, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

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