St. John’s Wort extracts can be as effective as standard antidepressant drugs for treating mild to moderate major depression with significantly few side effects. But recent ConsumerLab.com tests reveal that six out of 10 supplements on the market contain far lower levels of key plant compounds than expected.
These compounds, hypericin and hyperforin, are associated with the herb’s effectiveness.
“The wide range of variation across the products we tested means that some St. John’s Wort supplements may be helpful for treating depression while others may not contain enough of the herb to have a meaningful effect,” says ConsumerLab.com president and founder, Dr. Tod Cooperman.
He tells Newsmax Health that the product is often adulterated with dyes that give the herb its characteristic reddish tinge when tested with outdated analytical methods, but mask the fact that the pure herb has been ‘cut’ with an inferior compound.
“We used a method that identifies the hypercin molecule and isn’t ‘tricked’ by dyes,” he says. “Supplements were also checked for potential contamination with the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium and leads and the pills were check to ensure that they break apart to properly release their ingredients.”
Sales of St. John’s Wort top $57 million annually according to sales records and its one of the most popular herbal remedies on the market. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates herbal supplements, Cooperman says that the “enforcement is loose and regulations lax.”
“That’s why I formed ConsumerLab.com in 1999 to become a leading provider of consumer information and provide independent evaluations of products that affect health and nutrition,” he says. The company is supported by subscribers and provides information on more than 1,000 products from over 400 brands.
St. John’s Wort has been the subject of numerous double-blind, placebo controlled studies that found the herb as effective as standard antidepressant drugs, including medication in the SSRI family, such as Prozac.
“But you need to choose carefully,” notes Cooperman, “Since six out of the products we tested failed to make the grade.”
Those that passed include:
• Gaia Herbs St. John’s Wort Flower Buds and Tops drops
• Nature’s Way Perika St. John’s Wort tablets.
• Shaklee Moodlift Complex, capsules.
• Standard Process Mediherb St. John’s Wort tablets.
The products that didn’t pass muster include:
• Now St. John’s Wort capsules.
• Planetary Herbals Full Spectrum St. John’s Wort Extract tablets.
• Swanson St. John’s Wort capsules.
• Vitacost St. John’s Wort Extract capsules.
• The Vitamin Shoppe St. John’s Wort capsules.
• Whole Foods St. John’s Wort capsules.
As with conventional antidepressants, it appears that St. John’s Wort takes several weeks to achieve its full effect, notes Cooperman.
It’s generally considered to be safe when taken in appropriate amounts and seldom causes more than occasional digestive distress, he says. “However, other reported side effects could include anxiety, fatigue, headache, insomnia and skin rashes”
One long term study found that the use of St. John’s Wort can cause sexual difficulties and, like conventional anti depressants, may cause hair loss.
In addition, Cooperman warns that St. John’s Wort may interact with several common medications, reducing their effectiveness.
These include statin drugs, cancer chemotherapy drugs, oral contraceptives, warfarin and medications like Prilosec that treat esophageal reflux symptoms.
“Always check with your health care provider before taking St. John’s Wort to ensure that it won’t interfere with your medications so get the maximum benefits,” says Cooperman.
“This is an exceptionally well studied herb so the risks are known, but it’s always wise to check with your physician before taking the herb and never suddenly stop taking the supplement without supervision.”
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