Wednesday, October 24, 2012

St. John's Wort -- a little light in the season of S.A.D.

For many years while living in central Europe, I experienced winter depression. Having grown up in sunny southern California, and moving to Europe in the mid-19070s, before the "winter blues" was a diagnosable disorder, I couldn’t understand the deep fatigue that overcame me each Fall and had no idea what to do to overcome it.

It wasn’t until the birth of my forth child (in September), and the concurrent onset of postpartum depression, that my yearly SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) turned into full-fledged clinical depression and I recognized the beast for what it was.

I tried many therapies: massage, meditation and prayer; medical light; prozac. This was the first and only time I took a pharmaceutical to alter my mood. The first weeks, I experienced a mental “high,” produced some of my best writing, felt deeply alive. Then, I felt normal for a while, and finally, I became lethargic, passive, and I lost my ability to curb my appetite and began to gain weight. I was very happy when winter was over and I could get off the drug. When the next year came around, I was loathe to again try an pharmaceutical, so I began taking St. John’s Wort at what is considered full therapeutic dosage: the tincture, 30 drops, 3 times a day. The effect was similar to prozac—a creative, mental high that gradually morphed into lethargy, passivity, and hunger I had no desire to curb. I again was thankful that winter was over so I could go off the “drug.”

The next time winter came around I decided to try a reduced dosage. Instead of 30 drops 3 times a day, I did 15. It worked! I was not pulled down into the black paralysis of depression. I did feel some mental elation, but not as much. Best—I did not become lethargic with time.

The following winter, I began to treat myself earlier—before the first symptoms were apparent—with 10 drops only, before sleep and on waking. The winter after that, I dared take only 5 drops. And so on it went, until finally I understood: I could stave off winter depression entirely by using St. John’s Wort at low dosage for just a few days whenever I felt myself beginning to become depressive.

To this day, I keep a St. John’s Wort products close at hand—tincture, pills and tea,and I am convinced that I stave off deeper depression with this approach: I might use it only three times a year, but what suffering I am spared!

The best part of this easy treatment strategy is the empowerment I feel: I am not at the mercy of the seasons; I am not at the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry. I am managing to treat incipient depression on my own terms, am countering a malady that is epidemic.

Depression is surely an expression of helplessness. It is the soul’s way of saying, “I need to re-boot, to be brought down to minimal running so that I can run through all my deepest programming and figure out what is wrong.” But what if what is wrong is not personal, but societal? If individual depression is an expression less of personal problems than of the personal ego being unable to bear up under untenable living conditions? Life in our day is truly stressful, chock-full of intellectual and moral contradictions, pressures and strictures that make many feel helpless in one way or another much of the time. With the continuing economic struggles, more people are feeling helpless and are suffering from depression.

Perhaps in many cases, having someone to talk to, and just more time to come to terms with life will help prevent depression. But as people are more burnt out by high-stress lives, are more socially isolated in general, and as our medical system becomes less willing to spend the time and effort to provide one-on-one consultation, we turn instead to pharmaceuticals for hope, strength, and often, for survival.

Statistics show that most of us, at one time or another, will suffer from mild to severe depression. And it will change us forever. For once the brain has experienced true depression, and has embedded the biochemical pattern of depression, it can easily re-emerge. 

This is where St. John’s Wort helps. By altering the brain’s pattern at the first sign of symptoms, by re-intruducing the “light” for which it is known, I am convinced that it prevents the brain’s memory of depression from unfolding.

I am publishing this article in October, 2012. A few days ago, I felt a sudden and crushing weight of depression as the skies turned gray. After only two days of taking St. John’s Wort, I was fine again.

Winter depression is serious. It is a loss of quality of life—and in mothers, it equates to a loss of quality for the children as well. 

The proclivity for SAD could be genetic, as my three boys were all affected. At the end of summer, they would return to school excited, energized, and eager to tackle the challenges of education. 

By the end of September, they already felt fatigued and foggy-minded. Keeping up with the demands of school was just too much for them. It was very demoralizing.

I began to give them a few drops of the tincture as well. It helped, markedly, but there were other factors over which I had no control—in particular, the rampant consumption of chocolate and cookies, typical of European festivities from October to New Years. The same is true in the US, of course, though to a lesser extent, I believe: Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are each an excuse to indulge in sweet, sugary food that provides a "sugar high" for a while, and then lets us down hard.

One aspect of Winter Depression is in fact the craving for carbs, and some experts believe it may be therapeutic to eat pasta, bread and potatoes when we feel SAD. But the extreme blood-sugar highs and lows that result from a high-carb diet, especially in those of us who are insulin resistant, have the opposite effect: they make us irritable, fatigued, and ultimately, depressed. Weightgain is also not helpful for our self-esteem. After trying to “be good” all Spring and Summer, putting on 10 – 15 lbs in winter leaves us feeling we were “bad” and that we let ourselves down, had no self-discipline, etc.

Not only my sons, but my husband, too, felt the down pulling effect of SAD. When September came around he would develop a prickly hide and become irritable, irrationally angry, and snappy. It took some convincing on my part, but he, too, (much to my relief) eventually gave in and took a few drops of St. John’s Wort tincture each day—and was immediately his old loving self again. After a week or two, he would invariably say that St. John’s Wort slowed his reflexes while driving, and stop taking it. Fortunately, even that short span of low dosage treatment was enough to get him over the hump of the changing season.

 Getting over the hump—that expression describes very well my subjective sense of how St. John’s Wort works. In the Fall, the brain must transition from a summer of long, light days to a winter of darkness, and it appears to be the transition that is tricky. It’s much like going from a light-filled room into a dark room: until the eyes adjust to the change one might feel dizzy, unsure of one’s footing, but once the eyes and the brain have transitioned, we get our balance back. It is just as dark as before, but we are used to it, so we function well. 

It’s the transitional period that is awkward and risky, a time when the brain can slip into the chemistry of depression. And St. John’s Wort appears to make that transition an easy one.

The ability for the eyes and the skin to react to sunlight is called “photosensitivity,” and St. John’s Wort actually increases photosensitivity. That means, one’s eyes and skin literally respond to light more sensitively—it is as if we are able to absorb more sunlight. On the package, you may read a warning that you are at increased risk for sunburn while on St. John’s Wort, and it is clear that persons who have sun allergy should not use it.

St. John’s Wort’s blooms on the summer solstice, at which time the herb is collected and dried, tinctured or processed into capsules or pills. Poetically, the herb actually contains the imprint of the longest, sunniest days of the year. The flower itself looks like a small, radiant sun.

Herbalists who believe that nature presents itself to us with visual and metaphoric keys to its use absolutely love St. John’s Wort, with its luminous color, its appropriate time of blooming, and calming effect on the nerves and psychie. 

If you are thinking of trying St. John's Wort, do your research to be sure that there are no interactions with any drugs you are presently taking.


When I hit 50 years old I found that I could barely get out of bed in the mornings when it started to get dark in the winter. I had read about St John's Wort being used for SAD sufferers and I started a course over the winter months. Within 6 days of taking the tablets I found an immense improvement on my mood and was able to get up for work absolutely no problem during winter. I take a 6-month course starting at the end of September and finish it at the beginning of March with the light mornings. That's all I need to help me through the winter months. This works for me each year now and I wouldn't be without them. Just one tablet a day made all the difference.
- Brian Wallace , Birmingham, UK, 26/10/2010 12:56
The Mayo Clinic says: Extracts of Hypericum perforatum L. (St. John's wort) have been recommended traditionally for a wide range of medical conditions. The most common modern-day use of St. John's wort is the treatment of depression. Numerous studies report St. John's wort to be more effective than placebo and equally effective as tricyclic antidepressant drugs in the short-term treatment of mild-to-moderate major depression (1-3 months). It is not clear if St. John's wort is as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants such as sertraline (Zoloft®).
Recently, controversy has been raised by two high-quality trials of St. John's wort for major depression that did not show any benefits. However, due to problems with the designs of these studies, they cannot be considered definitive. Overall, the scientific evidence supports the effectiveness of St. John's wort in mild-to-moderate major depression. The evidence in severe major depression remains unclear.
St. John's wort can cause many serious interactions with prescription drugs, herbs, or supplements. Therefore, people using any medications should consult their healthcare providers including their pharmacist prior to starting therapy.


  1. I bought 500 Mg.capsules....taking one in the at dinner time. Is this too much to take? Taking for depression.

  2. Hi, I am not a doctor and cannot give dosage recommendations. From my own experience, the way that I handle a sudden dip in mood is first of all to meditate and relax, and see if my mood improves -- it usually does. If there are lots of compounding factors though, including PMS or SAD or an event or added stressor that just tilts the balance in favor of depression, I will take St. John's Wort, and usually, just two days of self-meditation brings the "lightening up" that I require to find balance. The important thing is to learn all the components of lifestyle that support mood, and to cultivate these so that we do not need medication. But if you do need medication, it is the better part of wisdom to get it as soon as possible, and once you have the support of medication, to set about learning more to correct lifestyle influences. That way, in the long term, you are best prepared to meet whatever life sends your way. The best to you!

  3. I just started taking St. John's Wort 4 days ago (along with L-Theanine and progesterone... I've been going through one treatment option after the other looking for relief from very severe depression and anxiety that has plagued me since age 11 - now 23) So far I feel it may be taking the edge off and giving a tiny bit of relief, but my appetite has skyrocketed to what it was like when I was taking paxil (SSRI). Did you experience an increased appetite from St. John's?

  4. Yes, I experienced very similar results including increased hunger/decreased ability to say no, and fatigue, but only when taking it at full therapeutic dosage. When I used it low dosage I did not see those side-effects, and I was able to gradually reduce my SAD from year to year. I am sorry to hear about what you are experiencing. Perhaps reduce the dosage, and change your diet so that you are not triggering cravings for carbs through wrong food choices. Feel free to contact me for info on diet consults and I also am a hypnotherapist, and I am working a lot with depression and anxiety.