Thursday August 31 8:19 PM ET
By Patricia Reaney
LONDON (Reuters) - German scientists said Friday the largest study yet of the herbal remedy St John's wort shows it relieves depression as successfully as a common antidepressant.
The study supports earlier research that found the herb, also known as hypericum perforatum, was as effective as imipramine, a standard antidepressant, and produced fewer side effects in patients.
"Hypericum is therapeutically equivalent to imipramine, but is better tolerated by patients," Dr Helmut Woelk, coordinator of the research project, said in The British Medical Journal.
Woelk, medical director of the teaching hospital at the University of Giessen, said the herb should be considered as a first-line treatment for patients with mild to moderate depression.
He and his colleagues compared St John's wort to imipramine in 324 patients in 40 clinics throughout Germany. Half of the group received the herb while the other half were given the drug.
After six weeks of treatment they found the herb worked just as well as the drug in relieving the patients' depression.
Patients taking St John's wort also reported fewer side effects, such as sweating, dizziness and dry mouth, than the imipramine group.
"There was some evidence to suggest that hypericum may be better than imipramine in relieving anxiety associated with depression although there were no differences in any of the measures of efficacy," Woelk added.
The herb, which is available in capsules, tincture extract, ointment and dried flowers and leaves, is thought to work in a similar way to antidepressants by increasing the brain chemical serotonin that is involved in controlling mood.
St John's wort has been called nature's alternative to Prozac but researchers warned earlier this year that it could reduce the effectiveness of other drugs.
Doctors at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) in the United States said that the herb can interfere with the anti-AIDS drug indinavir, a protease inhibitor used for treating HIV infection.
When patients took the drug and the herb together, the researchers found that levels of the drug in the blood were reduced dramatically.
Another study by scientists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland found the herb interfered with cyclosporine, a drug used to prevent patients from rejecting organ transplants.
The British government advised people in March that the herb could prevent
some drugs for heart disease, asthma, AIDS and the oral contraceptive pill
from working properly.