Unless you've been stranded on a desert island, you've no doubt heard of St. John's wort, a common herb grown throughout Europe and North America. Although it has been around for ages the Greeks and Romans used it to treat infections and inflammation St. John's wort has been much publicized in the media. Psychiatrist Harold H. Bloomfield's book Hypericum and Depression (Prelude Press) put the herb in the spotlight, where it has stayed ever since. And, in 1997, German and American researchers evaluated twenty-three studies of St. John's wort and concluded that it worked as well as, sometimes better than, prescription anti-depressants for treating mild to moderate depression, a mental disorder that affects one out of four Americans. Best of all, the herbal treatment produced fewer side effects. In 1993, more than 2.7 million prescriptions were written in Germany for St. John's wort. In fact, it outsells Prozac seven to one. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sunk $4.5 million into studying the effectiveness of St. John's wort.
The active compound in St. John's wort is hypericin, a chemical that was first isolated from the herb in 1942 and has a significant anti-depressant effect. Some pharmacologists think other active ingredients besides hypericin may be at work. Benefits from supplementing with St. John's wort include the following:
* Relief of depression
* Elevation of mood
* Relief of anxiety
* Increased sense of well-being
* Enhanced sleep
The herb is believed to increase serotonin levels in the brain, although no one knows exactly how. Elevated serotonin levels tend to suppress the appetite and curb carbohydrate cravings.
St. John's wort's effect on serotonin levels is one reason why it is an ingredient in certain natural weight-loss supplements. Sometimes it is combined with 5-HTP, a building block of serotonin, presumably to enhance the effects of this brain chemical. However, no scientific evidence exists to support any benefit from a St. John's wort/5-HTP combo.
At least one product combines St. John's wort with the amino acid phenylalanine a formulation that claims to help build neurotransmitters (both the herb and the amino acid increase levels of neurotransmitters in the brain). In theory, this combination should work, but again, there are no data available to support the effectiveness of such a formulation.
Some formulas pair St. John's wort with the herbal stimulant ephedra, which contains ephedrine, known to help the body burn fat. An active compound called catechin in St. John's wort apparently extends the half-life of ephedrine in other words, it guards ephedrine so that it stays in the body longer before being eliminated. Theoretically, the longer ephedrine stays in the body, the more time it has to exert its fat-burning action. But this is all supposition. No studies, animal or human, are yet available. Besides, ephedra is a stimulant, and St. John's wort is an anti-depressant. This could produce a tug-of-war effect on the system, with adverse side effects and imbalances.
It's extremely important to read the labels of natural weight-loss supplements and educate yourself on the ingredients they contain, and what they can and cannot do.