Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your Health: Plant healing for stress and low moods

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St John's Wort has been used throughout the ages to lift the mood and energy levels of those who felt weighed down by daily stresses and strains. Photo / 123RF
St John's Wort has been used throughout the ages to lift the mood and energy levels of those who felt weighed down by daily stresses and strains. Photo / 123RF

Hi Sandra, I struggle with my mood, especially when under stress. I spent some time on antidepressants in my youth and I've since learnt techniques that help me to manage without medication. I've recently become interested in nutrition and plants, and was wondering if there's anything I can take to support my mood during tough times? Thanks, Gary.

Hi Gary, thanks for your great question. There has been a recent shift in our society to be more open about depression, anxiety and mental health. This is necessary and beneficial, since each and every one of us will experience suffering or sadness to varying degrees in our lifetime.

For uplifting mood in times of stress, there is no greater plant ally than St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). St John's Wort is one of the most widely known and used medicinal plants in the world. It certainly is the most researched with over 70 clinical trials, establishing its scientific equivalence to synthetic antidepressant, mood and antianxiety drugs.

It is also confirmed as an anti-inflammatory, antiviral, nerve and wound healer due to its versatile healing properties. Both inflammation and infections can lead to low moods, therefore having these therapeutic properties concurrent to the antidepressant effects is a special feature that only plant medicine can offer.

In Norse mythology, St John's Wort was dedicated to the Sun God Baldur, the bearer of all life. Our ancestors revered it as a manifestation of light because of its perceived ability to chase away "all dark and evil". While the language is outdated, you can see the connection between our ancestors' knowledge of the plant and our contemporary understanding of St John's Wort as a scientifically proven antidepressant and anti-anxiety medicine.

St John's Wort has been used throughout the ages to lift the mood and energy levels of those who felt weighed down by daily stresses and strains. Clinically, it is effective in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and positive results have also been found in major depression. It also supports brain function in general as it enhances cognition and memory.

St John's Wort is available in the form of a medicinal tea, oral liquid (tinctures) or as a concentrated extract (tablets and capsules). When using medicinal plants, first ensure the quality is excellent. Plants should be grown in a natural environment free of pesticides. In a natural environment and when harvested at the right time, the phytochemicals of medicinal plants are higher - meaning your medicine is more effective.

Some clinical trials on St John's Wort for depression used concentrated, standardised extracts. These can interact with certain prescription medications so seek the advice of a qualified Medical Herbalist if wanting to combine such St John's Wort preparations and prescription drugs.

Traditional oral liquids and medicinal teas are a great option for lifting mood and energy levels when extracts are not suitable. As a medicinal tea, I typically recommend three cups per day in times of increased need, with a lower maintenance dose of one cup daily. In March 2014, Medsafe New Zealand announced that St John's Wort which is low in the active constituent hyperforin (less than 3 per cent), such as in traditional teas, is unlikely to produce interactions. As such, medicinal tea can be a safer alternative for those on prescription medications.

Very recent science tells us that food does affect mood, and a healthy diet can help manage moderate to severe depression. Published in January this year, the study put participants on a modified-Mediterranean diet, encouraging the consumption of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, fish, low-fat dairy, lean meats, eggs and olive oil. Participants on the dietary intervention showed significantly greater improvements in mood than the control group. Remission was achieved for 32 per cent of participants on the diet, compared with 8 per cent in the control group - an amazing testament to the power of nourishing food.

There is also evidence that sleep deprivation can lead to low mood, anxiety and depression, so do make sure that you get adequate levels of sound sleep. An average of eight hours is recommended for most healthy adults. If you find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep then there are clinically proven plant remedies which can help you without causing drowsiness or dependency.

I hope these ideas are good additions to your self-care repertoire. If your condition worsens or does not improve, see your leading healthcare professional.

References
Jacka, F., O'Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., et al (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the 'SMILES' trial). BMC Medicine, 15:23. DOI: 10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y

Linde K, Berner M, Kriston L. (2008). St John's Wort for major depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2008;4:CD000448.
Sarris, J., Panossian, A., Schweitzer, I., Stough, C., & Scholey, A. (2011). Herbal medicine for depression, anxiety and insomnia: a review of psychopharmacology and clinical evidence. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol, 21(12), 841-860. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2011.04.002

- NZ Herald

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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