St John's wort is a herbal remedy that has been used for hundreds of years to treat mental health problems. Today it is mainly used as an over the counter remedy to treat mild and moderate depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), mild anxiety and sleep problems.
The botanical name for St John’s wort is Hypericum perforatum, and it is sometimes marketed and sold as ‘Hypericum’. It contains the ingredients hypericin and hyperforin, that have been used for their antidepressant properties.
How does St John's wort work?
It is thought that St John's wort works in a similar way to standard antidepressant medication. Research suggests that it increases the activity of brain chemicals such as serotonin and noradrenaline that are thought to play an important part in regulating our mood.
As well as hypercin and hyperforin, the plant contains many other substances that may boost its antidepressant activity in ways that are not yet fully understood.
Can St John's wort help me?
If you experience depression or low mood, you may decide to try St John's wort as a herbal alternative to antidepressants. However, it is important that you do not use St John's wort instead of seeking help from your GP. If you have any worries about your mental health and are unsure about treatment options, it is always good to talk this through with your doctor.
When I could no longer take SSRI’s due to side-effects, I tried St John’s wort as an alternative. It has definitely helped with my depression and my mood has lifted quite a lot.
Some people say that they find St John's wort useful in helping to manage their depression but others can experience side effects or feel no benefit from taking it.
Research suggests that, in some cases, St John's wort might be just as effective as some antidepressant drugs to treat mild or moderate depression. It may also cause fewer or less intense side effects than commonly prescribed antidepressants. However, for severe depression the evidence to show that it could help is limited.
If you are thinking about taking St John's wort to treat other mental health problems, such as anxiety or seasonal affective disorder, it is worth noting that there is very little existing evidence on how effective it can be.
I found that St John’s wort lifted my mood so I wasn’t waking up at five every morning, life seemed more bearable, I saw colour.
Speak to your doctor first about taking St John's wort if you:
- are pregnant or are breast feeding – there is limited information on its safety
- have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder – as with all antidepressants, it has been known to cause hypomania, or rapid switching from a low to a high mood. (See hypomania and mania.)
- are under 18 – there is limited information on its safety
- are currently taking prescribed medication, contraceptive medication or common over the counter medications. See our page on interactions with medication.
This information was published in January 2017. We will revise it in 2020.