Herb 'as good as depression drug'

A German study has added weight to the argument that a herbal remedy is an effective treatment for depression.

Researchers compared the effectiveness of St John's wort to anti-depressant drug paroxetine in treating moderate and severe depression.

The team found half of those with the condition improved when given the herb, compared with a third using the drug, the British Medical Journal reported.

UK experts said the study of 244 people should be treated with caution.

The study also found patients on paroxetine - also known as Seroxat

- suffered more side effects.

In both cases the most common side effect was stomach upsets, the study by Karlsruhe-based Dr Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals and the Institute for Medical Research Management and Biometrics in Nurnberg found.

Report co-author Dr Meinhard Kieser said: "Our results support the use of St John's wort as an alternative to standard anti-depressants in moderate to severe depression, especially as it is well tolerated."

The herb is not recommended for use by the UK's National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) because of uncertainty about what constitutes an appropriate dose, and its potential side effects when mixed with other drugs.

However its guidelines do acknowledge there is some evidence to suggest St John's wort could benefit people with mild or moderate depression.

Folk medicine

Previous studies have produced mixed results about whether it is effective in treating more serious forms of depression.

The herb, which is extracted from bright yellow star-shaped flowers, has been used for centuries as a folk medicine for anxiety and stress.

In the UK it is often found on sale in health food shops, and people with depression are known to use it.

But Professor Philip Cowen, a member of the British Association of Psychopharmacology, said the German study should not alter professional thinking in the UK.

"I would not expect this to alter what doctors do in the UK - the problems highlighted in the Nice guidance still stand."

The problem with the herb was that it was difficult to get a standardised dose, he said. Until that was achieved he could not see it being accepted as a treatment for depression.

A spokeswoman for the Depression Alliance said: "There is evidence it can be used to treat mild to moderate depression but the problem with St John's wort is that it is not regulated. You just don't know what you are getting.

"We would not advise anyone to use St John's wort without consulting their GP."

But she added: "I think it would be good if Nice and the regulatory body had a look at this report."