Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Mental Health in our Gardens

Like many of you, I have been spending more time in the garden this year. Planting lavender everywhere, giving tomatoes one more try, and even experimenting with corn. I am not sure about the corn since our dog, Nike, has decided the leaves make for a delicious afternoon snack, but everything else is growing by leaps and bounds.

My friend, Carol, has one of the most beautiful gardens on the north fork of Long Island. She and I have talked many times about the many mental health benefits of gardening – a sort of meditation that enhances mood, lowers anxiety, and improves concentration. Most recently, we got to wondering about the therapeutic benefits of the St. John’s wort that is blooming in her garden. Since I still believe in science, I decided to find out what the research tells us. Here’s what I learned.

1. What is St. John’s wort? St. John’s wort is a flowering yellow herb that has been used in traditional European medicine dating back to the Greeks. Its botanical name is Hypericum perforatum. Native to Europe and parts of Asia, it is called St John’s wort because it flowers at the time of the summer solstice in late June, which is also around the Feast of St. John the Baptist. It is thought that the plant genus is named Hypericum from the Greek words hyper (above) and eikon (picture) because during the Feast of St. John people would hang plants over their religious icons at home.

2. What does St. John’s wort treat? This herb has been used for centuries to treat a wide variety of ailments, including sleep disorders, poor appetite, and hemorrhoids. Today it is best known, and has significant support, for its use in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. It has mixed reviews as a treatment for pre-menstrual syndrome, some limited support for relieving menopause-related symptoms and weak evidence in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

3. How is St. John’s wort prepared and how does it work? St. John’s wort can be consumed in the form of teas, tablets, capsules, and liquid extracts. The yellow star-shaped flowers and buds can be dried and made into capsules or teas or pressed for use in oils and liquids. It appears that St. John’s wort works like prescription antidepressant medications. Also, like prescription medications, exactly how it works is not fully understood. The active ingredients of St. John’s wort are hypericin, hyperforin, and adhyperforin, which are thought to increase serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline – the chemical messengers in the brain. These are the chemicals understood to improve and regulate mood.

4. How does St. John’s wort compare to prescription antidepressants? Numerous clinical trials demonstrate that St. John’s wort is more effective than placebo in treating mild and moderate depression. It is comparable to prescription antidepressants such as fluoxetine and sertraline for mild and moderate depression. It also has fewer adverse side effects than prescription antidepressants. However, and importantly, St John’s wort does not appear to be effective in treating severe depression.

5. What’s the downside to St. John’s wort? People tend to think that anything herbal is “safe.” This is absolutely not true. Everything we put in our bodies has biochemical properties that have the potential to impact our health – good and bad. Herbal remedies are not subject to rigorous clinical trials and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration so knowing exactly what is in that little white pill is virtually impossible. The amount of active ingredients in herbal supplements is not standardized and can vary from one product to the next – and even within the same brand. St. John’s wort can interfere with the therapeutic properties of commonly prescribed medications such as prescription antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and birth control pills. Takeaway is that you need to do your research and be just as cautious when considering taking an herbal remedy as when you consider taking a prescription medication.

I don’t have any St. John’s wort growing in my garden this year. And I don’t anticipate setting up my own medicinal herb lab anytime soon, but I do believe that St. John’s wort and many other plants in our gardens have the potential to promote health and healing for our bodies and minds. I hope the scientific study of the bounty in our gardens will continue to grow and provide new understandings of some of our most ancient elixirs.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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