Ancient Greeks and Romans believed it warded off evil spirits and witches' spells. Europeans found Native Americans using it for diarrhea and snakebite. But modern America had largely ignored St. John's wort
-- the yellow-flowered weed that's sprouted unnoticed in roadside ditches and on sunshine-splashed hillsides.
In 1997, America stopped ignoring. Suddenly, health food stores and nutrition centers can't keep the herb on their shelves. And, while no one mentions protection from witches' spells these days, respected doctors and scientists say St. John's wort is -- and always has been -- an invaluable antidepressant. Nature's own Prozac, in a way -- without the expense or the troubling side effects.
German doctors have prescribed St. John's wort in tablet form for 15 years, making it the dominant antidepressant there, much more popular than Prozac. Over 20 million Germans take it daily.
Two dozen European studies confirm that the herb works as well as, or better than, antidepressant drugs -- showing that 50 to 80 percent of depressed patients improved while taking the herb, which is about the same as with antidepressant drugs. The main difference: While antidepressant drugs often come with significant side effects, such as insomnia and reduced sex drive, St. John's wort -- also known by its Latin name, hypericin -- rarely causes side effects.
When side effects have occurred, they've been relatively minor. Dr. Harold Bloomfield, a Yale-trained psychiatrist and one of the more well-known proponents of St. John's wort, says hundreds of his patients take it. "While it's not a panacea, it is at least as effective as synthetic antidepressants," he says. "And people like it."
The American medical establishment has maintained, however, that the European studies were not extensive enough. But interest has unquestionably been piqued: Major U.S. studies are now underway.