Herbal Mood Lift

Prior research has established that nearly 50% of people who try antidepressant medications for the prescribed time frame are not significantly helped by these drugs. Herbal remedies are increasingly recognized as an under-studied treatment that can avoid typical side effects of the most commonly prescribed class of these drugs, SSRIs, which includes weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disturbance. The following is an overview of the current knowledge state regarding a variety of natural plant products commonly used in depression and anxiety. The article cited (see reference at the end of this page) is a meta-analysis, combining the results of all other studies on this topic that meet acceptable criteria for scientific rigor. For readers not familiar with scientific literature, be aware that the term significant refers to a statistically significant result and does not necessarily imply that the effect was dramatic or easily noticeable. A placebo is a fake that is given to one group while the real treatment is given to another group, which allows researchers to make sure the effects are not simply from patients believing they are given a cure.

St. John’s Wort

This herb Hypericum perforatum is commonly known as klamath weed, rose of Sharon, tutsan, and goatweed. The active ingredient is found concentrated in the flowering tops; the therapeutic benefits may not extend to the green herb portion. German psychiatry includes St. John’s Wort as an officially recognized treatment for mild anxiety and depression, recommending a total daily dose of 2-4 g. Clinical trials with human patients (10 out of 14 studies) have shown it effective in major depression as well (p. 2230), one after six weeks of daily treatment with 600 and 1200 mg.


Crocus sativus is prized as a culinary spice. Human patients taking “30 mg saffron flowers for 6 to 8 weeks showed improvement of depression as compared to placebo. The observed clinical effect seems to be comparable to the commonly prescribed antidepressant fluoxetine and imipramine” (pp. 2231-2232). In the clinical treatment, petals were used as well, which would make the treatment much less expensive than using the pistil and stamen portion that is traditionally used as a spice.


Rhodiola rosea is commonly known as golden root. In a randomized, double-blind placebo controlled trial with daily doses of 340 mg or 680 mg of SHR-50 extract, given twice daily, it resulted in significant improvement of depression, insomnia, and emotional instability (i.e., moodiness). There were no observed side effects. Many animal studies also strongly support effectiveness in effectively adapting to stress. The effects were comparable to those of the antidepressant fluoxetine (p. 2232).


German psychiatry includes Lavandula angustifolia as an officially recognized treatment for sleep disorders, anxiety, stress. A 4-week, double blind, three-group, randomized trial showed that lavender alone elicited some improvement in depression scores; however, it was less effective than imipramine. The combined administration of lavandula and imipramine resulted in significant improvement of depression that exceeded that of imipramine alone (p. 2233).

Iranian Borage

Echium amoenum is known for its use in traditional Persian medicine as an anxiolytic, for mood enhancement, and as a thymoleptic remedy. In a 6-week, randomized, double blind study, patients with mild-moderate depression received daily doses of 375 mg Echium extract. By week 4, the treatment showed significant effects, lessening symptoms of depression as compared to a placebo. However, the anxiety-reducing effect was not significant (p. 2233).

Banxia Houpu

This decoction is a popular traditional Chinese medicinal blend combining five herbs Pinellia ternata, Poria cocos, Magnolia officinalis, Perilla frutescens, and Zingiber officinale. The mixture is clinically used in China for mental disorders, particularly depression. A recent small Chinese clinical study found this blend relieved symptoms of depression and anxiety as compared to the control group. Zhang et al. demonstrated that the decoction significantly attenuated the enhanced c-fos expression induced by chronic mild stress. The effect was observed in the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, as well as the striatum; all are areas implicated in depressive behavior. Results of this recent study support a number of animal studies that demonstrate an antidepressant-like action of the decoction (p. 2234).


The root of Polygala tenuifolia, also known as Onji in Japan, has recently gained research attention in for its use in depression. Several studies reported its antidepressant effect in chronic mild stress animal models. “The antidepressant properties of the herb might be mediated by its neuroprotective and neuroendocrine effects” (p. 2236).

Suyu-Jiaonang (Formula SYJN)

This is another traditional Chinese medicinal blend that contains the four herbs Bupleurum chinense, Curcuma aromatica, P. frutescens, and Acorus tatarinowii. Pharmacological studies have shown an antidepressant-like action for the Chinese formula SYJN in a rat studies in which they are exposed to chronic unpredictable stress. “Daily administration of the formula resulted in significant reduction of protein and mRNA changes induced by chronic unpredictable stress” (p. 2237).

Gan Mai Da Zao

This decoction combines liquorice (the underground stem of Glycirrhyza glabra), wheat, and jujube. It alleviated depressive-like behaviors induced by unpredictable chronic mild stress in rats. “The decoction reversed the effects of chronic unpredictable stress on behavior as well as mitigated the observed increase in glutamate levels and the reduced expression of NMDA receptor subunits NR2A and NR2B in the hippocampus and the frontal cortex (p. 2237).


Also known by many street names such as marijuana, cannabis shows antidepressant-like actions in animals, alleviating behavioral despair. It is important to note that available data also show a correlation between prolonged Cannabis use, withdrawal, and increased depression. Inactivation “of the endocannainoid system, particularly by blocking the CB1 receptors, has been reported to provoke depressive-like symptoms [136]. Recently, rimonabant, a cannabinoid antagonist, was withdrawn from the European market because of adverse effects including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation” (p. 2238). Thus, effects are mixed, with cannabis seeming to both alleviate and cause depressive symptoms, possibly depending on factors such as frequency of use.

Marine Sponge

Brominated indole alkaloids isolated from the marine sponge Verongida rigida showed antidepressant-like effect at a 20 mg/kg dose (p. 2238).

Gotu Kola

The University of Maryland Medical Center cites several studies on gotu kola as a treatment for anxietyand insomnia. Read more about Gotu Kola here.


El-Alfy, A. T., Abourashed, E. A., & Matsumoto, R. R. (2012). Nature against depression.Current Medicinal Chemistry, 19, 2229-2241. This article can be purchased through pubmed.