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Nature's RX

Using Herb St. John's Wort To Treat Depression

June 27, 1997

              HUGH DOWNS
Well, now a truly startling medical breakthrough -- one that could affect millions of people who suffer from mild depression. Right now, many of them are treated with drugs like Prozac. But there may be a better way.
Researchers say an amazing herb is proving to be safer, cheaper and just as effective as prescription drugs in treating depression. Tradition medicine is slowly holding out a hand to some alternative therapies.
And as Dr Timothy Johnson will show you, all of us may reap the benefits.

             
       

                        TRACY ZEBROWSKI (PH)
When I first met Jim, he was full of life -- exciting, spontaneous
and very carefree.
                     JIM ZEBROWSKI, BUSINESSMAN
It was just call Tracy up and let's just go get some cash and put it
in our jeans and take off.  Sometimes she didn't even know where we
were going.
             DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON, ABC NEWS MEDICAL EDITOR
(VO)  Jim Zebrowski was an entrepreneur -- the founder of a
successful airport shuttle service, a man who was constantly on the
go.
                           TRACY ZEBROWSKI
He was fixing everything and getting things done and making things
happen.  And then, he just stopped.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Six years ago, soon after Jim and Tracy were married, Jim sold
his business and got embroiled in a legal battle with the new owners.
The troubles tore him apart.
                            JIM ZEBROWSKI
Some days I wouldn't even get up out of bed -- literally wouldn't get
up out of bed.  Some days I wouldn't even take a shower.  It was
terrible.  It was not my lifestyle at all.
                           TRACY ZEBROWSKI
He would just kind of tune himself out from everything -- from
myself, the job, just reality.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Jim went to see a psychiatrist who told him he was suffering
from depression.  Some 18 million Americans experience depression in
any given year.  Sometimes it's triggered by a particular situation,
as in Jim's case.  For others, like Truen Bergen (ph), it's a life -
long struggle.
                            TRUEN BERGEN
It's as if I'm surrounded by a thick plate of smoky glass.  And I can
see everything that's going on around me, but I am detached from it.
I'm separated from it.  I can't feel it.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Truen, now 48, says that, in spite of a successful career and two
wonderful children, since her late teens she's felt sad, distant,
depressed.
                            TRUEN BERGEN
The actual feeling is if I had stones in my heart.  Friends of mine
that would try to talk to me about this would say, well, what are you
feeling?  And I would say nothing.  I feel nothing.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(on camera)  The pharmaceutical industry has spent millions and
millions of dollars to develop effective anti - depressant drugs for
people like Truen and Jim -- drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft (ph),
to name just a few.  In fact, last year, Prozac was the third most
popular prescription drug in this country with sales of $1.7 billion.
But what if there was something as effective as Prozac, but without
its side effects -- something you could get without a prescription
for less than a fourth of its cost.
Well, some doctors say there is -- namely this herb with the strange
- sounding name of St. John's Wort.  In Latin, it's called hypericum.
They say this herb could revolutionize the way we treat depression in
this country.
            DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD, PSYCHIATRIST AND AUTHOR
We're going to find that for at least the two - thirds of the 18
million people in America suffering from depression -- 12 million
people -- probably most, if not all of those  ...
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Will be taking this.
                        DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD
...  will be taking hypericum.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Dr Harold Bloomfield is a Yale - educated psychiatrist and best
- selling author who came across St. John's Wort while researching a
book on depression. ["How to Heal Depression"]  He was so impressed, he wrote another whole book
just about the herb.["Hypericum & Depression"]  He says he's recommended it to several hundred
patients with very positive results.
                        DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD
Hypericum now deserves to be a first - line treatment.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(on camera)  So in the patient with mild to moderate depression, this
would be your drug of choice?
                        DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD
Absolutely, absolutely.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  One of the patients Dr Bloomfield suggested it to was Jim
Zebrowski.  Jim had tried one prescription anti - depressant after
another but gave them up because of disturbing side effects, like
anxiety, sleeplessness and loss of sexual desire.  He was willing to
try the herb, which was available not by prescription but in the
health food store.
                            JIM ZEBROWSKI
It just gradually grew into a nice comfortable zone for me where I
could deal with a lot of things a lot better, especially with her.
                           TRACY ZEBROWSKI
Yes.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Jim's been taking St. John's Wort for six months.
                           TRACY ZEBROWSKI
He's back.  He's back.  We're actually getting out together, and he's
thrown himself into his job.  We have another baby on the way.  So
things are good.  Things are very good.
                            TRUEN BERGEN
You want to get the things out for salad.  That would be great.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Truen Bergen, another patient of Dr Bloomfield's, said she,
too, felt better after just a few weeks.
                            TRUEN BERGEN
I'm taking the St. John's Wort and -- and I started to feel just -- I
guess, normal.  I felt great.  And one day I had dropped my daughter
off at school, and all of a sudden, I just felt like this explosion
of sunshine.  And I thought to myself, gosh, this is what I think
most people -- normal people feel --finally.  This is what it means
to feel good.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  So what is this herb that has the potential to shake up a
multibillion dollar anti - depressant drug industry?  Well, it turns
out to be a plant with bright yellow flowers that grow wild in the
western United States and much of Europe.  It usually starts to bloom
this week, during the traditional celebration of St. John's day,
hence the name.  Wort, by the way, is an old English word meaning
plant.
The flowers and leaves are harvested, then dried and processed into a
powdered extract.  The powder is shaped into a pill coated with
sugar, then dried and packaged, ready to go.
In Germany, St. John's Wort is now the leading anti - depressant,
outselling Prozac 20 to 1, and it's on the rise in other European
countries, too.  In this country, it's even catching on in the heart
of the traditional American medical establishment -- Harvard Medical
School.
Dr Michael Jenike, who teaches psychiatry there, says he first heard
about St. John's Wort four years ago, when the leading German
manufacturer of the herb asked him to publish their studies as a
supplement to a medical journal he edits.  Jenike was skeptical.
              DR MICHAEL JENIKE, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
And I said, well, I'd never heard of it, and I didn't really think
we'd be interested, and I knew about all the fad things.  And they
says, "Well, what can we do?"  I said, "Well, send me some of the
papers.  You say you have a lot of papers.  Send me some of the
papers."
And they sent me about 30 papers, and I've read actually every one of
them, and it was fascinating.  That it did seem that in mild
depression, there was some evidence that this would be a helpful
drug.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Jenike published those studies, which showed that St. John's
Wort was significantly more effective than a placebo in treating
depression and similar in effectiveness to standard anti - depressant
medications, but without their side effects.
(on camera)  So here's the $64 billion question.  If this herb, St.
John's Wort, appears to be as good as Prozac and other similar drugs
for mild to moderate depression -- it has fewer side effects, it
clearly costs much less -- why shouldn't we just switch everybody who
are taking those drugs to this drug in this country?
                          DR MICHAEL JENIKE
Because the drug companies would never fund another one of my
studies.  That's a very good question, and I think until we have more
data, that would be -- this would be premature, obviously, to
recommend that.
But if we have more data and it turns out that it clearly is
effective and we can document that and the side effects are much
less, I suspect that we might in a few years end up like the
situation in Germany, where this could possibly be the number - one
prescribed drug in the country.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
So if I'm one of the drug companies that makes these popular anti -
depressant drugs -- the Prozac family of drugs -- I'm shaking in my
boots?  I'm going to lose a huge area of high - profit drugs in the
future?
                        DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD
Undoubtedly.  Despite all of the advertising dollars that are spent
by pharmaceutical companies in this country, I think we're going to
find that hypericum is going to become the leading anti - depressant.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  St. John's Wort even seems successful in one of the most
difficult groups to treat, adolescents.  Maria Carlson is an active
and vivacious 17 - year - old, who just two years ago was talking
about ending her life.
                       MARIA CARLSON, STUDENT
It was just two sides saying, you should kill yourself, you shouldn't
kill yourself.  You should kill yourself, you shouldn't kill
yourself.  And I couldn't decide what to do.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(on camera)  But you seriously thought about it, even thought about
ways of doing it?
                            MARIA CARLSON
Yeah.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Maria's mother Janet says a happy, lively childhood came to an
abrupt end when Maria started high school.  She became withdrawn,
started drinking heavily and lost interest in the things and people
she once cared about.
                    JANET CARLSON, MARIA'S MOTHER
To hear your child talking about they don't want to live, you know,
they'd rather be dead, it's just -- it's the most difficult.  It's
just so difficult.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Janet sent Maria to a treatment center where she was given the
anti - depressant Paxil.  But Maria says the drug made her jittery.
She couldn't sleep.  And Janet says the mood swings were getting even
worse.  Janet had heard about St. John's Wort, and she convinced
Maria to wean herself off the Paxil and try it.  Gradually, they
started noticing a change.
                            MARIA CARLSON
Yeah, I remember saying one time, "I feel like myself."  It was so
weird.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Maria's been taking St. John's Wort for the past year.
                            JANET CARLSON
She feels better about herself.  She's doing her music and sports.
And her whole life is -- is different.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(on camera)  So you're both believers in St. John's Wort?
                            JANET CARLSON
Yeah.
                            MARIA CARLSON
Yes, definitely.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
So what do you say to all the doctors listening to this?  Our
colleagues, the people we went to medical school with, who are
sitting here saying, "Oh, but it still sounds too good to be true?"
                        DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD
I would say that hypericum is the most well - researched of any herb
in the world.  It's almost the poster herb.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Mm - hmm.
                        DR HAROLD BLOOMFIELD
The poster child for an integration of "alternative medicine and
scientific modern medicine," which is really what we want.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
(VO)  Most doctors in this country don't know much yet about St.
John's Wort, although sales at health food stores are on the rise.
And even mass market chains like Wal - Mart are getting into the act.
But if studies in this country bear out the results in Germany, this
could be just the beginning for the little yellow flower with the
funny - sounding name.
                           BARBARA WALTERS
Tim, I think this is one of the most important stories that we have
done in years.  Let me ask you something.  If it's good for mild or
moderate depression, should all of us take it and just feel better,
even if we're not depressed?
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
You mean like a preventive vitamin?
                           BARBARA WALTERS
Yes.
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
No, I can't recommend that.  There is no evidence that it makes
normal people feel any better.  And I certainly wouldn't waste the
money or take any chance if I was feeling normal by taking something
that appears to be safe, but we, you know, don't know about the long
term.
                           BARBARA WALTERS
Now, if you're taking a prescription drug, I mean, like Prozac,
should you stop and start to take this?
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Certainly not on your own.  First of all, this drug has not yet been
studied in severe depression.  And the drugs that work for severe
depression can be life saving.  Secondly, if you are truly mild or
moderate in the depression level, you may want to talk to your doctor
about weaning off of this and starting St. John's Wort.  But you want
to make very sure that you do it under careful supervision, that
there are no other drugs you're taking that might interfere.  So I
wouldn't even attempt that without a doctor's supervision.
                           BARBARA WALTERS
But a lot of doctors, I'll bet, don't know about this herb.  And how
do you know about dosage?
                         DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Well, that's a very important question.  We point out that they
don't.  And what I would recommend is Dr Bloomfield's book. 
["Hypericum & Depression"]  It is a
practical source of dosage and information that both you and your
doctor can learn from.
                           BARBARA WALTERS
This is awfully important and very good to hear about.  Thank you,
Tim.
                             HUGH DOWNS
I've written the name down.  There are days.  Thanks, Tim. 

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