The Healing Potential of Nature: 3 Herbs with Evidence-Based Benefits for Depression

Did you know that many medications used today are derived from plants? Salicin, for instance, is the basis of aspirin, which comes from willow bark, while valeric acid from valerian root is used to produce valproic acid, a medication for bipolar disorder. With the abundant healing potential in nature, let’s explore three herbs that have been proven to be effective in treating depression.

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s Wort is an herb with the strongest scientific evidence and has been tested in various clinical trials. Its effectiveness is comparable to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are prescription medications used for depression. However, St. John’s Wort has fewer side effects. Hypericin, the main compound responsible for the herb’s antidepressant effect, increases serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which is similar to the way SSRIs work. However, it can also cause hypomania in people with bipolar disorder, making it unsuitable for them.

Another thing to be cautious of is that St. John’s Wort can cause photosensitivity, which means that taking the medication can make your skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light rays. While the sun is the strongest source of ultraviolet rays, indoor lighting, such as fluorescent lights, can emit a small amount of these rays. Depending on how much of the drug is taken and how sensitive the person becomes, exposure to these light sources can cause sunburn or an allergic rash. While it doesn’t happen to everyone, it is essential to be aware of this reaction. Wearing a waterproof sunblock with an SPF of at least 30 can protect against this reaction. If a phototoxic reaction occurs, it can be treated with a cool compress or over-the-counter topical steroid like hydrocortisone cream. If the problem persists or there is a lot of blistering or peeling, it is best to contact a health professional.


Turmeric is another herb with proven effectiveness in treating depression. It is a plant in the ginger family, and the active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin is what gives the plant’s root its yellow-orange color. Studies have shown that curcumin has similar effectiveness as SSRIs, but it works differently by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor, which is responsible for stimulating nerve growth and repairing damaged nerve connections in the brain. Curcumin is anti-inflammatory and reduces cortisol, making it an adaptogen that increases resiliency and the ability to recover from stress. While curcumin has few negative effects, it has a mild effect on blood thinning. If a person is taking blood-thinning medications like warfarin, aspirin, or high doses of vitamin E, they should be aware of signs of increased bleeding, such as easy bruising, heavy menstrual cycles, spontaneous nosebleeds, or bleeding gums after brushing their teeth.


Saffron is an herb derived from the plant Crocus sativus, which has beautiful purple or violet flower petals with deep red stigmas. Saffron is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, which slows or reverses the oxidation process in cells. Antioxidants are essential as they can prevent diseases like diabetes, depression, multiple sclerosis, asthma, and even accelerated aging. The great thing about saffron is that it doesn’t interfere with antidepressants if a person is taking them. This means that it may provide an added antidepressant benefit, and the person can benefit from the anti-inflammation and antioxidant properties of the plant.

Phytochemicals in Plants

Plants contain phytochemicals, which are natural compounds responsible for many of the health benefits associated with fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Plants produce these compounds for their own protection against insects, fungi, and ultraviolet rays. However, for humans, these chemicals have therapeutic benefits. Phytochemicals include flavonoids, carotenoids, and alkaloids, among others. Unlike drugs that isolate one chemical, plants have several phytochemicals, which provide a full spectrum of benefits. Therefore, when a person consumes an herb, they can receive the full range of benefits, including the main chemical they’re interested in, such as curcumin in turmeric.

Why Use Pharmaceuticals?

While plant medicine is beneficial, pharmaceuticals or prescription medications have advantages. Prescription medications take the active ingredient from a plant and make it more bioavailable, meaning more of it is absorbed and used by the body. Chemical alterations may extend the drug’s life, preventing it from breaking down and lasting longer in the body. However, some phytochemicals in plants may only last a few hours, requiring more frequent intake for the best effect.


In conclusion, while there are several herbs with antidepressant properties, the three herbs mentioned have the strongest scientific evidence. St. John’s Wort, turmeric, and saffron have been shown to be effective in treating depression, and they have fewer side effects than prescription medications. When considering using any of these herbs, it is important to consult a healthcare professional, especially if one is taking other medications or has a preexisting medical condition. While plant medicine is an excellent alternative to prescription medications, it should not replace them without proper consultation.

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