Fighting depression with needles and herbs
July 21, 1999
Web posted at: 10:18 a.m. EDT (1418 GMT)
From Medical Correspondent Dan Rutz
TUCSON, Arizona (CNN) -- Can an herb beat the blues? Can tiny needles stuck under the skin prick depression? The federal government is trying to find out by funding studies into Saint-John's-wort and acupuncture.
The University of Arizona has received close to $4 million for a series of long-term studies exploring whether the alternative treatments have any measurable impact on mental health.
Many find acupuncture relaxing. Some claim it can even lift them from depression. Christina Paige is among those who believes the ancient Chinese practice of puncturing the body with fine needles improved her mood.
"After the first session, I noticed an improvement," Paige said. "And after about three or four sessions, there was a very big improvement."
Paige was part of the University of Arizona's study on acupuncture.
"I was in a chronic state of irritable gloom. I had such a short fuse that it was scary," she said. "The least little thing would set me off."
Researchers said that like Paige, the majority of the study participants had significant relief from depression after acupuncture treatment.
"At the end of the study, all women received the effective treatment, and two-thirds of them were clinically well," according to the university's John Allen. "They were noticeably different to themselves and to their family and functioning much better."
Allen said the other third of the study participants did not respond to acupuncture.
While some people with depression are trying acupuncture, others are seeking relief from herbs. Saint-John's-wort as mood food, a natural boost for emotions. And some, like Amy Barnard, swear it helps them overcome the blues.
"I was driving to the university one day, and I just realized I wasn't depressed anymore. I was not only not depressed, I felt great."
Such testimonials have helped fuel the $4 billion herbal supplement industry.
Before jumping aboard the alternative medicine bandwagon, M.D.s want proof. University of Arizona researchers will try to answer two key questions: are the alternatives safe, and do they work?
"There are a lot of new treatments for depression, and Saint-John's-wort may very well be one of the things we can count on, especially in milder forms of depression," said the University of Arizona's Dr. Pedro Delgado.
In Germany, many doctors already are convinced of the benefits of the herb. Saint-John's-wort is the most commonly prescribed anti-depressant in Germany, and that's where most of the studies on the herb have been conducted.
"They all involve very small numbers of people and treated them very short periods of time," said Delgado.
The U.S. study compares Saint-John's-wort to prescription anti-depressant drugs in 3,400 people around the country. Their progress will be monitored for six months.
Research to date has not turned up any health risks for acupuncture or Saint-John's-wort. Millions of Americans are not waiting for the final word from scientists. For them, faith in alternative treatments is reason enough to consider a course of pills or needles.
Both University of Arizona studies are ongoing and accepting new participants.
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National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Alternative Medicine Online
Blurbs on herbs
University of Arizona
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
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