Until the advent of antidepressants in the mid-19th century, there were few options for the treatment of depression and, perhaps due to the lack of medical understanding about the condition, little hope for sufferers. For centuries, a long time before depression was recognised as a physiological illness as opposed to a psychological disorder, medicine promoted the consumption of various herbs that today still have a role to play in the effective treatment of the condition.

St John’s Wort

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been a popular choice of so-called medicine men since the time of ancient Greece where it was used to treat melancholia. Today the herb, which bears a crop of pretty yellow flowers when in bloom, is a routine treatment for moderate depression in Germany in adults and children, with some studies suggesting that it is as effective as antidepressant medicines, but boasts fewer side effects.

St John’s Wort, which is widely available in health shops, is believed to help increase levels of serotonin in the brain. However, its interaction with other drugs means that it should only be taken with the consent of a doctor.


A costly option due to its scarcity, saffron is a spice made from the stigma of the crocus sativa flower that has, for centuries, been used to aid digestion, improve mood and lessen the effects of menstruation. A study in 2013 suggested that it has more effectiveness in reducing depression symptoms than placebo supplements.

Ginkgo biloba

Also known as the maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba had an established role in ancient Chinese medicine due to its ability to improve circulation and blood flow to the brain. Available in capsule form and as a tincture, the herb can improve concentration and focus, in addition to self-motivation – critical in helping the patient with depression in their recovery.

Siberian ginseng

Another herb with a long tradition of use in folk medicine, Siberian ginseng is believed to be effective in reducing the effects of stress due to its ability to protect the adrenal glands. As well as improving mental alertness and reducing fatigue, the herb also reinforces the immune system, strengthening its ability to fight infection, and has been associated with increased levels of productivity among workers in various industries.

Lemon balm

Sleep deprivation or an inability to fall asleep is a common symptom about which depressed patients complain, so improving sleep is a useful way of helping to tackle the wider problem of depression. A herbal infusion, such as a tea containing lemon balm, can aid relaxation and promote restful sleep, while lavender and camomile are also regarded as effective alternatives.


A root plant from the South Pacific, kava is renowned for its soothing effect, which is comparable with the calmness created by diazepam. Consumed as a tea, the plant may alleviate anxiety, stress and sleeplessness, but it is advisable to seek the consent of a doctor before commencing using it, as it has been associated with problems affecting the liver.


A pretty perennial flowering plant, valerian has been used extensively in history to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and depression – it is believed to soothe the nervous system. Although treatment with the herb may cause headaches and dizziness in some individuals, it is believed that taking the herb for periods of four to six weeks bears no risk to health.

Herbal treatment for depression and anxiety has a long and established history in folk medicine, but is often the second choice for modern doctors who prefer to prescribe antidepressants instead. While herbal therapy is definitely an approach worthy of consideration, seeking advice from your doctor is always recommended.