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ADHD Herbal Remedies: St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the most commonly used alternative remedies to treat depression and anxiety. It is believed that the antidepressant properties of St. John's Wort are due to its hypericin content (an antibiotic substance) and other active constituents like flavonoids and hyperforin.  While it is not yet clear what the herb's specific active ingredients are, we do know that St. John's Wort increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin.  In 2005, a study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that St. John's Wort was as effective as prescribed antidepressants. The study also noted that St. John's Wort produced fewer side effects compared to the antidepressants.

Although St John's Wort is very rarely used in the treatment of children with ADHD, researchers from Bastyr University (a naturopathic college) decided to find out whether St John's Wort was better than a placebo in reducing symptoms of ADHD. The results came back negative, and the press went wild about the results of the study.

Beyond the fact that the study showed no benefits of St John's Wort for ADHD, this study demonstrates many interesting aspects of the relationship between science, money, and politics. First of all, why did the researchers decide to evaluate an herb that is rarely used to treat ADHD? For an experienced herbalist, St John's Wort is not indicated in ADHD management, unless there might be concomitant depression. The second point of interest is how such a small study done by a small naturopathic college ends up in such a prestigious scientific journal as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). A third point is why no one pointed out how the children in the treatment group never received the dosage of St John's Wort they were supposed to receive. And finally, medical studies showing no results usually do not make the news headlines (if they are even published!). Why did this one receive such widespread media coverage?

Most of these points become clear when you learn that one of the authors is none other than the infamous Dr. Joseph Biederman. Dr. Biederman, a Harvard psychiatrist, has published numerous scientific articles that show psychoactive drugs in a positive light. In fact, it has been estimated that his research is responsible for a 300% increase in the prescription of psychotropic drugs in children over a ten-year period. Then, the scandal came to the light. A Senate investigation discovered that Dr. Biederman had failed to reveal he received $1.6 million from the makers of those drugs.

Despite the scandal, Dr. Biederman found himself associated with a study evaluating a potential "competitive" natural product. Take note that this study focused on using St. John's Wort to treat ADHD, even though this herb is not indicated for that disorder. And even though the study was poorly designed and had negative results, it got published in JAMA and received lots of media attention.

In conclusion, St John's Wort is not an appropriate herb to give your child if he or she suffers from ADHD, unless there are associated symptoms of depression. As always, you should consult your holistic health care practitioner before giving herbal remedies to your child.