| St. John's
Wort Ineffective? A Different Perspective on the Latest Controversy
by Rob McCaleb
A little more than a year ago, the Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA) published an editorial blasting
drug companies for research reporting practices that are "self-serving,
wasteful, abuse the volunteer time of peer reviewers, and can
be profoundly misleading" - and which ultimately call into
question "the integrity of medical research."
Similar criticisms can perhaps be levied against irresponsible
members of the media who unquestioningly accept the results of
such biased research, confusing the public and in the long run
depriving them of the opportunity to use effective, safer alternatives
to prescription medications. With these issues in mind, the latest
flap over St. John's wort (SJW) deserves a closer look.
Recent headlines have been blaring, "St. John's Wort is Ineffective,"
because of a single Pfizer-sponsored study published in the Journal
of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The JAMA
article claims that SJW had no effect against severe depression
in a clinical trial conducted "between November 1998 and
January 2000 at 11 academic medical centers in the United States."
While this may sound impressive, the study actually involved only
201 patients. That's a small number compared to the almost 2,000
patients in the 23 high quality clinical studies that have consistently
found SJW effective against mild to moderate depression.
That's a key difference. SJW has never been recommended as a
treatment for severe depression, nor are any of Pfizer's products
considered adequate as a sole treatment for this serious condition.
The respected Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy states
that drug therapy alone may be used against mild to moderate depression,
but not against moderate to severe depression. And wait. In the
Pfizer-sponsored study, 14.3 percent of those taking SJW had remissions,
compared with only 4.9 percent of the placebo group. For severe
depression, that's a significant result, but the authors dismiss
it on the grounds that "remission rates were very low."
They go on to jump to the conclusion that their results also prove
that St. John's wort is ineffective for mild to moderate
depression. Without going into too much technical detail about
how they reached this conclusion, I can only say that their reasoning
was at best careless and at worst downright deceptive.