Herbal Medicine Holds Promise for Treatment of Mental Disorders

Roseroot may help with symptoms of depression.
Roseroot may help with symptoms of depression.
Fewer side effects than prescription drugs with similar efficacy make herbal medicines an alternative treatment consideration.

While rates of depression and anxiety have climbed in recent years,1,2 the number of prescriptions for psychiatric medications have made an even bigger jump: Between 1988 and 2008, antidepressant use in the United States increased by almost 400%.3

Given troublesome side effects — such as sexual dysfunction and weight gain— that can pose health risks and make medication compliance difficult, in addition to the prohibitive cost for many patients, there is an obvious need for alternate solutions. While plant-based remedies have been used by indigenous cultures for thousands of years, Western medicine has been slow to embrace this approach.

New studies suggest that the stigma may be lifting, as prominent U.S. universities are beginning to explore the benefits of plant-based remedies for mental disorders.

“While the ‘Western’ medical system has produced amazing strides in the treatment of human health issues, there are often trade-offs associated with standard treatments,” Christopher P. Morley, PhD, a professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University, told Psychiatry Advisor. “Both consumers and providers of health care are therefore becoming more open to alternative views about treatment.”

Morley and colleagues recently published a systematic review of human trials investigating the benefits of an herb called ashwagandha (scientific name: withania somnifera) for the treatment of anxiety.4 In all five of the randomized, controlled trials they assessed, ashwagandha led to greater improvement than placebo. In one of the studies, ashwagandha led to a 44% reduction in scores on the Perceived Stress Scale, versus a 5.5% reduction in a placebo group.

One of the other studies compared ashwagandha with psychotherapy. The former led to a 56.5% reduction in Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) scores, compared to a 30.5% decrease in the psychotherapy group. “Ashwagandha has an effect on receptors in the brain that impacts the seratonergic and GABAergic pathways, working as an adaptogen,” study co-author Kaushal B. Nanavati, MD, a professor and director of integrative medicine at SUNY’s Upstate Cancer Center, told Psychiatry Advisor.