December 14, 1997

St. John's Wort, the Herb Du Jour

NEW YORK -- The cult of St. John's wort just keeps winning converts. Long the favored treatment for depression in Germany, the herb is being embraced by New Yorkers as an antidote -- particularly, it seems, for stress and blues below 14th Street.

"St. John's wort has been out forever, and now suddenly everyone wants it," said Ross Sacharoff, the manager of Urban Roots, a health-food store in the East Village, who recently tripled his orders. "I've never seen anything like this before."

From novelists to rock singers to drag queens, downtowners are embracing "the wort," as it's known, as a cheap, mild antidepressant.

The herb has soared in popularity since last summer, when The British Medical Journal reported that St. John's wort is "more effective than placebo" for mild to moderate depression.

"So many people are under stress, and many feel that it does help," said Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and the author of "St. John's Wort," to be published by HarperCollins. "There's a huge middle area of people who are not clinically depressed but are not perfectly fine either."

Side effects reported by some users include constipation, nausea and skin rashes, and medical experts caution that patients using a prescription antidepressant should consult their doctors before trying St. John's wort.

At the Mercer Street Medical Center here, Dr. Daryl Isaacs, a primary-care physician, said he had seen "a whole lot of interest in St. John's wort over the past five or six months."

Why is the herb so popular downtown? Who knows? Maybe it's the strain of being fabulous.

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