Treating mental illness naturally: Are herbal remedies a serious alternative to psychiatric drugs?

As seen in Tonic Magazine
By Guy Chamberland

Mental disease is on the rise.  Epidemiological studies show that one person out of five will suffer from a psychiatric disorder over their lifetime.  Psychiatric drugs have without a doubt helped many people with mental illness.  However, in others side effects of the medication are profound or not tolerable. In some situations these drugs have contributed to worsening of their illness (e.g., triggering suicidal thoughts, manic or psychotic episodes, etc).  Several authors have raised questions about the widespread use of psychiatric drugs and their long term side effects, emphasizing that some people are helped by them and they still have a place in the physician’s arsenal.  (R. Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness).  Other health professionals use psychotherapy or other non-drug methods to improve stress and mental health issues.

In general, natural medicine offers alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs, and in most cases, fewer side effects have been described with the natural approach.  Herbs have been used throughout history to treat psychological symptoms or mental illness with successful outcomes.   Properties that are generally sought for treatments include, for example, nervous trophorestorative, adaptogens, calmative, hypnotic, and/or sedative herbal activities.  Examples of herbs commonly used to treat mental illness are: Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata), Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Valeriana spp. (Valerian), Vervain (Verbena officinalis), and Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis).  Other than St. John’s Wort, which has been extensively evaluated in the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), most other herbs have not undergone clinical testing in multiple randomized trials.  St. John’s Wort demonstrated efficacy equivalent to antidepressants and has been recommended as a first-line treatment in mild-to-moderate depression.  Several herbs demonstrated clinical benefits in trials in the treatment of anxiety but well-designed controlled trials are lacking in other psychiatric diseases.  It is not surprising to see that the herbal remedies used in treating mental disorders are often based on Traditional or Western herbal medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Naturopathic medicine.  These therapies often base the treatments on principals entirely different than that of conventional medicine.

Given their potency, these herbs should be used with caution and certainly always under the care of a health professional as they most probably contain ingredients that have pharmacological properties similar to those of psychiatric drugs.

Depression and psychiatric illnesses are serious diseases and should not be taken lightly.  An herbal-based approach may be preferred by some patients but they should avoid self-medication and seek care from qualified and experienced health care practitioners.  In these cases, patients should seek care from an integrative medicine clinic; a clinic where both conventional and natural practitioners work jointly to help patients (e.g., Vaughan Medical Center and Start Clinic in Toronto).

Guy Chamberland is the Vice President of Research at CuraPhyteTechnologies. He can be contacted at