Aug. 7, 2000 -- New research will come as good news for some of the women who lose several days each month to the depression, cramps, and fatigue that are the hallmarks of severe premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. Researchers have found that the herb St. John's wort may make the lives of PMS sufferers -- and those around them -- a little easier at certain times of the month.
Lead author Clare Stevinson, MSC, of the University of Exeter in England, warns that this was just a small, preliminary trial. But, she tells WebMD, "It is a good starting point."
St. John's wort mimics the activity of drugs used to treat depression and PMS, says Stevinson, a research fellow in the department of complementary medicine. This prompted her and co-author Edzard Ernst to see if it, too, might relieve PMS symptoms. They studied volunteers recruited from the local community, all of whom had PMS severe enough to affect their daily functioning for more than six months. For two menstrual cycles, each woman took one 300 milligram tablet of St. John's wort daily and maintained a diary in which she rated her symptoms on a scale of zero to four.
Of the 96 women who underwent preliminary screening, only 19 completed the entire study and were included in the final analysis. Their symptom ratings improved by about 50%. Scores on tests of anxiety and depression also dropped significantly after the first month on St. John's wort. Five women complained of nausea, constipation, gas, dizziness, or heavy menstrual flow when they began taking the pills, but those effects disappeared with continued use in all cases.
"They did an excellent job in terms of [choosing their subjects]," says Susan Johnson, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and a specialist in PMS. Since St. John's wort may act like the antidepressants used to treat PMS, "there is a plausible biological reason for studying it," Johnson, who was not involved in the study, tells WebMD.
Shari Thomas, MD, MPH, tells WebMD that there are many things women can do to relieve their symptoms. "Exercise is wonderful for PMS. I also recommend a diet low in salt and sweets and a mild diuretic only on the days a woman feels bloated. Celery and asparagus are also good natural diuretics," as are certain herbal teas. Thomas, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA School of Medicine, also wasn't involved in the study.
"These findings suggest in no way that St. John's wort works -- just that there's a potential," warns Stevinson.
Thomas adds, "I think the study is a good start, [but] I think it's difficult to draw a conclusion. It may be useful, but I don't think this study gives us anything to hang our hats on."
Because herbs have not yet been well studied and because interactions of herbs with other drugs are now being reported, it is best for women to inform their physicians of all herbal, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs they are taking.