11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
JIM ZEBROWSKI ALWAYS THOUGHT of himself as an energetic person. But in 1993, when the sale of his airport-shuttle business soured, Zebrowski fell into deep despair. "I was miserable," recalls the San Diego businessman. "Some days I wouldn't even get out of bed." He turned to Del Mar, Calif., psychiatrist Dr. Harold Bloomfield, who prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft. Though the drug alleviated Zebrowski's depression, it caused so many side effects he switched to Paxil. "We eventually went through the whole battery of antidepressants," recalls Zebrowski, 45. "I lasted about a week and a half on each. I was climbing the walls. The Zoloft killed my sexual life."
Bloomfield had heard it all before: "I've had patients say to me, 'I feel like I have to choose between having a sex life and being happy' " No longer. Nine months ago Bloomfield started Zebrowski on capsules of Hypericum perforatum, the herb known as St.-John's-wort. "I don't know if it's a cure," says Zebrowski, "but I'm finally feeling normal again."
So are hundreds of thousands of other Americans who have begun taking "nature's Prozac," in part since reading Bloomfield's 1996 bestseller, Hypericum & Depression. Bloomfield, 53, takes no credit. "It's not like I've discovered something," he says. "It's been around for centuries." Bloomfield first heard of Hypericum five years ago while doing research for his 1994 bestseller, How to Heal Depression. When he asked European colleagues how they treated depression in their patients, they told him about their success with St-John's-wort. "I sort of raised my eyebrows," he recalls. But his research soon revealed that the herb "had a tradition going back to Hippocrates," who prescribed it for "nervous unrest." Bloomfield also learned that some 20 million Europeans use it with only occasional reports of mild side effects such as sensitivity to sunlight and slight nausea.
So why has St.-John's-wort—readily available as a dietary supplement in health food stores—been ignored in the U.S.? Bloomfield says it has to do with our national dependence on prescription medicine. Doctors, he adds, "have become the point men for the drug companies."
No wonder, then, that when he began promoting Hypericum, which, at about 25 cents a pill, is far cheaper than, say, Prozac, at around $1.80 per pill, Bloomfield expected to be called a crackpot by colleagues. It didn't happen. European studies, which show Hypericum to be highly effective in treating mild to moderate depression, "are encouraging," says Dr. Benedetto Vitiello, the Rockville, Maryland-based psychiatrist heading up a three-year study of the herb by the National Institute of Mental Health, though he urges caution until further studies are done. Dr. Fred Goodwin, former director of the NIMH, worries that users, including those who have begun taking it as an appetite suppressant, might take more than the recommended dosage of three 300-milligram tablets daily.
For Bloomfield, championing St.-John's-wort caps a lifelong quest to defeat depression. Growing up in New York City—where his parents moved after fleeing Nazi Germany—he watched helplessly as his own mother, Fridl, wrestled with the disorder. Her despondency and pessimism, he says, "drove me to medicine." After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he got his medical degree from Down-state Medical Center, State University of New York, in 1969, then spent three years in psychiatric residency at Yale. There, he learned about transcendental meditation and, in 1974, became one of the first American psychiatrists to teach it. A year later Bloomfield published his first bestseller, TM—Transcendental Meditation, and after relocating to California in 1976, he began teaching the stress-reduction technique to such celebrities as Woody Allen and Merv Griffin.
Today, Fridl Bloomfield, 88, takes Hypericum. ("It really lightened her up," says her son.) For the past three years, Bloomfield has too. Although he isn't depressed, "I was curious about it," says Bloomfield, who lives in Del Mar with his wife, Sirah Vettese, a psychologist, with whom he has three children, ages 14 to 24. "You see your patients coming back, and you say, 'This is terrific. Maybe I should try this.' I definitely have more of a lightness of being," he adds, "and I feel more productive."
In fact, the people most likely to suffer Hypericum's, ill effects are the makers of pharmacological antidepressants. "I've joked with my wife," laughs Bloomfield, "that if I suddenly got bumped off, she would know where to look."
JOHNNY DODD in Del Mar