There’s an old idea in herbal medicine that plants have signatures, things about their color, appearance, growth patterns and so forth that give clues to their uses. Whether you believe this idea or not, St. John’s wort certainly has some interesting “signatures.”
The Bringer of Light
For starters, St. John’s wort has signatures associated with light. It’s Latin name, Hypericum perforatum, alludes to one of these signatures. Perforatum, like the word perforated, refers to the tiny holes in the leaves of the plant. If you hold a leaf up to the sun, it looks like tiny pin holes have been poked in it, which allow light to pass through.
St. John’s wort also tends to bloom right around the time of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, again associating it with light. If you get the juice of the leaves on your hands, it can cause phototoxicity, meaning it makes your skin more susceptible to light so you sunburn more easily. Sheep who graze on the plant also show this photosensitivity, which results in sunburn and blistering. However, the use of the dried leaves in human beings does not appear to have this effect.
All of this suggests that St. John’s wort is a remedy that “brings in the light.” In folklore it is thought to ward off evil spirits. If one thinks of depression as a form of darkness that comes over a person, then the idea of St. John’s wort being a remedy that “lightens” makes a lot of sense.
St. John’s wort and Depression
St. John’s wort’s popularity as an antidepressant grew from research showing that some of its compounds affected neurotransmitters in the brain. One of the most famous of these compounds is hypericin, but there are several others, including pseudohypericin, isohypericin and hyperforin. These compounds have been shown to inhibit reuptake of serotonin, dopamine and norephinephrine. Hyperforin also inhibits reuptake of GABA and L-Glutamate. Research showed that St. John’s wort could be as many prescription mediciations for mild to moderate depression. It appears to be especially helpful for depression that is associated with anxiety or stress. It also helps with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or “winter blues,” especially when combined with lemon balm (according to David Winston). It is NOT helpful for severe depression or bipolar disorders. In addition, it should be recognized that St. John’s wort is not a stand-alone therapy for depression, but needs to be used with other remedies and tools like counseling.
But, let’s move beyond depression to some of the other traditionally recognized benefits of St. John’s wort. Many of the aforementioned compounds (like hypericin) are also antiviral or antibacterial. The herb also contains and antibacterial and antiviral essential oil and tannins that aid in wound healing. Which justifies the long-time use of St. John’s wort as a vulnerary or tissue-healing agent. It has been applied topically to aid the healing of wounds, burns, bruises and lacerations. St. John’s wort is specifically indicated for deep wounds, including puncture wounds, being one of the best vulnerary remedies to apply topically to these deep wounds.
St. John’s wort is also a great antiviral remedy for herpes, mononucleosis, influenza (flu) and shingles. There is some evidence suggesting St. John’s wort may be helpful for HIV. The herb was effective in halting progress of HIV in mice, but the results were inconclusive in human studies. Some anecdotal information reports a significant improvement in some patients, so it would be worth a try.
As an antiviral, St. John’s wort isn’t particularly strong, but it works well when combined with other antivirals like lemon balm, rosemary, thyme and oregano. When using it for shingles, you want to use the herb internally and the oil topically.
St. John’s Wort Oil
St. John’s wort oil is an interesting remedy. When you pick the bright yellow flowers put them into a vegetable oil (like olive oil) to extract them, they turn the oil blood red. St. John’s wort oil is a great topical remedy for injuries and pain. In fact, St. John’s wort flowering tops (leaves and flowers gathered while the plant is in bloom) taken internally and St. John’s wort oil applied topically are very good remedies for certain types of pain and injury to the nerves.
A Remedy for Nerve Damage
Traditionally, one of the major uses of St. John’s wort was to treat damage to the nerves. It has been used to spinal injuries (the kind that may result in paralysis) or any kind of nerve damage resulting in numbness or tingling. It is also used for irritation to the nerves causing tenderness and sharp shooting or stabbing pains, or chronic pain due to nervous exhaustion. St. John’s wort’s ability to help heal injured nerves has resulted in it being called “the arnica of the nervous system.” (Arnica is used homeopathically to treat injuries like bruises, sprain and swellings and is one of the most effective herbs for this purpose.)
For treating injured nerves St. John’s wort is best used as the whole herb internally (not the standardized extract), topically as an oil extract and/or homeopathically. For serious nerve injuries a 30c or 200c homeopathic is highly recommended along with topical application of the oil. If there is bruising or swelling use St. John’s wort oil mixed with arnica oil. This combination is very good by the way for any injury where the skin is not broken.
An interesting application for St. John’s wort is put forth by Matthew Wood in his Book of Herbal Wisdom. Wood suggests that St. John’s wort is a remedy for the solar plexus, the portion of the autonomic nervous system that oversees digestion. This area is also the home of gut instincts or the ability we have to be connected to our “guts” or inner knowing. The solar plexus is also an energy center or “chakra” in the body that helps us stay calm and centered in a crisis.
People who have a weak solar plexus energy tend to suffer from poor digestion and often develop a hiatal hernia. They often have a difficult time trusting themselves and may be plagued by fears, anxieties and self-doubts. St. John’s wort appears to strengthen this area, improving digestive disturbances caused by nerves and stress and aiding a person’s ability to be calm and centered.
As a flower essence, St. John’s wort also exhibits this ability to strengthen the solar plexus energy. It helps people who feel overly vulnerable and fearful. They may become depressed and suffer from nightmares and disturbed dreams. This is due to the fact that they have lost touch with their own spiritual nature. St. John’s wort promotes illuminated self-awareness that helps a person find their own inner strength or “guts” to face up to life.
I’ve used the flower essence successfully for children suffering from nightmares. It’s also helpful for disturbing dark dreams in adults when combined with chapparal flower essence (which is for psychic toxicity). An extract of the herb can also be helpful for children who are anxious, fearful and suffer from insomnia and bad dreams.One final use for St. John’s wort is that it can be helpful for people who are quitting smoking. It combines well with lobelia for this purpose.
St. John’s Wort can be taken as a tea, in capsules, as a tincture or glycerite or used topically as an oil. The dose for the tincture is 5-20 drops, three times a day. For capsules, take 1-2, three times a day. It should be taken for at least 4 weeks before you expect results. Teas should be made with 1-2 teaspoons of flowering tops per 1 cup of boiling water. This tea can be drunk three times daily. St. John’s wort should not be taken with medications that increase serotonin. Photosensitivity is possible with large doses over long periods, but appears to rarely be a problem. Use cautiously when pregnant, as there is some theoretical possibility of St. John’s wort decreasing milk production, but risks appear to be very minimal.
Herbal Supplements and Therapies by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston
The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood
Flower Essence Repertory by Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz
“An Herb to Know: St. John’s Wort” in The Herb Companion (April/May 1994).
Herbs That Heal: Prescription for Herbal Healing by Michael Weiner, Ph.D. and Janet Weiner
The Healing Herbs: The Ultimate Guide to the Curative Power of Nature’s Medicines by Michael Castleman
The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal by Terry Willard, Ph.D.