St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

St. John's WortWhen people whose only knowledge of herbs comes from popular media think about the properties of St. John’s wort, they see it as an antidepressant.  It’s not a new idea as the herb was used traditionally to drive away evil spirits and relieve melancholy, mental illness and epilepsy.  However, to think of St. John’s wort as simply an antidepressant is to do injustice to the uses of this versatile herbal remedy.

St. John’s wort comes to us with a legacy steeped in Christian tradition. Early Christians named St. John’s wort to honor John the Baptist.  They linked the blood-red oil, that the flowers and leaves release when pinched, to the saint’s beheading.  According to tradition, this herb is collected on St. John’s Day, June 25.  Maybe this is because it blooms around the summer solstice (mid June) and the flowers are the most potent part of the remedy.

The following is a popular poem, written somewhere around 1400 which illustrates the popular beliefs of the benefits of St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort doth charm all witches away
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
Any devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that gather the plant for a charm.
Rub the lintels with that red juicy flower;
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or hinder your house; and bind
Round your neck a charm of similar kind.

To ranchers, St. John’s wort isn’t so appealing. In fact, the plant is considered a noxious weed in some parts of the country. When cattle, sheep, horses and pigs graze on St. John’s wort they develop white spots and become extremely sensitive to sunlight.  This is because St. John’s wort causes phototoxicity, meaning it makes the skin more vulnerable to sunlight. Some of the animals have died from this intense sensitivity, but this effect does not seem to be as significant in humans and especially not in the amounts typically consumed in herbal medicine. Nevertheless, the fact that St. John’s wort increases sensitivity to sunlight is one of its “signatures.”  A signature is a clue to the medicinal power of a plant.  

A closely related signature of St. John’s wort is found in the plant’s Latin name,Hypericum perforatum.  Perforatum refers to the fact that the leaves have tiny holes in them, like someone poked or perforated them with a pin.  If you hold up a leaf to the light, sunshine passes through these holes.  So, we might say that St. John’s wort “let’s in the light” or makes one more “sensitive to the light.”  Add these two signatures to the fact that it produces bright sunny yellow blooms and we can easily see how it could be used to lift the “darkness” of depression and bring in the “sunshine” of joy and happiness.

The effects of St. John’s wort, however, go far beyond lifting a person out of the melancholy of mild to moderate depression.  St. John’s wort is an even better remedy for anxiety.  It helps to calm the nerves and relieve stress and tension.

St. John’s wort helps to regulate the solar plexus, more technically known as the celiac plexus.  This is a bundle of nerves in the center of the body’s trunk that radiate outward to all the body’s major organs.  This plexus is a major are for experiencing “gut instincts.”  St. John’s wort helps to enhance the function of these nerves and helps one be more attuned to one’s gut instincts. It also helps regulate digestion.

When nerves are injured, St. John’s wort is one of the best remedies for helping stimulate their regeneration and repair.  It has been called the “arnica of the nervous system,” having been used to treat spinal injuries, concussions and nerve damage.  It is used both homeopathically and as an herbal remedy for this purpose.

As a tissue healer and vulnerary, St. John’s wort has been used topically to treat bruises, sprains, lacerations, cuts, puncture wounds and other acute injuries.  It is helpful for the inflammation associated with frozen shoulder, which is often associated with feeling burdened or overwhelmed (as in being unable to shoulder one’s responsibilities).  It eases the pain, improves range of motion and aids the underlying emotional feelings.

As an antiviral agent, St. John’s wort has been shown to have effects against Herpes simplex viruses (type I and type II), mononucleosis and influence.  It is usually combined with other antiviral herbs to aid these conditions.  There is also some research suggesting it may be helpful with HIV and AIDS patients.

St. John’s wort is used as a flower essence to help people who feel overly vulnerable.  It can help children with disturbed sleep and bedwetting, which can be a sign of fear and insecurity.  St. John’s wort can also improve sleep and the quality of one’s dreams (making them more positive and “light”).

For external uses an oil tincture is made by crushing the flowers and putting them in olive oil.  This combination is put in the sun for two weeks, at which time the stock of flowers is renewed.  This oil is blood red and very healing.  It can be applied to hard tumors, swollen breasts, sciatic pain, ulcers, old sores and wounds. It can also be used for neuralgia, numbness of the nerves and other nerve damage. Combined with the oil of mullein flower and garlic bulb, it has also been used as eardrops for easing earache pain.

A decoction of St. John’s wort can also be used as a mouthwash to heal diseased gums and eliminate mouth odors. Other conditions that have been treated with St. John’s Wort include: anemia, animal bites, bleeding of the lungs, cancer, colic, coughs, diarrhea, dribbling urination, dysentery, exhaustion, gastroenteritis, hemorrhoids, inflammation, insect bites, insomnia, jaundice, kidney stones, malaise, nervous irritability, pain of coccyx, phlegm in chest, PMS, pus in the urine, rabies, scrofula, sinus headaches, sprains, stomach disorders, tension, tuberculosis, ulcers, unrest, wheezing and worms.  St. John’s Wort has been used homeopathically for a myriad of complaints including: asthma, concussions, bunions, bruises, hypersensitivities, meningitis, neuralgia, spasms and whooping cough. 

The typical dosage of St. John’s Wort is 1-2 capsules 2-3 times a day.  Teas should be made with 1-2 cups of flowers per 1 cup of boiling water.  This tea can be drunk three times daily.

Being a weed, St. John’s wort is fairly easy to grow.  Here’s a picture of the St. John’s wort plant in my yard.

Selected References
A Handbook of Native American Herbs  by Alma R. Hutchens 
“An Herb to Know: St. John’s Wort”  in The Herb Companion (April/May 1994). 
Energetics of Western Herbs, Integrating Western and Oriental Herbal Medicine Traditions, Vol. 2 by Peter Holmes 
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.

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