| What is it?
St John’s wort is an upright, long-lived herb that grows to about half a meter in height and produces bright, lovely, yellow five-petalled flowers on the ends of smooth stems from its many branches. If you hold the small leaves of St John’s wort to the sun you can see that they have many tiny holes, or perforations, hence the second half of the Latin name; perforatum
How has it been used?
St John’s wort has been revered as a medicinal plant throughout history. The first part of St John’s wort’s old botanical name, Hypericum, loosely translates to ‘rising above one’s daemon’. This has long been seen as a herb that helps people to lift out of the dark places.
People with anxiety and depression and people who are suffering from tension and irritability can experience a marked calming and uplifting benefit from St John’s wort.
In fact there is an interesting body/mind duality to St John’s wort. It has become somewhat famous in modern times as a natural 'anti-depressant' but there is an equally physically compelling story to it that shows how its actions in the nervous system are just as much to do with its flesh and blood effects as anything to do with the mind.
Look at the list below of some of St John’s wort’s historical recommendations. You can immediately see how this is a herb that has been highly regarded for helping with intense physical pain. I think that the key to understanding how and when to use it lies in appreciating the fact that St John's wort has a pronounced impact on the physical tissues of the nervous system...
- Neuralgia (nerve pain)
- Polymyalgia (diverse muscle pain)
- Pain from dental extractions
- Injuries to flesh rich in nerves
- Punctured wounds
- Menstrual cramps
- Pain in the spine from falls or injuries
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Science on St John's wort
~ A number of clinical trials have demonstrated that St John's wort compares favourably with the popular antidepressant drugs fluoxetine, sertraline and imipramine but without those drugs' side effects. It has been shown to be particularly helpful in treating depressed patients with anxiety symptoms (Woelk H: BMJ 321(7260):536-539,2000) (Philipp M, Kohnen R, Hiller KO: BMJ 319:1534-1539,1999) (Friede M, Henneicki-von H-H, Fredenstein J: Phytomed (supp 2):18-19,2000)
~ A surveillance study of 76 children under the age of 12 with mild to moderate depression showed that St John's wort was beneficial and well tolerated (Hubner WD, Kirste T: Phytother Res 15(4):367-370,2001)
~ St John's wort has been shown in clinical studies to be helpful for patients suffering from seasonal-affective-disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (Harrer G: Schweiz Rundsch Med Prax 89(50):2123-2129,2000)
~ St John's wort has been shown in experimental studies to inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Many compounds in St John's wort, including flavonoids, hypericins and hyperforin appear to contribute to its mood lifting effects (Kasper S, Schulz V: Wein Med Wochenschr 149(8-10):191-196, 1999)
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Safety of St John's wort
There are now many cautions in the medical and popular literature about St John's wort -- the main reason for this simply being its high popularity and subsequent scrutiny!
Herbal medicines are powerful substances; in fact if you put any of them under the microscope as much as St John's has been you will find that they too do things within the body. This should not surprise anyone, though of course it has. Herbs are, after all, natural drugs, they must do things within the body!
In actual fact St John's is a very safe herb for the most part and I feel that the concerns about its safety have been widely overblown - especially in how it may interact with other drugs, as the worries are purely theoretical and have no basis in actual events. That said of course it is wise to treat St John's wort like any other medicinal herb -- with care and respect; I have summarised some key points below.
High doses of St John's wort can increase 'photosensitivity' so if taking this herb in medicinal levels it is wise to be cautious about limiting exposure to sunlight to safe levels.
~ St John's wort should not be used at the same time as the drugs warfarin, digoxin, cyclosporine, indinavir and related anti-HIV drugs.
~ There are some reports of St John's wort causing break-through bleeding in women taking low dose oral contraceptives. Based on the evidence so far I would not recommend using St John's wort with a woman who was depending on the pill to prevent pregnancy.
~ Despite claims to the contrary there are no adverse effects expected from taking St John's wort during pregnancy or whilst breast-feeding.
~ Concerns that St John's wort may cause such adverse effects to people taking SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are based on theoretical concerns. I and many esteemed colleagues disagree with this caution. In my own practice I have seen hundreds of people who have used St John's wort to help them get off SSRI drugs -- it clearly does not make things worse but rather significantly helps the withdrawal from the drugs.
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I deeply esteem St John’s wort and have used a great deal of it in my practice for a great many people. St John's is a true tonic herb, meaning the longer one uses it the better it works. Most of the people I give St John's wort to are not depressed in any clinical sense but rather need help from Nature to ease their pain, anxiety or tiredness. I find St John's to have a particular calming action that makes it tremendously helpful in patients who have pain in their mind or body. This is a herb that feeds the nervous system and it clearly does a very great deal to lift people's general energy and spirits.
In terms of St John's wort and depression, I think that many people who have been diagnosed with depression and told they have a chemical imbalance in fact have some intense emotional pain from their recent or deep past that they have not yet been able to process.
St John's can be an extraordinary ally in this regard, of course not because it can do anything to change the past, but in being such a potent tonic to the general mood it helps us to better deal with life in the present.
Is there any way to tell ahead of time who is more likely to respond to St John’s wort? What I have personally found is that people who have a significant physical or emotional 'pain' are the most likely to benefit from St John’s wort. I can also say from my own experience that if I 'pulse-test' someone with a few drops of St John's then, when it is the right herb for them, the difference in the pulse is quite striking to behold.
If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or if you just have your own reasons to need to know this plant at a much deeper level then I urge you to take a dose of St Johns tincture or tea and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe for yourself how it makes you feel. Your body is a remarkably intelligent, sentient 'laboratory'. It will tell you if this is a herb that you need to take for a while or if it should rather just make your acquaintance briefly today. This old way of 'experiential learning' can do more to help you truly appreciate the 'action' of a plant remedy than any amount of academic learning about it. Try for yourself and see.
St John’s wort combines perfectly with Cramp bark for strong nerve pain, with Kava for tense anxious states, with Skullcap for restlessness and an over-active mind and with Hawthorn when there is pain or loss that needs help with healing.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of St John's wort is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat condition A with plant/substance B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another --why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light St John's can particularly offer its benefits when an activation is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898
Hypericum has undoubted power over the nervous system, and particularly the spinal cord. It is used in injuries of the spine and in lacerated and punctured wounds of the limbs to prevent tetanic complications and to relieve the excruciating pains of such injuries (Scudder).
It is highly valued by Webster in spinal irritation when, upon gentle pressure upon the spinous processes of the vertebrae, burning pain is elicited. Throbbing of the whole body in nervous individuals, fever being absent, is said to be a good indication for hypericum.
The blossoms, infused in sweet oil or bear's oil, by means of exposure to the sun, make a fine, red balsamic ointment for wounds, ulcers, swellings, tumors, etc.
St Johns wort mythology
The following are some excerpts from Susanne Fischer-Rizzi's evocative book 'Medicine of the Earth' from her chapter on St John’s wort.
"The old ones said 'St John's wort stores the Sun's life in its leaves and flowers to give to us'
At the ancient celebration of summer solstice St John’s wort stands at full bloom. He is the most beautiful of sun plants, filled with solar energy and thereby related to all benevolent spirits. People everywhere have recognised in this plant a salubrious, illuminated spirit with the power to chase away evil and darkness...
...Solstice stories seem imprinted in St John’s wort, his golden five-petalled blooms radiating like small sun-wheels around a shower of bobbing stames. Our forebearers saw in these flowers the captured power of the sun, each five-pointed star a sign of the benevolent powers. Ancient druids saw a resemblance to their sacred pentagram while Christians felt it symbolised the five stigmata of Christ.
From medieval days St John’s wort was thought to banish demons. Peasants hung it in the tables to protect livestock from sorcery and placed a small tuft in their chamber windows to keep evil spirits from entering. The plants power to undo spells resulted in names like 'chase the devil' and 'flight of the demons'. According to legend the Devil himself perofrated the leaves of St John’s wort because he fretted about its healing power. However rather than perish the plant became a sure means of repelling evil spirits...
St John’s wort allows the powers of sunlight to penetrate completely so that he can pass them on to us. In this way he helps us open ourselves to lightness when our spirits are heavy and everything seems dark"
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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