The Other Uses of St. John’s Wort


Cheryl Hoard


An ornament of meadows, St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, is a beautiful, yellow-blooming shrub which doesn’t demand much for its survival. It makes itself available even for those living at an altitude of 10,000 feet where many other plants refuse to live. Often found growing comfortably in woods basking in speckled shade and sun, this herb really loves full sun and poor, rocky soil. It is profuse in areas that have been razed or cleared. It’s as if it congregates to heal these areas as soon as the land has been damaged. If cultivated, once it gets established, it’s better not to use fertilize or water it much. In fact for a more medicinal effect from the harvest, during the flowering stage, watering should be discontinued. This induced stress is similar to a wild plant’s experience and seems to bring out more medicinal constituents.


St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, grows in North and South America and Australia but is native to Europe where its history is rich. Derived from Greek, the name Hypericum means ‘over an apparition’. Could this already be referring to its popular use today as a natural antidepressant? A Midsummer herb, the Druids categorized it as a sun-ruled plant. For the psyche and for spiritual matters the sun represented a strengthening influence towards cultivating a positive mind and fostering proactive, creative and confident states. The Druids thought just a whiff of its balsamic, resinous scent was enough to repel evil forces and when used as medicine could dispel madness. Keep in mind, throughout much of history people thought most illness was caused by evil spirits. Considering the whole of human history, it is only recently that science has developed to a point as to offer us other explanations for diseases. This explains why, when reading about the historical use of herbs in numerous books, this extraordinary action of thwarting evil spirits is attributed to so many of the popular medicinal herbs in use today. The stronger the medicinal effect an herb has the more likely you will read about keeping bad spirits at bay. The Druids thought St. John’s Wort to be blessed for it contained the perfect balance of fire and water, considered optimum for a healing effect. Fire was associated with the sun and water associated with sinking into the dark, cold season. A balance of the two forces was Midsummer.


During the Middle Ages use of this herb to banish evil spirits continued. In June the plant begins flowering and a bundle was hung over the door and replaced every summer solstice, June 21st. These kind of pagan activities were of concern to the Benedictine monks who then dignified the herb with a Christian name honoring Saint John’s Day, June 24, the birthday of John the Baptist. ‘Bleeding' appears to happen when the flowering plant is crushed. Fingers are stained bright red when the flowers are pinched. Depending on the climate of an area, flowering can continue throughout the summer and in August it was thought the plant bled on the day John the Baptist was beheaded. It’s interesting that now it is known that the plant is at its medicinal optimum when the flowering stage has progressed to the point when fruits and seeds begin to appear. Did they know August was an optimum time for making St. John’s Wort medicine? The ancient doctors of Rome and Greece associated its appearance to bleed with its highly successful ability to heal wounds. It was in the 1600s when the Doctrine of Signatures was promoted by the herbalist John Coles which established connections between a plant’s appearance and its ability to heal a particular condition. He suggested a connection between the tiny holes visible on a St. John’s Wort leaf when held up to the sun and the pores of our skin. These little “holes” are actually glands also described as hypericin idioblasts containing the red pigments also contributing to the mysterious bleeding effect. Coles recommended its use for “hurts and wounds and inward bruises.” The species name, perforatum, is due to the impression of a leaf full of small holes.


A healing oil was made by soaking or infusing the St. John’s Wort flowering tops into a vegetable oil such as Olive Oil. Infused oil such as this has been a staple of traditional herbal medicine since the beginning. The red pigments characteristic of this plant make a beautiful red colored oil. The herb material in the vegetable oil is usually allowed to infuse together (macerate) in a jar placed in a dark place for a few weeks. The sun seems to be the best place to set a jar of St. John’s Wort Oil to bring out more of the flavonoids for healing and the constituent, hyperforin, known for an antibacterial action. Modern explanations abound as to why the prepared oil is such a soothing dressing for sores, cuts, wounds, burns, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, bruises, ulcers, bites and for both traumatic and chronic nerve pain due to injuries or surgery, arthritis, sciatica, lumbago, and neuralgia. Studies show remarkable success for healing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree burns three times faster than normal with less scarring. St. John’s Wort’s power to prevent and heal skin damage from radiation treatments has been empirically observed. Antibacterial action is clinically proved even for troublesome staph infections.


In addition to application of the healing oil, a traditionally prepared tincture of St. John’s Wort was taken internally during a study that showed it to be superior to topical application of Calendula tincture for healing a wound. It is quite remarkable for the internal use of any herb to heal a wound better than topical use of a well-known healer as respectable as Calendula. Studies have not been conducted for every known topical use of this herb but modern use has demonstrated how remarkable it is for all nerve pain and nerve damage. Some resources are specific in referring to severed nerves, crushed fingers or limbs, sports injuries and, post-surgical pain. There are reports of dramatic pain relief experienced by wild-crafters of the herb after a few days of harvesting stained their hands of the medicinal compounds. After a few weeks of harvesting, one wild-crafter reported to be completely free of a long-standing, severe case of sciatica that never returned.


Taken internally as tea or in the extract/tincture form, St. John’s Wort helps many of the same painful conditions commonly treated externally with the oil. Obviously, its analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect are useful but the fact that it is a sedative and nervine (tonic for the nervous system) must also contribute to easing a painful condition. Being more relaxed and less anxious definitely helps coping with pain. Settling the nerves has also proved St. John’s Wort usefulness for smoking cessation, during perimenopause and menopause, counteracting the stress of our modern living style, panic, anxiety, and grief. Other historical uses have been as an astringent which is an agent that contracts or tightens tissue. Astringents have traditionally been used for diarrhea or dysentery and astringent action contributes to the efficacy of wound healing herbs as well. It was also thought to be of value for various digestive problems like nausea, ulcers, and gastritis.


Both internal and external uses of all varieties of preparation have shown to be exceptionally comforting to the various symptoms of viruses of the herpes family. Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful condition that responds very well to internal and external use of St. John’s Wort preparations. The infused oil is a famous treatment to the blistered or painful areas. The analgesic, wound healing and antiseptic qualities are in play for this application. Ingestion of the tea or extract is definitely suggested and some sufferers get remarkable relief by pouring, spraying or other application of the simple tea to the affected areas. A clever method of partially filling ice cube trays with the strong tea, freezing and the ‘tea cubes’ applied whenever desired. Cold sores and outbreaks of genital herpes are also treated with all the various external and internal St. John’s Wort products. Rare in the pharmaceutical kingdom are chemicals with an antiviral activity but this is not rare in plant medicine and is a feature that St. John’s Wort offers. Its antiviral action may also be why it is a supreme herpes remedy and supports the internal use of it as a preventative between outbreaks.


HIV is a virus that causes AIDS and as well leaves the body defenseless against many other infections including respiratory, digestive and herpes infections. Research using many of the constituents contained in St. John’s Wort is showing the ability to reduce the spread of HIV in test tube. Specifically it is the hypericin and pseudohypericin, two of the many naturally occurring chemical constituents, which inhibit herpes simplex types 1 and 2 and HIV type 1. Research work continues and in the meantime, those in the herbal community see the obvious benefits of a basic antiviral, antibacterial effect, antidepressant, nerve soother, and immune protector as reason enough to consider its use valuable when living with HIV. Interestingly research has shown activity against a host of viruses including influenza, herpes, polio, HIV and hepatitis C.


A few words about antidepressants seem unavoidable when the topic happens to be St. John’s Wort. This herb has been proven to act as both a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, MAOI, and as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, SSRI. Pharmaceutical examples of MAO inhibitors are Marplan, Nardil, Parnate and SSR inhibitors are known as Prozac, Luvox and Zoloft. The way the standard caution is published about avoidance of herb use if taking these prescriptions sounds rather alarming. The fact behind this caution is that the herb potentiates the action of the drug, which means it duplicates the activity. What this really means is that it makes good sense to work with your health professional to determine how much less pharmaceutical you will need in combination with use of the natural herb for the same effect. Considering that one of the featured outcomes after testing on 3,000 patients was the pronounced lack of side effects from use of the herb, it seems like a very good thing to use in combination for the purpose of reduction of side effects alone.


Illness is often accompanied by depression. Consider the usefulness of such an herb, when the anti-depressant benefits are well established and so many other uses for nerve problems, nervous system debility, and viral invaders are present for chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis, post-herpetic neuralgia, arthritis, rheumatism, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and HIV/AIDS.


A connection between St. John’s Wort and Parkinson’s has already been made. One reason for this is thought to be the mild MAOI effect useful for relieving depression. The enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MAO), suppresses dopamine and it is believed that boosting dopamine reduces Parkinson’s risk. This is the current assumption as to why this herb seems helpful for Parkinson’s but what about the value it presents to the nerves in general? Often a single herb offers many avenues of healing for one condition.


The sun is of some concern regarding the use of St. John’s Wort. It has been noticed that grazing animals eating large amounts of this plant have become hypersensitive to the sun to the point of developing blistered skin. This resulted in warnings to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun in human consumption. Ever watchful for upholding the highest integrity and level of safety, the medicinal herb industry encourages the notification of all known warnings with products sold. This particular warning continues to be published even though it has also been established that the dose required for a human to become photosensitized by St. John’s Wort would be 30 times higher than what is needed for it’s antidepressant effect. Normal use is not a concern regarding exposure to the sun. In fact it’s notable that topical use of the infused oil will speed the healing of any such burns. Another notable fact is the conclusion from a Canadian study showing that exposure to light was required for hypericin to inactivate the AIDS virus. Quite possibly anyone using this herb for HIV would be advised to spend a little time in the sunshine on a regular basis. Sunshine is often recommended for those suffering with depression and of course SAD, seasonal affective disorder.


We often associate the sun with things enjoyable and uplifting. Someone has a “sunny disposition” or someone “brings sunshine” into someone’s life. St. John’s Wort’s sunny, yellow, midsummer blooming flowers represent the sun quite well, which continues to encourage us to connect our use of the herb with the sun. The Druids considered it blessed for its perfect Midsummer balance but perhaps we are the ones blessed to have such a remarkable sunny herb. 



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Cheryl Hoard

Cheryl has twice been president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). She has been the aromatherapy consultant for Time Life Books, served as a member of the Botanicals Workgroup of the Complementary Health Committee for the BJC Health System, lectures for Washington University Medical School, St. Louis University Medical School, St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis Community College, Meramec and Missouri Botanical Garden. She has studied herbalism and aromatherapy since 1976. She spent 11 years in Asia as Principal French Horn of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and has studied natural healing with international practitioners of the herbal arts. She now plays frequently with the St. Louis Symphony and many other local groups. Since 1991 she has been owner of Cheryl’s Herbs an international wholesale/retail/mail order supplier of over 5000 highest quality herbal & aromatherapy products.

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