Nature works in mysterious ways, but science would like to validate it. The story of St. John’s Wort is proof of that. It is the single most studied plant. It is also proof that when nature and science collide, the results can be interesting and enlightening, as well as damaging to the plant being studied. It can lead to miss-information passed down to those who look no further than the words on the page.
While studies on plants are helpful and do produce some good results, our need to categorize so that we may understand something can sometimes go too far. To market St. John’s Wort as the herb for depression is too simplistic for the manner in which herbs work and function in the body. By categorizing and marketing the plant in this manner, we create myth…we attempt to rewrite history to fit our method of understanding, and in doing so do a disservice to those who strive to teach plant medicines in a more holistic fashion. Yes, it is said to relieve depression, but seeing depression as a symptom of a greater imbalance, not as the sole issue. It is time we look to the story of the plant to find its truth, and give that story as much power if not more than some of our human discoveries. For in the story lies valuable information for our own health. Within story there lies a different truth that we attach to, moving us to transcend something towards great healing.
Namesake and History
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been a part of herbal history for 2500 years. It’s name, Hypericum, is said to have been derived from hyper (above) and eikon (possibly an unwanted apparition/figure). This reflects the plant’s use historically to protect from and drive away evil spirits. Perforatum is derived from the pinprick holes in the leaves, which are evident when the leaf is held to the sun. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, the leaves represent the pores of our skin, and this is how Hypericum perforatum came to be known as a great wound healer. Greek soldiers once carried this plant into battle for two reasons. One, they believed it protected them from harm. And secondly, in the event that it didn’t, it was a fabulous wound healer, specifically for punctures, nerve trauma, burns, and bruising.
With the onset of Christianity, Hypericum perforatum came to be associated with St. John the Baptist, as it blooms in mid-Summer, around his birthday, June 24th. It was once observed to bleed red oil from its leaf glands when crushed on the day in August when St. John was beheaded. The yellow flowers can be seen as the sun and light, which is what St. John represented to Christians, and the red dye, which comes forth when the leaves and flowers are crushed and is a main mechanism for healing, represents the blood of his death.
Like many herbs in the 19th century, the use of St. John’s Wort as a medicinal ceased to be recognized by herbalists, but the tradition of use was still carried on by the homeopaths. Oddly enough, it was bad blood between the herbalists and homeopaths that contributed largely to the fall of St. John’s Wort as a medicinal herb. It failed to be recognized or mentioned at all in many of the major Eclectic herbal pharmacy books of even the early 20th century. Harvey Felter M.D., in his Eclectic Materia Medica dated 1922 is even quoted on the plant as saying, “miraculous powers should not be hoped of from it.”
But thanks to homeopathy, St. John’s Wort stayed in the repertory of medicinal agents. It was used by the homeopaths for trauma to areas of the body rich in nerves (eyes, spine, fingers). Specific indications were shooting pains, pinched nerves, and injury by sharp penetrating objects, and nerve inflammation. With the middle of the 20th century approaching, herbalists began to feel differently about homeopaths, and so they also began to take notice of the benefits of St. John’s Wort once again.
Internal Use of Plant
As in homeopathy, modern herbalists use St. John’s Wort for complaints of the nervous system. The fresh plant tincture of flowers and leaves internally are an effective analgesic—easing the discomfort of the shooting nerve pain of sciatica, are anti-spasmodic—easing the pain of spinal injuries, and are for general recuperation with inflammation. It is excellent internally for muscular pain. St. John’s Wort eases the trauma and shock associated with nervous system disorders. Considering that nerve damage is often a result of a trauma, you have quite a holistic remedy in hand. It calms hysteria, especially when there is heat along the spinal cord, is specific for nervous depression, and is a fabulous nervine tonic.
When I envision the plant in the spine, I see it moving stuck and blocked energy out.
Something that was not realized until the end of the last century is how many nerve endings there are in the digestive tract. It is interesting to see where new discoveries in physiology explain one of the mechanisms of this plant. St. John’s Wort has been successfully used to quell diarrhea due to nervousness, and act as a mild bitter, thus aiding digestion.
It acts on the liver in another curious manner as well. St. John’s Wort is associated with bile production of the liver, and acts through phase two detoxification of the liver. In Chinese medicine, melancholia (melancholy) translates as black bile, and black bile/liver insufficiency is one of the issues of depression. St. John’s Wort also lowers liver enzymes. When we stimulate liver function properly, and digestive function properly while supporting the nervous system, over time depression can lift. As far as the effects St. John’s Wort has on brain chemistry, it can act similarly to drugs. St. John’s Wort, though, is specific to uni-polar depression. Some have used it successfully for the depressive effects of lack of sunlight, or SAD. But it is not for chronic depression, or depression of a bi-polar/manic nature. And while it is easy to say taking St. John’s Wort alone works for depression, we must also look, as I have said before, at the emotional and spiritual nature of the imbalance before choosing a treatment.
St. John’s Wort is considered to be anti-bacterial and anti-viral as well. It is found effective in formulas for the herpes virus internally and externally alike. I have used it in formulas for this for years. It is also found to be effective against certain strains of strep and staph infections, and perhaps even the flu.
St. John’s Wort also has an effect on the urinary tract. It is seen as being diuretic and for suppression of urine. It is also effective for treating overnight incontinence in children. This is could be due to the effects it has on muscle tissue, and could mean that it somehow acts as a tonic to the muscle tissue of the bladder, while backing off the nervous system. Again, no one is certain how it functions in this capacity. It certainly worked on one of my client’s daughters. There were also other indications for employing it’s use in this instance, and should not be categorized as the herb for bedwetting, as the effects could be adverse in other ways
External Use of Plant
Externally, St. John’s Wort is employed much like arnica, except it can be used on open wounds. Sprains, swelling, bruises and contusions are but a few of the maladies healed by this plant. Often, on uncut skin, I will use one part St. John’s Wort infused oil combined with one part arnica infused oil. This has also been an effective combination for cramps, and acute mammitis. For rheumatism, muscle or joint strain, I combine with the infused oils of St. John’s Wort and arnica essential oils of eucalyptus, clove, lavender, mint, ginger and rosemary (about 5 drops of each in 4 ounces of infused oil). If the muscle or joint pain is severe, I add wintergreen and camphor in a very small amount (about 3 drops of each to 4 ounces of infused oil) just in the beginning phase of pain reduction. They are not to be used long term.
There is much to be said of this plant. It was humble in its history, but today becomes a powerhouse. As studies come forth with evidence of St. John’s Wort being an anti-retroviral compound researched for the treatment of AIDS, to shortening the recovery time of brain cancer patients post surgery and possibly even inhibiting enzymes responsible for the division of brain cancer cells. These studies are proof that science can get it right. But we must not forget the historical context to fully understand its uses, its personality and spirit.
It is wise to use a cautious combination of two evidences in medicine: science and nature. I believe that some of the science on the effectiveness of plant medicine is important. The medical needs of society have changed so much over the course of the last 100 years alone, that we often find new information about the plant to help us with the latest mysterious illnesses. Often times, it is with the best intentions that we study a plant. But it is also important to remember herbs work in more ways than merely pharmacological movers and shakers in the body. Herbs move energy in our energy fields, shifting our spirits to a place of balance and healing as well. They are holistic in their approach to our bodies, and model that to us in their chemical structure. Their story should not be dismissed in the search for a simple answer, or for lack of scientific evidence.