St. John’s Wort

St. John's Wort tincture

St. John’s Wort tincture

I finally was able to get some more dropper bottles so I could bottle up my St. John’s Wort tincture and catnip tincture. In the end it had brewed for so long, the extract was crazy strong and I actually added a little water to dilute it.

This seemed like a good time to delve into St. John’s Wort. I talked about it briefly a while back, when I was making Mrs. Corlyon’s Red Oil (Part 1 and Part 2). That recipe specified that, ideally, if one were going to add SJW to make the oil more medicinal, one should harvest the SJW at Midsummer (a.k.a., St. John’s Day).

My first, indirect, encounter with St. John’s Wort was as an herbal supplement that my friend Greg used to take in college. He had a box for his supplements–which the rest of us dubbed The Little Yellow Pillbox–and it would faithfully make its appearance each night at dinner. We came to associate it so closely with him that when another friend and I went on a graduation trip we took TLYP with us and photographed it having fun all over Rome. It was the next best thing to having Greg on the trip. What was in The Little Yellow Pillbox? Of its various contents the only one I ever knew was St. John’s Wort. In retrospect that was probably a good supplement for my friend because he is the moodiest person I have ever met and St. John’s Wort is used for promoting more stable mood.

And that was the end of it until I started my herbal explorations.

St. John's Wort flowers

St. John’s Wort flowers

I did a little research into the folklore of the plant and its association with Midsummer. Traditioanlly on St. John’s Eve, starting at sunset, people would light bonfires. There were feats of strength (like Festivus!) and prayers to ensure the health of crops. (Read more about the celebration of St. John’s Day in Ireland here.) In other words it was very similar to Beltaine (literally “Bel’s Fire”), the beginning of summer in the Irish and Scottish Celtic calendar, but Beltaine was celebrated on 1 May.  It seems that the plant received its name from the holiday, St. John’s Day–when the plant started flowering–which in turn was a pagan festival that was co-opted/absorbed by Christianity. Matthew Wood (in The Book of Herbal Wisdom) describes St. John in the context of the translation from pagan to Christian:

“In the Biblical account, St. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, born six months before him, so naturally his feast day fell at the summer solstice. Just as Jesus took over the functions of the dying and resurrecting pagan god of winter, St. John was associated with the pagan god of summer vegetation and life. The Bible recounts that St. John went off to live by himself in the wilderness, dressed like a ‘wild man,’ feeding on wild plants. The medieval Catholics recognized a resemblance to the ‘Wild Man’ or ‘Green Man’ associated with the blooming fertility of summer.”

However, Dorothy Hall (in Creating Your Herbal Profile) points out that a lot of plants were identified with St. John the Baptist–a very popular saint–so in reading medieval texts we can never quite be sure which species they are referring to. Rest assured that I am referring to Hypericum perforatum here.

The flowers look like little sunbursts. Any surprise SJW is used for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The flowers look like little sunbursts. Any surprise SJW is used for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Going back to Greek and Roman times, it seems SJW was used for relieving various types of pain, for treating depression, and for warding off evil generally. Mrs. Grieve indicates it is useful in treating all pulmonary complaints, diarrhea, hemmorhages, worms, jaundice, and bedwetting. Back to Wood:

“Homeopathy has shown that Hypericum is specific for wounds to parts rich in nerves, attended with sharp, shooting pains, inflammation along the course of a nerve, pinched nerves, injuries from sharp, penetrating instruments, etc….It is used for blows to the coccyx, from falling on the ice, down stairs, or delivering a baby. It is especially indicated for pinched nerves or injuries which occur as a result of sudden movements, as when people catch at something to stop themselves from falling….Very often, when we have a medicine which acts this strongly on nerve trauma, we find that it will also act on the nervous sytems. St. John’s Wort has a particular affinity to the solar plexus and the nerves of digestion.”

Topically it may be used as a soothing anti-inflammatory for treating burns, abrasions, boils, excema, and sores, or as a massage oil for spasms, cramps, sprains, bruises, stiffness, etc. Hall states that the disease pattern to which SJW is suited is “an over-stimulated nervous condition with its evidence on the skin.” This can include everything from shingles to measles, heat rash, and bug bites. People with especially sensitive nervous systems, including sensitive skin and low pain tolerance are “Hypericum types.” These people have acute senses, especially that of touch, and I suspect many would nowadays be classed as having sensory defensiveness. Hall associates these characteristics with a tendency to be quick, restless, easily bored, often to the extent that they are clumsy and injure themselves. Except for this last characteristic, I notice that all the other ones given by Hall are common among empaths (some of whom are quick and clumsy but by no means all).

Scientific studies show SJW is as effective against depression as pharmaceuticals, without the horrendous side effects–though weirdly, the studies performed so far show SJW being more effective on German-speakers (source). No one has offered a convincing reason for this. It’s yellow color is traditionally considered a signature indicating its mood-lifting and its beneficial effect on the liver and digestive tract.

According to an article cited by Wikipedia, SJW has also been shown to speed up the metabolism of estrogens, so it can interfere with birth control pills. (Unfortunately, the footnote is vague and the link to the article broken, so don’t take Wikipedia’s word for it.) If that is accurate, it would seem to be a good treatment for estrogen dominance, right? Except my internet research doesn’t turn up any indication of that. SJW has been used, however, to successfully treat the emotional symptoms of PMS.

Concerns have been raised about the safety of SJW because it causes photosensitivity in cattle, but so far this has rarely occurred in humans. In general reported negative effects are similar to those reported with a placebo (source).

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