Friday, 24 July 2015

St John'swort, not an antidepressant. Well maybe sorta. But not how you think. And really it is SO much more.

(Originally published here

This will not be a discussion about brain chemicals, my brothers and sisters, because I'm pretty sure so narrow a worldview sets people up for depression in the first place. The idea that our responses to life can be reduced to chemical reactions and have nothing to do with us is dehumanizing. Drugs that treat so-called chemical imbalances are dehumanizing. Feeling dehumanized is depressing!

It's become a big con, of course, this whole brain chemistry racket. It's used to keep us in our places. The natural pain that is part of being mortal is medicalized into a disorder. The pain that stems from oppression is labeled mental illness. These types of pain, we're taught, are to be avoided or escaped.

The drugs, when they work as designed, ensure that we are more pliable. Feeling different, which is interpreted as "better", the person who confesses a state of ennui to the doctor is now a satisfied consumer, oops I mean patient. He/she, now sold on the wisdom on pills for their ills, is more likely to comply with the consequential schedule of regular maintenance of the biological machine. At the next appointment, the G.P. will see evidence of weight gain (which is inevitable with all meds, since they disrupt the gut). That must be insulin resistance, or maybe the thyroid's a little sluggish, but no worries, there's meds for that (& that), see you in a few months. Sexual dysfunction is next up (hormones? viagra?). By the way, have you had your mammogram/PSA test? Don't forget the statins, just in case! No, don't worry about the sudden atrophy of your leg muscles, no it's not significant that it began just after you got that script filled, you're just getting older... the medicalization of life proceeds apace.

Woops, I'm sorry, I didn't intend this post to go down that rabbit hole. Yet is it not true? Is this not the pattern? Of course it is. If you don't want to acknowledge that, please move along to the next blog. Nothing to see here folks.

If you can see it, you don't trust the medical establishment, and you're considering trying St John'swort to help with your depressive-type symptoms, keep reading. I've got some of the information you need.

St John'swort can be of help. Sometimes. Whether and how will depend on why it is chosen, how it is used, where it comes from and how it is prepared. Do we use it as a drug, 3x a day in the hopes of masking our pain? Or do we enter into relationship with ourselves, and affect changes where the source of our pain lies? How do we see pain, be it physical or emotional? As something we must escape? Or is it a message?

It is critically important that I begin by addressing the risks of the capsule & pill forms of St John'swort as Big Herb offers it. It is supposedly "purified" and "standardized", yes? That's red flag #1. Paring a plant down to its "active ingredients" and throwing away the rest turns it into a drug. Drugs manipulate our consciousness, it is what they are designed to do. To be blunt, are you trying to feel more fully human? Don't take drugs.

Contaminants are a real danger. I have no specifics on what they are/can be, because it varies with the source. Factories that process supplements often do so on the night shift. The day shift is when they process pharmaceuticals and believe me, they don't always thoroughly clean the equipment in between. Residues, anyone? That kind of nonsense alone leaves me of the opinion that over the counter herbs in pills can be even more dangerous than prescribed meds. But that's a rant for another day.

Next up we have pesticides. St John'swort is attractive, they tell us, to a certain beetle, which in turn infects the plant with a fungal disease. When any plant is grown in a monoculture, in rows, it's a sitting duck. So they spray the bejeesus out of the crops. Looking for some extra pesticides or fungicides in your diet? Didn't think so.

Which brings me to the true nature of St John'swort as it grows in the wild.. As we learn how it lives, how it interacts with its environment, what its personality quirks are (and yes it has them), we see that these are aspects of the plant that we take into our bodies along with its biology.

If we look into the life experiences of any plant we might take on as an ally, we'll find that we have challenges in common. It is these commonalities that bring us into relationship with the plants we use for healing. Our goal is to coax our body's return to a natural healthy state. That is why we turn to plants at their natural peak of health as our aids. Each plant offer us its particular strengths.

I'd like it if you would take a moment to think about that paragraph. It really is the crux of everything I teach.

St John'swort grows in colonies, very pretty they are, too, with those sunny yellow flowers. It enjoys the sun. I often find it in those in-between, edgey areas - the edge of a forest, running along the side of a meadow, or even growing in the crags of low cliffs. It actually thrives under adversity. The more challengingly dry the area or lean the soil, the more potent the medicine. If it finds just the right conditions, the colonies can get quite large. I often see it growing in ribbons of gold along highways and chuckle that if only people knew how easy it is to find ... I have little colonies that spring up here and there in the yard, and one permanent one, just a couple of plants, that springs up every year nestled inside an ornamental willow on the front lawn.

An unusually moist place for it to appear.

St J's begins flowering quite reliably a few days after the Summer Solstice - St John the Baptist's day, hence the name - and is at its peak in the dog days of summer. It dies off in the winter, but the stalks, maybe 18" tall, (give or take) wiry by then, keep standing, easy to spot against the snow. It's a "cut and come again" plant, so as it is harvested (we take no more than a third at a time) it will regrow and reflower a second time or even a third in one season. The botanical name is hypericum perforatum. Hypericum, loosely translated, means "over ghosts" (more on that later) and perforatum is for the tiny holes you can sometimes see in the leaves if you look carefully. They're really tiny!

This plant is something of a nomad, a free spirit. If it finds the neighbourhood is going downhill, it moves on. If the aforementioned beetles move in and start to be a problem, the plant just won't come up in the same spot next year. It is not that the beetles have killed the colony, it's that the colony moved - you can do that if you're a perennial that has the choice of spreading by seed or root.

The nature of free humans, too, is to move on when things ain't right. Not being able to move on from a place we know isn't safe is one of the things that depresses us. That's called situational depression in the lingo.

About those beetles - We had really healthy colonies of the plant on our old cottage's property. Swarms of those beetles would swoop in and live on them for a short time most years. (The beetles, by the way, are very pretty, metallic gold/green.) The plants showed no damage whatsoever. It's when grown in rows as a crop the plants are most likely to experience any fungal imbalance "caused" by the beetles. In the wild, St John's is resistant to fungal diseases. Oh, and bacterial ones too. And viral. Yep. That's a very strong constitution that plant has, yes?

Isn't it the nature of humans grown in rows in the urban environment to be more likely succumb to disease, too? And healers have long been using St John'swort - successfully - to help us deal with fungal, bacterial and viral diseases.

St John'swort is very particular about the rules of its harvest and handling. In order to get top quality St John's, it must be picked when about 30% of the flowers are in bloom, and the rest in bud form. It must also be a bright sunny day, preferably late morning, after the dew has dried but before the heat of the sun causes the plant to begin conserving its moisture. There's a test we do - it's impressive - of picking a blossom, and squishing it between the finger and thumb. If it's ready, that bright yellow flower will stain your fingers red. Blood red. Any infused oil or tincture (correctly made!) will be a gorgeous shade of ruby.

Note the tiny red dots? This blossom is next to my finger, for scale, wedding ring at the bottom.

I don't imagine the big growers do that to check if the crop is ready to harvest.

Interestingly, one of the side effects listed on boxes or bottles of St John supplements is photosensitivity. If you're taking the commercial "supplement" your pharmacist/herbalist will (should!) warn you not to go out in the sun without protection or you'll burn badly. One of the reasons St John's is still listed as a noxious weed and ranchers hate it is that cows will actually get sunburned if they eat it. Yet when picked at the right time, St John'swort infused in oil and slathered on before going out in the sun prevents sunburn. Like I said, it's particular about timing!

St John's is mellow about nearly everything else though. It has a wonderful way of relaxing any case of "the nerves", like the anxiety that surrounds pain (or sleeplessness or menopause or job stress) which is at least half the battle. St John'swort seems to offer us its resilience to deal with the source of the irritation, rather than somewhere to hide from it as would a drug.

It also heals physical nerves. The tincture, topically and internally in concert, is helpful for herpes virus outbreaks, and the plant infused in cider vinegar helps shingles (although it does sting!), in both cases healing the nerves and controlling the virus. Sciatica responds beautifully to the infused oil. So does a crick in the neck. These treatments are not the same thing as taking a pill to mask the pain - the herb actually goes to the source and heals.

Although it is not usually recommended to use an oil on burns, the infused oil of St John's can be used to heal radiation burns from cancer "therapy". I've seen it work with my own eyes on a client going through treatment for breast cancer and it was nothing short of amazing. If used before and after treatment the scarring is minimal. (I would think the type of oil used as a base would matter here, we used olive oil.) It also helps to reduce damage under the skin both to the nerves and the lymph, helping to prevent the awful side effect of lymphedema that can cause such terrible harm.

St John'swort works well in cahoots with other herbs, but it sure doesn't play nicely with drugs!

St John'swort is a friend to the liver, you see, and does its best to help that organ clear toxins out of the body. (Interestingly, most of the liver-friendly plants I know of have yellow flowers.) Drugs, being toxins, will be metabolized more efficiently under St John's watch, and how dangerous this will be depends on the drug and your individual metabolism. So just don't do it. If you take birth control and St John's within a few hours, start planning that baby shower.

I've barely touched on the ways modern healers use our friend St John's. Here's Culpeper writing in the 17th century. Good old Culpeper, can't miss a chance to poke a little fun.

"Government and virtues - It is under the celestial sign Leo, and the dominion of the Sun. It may be, if you meet a Papist, he will tell you, especially if he be a lawyer, that St. John made it over to him by a letter of attorney. It is a singular wound herb; boiled in wine and drank, it heals inward hurts or bruises; made into an ointment, it open obstructions, dissolves swellings, and closes up the lips of wounds. The decoction of the herb and flowers, especially of the seed, being drank in wine, with the juice of knot-grass, helps all manner of vomiting and spitting of blood, is good for those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, and for those that cannot make water. Two drams of the seed of St. John's Wort made into powder, and drank in a little broth, doth gently expel choler or congealed blood in the stomach. The decoction of the leaves and seeds drank somewhat warm before the fits of agues, whether they be tertains or quartans, alters the fits, and, by often using, doth take them quite away. The seed is much commended, being drank for forty days together, to help the sciatica, the falling sickness, and the palsy."

As mentioned above, the plant's botanical name, Hypericum, translates to (approximately) "over ghosts". This brings us to the folk tradition, in use for as long as there is recorded history on such things, of hanging bunches over the doorway to keep malevolent forces at bay. It's not surprising, really, when we look at the list of ways St John'swort is so helpful that it be seen as a cure-all. But that can be said of many other useful plants, and no one hangs dandelion over the door.

Unfortunately, the basis behind this tradition is lost to us, but I would never write it off as some charming 'folksy' superstition. Not everything can be measured by science. If we are creatures of Spirit, why can we not accept that this - or any - plant could have some association with Spirit as well?

Remember, when we use the plants with care and awareness, we are accepting the healing gifts of the Creator. I would suggest we ought not try limit how His gifts manifest based on our beliefs about what can or cannot be. It is not only about what the plant can do, but the One who makes it grow.

Now for one of my favourite stories about growing St. John'swort. I had never "met" it before, but when we bought a ramshackle cottage on some equally ramshackle land, the local herbwyfe came to visit and pointed out that we had a thriving colony. I was thrilled, as I was really burnt from life in the city and had wanted to try to it out, but was, even back then, suspicious of commercial supplements. So I began to work with (and fall in love with) our colony, and over several years learned all I'm teaching you today.

I found it interesting that the colony moved a little each year, and rather sweet, but coincidental, that it kept coming closer to the cottage door. When I mentioned this to the herbwyfe, she nodded. "It'll do that" she said. "It knows."

A few years on, we bought this little house and began to let the yard go wild. All manner of wonderful healing wild plants came up, but to my disappointment, no St John's volunteered here. I found it odd, as the land and aspect are suitable. We eventually decided to sell the cottage, and I moved some of the St. John's plants to this yard. Immediately, as in within two weeks, St John'swort started to come up all over this property. I realize now that it was here all along, simply dormant, waiting to be invited. I could probably have called it to grow here through prayer, had I known then what I know now.

Now then, what about that anti-depressant bit?

Well .. I'm not convinced that anti-depressant describes what St J actually offers for someone whose world has gone dark. It's not that it stops us from being depressed, but it does sometimes help us identify and get to the source of what may be depressing us.

As mentioned before, St John's is a friend to the liver. When the liver is feeling the heat at a subclinical level that your doctor can't measure, it can cause/or be a reflection of emotional issues. That's something Traditional Chinese Medicine still takes into consideration but the West has long since decided to ignore - don't ask me why. Supporting the liver with St John'swort and, say, dandelion or burdock in concert, relieves the stress of detoxing emotions.

(An important aside - I would NOT, ever (do you hear me??) suggest a "liver cleanse", whether off the shelf or right out of the garden. The practice is harsh and not at all kind to the liver. These "cleanses" disrupt and inhibit the inherent wisdom of the body. They should be banned. St J, dandelion and burdock are among the plants that support the liver by nourishing it, they don't force it to work harder, just make it better able to do what it was designed to do. That's an important point that I will probably come back to over and over whenever I teach about the plants.)

Suffice it to say for now that liver friendly herbs can help us cheer up.

St John's relationship to the light of the sun may also have something to do with its ability to subtly lift the spirits. I often feel as though it is lighting me up from the inside. My husband agrees. A gentle feeling of well being comes over me whether I take it as a tincture or use the oil to moisturize my skin or soothe my aches and pains. What's that all about? Of course I can't prove it in clinical terms, but I suspect one day researchers will find a link with the body's own ability to make Vitamin D, which St John's pretty plainly supports. That, in turn, is linked to the melatonin/serotonin cycle in the brain. Or is it that the plant absorbs and returns to us the light and the Light of the sun?

Depression often sets in during or after viral infections, especially the flu. If not recognized as another stage of influenza, it is possible to get "stuck" in the post-flu blues and never get past it. Most MD's don't know this, and those who do are often dismissed. Patients want their pills, after all. Still, I wonder how many people would say "why yes!" if asked if their depression began after a bout with the flu? St John's, with its ability to clear up lingering viral infections, can help there.

Then there is the dreaded Candida, or other intestinal issues that crop up when our fungal friends are out of whack. They very definitely affect our moods. Did the depression begin to manifest after a round of antibiotics perhaps? That's quite common too, and might well not be obvious for some time afterward, in some cases years. When antibiotics wipe out our good bacteria, an overgrowth of previously harmless native fungi is often the result. So, fermented foods, of course, to restore the bacterial/fungal balance, and St John's too, which helps to clear the bloodstream by way of, yes, once again, the liver. Calendula blossoms would be the appropriate partner here.

So what form to take St John'swort in? Tincture form is preferred because it tastes pretty darn nasty as a tea. The infused oil is very effective, using it on the skin it absorbs well into the blood stream. If you've made your oil correctly, with olive oil or even lard (please, not mineral or seed oils) as a base, it is safe to take internally. These can be bought if you can find a small, ethical supplier. Best, of course, is to find the plant and make your own. I'll teach you how in another post.

Finally, how often and how much? As you see fit.

This is another of the pivotal differences between conventional medical approaches that use herbs as drugs, and those that use plants as aids to health. St John'swort is not a weapon to be used against some enemy invader of the body. It is a support for the body's natural processes. Respecting this is key to knowing how to use the plant. If I was to recommend a dosage, I wouldn't be respecting your experience. All I can suggest is that you try a couple of drops of tincture in a swallow's worth of good water on an empty stomach, and see what happens. You see, I trust your judgement. So should you.

Integral to all of this is supporting the natural functions of the body. An untold story is that the body speaks to us through what we call emotional states a lot more often than we know. What we call depression can have a physical source, sometimes.  Mostly it's our inability to adapt to a stupid world. We know we shouldn't have to adapt to it - but we keep a-tryin'. That's pretty screwed up, but it is what it is. Part of that stupid world is the bad food, bad air, bad water and bad medicine we force into our poor old bodies. St John'swort can help us deal with some of those insults if we use it with awareness.

St John'swort is absolutely not The Answer to depression, but it may help with distracting physical issues. The joy in this is that with this plant's help, we are a step closer to the gentle helper Himself. Twisted and distorted into pills, it takes us farther away.

Choose wisely.


  1. Nice post! Funny, my St John's wort colony was also settled next to an ornamental willow last year...and this year I wondered: where are you, where are you? Well, they moved to another place!

    1. Ha. The "where's waldo" aspect of herbalism :-)

      Thanks for stopping by Gemma.

  2. Whew! Too much to comment on, too little time. So will just say "Thank you!" I need to find someone who can show me this plant here in South Dakota. With the kids, right now, it's not a good time to be making anything. (Well, besides supper and happiness...) But I'm glad to "know" you so I can ask you questions about all this when/if the time comes. I made tinctures back in pharmacy school, but that was in a lab!

    1. I'm amazed you had time to 'buzz through' this post, it's one of the longest here :-)

      Just stick around, you'll learn by osmosis, then when you're ready it will all come as second nature.

      Tinctures, 'old school' are easy!