St. John's Wort - An Herb to Brighten the Day

A large number of herbs are in use for their medicinal properties around the world, and many are readily available over the counter. Also known as Hypericum perforatum, St. John's wort is a plant that has been used for centuries to treat nerve pain and mental disorders, most commonly depression.

From the family Hypericaceae, St. John's wort is a shrubby perennial herb with yellow flowers that grows from one to two inches tall. The plant's yellow flowers contain small black oil glands that produce a red stain when crushed; this was thought to be the blood of St. John the Baptist, hence the name St. John's wort.1 Traditionally, St. John's wort was used for melancholia, which meant to the ancient Greeks that a person had an excess of the black bile.2 This caused fatigue, lethargy, indigestion, apathy and an overall dark outlook with a sense of emotional unease.

Currently, St. John's wort is used for mild to moderate depression and seasonal affective disorder, relieving fatigue in depressed people. With approximately 18 million Americans experiencing depression in a given year from a variety of causes, St. John's wort is gaining more attention as a safe and natural alternative to other prescription therapies. Recent controversy, though, has been raised by two trials of St. John's wort for major depression that did not show any benefits. However, due to problems with the designs of these studies, they cannot be considered definitive.3

Nonetheless, scientists believe that two compounds— hypericin and hyperforin - give St. John's wort its ability to support moods and counteract feelings of depression. Further, they believe that these compounds may slow down the breakdown of several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which is in part responsible for controlling moods and emotions. In fact, St. John's wort has become known as the ‘depression herb,' although it has a much broader range of uses.

In addition to treatment for mental disorders and nerve pain, researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (Victoria, Australia) conducted a study4 to determine the effect St. John's wort and chasteberry (commonly known as vitex) would have on PMS (premenstrual syndrome) symptoms.

For the study, the double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled trial took place for 16 weeks involving 14 perimenopausal women. The herbal combination or placebo tablets were administered twice daily. The results of the study showed that the herbal combination treatment was superior to the placebo for total PMS scores, leading the researchers to believe that there is a potential clinical application for the herbal combination in treating PMS symptoms among perimenopausal women.

St. John's wort can be taken as capsules, in tea, as a tincture or topically - as an anti-inflammatory or for wound epithelialization. Side effects include headache, pruritus and GI irritation, and usually subside with long-term use. Remember that St. John's wort is not a proven therapy for depression. If depression is not adequately treated, it can become severe and, in some cases, may be associated with suicide. Those experiencing depression should consult a healthcare provider.5

1 Kuhn MA & Winston D. Herbal Therapy & Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach. Wolters Kluwer Health & Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2008. 426-30
2 Maimes S. & Winston D. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Herbal Therapeutics Inc. 2007. 218-20
3 Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic. com/health/st-johnswort/ NS_patient-stjohnswort
4 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. St. John's Wort and Chasteberry Beneficial in Reducing PMS Symptoms. 2009 Nov;5
5 National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: health/stjohnswort/sjw-and-depression. htm#about