By Sarena-Rae Santos, Natural Health Blogger
What is St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is a common weed, sometimes referred to by its scientific name Hypericum perforatum, and is a part of the Hypericaceae family. St. John’s wort can be identified by its low-growing patches that grow between 1 and 3 feet and tends to grow everywhere. The long leaves have little pin dots and grow opposite each other, over branching stems with bright yellow 5-petal flowers attached. Herbalists often crush the flower bud between their fingers and test for a dark red pigment to release and stain their fingers – the red pigment means the plant has active medicinal constituents (1).
Health Benefits of St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort has been used for its many health benefits, dating back as early as the 1st century AD (2). Some health benefits of St. John’s wort include:
Antioxidants can help fight damage from harmful free radicals. The buildup of free radicals has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease (3). Plant compounds in St. John’s wort, like flavonoids and phenolic acids, have demonstrated significant antioxidant activity and protection from free radical damage (4). Additionally, studies have found St. John’s wort decreases oxidative stress and prevents neurotoxicity, inflammation, and gastrointestinal problems (5).
An antibacterial property is when a substance, or in this case, an herb, can destroy or suppress the growth and reproduction of bacteria (6). One study found St. John’s wort to have antibacterial properties against Staphylococcus aureus and gram-positive bacteria (7). Another study found St. John’s wort inhibited S. aureus infections and regulated harmful staphylococcal toxins, supporting its use in Kosovar Traditional Medicine (8).
Aside from its antibacterial properties, St. John’s wort also displays antiviral properties. An antiviral property is when a substance, or in this case, an herb, can kill a virus or suppress the virus’ ability to replicate, multiply or reproduce (9). In test-tube studies, St. John’s wort has demonstrated antiviral activity against HIV, retroviruses, herpes simplex, influenza virus A, Moloney murine leukemia virus (Mo-MuLV), and HIV (10,11,12). In animal studies, St. John’s wort displayed antiviral activity in mice with herpes simplex type 1 and Friend leukemia virus (13,10). Contrarily, studies indicate St. John’s wort doesn’t seem to have antiviral or anti-HVC effects on patients with chronic hepatitis C virus infection (14).
St. John’s wort has been used for inflammatory conditions such as sciatica and fibromyalgia, leading researchers to study its potential anti-inflammatory properties (15). Although inflammation is a natural bodily response, chronic inflammation can lead to detrimental health effects. Chronic inflammation has been linked with many diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, and certain cancers (16). One study found St. John’s wort inhibits cellular and cell-free PGE2 formation, noting its anti-inflammatory properties (17). Another study showed St. John’s wort decreased DNA-binding activity, inhibiting human inducible nitric-oxide and making it a promising anti-inflammatory principle in chronic inflammatory diseases (18).
As of 2016, an estimated 20.4% of U.S. adults (50.0 million) had chronic pain, and 8.0% of U.S. adults (19.6 million) had high-impact chronic pain (19). Thankfully, St. John’s wort has pain-relieving properties recognized by the first century’s Greek physicians, Galen, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Hippocrates (20). Various studies have found that low-dose St. John’s wort supplementation can induce antinociception, improve opioid analgesia, and relieve dental pain, amongst other pain-relieving effects (21).
Due to its antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, St. John’s wort can provide exceptional wound-healing properties. Wound-healing properties are the complex and dynamic process of restoring tissue structure in damaged tissue as closely as possible to its normal state (22). An animal study demonstrated significant improvement of skin lesions in horses treated with St. John’s wort (23). Similar findings were found in a human study on pressure sore wounds (24). Some studies have suggested possible muscle relaxing and antispasmodic properties (25).
May Improve Mental Health
Worldwide, 970 million people struggle with mental health, resulting in approximately 8 million deaths annually, accounting for 14.3% of worldwide deaths (26). St. John’s wort’s active compounds/chemicals include hypericin, hyperforin, and flavonoids. The plant compounds release serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline messages in the brain that are predominantly responsible for its mental health benefits – especially depression (27).
A review of 27 studies and 3,808 patients with depression found St. John’s wort had a comparable response and remission rate, along with a significantly lower discontinuation rate than pharmaceutical antidepressants (28). Another study review looked at 29 studies and 5489 patients with depression and had similar findings (29). One study even found St. John’s wort as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in treating depression (30). Looking for more information about antidepressants? Check out our blog, Everything You Need to Know About Antidepressants.
May Help Relieve Premenstrual Symptoms (PMS)
For many women, headaches, bloating, cramps, mood swings, pain, and food cravings will occur during or before their menstrual cycle. For other women, moderate to severe physical and emotional changes are experienced, known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS is also associated with mood swings, tender breasts, food cravings, fatigue, irritability, and depression (31). Studies show that upwards of 90 percent of women report experiencing disturbing PMS symptoms (32).
Thankfully, daily supplementation of St. John’s wort may help. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial St. John’s wort was statistically superior to placebo in improving physical and behavioral symptoms of PMS (33). In another study, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were successfully discontinued and replaced with 900 mg of daily St. John’s wort for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) (34).
May Provide Menopause Symptom Relief
Menopause transpires when estrogen decreases and is characterized by a point in time 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual cycle. In the years leading to menopause, women may have changes in their monthly cycles, hot flashes, or other uncomfortable symptoms (35). That’s where St. John’s wort may be helpful. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that St. John’s wort significantly improved hot flashes’ frequency, duration, and severity (36). Additionally, a study found 900 mg of St. John’s wort thrice a day improved human patients’ climacteric, psychological, and psychosomatic symptoms (37).
Statistics say that 158.3 of every 100,000 individuals will die from cancer (38), but what if they didn’t have to? St. John’s wort contains numerous plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, protecting against certain types of cancer (39). In studies, St. John’s wort’s plant compound, hyperforin, resulted in strong inhibitory effects against endothelial cells, the main cells found in the inside lining of the heart, blood, and lymph vessels (40,41). Another study found St. John’s wort regulates proliferation and apoptosis in breast cancer cells (42). It is important to note that St. John’s wort has been documented to interfere with chemotherapy (43).
Mainstream sources have shared a lot of misinformation surrounding St. John’s wort. These sources claim St. John’s wort can cause various side effects and shouldn’t be taken orally for more than 12 weeks. There are claims that St. John’s wort in large doses is possibly unsafe, but of course, no actual dosage information or source. These sources also claim you shouldn’t apply St. John’s wort topically more than once a week, nor for more than four consecutive weeks (again, no data to back this claim). Another claim is that St. John’s wort is possibly unsafe when taken by mouth during pregnancy, and they claim it might cause congenital disabilities, but they provide no data to back this. Similar claims are made regarding breastfeeding (44).
I’d like to note one concerning study I found while researching St. John’s wort. In this study, (which has the full version hidden behind a paywall), the summary leads readers to believe St. John’s wort can cause severe adverse events, including organ damage. Ironically, the full version of the study gives the reader the whole picture, stating:
“Along with reported therapeutic effects, there have been numerous well-documented cases where adverse effects from herbal preparations have occurred that have been due to dangerous ingredients that have either been added deliberately (e.g. heavy metals), inadvertently (pesticides) or accidentally (misidentification of herbs). Other problems have arisen due to adulteration of herbal preparations with prescription medications, or due to inappropriate use of these materials (45).”
These concerns are not due to the herb itself, and it’s not a St. John’s wort problem; it’s a user error/problem. We cannot blame the herb for these problems, claiming it’s dangerous when the underlying problem is the misuse of herbs creating the actual risk. This type of fear-mongering is not a legitimate risk-benefit analysis.
According to trusted herbalist Richard Whelan, St John’s wort is a safe herb. When used by itself, St. John’s wort has only one real concern; in high doses, it can cause photosensitivity. Richard Whelan cautions that when taking St. John’s wort at medicinal levels, you may need to be aware of sunlight exposure. You don’t need to avoid it; just be careful not to get burnt! Aside from photosensitivity, concerns Richard Whelan discussed are drug interactions (46).
How to Use St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort can be found in dried bulk, pills, powders, extracts, or tinctures. Tinctures always contain the most concentrated amount of herbs. Teas and soups are also options, especially when following Ayurvedic medicine recipes.
Follow the recommendations of any supplement; some of my recommendations include:
- Earthley’s Anxiety Relief is formulated with herbs chosen for their ability to calm the body and improve mood without unfortunate side effects. Relieve symptoms of anxiety naturally.
- Earthley’s Pain Relief Rub helps you experience true relief from back pain, muscle pain, joint pain, and more. Earthley’s synergistic cream combines naturally pain-relieving herbs like St. John’s Wort and yarrow with full-spectrum CBD. Rub a small amount into the sore spot and feel the relief within minutes!
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and nothing in this post is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure anything. If you have questions, please do your own research or seek advice from a health professional.