St John’s Wort

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St John’s Wort

Bringing some summer sunshine into the winter gloom. St John's Wort is primarily known as a herb for banishing the winter blues and this has been borne out by a Cochrane Collaboration review , which is supposed to be the last word in evidence based medicine - which concluded that St John's Wort is as effective as standard anti-depressants in treating major depression, with fewer side-effects.

Having said that, there's a fair amount of hullaballoo surrounding this amazing herb, because scientists have been unable to isolate the much sought after "active compound"  which, of course, would enable the pharmaceutical companies to synthesise a drug and take control of the market. Rather brilliantly, St John's Wort has managed to evade their prying eyes, and it seems that there are several compounds contained within that work in synergy to create its uplifting effects.

In a completely unscientific manner, I would say that St John's Wort captures the summer sunlight and gives it back to us in the winter. In fact, it does create some photosensitivity if you take too much. The bright yellow flowers will yield a really beautiful red infused oil, if left outdoors in the daylight during July and August, and this redness can't really be captured by any other means than allowing the plant to bathe in sunlight. Similarly, the photosensitivity reaction in people would mean that if you took too much and were exposed to the sun, you'd be more likely to get sunburn.

There are a couple of other things that one has to watch out for with St John's Wort as well. It can interact with various drugs, so if you're on medication, it would be worth checking about these interactions. Ask a herbalist. Also, don't expect an instant high when you first encounter St John?s Wort. It uaually takes a few weeks before you start to notice its benefits.

So, how would you use it?

There are a few pharmaceutical style extracts that you can buy in chemists, which mostly come in tablet form, made by Big Pharma. These are marketed on the basis of safety, consistency etc. and they are reasonably effective.

Or, if you've got the time and space, it's a very easy plant to grow from seed, and will adorn any small garden or allotment for many years if you look after it. You can harvest it on St John's Day (June 24th), or anytime thereafter whilst in flower, and dry it to either make a tincture or to use as a tea. The tincture (an extract in strong vodka) is way more effective. The tincture works very well in combination with lemon balm, and you'll be able to get this and some very nice and friendly advice by talking to your nearest Herbalist, who you can find via the National Institute of Medical Herbalists ( - or if you're in Bristol, you could always come and talk to us and get some from the Urban Fringe.

Links and References

Linde K et al(2008) St John's wort for major depression (.pdf); Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4.

Jonathan Treasure (2000) Herbal Pharmacokinetics: A Practitioner Update With Reference to St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum ) Herb-Drug Interactions.