As a mental health therapist and herbalist, my specialty is helping people discover the benefits of herbs for healing emotional distress. One of the best and most commonly used herbs for depression and anxiety is St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum).
This morning I went walking with my Dad and gathered some of this amazing herb to make medicine for the upcoming year. In this article I want to help you to learn how to gather and make medicine from this transformative herb. Instead of purchasing expensive oils and tinctures from your local health food store, you can take a walk, gather St. John’s Wort by yourself and make your own medicine, for very little money.
Gathering our own herbal medicine is a powerful act. It empowers each one of us to take care of our own health, connect with nature, make medicine that is almost free and is a radical act of returning to the roots of healing. For thousands of years, our ancestors relied on herbs as one of the prime modes of improving our health. In many parts of the world, herbal medicine is still one of the main ways for helping people in distress. It is only in the last hundred years that we have lost touch with this ancient practice. Taking a walk in the sunshine and collecting a few flowers and leaves reminds of our roots and our power to heal ourselves.
St. John’s Wort has a number of uses and is especially known for its anti-depressant qualities. However, it has many other amazing medicinal properties as well. Here are a few:
Vulnerary: Fancy word meaning wound healing. Used in oils, it has the ability to heal bruises, abrasions, burns and is helpful for deep tissue massage when there is neuralgia.
Antimicrobial/Anti-viral: St. John’s Wort is deeply helpful for its antiviral properties. A while back I developed a case of shingles, a viral illness. It was deeply painful and I used St. John’s Wort topically and internally as a tincture and it healed within a couple weeks, a remarkable shortening of an illness that can sometimes last months.
Anti-inflammatory: St. John’s Wort is often internally helpful for inflammatory conditions and especially helpful for neuralgia, sciatic and rheumatic pain as well as helping to repair nerve damage from trauma or injury.
St. John’s Wort and Mental Health:
In terms of mental health, St. John’s Wort is a wonderful herb for helping those who are challenged by melancholy and mild to moderate depression. Often those who do best with St. John’s Wort are those who feel tight and shut down quite a bit of the time. They often feel worse during the dark winter days and feel anxious and “bound up.” Taken in tincture form, St. John’s Wort can bring a gentle feeling of relaxation and calmness. The herb is known as an anxiolytic, a term for a substance that relieves anxiety. Because of this, St. John’s Wort is used often for those who have the common experience of a mix of anxiety and moderate depression.
Though I am not a huge fan of double blind studies of the efficacy of herbs, St. John’s Wort has been shown to be effective in a number of trials. It is one of the most commonly prescribed herbs in Germany. It takes time for St. John’s Wort to work in the system and often people receive results after a few days to a few weeks. It is key to know that St. John’s Wort should not be taken in conjunction with anti-depressants as they can can react poorly with those drugs, sometimes cause manic symptoms and in rare cases serotonin syndrome.
St. John’s Wort blooms near the traditional holiday of St. John’s Day, celebrated on June 24th. This holiday is in honor of St. John the Baptist and falls close to the Summer solstice. If you look closely at the morphology of St. John’s Wort, it has colorful yellow petals that are dappled with small brown spots. These spots are actually translucent glands where light can shine through. When I think about St. John’s Wort symbolically, I think of a simple weedy plant that blooms at the brightest time of the year and literally allows the light to shine in. For those who have felt closed and dark inside, St. John’s Wort is like a ray of golden sunshine, warming the heart and bringing calm and relaxation. It can be especially helpful for those who feel more depressed in the winter (Seasonal Affective Disorder). The stored up solar energy in this herb can help offset the lack of light found in the winter.
This herb is native to Europe and its latin name, Hypericum perforatum, is somewhat interesting to examine. Perforatum refers to the small glandular spots that look like perforations in the petals. Hypericum can be broken down into the Greek hyper (above) and eikon (icon or picture). This name is due to its traditional use in placing it above religious icons and imagery as a way of warding off evil. Though the modern practice of psychiatry and therapy eschews ideas like evil, spirit or demonic possession, these terms have great resonance with many cultures throughout the world. Often severe emotional distress is linked with some form of possession or supernatural evil.
When I lived in Ecuador in the 90′s, I spent quite a bit of time in the Amazon learning from the native Quichua Indians. They generally practice a syncretic form of Catholicism, animism and indigenous shamanism. They would often describe illness patterns as due to evil Ayahuasceros (Shamans who use potent hallucinogens) who were sending poisonous spiritual darts to bring illness to an individual. In other cultures, the idea of someone being cursed, or struck with illness due to an “evil eye” is commonplace. Again, though many shudder at the thought of honoring these beliefs as anything more than superstition, they form an important part of traditional cultural beliefs throughout the world. Hisotrically, humans have honored this herb in this role of defending against evil and dark supernatural forces.
The idea of the need for protection is not just a superstitious folk belief. When we are feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, we often feel more emotionally vulnerable in the presence of others. We become more easily sensitive, susceptible to taking words the wrong way, and can be affected, or slighted, by other people’s remarks. Depression and anxiety often make people isolate as a way of protecting themselves from feeling more emotional pain. St. John’s Wort helps relieve some of this underlying anxiety and builds strength in the nervous system to be able to handle social situations more easily. In that way it can be especially helpful for those who have been labeled with social anxiety disorder, or tend to stay housebound with depression.
St. John’s Wort seems to have a strong ability to help reduce neuralgic pain. This is a type of nerve pain often experienced by those who suffer from fibromyalgia and certain types of arthritis. The pain is often sharp, moves around, is fleeting and varying in intensity. Ongoing nerve pain can cause the sufferer to become increasingly depressed. St. John’s Wort can help reduce the pain and lift the spirit making it especially helpful for those who suffer from these conditions.
Chemistry, Side Effects and Contraindications:
Often when industrial herb companies look towards manufacturing herbal products on a large scale, they wish to find the most active medicinal constituents and try to standardize the quality and amount of those constituents for every product they sell. Much has been made of the importance of hyperforin and hypericin, what many believe to be the key constituents that cause the antidepressant and anxiety reducing properties of this herb. Biochemical analyses have shown this constituent to have a strong effect on the nervous system and primarily on inhibiting the reuptake of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA and glutamate. This is similar to the function of some antidepressants and benzodiazapenes.
However, isolating a couple chemicals out of the massively complex array of different constituents found in St. John’s Wort is reductionist at best. It can lead to a mindset of treating this herb as simply another SSRI antidepressant drug, when in actuality it acts very differently. The potential for side effects is miniscule compared to the widely varied concerns found when taking a single chemical SSRI such as prozac or effexor. Often SSRIs cause complex side effect patterns such as dry mouth, blurred vision, restlessness and in some people libido loss, agitation and even mania and suicidal feelings.
With antidepressants, the body becomes accustomed to chemical regulation of the neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors and if someone stops taking them cold turkey, the nervous system goes into shock and develops rebound withdrawal symptoms that can be deeply challenging. Many people coming off antidepressants such as effexor report symptoms such as panic attacks, severe mood swings and brain zaps. St. John’s Wort does not seem to cause this overwhelming change in nervous system morphology that leads to terrible complications when stopping taking it. I believe this is likely due to the fact that there are a wide array of chemical constituents in this herb, and perhaps a number of constituents work to modulate and temper its effect so that it doesn’t lead to the cycle of habituation, withdrawal and complex side effects that singular chemical antidepressants often cause.
So its important to understand that just looking at one constituent in an herb as the main medicinal component is in essence reducing an herb to being a drug. Standardizing one or two “active constituents” does not necessarily make the herb more efficacious or health producing. I would care more about the quality of the herb, how it was gathered and how it was processed than simply relying on the standardization of its “active constituents.”
In terms of contraindications, St. John’s Wort should be avoided when taking certain other pharmaceutical drugs. In terms of mental health, I would generally avoid taking this herb when using any other psychiatric drug. Though it should be especially contraindicated when taking SSRIs, I would avoid it if taking any antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and benzodiazapenes as well.
St. John’s Wort should also be avoided if taking a birth control pill, chemotherapy drugs, immunosuppressants, antiarrythmics, beta-blockers, opiates, antiretrovirals, statins and calcium channel blockers. This is such a wide variety of drugs that it may be warranted to avoid this herb if one is taking almost any pharmaceutical drug.
Finally, St. John’s Wort by itself tends to cause few side effects, but for some people it can cause increased sensitivity to light. Others can feel somewhat wired or overexcited by St. John’s Wort. Other than that, side effects are rare.
Gathering St. John’s Wort:
The best time to gather this herb is in a morning near the Summer Solstice. When gathering herbs in the wild it is essential to think about the best place to gather a plant. The reason that herbalists prize herbs gathered in the wild (wildcrafted) is that they tend to be more potent, carry more vitality and therefore more healing power. I know this can sound pretty airy fairy but try to think of it as similar to food. Wild caught salmon tend to be higher in valuable nutrients than farm raised salmon. I believe they also tend to be tastier. Similarly, the challenge of having to live in an open environment, competing with other plants for space and managing the stresses of a wild terrain tends to lead to hardier herbs, and stronger medicines.
When looking for a good spot to gather St. John’s Wort, think of what it loves the most- open air and sunlight. This is an herb that sprouts up through cracks in the sidewalk in weedy, damaged parts of the city. Its almost as if it is growing in response to the neglect of an area. It is a strong herb that can thrive anywhere but it seems strongest high up on a hills and in open places.
Those who produce wine have a term for the special properties of the grapes that they use for their wines: terroir. That term means the special relationship the land and environment has with the plants that grow in it. We all know that grapes grown in certain climates produce a certain type of flavor and wine. The same is true for herbs. So pick your spot well, away from cars and pollution and up high where the sun shines brightly on the herbs.
Gathering St. John’s Wort is a pretty simple affair. Once you find a little group, there’s usually quite a bit around. When collecting, gather the tops- mainly the flowers and the buds with a little of the leaf material. Try to gather no more than a quarter of a small clumping of the plant to encourage the herb to continue to grow. Give thanks for the plant.
I often burn a little sage or offer some tobacco in return for the favor of the herb’s medicine. The act of reciprocity honors that the plant is more than just a substance to ingest, but contains a deeper force. Some indigenous people would say that each plant has a soul, or spirit. Collecting plants in this way honors the herb as an ally, a friend to help guide you along the way. In this way, the practice of collecting and making medicine is a key part of the healing journey. Connecting to the plant, collecting the herb, making medicine and using all five senses in that process is as important as the chemical constituents that the herb imparts when you ingest it.
This is especially important when it comes to treating mental and emotional distress conditions. The journey back to feeling better, healthier, more clear, grounded, calm and peaceful is not just about taking the best herb for a condition. It is about the entire process. It is about creating a path, a roadway back home. St. John’s Wort can be a deep friend in this way, but not if you simply take industrially manufactured capsules made in a laboratory somewhere and then shipped in a plastic bottle to your local health food store. The actual act of interacting, connecting and making relationship to the herb itself helps bring you home.
Well enough woo-woo…now to the fun pictures and making medicine. OK, so when you collect the herb its also important to know how much medicine you want to make. If you are only looking at making a few ounces of tincture you will not need much at all- no more than a handful or two of tops. If you are looking to make significantly more, consider actually taking out mason jars that you will use to the field. In this example, I am making a quart of tincture (32 oz- though I will be lucky to get about 20-25 ounces from that) and a pint of oil (16 oz.)
When making the oil, simply add enough herb to fill up your mason jar to about an inch below the top. Then add organic oil (I use almond, sunflower or olive oil- depending.) to at least 1/2 inch above the herb. This insures that the herb won’t rot by peaking over the oil. Then cap the herb, label it and put it in a sunny window for 4-6 weeks. Periodically shake it and if needs be, uncap it to add more oil if there has been some evaporation. At the end of the 4-6 weeks, strain out the herb from the oil and voila, you have an awesome herbal oil. You can use it to help heal bruises, abrasions and especially for neuralgia and muscle pain. Avoid using it in open cuts and wounds. The cost of this oil? Maybe 8-10 dollars depending on the quality of the oil. A bargain.
To make a great tincture, simply fill up the mason jar to an inch below the top and add alcohol to the top. There is a fair amount of debate over the percentage of alcohol to use when tincturing a fresh herb. I generally tincture the herb in a 1:2 fresh herb ration with high percentage alcohol in the range of 80-95%. James Green (The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook) recommends 95 %. Others are comfortable with lower alcohol content in the 40-50 % range.
Higher percentage alcohol will extract all the main medicinal constituents, certain hard to extract resins, as well as account for the dilution of the alcohol by the natural moisture of the plant. However, the higher the percentage alcohol, the more caustic the taste of the tincture when you take it later.
In this case, I decided to use 100 proof (50 %) vodka. Vodka has a pretty innocuous taste and I find that the flavor of the St. John’s Wort really shines through. However, the tincture produced contains less constituents and may be seen as “weaker.”
OK now cap your tincture and then label it, place it a dark cool environment, shake it a couple times a day and then bring it out and strain it 4 weeks later. You may want to squeeze as much of the tincture out of the herbs by using a cheese cloth. You should get a nice blood red tincture that tastes great and has a wonderful medicinal effect. Generally I recommend taking 1-2 droppers full (30-60 drops) 2-3 times a day. But that should be adjusted according to the person’s age, illness pattern, etc. Sometimes I will mix St. John’s Wort with a couple other tinctured herbs but I often like offering it alone as it is a very particular type of magical medicine. The cost of this? No more than 15 dollars for at least 20 ounces of tincture. 20 ounces of tincture could cost you 200 dollars or more if you bought that much at a store.