meet saint john's wort, or as i like to now call her, 'herbal furiosa'
This is one lovely beast of a plant. If you have heard of this mighty plant before, it is most likely due to it's rise in popularity as a 'natural alternative' to antidepressants. This wonderful creature is so much more than that however, and I would like to offer a fun post to introduce her (yep, I'm calling her a her) to you, highlighting the beauty of her complexities. Let's begin with her name:
The Latin binomial, Hypericum perferatum speaks to a couple things. 'Hypericum' is likely a word whose origins come from the words 'upper' + 'an image' (apparition), pointing to its long revered history as a protective plant. One would place blooming Hypericum over altars as protection from ill-intent. 'Perforatum' references the leaves, one of the visual clues you can use to properly identify it. When holding the leaves up to the sun, you will see tiny pin holes that let the light through, it literally looks perforated! These little holes are actually tiny glands which help with the production of the plant's essential oils.
The common name, 'St John's Wort,' references St. John the Baptist. Hypericum p. comes into bloom in alignment with the summer solstice as well as Saint John's Day on June 24th. There is a long and very complex relationship between the religious traditions and celebrations of the indigenous earth based traditions of Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa (where this species of Hypericum is native to) and the Christian traditions that evolved around and, quite frankly, appropriated from. I'm not going to go into all that history, not because I don't respect it or that it isn't important, but because we are going somewhere else with this post. If you are interested in that history, there are some links at the bottom of the page! ☺
more than depression: healing the solar plexus, seat of our will
Herbalist Matthew Wood speaks of Hypericum p. as having an affinity with our solar plexus, a physical and energetic area just above our navels. In Western medicine, which focuses on the physical and measurable vehicles of the body, it is called the celiac plexus, located behind the stomach and references the radiating nerve fibers of the abdomen which are involved in a number of processes, including digestion, regulating the diaphragm and other autonomic processes of the internal organs. It has major connecting points with the heart and the kidney/renal systems.
In the chakra system (a physiology of the energetic body that comes from the diverse spiritual traditions of Hindu, Buddhist and Tantric practices), the chakra located at the solar plexus is bright yellow, and is called Manipura, translated as "Jewel City." This is a chakra associated with the power of will, fire and transformation. It is the place of achievement, of vital energy, of gut instinct and intuitive knowing. This energetic area governs digestion and the assimilation of nutrients. It aligns with the feelings of gut knowing and usually, when something is not right but no logical or obvious reason seems to be available, this is where we feel it: in our place of power. This energetic area also helps govern the adrenal system, the vehicle by which we are able to respond to threats and soothe ourselves after tense encounters. It is our stabilizing center, our core.
When we say, "it doesn't feel right in my gut," or reference "gut instinct," we are referencing the complex activities of this core area: one that has many functions which feed the whole organism. Digestion and assimilation of nutrients, feeding and regulating the organs of elimination, circulating nutrient rich blood, and communicating with the brain through a variety of neurotransmitters (including serotonin, the one most singled out as deficient in the treatment of depression - 70% of which is created in the gut). Since eating is one of the primary ways we bring the external world into our internal world, the gut is constantly communicating about our state of well being to the brain. We have been taught the the brain is the hypercommand center, but modern research is showing that the truth is actually what indigenous healers and folks living with the land know: the brain is much more of a receiving and feedback center, with the gut and the heart having profoundly active thinking and communicating capacities, they too are vital organs of perception. Folks with lowered balance or function in their gut-brains, their solar plexus often are plagued by fears of inadequacy, worries about specific and unknown outcomes even when indications are positive, trusting the self and will often speak of self-doubt and lack of self-worth. They are off center and seem to be a fire that smolders instead of burning. They have difficulty moving on from personal mistakes and can often seem out of sinc with their needs and bodies.
Take a look at the following pic of a Hypericum p. blossom and see how you feel:
Hypericum p. is complex in her actions, but remarkably simple in her effect: most folks feel happier when they see her. She's bright, energizing and welcoming when you sit with her. She grows abundantly and when you pick her, she bleeds. Her oil glands secrete this deep red oil, one that is evocative of blood. Hypericum is powerful wound medicine, most notably for deep puncture wounds (used externally in tincture or oil), wounds related to severed or impaired nerves (sciatica, shooting and pains along nerves, viral infections of the nerves such as shingles, etc) and nerves which seem to have atrophied due to lowered system functioning, as is the case with the physical effects of depression: things don't work as well. More classically, St. John's Wort is an herb that assists with the first stage of detoxification performed by the liver, is anti-viral and a specific for shingles, pain relieving and a mild sedative for the nervous system. St. John's Wort is one of the true tropho-restoratives for the nervous system (it helps to heal the tissue), restoring function to the nerves. Our nervous systems are in constant action: receiving internal and external information from the material and energetic worlds and relaying that information to the places that can make use of it. Hypericum p. protects, nourishes and heals this vital part of our selves.
Hypericum p. has been shown in clinical studies to be as effective, sometime more and sometimes less, as many of the major SSRI medications prescribed for depression. I don't want to contribute to the belief that "this is THE herb for depression," as herbs and people are complex and no one herb does just one thing. Hypericum p. has frustrated scientists to no end, as they cannot find the single chemical portion of the plant that does the work of 'anti-depression,' which means they cannot isolate it, patent it and rename it to make a crap ton of money from your depression. Scientists currently are still unclear as to how this plant does what it does (and remember, there are varying factors and types of depression, which I will get into in a minute, so it isn't universal that everyone struggling with depression will find relief). What is now known is that the whole plant preparations work better wen left together than when one part is extracted and concentrated (which is the approach of pharmaceuticals). She is a complex character with many phytochemicals that work synergistically and in concert with one another. She will not be reduced and made into parts, she is most powerful when she remain whole. BOOM! Take that big pharma!
are you starting to develop a sense of her gifts?
Hypericum p. has a long history of being used to protect one from and drive away evil/mal-intent, bad spirits and bad energies. Her tradition includes being a protective force against witches, but I won't make a general statement like that here as why would you want to drive me away? ☺ LOL. The claim about driving away witches comes from a cultural lense which saw earth based tradition and non-christian peoples as 'of the devil' and it costs (yes, it continues) millions of them their lives. Witches are only as bad or good as the person who calls themself the witch, every human has good and bad in them and all religions are capable of violence and evil. So, hey, herbalists, when you write about Hypericum p., can you be thoughtful about how you quote this part? It's painful to me to still be seen as something to be feared. Don't make me curse you. <----- that's a joke.
Her sunny blossoms are a force to be reckoned with. If she grows near you, go sit with her while she is in bloom. See how you feel, where your thoughts drift to. Take in her deep aroma and see what happens. She's not having any of this self-doubt stuff, and for her, no challenge can't be met with a can-do, must-do, will-do type approach. She's that friend that says, 'come on, you're worth it,' when you are on the edge of wallowing and dissolution. She is ruled by the Sun and Leo (yes, she has that over the top, "look at me! I love to be loved!" character that many sun sign Leos have!) and her element is fire. She is considered masculine in energetics because of her ability to promote movement and relationship with solar energy. With all this talk of fire and light, you would think this plant is heating, like Holy Basil or Rosemary, but interestingly, her energetics are cooling, she takes heat from where it doesn't belong, helping to redirect energy to where the fire should be burning (our solar plexus), allowing that blaze to grow.
Hypericum p. gets into our guts and helps balance the movements happening there. I believe the anti-depressant effects that she is known for are a natural consequence of her other functions, her ability to heal and strengthen the energetic channels of communication in our body: the nervous system, the ability to help build and stoke the center of fire within, allowing us to take in and assimilate information from the external world and increasing our connection to it. Having a strengthened nervous system and center of personal power can foster movement, action and determination, three things which are energetically difficult to summon in the face of depression and stagnation. The lived experience of mild to moderate depression is often one where your joy has been stolen. Even if you are able to do all the things you need to do, the ability to find joy and assimilate the meaning of your daily actions has been disrupted. Feelings grow dim. Sadness builds.
Hypericum p. helps to restore the movement necessary in our core centers to be able to assimilate the nutrients of the physical and the spiritual world. She helps us balance our connections with both the bright side of things and the darker side of things. In depression, particularly anxious depression which often shows up as anxiety and tension and a constant struggle for meaning/purpose/joy that is consuming, the darker side of things predominates, looming over us like an apparition which follows us everywhere, feeding on us. Depression has many sources and those of you out there taking the world seriously, challenging oppressive forces and organizing resistance, you know all too well the demon that hovers over us, the one that can very easily crawl into our bellies and convince us that we are powerless and the fight is futile. Any courageous actions, from parenting better than we were parented, to showing up fully in our lives require a certain inner reserve, one that can be called on when the fight is on. Hypericum p. is ready to go. And she's got enough light to guide you back to your own.
Hypericum p. is for deep wounds. Puncture wounds of the spiritual and physical bodies. But what is depression, but the deep wound of disconnection? Hypericum has a distinct relationship with light, from its bright yellow blossoms which bloom at the summer solstice, her ability to drive away darkness and bad energies (these ominous bodies which loom over us), her blood red oils which make beautiful medicine and the fact the she can help restore the physical system by which light, energy, travels though our bodies in the nervous system. It is important to understand that Hypericum p. helps to restore and create conditions internally in which we can do our own work. It's not doing the work of lifting the depression for us. We still have to address the places in our lives that don't fulfill. We still have to challenge old wounds, beliefs and traumas. We still need to figure out how to pleasure, care for and feed our bodies. Hypericum p. is like a warrioress who can aid you in your battle, not the warrioress that does the work for you. In fact her work is more like a teacher, one who helps light your own inner path.
She is my herbal Furiosa.
(Have you seen Mad Max Fury Road yet? I mean FURIOSA! She's a complex warrioress I can get behind!). Furiosa is the lead character in this film who is seeking the 'green place,' a woman who has deep, deep wounds and a calm, bad ass approach to adressing these grievances: I'm fighting to return to what is mine.; who I know that I am. I'm going home and I'm gonna do it not in a fit of hysterical rage, but with my gut, my heart and my intellect. Because I am bad ass and this is my fucking life. My body and my destiny. I'm chasing a deep healing and relief of the wounds which puncture my core and invade my boundaries. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. My way.
That, to me, are the teachings of Hypericum p. that I have discovered thus far, a relief from the apparitions which hang over us, but do not come from us, rather, they are overlays of personal, ecological and collective wounds which haunt. She is a plant that, according to some personal experiences of Naturopath Sharol Tilgner, thrives in community and reminds us to do so as well; Hypericum p. does poorly in mono-growths and needs to be in community with other plants in order to be strong. This blossoming warrioress can help us as individuals recognize our own need for community, connection, empowerment. She can help us recover feelings of determination and worth, creating a strong internal core from which our lights can shine brightly. ☺
Some notes on her use in herbalism:
Some Classic Indications for use (please also take not of some contra-indications for use below):
- Nerve pain or damage, lacerated nerves, neuralgia, injuries causing numbness and tingling, carpal tunnel (internal + topical)
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), taken leading up to and throughout the colder/darker months (internally)
- Shingles, viral infections (combine with other anti-viral herbs, esp. Lemon Balm): use internally and topically if possible
- Anti-inflammatory help for gout, arthritis, nerve tissue (internal + topical)
- disconnection between gut and mind, poor digestion and nutrient assimilation with anxious depression (internal)
- pain in the sacrum, coccyx, hemorrhoids with pain (internal + topical)
- depression with tension and/or anxiety, especially when causing isolation and lack of responsiveness to social stimulation and/or with elevated cortisol; avoid in severe clinical depression (internal)
- burns, especially sunburn, abrasions, puncture wounds, wounds in places with many nerve endings, skin inflammations (topical, great combines with lavender essential oil drops) as well as scaly and dry skin conditions
- muscle soreness and spasms (internal + topical)
- PMS, in a larger and personalized formula, when estrogen is dominant
- poison oak: topical application of oil or tincture quickly
- help with periods of transition and growth, including bed-wetting, peri-menopause (Internal)
- Hyper and Hypo acidity of the stomach (internal): when using to address digestive imbalances be sure to help the elimination pathways as well if needed, using herbs that nourish kidney and liver functions
Actions: Anti-viral, Analgesic, Anti-Inflammatory, Nervine, Tropho-restorative for nervous system, vulnerary, hepato-protective, sedative, astringent
Notes & Resources on herbal preparations:
By far, fresh preparations of Hypericum are prefered over dried. Hypericum is said to be at her strongest when collected ear the summer solstice, but can be collected throughout the summer during the blooming period. Dried Hypericum is best used as a tea. Whole plant preparations, as oppossed to standardized extracts valuing one phyto-chemical are best as this plant has a beautiful and complex community of chemical constituents that WORK TOGETHER to create a whole effect. There are commercial preparations that have worked to isolate, boost and standardize some parts over others. Using the whole plant alows it to work intelligently.
- Gather fresh blooms with some leaves for tincture extraction, the leaves contain valuable flavenoids that compliment the actions of the blossoms, think 2 parts blossoms to 1 part leaves, seeds are ok too
- Here's a cool video to help ensure proper identification, turn the volume up
- Harvest buds on a sunny day and test by squeezing a few blossoms in your fingers and rolling on palm; a red, oily pigment should appear as a consequence and indicates potent plant love
- Best to gently grind and/or chop the plant material when adding to the alcohol, oil or vinegar
- Can be effectively tinctured in 100 Proof Vodka
- Here is a great video on making an infused oil from Aviva Romm, flowers are primarily used for oil extractions, though I would do some scissor chopping of the flowers before adding the oil
- Here is a good video on how to make a fresh Hypericum tincture, lots of herbalists use 50% alcohol vodka with success, so I am not sure of her reference about higher than 50% but will do some more research
Some notes on magical uses:
- Hypericum is an aid to bring in the light, especially the active and warming light of the sun
- Is traditionally a powerful protector from 'bad,' 'dark,' 'evil' and 'malicious' energies, including spells, demons, possession, misfortunes and death
- Is used as a tool of divination, especially regarding love and health: signs that the blossoms have withered the day after your question is asked indicates a not favorable outcome
- The plant has a long history of being placed above or over images (especially of dieties, sacred and consecrated objects) as protection
- Can be burnt during trance or ritual as a protective force and to carry away the energies that are no longer wanted, I like to combine with lavender for this as well
- Can be used to help facilitate communication with our gut selves through visualization, trance, sitting with/direct contact or herbal preparations
- Can be invoked for assistance with the facing of the darker sides of the self, listening to the inner voice and connecting with solar energy
Concerns & Contraindications:
There is lots of info and confusing thoughts on the contraindications (reasons not to take) this herb. And, what you hear will depend on who you talk too as scientific literature has warned against things they have discovered in test tubes that many herbalists would say are not actually happening in the human body. Here are the major concerns:
- Do not take while pregnant
- There is evidence that this plant has a wide variety of interaction with prescription meds, including blood thinners, psychoactive drugs, anti-depressants (MAOIs, SSRIs, etc), time released medications, transplant drugs, chemotherapy related drugs,...basically, if you are on a prescription medication and want to use this plant internally, be on the safe side and consult a Dr. or trusted Herbalist ☺, the thousands of years of use of this plant precedes the use of chemically isolated medications and new ones come out all the time. Be on the safe side.
- This plant should not be used for self-diagnosed clinical depression, especially with suicidal ideation or tendencies
- There is mixed opinions on whether St. John's Wort can decrease the effectiveness of oral contraceptives, check with a qualified and trusted health person of you have concerns (I tend to not worry about this, but it is important to know)
- Hypericum can cause photosensitivity when taken internally, primarily seen in fair skinned folks (who are photo sensitive enough already! LOL)
Some great articles and resources for further study:
A great article from Kiva Rose about a SW native Hypericum species! http://bearmedicineherbals.com/gifts-of-the-solstice-native-st-johns-wort.html