Herbs for health: St John's Wort

Ed Berger on herbs to help raise the spirits as we wait for spring's warmer weather

Ed Berger on herbs to help raise the spirits as we wait for spring's warmer weather


For many people the first few months of the new year are associated with reductions in energy and motivation, with Christmas a distant memory and some time to go before the spring thaw. The ‘winter blues’ or SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is thought to be caused principally by a lack of sunlight which imbalances our body clock and the natural circadian rhythms which regulate our sleep and mood patterns.

A number of herbs have been used traditionally to raise the spirits, however the most important in current herbal practice is St John’s wort, which has been demonstrated in clinical trials to treat mild to moderate depression. Although its exact mechanism of action is not clear, it is thought that the herb might work in a similar way to some conventional anti-depressants by slowing the breakdown of feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin.

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a common sight in the meadows and hedgerows of Suffolk, growing up to 50cm tall with small ovate leaves and bright yellow flowers that emerge at mid-summer.

The Latin name derives from the Greek ‘hyper’ meaning ‘above’ and ‘eikon’ meaning ‘picture’ as the flowers were traditionally placed above religious images to ward off evil, whilst the Latin epithet ‘perforatum’ comes from the tiny perforations on the leaves.

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In fact the best way to identify St John’s wort from other hypericum species is by holding one of its leaves up to the light and checking for the tiny holes, metaphorical windows which ‘let in the light’.

Not only does St John’s wort improve mood, but it also has anti-viral properties and can be applied topically for wound healing and easing nerve pain including neuritis and sciatica.

A standard dose for St John’s wort is 15-40ml of tincture per week, but always follow guidelines on individual product labels as the strength of products can vary considerably. Benefits are normally felt after 1-2 weeks.

Safety first

St John’s wort speeds the clearance of conventional drugs from the body, so should not be taken alongside orthodox medicines. If you are in any doubt speak to your doctor, pharmacist or a qualified herbal practitioner before taking this herb. Large doses may also cause increased sensitivity to sunlight, so fair skinned people are advised to avoid sun-beds and to keep well sun-protected if taking this herb during the summer or whilst on holiday.

Ed Berger has been practising herbal medicine and naturopathy for 12 years and lives near Woodbridge. He also teaches herbal medicine for the College of Naturopathic Medicine and is a keen plantsman, growing many medicinal herbs in his woodland garden. To discuss any aspect of herbal medicine including herb walks, herbal garden design or to arrange a consultation please contact Ed on 07931 797148 or info@edberger.co.uk

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