Once thought to bring special blessings for the coming year, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has long been used to treat depression and related conditions.
What is it?
Native to Europe but also found in North America, St. John’s wort is an herb whose flowers and leaves are harvested to make teas, tablets, and concentrated extracts. It blooms in late June, around the time of the birthday of John the Baptist—hence its name.
What does it treat?
St. John’s wort is most commonly associated with the relief of mild to moderate depression, as well as anxiety and sleeplessness. The National Institutes of Health notes that the extract “improves mood, and decreases anxiety and insomnia related to depression,” and is as effective as many prescription drugs in the short-term treatment of mild depression.
It has other applications as well. A British study found St. John’s wort promising in treating the physical and behavioral symptoms of women diagnosed with mild premenstrual syndrome. Researchers in Spain concluded that St. John’s wort, because of its antioxidant properties, may reduce the degeneration of neurons caused by Parkinson’s disease. It’s also been shown to be effective in the treatment of skin diseases including atopic dermatitis and eczema, and has been used in oil compress form to treat skin ulcers, burns, sunburn, and wounds.
How does it work?
Hypericin, a component of St. John’s wort, increases the amount the body can metabolize of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Hyperforin, also found in the herb, helps keep neurotransmitters working longer in the body, thus contributing to emotional stability.
Check with a health-care practitioner before starting a regimen of St. John’s wort, as the herb can have adverse interactions with a number of medications. It can also cause reactions to sun exposure, and may not be safe for pregnant women or nursing infants. It’s not recommended for people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, or major depression.