An attempt to clear the name of
Hypericum perforatum once and for all!
This little starlet is no stranger to the spotlight. Once hailed as a wonder-herb for treating depression, the FDA (read: pharmaceutical companies) quickly mobilized a smear campaign to tarnish the herb’s image and create a dense fog of confusion around it’s use. (This is easily and quickly done by employing our culture’s favorite scare tactic, the vague fear of nature.) It was a setup from the beginning. Trumped up claims about contraindications warned the public of the dangerous consequences of meddling with the affairs of the health professionals. Soon after studies found it to be effective and safe in the treatment of depression, new studies were issued proving it to be ineffective and dangerous. You have probably heard some of this libel. Right now you may be subconsciously associating this plant with a feeling of mistrust. They’ve gotten to you! They’ve even gotten to a lot of herbalists and naturopaths afflicted with self doubt and/or plant doubt. My aim is to restore St. John’s Wort to it’s rightful place as a safe and friendly herb, one that you might like to know. You don’t detect a hint of fear in my writer’s voice, do you? It is not because I am brave, or reckless (as it turns out, I am neither). I just know that St. John’s Wort was framed.
St. John’s Wort didn’t have an inkling of what was being said about his character by the powerful forces in medicine. He was just kindly growing and minding his own business. But beginning in the 1990’s, all manner of insults were directed at the innocent wort. (Wort means “plant” in Olde English). To demonstrate his good nature, St. Johns Wort is as agreeable as ever and has maintained potent medicinal properties despite all of the slander. Really, St. John’s Wort wonders what all the fuss is about. And, seeing us get so worked up about anything, offers to let us have a chew on its’ flowers. “It might help” he says.
It’s true! Taking St. Johns Wort raises the spirits and inspires confidence as it tames self-doubt and fear.
In the previous post, we spoke at length about the virtues of St. John’s Wort. Here is where we come to the issue of safety. What we’ve got here is a pharmacologically active and complex plant that has been used safely all over the globe for centuries. It’s first documented reference appears in Gaelic in 600 AD. Since then it has been made into tea and wine and poured down gullets; it has been made into oils and ungents and slathered on skin. So what is so dangerous about St. John’s Wort? Well, nothing, inherently. St. John’s Wort’s primary fault seems to be that it wasn’t designed to be used with modern day pharmaceuticals.
As you may have heard, St. John’s Wort is contraindicated with some medications, and studies come out all the time indicting it for producing herb-drug interactions. These studies generally rehash the same information, but the sheer volume of the literature assures that when you do a search on St. John’s Wort safety on the internet, you will come away convinced not to take it. Here’s the scoop from a pro-herb point of view. Do not take St. John’s Wort when you are taking anti-depressant drugs because THEY PROBABLY WORK IN MUCH THE SAME WAY. Not because St. John’s Wort causes an unpredictable reaction if you have taken Prozac recently, just that you DON’T NEED BOTH! The FDA also doesn’t recommend doubling up on your dose of Prozac for the same reason. So, St. John’s Wort and antidepressants? It’s a simple case of one or the other, folks. Both can work, both can be dangerous when taken together, and one can be dangerous on it’s own. (That’s the drugs.)
Another important feature of this common plant that has been misunderstood is it’s unique action upon the liver. St John’s Wort affects the pathway in the liver that is dedicated to the clearance of certain toxins. Most notably it increases the metabolism of hormones and drugs, speeding their removal from the body. This has important clinical ramifications, as it can be used for those wishing to rid their bodies of unwanted substances. Examples might be clearing excess estrogen in women at risk of breast cancer, or breaking down pharmaceuticals that damage the liver or kidneys. The problem is that St. John’s Wort is really good at this, so if you are on a life saving medication or are putting excess hormones into your body on purpose (i.e. birth control pills), taking St John’s Wort can cause the rapid breakdown of these substances. So, DON’T TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT IF YOU ARE TAKING A LIFE SAVING MEDICATION, OR DRUGS THAT YOU LIKE. DO TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT TO CLEAR ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS, HORMONES AND DRUGS THAT YOU DON’T LIKE FROM YOUR BODY. This would seem easy enough to explain to consumers in plain terms, if the intention was education rather than obfuscation. Instilling the populace with the mistrust of herbs has the predictable and desired effect of discouraging their use. In actuality, the whole issue of herb/drug interactions should be considered another adventure in polypharmacy, not any more complicated than managing the care of the patients who are taking multiple drugs at a time. Herb/drug interactions are not only extremely rare, they are far less dangerous than drug/drug interactions or even drug/body interactions, for that matter. So, in closing, if St. John’s Wort’s only crime is that it doesn’t play nice with a few pharmaceuticals, who can blame it? Plants evolve new traits very slowly over thousands of years and new drugs are developed every day. Back when St. John’s Wort differentiated itself from its’ ancestors, pharmaceuticals didn’t even exist. I find it interesting, though, that it would be so well equipped for removing futuristic drug compounds in the body… Sorry, pharmies, but it’s survival of the fittest!
NOTE: For those of you wishing to experiment with St. John’s Wort, I must insist that you use only the fresh plant tincture or infused oil (for topical use). Nothing else will do.