What is St John’s Wort good for?

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Mahalia Freed, ND

Hypericum

For many years, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been a top selling plant in the marketplace for depression. Long an important herb in European medicine, settlers brought it with them to North America and Australia, and it can now be found in sunny, dry fields around the world. It is well studied, and meta-analysis finds the herb more effective than SSRIs or placebo in treating mild-to-moderate depression. Hypericum can be an excellent herb for depression, and I regularly incorporate it in my treatment plans for people seeking mood support. But, look at the incomplete list of causes of depression, above. St John’s Wort (or St Joan’s Wort, as herbalist Susun Weed calls it) is not for all depressions. It is for healing.

Viewing at St John’s Wort as an antidepressant limits the power of the herb to what can be understood from an allopathic linear paradigm. An allopathic paradigm question is, what herb can act as an SSRI? But, herbs are not substitutes for drugs. Plants are living medicines, crossing body systems to heal people, rather than addressing diagnoses. St John’s Wort is no exception, and looking at the history of its use along with modern phytotherapeutic trials reveals the breadth of its role in healing.

This herb has long been used in topical applications for wound healing, and it is great for this. Think of it for scrapes, and think of it for healing the perineum post-partum. It is also antiviral against herpes, shingles, and even against HIV. It is famous in homeopathic  form for its efficacy in addressing nerve pain, whether from dental surgery or due to a skeletal issue like disc compression. Hypericum has been studied for PMS, and found more effective than placebo for physical and behavioral PMS symptoms. In clinical trial, it is also effective for menopausal symptoms in combination with Black Cohosh (another misunderstood herb!).

So, what is St John’s Wort for?
For healing.

Who is St John’s Wort for?

Since herbs treat people, this is a question with a juicier answer. Hypericum is for someone with Type A blood more than Type O blood. For someone who needs more sunshine (eg depression in winter), for frayed nerves. For a “weak” stomach, for normalizing stomach acid whether too high or too low, for liver support, for disinfecting and healing wounds (including deep wounds), for nerve damage, for third chakra issues, for emotions influencing the bladder, for radiation burns.

Who Shouldn’t Take St John’s Wort?

Anyone taking any prescription medication, including oral contraceptives, should consult with their herbalist or naturopathic doctor. St John’s Wort is metabolized through the liver and interferes with/decreases the effectiveness of many drugs. If taken at the same time as oral contraceptives, St. John’s Wort can diminish their effectiveness. i.e., this could – and does – lead to an unexpected pregnancy. So please ask your herbally-trained health care provider!

Additional Effects (Cautions):

Cows who graze excessively on Hypericum are known to get sunburns. This is almost never seen in people, as we do not consume it as a dietary staple.

Conversely, St John’s Wort oil is in fact an excellent sunscreen when applied topically (Per Susun Weed).

Selected Sources:

·      Bruton-Seal, Julie and Seal, Matthew. Backyard Medicine: Harvest & Make Your Own Herbal Remedies. New York, NY: SkyHorse Publishing. 2009.
·      Kaminski, Patricia & Katz, Richard. Flower Essence Repertory. Nevada City, CA: Flower Essence Society. 2004.
·      Weed, Susun. Lecture at the Association of Perinatal Naturopathic Doctors annual conference. Toronto: Oct. 13, 2012.
·      Wood, Matthew. Earthwise Herbal. A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. 2008.
·      Wood, Matthew. Herbal First Aide. Accessed online at http://www.woodherbs.com/Indispensable.html. July 7, 2013.

Flexible Strength: Willow Medicine

Salix spp

Willow is a distinctive tree that many people recognize, and many more are drawn to.

Willow’s story offers many examples of the power of tree medicines, and the difference between living plant medicines and pharmaceuticals or isolated extracts.

There are over 400 species of Willow, growing all through the Northern Hemisphere. In botanical medicine, White Willow (Salix alba) is most commonly referenced, although other species like Black Willow (Salix nigra) and Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) can be used interchangeably in many cases.

Willow has a long history of medicinal use. Indeed, I first learned about willow at age 12, when I did a science fair project on what was then referred to as “alternative medicine”. Willow was – for me – a gateway plant to the world of plant medicines. Perhaps it has played this role for you as well, or perhaps it still may!

Experience & History
There is a calm elegance to willows. Their comforting, flowing grace draws us to sit beneath them and share their ease. They prefer damp areas, often growing along river banks or lakes’ edges. The notion of flow is reflected in their form and in the water beside them. Willow’s historical use for rheumatism, a condition worse with dampness, mirrors its habitat of choice as well as its chemical action.

The flexible branches have long been used in making baskets, as well as wicker furniture. Elsewhere, willow wood is used for clogs, and for cricket bats.

Phytochemistry
Willow bark contains salicin, the precursor to salicylic acid. When we ingest willow tea or tincture, we convert salicin to salicylic acid in out digestive tract. From salicylic acid you can manufacture acetyl salicylic acid, or ASA, the active ingredient in Aspirin. Willow bark is in fact one of the plants from which Aspirin was originally made! It follows, then that like ASA, salicin has an anti-inflammatory effect in our body, making willow an excellent medicine for muscular and joint pains, fever pains, and gout.

Flower Essence
Willow flower essence helps us to find flexible strength. The essence is used for stiffness in body and mind, helping to address rigidity in thinking as well as in our muscles or joints. Willow helps people to let go, to accept, to forgive, to adapt. It addresses feelings of resentment or victimization. It supports the our feminine – or yin – nature.
From the FES flower essence repertory,
“Willow restores a more “spring-like” disposition, helping the soul to respond with greater resilience and inward mobility to challenges and problems. In this way, the Self takes more responsibility for its condition, and learns to flow more gently and graciously with rather than against the flow of life.”

Actions
Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, antipyretic

Indications
Arthritis, rheumatism, low back pain & other general muscular aches and pains, period pain, gout, fever, diarrhea

Preparation
Tincture or decoction of bark.

Cautions
Plants are not like drugs, and here is another example. You cannot use willow bark as a substitute for Aspirin if you are taking the drug for blood thinning. Willow does not thin the blood. And while Aspirin is notorious for causing stomach side effects (it increases ulceration & bleeding in the gut), white willow does not.

References:
Conway, Peter. Tree Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide to the Healing Power of Over 170 Trees. London, UK: Judy Piatkus Ltd. 2001.
Godfrey, Anthony & Saunders, Paul (with Kerry Barlow, Matt Gowan, Cyndi Gilbert, Rebecca Blok & Mahalia Freed). Principles and Practices of Naturopathic Botanical Medicine. Volume 1: Botanical Medicine Monographs. Toronto, ON: CCNM Press. 2012.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science & Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. 2003.
Kaminski, Patricia & Katz, Richard. Flower Essence Repertory. Nevada City, CA: Flower Essence Society. 1986/2004.

Meditation is good for you. The Evidence from a Reluctant Meditator

by Mahalia Freed, ND

It took me years of resisting and suffering to develop and sustain a regular meditation practice. I share my tips and lessons in this article, Confessions of a Reluctant Meditator, or Tips for Fitting Meditation into Your Life.

If you are the kind of person who likes to know the why of things, here is a very brief summary of why meditating will be beneficial for you, too:

The evidence

As a naturopathic doctor I am well-versed in the evidence and clinical applications for meditation. It is amazing how effective various kinds of meditation can be. An unsophisticated PubMed search on the term “meditation” yields 2, 215 studies. Depression? Meditation may be as effective as medication. Cancer? Meditation improves mood, sleep, immune system, quality of life. Stress? Meditate to lower blood pressure. Heart disease? Yup. Meditation helps. Indeed, mindfulness-based stress reduction for heart disease, chronic pain and many other conditions is taught at hospitals and in private practices across North America based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.

Even more compellingly, my clients are a fantastic and inspiring bunch. They tell me that meditation practice helps them manage anxiety, gives them energy when their work involves long hours and traveling, keeps them happier, helps them connect more with their friends and family. So not only do I know about the benefits from reading the studies, I know about it from clinical practice.

The bullet points:

  • It feels good.
  • It is free.
  • It can help restore emotional clarity and balance, making you feel better if you are stressed or sad.
  • It can energize you when you feel tired (though it’s not a substitute for quality sleep, you type A’s out there!).
  • It can help you tap your inner wisdom when you feel uncertain about a decision.
  • It can reclaim stillness from the frenzied pace of modern day life, readjusting the skewed balance between being and doing.
  • It can reconnect you with your intuition and creativity.
  • It will give you unexpected gifts (for me this has included concrete reassurance when things felt dire, and recently, the name of a remedy I hadn’t consciously heard of that was the perfect fit for someone in my care with a complex clinical case).
  • It doesn’t have to be hard.

Want some tips to help you find a way to integrate meditation into your full life? Get started here. And please share what works and doesn’t for you!