Herb or… balsam?

St. John’s wort has been part of humanity’s therapeutic arsenal since antiquity, thanks to its ability to successfully counter dermatological problems, to reinforce the immune system and because of its anti-depressant activity as well.

It is known to us as balsam, hypericum, perforate/common St. John’s wort or sedge; its Latin name is Hypericum perforatum. In Greece, St. John’s wort is a wild herb – as are the other approximately 35 recorded species of the genus Hypericum. We will discover it in very dry areas of the mainland and, in summer, one look will be enough to make it stand out, thanks to its beautiful golden flowers; if we touch the petals, they will color our fingers a deep scarlet.

The most important active essence of St. John’s wort is hypericin, which can be found in the entire plant but is concentrated mostly in its blossoming top. But the herb’s value lies in the fact that it contains a multitude of active ingredients, such as catechins that possess anti-oxidant properties, rutin, hyperoside, phloroglucinols, various resins, thickening oils, luteolin, carbon-quinones, coumarin and carotenoids. It also contains flavonoids (16% in its leaves), xanthones, phenolic acids and traces of essential oils (0.13%). The plant is considered more effective in its fresh form, rather than the dry one. Based on a recent study conducted by a large German pharmaceutical company and published in the British Medical Journal, the plant proved at least as effective as paroxetine, a drug often prescribed for depression.

In antiquity, the therapeutic properties of St. John’s wort were famous. According to Hippocrates, the external use of the herb’s oil is extremely helpful in the healing of burns. Moreover, the herb’s use in the relief of pneumonia and gynecological conditions was widespread. Both Galen and Dioscorides mention it as “askyron” (meaning that which cancels something else) and subscribed it as diuretic, healing, emmenagogue, hemostatic; also, against sciatica. On the other hand, Roman doctors in the Middle Ages used it against tuberculosis; while Paracelsus mentions it as “panacea”, meaning a drug which can cure any ailment.

Today, St. John’s wort is one of the most essential herbs used in alternative medicine to treat mild cases of depression and other neurological disorders. The herb seems to generally act in a positive manner on our psychic sphere, mitigating to a great extent emotional disorders and uncontrollable chronic anxiety.

The herb’s usage is also very popular in dermatology and traumatology. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory, healing and reconstructive properties, sedge oil is used extensively in ointments for burns, trauma and ulcers. It is also considered to speed up the disappearance of leucorrhoea stigmata and skin scleroses.

In cosmetology, balsam oil is used in herbal anti-aging creams as it possesses reconstructive, antioxidant, mild antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Apart from its therapeutic use, St. John’s wort has also been used as a raw material in the production of yellow and red dye – a fact that greatly increases the herb’s commercial value.

However, we should stress the fact that the herb, in any pharmaceutical form, should not be used by pregnant women and photo-sensitive people; also, in particular cases when a person’s medication includes certain contraceptives, anticoagulants, monoamine oxidase blockers or even other psychiatric drugs. For this reason, it is always recommended that you ask your doctor or trusted pharmacist before using it. This last bit of advice is valid not only for St. John’s wort but all herbs in general.

 

Christina Bakopoulou

Pharmacist

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