Friday, 1 July 2011

St. John's Wort - The Sunshine Herb

I noticed on Monday that my St John’s Wort had burst into flower, the traditional time to harvest it is on the feast day of St John, the 24th June or midsummer. We tend to feel happier in the warmth of the summer sun and the yellow flowers of St John’s Wort seem to reflect the time of year.

 St John’s Wort is well known as an antidepressant and for treating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) when the lack of sunlight during the winter months can make some people feel low in mood. I have not made St John’s Wort tincture before so I decided to do so this year. I picked flowers and packed them into a little jar and covered them with vodka, I shall leave this for a few weeks. The flowers are covered in little dark spots that contain the plant oil, after picking the flowers my fingers had turned purple. Just a few minutes after adding vodka my tincture it began to take on a beautiful red colour. It is the constituent hypericin (the red pigment in the flowers) which is believed to help depression and St John’s Wort should not be taken with some anti-depressants. It is thought to mimic Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) inhibitors and selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors which are prescribed for depression.
Sunshine in a jar - St John's Wort tincture

 My next batch of flowers will infuse in olive oil and create a deep red oil which is good for the skin and for nerve inflammation. I use it in aromatherapy massage blends to help my husband’s sciatica and could add it to a cream, gel or ointment. St John’s Wort (SJW) is known for being good to skin; it is antiseptic and calming and can be used on minor burns, sunburn, cuts, grazes, bruises, minor skin irritations and eczema. The oil is suitable for sensitive skin and infected acne or spots.
 When I trained as an aromatherapist I remember being taught that SJW was a photosensitiser so if I used the oil on a client I needed to warn them to avoid strong sun as the skin could easily get burnt. During one of Sarah’s workshops on a sunny day last year I was stunned to see ladies covering themselves with SJW oil and using it as a sunscreen; I thought they must be putting themselves at terrible risk. I was told that Susun Weed uses it as a sunscreen and that it was only the internal use of SJW that could lead to photosensitivity. This turned what I had previously been taught on its head and curiosity pushed me to investigate.
 The first thing I decided to do was to try it out for myself, as hubby and I got ready for a walk on Cannock Chase in the sunshine I slapped on St John’s Wort oil on all exposed skin and topped up on the car park before we set off. When I checked my skin on the evening it was red and it itched so I had managed to get burnt, so I put on some more oil. I don’t think my skin had been made more sensitive to the sun, I think my sun burn was as I would have expected if I had gone out that day without protection. This did not seem to be something that worked for me, I wondered if my oil was of a lesser concentration than other peoples.
 My next task was to try and find some documented evidence about St John’s Wort as a photosensitiser and sunscreen.Bensouilah and Buckle say that large amounts of hypericin taken orally can cause severe photodermatitis “but there is no evidence that, topically, the infused oil has any notable phototoxic potential when applied to intact skin”. They do say there may be a risk to lesional skin and fair- skinned people after extended sun exposure. All of my herb text books caution that SJW may cause sensitivity to light but none of them specify whether this is internal or external use.
 Susan Weed talks of the oil in her Breast Health book as being used for protection from radiation and also as a sunscreen. She says “I use this oil as my only sunscreen, and find it not only immediately effective, but even more protective with continuing use over the years”. If this is the case then my single use experiment may not have been enough.
  Family Herbal Remedies advocate St John’s oil when going out in the sun to prevent sunburn and say to think of it as a skin nourisher rather than a sun block to create “healthy sun-tolerant skin”.
 I came across a discussion on the Healing Wise Forum where there seemed to be other people as confused as myself about SJW and sun protection amongst the more knowledgable. It seems that it takes a few uses before the body gets results from SJW and the internal preparations that can cause sensitivity are usually shop-bought and low quality tablets.
 I get the idea that the body can get used to SJW over time and that it nourishes the skin but I’m not sure safety wise what is happening, people are saying that it is not a sunblock so does it give the protection we need? I love the idea of using a natural product as a sun screen but I have had two friends with skin cancer and one is no longer with us so I am cautious and I need to trust it’s safe. I personally feel I don’t understand enough at the moment about St John’s Wort as sun protection to use it with confidence at the moment.
 Sesame oil has an SPF of 2-3, Shea butter has an SPF of 2-3, Jojoba has an SPF of 4 and Red Raspberry Seed oil has an amazing SPF of 28-50 which would make it my first choice in my own natural sun screen, it defends against UVA and UVB rays. Of course I can’t press my own Red Raspberry seed oil and would have to buy it which is not as satisfying as growing my own St John’s Wort, preparing the oil and watching the colour change, but I have other uses for my oil.