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What is St. John's Wort?

Niki Acker
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an herb used to treat mild to moderate depression. It is available in pill form, as an infusion, in liquid extract form, and as a tincture. Its effectiveness is a matter of some debate, but many studies conducted in the United States and Germany showed it to be effective in treating moderate depression, and it is routinely proscribed for this condition in Germany. The herb has been shown to be ineffective against severe depression and dysthymia, however.

Wort is an archaic word meaning "plant," and St. John's Wort gets its name from its traditional date of harvest, St. John's Day, or 24 June. It has small yellow flowers and perforate leaves characterized by small holes. The herb is grown commercially, but it is also a pest in many areas, as it can be poisonous to livestock if eaten in sufficient quantities. When animals eat to much, it can cause effects including restlessness, mania, skin irritation and lesions, depression, miscarriage, and hypersensitivity to water and/or light. It can also push desirable vegetation out of an ecosystem by overtaking its niche.

St. John's Wort has a long history as a medicinal plant, though it was not always used for depression. Various species of Hypericum were used medicinally in Ancient Greece and in the Americas since before the arrival of Europeans. Native Americans used it topically as an astringent, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory, and internally to induce abortions. Because of this property of St. John's Wort, the herb can have adverse effects on the fertility of the user and may interfere with birth control. The herb also has varied uses in homeopathic medicine.

In general, St. John's Wort has a much lower incidence of side effects than commercial anti-depressants. Its documented side effects include disorientation, dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, sedation, and the aforementioned reproductive side effects. The herb can also cause photo sensitivity, or sensitivity to light, in both humans and animals, but this effect is rare.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon41874 — On Aug 17, 2009

can this medicine be used in conjunction with other homeopathic medicine?

By bestcity — On Sep 18, 2008

St-John's Wort is also used as home remedy for colds. The plant has an unusual and strong smell.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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