Podcast 191: Herbs A-Z: Hibiscus & Hypericum

Today’s featured herbs are excellent in sun tea. Simply spoon them into a jar, pour in water, cover it up, and place it in the sun for several hours. Sun tea makes a light herbal infusion and is best for herbs that can be well extracted in a short hot infusion.

The calyx of Hibiscus sabdariffa is distinct from those of other species in the genus. It’s fleshy, red, and sour. These characteristics are signals to us. The red means antioxidant/anti-inflammatory and blood-vessel-stabilizing actions; the sour means draining to excess fluid, and cooling to excess heat. The leaf & flower of hibiscus (from various species including the rose of Sharon, H. syriacus and rose mallow, H. rosa-sinensis) can also be taken as an herb. They are moistening in nature, like other members of the mallow family.

Solstice is the right time to harvest st john’s wort, Hypericum perforatum. That’s when this herb’s medicinal constituents are at their peak of production. More complex than “an herbal SSRI”, the effects of st john’s wort to help relieve depression are taking place all over the body. It supports nerve function, clears digestive inflammation, improves liver processing, and yes, it does increase serotonin activity – both in the gut-brain and the head-brain. It’s worth a try for depression, but remember that it should not be taken concurrently with pharmaceuticals, especially psychiatric medications.

These quick plant profiles were done off-the-cuff & on-the-spot. If you enjoyed them, we have more! Our organized & comprehensive presentation of our herbal allies is in the Holistic Herbalism Materia Medica course. We have detailed profiles of 90 medicinal herbs! Plus you get everything that comes with enrollment in our courses: twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, discussion threads integrated in each lesson, guides & quizzes, and more.

Materia Medica

If you have a moment, it would help us a lot if you could subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen. This helps others find us more easily. Thank you!!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:14):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:16):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:18):
And on the internet everywhere. Thanks to power over the podcast.

Katja (00:21):

Ryn (00:22):
Yeah. Okay. So, we are continuing onward with our tour of the shelves in our apothecary here at home. We’re moving on today to Hibiscus and Hypericum which you probably know as hibiscus and St. John’s wort.

Katja (00:39):
It’s really funny to me, because we’re really just taking the herbs off the shelf in alphabetical order by Latin name. And we label our herb jars by Latin name, just because it helps to see the Latin pretty regularly. But it’s funny to me that we’re just taking the jars off the shelves, and yet so often they have something to tie them together. And so, today’s theme is two herbs I love to make sun tea with. These are two of my favorite sun tea herbs.

Ryn (01:09):
Yeah. Sun tea. Very easy to make.

Katja (01:12):
Very satisfying on a hot day.

Ryn (01:14):
All right. Well, we’re going to talk about these herbs. But first let’s give you our reclaimer. That’s where we remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalist and holistic health educators.

Katja (01:24):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalist in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (01:36):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, keep in mind that we’re not attempting to present a single dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (01:50):
Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some good ideas and some new information to think about and research further.

Ryn (02:01):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. And it doesn’t mean that you’re to blame for your current state of health. But it does mean that the final decision when you’re considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always your choice to make

Hibiscus: Benefits of Red & Sour

Katja (02:19):
Well, let’s talk about hibiscus. It is the reddest herb I know.

Ryn (02:24):
You know, yeah. I really like to make red tea. And so, for me that’s pretty much hibiscus, rosehips, elderberries sometimes, goji berries go into red tea.

Katja (02:37):
Yeah. Elderberry is not really red, but honorary red.

Ryn (02:40):
Yeah. Purple. And then if we have rooibos, that’s another red one.

Katja (02:46):
Oh, yeah.

Ryn (02:48):
And the thing I like about doing red tea this way is that some of these herbs are sharing, or like they have the same kind of constituents that give it that color. We talk a lot about anthocyanins as being antioxidant and having benefits for immune function, and vascular integrity, and like a whole pile of other great things. Some of them are even directly antiviral, like the ones that come out of elderberry. Hibiscus has a bunch of these. But when we get in the rooibos, when we get in the goji berry, we’re bringing in like a variety of different pigments. And pigments are super healthy for well, pretty much everybody. I was going to say humans, but like mammals. And then I was like well, probably for birds too, you know?

Katja (03:29):
Yeah. Actually, the whole concept of pigments really just makes my head explode in a really kind of pleasing way. Like not a bad way, a happy way. And I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. And you’re going to be like Katja, that’s not as cool as you think it is. But listen, I think this is so cool. There are so many things that we can’t see, right? Like we can’t see inside our bodies. We can’t see what is my blood glucose level today? I mean, we can if we test it. But there’s lots of things we can see if we test. But there are a lot of things we can’t see with the naked eye. And the thing is that there’s also a lot of things that we can. And we kind of like don’t always realize that, because we are a culture of laboratory testing. And so, I find it so fascinating that it turns out that the color itself, the molecules that create the redness, that is the health in it, right? That is the thing you actually want. It isn’t like oh, and also, it’s red. It’s like no, that redness is part of the antioxidant, part of the anti-inflammatory action. And so, you can literally see like hmmm, is this hibiscus tea really going to help reduce my inflammation level? Well, I don’t know. Is it red? If it’s red, yes. Because the redness does the job. There are other things that are doing the job too, but that red pigment, the molecule that is the redness, is doing some of that work. And I just never stop being completely fascinated by that. And then I think about Kool-Aid. And I think about how… But really, we want things that are colored bright red. They’re appealing. A beverage that is colored bright red is appealing. And we don’t think about that much. We’re just like ah, kids like Kool-Aid. And we don’t think like why is that so appealing to a human, because also grownups like things that are colored red too, right? And it’s like wow, is this some kind of genetic imprint whatever throughout all of history. Where we understood that those colors were part of the vital health of the thing? Okay. I’m just going to like… See? And this is where my brain just explodes a little bit in a rainbow of happiness.

Ryn (06:05):
Yeah, absolutely. You know, we like to infuse those red pigmented herbs not only into water, but also into wine. And one of the fun things that we like… Because it’ll go with any kind of wine. But one of the ways we like to do this is take a white wine. And then put in the hibiscus, and the rosehips, and the goji, and the elder, and the rooibos, and everything else that has red pigments in it. And turn your white wine red.

Katja (06:30):
It’s really fun. It is also really tasty. I’m not a huge fan of white wines. But when you do this to a white wine, it literally becomes like a Starburst candy. Except it’s not candy, and there’s no sugar in it. I don’t know. Maybe wine has a little sugar.

Ryn (06:47):
There’s sugar in wine, for sure. Yeah, you find a sweet wine. You do that. And then what you’re really getting is the sourness. Because all of these herbs – maybe not so much the rooibos, but these others – they have a sour quality to them. And especially, let’s talk about hibiscus, star of the day, right? A super sour plant. One of the ones when if you’re going to do an herb class. And you’re going to do let’s taste the fundamental flavors. Let’s get a bitter herb. Okay, that’s going to be centaury. Let’s get a truly pungent herb. Let’s get – I don’t know – horseradish would be a good example. Let’s get a very sour herb. It’s hibiscus.

Katja (07:22):
Yep. It’s like the cayenne of the sour.

Ryn (07:26):
Yeah. So, sour, you know, just in the way that the color tells us some things about our plant. We talk about the red, and the pigments, and the antioxidant, and the other benefits there. The taste tells us a lot, too. So, as a sour plant we know that this herb is going to be cooling and also draining, draining to excess fluid in the system. This is again, a common feature of many sour plants, including citruses for that matter. But with hibiscus, you particularly get that effect of draining stuck fluid, edema, places where the water in the body has been stagnant. And you want to drain that out. There’s a connection between that activity, which is in some ways is a diuretic effect from the herb. There’s a connection there to the benefits this plant has for diabetes. And we can actually look at that from a number of different directions. But this first one here is that in diabetes or states when the blood sugar’s elevated, it’s uncontrolled, then the body retains more water. And so, you swell up, and there’s bloating. There’s edema. There’s discomfort. And so, this effect of blood sugar problems is identified not only in like modern medicine, but historically people would talk about sweet urine. And they would identify that as a dampness condition. They would say like okay, you literally do have more sugar in your urine. Sometimes that would be determined by taste. Other methods are like you take the urine. And you put it in the dirt and see if the ants come to eat it. If so, it’s an indicator that there’s a lot of sugar in there. And that would be connected observationally to these bodies that are retaining extra fluid, that are swollen, that are way too much on the damp side of the spectrum. And so, the response in many traditional medicine systems to this state is to look for sour herbs, like schisandra, or like sumac berry, or like hibiscus.

Diabetes-like Expressions, Cholesterol & Inflammation

Katja (09:31):
Like hibiscus. You know, I think the funny thing is that hibiscus is the plant you want when it’s hot and humid outside. It just feels good in your body. And also, it’s the herb you want when it’s hot and humid inside your body. And then I want to make a little codicil to that, because a lot of times when we think about diabetes-like expressions, right? You don’t have to actually have a diabetes diagnosis to have the sorts of physical expressions that diabetes has. Like some edema, some maybe cardiovascular compromise. Maybe it’s not all the way to some sort of cardiovascular disease, but you know that your circulation isn’t maybe all it could be. Maybe there’s some varicosities or whatever. We would think about those things typically as cold presentations through the stagnancy. But then also, if we’re thinking constitutionally or like energetically, we would say oh, well that person is cold and damp. Like everything is slowed down and sluggish, and they’re carrying a lot of extra fluids. And then, so we wouldn’t want to give them hibiscus because hibiscus is cooling. Well yes, it is. But we also have to think about in that person, in that body, we’re talking about there’s a lot of excess inflammation. Like there’s a lot of specific… A lot of excess, that’s like redundant, but it isn’t actually. What I really mean is inflammation that isn’t serving a purpose, or inflammation that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s necessary, because there is so much stagnation. And so, it’s not like the inflammation isn’t responding to anything. I don’t want to say that. It’s just that it’s not responding to like the sorts of things that the body normally expects for inflammation like oh, a sprained ankle. And so even though the person has a cold presentation in terms of sluggishness, the heat that we’re talking about addressing with the hibiscus is that inflammatory heat, where the inflammation needs to be modulated. And the cool thing is that a lot of that inflammatory heat is in the cardiovascular system. And that’s a place where hibiscus does a lot of work, especially in the vasculature.

Ryn (11:51):
Right. And that’s the thing too, because this also connects to the diabetes issue. That not all of the health problems that we get with disorganized blood sugar regulation comes strictly from that or from effects on like your pancreas. So, when there’s insulin resistance, when there’s diabetes, when there’s uncontrolled blood sugar, one of the key ways that that hurts people’s health is by increasing the amount of inflammation affecting the blood vessels, and the heart, and the whole cardiovascular system. So, like you say, hibiscus is really helpful here. Again, those red pigments, those antioxidant elements from the plant. And also, to some extent the plant acids that give the sour flavor. So, both the color generating and the taste generating chemistry in this plant are helping to reduce oxidative stress, to counteract free radicals running around in the bloodstream and causing those inflammatory reactions. Causing damage and cholesterol patches and everything to accumulate. So, this herb works very well to address that aspect of things. And then on that cholesterol note in particular, hibiscus is a plant that is particularly helpful at… I don’t want to say reducing cholesterol. I want to say improving your blood lipids. And the distinction is that we’re not only interested in reducing the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. We want it to be there if it’s needful, and we want it to not be there if it’s pointless. So, just reducing cholesterol numbers on the lab result isn’t a goal in and of itself. That’s not like something that we get points for doing. What we want to do is reduce the body’s need to produce that cholesterol as a response to the inflammatory damage that occurs inside of the blood vessels. So, our antioxidant nerves can help us in that effort. Avoiding things that cause that damage can help us a lot. So, that’s like avoiding the industrial seed oils and switching over to better fats. There’s a number of different ways that we can accomplish that goal. Hibiscus is going to help us out again, largely through that anti-inflammatory effect reducing the initial damage. But then also it helps to protect the cholesterol itself or actually the lipoproteins. So, you’ve heard people talk about HDL and LDL cholesterol. Really what the HDL and the LDL are like transporters. They help to move cholesterol from one place to another in the body. And they themselves are molecules like any other. And like most molecules they can be oxidized. And like pretty much everything in our body, we try to not let that happen too much. Because that’s how you rust to death over time. So, by protecting the LDL and the HDL from becoming oxidized, that’s another layer to the way that hibiscus is helping. And ultimately what you see is a reduction in LDL levels. You see maybe even an improvement in HDL levels sometimes when people work with this herb. But I think much more importantly would be subfractions, where we’re looking at how much of our HDL is oxidized versus not. How much of our LDL especially is oxidized versus not is a major determinant for whether this is actually going to cause damage or cause a lesion that’s persistent or seriously a problem for your health.

Katja (15:29):
Yeah. And remembering that cholesterol serves a purpose in your body. You need it to function properly. But you also need it to function properly. Like if your cholesterol cells are damaged, if they’re oxidized, then they can’t do their job properly. So, even though it sounds weird to say oh, we also want to protect the health of our individual cholesterol cells. We do. We want them to be able to function as needed efficiently and then go away, because we don’t need them anymore.

Hibiscus Parts & Their Energtic Qualities

Ryn (16:06):
Yeah. another thing about hibiscus that I wanted to bring up today was that when we’re talking here about Hibiscus sabdariffa, which is called hibiscus. Also, folks call this plant roselle and sometimes sorrel.

Katja (16:23):
Yeah. Which is complicated, because there are several plants called sorrel. And they’re all very different.

Ryn (16:29):
With this particular species of hibiscus, the Hibiscus sabdariffa, this is the one that gives us the redness and the sourness that we’ve been talking about here. It’s a part of the plant. It’s a part of the flower structure called the calyx. And so, it’s not exactly the petals of the flower. It’s not the leaves of the plant. It’s specifically this part called the calx. And if you look up pictures of this particular hibiscus species, you can see this structure. And when it’s growing on the plant, while it’s alive, it’s very fleshy. And it looks kind of…

Katja (17:05):
Like fruity almost. Like a… yeah.

Ryn (17:07):
Yeah. And so, that’s the part that’s harvested and dried. And you get your little, red-purple shriveled up bits of hibiscus. And you make your tea with it and all of that. And okay, so that’s the part that we’ve been talking about here. Where we’ve been talking about it being sour, and with the red pigmentation, and having those draining effects on stagnant fluid in the body. And so that is going to have a drying quality to it. But it’s a moderate or mild drying herb. This isn’t one where you’re like ah, if you just drink hibiscus tea, you’re actually going to dry your body out. Even though it can help to stir up excess fluid and help to eliminate that, I don’t find this to be an herb that is going to take somebody who’s neutral or damp, and then shift them over into a dry constitutional pattern.

Katja (17:58):
Well, and that’s the thing about hibiscus is that it’s actually in the mallow family. It’s actually in a family of moistening plants. And if you work with the leaf, you really can feel that. It feels like a marshmallow leaf. It’s like sort of thick and soft and has that same kind of plumpness. And honestly, actually every part of hibiscus has a plumpness to it. The calx one is like when the flower is vibrant, and you’re just seeing the calyx under the flower. Not once it’s dried, obviously then it’s dried. But when it’s alive, it’s plump. The flower itself, like the petals have a plumpness to them.

Ryn (18:49):
Yeah. And they’re so soft.

Katja (18:51):
Yeah. And anyway, so most of the time when we’re talking about drying herbs, we’re talking about astringency. And hibiscus doesn’t feel astringent. It, it is draining. It stimulates the movement of fluids.

Ryn (19:12):
Yeah. There’s a little astringent feeling from the plant acids. But that feels so much different from your astringency you get out of tannins.

Katja (19:19):
Right. And a way that you can feel this yourself is make a cup of black tea. And let it steep a little too long even, because then you’re really getting the tannins in there. And then make a cup of hibiscus. And if you really want to get like the full range of action, then make a cup of hibiscus. But start off with hot water, and then let it get cold. And let it sit there cold for a few hours, so that you get that initial heat. But then you also get the effects of the cold infusion. And then taste both of them. And you’ll see that it is not the same astringency that comes from tannins.

Ryn (20:03):
Yeah, definitely. But you know, that also lets us know that we can work with these other parts of the plant for these more specific hydrating, moistening, demulcent herb purposes. So, if we had Hibiscus sabdariffa, but we had the leaves, or we had the flower petals, we would have a moistening herb on our hands there. And if you live further south than where we are, it might be a plant that you can grow easily, and have it replenished and live outside and everything. You know, we’ve grown some hibiscus species in pots and things in the house. And move them outside in the summertime and stuff like that. And then there’s a couple hibiscus relatives that grow up here. And they can live and regenerate. Like there’s a Rose of Sharon plant out in the yard. I believe that’s Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.

Katja (20:54):
I’m going to say that sounds good.

Ryn (20:57):
Well, we’ll go with that. But you know that one, that’s another where you look at it. And you grab the leaf, and you chew on a little bit of the leaf. Or you bite a flower petal off and see what it is. And you’re like oh, this is giving me that velvety, demulcent, mucilage feeling here.

Katja (21:13):
Yeah. There’s really no question that it’s related to marshmallow. Yeah. And Rose of Sharon is actually… I think that maybe in the sixties and seventies maybe, it must have been very trendy. Because so many houses in Boston have Rose of Sharon in the yard. And when you get into like Brighton and Summerville, and the places where you have those standard three family houses, and then the little yards, so many of them have a Rose of Sharon in the middle of the little, tiny front yard. And so, I think it just was very trendy, because now they’re all like taller than me. They’re large shrubby tree kind of things.

Ryn (22:01):
Yeah. But they are nice. You have these big, obvious, beautiful flowers. And they’re kind of attention getting.

Katja (22:06):
Yeah. They’re fun. Anyway, so even if you do live in a city, this may be a plant that you actually have access to live. Now, you can’t get the hibiscus calyx off of a Rose of Sharon. They don’t have the same calyx. But the leaves you can absolutely work with. And they’re fantastic marshmallow…

Ryn (22:29):
Analog, substitute, yeah.

Katja (22:31):
I don’t want to say substitute, because they’re the same family.

Ryn (22:34):
Right. Relative.

Katja (22:36):
Yeah. Relative.

Ryn (22:37):
Yeah. And you can always feel free to do a family reunion blend. Sometimes we do that. If you’re experimenting with different herbal formulation patterns, that’s one that we like to do every now and again. So, you know, a mallow family reunion could include some marshmallow. We can get some hibiscus species and varieties into there. Linden. If you want to go wild, you can throw some cacao in. Because believe it or not, cacao is in the mallow family.

Katja (23:06):
That would taste good actually. Yeah.

Ryn (23:09):

St. John’s Wort: Harvesting & Constituents in Community

Katja (23:10):
All right. Well let’s talk about St. John’s wort.

Ryn (23:12):
Yeah. This is a good time of year to be doing it. We also sometimes call St. John’s wort solstice wort. And we’re a couple few weeks away from the summer solstice. So, if you are going to get inspired about St John’s wort today, you can get your hands on some or see if you can find some out there near where you are. The connection to solstice is that this herb is at its best on the longest, hottest days of the year. And that’s just about the best time to harvest it for medicinal potency.

Katja (23:45):
That is where the name St. John’s wort comes from actually. Because in the Catholic church, the feast of St. John is on, I think, June 25th. And solstice is the 20-21st. And so, they’re naming the plant after the time of year when you would go out and harvest it. And so, this is not the only plant that has that kind of a feature in its name. But I think it may be for me the one where it matters most. And it doesn’t have to be on the actual day of solstice. It just has to be on a hot, high summer day. Which is good, because St. John’s wort does continue to bloom. Sometimes you even find it blooming in August still. And the key is that it really needs to be harvested on a high sun, really hot kind of day. And the reason is that plants are responsive to weather, just like people are responsive to weather. If it’s really humid out there and really steamy, maybe you’re wilting a little bit. And if it just rained, maybe you’re really kind of filled up with water, and all plump, and standing up straight if you’re a plant. And the plant’s production of certain phytochemicals also responds to weather. So, this is maybe easiest to observe in aromatic plants like mugwort or catnip, where they have more aromaticity. I’m not still not sure if that’s really a word.

Ryn (25:39):
It is a word.

Katja (25:40):
Okay, good.

Ryn (25:41):
It’s definitely a word. A hundred percent.

Katja (25:42):
They have more smelliness on a really hot day, especially if it’s been a whole week of hot days. Because they’re producing more volatile oils in response to that kind of weather pattern. Whereas if it’s been raining for two weeks straight. And then you have your first day that is starting to dry out and maybe is a little bit sunny. That is not the day to harvest, because the ratio of volatile oils is going to be low. So, that’s one that you can see right off. And in St John’s wort you don’t necessarily see it immediately, but you really see it when you try to infuse the flowers in oil. And it’s the red pigments here that we’re trying to prioritize. We’re trying to maximize.

Ryn (26:35):
Yeah. We want to make sure they’re in there. Yeah.

Katja (26:37):
Yeah. And so those are phytochemicals that are solarly responsive.

Ryn (26:46):
Yeah. So, they’re kind of held in these oil glands in the leaves of the plant and also in the flowers. If you take a leaf of St. John’s wort and hold it up to the light, you see where the perforatum part of the name comes from. Because it’s like it’s been pricked with a pin a hundred times. And the pricks on the leaf around the edges are darker, whereas the other ones are lighter. They let the light through. And those are these little oil glands, where the plant is making some of its more famous chemistry like the hypericin and the hyperforin. Which for a while were thought like the active constituent of St John’s wort. And back in the day when people were identifying that chemistry and connecting that to antidepressant defects of the herb, there was a trend to either like really heavily amplify that in your supplement or just give a supplement made with straight out hypericin. It’s not a great idea honestly, because first off it doesn’t actually work as well as a full spectrum plant extract.

Katja (27:42):
Oh, that’s always true.

Ryn (27:44):
Because of synergy amongst different constituents in the herb. And that’s not just me saying that. This is now something that has been studied. And you can identify various little phenols and elements in the St John’s wort that enhance the activity of hypericin, or just as important reduce some adverse effects. So, in this case we’ve noticed that cases of photosensitivity associated with St John’s wort, all the ones that I’ve ever seen, have been connected to a capsule or an extract or something that concentrated the hypericin above naturally occurring amounts. And especially in cases where people were just taking straight out hypericin, that’s way, way more likely to give you photosensitivity than drinking tea, or taking tincture, or working with powder of St. John’s wort. Or of a supplement or a capsule, but one that is trying to do a full spectrum extract that represents the balance of chemistry in the natural plant.

Katja (28:46):
Listen, nobody can go it alone. Rambo is a myth. You can’t survive that way. Cats really are social creatures. Nothing in the world is really actually alone. We need community. Even phytochemicals need community, right? You can’t just take one phytochemical and say that’s the only one that matters. And then make it bigger than life. And then think it’s going to do the job. No, you need the entire community of that plant, because all the parts of the plant are important.

Ryn (29:28):

Katja (29:29):
Except for some plants that have some parts that are kind of toxic, then my analogy is going to break down a little bit. But that’s okay. Right now we’re talking about St. John’s wort, and my analogy works great.

Ryn (29:39):
It does work great. So, plant parts, we’re working with leaves and flowers on this. You can work with it dried, you can work with it fresh. We always prefer to do our oil infusions and tinctures from fresh plant, if we possibly can. I have had a couple of students send us pictures of oil that they infused from dried St. John’s wort. And it came out red, and it came out gorgeous, and it worked great. And I was surprised, because times when I’ve tried to make St John’s wort infused oil from dried plant matter, it did not look red and gorgeous.

Katja (30:16):
Yeah. I would even say it’s impossible. And then it turns out somebody managed.

The Antidepressant Activity of St. J

Ryn (30:23):
So, maybe that was an issue with the quality of the source material. Like if they just had some really, really good stuff that was hand harvested and dried and all of that. I don’t know. But that surprised me for sure. And I’m still going to prefer to grow or find some St. John’s wort, harvest it fresh, and do an oil infusion for that whenever possible. Mm-Hmm yeah. All right. I wanted to talk today also about antidepressant activity of this herb. And our particular way of bringing this up is always to be like well okay, but here’s all the exceptions. And here’s all the reasons why it’s not that simple. St. John’s wort does a lot more than that. Let’s talk about effects on hepatic function, and digestion, and wound healing, and anti-inflammatory activity, and the digestive system. And so, then we’ll spend like 90% of our time talking about that. And today I wanted to say, you know what? St. John’s wort is actually pretty great for a lot of types of depression, a lot of manifestations of depression. And it is worth a try. So, there.

Katja (31:26):
Listen, it can be really helpful. And these are not contradictory statements, right? Because depression is also a community of symptoms, right? It is not one thing all by itself. We get into so much trouble when we try to silo things. And we look at a person and say hmm, your emotions are down. You must be depressed. And we don’t look at any other part of their body, right? Because a person who has low emotions, that’s not the only thing going on for them. There are usually other things going on for them too. And even just the word depression in modern context, it means somebody’s sad, or blue, or down.

Ryn (32:12):
Melancholy, malaise sort of associated with fatigue on both a physical and a spiritual level, right? So, these are the things that we imagine when we just say depression without modifiers.

Katja (32:26):
But here’s the thing is that depression just means like downward. Like a lowering. You can use it as a geological term. That there’s a depression over there. And it’s really like a crater or something, you know? And your body doesn’t have downward motion. Like your body doesn’t have sinking-ness in only one place. And every other place is still a mountain peak, right? When there is a depression, there is a slow down. And that has effects throughout the whole body. And so that’s part of why when we think about St. John’s wort and depression, we – Ryn and I – are always inclined to be like but the liver, but digestion, but the other thing. And also, it is why you can say yeah, St. John’s wort really can be very helpful for depression. Because all these things are…

Ryn (33:25):
They’re happening simultaneously.

Katja (33:26):
They’re all happening simultaneously. So, it’s all true at the same time.

Ryn (33:29):
Right. I think what we object to the most is when someone’s like St. John’s wort is good for depression, because it acts like an herbal SSRI. SSRI, right, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. That’s still the most common category of antidepressant, pharmaceutical drugs. Things like Prozac, right? Okay. So, it’s a sort of like back formation. Where people have some idea or some sort of superficial understanding of how the medication works. And so, then they learn about an herb. And they’re like oh, it works the same way. Great. End of my story. And so, it’s partially shaped by the way that laboratory science is done on plants. Because look, if you do take an isolated hypericin extract. And you expose it to some tissue in a Petri dish that can secrete serotonin or respond to it. Then you can see some of the same kind of responses as to those SSRI drugs. But the question is does the herb itself function that same way in my body, right? And we can analyze that in a bunch of different ways. Like saying how much of this particular constituent am I ingesting with my tea, or my tincture, or my capsule. How much of that is going to circulate through my body and get to my brain? And how does that compare to the way that the drug moves around the body? And how much of its chemistry does it deliver to one place or another. So, shortcut to the end, they’re not the same in that regard. And in fact, the majority of the activity of St. John’s wort on serotonin levels is happening in your digestive system.

Katja (35:12):
Where you have a lot of serotonin activity going on actually. We think of it as a brain chemistry, but it’s a body chemistry. And there’s a whole lot of it in your guts. Well no, okay. Or we could say sure, it’s a brain chemistry. But you have more than…

Ryn (35:30):
You have that gut brain, right?

Katja (35:31):
You have that gut brain, and you have the heart brain. And it’s not just about the brain in your head. We have brains.

Ryn (35:37):
Right. The effect of St. John’s wort on mood is not only happening in the brain. It’s not only happening in the spinal column, right? It’s happening in your entire body, because your mood is not only happening in your brain. It’s not only a question of what’s going on in your suprachiasmatic nucleus today, right? But it’s what’s happening all over you. So, yeah. So, the more systemic effects of St. John’s wort are part of how we understand its activity on depression as a systemic phenomenon. So, all that said, when we try to give nuance on this, it helps to say what are some patterns that would come along with the thing that we’re calling depression that would make it more likely to respond to St. John’s wort as opposed to some other approach? So, first off, I would say that the kind of depression that St. John’s wort is going to help out with the most is going to be more in that cold, dark, stagnant direction. Sometimes people have an experience that is labeled depression or would kind of meet the diagnostic criteria for it. But their day-to-day experience is more agitated, and jittery, and unsettled. And St. John’s wort can still be helpful there. Sometimes people do find it has like a calming and anxiolytic sort of an effect. But I think the again, like mud, dark, slime feeling situation is really one that indicates St. John’s wort to me a bit more. And I do think of it in terms of the sun, right? We want to shine some light on there. We want to get the sun powered up a bit, so it can break through some clouds. And you can realize it was there the whole time.

Katja (37:37):
Yeah. I think about two kind of specific indications that I like to think about in terms of St’ John’s wort. One is when depression has a significant self-loathing aspect. Because that is some pretty intense darkness right there. And it’s so dark that it clouds your ability to see reality. Like if you’re just hating on yourself, you can’t even see yourself. You can’t see yourself. And you certainly can’t see the things that other people are like, what do you mean? You’re great. I love you. You just can’t see those things. And St. John’s wort is such a beacon of light and really just clears stuff away. So, that is one of the times that I think a lot about St. John’s wort. And the other time is like emotional constipation. Which is, I guess, a goofy kind of term. And I think this ties in also to the like depression with a little jitteriness. Constipation is really uncomfortable. And it does give you some anxiousness after a while. You start to just sort of think all the time of like I just want to poop, please. I cannot believe I’m saying this. But we’re all herbalists here, right? And so emotionally when everything is stopped up, and you can’t even focus on anything except the problem, the thing that is upsetting. And you can’t get it to move. It’s very stuck there. It’s intractable. It’s just gumming up the whole works. That kind of depression, I feel like St. John’s wort is really super, super helpful for.

Expectations & Effects of Taste & Constituents of St. John’s Wort

Ryn (39:43):
Yeah. It’s also, I think, important to set expectations around timing for relief, especially with something like this. And again, because of the way that expectations or hopes that people might have can be shaped by again, not even like the literal reality of what drugs do. But the way that we understand them and conceive them.

Katja (40:12):
Those two things are not the same. The way that we expect drugs to work is not actually the literal reality of the way that drugs actually work.

Ryn (40:20):
Right. So, I mean, an example that comes to mind for me here is a very common scene in a movie where you have a person. And you see them starting to get upset and agitated. And then they scramble in their bag for a bottle of pills. They open it up. They take one out. They swallow it dry. They breathe out like it worked immediately, right? And there’s actually two important things going on here. So, one is the placebo effect. Which is like they’ve taken this before. They know that it’s going to make them to feel better. And so, their body’s like oh, we’re taking that? Awesome. I can start feeling better right now. Why wait?

Katja (41:01):
I mean, and that’s good.

Ryn (41:02):
Yeah. That’s true for anything you take. So, that’s true for St. John’s wort as well. And I would comment here that that’s one of the factors. Not the only factor, but one of the factors where the more you work with something that works for you, the better it works. You develop that kind of reflex. And with herbs this is actually in some ways even more able to occur than with medications, because you taste them, right? Especially the way we like to take our herbs, including St. John’s wort, is we want you to really taste it. So, I do prefer to work with tincture or tea of this over a capsule whenever possible, because you’ll taste them.

Katja (41:43):
This is very like if you are a caffeine person. And if your relationship to coffee is sort of like Garfield, the cartoon cat. Then it is very much like coffee. You have that first sip of coffee. The caffeine has not hit you yet, but you are feeling better already. You only just swallowed the first sip. And so, you know that it can’t have really started yet. And yet you’re already like aah, okay, okay, okay. I’m all right now.

Ryn (42:21):
Yeah. So, that’s part of it. And then the other part is like your actual absorption and circulation and binding of constituents here. And so, for the pills, yeah, that is going to happen faster. With St. John’s wort we would say that the kind of like vital force response effects are going to be more or less immediate. The placebo element effects are going to be pretty much immediate. And then as for like the chemical changes that the plant’s going to induce – whether that’s just reducing some inflammation in the GI tract, reducing some degree of leaky gut there, helping out with serotonin secretion in the digestive system and then a bit later in the nervous system – that’s going to take a little while. So, especially the first couple of times that a person works with this herb, we want to emphasize, you’re going to take this today. You’re going to take it a few times. You’re going to take it tomorrow. You’re going to take it a few times. By the third day that’s when we should be looking for a shift, a perceptible shift, in what you’re experiencing. It’s going to occur. It’s going to accumulate over that time, right? So, it might be easy to miss it if you don’t have something to compare it to. And so, it’s always good – really any time you’re introducing an herb, but especially for this kind of thing – to take some time. And write down and make some notes about how you feel, where you’re starting from, and even what your intervention’s going to be. I’m going to take St. John’s wort tincture. I’m going to take two droppers full. I’m going to do that three times a day. I’m going to do that for the next month, right? And then after a week, compare, check in. Scan your body, see what’s going on with you. Think about your energy level, your mood, your motivation, your interactions with other people in your house

Katja (44:06):
And motility too, both in your emotions and also in your guts. Are things moving?

Ryn (44:13):
So, I’m just trying to add this kind of nuance here, which again, we can apply the same kind of thought to almost any kind of herb that we start taking. But I find that very often with popularized herbs like St John’s wort, it’s sort of like oh yeah, take St John’s wort. No further information. Like what kind of product should I look for? What kind of dose size do I want? And dosing can be tricky, because it’s variable by the person, and their constitution, and their body size, and their age, and lots of other factors. But still having some way to anchor yourself and to get a sense of whether the thing you’re doing is really doing the job is super important. And so, keeping a journal or some notes or things like that is a critical way to accomplish this.

Katja (44:59):
I also just want to make a plug here for intentionally working with St. John’s wort as tea, if you are wanting to work with St. John’s wort as part of depression management. Partially because there is something comforting about a nice warm cup of tea. Well, a little less in the summer. But that’s okay. St. John’s wort makes a great sun tea. You can ice it. Fantastic. But to intentionally make this something very lovely, very delightful. Which might be a cup of St. John’s wort tea and an Oreo. Or it might be that you have some kind of treat that appeals to you. And it doesn’t have to be some froofy like gourmet whatever. If it’s an Oreo, fine, it’s an Oreo. Preferably gluten free, but you know, like whatever. The thing here is to let there be three times a day that you sit down with a cup of tea, or if it’s iced also fine. And something that is pleasing, a nice book you want to read, a this or that, a treat. Because that is reinforcing to you, that you believe that you’re worth it. Even if you don’t. Even if you’re only doing this, because some girl on a podcast said you should drink tea and eat a cookie. It is self-care. It is still that moment of saying I’m worth taking care of. And over time building in that habit is also part of the message. That message that you’re giving yourself, that’s part of the work. And you are worth taking care of, and also, you’re worth a cookie. So, whatever that cookie is for you… I’m very food motivated. But not everybody is, so whatever, whatever is the cookie for you, the treat. To consider it that way. And St John’s wort does have bitterness to it. But in my experience people find it a fairly familiar bitter. It’s very similar in flavor to a cup of black tea. But it doesn’t have the strong tannin flavor that goes along with it. And if you want a little honey in there, go ahead. Put a little honey in. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you want a little lemon, go ahead. If you want to ice it and put in a little honey, a little lemon. Okay. Totally fine. But it’s like a flavor that’s not really pushing most people’s boundaries in terms of bitterness. It’s really a fairly tolerable bitter, especially if you have some kind of little treat with it. Blueberries, you know, that would be sufficient. And so, it can be really, really nice. You can’t say that about every herb. And even if we’re thinking specifically about depression and nervine herbs, actually a lot of those are bitter. You know, you couldn’t just sit down and have a whole cup of blue vervain and enjoy it. I mean, once in a while you find a person who can. But it’s quite bitter. It’s not necessarily very fun to sit down and just enjoy that. But you can do that with St. John’s wort. And so, if you’re busy or whatever, sure. Go ahead, take the tincture. Maybe that’s easier to do at work or whatever. But I find anytime that you can incorporate that aspect of caring for yourself into the way that you get herbs into you, I think that is a very helpful thing.

Ryn (49:00):
Yeah. Nice. Cool. All right. Well, I think that’s going to be it for us today, folks. So, thanks for listening. We’re going to be back next time with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (49:18):
Make some sun tea.

Ryn (49:19):
Make some sun tea, yeah. Tis the season. Bye.

Katja (49:24):


Join our newsletter for more herby goodness!

Get our newsletter delivered right to your inbox. You'll be first to hear about free mini-courses, podcast episodes, and other goodies about holistic herbalism.