That was Then, This is Now: Solar Plant – St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforitum)
As an herbalist I am intrigued by the language used to describe a plant’s
medicine through the ages. What is particularly interesting to me is that
the plant and its medicine has not changed. It’s our perceptions of how
the plant’s medicine interacts with our body/mind complex and the way
this interaction that changes. Then we believe one language is more
correct than another, calling one reductionist and the other folk lore.
Using Both Hemisphere's of the Brain to Understand Plant Medicine
In my practice and understanding of plant medicine there is room for both. What
I love so much about being a practicing herbalist is it both an art and a science. It
allows me to blend my intuitive and analytical skills to understand a plant medicine and how it interacts with the human body/mind. The human brain has two hemispheres, each with different capabilities. Discovering the depth of healing offered by plants requires both.
The thing with plant medicine is, it has been around as long as language has been if not before. Historically, plant medicine knowledge was passed down orally. Through story. A widely used contemporary oral history of plant knowledge still in use today is the Doctrine of Signatures.
But I am travelling away from the thread I am trying to follow here, so let me return to
language. For me personally, the best way for me to learn, integrate and understand
(as in knowledge I can stand on) is story and metaphor as well as the language of dreams.
I find rooting around in the past of herbal medicine, before literacy was wide reaching,
I unearth deeper meanings of plant medicine, more intuitive understandings, than simply
read clinical studies and reports on randomize controlled trails about plant medicine.
It’s not that I prefer one over another. No that is a lie. I do prefer the old tales about plants
as the language is more colourful and the characters, goblins, shamans, tree spirits and
fairies just to name a few are much more interesting that statistical analyzes. But in my
practice as a clinical herbalist both bring value, sometime the numbers more so than
Herbalists are trained to find patterns - patterns of disease, health and plants. I find by comparing the language of the past and the current language of plant I discover patterns in how a plant’s medicine works.
Let’s take a look at this with one of my favoured plants: St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforitum)
Herbalist of the Past
There was a time when St John’s Wort was called The Herb of the Blessed. Famous for blooming during summer solstice, when the light day and dark of night are in perfect balance, St John’s was believed to do just that bring balance to the light and the darkness in the human soul. This simple story, linking a plants medicine with a nature’s cycle) is an example of how herbalists passed on their knowledge before mass literacy and googled.
When St John’s Wort was the Blessed Herb, the world was seen through a mystical lense. Everything was touched by the unseen, whether it be the hand of God or the mischief of fairies.
The ancient Celts believed St John’s represented the God of Summer. When they offered the plant for medicine they said they were helping your body/mind remember the time of sunlight, warm and growth. For this reason, St John’s Wort was considered a plant ruled by the sun.
When we think of the sun being something like 98% of the total mass of our solar system and being at its very Centre, a plant that helps us recall our inner light could be ruled by no other planet. (Although the sun is actually a star).
The Celts also felt taking St John’s Wort wove together a body/mind that is dismembered by the darkness caused by troubled times. I interpret this as using this plant when we have lost our center, we no longer remember our purpose, we cannot recall where we belong, we have forgotten our raison d’etre. A plant that is ruled by the warmth that brings life to our planet, seems to be the cure for such feelings.
Being dismembered calls to mind the lack of connection those who struggle with depression feel. Disconnected from themselves and others. St John’s Wort, like the sun that shines its rays on everything equally, is a cure for this. St John’s Wort renews connection.
A simple rhyme was used by the Celts to recall the calming effect St John’s has on a gloomy mind.
St John's wort, scaring from the midnight heath,
the witch and goblin with its spicy breath.
But we do not live in a time when the world is plaque by goblins and witches at
least not in the light of day. Our dreams may take us on such adventures. Again,
St John’s Wort, with its bright yellow flowers, protects us from the fears the
creep up in the corners of our minds on dark, lonely nights, like lighting a
candle, or flicking the light switch.
Even though the language of the Celts inspires our imagination and takes us
on journeys to a dreamlike world, most of us prefer sciences viewpoint, a
rational language that provides answers where there was superstition or worse
The Language of Modern Herbalist
Let’s take a look at the conclusion The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology came to after reviewing the literature available on St John’s Wort that validate
SJW extract has been shown to inhibit the uptake of serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine . Extract of SJW has been shown to have a potent affinity for the adenosine, serotonin 5HT1, benzodiazepine and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and to weakly inhibit monoamine oxidase. It has also been postulated that SJW's antidepressant activity may be a result of its effect on interleukin-6. The constituent hyperforin is perhaps the most likely candidate to be responsible for the antidepressant activity and may be critical to the therapeutic effects of SJW. This reflects the fact that only the effect on GABA receptors by hyperforin appears to be of sufficient magnitude to elicit an antidepressant effect at therapeutic doses of SJW. However, the exact mechanism responsible for the therapeutic effects of SJW remains unclear. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2125.2002.01683.x/full
Brief Notes of Neurotransmitters and their Activity
Serotonin (5-HT) affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function.
Dopamine – Neurotransmitter that is active in regulating the brain’s rewards and pleasure center (low dopamine levels are often associated with actions to gambling and on line porn) as well as coordinating movement and emotions, such as you facial expressions. (One could use dismemberment as a metaphor for a dopamine imbalance.)
Monoamine oxidase- An enzyme that actively removes serotonin, dopamine from the brain.
Adenosine – Neurotransmitter, natural pain killer, lowers blood pressure, regulates heartbeat, enhances deep physical healing sleep (not dreaming sleep)
GABA – Neurotransmitter that helps regulate anxiety (aka fear)
In my pattern finding mind, I see the same medicine as the Celts were offering as found in randomized controlled trials. Shall we compare the two.
Serotonin, affects social behaviour and increases our sex drive. In other words, it connects
us to life. Isn’t that what sex is ultimately about, connecting to life, bring in life, being
alive. It also helps us digestion our food and in sleep, digestion our days. Serotonin helps
us relax long enough to fall asleep and stay asleep (one of my preferred uses for St John’s
Wort is insomnia). Is it not anxiety that is at the root of most insomnia? Anxiety about what?
The unknown of course, or what the Celts called goblins on the heath.
Dopamine rewards us. It makes us feel worthy. It helps us feel appreciated or at least hopeful.
It is the light at the end of the tunnel. Is this not the opposite of feeling overwhelmed by the
troubles of the world, the dark times when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Again
this refers to the activity of the Sun, or a solar herb, bringing warmth and light after sustain effort.
Another of Dopamine’s activity is coordinating movements. In particularly, coordinating the relationship emotions and the movements in your face. When dopamine is low, as in Parkinson Disease, one’s face does not reflect one’s emotions. It does not matter if you are happy or sad, you are stuck wearing a stony mask for the world. This harks back to ideas of dismemberment. Simply put, dismembered people lack coordination.
Adenosine, like serotonin, allows us to relax into the darkness of sleep while easing physical pain. The weaving of physical/emotional and mental is profound. Often they cannot be separated. Again, a plant that enhances the effects of serotonin and adenosine eases both emotional and physical pain.
Finally, GABA, the anti- anxiety neurotransmitter. The one that removes fears, shall I use the metaphor of light in dark place again. Or do you clearly see the metaphor.
So, do not disregard human knowledge of plants, neither contemporary or historical. Its language, that is all. The plant’s medicine has always been the plant’s medicine. It’s our language, perceptions that change.
What is most interesting, just as ancient herbalist could not pin point why St John’s Wort healing effects, neither can modern researchers. However, the exact mechanism responsible for the therapeutic effects of SJW remains unclear.