Women's Health and Herbal Medicine
by Lee Warren
There is no other herb that bespeaks more of sunshine than St. Johnswort, or St. J’s, as we fondly call it. It loves sunny open places, blooms at the height of summer solstice, soothes the skin after sunburn, and even brings sunshine into our lives through its mood elevating properties.
The most well known, most widely used species of St. Johnswort is Hypericum perforatum, studied for its uses against depression—especially the kind of dark moods that come from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
We have our own wild varieties in Western NC, including Hypericum punctatum, but it is not found in great abundance as it is in some other parts of the country. It’s best to plant this herb in your home garden—it’s easy to grow, strong in establishment, and will bloom year after year. You’ll appreciate the beauty it adds to your garden, as it’s truly lovely, with 5-petaled yellow flowers, small seed pods, and delicate yellow-green leaves.
At Red Moon Herbs, we have about 170 St. J’s plants that we started over the many years. We saved the seed from our original garden plant, started them in a tray, watered them for several weeks until they germinated, and planted them out in the spring. We established them along a fence line, which helped stabilize a sloped bank—and they also provide food for our bees, beauty, and medicine.
Once established and thriving, harvest the top third of the plant, including the flowering tops, at peak potency. Peak time for St. J’s is when the flowers are 1/3 in blossom and 2/3 in bud. If you take a yellow flower bud and squeeze it, you’ll notice it exudes a red juice. This is the hypericin, a constituent in St. J’s which contains medicinal properties.
Once harvested, you can pack your flowers, stalks, and leaves in a dry jar and cover in olive oil to make medicinal oil; or fill with 100 proof vodka for some tincture. Let them steep for 6 weeks, and then strain out the plant material. One word of caution: sometimes folks who are taking St. J’s regularly become more sensitive to the sun (there’s that sun association again), so pay attention if you’re noticing your eyes or skin being more sensitive, and back off of internal use of St J’s if needed.
St. J’s genus name (Hypericum) is derived from the word hyper, meaning above, and eikon, meaning picture. This referred to the traditional style of hanging the plants around the house to ward off “bad spirits” (maybe an old fashioned word for depression).
Even if you don’t make extracts from your St. J’s, the plant will bring sunshine into your life.
My favorite interpretation of the Wise Woman Tradition, which speaks to the heart of this issue, is to:
Live in your body. Speak your truth. Love yourself.
Living in your body is all about nourishment, the foundation of the Wise Woman Tradition. If we’re not deeply nourished, it’s very difficult for us to deal with the situational anxiety and depression that comes our way. Most women suffer from a lack of healthy fats in their diets. Healthy fats, like raw organic butter and coconut oil, contribute to a healthy nervous system unlike anything else. A robust nervous system helps us be less emotionally volatile or prone to extreme bouts of anxiety. Reducing or eliminating stimulants will also help get you off the up and down wheel of anxiety.
Speaking your truth. The Wise Woman Tradition teaches us to embrace both the light and dark sides of ourselves â€“ even those so called ‘negative emotions’ such as grief and rage. Women and men have often been taught to suppress these parts which, stored in our bodies, can create anxiety and illness. Name the fears and dark emotions with your loved ones. Be vulnerable and real about who you are and what you feel. Try expressing this dark stuff in a safe way by lying on the earth and letting your tears and anger flow . . . the earth can take your pain and turn it into food and medicine!
Loving yourself. Where in your life are you being nourished? Accentuate those parts and begin to look at what drains your energy. Your job, your relationship, your community? Is there a way to live more authentically who you are? Is there a way to live more simply to reduce economic stress? Can you reach out to others to create more community in your life? Can you find a way to get nourishing non-sexual touch such as massage or cuddling? Can you do a daily movement or writing or art practice, which grounds your energy and frees your soul?
Herbs alone, just like prescription medicine alone, will not be a miracle cure. In combination with the lifestyle issues above, herbs will encourage your body and mind towards wholeness.
Three of my favorite herbs to soothe the nerves and ease anxiety are lemon balm, skullcap and catnip, all gentle, safe herbs in the mint family. Lemon balm is known as a mood elevator–if you’ve had a sniff of a leaf from the garden, you understand what that means! Skullcap is used to ease nervous tension and help with headaches and sleep disturbances. Catnip is used to for calming, pain, and bellyaches, which often accompany mood disorders.
May you discover yourself more deeply on your journey through the light and dark spiral of life.