Several years back – okay I think it was more than a decade ago – the herb St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) shot into the headlines as natural treatment for depression. The capsules began flying off the shelves of health food stores. The fad came as the result of the publication a few peer-reviewed studies, along with a big advertising push by some major supplement companies.
And it wasn’t just some sort of Madison Avenue smokescreen. St. John’s wort in the proper doses, over an extended period of time, does help some people manage chronic depression.
But that’s not what this post is about.
Today I’m writing about that same plant – which incidentally grows prolifically throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia and in many other parts of the world – but I want to tell you about its healing properties as a topical treatment. Yes, I’m talking about St. John’s wort oil, a substance that every Western herbalist worth her ‘thyme’ knows about and uses. But is surprisingly under-utilized by the rest of the population.
A week ago, while out on my morning jog, I fell and twisted my ankle. After the stars stopped twinkling in my brain I limped my way home where I examined the damage. No wonder it hurt so #@%@ much. The ankle was swollen to the size of a peach and was obviously sprained.
Ice was first. But next, I pulled out my bottle of St. John’s wort oil and slathered it on. Not only does the brilliant red oil speed the healing process, it actually works to soothe the nerve endings, helping with the pain.
Yes, St. John’s wort oil is my friend and ally and it is another staple in my traveling first aid kit.
You might be wondering – how is this oil different from arnica oil or cream, which is also used to soothe sprains, strains and pulled muscles? Well, the two can be used in combo for these conditions, but St. John’s wort does so much more!
For one, unlike arnica, St. John’s wort oil can be applied to broken skin. So, whether you’ve slammed your finger in the door, fallen and busted up your knee or (oh, I don’t know, insert nasty owie condition here) – it doesn’t matter if you’re scratched and bleeding – you can dump on the St. John’s wort without any worries.
And St. John’s wort oil is specific for pain caused by viral conditions (such as herpes), and also nerve pain.
Similar to arnica, this herbal oil is antiflammatory, working to reduce swelling, but it is almost miraculous to witness what it can do with bruises.
I’ve never tried this experiment, but I have a friend who did and told the tale: She biffed it somehow and ended up with an enormous bruise on her leg. She applied St. John’s wort oil several times over the course of the day and night to just half of the bruise. The next day, the discoloration was nearly gone on the half that had been treated with the oil. In contrast, the other half was still an angry black, blue and purple.
It’s also an amazing soother of sunburns. I like to combine it with a little lavender essential oil, and alternate the application with some aloe vera gel for speedy healing of skin that’s been overdone by the sun. Since the St. John’s is oil-based, it also helps to prevent the chapping and peeling that often follows the pain and redness.
I’ve even used this oil in a pinch for toothaches and painful jaws. It works by rubbing the oil externally on the jaw – or in cases of extreme pain, you could soak a piece of gauze with the oil and pack your tooth with it until you can get to a dentist. Of course there are other, more specific, treatments for toothaches – but if it’s what you’ve got in your first aid arsenal, it’s sure nice to have something to soothe the agony until you can get to the dentist.
Other touted uses include smoothing the oil on injuries caused by repetitive motion, tendonitis and shingles. In fact – anything that causes nerve pain can benefit from an application of St. John’s wort oil
It’s easy and fun to make this versatile herbal oil. But you do need to start with the fresh flowers. Here in the U.S, and in Europe, the bright yellow flowers bloom around midsummer. It’s likely that the name St. John’s wort, comes from the fact that the plant blooms around June 24th, or St. John’s Day. (“Wort” is an word from the middle ages meaning “herb.”)
It’s a little late now in some parts of the world to harvest it. But, in many places (locales where summer started late, or shaded areas) you can still find some vibrant flowers.
This year I was all set to go out harvesting St. John’s wort flowers and make my oil, but ironically the sprained ankle got to me first. Lucky for me, my husband kept his eyes peeled during our camping trip and was able to harvest enough flowers to make enough to keep us oiled up for the year – and to give some away too!
How To Make St. John’s Wort Oil
1) You need enough fresh flowers to fill a small jar – could be 8 ounces, or perhaps a pint jar. Canning jars work well. Chop the flowers up a bit and fill the jar, leaving about half an inch space at the top. Some herbalists prefer to let the flowers wilt for several hours before proceeding.
2) Pour some decent quality olive oil over the whole thing, cover the jar tightly, shake well and set aside in a cool, dark spot, such as a kitchen cupboard.
3) Try to remember to shake the jar once or twice a day as it will help to make a stronger infusion. Do whatever you need to do: write on your hand, put a note on the cupboard door, email yourself – whatever.
4) Leave it soaking for two to six weeks, and during the time your oil should turn a deep, rich red color. This is due to the pigment known as hypericin. The redder the oil, the better.
5) When the flowers are finished infusing, strain the oil through a piece of cheesecloth draped over a hand-held metal strainer. SQUEEZE and squeeze the cheesecloth to get every drop of precious oil out of there that you can.
6) And there you are – you have a year’s supply of one of the greatest and most simple remedies known to herbal-dom!
It’s a good idea to store your oil in opaque glass bottles, but I do keep some in a plastic squeeze-top bottle for traveling. (I actually put this into a separate plastic bag too, because leakage can and will occur!)
If all this sounds like too much work – or you’re reading this at the wrong time of year and you really want to try out St. John’s wort oil now – like most of the other remedies I discuss in this blog, you can find it online or at your local health food store or herb shop. It will set you back about $10 for a one ounce bottle. Check it out here. If you’re price shopping, just be sure the company uses fresh wild flowers for their product. (Tip: the lingo for herbs that have been gathered in the wild is “wildcrafted.”)
Have you tried St. John’s wort oil? Or do you have another favorite natural remedy for sprains, bangs and bruises?