At New York University, Dr. Daniel Meruelo and Dr. Gad Lavie are researching the use of hypericin in fighting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus associated with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In mice, hypericin has been shown not only to inactivate the virus, but also to shield the membranes of healthy cells from attack. No other current antiviral drug is able to do this. It is also possible that hypericin, if added to donated blood, may protect transfusion recipients from becoming infected with HIV.
In Cooper and James's study of thirty-one AIDS patients, the researchers found a 13 percent increase in counts of T helper cells (T cells), an important component of the immune system, after one month of supplementation with St. John's wort. This higher level was maintained after four months. In a study by Stenbeck and Wernet, sixteen patients saw their counts of CD4, another immune-system component, either improve or remain stable when they took St. John's wort over a forty-month period. Only two of the sixteen developed the kinds of opportunistic infections that often affect people with faulty immune systems. These studies indicate that St. John's wort may very well play an important role in the fight against AIDS, and research is continuing in this area.
It is worth noting that, so far, the antiviral research has been done using refined synthetic hypericin, identical to natural hypericin but lacking the other medicinal compounds found in the whole herb. Unrefined St. John's wort extract has been shown clinically to have antiviral properties, but no study has yet been done comparing the two forms.
Wound-Healing and Antibacterial Actions
Several studies have confirmed the traditional use of St. John's wort in wound healing. Hyperforin and novoimanine, antibiotic chemicals found in the plant's flowers and leaves, are at least partly responsible for these antibacterial and healing properties. One German study showed that an ointment containing the herb reduced healing time dramatically and resulted in less scarring. First-degree burns healed within forty-eight hours, and third-degree burns healed three times faster without the usual formation of scar tissue.
A friend of mine verified St. John's wort's healing powers through personal experience. When her four-year-old son accidentally scalded his hand with boiling water, she immediately applied St. John's wort oil to the site. The pain ceased, and he stopped crying. The redness cleared in a few days, with none of the blistering or scarring that generally follows such a burn.
St. John's wort acts against a wide variety of bacteria. In one study, it was found to be more effective than the antibiotic sulfanilamide against the Staphylococcus (staph) bacteria responsible for many hospital epidemics. The bacterium that causes tuberculosis, the fungus Candida, and the gastrointestinal parasite Shigella have all responded to St. John's wort. These findings are particularly important because of the increasing incidence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
Anti-Inflammatory and Immune-Enhancing Actions
St. John's wort has been used for centuries to reduce inflammation and to stimulate the immune system. Ointments containing the herb have been valuable tools for medics on the fields of battle until this century, when they were replaced by synthetic drugs. It appears that the flavonoid component in the herb is the main anti-inflammatory agent, although others contribute to its immune-enhancing activity. Russian researchers recently discovered that this complex herb contains substances that both stimulate and suppress immunity. This allows St. John's wort to boost the ability of the immune system to fight infection, while at the same time decreasing the immune processes that promote inflammation in wounds and other injuries. Substances that can perform such balancing acts are called tonics, or adaptogens. A synthetic drug only has one active ingredient, so it simply can't manage such a harmonious balancing of the body's immune response. This is one of the main advantages of herbal remedies.
Someone who has learned about St. John's wort's immune-boosting powers is Renata.
Renata, a 38-year-old woman with severe chronic fatigue syndrome, was depressed and constantly exhausted. She consulted a doctor at a major university medical center, who simply recommended that she rest. Then, a clerk in a health food store suggested St. John's wort in 300-milligram capsules. Renata took a capsule twice a day before increasing her intake to three times a day. Within a few weeks, her depression lifted and her energy began to return. By six weeks, not only was she free of symptoms, but she noticed that she did not get her regular attack of herpes in conjunction with her period, a common occurrence in susceptible women. Moreover, a year later, Renata is still taking St. John's wort and remains completely symptom-free.
This case is a great illustration of St. John's wort's multiple functions. Renata's experience is particularly remarkable considering the usual difficulty in treating herpes. (For more information on chronic fatigue syndrome, see Nutritional Approaches to Mental Health)
St. John's wort and Cancer
There is promising research showing that St. John's wort has anticancer effects. It also has been shown to be effective in preventing cell damage from radiation, including damage to delicate intestinal lining and bone marrow cells in test animals. I believe that if these results can be replicated in human beings, this herb could be used during radiation therapy as an additional, or adjunctive, treatment for the cancer itself, as well as for protection from radiation damage.
St. John's wort is an excellent antidepressant that also provides a remarkable range of other healing properties. Its ability to fight viruses is giving new hope to patients with diseases as varied as herpes and AIDS, while its wound-healing and antibacterial actions can offer protection against the multitude of potentially dangerous organisms in the world around us. Even better, its complex structure allows it to balance the immune system, helping to control inflammation as it boosts the body's ability to fight off disease. In the next chapter, I will explain how to use St. John's wort.