Hypericum perforatum L., better known as St. John’s Wort or goatweed, is a plant native to parts of Northern Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Hypericum extract is sold as an herbal supplement in the United States and has been used in tea, capsule, and pill form to treat a number of ailments, including depression, which appears to have research evidence supporting pharmaceutical regulation and prescription. The question remains, though: is there evidence to support the more widespread use of St. John’s Wort for other ailments?
The Active Compounds in St John’s Wort
The chemicals present in the Hypericum extract that are active in its effect are the lipophilic compound hyperforin and the photosensitizing compound hypericin. The potency of hypericin is how current supplements are measured for sale though it is directly related to the potency of hyperforin.
Hypericin is a napthodianthrone, a secondary plant metabolite. The compound has been found to prevent viral replication in animal models and to inhibit inflammatory activity. In recent years, it has been found that hyperforin is the active ingredient for anti-depressant effects.
Anti-inflammatory and Anti-Tumor Potential
Inflammation is a problem in many chronic diseases, including heart disease and asthma. Anti-inflammatory agents decrease inflammation by inhibiting the immune cells that stimulate the hallmark redness and swelling. In February, in the European Journal of Cancer, a research group presented a study in which hyperforin reduced the angiogenesis (new blood vessel creation) and spread of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a highly vascular tumor. They found that this was accomplished by the compound disrupting the signaling pathways involved in angiogenesis and inflammation.
In initial studies into the effect of hypericin on menopausal symptoms, a range of inflammation and hormone-driven discomforts, a Canadian research group found that there is evidence to pursue larger trials. The pilot trial showed promising results for Hypericum extract in alleviating hot flashes and increasing the quality of life of women going through menopause.
Supplements vs. Pharmaceuticals
Do these promising, and admittedly few, studies mean that people should start taking St John’s Wort extract? Not necessarily. The research looks promising, and it validates the anecdotes from those who currently use it and the cultures who condoned it, but as an herbal supplement it is not regulated as it would be as a pharmaceutical. Also, the data is scarce at this point, and there may be nuances in patient responses that are unknown, in addition to the are significant photosensitivity side effects and drug interactions. For health issues that require doctor intervention, prescriptions should be given top value until Hypericum hits the safety-regulated market, which is likely to happen eventually.