Hypericin from Saint John’s Wort – How It Works

Saint John's Wort Flower

Crush a fresh blossom of Saint John’s wort. You will see a ruddy, almost bruise colored liquid stain your fingers. This is one of the ways that you can verify that the plant you have in your hands is Hypericum perforatum. This chemical stain is known as Hypericin, which is red organic compound. Hypericin is known as a naphthodianthrone. It is one of the defining features of St. John’s wort‘s healing properties. In chemical terms, hypericin is a derivative of anthraquinone. It  is an aromatic hydrocarbon which accounts, in part, for St. John’s wort’s distinct scent and it’s beautiful and lasting reddish-purple color.

A common complaint in the field of herbal medicine about St. John’s wort is that is makes the user more photosensitive and can increase chances of sunburn. This complaint has another though. Increasing photosensitivity also increases the amount of vitamin D that the herb user can absorb from the sun. For those patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) living in low light conditions, hypericin can, with proper dosage, be an advantage.

Hypericin has many uses besides staining fingertips. It is a antibiotic against bacteria belonging to the Gram positive class of bacteria. This class of bacteria includes Staphylococcus (called staph), Streptococcus (called strep), and Escherichia (called e. coli). Studies have been done to test if light exposure has any effect on its antibiotic properties but thus far, results have been unimpressive. It appears that hypericin does not require phototherapy to do its work.

Hypericin is an excellent antiviral and antitumor (antineoplastic) compound. The viruses that it defends against are in a class known as enveloped viruses. They are called enveloped viruses because they are surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid. This class includes fairly common viruses such as influenza, hepatitis, herpes and HIV. It prevents the virus from replicating. Using hypericin to treat these viruses or tumors requires exposure to light. This works best a treatment plan which involves phototherapy from an artificial or natural source.

knowing more about hypericin helps the herbalist remember the botanical name of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) as this hydrocarbon derives its name from the genus which produces the most amount of this chemical. It is known as a chemical marker for this weedy, roadside plant. This is only one of the many secrets locked inside the leaves and flowers of St. John’s wort.

Sue Sierralupe

Sue Sierralupé is a Certified Master Herbalist, Master Gardener and Sustainable Landscape Specialist. She is the clinic manager and lead herbalist at Occupy Medical clinic. Sue is author of The Pocket Herbal: Medicinal Plants that Changed the World and co-author of The Practical Herbalist Herbal Folios series. Follow her blog at Herbalism Manifesto for commentary on herbs, parenting, nutrition and a whole lot more.


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