Written by Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated September 21, 2016

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)

What is it ?

Scientific name

Hypericum perforatum L. (Guttiferae/Clusiaceae).
Synonym(s): Hypericum, Hypericum veronese Schrank, H., Hypericum noeanum Boiss., Millepertus 1, Hyperici herba 2-3.

Ingredients

Extracts contain naphthodianthrone (=hypericin/pseudohypericin), phloroglycinderivatives (=hyperforin/adhyperforin) flavonoids, tannins, volatile oils, xanthones and many other ingredients. The major known constituents considered to be responsible for the antidepressant activity are hypericin and hyperforin 4-6. Extracts to study the anticancer activities have been mostly characterised by these two ingredients.

Application and dosage

Usually, St. John’s wort is taken orally. The dosage of commercial preparations varies according to the specifics of each product. Typical doses are as follows:
Dried herb: 2-4g as an infusion three times daily.
Liquid extract: 2-4 ml (1:1 in 25% alcohol) three times daily.
Standardised dried extracts applied in clinical trials: 240-1800 mg daily (equivalent to varying concentrations of hypericin and hyperforin), typically applied for 4 to 6 weeks.

According to the British and European Pharmacopoeias, St. John`s wort herb should contain not less than 0.08% of total hypericins, expressed as hypericin, calculated with reference to the dried drug 2-3.

History/providers

St. John’s wort has been used medicinally for millennia. Today herbalists, naturopaths, and in some countries, doctors might prescribe or recommend St. John’s wort preparations. However, most of its usage is based on self-prescription as products are available in pharmacies and health food shops.

Claims of efficacy

Traditionally, St. John’s wort was employed for pain control, wound healing, melancholy, insanity and many other ailments 4. Today it is mainly used as an anti-depressive agent, and there is good evidence that it is effective for that purpose 7.

Mechanism of action

The anti-depressive effects of St. John’s wort seem to rely on the inhibition of the re-uptake of serotonin, noradrenalin, glutamate and dopamine in the central nervous system 5-6. Other known mechanisms of action include the modulation of interleukin-6 activity and gamma-aminobutyric acid receptor binding and antioxidant effects 4,8-9. There is preliminary evidence from in-vitro studies to suggest that constituents of St. John's wort have anti-cancer effects 33-35. A range of mechanisms have been proposed based on results of pre-clinical studies, e.g. cytotoxic, apoptosis-inducing and anti-angiogenic effects.

St. John’s wort extracts exhibit cytotoxic and apoptosis-inducing effects in neoplastic cell lines 11,33-35. They thus inhibit the growth of leukaemia and glioblastoma prostate cancer cells in vitro 12-13. Ex-vivo experiments have demonstrated anti-angiogenic activity 14 which theoretically could contribute to anticancer effects 15-16. These effects may not be linked purely to hypericin but also to other ingredients of St. John’s wort 17.

Animal experiments have shown that St. John’s wort inhibits pro-inflammatory cytokines 18. Hypericin also has phototoxic effects, and St. John’s wort could thus have potential as a photodynamic agent for some types of skin cancer 19. Collectively the evidence indicates that the threshold for phototoxicity of hypericin is between 100 and 1000 ng/ml 20. Since serum and skin concentrations of hypericin after oral administration of recommended doses are below 100 ng/ml, photosensitivity is unlikely 1. Nevertheless, it was reported that 3 µM of activated hypericin induced a necrotic mode of cell death in pigmented melanoma cells and melanocytes and an apoptotic mode of cell death in non-pigmented cells and keratinocytes 21.

Alleged indications

The claim is that St. John’s wort may exert direct effects on cancer cells (see below) and thus influence the natural history of the disease.

Prevalence of use

In most countries, St. John’s wort is a popular anti-depressant. Many cancer patients might thus try it to improve their mood by using this herbal extract. One survey suggested that 5% of lymphoma patients do so 10. There are only scarce data to show how many cancer patients might take St. John’s wort to treat their malignancy. One study suggested that 2-5% of US lung/colorectal cancer patients took St. John's wort supplements. These data, however, do not imply that they took it for treating cancer 24.

Legal issues

In most countries, St. John’s wort is available as a food supplement. In other countries (e.g. Germany), full licences have been issued for St. John’s wort as an anti-depressant. St. John’s wort is listed by the Council of Europe as a natural source of food flavouring.

Cost and expenditure

The cost of one week’s supply varies considerably from ~€15 to €25. High quality preparations tend to be at the higher end of this range.

Citation Karen Pilkington, Edzard Ernst, CAM-Cancer Consortium. St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Herbal-products/St.-John-s-wort-Hypericum-perforatum. September 21, 2016.

References

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  2. European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines (EDQM). Euopean Pharmacopoeia, 5th ed and Supplements 5.1-5.7. Strasbourge: Council of Europe 2004-2007. 2007.
  3. The British Pharmacopoeia. British Pharmacopoeia Commission, London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office. 2007.
  4. Ernst E, Pittler MH, Wider B, Boddy K. The desktop guide to complementary and alternative medicine. Edinburgh; 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Mosby/Elsevier. 2006.
  5. Butterweck V. Mechanism of action of St John's wort in depression: what is known? CNS Drugs 2003; 17(8):539-562.
  6. Butterweck V, Schmidt M. St. John's wort: role of active compounds for its mechanism of action and efficacy. Wien Med Wochenschr 2007; 157(13-14):356-361.
  7. Linde K, Berner MM, Kriston L. St. John's wort for major depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 4, Art.No.: CD000448.
  8. Grundmann O, Lv Y, Kelber O, et al. Mechanism of St. John's wort extract (STW3-VI) during chronic restraint stress is mediated by the interrelationship of the immune, oxidative defense, and neuroendocrine system. Neuropharmacol 2010; 58(4-5):767-773.
  9. Jungke P, Ostrow G, Li J-L, Norton S, Nieber K, Kelber O et al. Profiling of hypothalamic and hippocampal gene expression in chronically stressed rats treated with St. John’s wort extract (STW 3-VI) and fluoxetine. Psychopharmacol 2011; 213:757-772.
  10. Habermann TM, Thompson CA, LaPlant BR, Bauer BA, Janney CA, Clark MM et al. Complementary and alternative medicine use among long-term lymphoma survivors: a pilot study. Am J Hematol 2009; 84(12):795-798.
  11. Schempp CM, Simon-Haarhaus B, Simon JC. Phototoxic and apoptosis-inducing capacity of pseudohypericin. Planta Med 2002; 68(2):171-173.
  12. Hostanska K, Reichling J, Bommer S, Weber M, Saller R. Hyperforin a constituent of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum L.) extract induces apoptosis by triggering activation of caspases and with hypericin synergistically exerts cytotoxicity towards human malignant cell lines. Eur J Pharm Biopharm 2003; 56(1):121-132.
  13. Martarelli D, Martarelli B, Pediconi D, Nabissi MI, Perfumi M, Pompei P. Hypericum perforatum methanolic extract inhibits growth of human prostatic carcinoma cell line orthotopically implanted in nude mice. Cancer Lett 2004; 210(1):27-33.
  14. Quiney C, Billard C, Mirshahi P, Fourneron JD, Kolb JP. Hyperforin inhibits MMP-9 secretion by B-CLL cells and microtubule formation by endothelial cells. Leukemia 2006; 20(4):583-589.
  15. Schempp CM, Kirkin V, Simon-Haarhaus B, Kersten A, Kiss J, Termeer CC et al. Inhibition of tumour cell growth by hyperforin, a novel anticancer drug from St. John's wort that acts by induction of apoptosis. Oncogene 2002; 21:1242-1250.
  16. Doná M, Dell'Aica I, Pezzato E, Sartor L, Calabrese F, Della Barbera M et al. Hyperforin inhibits cancer invasion and metastasis. Cancer Res 2004; 64:6225-6232 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 6225-6232 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
  17. Roscetti G, Franzese O, Comandini A, Bonmassar E. Cytotoxic activity of Hypericum perforatum L. on K562 erythroleukemic cells: differential effects between methanolic extract and hypericim. Phytother Res 2004; 18(1):66-72.
  18. Hu ZP, Yang XX, Chan SY, Xu AL, Duan W, Zhu YZ et al. St. John's wort attenuates irinotecan-induced diarrhea via down-regulation of intestinal pro-inflammatory cytokines and inhibition of intestinal epithelial apoptosis. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 2006; 216(2):225-237.
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  20. Schempp CM, Winghofer B, Müeller K, Schulte-Mönting J, Mannel M, Schöpf E et al. Effect of oral administration of Hypericum perforatum extract (St. John's Wort) on skin erythema and pigmentation induced by UVB, UVA, visible light and solar simulated radiation. Phytother Res 2003; 17(2):141-146.
  21. Davids LM, Kleemann B, Kacerovska D, Pizinger K, Kidson SH. Hypericin phototoxicity induces different modes of cell death in melanoma and human skin cells. J Photochem Photobiol B 2008; 91(2-3):67-76.
  22. Kacerovska D, Pizinger K, Majer F, Smid F. Photodynamic therapy of nonmelanoma skin cancer with topical hypercum perforatum extract--a pilot study. Photochem Photobiol 2008; 84(3):779-785.
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