Hyperforin is a chemical compound that naturally occurs in plants of the Hypericum genus as a protective measure against plant-eating animals. Found in heavy concentrations in the oils, pistils, and fruits of St. John’s wort, the chemical is believed to be a natural antidepressant. As a result, St. John’s wort is often used as an over-the-counter herbal supplement to treat depression as well as many other ailments believed to be favorably affected by hyperforin.
The chemical hyperforin was first identified in 1975 by the Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry in the former Soviet Union while researching the active ingredients in St. John’s wort. A member of a group of chemicals called prenylated phloroglucinols, hyperforin becomes unstable when exposed to light or oxygen. The chemical has also proved to be difficult to artificially synthesize, making St. John’s wort, the only plant containing high concentrations of the chemical, its only commercially viable source.
It was initially believed that hyperforin was the only active ingredient in St. John‘s wort. Since the initial research in the 1970s, however, several other forms of prenylated phloroglucinol have been discovered in St. John’s wort, including pyrohyperforin and furohyperforin. Due to seemingly continuous discovery of new prenylated phloroglucinols in St. John’s wort, it has been difficult for researchers to identify exactly which chemical compound or combination of chemical compounds in the plant may be effective in the treatment of human ailments.
Researchers have identified hyperforin as a natural antidepressant; however, its other benefits remain in dispute. Some research has indicated that the chemical may cause the death of certain cells containing damaged RNA, such as cancer cells. There have also been indications that it may prevent the formation of tumors or even prevent the migration of tumor cells from one part of the body to another. Unfortunately, none of this research has been conclusive and, as the studies have often been part of research of St. John’s wort as a supplement, it is difficult for scientists to determine exactly which chemicals in the plant are causing the results.
There has also been more definitive research identifying hyperforin as an effective antibiotic. The chemical has been proven to fight antibiotic-resistant forms of Staphylococcus as well as other resistant strains of bacteria. Additionally, the compound is effective against gram-positive bacteria such as Streptococcus, Clostridium, and Listeria.
Research into the effectiveness and uses of hyperforin has become a matter of international interest. Scientists in many countries, including the United States, Sweden, and Russia, endeavor to fully test the chemical, as well as the other discovered variations, for use to treat human disease. Other scientists are working to reveal more forms of the compound that might yet be undiscovered in St. John’s wort. Researchers are also working to discover new ways to synthetically reproduce the chemical for widespread pharmaceutical use.