I don’t have any numbers, statistics, or reports, but I’d bet that chamomile is one of the most well-known herbs we use. It is sold in the most typical of grocery stores, served at restaurants and referenced in the media and literature. I remember reading about it as a child in Beatrix Potter stories.
How many people without an herbal background would recognize bupleurum, eleuthero, hyssop or damiana if they heard them? Not many. How many would recognize ‘chamomile’? Many more, even though they may not know how to pronounce it (cha-mole-y, anyone?).
Despite being commonly known, Chamomile is not just a benign little flower that tastes sweet in your cup, it packs a powerful medicinal punch. Chamomile should not be thought of in terms of what specific diseases it can be used for, because there are too many uses to list, nor is is helpful to only think of what herbs can ‘do’. After reading though my favorite herb books, I summarize the actions of chamomile as being:
Relaxing nervine for states of tension
Aromatic and bitter for regulating digestion
Anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy
Safe, tasty and suitable for everyone, including babies, children, pregnant women and the elderly
Matthew Wood says that “The fresh preparations preserve the oils, so they are more relaxing, the dried preparations are bitter and promote secretions to the stomach, G.I. and liver.”
Here are some of the chemical constituents present in chamomile and their generalized actions (mostly from Wood, but also from Simon Mills, David Hoffmann and Chanchal Cabrerra)
Volatile oils – antipyretic, anti-spasmodic, can reduce histamine-induced inflammation
Mucilage – soothing, nutritious and immuno-stimulating
Amino acids, fatty acids and many more
Cabrerra describes volatile oils as being helpful in allergic situations. These volatile oils reduces histamine-induced reactions mostly because Mills says they inhibit contractions provoked by histamine, acetylcholine, and bradykinin. Some, if not most, volatile oils have a counter-irritant effect on the body and cause local vasodilation, bringing fresh oxygenated blood to the area, and thus stimulating a healthy healing response. This explanation of inflammation makes me view anti-inflammatory herbs are actually pro-inflammatory. Inflammation is our body’s healing response. If we value inflammation as a positive, helpful and intelligent response from the body, then we would want a pro-inflammation response.
Chamomile isn’t my go-to herb for cold and flu, but after reading more about it, I will remember to add it in to steams, baths and teas the next time I catch a cold. Who doesn’t need a relaxing, tension reducing, and GI soothing and regulating herb when your sick in bed? Not to mention that it is used for people who are acting like babies, which I, for one, admit to feeling when I am sick. The gastrointestinal tract starts with the teeth well before it reaches stomach and intestines. Chamomile has been used in Europe for centuries for treating child complaints including teething, pain, whining and fussiness. One of the main indications for homeopathic chamomile is teething.
“Chamomile can be used for all sorts of tension, it can be used for menstrual cramps or people with a low tolerance for pain”, including “‘babies of any age’, petulant, self-centered, intolerant of pain or not having their way, inclined to pick quarrels, yet adverse to being touched, soothed or spoken to”.
I wish I would’ve had some chamomile candy to disperse when I was working with kids, because I have seen its effectiveness against babyish behavior. I have taken it for cramps, and although it didn’t decrease their severity, I did notice that the mental loop of negative, complaining thoughts ceased.
Aromatherapists Kathy Kevill and Mindy Green describe chamomile as an antidepressant, especially in individuals who are oversensitive, stressed out, anxious, hysterical, insomniacs or suppress anger. I think chamomile is indicated for people with a history of eating disorders, especially when digestive issues or sensitivity linger years after recovery.
Chamomile is a yellow, sunny, light herb with a depth to it. Flowers tend to ascend and disperse, but the bitterness weighs it down. It is a flower that has an affinity to the solar plexus, the middle jiao, and it is both dispersing to food stagnation and promotes coordinated movement of the digestive system due to its aromatic nature. It has been shown to speed up the healing of peptic ulcers, (Mills). The carminative properties of chamomile, with its volatile oils, helps relax the gut; at the same time, it has bitter properties that promote healthy bile flow, so that the system is not only relaxed, but keeps moving as it should (Mills).
My purely opinionated guess it that from a Chinese medical perspective, it enters the Spleen, Stomach and Liver meridians, possibly the Intestines or Lung. The Spleen and Stomach are the Earth organs, and are associated with our solar plexus, transformation and transportation of food, worry/over-thinking and with the flesh and muscles of the body – quite in alignment with the calming, relaxing and digestive properties of this herb, no? I think the Liver is involved because the Liver’s job is to circulate Qi freely around the body. When this isn’t happening efficiently, as can easily be caused by emotional upsets (especially pent-up anger or frustration), one can very easily feel stuck, tense and irritated, but luckily chamomile can release states of tension. A close cousin to chamomile and another white/yellow flower, chrysanthemum, helps calm the Liver, too.
If you remember from my previous entry about chamomile, I mentioned that Matricaria D genus name for German chamomile came from the word matrix referring to mother. Considering this, it is no surprise that chamomile is a gentle remedy for problems of the female reproductive system. I suppose it can be used in all sorts of situations, but I like to use it the best for morning sickness and nausea during pregnancy, tension during menstruation, menstrual cramps, and problems in appetite or digestion related to nervousness, your debility, or premenstrual tension. Aviva Rome, a midwife and an herbalist, also uses chamomile to relieve heartburn.
To get the most out of a simple cup of chamomile tea, steep it strong. 1 heaping tablespoon of herb for every one cup boiled water. Cover the vessel while it steeps and wait 10 to 20 min. before straining. If you wait longer, for the chamomile too cool from hot to room temperature, the bitter principals will strongly present themselves in your cup of tea; sweet gentle chamomile no more! I have heard of people steeping one handful dried herb to 2 cups water, steeped covered for an hour or home.
Cabrera, Chanchal. Lecture notes, Medicines from the Earth. 2006.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Keville, Kathy and Mindy Green. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Romm, Aviva. The Natural Pregnancy Book.
Wood. Matthew. Earthwise Herbal: Old World Plants.
Who doesn’t love nervines? You know, that relaxing category of herbs, so effective at soothing the mind, emotions and body. Some herbs like lavender and chamomile invoke tranquility through their pleasing scents and flavor. Others like valerian, blue vervain or wood betony may not taste as good, but work well on releasing headaches or pent-up tension in the musculo-skeletal arena; or they may do the trick on liberating worrying thoughts and emotions from those worn to a frazzle, like skullcap, ashwaganda or holy basil.
As much as I love them, nervines are not the end-all-be-all for perfect health, but they can be a good place to start when you don’t know what else to do, or are too stressed to focus on figuring out what you need to do, but you know you have to do SOMEthing. Yes, that is where they come in for me more often than not (hello, chamomile!).
Botanicals are multi-dimensional; a nervine can be a digestive tonic, circulatory tonic, glactagouge, cardio tonic and more. Some are warming, cooling, drying, moistening, sweet, bitter, acrid – basically there’s one out there for everyone’s constitution and needs.
Here are a few quick notes about some of these wonderful nervines. As you can see, they all share the common thread of restoring proper tone (functional, healthy resting baseline) to a body system. Many times, the restoration needed leans in the direction of relaxing a tense state, but sometimes flaccid, lax, boggy or atonic tissue state needs some sort of increase of tone. See the sources below for more detailed information.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – Soothing diffusive, relaxing, stimulating nervine. Used with nervous irritation, atonic conditions, mental confusion. Use when both relaxing and stimulating effects are needed. Direct action on the smooth muscles, wonderfully anti-spasmodic.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – Stimulating and relaxing. Anxiety, restlessness, fear, hysteria. Bisobolol and chamaezulene are volatile oils that are spasmolytic to smooth muscles and nervous tissue. The bitterness is tonifying and stimulating. Nervous irritability and persistent low grade anxiety.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) – Anti—spasmodic, stimulating and cleansing in the nervous system. Aids relaxation, alertness, clarity from volatile oils. Convulsive disorders, as it regulates, balances, normalizes brain activity.
Melissa (Melissa officinalis) – Tonic and restorative for nervous function. A nerve remedy with a carminitive element. Depression, lethargy, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, headaches, hysteria, ADHD, nervous stomach. Inhalation of volatile oil very effective, sedative properties marked and rapid. Tincture more of a tonic and stimulating (with some bitters and resins). Paracelsus: “the elixir of life”. Culpepper: “…causeth the mind and the heart to become merry…and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind arising from melancholy”.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Tonic nervine. Both sedative volatile oils and stimulating bitters, thus balancing. Depression, insomnia, hysteria. Mental exhaustion, hallucinations or delusions. The oil steadies the emotions, balances introverted and extroverted.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) – Food for the nerves! Promotes myelin sheath integrity and growth. Wonderful for restoring the nerves. Amphoteric to the nervous system, as it is a stimulant (strengthening) and sedative. Nutritious. Epilepsy, nervous depression. Use to calm the mind without drowsiness.
Hops (Humulus lupus) – Hypnotic, permitting a deep sense of relaxation and tranquility, trophorestoritive to cerebrospinal fluid. Nervous digestive upsets, very bitter, strong anti-spasmodic effect on smooth muscle, presumably by mediating the nervous supply to the gut.
Scullcap – (Scutellaria laterifolia) – Calming and relaxing to the nervous system. Excellent nerve tonic where there is chronic anxiety. Nervous weakness, agitation, insomnia, nightmares, restless sleep, over-excitability, twitching.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia California) – Milder and non-addictive. Anxiety, nervous tension, insomnia, hyperactivity, fear, all sorts of pain. Well suited for children.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – Energizing effect on the brain. Overcoming stress, fatigue and mental confusion. Mineral rich. Enhances cognitive abilities and increases memory. Calming and adaptogenic, cleanses the blood, promotes healthy connective tissue repair – good for excess scar tissue.
St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – Depression, raises the spirit and lifts the mood. Amphoteric, tonic to the brain. reportedly as effective as SSRI’s.
Blue Vervain (Verbena officinalis) – Nervine and stomachic, as it is bitter and stimulates appetite, production of digestive enzymes, HCL and more. Blends well in formulas for women’s health. Epilepsy and convulsions. Very balancing.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) – Increases cerebral circulation, anti-oxidant rich. Affinity to blood vessels. Normalizes acetylcholine receptors in the hippocampus – the area most affected by Alzheimer’s.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) – Gentle, stimulating tonic for the brain. Hysteria, persistent unwanted thoughts, nervous debility, anxiety, chronic headaches, lack of energy, poor memory, dizziness, disordered thoughts. Bitter digestive tonic, adjusts the autonomic regulation of the digestive system. Anxiety with digestive upsets.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – Brain and adrenal tonic. Increases tolerance to emotional, chemical, and other stressors. Anti-depressant effect, libido lifter for exhausted states.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications
Wood, Matthew. Earth-Wise Herbal: New World Plants, and Old World Plants.
It seems that there are a lot of cooling herbs in comparison to warming herbs, at least regarding what we need to know of Chinese herbs for class. There are cool herbs to release toxicity, cool herbs to clear deficient heat, cool herbs to resolve damp-heat and phlegm, and of course, cool herbs to release the exterior.
Again, these are known diaphoretics and diuretics. And also again, they are working from a Chinese perspective to get some sort of invading pathogenic factor out of the body. We mostly think of pathogens as being microbes of some sort, in this case the common cold and influenza. But really, pathogenic factors can be all sorts of things – it just has to come from outside and make its way inside.
An example of this is seen in people who are sensitive to eating a lot a sugar or drinking alcohol. They may start off feeling a scratchy, sore throat, drippy nose, gummed up ears, low energy, and if they continue to eat sugar over the next few days or so, perhaps their lowered immune response will develop into a full-blown cold. I have seen this happen to people – something lowers their immunity, making them susceptible to a cold, rather than the cold making its way in by itself. This is also an example of a deficient condition rather than an excess one. In an excess condition, the individual will have strong, normal defenses, but the pathogen will be relatively stronger, as opposed to a deficient, run down individual whos wei qi will be weaker than simple run-of-the-mill illnesses.
Many of the cool herbs to release the exterior are acrid or bitter like the warm exterior-releasing herbs, which either lift and disperse, or collect and drain downwards. Some, like kudzu (ge gan), mulberry (sang ya), soy bean (dan dou zhi) and chrysanthemum (ju hua) are sweet. Kudzu and blue vervain help to release tension in the muscle layer to expel pathogens before they penetrate deeper, particularly in the upper back, shoulders and neck. Classic western diaporetics fit in here, yarrow and elderflower. Add mint to those last two herbs and you have the Gypsy Cold remedy.
Mints – lots of mints – are fitted to release the exterior, whether they are warm or cool in temperature. Catnip, lemon balm, peppermint (bo he) a few of the cooler ones. Catnip is excellent at releasing the exterior, it is quite gentle but effective for bringing on and releasing a fever. Again, like most mints, it is also a nervine sedative and a carminative, a perfect pair of action to add comfort and support during a cold or flu. Melissa is one of my favorite plants, it has so many actions, is easy to grow, and it tastes divine and combines well with other herbs. It is known to be anti-viral and vasodilating, and is an effective carminative and nervine as well. It differs from some of the Chinese herbs in this category because it is sour in flavor.
Bo he, Mentha haplocalix, is the Chinese mint we are learning. To me, it is fairly similar to both peppermint and spearmint, with a little wild, earthy mint undertone. It is indicated for attack of win-heat invasion (as all herbs in this category are), slow skin eruption, headache, sore eyes and sore throat (because it is light and dispersing, mint can ascend to and treat the head), and for liver qi stagnation manifesting in distention of the chest.
Burdock seed (Artica lappa, Nui bang zi) is used in Chinese medicine for treating a sore throat and skin problems caused by toxic heat (think measles, mumps, carbuncles, boils, eczema, acne, ect…). Being a seed, it also moistens the intestines. The lungs and large intestine are paired organs in Chinese medicine, so it is no surprise when an herb (or acupuncture point) acts on both organ systems. Sure enough, cooling and moistening burdock seed is used for cough with sticky, hard to expectorate phlegm. David Hoffmann quotes Priest and Priest on burdock (529):
“…General alterative: influences skin, kidneys, mucous and serous membranes, to remove accumulated waste products. It is specific for eruptions on the head, face and neck, and for acute irritable and inflammatory conditions.”
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and chrysanthemum (C. morifolium, Ju Hua) are closely related herbs that fit well into this category. Both are slightly cold, acrid and bitter and enter the Liver and the Lungs (Tierra, 83). Ju Hua is well-known in Chinese medicine and beyond as an excellent remedy for eye complaints like red, sore eyes or vision problems (often combined with Goji berries/lycii berries/go qi zi for this). It calms Liver yang, which can raise heat and excess activity to the head causing dizziness, vertigo, headache, sore eyes and hypertension. To paraphrase from Bensky, “All flowers lift and dissipate – only Ju Hua can contain, accept and drain downwards”. This is because it is bitter and sweet in addition to being acrid and aromatic.
Given the Chinese medicine understanding or Ju Hua, the common used feverfew makes a lot of sense even though it is a different herb from a different place and medical system. It has been used as a specific for migraines, and much research has been done to explore its chemical properties and action (which are many – good idea for another post!). Besides certain types of migraines, feverfew has been used for pain, especially joint pain, as an emmenogogue, bitter and diaphoretic.
One last note…
It is sometimes difficult to make connections between my Chinese herb class and what I know about Western herbs. I sometimes wish I could marry the energetic understanding of Chinese herbalism with the scientific world of chemical constituents and botany from the West. Attempts have been made, and really good ones at that. Chen, for one, included modern research, drug interactions and chemical constituents in his book on Chinese herbalism. But he has little information about the classic Chinese texts, comparisons between the herbs and notes on energetics (which is present in Bensky’s book).
Even with all the knowledge coming together, East and West, there is still the whole issue of context and clinical usage. It’s not just an issue of translating Liver Yang rising to migraines, and visa versa, it’s about understanding a particular plant in a multifaceted way.
The first groups of herbs students learn in Chinese herb classes are the warm and cool herbs to release the exterior. These herbs are active on the surface of the body and useful in externally-contracted conditions, like colds or the flu. Many are diaphoretic and open the pores to promote sweating, vent rashes, treat red, itchy eyes and sore throat in the case of a wind-cold or heat invasion, treat headache of carious causes, or drain dampness by being diuretic.
One thing I love, love, love, love, love about learning Chinese herbs is the emphasis on the energetics of taste/flavor. I already mentioned this in my last post, but I can’t help but (over)state it again, because it has been so helpful in learning the herbs, and providing a bit of theory to base the use of these herbs in.
Overall, the flavor and energy of these herbs goes up and out. Some are aromatic, most are acrid, a few are bitter or sweet. Most but not all of these herbs enter the Bladder and/or the Lungs, since these are the organs most closely related to the exterior (Lungs in the upper body, the Bladder in the lower body). Below I have taken a few herbs from the texts and added a few Western herbs from Micheal Tierra’s The Way of the Herbs, for comparison.
Warm herbs to release the exterior/surface:
Ephedra – Ephedra sinica, Ephedracae family. This herb is classified as warm, acrid, and slightly bitter, and is known as a one of the best diaphoretics when there is no sweating as it opens the pores when it is blocked by wind-cold. It is also used for asthma or cough, as well as edema since it is a diuretic. It is no accident that it is the first herb often taught; it exemplifies the entire category in many ways even though it is somewhat of a controversial herb and not used often in the states.
There are many representatives from the Apiacea or carrot family, but I want to look at an herb from the Chinese materia medica that has a close relative in Western herbalism, angelica. Angelica dahurica or bai zhi is warm, acrid and aromatic, which makes it useful for dispersing, unblocking, warming and drying. These qualities are useful draining skin infections like boils, treating leukorrhea, frontal headaches and toothaches due to an attack of external cold-wind, and nasal congestion.
Every herb has at least on of the twelve channels that it enters into, but a few herbs actually guide into the organ itself. Bai zhi guides into the Yang Ming organs, in particular the Stomach. This makes sense because the paired organs of Spleen and Stomach often accumulate dampness and affect the appitite, assim diegstion, and bai zhi is great at expelling dampness.
Angelica archangelica is also in this category. It is native to Europe has similar energetics to bai zhi, and is known as being carminative, emmenagogue and diaphoretic. Taken during the start of a cold or the flu, it can promote sweating and spread warmth through the body. To me it is especially useful in either damp conditions or damp environments, because it is so aromatic and lifting. I recall a teacher commenting that it is suited to England, where it is cold and damp. I started using it after spending a weekend in southern Minnesota where it was dew-covered and growing abundantly along the steep roadsides during a very hot and very humid June. I was drawn to use it because of its drying and carminative properties, and found it worked incredibly well in this regard.
magenta hedge-nettle variety on the Oregon coast
Many aromatic, warming and spicy mints show up in this category from the Chinese tradition as well as Western. Hyssop, sage, hedge nettle, basil, thyme, oregano, savory, monarda, perilla and fang feng are a few examples. When I thought of the Western herbs in the category, I realized that many herbs in surface-releasing category are anti-microbial. Chinese medicine theory doesn’t include germ theory, but it does consider that exogenous pathogenic factors can invade the body when either it’s defenses are down (a deficiency situation) or the pathogen is very strong (an excess condition).
Mints are among my favorite herbs to take at the start of a cold or flu, or even when in chronic conditions when it has moved into the chest (thyme being my standby here). They have the ability to float and vent a congested head, increase circulation, promote circulation and sweating, and even soothe an upset stomach and promote a good appetite, which is often lacking when you are coming down with a cold or flu. I mentioned this to my herb study group a few weeks ago and they were taken aback by my use of thyme for a cold, saying it was awfully hot and caustic. I countered with explaining that I am used to below zero winters so I needed a lot of warming, but that still didn’t win them over. Finally it came up that they thought I was using the essential oil of thyme which is very hot, concentrated and often caustic. But I am a whole herb for my steam sort of gal.
A few other herbs in this category include sassafrass, fresh ginger, cinnamon cassia and two ligusticums: L. sinense and L. porteri. One of my favorite Chinese herbs in the category is qiang huo, Notopterygium incisum. The root of this aromatic Apiaceae is warm, acrid and bitter so it can disperse and raise to discharge wind, cold and damp pathogens from the exterior. Qiang huo enters the Bladder channel, which combined with its lifting and dispersing flavors, can release sore muscles, chills and headache. In particular, it relieves achy joints and bones along the back, the muscles along the sides of the spine (erector spinae), along the scapula, up the back of the neck into the head and across the forehead to the eyes.
I wish would’ve had some qiang huo on hand when I was a preschool teacher and came down with the achy flu from hell 4 times in 3 months. My bones felt like they were in a vice and I was chilled to the bone. I used a lot of diapohretics and warm herbs, but came to rely on boneset for the pain in my hips and femurs. Boneset is so bitter and cold, which brought it down to the lower burner, but it didn’t totally relieve the aches in my shoulders, arms and back – what qiang huo does so well.
Asarum canadense growing abundently in a Minnesota state park
One of the first books I read on herbalism and health was Elson Haas’ Staying Healthy with the Seasons. There were many interesting little bits of knowledge and graphics in that book, including one relating parts of herbs to actions in the body systems. Here is how I remember it:
Plant parts along a surface-deep continuum from a Western view.
A week ago, I checked out a neat book to help me learn more about Chinese herbal formulations. Traditional Chinese Medicine Formula Study Guide by Qiao Yi walks the reader through all angles of formulating and a bit about pathology. The more I read about Chinese herbalism, the more I see similarities with what I’ve learned studying Western herbalism. Take this categorization about plant parts and actions from the study guide:
Plant part actions, Chinese medicine view.
I have looked in a few other sources in attempt to find more information about plant part and action/direction for both Western and Chinese herbalism, to no avail. (If you know of a resource, let me know!) One aspect in particular I’d like to get more information about is the Chinese medicine view about seeds, nuts and fruits. Why were they not mentioned along with flowers, roots and the rest? Are they included in flowers (which is where they originate)? There are a plethora of fruits and seeds in the pharmacopoeia, which is why I am confused.
Speaking of seeds…
Over the years there have been times when I relied on aromatic herbs and seeds/fruits. Kitchen spices like coriander, fennel, anise, dill, cardamom were my go-to’s for abdominal distention, gas and lack of appetite, ect. It seems to me that many seeds are very centering and assist the digestive process. The aromatic qualities of many seeds seem to be earthy, grounding, spicy, musty, as opposed to pungent roots like ginger, floral high notes like lavender, or bitter, stinging goldenseal. Of course not all seeds are aromatic, and not all aromatics are seeds, but perhaps there happens to be a digestive quality to them. Hmmm… Milk thistle seeds support the liver and detoxification (important for digestion) and even hawthorn berries are used to help ease the effects of over-eating or eating too much fatty food. Seeds, nuts and beans are a good source of fiber, too. Yet another good reason to eat your herbs!
When I first saw Haas’ continuum of cleansing herb part-deeper acting one, I felt there were important exceptions. I have to remember that models are just that, models, not rules. That’s one thing I like about herbalism – the lack of rules!
Tender springtime growth of common weeds and herbs have been used for centuries as cleansing “spring tonics”. A few examples are nettle, chickweed, cleavers, dandelion greens, burdock, purslane, lamb’s quarters and violets. Most spring tonics are have at least two things in common; they’re bitter and nourishing.
The bitter taste stimulates and often improves digestion, as it promotes bile secretion (an earlier post about bitters is here). As the years go on and my taste repertoire expands, I find myself appreciating and even craving the bitter taste, especially if I’ve had too much fried or heavy food. The nutrition from some spring tonic herbs makes sense in the scheme of cleansing, too. Cleansing becomes counterproductive if what you are cleansing with is nutrient-devoid and does not support the body. Even strict fasts include something your body needs -pure water.
Below are a few lymphatic and/or alterative herbs that can be helpful during a cleanse to address your individual needs. Years ago when I first started taking herbs, the herbs I used during a period of cleansing were very different than what I use now. Echinacea, red root, figwort, blue flag and wild indigo were key players for me then, as I needed “cleanse the blood” and address chronic sore throats, infections, skin problems and tender, swollen lymph nodes. Now I like a yellow dock, licorice, ginger and cardamon decoction as well as an infusion of red clover to support digestion, liver and lymph.
It seems that many alteratives and lymphatics support digestion, assimilation and elimination, by promoting liver and gallbladder function, which increases bile, the main lubricant and promoter of the bowels. They also assisit the kidneys and lymph system in removing. Many promote healthy skin, and are useful in mild (acne) to chronic (eczema) skin conditions.
I like taking general liver/alteratives/lymphatic herbs first in a cleanse, then hone on the body system that presents itself as needing further assistance. Many body systems tie back to digestion, blood and lymph anyways and can be indirectly strengthened by alteratives. Take hormones and the endocrine system, for example. Alteratives support digestion, which in turn supports nutrient absorption and bowel motility, which reduces re-absorption of waste-product hormones. They also support the liver, and the healthier the liver is, the healthier our blood is and the better it can process the hormones that pass through it.
Dandelion root – A bitter tonic, stimulates the liver and bile production making it useful for sluggish liver and digestion. Dandelion contains inulin and FOS, which stimulate the growth of beneficial bowel flora.
Burdock root – Burdock also has inulin and FOS. Indicated in swollen lymph nodes, cystic breast disease and skin conditions. Supports the kidneys as well as the liver. The seed is also quite useful, especially for chronic skin problems like eczema, though a little more difficult to harvest (unless you like to sift through burdock burrs!).
Yellow dock – Bitter and earthy yellow dock increases iron absorption and storage, often used as iron tonic. Use it similarly as dandelion and burdock: skin conditions (acne, eczema, ect…) and poor digestion (constipation, sluggish liver).
Oregon grape root – Good liver tonic and cholagogue. Oregon grape supports digestive symptoms of PMS, especially constipation. Soothes the genito-urinary mucus membranes, useful for UTI. Specific for acne on back and chest (Winston).
Sarsaparilla – Sarsaparilla is a noted anti-inflammatory and can be soothing to hot skin conditions like psoriasis, arthritis, inflammation of the connective tissue (Winston).
Figwort – A great lymph, blood and skin tonic. I like figwort for times my lymph feels particularly overburdened with chronic swollen glands, sore throat, stiff neck or acne.
Sillingia – A small dose (5-15 drops of tinctures) of stillingia alone or in a lymph formula has been used for assisting lymph, kidney, skin and liver.
Echinacea – Echinacea is known as an immune modulator but is also as an alterative, blood cleanser and lympatic. Especially useful for skin infections and conditions; boils, hives, eczema, psoriasis and septicemia (Smith, 33).
Red Clover – Red clover is in my first line of support for singular swollen lymph nodes (rather than a bunch of little swollen lymph nodes, which, according to Matthew Wood, calls for calendula). Also useful for chronic coughs and postnasal drip.
Cleavers – Gentle but effective lymphatic and diuretic. Can be soothing to the nerves, too.
Chickweed – Chickweed can be used externally for inflammation and itching, but is also a mild diuretic, vulnerary and anti-inflammatory. Not the strongest acting herb, but it is very prolific and quite tasty as a salad green.
Calendula – A bit bitter, calendula is a liver tonic, anti-inflammatory and lymphatic. Externally, it is renowned for disinfecting and soothing cuts, rashes and infections.
Poke – Poke oil is externally stimulating and soothing to areas of lymph stagnation, especially breast tissue.
Red root – This herb is specific for the mucosa and lymphatic congestion.
Alder – Alterative and cholagogue called for in cases of skin conditions and infections and chronic constipation or sluggish digestion.
Finding herbs to use as part of a cleanse can seem complicated, especially when you consider the many “herbal detox” products that line the shelves at a health foods store. I suggest herbs be kept simple and individualized. “Treat the person, not the disease”.
If you’ve been to a natural food store, you’ve probably seen boxes of raspberry leaf tea sitting on a shelf. You may of looked at that box and read words like “uterine tonic”, or “pregnancy tonic”. Perhaps you even tried the delicately sweet, slightly sour and astringent (but mostly just…green tasting) member of the rose family.
Raspberry leaf is a perfect tonic for during pregnancy. Generally, it is demulcent (soothing to tissues), astringent, tonic to smooth muscles (especially uterus and large intestine). Since it is rich in vitamins and minerals, raspberry is a well-known nutritive herb. It is also helpful as an astringent tonic is excessive urination and diarrhea, and when the uterus and bladder feel heavy or prolapsed. Raspberry’s more thorny cousin blackberry is one of the most effective remedies for diarrhea for whatever the cause, in childhood contagious bugs, food poising, traveler’s diarrhea, or digestive diseases. It is a good thing to have in your globe trotting first-aid kit – and it’s cheaper and easier on the body then antibiotics.
Raspberry leaf has been used for hundreds of years during and after pregnancy. It can reduce morning sickness in the early months of pregnancy, and can also be helpful in arresting post-partum bleeding. Australian nurse-practitioner Ruth Tricky says that researchers “…suggested that Rubus would prevent or reduce the risk of in-coordinate uterine action (a common cause of difficulty and failure to progressin labor), by regulating the action of the uterine muscles.” (Tricky, 423).
To use raspberry leaf tea during pregnancy, start drinking it after the first trimester. Don’t hesitate–steep strong! One tea bag in one cup of hot water steeped 10 minuets is definitely not going to have the same effect as a medicinally prepared tea. Dried raspberry is quite fluffy, so go more for a fourth or third cup of the dried herb steeped, covered, in 3-4 cups hot water for 2 – 4 hours. Strain and drink daily. Blend with other nutritious tonic herbs like nettle, oatstraw, or alfalfa if desired. Midwife Aviva Romm suggest drinking the tea with a slice of fresh orange or lemon, since the vitamin C of the citrus will increase the rate of absorption of the vitamins and minerals in raspberry leaf tea (iron, for one).
Tonic seems like a quint word of Victorian yesteryear, but it is used often in herbalism. Tonics are called so because they tone or strengthen a body system(s) or the body as a whole over a period of time. To be considered a tonic, an herb usually has a medium to high nutritive profile (like nettle, for instance) and must be safe and mild enough to take everyday indeterminately. Another important feature of tonics are that they seem to have a rich ethnobotanical history of use. Basically, they have been safely used by people for hundreds or thousands of years.
As far I know, every herbal system has tonics, but Chinese medicine has a disproportionate amount of tonics to offer. Ginseng, He-Shou-Wu, Dang Qui, and Astragalus are a few examples. From Roy Upton:
”Chinese herbal medicine has long revered the use of herbal tonics to promote health, longevity, and counter the effects of aging. The highest ideal of Chinese medicine is to promote the highest level of health for the longest period of time, in contrast to simply applying herbs or therapies for the treatment of disease”(124, Medicines from the Earth 2006).
There are many types of tonics; lung tonics, uterine tonics, cardiotonics and so on. Herbs that are used as tonics also have other uses. For example, cordyceps is a yang tonic used to increase warmth, energy and growth when deficient, but is also used for restoring adrenal activity, strengthening the immune system and enhancing athletic output. As you can see, the underlying tonic action is often related to the short term uses of the herb.
There are a few similarities tonics share with each other, but we can’t overgeneralize their actions. Some are astringent (raspberry leaf, a uterine tonic), some are adaptogenic, others are nutritive. Here are a few examples: Schisandra, reishi and shiitake mushrooms, milky oats, licorice, raspberry leaf, alfalfa, astragalus, red clover, licorice, ashwaganda, skullcap, motherwort, linden, hawthorn, gingko.
It may seem that herbal tonics might not be strong action or illicit marked change in the body because they are food-like, relatively safe in large and continual doses (1-4 cups of tea a day for a year or more), and act generally to promote health. This is definitely not the case. Each of these herbs (even alfalfa or raspberry leaf) have their unique medicinal actions. It is through understanding the action and energetic details (like its taste or temperature) of the plant that can help you find the herbal tonic right for you.
Romm, Aviva Jill. The Natural Pregnancy Book.
Tricky, Ruth. Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle.
The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence? I think not.
As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.
“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).
In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:
“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”
Burdock's purple-lined stems
There are many uses for this common, wide-spread biennial weed in the aster family. The tap root, either fresh (called gobo at the grocery store) or dried, is what I use the most, although the seeds and leaf are also used. The seeds are exceedingly useful in acute or chronic skin conditions, and I have witnessed cases of eczema and alopecia (used topically) lessen in severity after at least a month of use. To harvest burdock seeds, gather some burrs in the autumn, place in a grocery bag, and back over it with a car a few times to aid in the separation of burr and seed. In addition to being helpful in cases of heavy perspiration, inflammation and fever. The seeds are indicated for “dry, crusty, itchy, itchy, flaky skin conditions” (Winston, 68). Wood also says:
“…the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste product towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” (144)
Back to the roots. Like most roots, harvest the first year plant after the first frost. From there I either eat them, decoct them, cut and dry them, or make a fresh tincture in brandy. Slightly sweet and earthy in taste, this root makes it a lot of tinctures and teas around my house. Burdock is a classic “blood and liver cleaner”, thus it is helpful in skin conditions including acne, itchy or dry skin, eczema and psoriasis (143). It is also used for increasing kidney and bladder function, as it is a “non-irritating diuretic for cystitis and scalding urine” (Winston, 68).
Young echinacea with purple-red stems
Here in another member of the Asteraceae family, not as wide spread as burdock but certainly more popular by the masses as an “immune booster”. I cannot bear to dig up my echinaceas for the roots, so I make tinctures from the leaves and flowers.
The test for a high quality echinacea product, whether it be a home-made tincture, dried root or store-bough capsule is to hold it on your tongue and wait for the tingling (open dried capsules and puncture gel caps). This tingling sensation is a little numbing (drop the tincture down the back of the throat for easing the pain of a sore, raw throat) and means it is diffusive. The diffusives are all tingly on the tongue and act quickly through the nervous system, concentrating on certain areas. They include lobelia (muscles), prickly ash (nerves), bayberry (mucosa), cayenne (cardiovascular) (Wood, 247).
Echinacea diffusive action works on the blood and the lymphatics. Like burdock, echinacea assists skin conditions, septic fevers. Echinacea’s purple-redness on the stem is darker then the violet purple of burdock, which indicates it is for more infected, hot and inflamed states. For instance, echinacea may be used topically for boils, pimples, infected old bug bites, dark and swollen veins (248), when the blood seems to be infected or “toxic”.
Echinaceas in late summer
When I was a child my mother was bitten by a poisonous spider. Over the course of a few days, a vein running from the bite up the side of her torso, over the armpit, down the underside of the arm, wrapping around the hand and up the top of her arm swelled and turned purple-red. At this point she went into the hospital and had intravenous antibiotics, where she was informed that if the swelling of the vein would’ve reached her head she could’ve died. This story makes me think of echinacea and the its early reputation along the prairie as being a cure for snake bites. From Dr. Harvey Felter in 1927:
“Echinacea is a remedy for auto-infection, and where the bloodstream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination is imperfect, the body tissues become altered, and there is developed within the fluids and tissues septic action…” (244)
Wood also says that echinacea is indicated for prostrated, exhausted and tired people, with or without poor work habits like working too hard then being exhausted (249). This makes sense, especially when I think of all the people who work hard and play hard, get sick, and then reach for the echinacea bottle.
Wild IndigoBaptisia tinctoria
Purple-hued wild indigo flower buds
A member of the pea family, wild indigo contains immuno- stimulating polysaccharides like echinacea (Mills, 273). I had a difficult time finding info about this herb in my references. Years ago, I tried it out after reading about it in the Herb Pharm herbal book. It seemed to align with what I was dealing with (skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, sluggish digestion). There was a little disclaimer on the bottom of the page, something to the tune of, “use sparingly and gradually increase dose, as it can cause headaches due to its strong alterative properties.”
It did help with the congestion, and I did develop headaches until I combined it with other gentler alternatives (burdock and dandelion).
“Wild indigo has beautiful green leaves and pods, which on ripening or injury, turn completely black. This plant was used for necrosis, gangrene, typhoid, putrid deterioration.” (Wood, p 26).
Wild indigo has been mentioned as useful as other alteratives are, in abscess, auto-immune disease, glandular fever, mumps, pelvic inflammation, pleurisy, and tonsillitis (Mills).
Figwort Scrophularia nodosa
Emerging figwort leaves
Figwort is an distinctive smelling member of the snapdragon family with delicate little purple-tinged yellow flowers. The purple-red color is seen on the stem, newly emerged leaves, and leaf tips. I have found it growing tall and lush in a big stand by a dirt road in a damp ditch. I first met it at Sage Mountain in Vermont. I liked it so much that I brought seeds home to spread in the garden, and now I have my own ankle-high stand of about six plants.
It is not a widely used herb; in fact it is barely mentioned in any herbals that I have. Nicholas Shnerr spoke highly of it as an alterative in his herbs for cleansing lecture at the Mid-America Herb Symposium of 2008, used with buckthorn, alder and echinacea as lymphatics. It is in what is know as Scudder’s Alterative, along with corydalis, yellow dock, black alder, and mayapple. He asked us if any of us have used figwort. I raised my hand and blurted, “I do! It smells so yummy”. The whole class stated to laugh; it turns out most everyone hates the smell of figwort but me; it was liked to “rotting meat” and a “dead skunk”. Personally, I think it smells delicious like buffalo meatloaf, or some other tender, wild meat.
I took my liking the supposedly un-likable smell as a sign and started to take a few drops of the tincture morning at night. Nothing notable changed, except a slight improvement in my digestion. Perhaps I’ll try it again.
Sometimes we need to follow our senses. One of the tasks at the herb shop was stocking bulk herbs. I was new to herbalism and didn’t know a lot of the plants or their uses. When I opened the shepherd’s purse jar to top it off, I fell in love with the smell, sticking my nose and inhaling long and deep as if it were the most exquisite, heavenly perfume. The herbalist laughed and said, “looks like someone needs to take some shepherd’s purse”. At the time I was experiencing a bout of heavy bleeding and spotting, which disappeared after a cups of shepherd’s purse tea. Incidentally, now I despise the sour, cabbage-like smell and taste of shepherd’s purse.
Mills says figwort is useful in cold-dampness of digestion as a warming eliminiative herb. It also conains saponins that are anti-inflammatory. Like it’s cousin foxglove, it contains a cardiac glycoside, but unlike foxglove, it’s glycoside is not potenitally toxic (139). As an alterative, it is decongesting to the glands and used for liver diseases, skin problems espeically eruptions with heat, and lymphatic stagnation with heat like hemorrhoids (Tierra, 187, Winston, 77). Winston combines figwort with self heal and red root to use for lipomas; which I’d like to try since I’ve only used chickweed for this.
Yellow figwort flowers on a purple-red stem
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Scalzo, Richard and Michael Cronin. Traditional Medicines from the Earth.
I must reiterate my love affair with discovering action categories. Action categories “reflect traditional observations of outcomes” (Hoffmann, 483). I find they make Western herbalism more accessible in day to day herbalism and easier to remember because it organizes herbal information. Action categories answer the question that a beginning herbalist may ask often, “what action will this plant have on a body system?”.
Herbs are multifaceted. They are not just card-carrying member of one action category only. Again, knowing the different actions an herb possesses can be indispensable in finding the most applicable herbs. For example, say we are looking for a relaxing nervine to assist someone who is under a lot of stress. If this individual has a racing heart, then choose herbs with a calming action on the cardiovascular system like motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) or linden (Tilia platyphyllos). If the person experiences digestive discomfort along with stress like a “nervous” stomach, then carminative or bitter herbs like chamomile (Marticaria recutita) or lavender (Lavandula officinalis) may be a indicated.
Adaptogen – increases the body’s ability to cope with non-specific stress
Alterative – alters the body tissues back to it’s proper health
Analgesic (anodyne) – reduce pain or the perception of pain
Anthelmintic – expels worms
Anticatarrhal – removes excess phlegm
Anti-inflammatory – reduces inflammation
Anti-lithic – reduces urinary stone formation
Antimicrobial – aids the body against pathogens
Anti-pyretic/febrifuge- reduces feverish states
Antirheumatic – helps reduce rheumatic symptoms
Antispasmodic – reduces muscle spasms and cramp
Astringent – reduces excess secretions and tones tissues by precipitating excess proteins
Bitter – stimulates digestive function
Cardio-tonic – acts on the cardiovascular system
Carminative – supports digestion and relives gas
Cholagogue – stimulates bile production and works on digestion
Demulcent – soothes irritated tissue
Diaphoretic – stimulates perspiration and opens the pores
Diuretic – stimulate urine production
Emetic – promotes vomiting
Emmenagogue – stimulate menstrual activity (some say enriches blood flow in general)
Emollient – soothes and softens irritated external tissues
Expectorant – removes phlegm from the respiratory system
Galactogogue – increases flow of breast mil
Hepatic – strengthen the liver and promotes bile production
Hypnotic – promote deep sleep
Hypotensive – promotes a normalization of blood pressure
Laxative – stimulates the bowels
Nervine – works on the nervous system
Rubefacient – externally stimulates circulation, often used for reducing topical pain
Stimulant – promotes a quickening of physiological fuctions
Tonic – steadily strengthens the body or body systems over time
Vulnerary – externally promotes the healing of wounds
Herbal actions are more broad than chemical constituents, which are specific active chemical components of plants and can be scientifically observed. It is interesting to learn about chemical constituents, especially if you are more scientifically minded. A little science can go a long way when it comes to herbs. Its best not to over-analyze and expect chemistry to explain all the wonders of plant medicine. Science can be handy when it comes to providing skeptics with something to chew on instead of herbalists putting up their dukes. Yes, handing over some chemical equations and studies is much more peaceful…
Usually when people ask me “where’s the scientific evidence?” , I reach for information about chemical constituents rather than double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. My personal thought it that herbs are not drugs and therefore are not best tested like drug. Pharmaceuticals are more one-size-fits-all while herbs treat the individual, not the disease. I remember a group of professional herbalists in a particularly heated discussion about a study about using turmeric for reducing inflammation. One person lamented, “turmeric may be too hot and stimulating for some people; it messed up the study”.
Carbohydrates (monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, polysaccharides. glycoproteins, glycosides, gums and mucilage)
One thing I love about herbalism is that every herbalist has different herbs, practices and tactics that they favor. There is so many varieties and examples to learn from! Some seem to be more into tonics, others use simples (single herbs) in almost homeopathic dosages, but most all have specific remedies for symptoms while reiterating the need to support the body systems over the long term.
No matter how you look at it, suggested herbal formulas from trusted herbalists are a good place to start. They can also be used as guidelines when formulating for the individual. After going over a few examples from a few different herbalists, the beginning herbalist gains knowledge through researching the materia medica and action categories mentioned.
Let’s look at a few formulas to get some ideas, starting with some from Rosemary Gladstar. She reiterates that you should stick to an herbal program at least four months. Here is a “Hormonal Regulator Tea” from Herbal Healing for Woman, p 117. Decoct, and drink 3-4 cups for 3 weeks out of the month. As you can see, it is not simply herbs for the reproductive system. It offers much support for the liver, which has to process all the hormones circulating in the body, and supports the digestive system, inflammation, and enriches the blood.
1 part wild yam
1 part ginger
2 parts dandelion root (raw)
2 parts burdock root (raw)
2 parts licorice
2 parts sassafras
1 part yellow dock
It is also important to include sufficient calcium, as a low amount has been linked to cramping, as blood levels of calcium drop off 10 days before menstruation. Again, there are more than just calcium-rich herbs in here! There are nervines, blood and uterine tonics and emmenagogues. “High Calcium Tea” (p 118):
2 parts oatstraw
1 part horsetail
2 parts comfrey
2 parts nettle
4 parts peppermint
2 parts pennyroyal
4 parts raspberry leaf
For acute cramping, she recommends the following “Cramp-T”
1 part cramp bark or black haw
1 part pennyroyal
1 part valerian
1/2 part ginger
A tincture of valerian, about 1/2 teaspoon every twenty minuets until the pain decreases. Another handy remedy to have around is pennyroyal essential oil, to rub a few diluted drops on the abdomen during cramping. Please be cautions with pennyroyal essential oil and never take it internally, because it is extremely toxic internally.
Now let’s take a look at David Winston’s recommendations. In my last entry, I asked, “…I don’t know if all anodyne work on the same parts of the body…”. Well, Winston has cleared that up for me. Here is “Aspirea Compound” (32)
St. John’s wort
It has anti-inflammatory herbs (willow, meadowsweet, St. John’s wort), Jamaica dogwood which is analgesic and antispasmodic which Winston says is “especially for dysmenorrhea…”, and indian pipe which “…creates a feeling of separation from the pain” (32). I have tried this formula for other types of pain with great success (tooth ache, back spasm), but have yet to use it for cramps. It is very relaxing.
“Full Moon – Woman’s Antispasmodic Compound”
PA-Free Petasites root
Roman chamomile flowers
Winston’s notes: for mild to severe dysmenorrhea and some of the accompanying symptoms, take acutely, not daily. Here we see lots of antispasmodics at work.
“J. Kloss Anti-spasmodic Compound” (p4 6)
This is an example of a classic formula that works well as is, or can be adapted to suit individual needs. I have seen and used a couple variations of this formula (Dr. Christopher has one), one with blue vervain, blue cohosh instead of myrrh and skunk cabbage for treating epilepsy in a dog (2 drops a day for 3 months) and a severe tension headache (1/4 teaspoon every hour), both times it worked great. In the later, I sipped miso soup to quell the nausea that came with the lobelia and vervain.
Here is one more set of examples from David Hoffmann’s Medical Herbalism from page 387 -8.
This is a basic formula that covers the many of the action categories mentioned in the last entry. All are antispasmodic, al are nervine, and black cohosh is uterine tonic. The dosage is 5mL of tincture as needed, so when pain is approaching and in full swing. If a woman has secondary dysmenorrhea caused by pelvic lesions (from endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease) the dosage is 5 mL of the following tincture taken three times a day, rather than just symptomatically:
Again, all herbs are antispasmodic, cramp bark and black cohosh are nervines with black cohosh being the uterine tonic.
Dysmenorrhea is basically period pain. Doctors will often diagnose period pain as “primary dysmenorrhea”, which means the pain cannot be contributed to any other cause or disease. The typical method for dealing with period pain within the medical model is prescribing hormonal birth control. Much less infrequently pain medications are prescribed; over-the-counter pain-relievers are typically suggested.
Dysmenorrhea is not just a case of “grin and bear it”. It can seriously effect a woman’s ability to function in her daily life. While I am a big fan of resting, nourishing, and turning inwards during the moon time, I acknowledge that there are many woman who’s life is not set up to take such personal time (or rather our society is not set up to take such personal time). And besides, pain is pain, and for most everything besides menstruating and childbirth, we see pain as a sign that something is wrong with the body. Most women I know with dysmenorrhea can’t help but wonder if something is wrong with their body when their uterus is cramped.
Pain and symptoms vary from woman to woman, so it is important to treat the individual, not the condition.
Furthermore, pain and symptoms vary from month to month, as harmony within the menstrual cycle is reached through a process of changes and adjustments. Therefore, herbal formulas should be updated accordingly. At the same time, keep in mind that when working with the endocrine system treatment should be for at least 3 months but often as long as a year or more. Each month the ovaries alternate hormone production, so to ensure an herbal treatment (or conventional, for that matter) is effective let the left, then right, then back to left ovaries do their thing (thus the 3 month recommendation). I also think a quarter of a year is a fair time frame to let your body, mind and spirit go through their natural cycles a number of time, establish rhythms, process emotions, and adjust to physical surroundings and seasons.
It may be tempting to stop taking herbs after a month or so when you a) notice an improvement and b) don’t see any improvement. At this time, especially if you are in the “b” category, keep on! Figure out your dosages and preparations and stick with them. Tinctures? Teas? How often? When I was fist getting into herbs I would stop treatments when I felt they were not working, “so why bother?”, I thought. While it was true they weren’t making horrible cramps disappear, there were many other benefits to be had. Some signs of improvement may be a more regular cycle, less PMS, pre-bleeding spotting, blood clots, nausea, teeth-shattering (yes, some women find they shiver and their teeth-shatter..sounds like a cold condition to me!), more energy and vitality, and simply better able to cope with their cycle no matter how tumultuous it may be.
When creating a formula for dysmenorrhea, you may wish to include: (from Ruth Tricky in Woman, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle)
A uterine tonic, as they normalize the uterine tissue
Antispasmodics, relaxing, pain-relieving, prostaglandin-inhibiting herbs based on symptoms
Emmenagogues may be used with late or slow starting periods
Most always use warming herbs
Don’t forget to balance emotional and mental tension with nervines, and treat any other body system that may be out of balance and aggravates dysmenorrhea
Regulates and normalizes the uterine tissue. Add when there is a heavy, dragging type of pain, pain towards the end of the cycle, some types of pain during sex (of a congested, heavy nature). They often provides nutrition, minerals and can be astringents so the do actually tone (by precipitating excess proteins in cell walls).
Improves the action of antispasmodic herbs when the period if aggravated by cold, relived by heat, lower abdomen feels relatively cool to the touch, relived by movement of the hips.
Examples: Ginger, cinnamon can be added to other herbal formulas, or taken alone, but drink them warm. Many Chinese patent formulas include cinnamon to warm the interior and promote a healthy circulation of blood.
Ginger tea – grate or chop 1 inch of ginger into a saucepan. Add about 2 1/3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to low simmer, cover. Simmer for 20 minuets. Turn off heat and let cool slightly before straining and drinking. You may add honey to taste and sip while emerged in a hot bath; doesn’t that sound divine?
Hormone regulating herbs
The goal here is to regulate the hormones, which reduceds pain by indirect action on prostaglandins.
Examples: Vitex angus-castus (chastetree berries) is very useful for congestive dysmenorrhea, and pain with PMS. A picky herb about dosing…when I get the correct does I will let you know. Everyone seems to have different suggestions.
Paeonia lactiflora (peony), Cimicifugia racemosa (black cohosh) are both antispasmodics and have the potential to competitively inhibit the activity of estrogen.Verbena officinalis (blue vervain) is a sedative, traditionally used for menstrual disorders with a hormonal origin. Schisandra berries.
Blue vervain flowers close up
These are relaxing herbs, used for both physical and mental/emotional tension or anxiety accompanying pain.They potentate antispasmodic and pain-killing herbs, as some are antispasmodics themselves.
These have analgesic effects. Much weaker than conventional analgesics, so they must be prescribed with other herbs that actually attempt to correct the imbalance. I don’t think anodynes work on all systems and complaints, except for corydalis.
Examples: Wild lettuce, pulsatilla, corydalis, valerian, feverfew (463)…
Don’t over look the liver
Congestive period pain with heavy, dull, dragging pain has historically been treated with liver herbs and bitters, as well as those who are “irritable, hot-headed, constipated, headaches, heavy fiery-red flow”. Liver herbs most likely work through an indirect effect on hormone imbalance by improving the liver’s ability to excrete estrogen from the bowel and through the liver and bile.
Examples: Barberry and other bererine-containing herbs are useful, as are many other ‘liver’ herbs like dandelion root, burdock, Oregon grape, yellow dock. Yellow dock and dandelion in particular (especially when combined with blackstrap molasses) can encourage the body to use iron stores more efficiently, thus relieving fatigue following blood loss.
Tricky, Ruth. Woman, Hormones, and the Menstrual Cycle.
The spice rack is a wonderful place to explore the world of herbal medicine. Each has a story – some have made it into ancient mythology, other causing wars, yet more promoting travels to far away lands and cross-cultural trading.
Keep in mind that spices are medicinal herbs that have made it into the culinary pursuits of humans because of flavors, smells, and medicinal actions that improve digestion or some how benefit the body. Spices are simply plants that have captivated our taste buds and liven our diets.
Most, but not all spices are carminatives. I have written a post about carminatives, but they certainly warrant another mention. Carminatives could be generalized as herbs that act on easing uncomfortable digestion, especially gas and bloating. David Hoffmann describes:
“…the mode of action of carminative herbs appears to be related to the complex of volatile oils they contain. These terpene oils have local anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects upon the mucous lining and the muscle coats of the the alimentary canal.” (502).
As with action categories, an herb that is a carminative is not that and only that. They have most certainly have secondary actions on other parts of the body, due to their unique composition. Let’s take chamomile, for example. Matricaria recutita contains a number of volatile oils, some of which have “quite specific effects on other parts of the body”(503). Chamomile is also included in the following action categories: anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, bitter, nervine, tonic and vulnerary (503). Pay attention to action categories when learning about and using herbs; they are extremely helpful in finding a good herbal match for individual needs.
Here are three spices that caught my attention. Scattered around this blog are posts about other spices like mustard, thyme, mint, sage, dill, anise, fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, coriander and ginger.
Ferula is Latin for carrier, as a related plant was mentioned in Greek mythology as a plant that helped Prometheus carry stolen fire to the earth from the sun. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes might have indeed used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. Assa means resin, foetidus smelling, fetid.
It is in the Apiacea family, and looks a bit like fennel, dill, and cows parsnip to me. The powder that we use as a spice is the powdered resin from the root. Resins are quite antiseptic, which is why they make such good mouthwashes. Simon Mills says they “provoke a local release in white blood cell counts (leucocytosis). It is likely that a similar affect occurs further down the digestive tract at least as far as the stomach and duodenum”(305). Other oleo-gum resins include myrrh (Commiphora molmol) and frankincense (Boswellia spp.).
As a new employee in the Co-op kitchen, the other staff “initiated” me by making me smell and then taste the asafoetida. I had to prove myself so I tasted it; it was pretty rank. It was a mystery to me that it dishes it was cooked were actually edible, in fact they were good. Upon research, I read that asafoetida tastes much better when it is cooked, and smells much better when sautéed with ghee. It is used as an onion and garlic replacer among Brahmins who abstain from eating onions and garlic, which are considered too grounding for those of a spiritual disposition (among other reasons).
Asafoetida is of course, a digestive aid which reduces flatulence. It has been used as a folk remedy for childhood colds as it has antiseptic qualities. Other sources say it is useful for asthma and bronchitis and calming hysteria. Michael Tierra says it is “very helpful for damp cold spleen conditions associated with Candida albicans overgrowth”(216).
I do not use this spice often, only when making dal or cooking a big batch of beans. Here is a yummy recipe with asafoetida on Happy Burp. While you’re there, check some good info on her entry about asafoetida.
Lamb’s quarters – Epazote’s cousin
Actions: Antibacterial, antimalarial, vermifuge, insecticidal, (Rain tree Tropical Plant Database), antihelminthic, antispasmodic, abortifacient (US Pharmacopeia via Gernot Ketzer’s Spice pages) Contains: essential oils such as monoterpenes, asacaridole
Epazote is a a member of the Chenopodiacea family (beet, spinach, quinoa). I think it looks a lot like it’s relative that likes to grow in my garden, lamb’s quarters (or pig’s weed; are these the same thing?). This year I would like to get start some seeds of epazote, because it seems everyone loves it. Do plants ever remind you of a place? For some reason, epazote and Minneapolis are synonymous for me; I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Even when I was a kid I had a similar association of lamb’s quarters and and city, seeing it grow in empty lots, alleys, in cracks in the sidewalks. In 2006 a friend made some chilled epazote tea; it was so delicious on a very hot June evening. I commented that it tasted “culinary”, with hints of sage, oregano, tarragon,and licorice.
Epazote is native to the Americas, and used throughout Mexico and Central America. It is well known to be prepared with black and other beans, as it is carminative and reduces gas. traditional usage also includes it for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea and lessen the symptoms of malaria (Rain Tree). Try this recipe for Epazote Vegetable Pancakes with Black bean Tropical Fruit Sauce; all sounds delicious to me. Black PepperPiper nigrum
Pepper is native to the west coast of southern India but is now produced around the tropics in the old and new world alike. This common table spice was once more expensive than gold and the reason for expansive European sea exploration in the 1400’s. Pepper sure was one hot commodity, hehe… It looks like the word pepper is quite literal, simply coming from the word piper, latin for pepper. Again being quite literal, it represents the Piperaceae, or pepper family.
The use of peppercorns are vast; everyone uses it. What it does for food it does for the body, it warms it up! Yes, pepper is a wonderful stimulant for warming up cold, weak, sluggish digestion, coldness in general due to poor circulation, and it dries up mucus. It is part of a classic Ayurvedic formula Trikatu: pepper, pippli pepper and ginger ground then mixed with a bit of honey to form a paste. Three-fourths to 1 tablespoon of the mixture is taken with a bit of hot water three times a day to counteract cold, damp symptoms and to stimulate digestion and warmth. Tierra adds that it is said to “recirculate” nutrients, and is used when fasting to boost energy. It is a stimulant to gastric mucosa, use when a less irritating then cayenne is desired (242).