May 14th, 2009 § § permalink
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)
- Lipids (fatty acids)
- Terpenes (monoterpenes, iridoid, sespuiterpenes, sesquiterpenes lactones, diterpenes, triterpenes)
- Phenolics (tannins, lignans, isoflavonoids, flavanoids, anthraquinones, coumarins, phenylpropanoids, simple phenolics)
- Alkaloids (piperidines, tropanes, purines, isoquinolines, indoles, quinolizidines)
The link between the broad action categories and the specific chemical constituents is materia medica.
Action categories – observable ways that herbs work
Materia medica – individual herbs
Constituents - specific active chemical parts of an herb
Chemical reaction – how the constituents react in the body to cause an effect, which can be obseverd
in the action categories
Astringent - herbs that tone
Blackberry root – used for all sorts of loose stools
Polyphonol compound – gallic acid, a tannin
Precipitate proteins to tone tissues and check excessive secretions
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
April 18th, 2009 § § permalink
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
- 1/4 vitex
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)
- willow bark
- meadowsweet herb
- St. John’s wort
- Jamaica dogwood
- indian pipe
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
- Black haw
- wild yam
- Jamaica dogwood
- cyperus 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)
- black cohosh
- skunk cabbage
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.
- black haw
- black cohosh
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:
- cramp bark
- wild yam
- black cohosh
Again, all herbs are antispasmodic, cramp bark and black cohosh are nervines with black cohosh being the uterine tonic.
March 29th, 2009 § § permalink
a purple garden variety of black cohosh
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).
Examples: Raspberry leaf, nettle, shepherd’s purse, lady’s mantle, ect…
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.
Examples: Valerian, peony, corydalis, vervain, chamomile, agrimony, hops, lemon balm, lavender…
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.
March 20th, 2009 § § permalink
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.
Asafoetida Ferula asafoetida
Actions: Digestant, aromatic, carminative, expectorant
Contains: Essential oils, ole0-gum resin
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
Epazote Dysphania ambroioides
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 Pepper Piper nigrum
Contains: Essential oils with 80% monotrepenes, acrid resins
Actions: Stimulant, digestive
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).
This is an interseting account of the history, production and stories about pepper. Also check out the Spice Pages photos of pepper.