February 14th, 2009 § § permalink
I have been rekindling both my love of chemistry and my love of brassicas. Brassica is the ‘new’ botanical term for the Cruciferae, or cabbage/mustard family. A few members of the Brassica family:
- Black mustard (Brassica nigra)
- Cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, bok choy, brussel sprouts, (Brassica oleracea)
- Turnip (B. rapa)
- Horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia)
- Wasabi (W. japonica)
- Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
- Shepheard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
- Watercress (Nasturtium offcinale)
- Rape/canola (B.napus)
- Mustard greens (B. juncea)
Glycosides are a main chemical constituent of the mustard family. In short, glycosides are basically carbohydrate glycones (which is a sugar part) bonded to an another part called an aglycone. The bond between them breaks by an enzyme and hydrolysis (hydro-, water; -lysis, breaks) which frees the aglycone group to be used by the body. Many biochemists use the aglycone group to categorizes glycosides; it is what gives them their special actions.
Glycosides are a well-known herbal chemical constituent group. The powerful steroidal cardiac glycosides get a lot of press, after an English herbalist discovered the use of foxglove (Digitalis spp.) for right heart failure in 1785 (Mills, 310). Then there are the well-known poisonous cyanogenic glycosides amygdalin of the Rosacea family and others, mostly in the stone fruits like bitter almond. Prunasin is a glycoside found in another Rosecea member, wild cherry (Prunus serotina), that “…exhibit expectorant, sedative and digestive properties” (Hoffmann, 49). Alcohol glycosides are a part of willow and other salycilic acid-containing plants. The glycosides called anthraquinones are laxatives, as found in senna , aloe and rhubarb (48).
In the mustard family, the glycosides are called glucosilinates and are very pungent. Mostly in the stem and seeds (315).When the plant is damaged, it produces a acrid vapor from the volatile isothiocyanates.
Glucosinolates, also called isothiocyanates, are the glycosides present in the mustard family. Most people don’t need a scientist to tell them that sulfur is a key element of glucosilinates. The pungent onion and garlic of Liliacea also contain sulfur. The glucosinolates are found mostly in the stem and seed and are released when the plant tissue is damaged. Botanically, they act to protect them against predators. Anyone who gardens knows there is an exception to the brassicas best efforts: the white cabbage butterfly and caterpillar. Old farmers know that livestock that eat too much brassicas can develop thyroid, liver and kidney problems. They are, after all, goitergenic; they depress thyroid function. This action can be used to advantage in cases of hyperthyroidism (Hoffmann, 50).
And as anyone who has eating a bit too much wasabi (Wasabia japonica) on their California roll knows that when taken internally, the mustard family is helpful for decongesting the sinuses (50). Externally, mustard oils act as rubefacients that encourage local increase of blood flow. The blisters that can sometimes happen when a mustard poultice is applied too long are the obvious result of this action. Mustard poultices work quite well to break up congestion and pain in the lungs, see here for directions. I have always heard not to use hot water to make to poultice, but until now I never knew why; combining with water above 113 F or 45 C can produce poisonous nitriles. Interestingly, Mills comments that low levels of the same nitriles are produced when boiling cabbage, but nobody seems to be concerned about it (316).
Do we need any more reason to eat our broccoli? Various studies have shown that diets high in brassicas decrease the risk of cancer. This site give a a good overview of some of the different findings, and lots of references. For those of you who wonder how this actually occurs, David Hoffmann explains glucosinolates ‘ role as such:
“Experimental tumor production is greatly inhibited by pretreatment with isothiocyanates. The isothiocyanates interfere with the metabolism of carcinogens by enhancing the activity of several cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in the detoxification processes. They inhibit pro-carcinogen activation…” (50).
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
February 1st, 2009 § § permalink
Thyme’s (Thymus vulgaris) anti-microbial, anti-spasmodic, expectorant and astringent actions and it’s volatile oil content make it very useful for respiratory infections, sore throat, coughs including chronic bronchitis and whooping cough. Here’s a bit about thyme from “My Favorite Mints” post.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) syrup is a well-known, time-tested, effective and utterly delicious respiratory tract tonic. David Hoffmann summarizes the research of this small tree; “The extract was effective in vitro against 10 strains of influenza virus. It also reduced the duration of flu symptoms to 3 to 4 days in a double-blind, placebo controlled, randomized study”(580). The flowers are handy to have around as well, as they are part of the old gypsy cold remedy of equal parts of yarrow, peppermint, and elderflower drunk as a tea, steeped strong and served hot. I like to add a bit of boneset in the formula to address the chills and body aches that often come with a bad cold or the flu. The flowers are a wonderful diaphoretic to open the pores, and they relieve chest congestion through their anticatarrhal action. Elderflowers is called by Matthew Wood “the great infant remedy”, especially in babies and children with red, dry skin on the cheeks and blue coloring around the eyes (457).
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a classic New World (American) herb, used by Native Americans and quickly adopted by Eurpeans. It was and still is “…one of the best remedies for the relief of symptoms that accompany influenza” (Hoffmann, 549). Hoffmann also writes:
“High dilutions of various sequiterpene lactones isolated from E. perfoliatum demonstrated immunostimulant activity. In addition, polysaccharide fractions from E. perfoliatum showed immunostimulant actions in granulocyte, macrophage, and carbon clearance tests.”
Have you ever had aches that felt like your bones were being crushed or that they just simply hurt no matter what position you take? Pain like that calls for boneset. It is the first herb that I reach for aches and pains. After having tried it for the flu with great success at relieving aches, I decided to try it for aching bones at times other than the when one has the flu. I found it successful for deep thigh and pelvis aches accompanying menstrual cramps, but unsuccessful for aches after strenuous activity. It doesn’t surprise me that boneset did not relive the latter aches; they were more from a muscular origin than from “the bones”. King’s American Dispensatory recommends it for the “‘bone pains’ of syphilis” (549). I use a tincture, and take it every hour as needed. Boneset is also a well-known diaphoretic, another reason why it is useful for the flu. Like elecampane, it contains bitter properties and is slightly stimulating to the large intestine.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) tea is effective for sore throats, as mentioned in this older post.
There are many other respiratory herbs to pick from, based on your specific symptoms. I tend to alternate between wild cherry and elecampane, though I sometimes use mullein, pleurisy root, coltsfoot, horehound, and less often use lobelia, osha and hyssop. Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) has expectorant, astringent and antispasmodic actions. I have found it works well for those coughs that will not stop or are dry and ticklish with a sore upper chest (Tierra, Leslie). David Hoffmann writes, “because of its powerful sedative effect o the cough reflex, wild cherry bark finds its main use in treatment of irritating coughs” (575).
One of my favorite garden flowers, elecampane (Inula helenium) is indicated in cases with lots of mucus (often yellow or green) accompanying deep bronchial coughs. Elecampane is both effective on tough coughs and gentle enough for children. It is a tonic for the lungs, soothing to irritating tissues, a stimulating expectorant that actively works copious mucus out of the lungs, and an anti-microbial to help rid the body of the underlying infection. All in all, a pretty hand herb to have around! Use the root, either in tincture or dried and decocted as a tea. Hilltown Families has a good recipe for elecampane syrup; I can’t wait to try it! I find it interesting that elecampane has a marked effect of the large intestine, which is related to the lungs in Chinese medicine, as elecampane works on both.
Hofffmann, David. Medical Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine.
Tierra, Leslie. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal Vol. I.
September 18th, 2008 § § permalink
Meadowsweet, willow, cottonwood, black haw, cramp bark, birch, wintergreen, black coshosh and Indian pipe all have some derivatives of salicylic acid, though slightly different depending on the plant family. According to Chanchal Cabrera, salicylate-rich herbs are “…antiseptic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, anti-pyretic, anti-thrombotic, [and they] stimulate peripheral circulation and promote epithelial regeneration”(27). To reduce fever these herbs act on the hypothalamus (in charge of thermoregulation) which starts the diaphoretic action.
I often hear herb commerce and the media call meadowsweet and other salicylate-rich plants the “herbal aspirins”. Aspirin got its name, of course, from spirea (salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, is named after another rich source, Salix, or willow). While it is certainly true that plants share an ingredient of aspirin, it is not a one-for-one trade. Jill Stansbury states “[Botanical medicines] are more comprehensive tools than aspirin or acetaminophen. Furthermore, they are better tolerated, have fewer side effects, and are more readily excreted via the kidneys, liver, and intestines then are pharmaceutical[s]“(123).
For instance, aspirin and its chemical relatives are harmful to the stomach. Meadowsweet is healing to the stomach. The salicin found in these herbs is not nearly as strong as acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) and does not act the same way. In the 1960′s, researchers found that aspirin is a COX (cyclooxygenase, an enzyme) inhibitor, which means that it prevents COX from converting to pain- and inflammation- causing prostaglandins. Herbs can also act as COX inhibitors, but often they achieve this by correcting the imbalance that lead to an elevated incidence of prostaglandins. Essential fatty acids are often suggested for painful periods because of this mechanism. And lastly, meadowsweet and its salicin-containing cohorts are living, breathing entities while aspirin is man-made; an herbalist doesn’t recommend someone to simply “take two willow bark tablets and call me in the morning”. Care is taken to find which pain-relieving, fever-reducing, anti-inflammatory, blood-thinning herbs, lifestyle and dietary changes are suited to an individual constitution and condition.
Inflammation and is viewed by herbalists as a normal bodily response to injury and irritation. It is, essentially, the body’s way to heal itself. An increase of blood and lymph circulating to the injured tissue helps to remove the waste products and promotes healing. Simple as that. I do not support the use of cold packs on injured areas because it stops the inflammatory response, causing a longer healing time. One of the treatments for a badly sprained ankle last fall was a hot pack; in addition to blood-moving herbs (lots of yarrow and elder) I felt it actually soothed the pain and lessened the swelling. I have also found that carpal tunnel and plantar fasciitis respond extremely well to heat, cured even, as I experienced first hand. Chinese moxa sticks work exceedingly well in these cases.
Obviously, then, fever is also viewed as a normal bodily response. “Fevers accomplish much for the organism. It stimulates circulation of both blood and lymph that bring lymphocytes, immune globulins, and other infection-fighting agents to the site of need. Fever also enhances the removal of lysed, spent, and infected cells for processing by the liver, spleen and lymph nodes” (Stansbury, 118). If a fever is stopped prematurely the individual does not receive the benefits from this complex process, and in fact, may increase the duration of the illness. A fever should be around 102 degrees to be optimal, and definitely no higher than 106 degrees, which could cause seizures (118).
Many herbalists still call Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) by its former botanical name, spirea. According to Matthew Wood, it is a “true normalizer of a badly functioning stomach”, as it both “regulates acidity and rectifies alkalinity”. Meadowsweet can be used as an antacid replacer. It treats peptic ulcers as well as all stomach irritations, especially with fullness without appetite, and treat diarrhea in young children and the elderly. Drink cupfuls of the tea every hour for “fevers, flus, aches in joints, arthritic pain, headache with indigestion” (255). Even though it is high in methyl salicylate, meadowsweet has a great deal of mucilage and tannins that makes it useful as a “tonic to a battered stomach wall” (Mills, 281). Meadowsweet is a beautiful site to find in a field or by a lakeshore. Even the dried, dead, wintered leaves are soft and soothing.
Willow, (Salix spp.) has been used since antiquity for fever, joint pain, osteoarthritis, headaches and injuries as one would expect from a salicylate-rich plant, but because of the high amount of tannins, it is also used for “passive hemorrhages, atonic menstrual bleeding, loose stool” (Wood, 448). Some herbs are seductive to medical researchers; willow is definitely one. Here is a link to some interesting research on willow. After all, it was the plant that led to the synthesis of aspirin in the first place. Cottonwoods and poplars (Populus spp.) are resinous as well as containing salicin. Cottonwood, or balm of Gilead, is known as a stimulating expectorant for bronchitis, soothing to sore throats and laryngitis, as well as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and sore joints and muscles. Cottonwood oil made from the aromatic gooey buds is one of my favorite chest rubs during a bronchial infection when your chest aches to the touch. One of my favorite The Medicine Woman’s Roots posts on cottonwood.
Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and cramp bark (V. opulus) are botanical cousins that are used in similar ways for muscular tension, notably cramps. Both viburnums contain salicosides along with tannins and valerianic acids, making their individual blends of inflammation and pain relieving properties. For women’s health it is used for menstrual cramps, premature labor, and threatened miscarriages, but can be used any time a powerful relaxant is needed for muscular cramps. David Hoffmann uses black haw to treat high blood pressure since it relaxes the peripheral blood vessels as well as for asthma (181). Both viburnums, as typical of barks, contain tannins that make them useful in tonification; cramp bark has been used as an astringent for treating heavy periods or bleeding during menopause (Gladstar, 239; Hoffmann, 194). I seem to recall hearing that menstrual cramps that wrap around the pelvis to the sacrum and lower back call for cramp bark, while cramps that shoot down into the legs indicate black haw.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Herbal Healing for Women.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal Vol. I.
Cabrera, Chanchal. “Pain Management in Phytotherapy”. Medicines from the Earth Official Proceedings, 2005.
Stansbury, Jill. “Botanical Therapies for Fever”. Medicines from the Earth Official Proceedings, 2005.
July 16th, 2008 § § permalink
Herbal medicine has a number of ways to help one break addictions and assist pharmaceutical and drug withdrawal. Quoting Guido Mase from the lecture handout, “Using herbs for support when transitioning off psychiatric medication” …”[P]eople can be subjected to a drug which, though not ‘addictive’ in the classical sense of an intoxicating substance, can nevertheless have severe withdrawal symptoms”. Indeed, addictions within the sphere of a holistic mind frame can include many conditions that biomedicine and psychiatry may not define as addictive.
Most useful to me about the aforementioned lecture is the emphasis Mase put on ensuring the integrity of both the GI tract and circulatory system before going to the nervous system. Chamomile, blue vervain, wood betony, St, John’s wort work on the nervous system as well as the digestive system and in my opinion can be very centering and grounding . Valerian and crampbark “dilate the arteries, warms the limbs and relaxes body (soma), then relaxes mind”. Herbs, no matter how hard mainstream herbal commerce tries, cannot be separated into clear-cut, straightforward categories or reduced down to one action only. Think black cohosh for hot flashes, goldenseal for colds, valerian for insomnia, ginseng for energy, St. John’s wort for depression, ect. Not only do these herbs have wider applications then what is popularly marketed, there may be another herb better suited to an individual constitution. For example, valerian has never help a candle to my insomnia, but American ginseng has worked wonderfully.
Herbs to support addiction and drug withdrawal also take into consideration the constitution of the individual and the underlying diagnosis. Milky oats are a good place to start in almost any formula, as they are one of the ultimate “nerve foods”, restoring the mylin sheaths on the nerve cells. Fresh skullcap tincture is another favorite, perfectly suited for “burn out” and mental over-stimulation. I once heard (perhaps from Matthew Wood) the difference between melissa and passionflower put as such: melissa is suited for people that are over-stimulated but love it, while passionflower is for people who are over-stimulated but don’t like it. I don’t exactly understand this differentiation, but still find it interesting. There are many nervines to choose from, hawthorn, ashwaganda, tulsi, mugwort, rose, gingko, hops, ect…
I find it hard to look at addictions only through a physiological or herbal medicine view. Lately I have been listening to a number of audio lectures from Caroline Myss which has added a whole ‘nother level to my considerations. While I am far from understanding much of what is out there, I do feel a resonance with what Myss has to say about addictions in the 7th disc of the “Energy Anatomy” audio lecture:
“So long as your will is in a fog, you will be an addict. You will either be an addict to a substance, to a habit, to a fear, to the need to have the windows open at a certain angle, I don’t care what it is, you will be an addict. There is no such thing as a non-addicted person if the heart and the mind are not clear and congruent and the will is not awake, you will be an addict.”
“The 6th chakra is your mind, the heart is the 4th, and what’s in between? Your willpower. If your mind is going one way and your heart is going another way, who is commanding your will? So long as you keep your mind and your heart away from each other, your will will find its allegiance in a substance, your will will become commanded by something outside of you because there is nothing inside of you that is strong enough to keep it intact. So you will literally release the circuits of your spirit to a substance, to a person, to a system of thought, to a school of belief, to an external spiritual discipline, to needing to eat tofu, to needing to shove vabooty up your nose, who cares what it is, you will find some addiction that you are convinced you need for tranquility. When in fact, what technically is amiss is that your heart and your mind don’t speak to each other and you haven’t developed an ounce of genuine willpower.”
How does one develop the will, to reclaim its allegiance for oneself? Unfortunately, it is not as simple as stating, “I demand my spirit to release this addiction now” because your willpower is not strong enough, probably from years of your heart taking the night shift and your mind taking the day shift. During your hearts’ shift, you may have decided to do or say something from the heart, but when you mind takes over, it will say, “Are you crazy? You can’t do/say that. What if that person leaves you? How are you gong to pay the bills?” It doesn’t matter if your heart is unhappy–your mind tends to dominate because it plays of the fears of pain, aloneness, loosing success and financial stability.
Here is an exercise in activating your willpower: Make a list of all the things that you shouldn’t do but do anyways (this list is from you mind/conscious). Next, make a list of all things you want to do but don’t (from your heart/inspiration). Then pick a one thing to do from each list, and do it. That’s it! Sounds easy, but it may be hard to even admit to yourself what goes on those lists. If it is difficult to make your lists, realize that you may be living in a “fog of deliberate unconsciousness so that you don’t have to develop a stronger will. What kind of will? The level of will power that says, ‘wait a minuet, I am going to will myself to see clearly. Enough is enough. I am going to will myself to call the shots the way they are. I am going to will myself to diagnose myself accurately’.”
Myss’s example is giving up coffee. In the first column, “I know I shouldn’t drink coffee but I do”. In the second, “I know I should give up coffee.” In making this list, “you see into whose hands you’ve commanded your spirit and what you’ve given authority over you”. Myss says to “pay attention to how often you make excuses as to why you allow yourself to break your own rules”, and to the excuses you make up in order to avoid the stress of developing the level of willpower you need to break the addiction. Do this not in a punitive way, but in a experimental way to know yourself more deeply, one notch at a time.
Mase’, Guido. “Using herbs for support when transitioning off psychiatric medication” lecture notes.
Myss, Carloine. “Energy Anatomy” Audio lecture. Disc 7.