Chamomile ~ The Ubiquitous Botanical?

September 4th, 2011 § 12 comments § permalink

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
  • Anti-microbial
  • 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)

  • Flavanoids -  cooling and relaxing
  • Bitter sesquiterpene lactones – stimulate digestive juices
  • 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.

Wood says,

“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.

References:
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.

Kitchen Apothecary: Spices

March 20th, 2009 § 1 comment § 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
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.

Mustard Oil Glucosinolates

February 14th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

mustard.jpg

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).

References:

Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.

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