April 9th, 2011 § § permalink
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
February 28th, 2011 § § permalink
I am in 2 of 12 terms in school. The pace at which we learn things is incredible. Study a subject for one week and bam! you are expected to know everything (yes, this is an overstatement) about the muscles of the thigh, the Spleen meridian, the integument system, and (as luck would have it) certain categories of herbs. Tomorrow is out first herb test, which will consist of answering questions about the 14 herbs we learned in the “Warm Herbs that Release the Exterior” category.
Starting in 2002, I regularly studied herbs in earnest. That meant that on most day of the week, I read about, tasted, looked at, sat with, thought of, gardened, identified and wildcrafted, and took notes about the herbs that I was studying. Since I was in a self-education situation, I tended to migrate towards herbs that myself or my friends and family needed. There is the time to sit and digest (literally and figuratively) all the information and subtleties about the plants.
With all the ways I studied herbs, I never though to add memorization to my ways of understanding herbs.
But now I have to.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t seek to be centered and connected to the plants I am learning about. We have samples of the herbs to gaze at, nibble, and smell. The texts that we have are amazing at describing the energetic nature of the herb, comparing and contrasting similar herbs, and using references from the classics. I do work study in the clinic’s herbal dispensary, where I fill bulk and granule formulas, so I get to further familiarize with the herbs as I see them in formulas, and I did some gardening in the herbal garden in the beginning of the year.
One thing I like to do that I don’t really have a chance to do is taste the herbs. I could find a way to get some, but the school won’t let you but herbs unless a faculty has signed off on a formula, like a prescription. Apparently it’s a liability issue. This is probably my biggest frustration: HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN ABOUT THE HERBS IF I CAN”T PREPARE AND USE THEM? There, I am done ranting.
Here is a sample of the information we need to know:
Jing Jie (Schizonepata tenuifolia, Lamiaceae)
- Slightly Warm
- Enters the Lung and Liver meridian
- Dose: 3-10g, short cook
- ~Relieve exterior syndrome by eliminating wind, promoting skin eruption, stop bleeding.
- Headache, fever, aversion to cold with no sweating, for either wind-cold or wind-heat.
- Itchy skin, urticaria, slow skin eruption in measles.
- Epitaxis, hemafecia, urinary bleeding due to various causes.
- Early stage of carbuncles or boils with exterior syndrome.
- Deficiency of exterior (wei qi, yin, or deficient heat).
- Opens sores.
- Absence of pathogenic wind.
- Fully erupted measles.
Jing Jie or Schizonepata is very aromatic. A classmate asked if it is related to lavender, because the spikes resemble lavender tops and also because of it’s smell. Indeed, they are in the same family! I think the dried herb smells like a cross between a wild mint that grew next to stream in Minnesota and sweet pennyroyal, but I bet there are similar species like that all over the world.
I find it odd that Jing Jie is said to be slightly warm, because as a minty-mint I expect it to be slightly cool, like spearmint (although I can see how peppermint is sometimes considered warm, cool and sometimes both). It is considered to be antipyretic, diaphoretic, antibiotic (the decoction is effective against staph, strep-B, salmonella, Bacillus tubercuili), hemostatic (according to Chen, charred Jing Jie speeds coagulation time by 77%, while regular Jing Jie does by 30%), analgesic, and a bronchiodialator that relieves spasm and wheezing. As you may of guessed, it is full of volatile oils, along with flavanoids, phenolic acids, and monoterpine glycosides.
Since it is slightly warm, it can be used for both heat and cold situations. It is relatively mild all-around, so it doesn’t damage yin, and is not as drying as the other herbs in this category, but it still is drying. According to the texts, the important factor for it’s effectiveness is that wind must be present. Wind is one of the six exogenous (outside) pathogenic factors and is characterized with sudden, acute situations (like colds and flu), aversion to wind, itching, convulsions, spasms, trembling,as well as stiffness or paralysis (where wind is internal and not moving).
It can be used with spasms in general, especially muscle spasms. The texts say it is useful for postpartum spasm and muscle cramps. It is featured in many topical formulas for itching or wind attacking the skin like with rashes or eczema.
I able to get an intern to sign off on a 10 gram order of this herb for me to try on my dog. She has been very itchy, with pretty bad eczema. I made a wrapped Jing Jie and calendula in a thin cotton towel, poured some boiling water over it, and let it steep, covered, for about 30 minuets. Isis (my dog) seemed to like it, but she pretty much always likes compresses. I did notice she was much less itchy for the rest of the night, and the inflammation decreased. I would combine it with comfrey next time, because it was more drying to her than the calendula alone (which is not a particularly demulcent plant itself). I think it might be a good herb to add into a dry, itchy skin salve… and it has been such a long time since I’ve made a salve…
One more thing about Jing Jie. The tea was quite tasty, very aromatic with sweet, warm mint undertones. I am actually surprised that it is not considered “sweet”, because it strikes me as very sweet in both smell and taste. The flavor has a touch of licorice or stevia sweetness to it. Now that I think about it, the flavor reminds me of many herbs, but anise hyssop, pennyroyal and wild mint come up the most in my mind. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. I did experience a little nervine effect, not as pronounced as lavender or lemon balm, more similar to that of spearmint.
Sigh, I suppose I should go back to studying now…
October 7th, 2010 § § permalink
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!
June 14th, 2010 § § permalink
The reflections continues.
This fall I will be starting a program in Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. I am excited to start a new adventure down the healing path, but I also have a few points of concern.
The main concern I have is a common one for me: local versus global. Western herbalism is present in my backyard and spice rack. I can walk three steps out my front door and harvest nettles (yes, I stupidly planted nettle right in front of my house), chickweed, plantain, yarrow and more.
My family is of European descent, I live in the USA, I grew up acculturated in Western linear, rational thought, and have been studying Western herbalism for over eight years. My roots lie here.
Chinese medicine is present around me too, but more in theory and than practice. Acupuncture needles don’t grow on pine trees, and even if I did have Chinese herbs growing around (which I do, actually), I don’t know a lot about harvesting or preparing them. How do you make ‘raw’ versus ‘cooked’ rehmannia? What herbs have to be aged? Soaked in wine? Boiled for days? How do they make those little teapills I see everywhere?
Like most (all?) medical and healing traditions, Chinese medicine has within its roots legends of how people met certain plants. But by and large, there isn’t a whole lot of green vitality present in Chinese medicine. Growing and gazing at plants has helped me learn and appreciate the medicine and beauty they offer. Will a lack of live plants influence my appreciation for and understanding of Chinese herbalism?
When I was taking a tour of the gardens at the school I’ll be attending, someone pointed to little plantain and asked the typical question, “what’s this one good for?”. The tour guide said, “Oh that? It’s just a weed. The seeds of a related species are the source of psyllium”. To me, plantain is one of those plants that scream green, fresh, juicy aliveness. I haven’t heard of any herbs being used fresh in Chinese medicine (I could be very wrong, though).
The process of writing this has cleared the air! I feel a lot better already…
First, as if I have grown or met every single herb that I have taken. Ha!
Point in case: right now I am loving ashwaganda. It kept coming up in books, intuition and conversation, and seemed like a good herb to try. Just because I don’t have ashwaganda plants around me doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it’s healing power nor have some sort of connection with it.
Secondly, it’s no shock that I am interested in a “global” modality. My BA is in anthropology, and I have always been seeking to learn about the people and their ways of life on this planet we all call home.
And so what if my ancestors would’ve used Western herbs in their homelands? They also ate rotten cod soaked in lye and drank horrendous coffee that sure isn’t native to Sweden. There’s no harm expanding the palate, of food, medicines or philosophy, especially if done so consciously and sustainably.
Another thing that just resolved itself is that I can’t try to make three and a half years studying Chinese medicine anything it is not. I am not doing this to learn a ton about growing herbs or Western herbalism. It’s not the point. It’s not called “Western Medicine School with a dash of Plant Spirit Medicine”.
Instead, let me recall all the fun reasons I have pursued this in the first place; to take pulses, look at tongues, learn the organ systems, five element theory, energetics, acupuncture (I’m a body person, of course I’d be attracted to a modality that incorporates working with my hands with a manual yet energetic form of healing), and on and on.
Most of all, I pursued this to help people. I wish to develop skills to assisting others on their healing path. This is just one of many ways to do so.
March 18th, 2010 § § permalink
Most everyone in Minnesota is floating on cloud nine about the early spring we are having. It is seriously beautiful, 50 some degrees, bulbs poking through the soil, buds on the trees and so on. Personally, I am still hoping for a monster snow storm, since I loooove snow and we had only one blizzard this winter – and it was in December! How unsatisfying…
We have late springs, so why not have an early spring? I guess I gotta accept it is here. I’ve already talked about Wood, the Chinese element of spring, in an emotional, symbolic and philosophical perspective in the past. The funny thing is I published that entry on May 19th, and now it is March 16th. Did I say spring was early?!
The Liver and Gallbladder represent the element of Wood in the body (these nouns are capitalized to remind us of their symbolic, not literal, meanings). Here is a brief list of qualities associated with these organs. See if you can recognize the thread of Wood qualities like growth, healthy ego and self-esteem, the creative spark among them.
The Liver, a Yin organ:
- Rules smooth flow – “The Liver is exquisitely sensitive to boundaries and demarcations and maintains the smoothness and harmony of movement throughout the body” (Kaptchuk, 81).
- Stores the Blood – Menstrual cycles can be influenced by the liver.
- Controls the tendons, ligaments and nails – A healthful circulation of blood ensures that the connective tissue and skeletal muscles remain supple without excessive spams or tightness.
- Opens to the eyes.
- Absorbs what can’t be digested - Blood flows through and is filtered through the liver, so everything excess in the blood could be absorbed by the liver through the detoxification process.
The Gallbladder, a Yang organ
- Makes and stores bile – Bile is the body’s natural lubricant of the bowels; in this way the Gallbladder may affect digestion.
The Yin organs store fluids or energy, and their function is to transform and regulate the activity of that particular organ. Chinese medicine puts more emphasis on the Yin organs than the Yang organs. The Yin organs are often deeper in the body while the Yang organs are closer to the bodies surface.
On the other hand, Yang organs are more active in getting our body the energy it needs to be active in the world. They tend to act to break down and absorb food, and transport and excrete wastes.
Organ pairs, and associated season:
- Liver and Gallbladder – Spring – Wood
- Heart and Small Intestine – Summer – Fire
- Spleen and Stomach – Late summer – Earth
- Lungs and Large Intestine – Fall – Metal
- Kidney and Bladder – Winter – Water
February 22nd, 2010 § § permalink
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 progress in 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.
February 1st, 2010 § § permalink
A native Minnesota variety of an astragalus relative.
Astragalus membranaceaus is a native to China and other areas of Asia and is a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family. It tastes sweet, starchy, slightly warm and moist. According to Lesley Tierra, astragalus has adaptogenic, diuretic, antiviral, cardiotonic, antioxidant and hepatoprotective properties. Astragalus has gotten a lot of press as an adapotgen and for helping people with cancer and rightfully so as it “…helps prevent immuosuppression caused by chemotherapy and has tumor-inhibiting activity”(Winston, 149). It is a personal favorite of mine for preventing and/or treating regular-old colds and related infections.
The Chinese name of this herb is huang qi, huang meaning yellow (the color of the root) and qi meaning leader, as it is considered a “leader” among the tonics in the Chinese pharmacopeia because it can be used by a wider range of people than other tonics like ginseng. Astragalus strengthens spleen qi to aid weak digestion, nausea and vomiting, bloating, assimilation and lack of appetite. It also bolsters wei qi (protective energy or immunity) and lung qi. Not surprisingly, astragalus has been adapted into Western herbalism because of its use in strengthening the immune system and aiding in defense of colds, flus and infections of the respiratory system.
Astragalus is usually sold in root slices or pieces. It is mostly prepared as a tea although it also comes n powdered and tinctured forms. To make astragalus tea at home, bring 4 cups of water to boil, add about 4 tablespoons of the root and simmer covered for 20 mins. Let cool slightly before pouring a cup or two and straining. It is quite palatable, and people don’t usually have a problem drinking 3 cups of it in a day. A little honey or a simmering a cinnamon stick along with the astragalus extenuates both the sweetness and the moistening quality.
I like to drink astragalus tea daily in the winter, often for a month or longer, when everyone around me is getting sick or when I feel on the verge of a getting a cold. Just recently my husband came down with a horrible cold. I knew I’d be next, so I loaded up on astragalus tea so when I got the cold myself it wasn’t that bad – just a runny nose without a cough or constricted chest. It also combines well with other immune enhancing herbs like shiitake, eleuthero, ginger and echincacea, and is safe for children, pregnant women and the elderly.
August 23rd, 2009 § § permalink
teasel and bee
This summer, I have not harvested or made much medicine beyond blending teas. Instead, I find myself staring off at plants, wondering about them. One that has attracted much of my attention and wonderment is teasel.
It’s not hard to be intrigued by teasel. It grows tall and stately, and its stems, ribs and flower heads are lined with sharp spikes. The leaves join the stalk and create a cup where rain gathers. The flowers form a band or patch on the flower head with little sweet-smelling, tube-like periwinkle flowers. When that band or patch of flowers is done flowering, other parts of the flower head will be filled with flowers, traveling up, down and around.
Teasel is in its own family (the Teasel family, related to the Asteraceaes) and is an European introduction. All over the world, the sharp, bristle-like dried flower heads have been used for carding (or teasing) wool. Though it hasn’t been used much in Western and Native American medicine, it has a traditional use in Chinese medicine, where its name means “restore what is broken” (Wood, 234) or “heal fracture”.
teasels in bloom
I first came across teasel medicinally while working at The Medicine Tree is St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Every so often people would purchase a tea by Herbalists and Alchemists called “Teasel Combination Tea”. It is an eclectic blend of Chinese and Western herbs: mulberry root, Japanese teasel root, du huo root, sarsaparilla, fennel and cardamom. Here is what David Winston has to say about it:
“Based on a traditional formula, these herbs open the channels (meridians) promoting circulation of blood and qi. This tea also acts as a systemic anti-inflammatory, reducing stagnation and pain associated with joint injuries, tendon and ligament damage as well as arthritic pain and bursitis.” (103).
This makes teasel a good herbal choice for Lyme disease and other conditions where with painful joints. Although I tried the Teasel Combination Tea for taste (tasted slightly warm and bitter), I never used it specifically for treating joint pain or injury. I do not have a Chinese herbal at my disposal, but it seems obvious that teasel is used in cases of cold, damp and blood deficiency. Lesley Tierra does say that teasel tones yang, and has hemostatic, anti-rheumatic, bone-healing, and analgesic properties (77). Tierra precautions its use in signs of deficient yin and heat, but indicates it in
“sore and painful lower back and knees, stiffness in the joints, weak legs, uterine bleeding, white vaginal discharge…pain, traumatic injuries, healing of bones, skin sores, arthritis, rheumatism” (77).
Matthew Wood writes the most about teasel, citing many interesting case studies. He says;
“As far as I know, Teasel is a superlative medicine for the kidney esesnce. The muscle and joint pain, the deterioration of structure, the helplessness and loss of purpose, ect., all relate to this pattern.” (237)
teasel, dried in the fall
Tierra, Lesley. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
May 19th, 2008 § § permalink
For the second time on this blog, I have to state how much I love Iona Teeguarden’s The Joy of Feeling. This entry is drawn from her writings.
What energies and activities do we associate with spring? First and foremost, we see that THINGS ARE GROWING! This is very exciting, and I think it sets the mood for spring. No longer are seeds simple potential-packets, nor are the trees and other perennials satisfied to energetically chill out in their roots. No sir, now is the time for living things to actuate.
Hun is aspect of the psyche (as well as an aspect of nature herself) that is associated with spring. Hun could be described as the forces “which allow us to carry out our functions and responsibilities.” The tree is the symbol of Hun, wood the substance. Teeguarden explains that the tree is a symbol for self-actualization, and that “the psychic activity of Hun is like the force that causes a little seed to sprout, to push its way through obstructions of the dark soil, to finally emerge into the light, growing towards the life-giving rays of the sun.”
The website Renew 5 (http://renew5.org/index.php?page=the-five-elements explains beautifully the aspects of Hun and Spring; here is an excerpt:
“[On an individual level] Spring is a time to articulate vision both long and short term; a time to be strategic with plans for the future, and to take specific actions right now. This is an excellent time to be creative and filled with determination. [On an organizational level] Spring is a time to mobilize resources; to set the vision for the year ahead and to do fiscal planning. It is time for teams to set plans in motion; a time of movement, of creation. Tough decisions need to be made in order to ensure success in the year to come.”
If you are new to Chinese Medical philosophy, it may seem strange to include wood as a basic element, along with water, fire, earth and metal. Most of us are used to the ancient Greek humoral theory, there are four elements: fire, air, water and earth. These four elements are present among some Native American peoples, and associated with the four seasons and for directions. In contrast, Aryuveda has three elements of fire, water and earth. The five elements are related to each other both in the shape of a star and a clock-wise circle.
As you can see, Hun and the element of wood is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder. The feelings and qualities of the wood element are those which help us actualize and direct ourselves outward: inspiration, planning tasks and carrying them out to their end, assertiveness, using verbal communication positively, developing responsibility and being efficiently organized. On the road to becoming the the person we want to be and taking up our space in the world, we are bound to experience either too little or too much of the Hun energy. Teeguarden describe the difference between the deficient feelings of powerlessness and the excess feelings of aggressiveness: “One extreme is being unable to express oneself or take charge; the opposite extreme is a tendency towards over-control, or an egotistical desire to demonstrate power over others (p. 73).”
No matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum, we would be well off to strive for a middle ground of asserting ourselves without force. For me, this takes place in the daily tasks on my to-do list. I tend to try to accomplish as much as possible one day, then the next day or two (or three!) I have low energy and can’t seem to get anything done. There is nothing wrong with taking impromptu time off from the daily grind, but I wish I had more energy during those days off to really enjoy them, rather than be frustrated because I am falling behind. At this point, I may become angry with myself, placing blame and beating myself up for “not doing enough”. The cycle starts again when I overcompensate by busily take care of stuff all day long, trying to control everything in sight, and becoming angry with myself when I can’t control it enough.
How do you think one could reach middle ground when in this cycle? I have found that being more regular and steady with my activities has helped; I try to do a little of my “have-tos”everyday rather than a lot one day and nothing the next. Also, I have learned to recognize the difference between motivation and the desire to control my surroundings (which usually stems from being frustrated or angry with myself). Now I know that when I am motivated to do something, it is more enjoyable and I do it better and more complete. The more I act on motivation and inspiration the more it comes to me; and the less I try to make myself do things, the less room there is to feel inspired.
It is normal to feel angry when we are not being the self we want to be. It is difficult to not become frustrated when restrictions get between us and what we think should be (p. 74). When we get to this point, we must remember to be self-assertive enough to channel frustration into creative ways to actualize our potential.
Teeguarden, Iona. The Joy of Feeling
March 13th, 2008 § § permalink
One of the first herbs I used was dang gui. Still, I have a hard time understanding this herb so here is my attempt at gaining clarity. Any comments about indications for or experience with this herb would be much appreciated!
Its botanical name is Angelica sinensis (a common species name, meaning “of China”). Dang gui is one of them many members of the volatile oil containing Apiaceae (parsley) family. It is one of the most popular Chinese herbs in the US. Foster and Chongxi state that dang gui is the most used herb in China, for “it is used more frequently and in larger amounts that ginseng and licorice, often considered the most widely used Chinese herbs”.
Its flavor is sweet with an earthy bitterness. The taste can be strong for some, but I have witnessed that those who need it crave it and love its distinctive smell. I have a entirely non-technical and strange way to associate herbs with colors; to me dang qui conjures a dusty lavender taupe color. Every time I smell it I think of chalk and afternoon recess in 5th grade and I feel as if I am smelling it with my jaw. Don’t ask me why! Weird, I know, but it happens every time so I feel it is worth noting although they are very individual. I digress…
Dang gui has quite the reputation as a woman’s herb, mostly because it is warming and tonifying to the blood, and can regulate menstruation. It has emmenagogue, mild laxitive and analgesic properties. Also, it Harmonizes vital chi, nourishes the blood and returns them both to proper order, like for headaches due to blood deficiency or traumatic injury. Of course, men and non-menstruating women can use this herb for Blood Deficiency; in fact my dog will walk over to where I keep my powdered Chinese herbs and whine until I give her some. She has skin problems, and is dry and flaky half the time. Within my references, these are some indications for dang qui:
- building blood, anemia
- menstrual complaints of all kinds: dysmenorrhea, irregularity, amenorrhea
- menopausal complaints
- fibroids (most likely does not contain phytoestrogens)
- some vaginal infections
- abdominal pain
- circulatory problems such as angina, thromboses, coronary heart problems
- “Damp Wind” conditions with joint and muscle pain and inflammation
- injury, arthritis, rheumatism
- dry skin and skin eruptions
- promoting circulation (it moistens the intestines)
- sores and abscesses
- blurred vision and headaches due to Deficient Blood
As mentioned, dang gui is a well known emmenagogue, so it generally not to be taken during the heaviest days of menstruation if you are a heavy bleeder, nor during the first trimester. However, it can be quite helpful during scanty menses and amenorrhea. This leads me to think that dang gui would be of good use for pain towards the end of the period, not necessarily for pain at the start of the period (possibly due to Stagnant Blood). Michael Tierra precautions to avoid use if there is abdominal bloating and congestion (damp Spleen), as well as in Deficient Yin with heat symptoms (since dang gui is heating itself).
We see in the above list many of the tell-tale signs of Deficient Blood. In Chinese medicine, the blood nourishes and moistens the cells and organs, which warms the body. “Deficient Blood arises when there isn’t enough Blood in the body to preform its nourishing and moistening functions” (Tierra, 148). Let’s not forget that patterns of imbalance do not manifest on their own but relates to other organs and functions in our body. For instance, Blood is related to the Heart (directs the blood), the Liver (which stores it and works to renew it while we sleep) and the Spleen (holds blood in the vessels, and builds it through digestion). Bleeding, over-exertion, yin deficency or spleen chi deficiency (resulting in poor digestion and lack of assimilated nutrients) can lead to Blood Deficiency.
Here are some patterns of Blood Deficiency. Does anyone else see a relation to the Kidneys, adrenal glands, and Shen? Can you see how dang gui would help?
- blurry vision
- restlessness, insomnia, anxiety, sometimes irritability
- scanty menses
- tendency towards thinness
- dark spots in visual field
- dry skin, hair, eyes
- lack of luster, pale face and lips
- tiredness or overwhelmed
- easily startled
- poor memory (Tierra, 148)
Lesley Tierra, “Healing With the Herbs of Life”
Michael Tierra, “Planetary Herbology”
Simon Mills, “The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine”
February 17th, 2008 § § permalink
After I wrote the entry on headaches, I started to get one. What’s with that? I haven’t had a headache in at least three or four years! Anyways, it was an annoying and painful experience, since I had it for seven days. Maybe it was because I needed to write more about headaches…
This headache was dull, located in the temples down into the face for six days. The fixed pain was so mild I didn’t realize it was there most for most of the day but made itself apparent when I laid down at night. I was under a lot of emotional stress, especially the last day when the pain was the worst.
The seventh day it was located in the same place, but became progressively stronger as the day wore on. By the time I went to bed it was unbearable, keeping me up for hours. The pain was mediated when I rubbed my whole head, neck and shoulders, but I as soon as I stopped it would assuredly return. The headache had no relation to eating.
Pain in the temples can indicate heat in excess or deficiency or stagnant Liver Qi. The Gallbladder meridian was very tender, painful even, to the touch. Pressing the points on my face and neck felt wonderful, as if it was releasing pressure.
Since pressure made the headache feel better (albeit temporary) a deficient condition is indicated here. The fact that the pain increased at night is due to Deficient Blood, as does the fact that the worst part of the headache occurred at the end of the period.
Deficient Blood and Stagnant Liver Qi describe more than just a headache pattern, it also fits in with my general constitution. Blood Deficiency is aided by nourishing herbs like equal parts of dang qui, cooked rehmannia, lycii, ligusticum, white peony, jujube with a half part of licorice with blackstrap molasses. For the latter, Tierra recommends two capsules each of turmeric and cumin taken with fennel tea and five drops of lobelia tincture.
Unfortunately, my herb supply is low so couldn’t try any of Tierra’s suggestions. The only thing I had to work with is a tincture of black cohosh, blue cohosh, skullcap, kava and lobelia. I took three teaspoon doses of this on the last night when the pain was the worst. A mug of miso soup helped sooth the nauseousness caused by the lobelia, and in thirty minuets I fell into a headache-free sleep.
The origin of this headache can be traced to a sub-par diet, muscular tension and emotional stress. My work situation has caused much worry and placed me in a definite funk, and the lack of funds has impeded on purchasing fresh food. Because of the below zero weather with 30 below wind-chill, I have not taken my regular hikes. I have no real excuse for not practicing yoga, though, unless you count the uninspired funk.
The tincture I used is actually quite indicated when the causes of my headache are taken in consideration. A response to the intense stress was to gather tension in the neck and upper back, which I feel caused the muscles of my head to get out of whack. The lack of exercise combined with the bitter cold further tensed my whole body, and stagnated the liver because of decreased circulation. Of course lack of nourishing food further slowed the liver and depleted the blood.
Skullcap alleviated the pain and relaxed the mind from its constant stewing. Kava had a similar action, with more of a sedative, anodyne and sleep-promoting action. In the future I will try kava for tension headaches more often. Blue cohosh invigorated the blood and acted on spasmodic muscles, as did black cohosh especially on my tight neck and spine. This was the first time I used lobelia, but I could feel its presence in both my nerves and muscles as soon as it touched my lips.
Reference: Tierra, Lesley. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
February 10th, 2008 § § permalink
A while back I was talking to a friend who had migraines about six times a year, but came two at a time. She would have one for two days, then within a week she’d come down with another. I felt very sympathetic for her and everyone else who are prone to headaches, and thought to myself, “I’d rather have horrible menstrual cramps then a headache any day”. At least with cramps, you know when they are coming and when they will be done.
To be honest, the main reason I’d rather have cramps is because there is something so elusive, so hard to pin down about headaches. Feverfew has been proven to help migraines, but I have known it to not work on some people. Laying down with a wet rag over their eyes help some people, but others feel the headache actually get worse when resting. When I got Lesley Tierra’s Healing with the Herbs of Life I became enamored with her chapter about headaches. Part of the mystery of headaches dissolved as I discovered that there are about twenty different types of headaches from a Chinese perspective. Consider the nature of the headache in combination with the temperament of the person.
Where is the headache located?
Temples (one side or both), top of the head, sides of the heads, behind the eyes, forehead, back of head, whole head, face.
How often does it occur?
Twice a year, twice a month, twice a week. Acute or chronic.
What is the nature of the pain?
Dull, sharp, heavy, stabbing, empty, pulling, stiff, changes from one sensation to another.
How is it related to your state of health or life style?
Menstrual cycle, sinus infection, addiction withdrawal, hypertension, stress, high cholesterol, holidays, during work, pregnancy and postpartum.
How is it related to your emotional state?
Frustrated, angry, after crying, worried about money, relationship problems, anxiety or fear.
When is it triggered? Is it worse or better during the following:
Eating in general, eating specific foods, resting, pressure, cold, heat, activity, lying down, daytime, damp weather, menstrual cycle.
Tierra recommends equal parts of Feverfew, Chamomile, Willow Bark, and Angelica, with the Feverfew as a general formula for acute headaches. An alternate formula is Rosemary, Poplar, Willow, Wintergreen and Angelica. A general formula from Simon Mills for nagging but mild headaches is Linden, Yarrow, Self-Heal, and Wood Betony. These help by dilating the blood vessels, stimulating blood circulation, and dulling the pain sensation. Sounds like a perfect cure-all until you consider that not all headaches are caused by constriction of the blood vessels. Mills explains:
“…most migraines are accompanied by vasoconstriction of blood vessels, a significant minority are not; sufferers of the former often obtain relief by applying hot packs to the head and are probably more suited to Feverfew than those of the latter.”
These “general formulas” can also be called generic. They help symptomatically, they are formulated for the condition, not the personal constitution. Here is just one example of headache differentiation for someone with Blood stagnation, who shows:
- Headache fixed in one place
- Intense, severe pain; stabbing and boring
- Side of body, ribs, abdomen may be painful/sore
- Dark tongue, purple
- In women there might be painful periods with dark blood clots
- Dark complexion
Equal parts of Corydalis, Motherwort, Salvia, Cyperus and Ligusticum is recommended by Tierra. In this formula, the Corydalis is an anodyne for severe pain and breaking up stagnant blood, Motherwort and Salvia stimulates blood circulation without being too warming and also soothes the nervous system, Cyperus addresses stagnant Qi, while Ligusticum moves both stagnant Qi and Blood that can cause the intense, stabbing pain. But even the twenty patterns of headaches can be generic when the focus is still on the condition, not the person.