December 7th, 2008 § § permalink
When the first case of influenza was reported in Wisconsin, it made the news. This was over three weeks ago and I don’t remember the details, except that the recipient was an 11 year-old boy. Isn’t it odd that something so common can evoke such dread? Practically everywhere you go, people are talking about it. And if you go the a pharmacy or clinic, people are royally freaking out about it: Cold and Flu Season.
I have had my fair share of colds and flus. In fact, you could say more than my fair share. During the 9 months that I was employed as a preschool teacher, I contracted four flus with vomiting and five run-of-the-mill colds (not to mention a never-ending case of pink eye). It was quite the learning-and may I even say spiritual-experience. Every ounce of my body, mind, emotions and spirit was taxed and worn down. Luckily, a friend had the sense to chime in to my incessant “why must I endure being sick all the time” with, “can you imagine having a really bad disease and feeling worse than this everyday for the rest of your life?”. Perspective is amazing.
There are many body systems to pay attention to; the immune system of course, the upper respiratory system (nose, ears, throat, sinuses) and the lower respiratory system (the alveoli, respiratory bronchioles). As our body systems are interdependent, we must also look at the other organs of elimination in addition the the lungs (which eliminate carbon dioxide from the blood in exchange for oxygen from the air we breathe), the skin, kidneys, and the bowels. Get to know the following action categories:
- expectorants (both stimulating and relaxing) to bring up phlegm from the lungs,
- pulmonary tonics to strengthen the system
- demulcents to sooth irritated tissues
- anticatarrhals to lessen mucus
- antimicrobial herbs to ward off invading pathogens
- immune stimulants to support the body’s ability to stay healthy
- antispasmodics to reduce spastic coughing
- astringents to tone and dry up soggy tissues
- diaphoretics to support the body during fever
- lymphatics to ease swollen lymph nodes
Let us not forget the dietary and lifestyle practices. In particular, it is very important to limit or avoid mucus-causing refined starches (white flour), sugar (which also lowers immunity), and dairy products. While working at an herb shop in my home town, I saw people with chronic sinus congestion/infections stop eating dairy prior to getting well. Once the owner said something like, “that damn ice cream!” after visiting someone who’s sinusitis would not give up. Personally, I know that sweet stuff is a trigger for a sore throat and cold for me. A whole foods diet with lots of vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains rich in B vitamins, vitamin C, A and E, magnesium, zinc, selenium and quercetin are extremely important to prevent illnesses, fight them off, and recover from them in a timely manner. Warm, brothy soups and hot herbal teas are more than just comforting, the steam and warmth help to reduce pain and break up mucus congestion. Add a little scallion, horseradish, daikon and ginger to really open up the nose.
Exercise, stress reduction, sleep and deep breathing are also very important to staying healthy. Practically any form of exercise will do; it strengthens the muscles, bones, heart and lungs, and propels lymphatic fluid throughout the body. It also lifts the spirits, too. I just read that a daily walk outside is as effective as SSRI anti-depressants. The lymph system has vessels through which it circulates through the tissues like blood vessels, but unlike blood vessels, it does not have a pump like the heart. For lymph to properly circulate, it uses the tension created from the body in movement. Taking a few deep breaths can help keep the lungs healthy, and has been proven to lessen the chance of contracting pneumonia in the elderly.
A big contributer to susceptibility to respiratory infections that people (amazingly) often overlook when cold and flu season arrives is smoking. I personally find it an exercise in patience and detachment to not want to wring the neck of a smoker who doesn’t seem to know why they cough like crazy all day long, hack up nasty phlegm, get sick every winter or has chronic bronchitis. “Smokers are still more likely to die from chronic bronchitis than from lung cancer, and giving up smoking is the first and most important preventative measure” (Hoffmann, 329). Let us listen to our lungs! They are the living tree of our body.
More to come about cold and flu remedies.
November 9th, 2008 § § permalink
October 29th, 2008 § § permalink
Plantain has done it again! This plant never ceases to amaze me in its ability to suck out splinters, dirt, bug venom and bee stingers. A few days ago, I got a nasty sliver in my index finger. It was deep under the skin, and in there so good I couldn’t see how it broke the skin. I tried the usual at-home surgical tools (sterilized nail clipper, pin, and tweezers), and after removing layer after painful layer of flesh, I realized it wasn’t going anywhere. I bandaged it up and went to bed. The next morning, I found a few succulent looking leaves in the yard, chewed them up and placed it on the sliver-laden finger. I used a fresh bandage to keep it in place for the afternoon. Three hours later, I took off the plantain band-aid to investigate; not only was the sliver gone, but the formally raw and bothered flesh was healing together quite nicely.
Plantain (Plantago major) can quickly pique the interest of a non-herb person when they see how easy it is to use the leaves and how effective they are (I think yarrow has this effect on herb novices, too). Just pick a leaf or two, chew, apply, wait and be amazed. Matthew Wood has a chapter about plantain in The Herbal Book of Wisdom, giving accounts of plantain as “the primary ‘herbal drawing agent’” throughout herbal history from the Greeks to the eclectics and phyisomedicalists, to Anishinabe herbalists. It is interesting to note that plantain was integrated into Native American herbalism after it was brought here by the colonists. It is often called “white man’s footprint”.
Count on plantain to draw out infectious material both topically and internally from the mouth, lungs and large intestine. “It is an excellent general tonic for the gums, pulling out infection and toning the tissues”, especially when there are infections here with mucus (392). For the lungs, it is cooling and moistening to irritated tissue. Wood says he uses it for coughs where it seems a like some particle is causing irritation (393). David Hoffmann says plantain “…acts as a gentle expectorant whilst soothing inflamed and sore membranes, making it ideal for coughs and mild bronchitis”(224 ). For internal use, it is best to prepare an infusion of dried leaves, drinking about 3 cups daily.
For the large intestine, the mucilaginous leaves of this cool temperature plant soothes and coats membranes. Plantain “stimulates the activity of the intestines, coats and soothes the walls, detoxifies the blood supply and assists elimination” (Wood, 394). Speaking of detoxifying the blood, Rosemary Gladstar states that she uses it both topically and internally for blood poisoning (106). The well-known fiber supplement psyllium is made from the ground seed husks of a species of plantain, which is employed as a soothing laxative.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Family Herbal.
April 30th, 2008 § § permalink
Here is the long time in coming follow-up to a post I did a while back about Kidney Yang tonics. I realized in I need to resolve the ‘wintery’ topics and start thinking about ‘spring’ topics. From browsing some of my favorite herb blogs, I have fully realized how behind Northern Minnesota is, seasonally speaking. We are late bloomers! The grass just started to turn green last week, along with tiny dandelion whorls and a few budding trees. Luckily, I was able to harvest some Cottonwood buds last week after a storm broke a good sized branch to the ground. Umm, those resinous buds pack a powerfully good scent!
Ok, back to Yin… Yin, like Yang, is stored in the Kidneys. Yin is the watery foundation for the entire body; it moistens, nourishes and lubricates all the organs and tissues in the body. Yin and Yang may originate from the Kidneys, but of course are found all over the body and organ systems. We can talk about Yin in a general sense, or we can specify Stomach Yin or Deficient Liver Yin for example.
Yin concerns the fluids of the body: blood, lymph, muscles and connective tissues, reproductive and urinary fluids, and the fluids that lubricate the mucus membranes, skin and joints. It is normal for some Yin to diminish as we age. Basically, aging is when the Yin dries up; it is responsible for greying of the hair, lower libido, and dry, wrinkled skin. Vegetable foods and passive exercises like yoga preserve the Yin essence because they build rather than diminish our energy reserves. Herbs that nourish Yin build compassion, tolerance, patience. In my mind I have two ways of remembering Yin: I think of cigarettes as being the antithesis of Yin, and of amniotic fluid as being incredibly Yin.
When Yin is deficient, not only is the cooling, moistening qualities of Yin lacking, but Yang may overcompensate and become excessive with its warming and circulating energy. Remember that Yang is like the “pilot light for our energy system”, so if this energy is unchecked by Yin, what should be a little “pilot light” may turn into an inflammatory condition, and out energy system my go into autoimmune overdrive.
What do you think the symptoms of Stomach Yin deficiency would be? You guessed it: lack of stomach fluids. There may be other symptoms that overlap with Spleen Yin deficiency, like bloating and hunger with no desire to eat. Lung Yin deficiency manifests as a dry throat and cough without mucus, a great example of a lack of nourishing fluids.
Michael Tierra says that Kidney Yin tonics nourish the parasympathetic nervous system. Yin tonics support the cooling aspect of the adrenals. Kidney Yin Deficiency tends towards the following symptoms: Dry mouth at night, night sweats, dry throat with thirst, dizziness, tinnitus lack of libido and impotence, heat in palms, soles and chest, aches in the bones, constipation, dark, scanty urination, tendency towards being thin, dry and shriveled, malar flush, red tongue with no coat and a weak, tight and deep (thready) pulse.
Rehmannia is great for night sweats, thirst, back pains of kidney deficiency and to promote the healing of bones and flesh. We mention “wasting” or “wasting diseases”, tuberculosis is a good example, but any disease that effects you for a long time and steals your energy could be considered wasting, like scarlet fever or pneumonia. Rehmannia is enriches the blood, which makes it very replenishing and regulating to the menses. Add a bit of cinnamon or cardamon to make it more suitable for cold types, or use the prepared (rather than fresh or dried) version.
Lycii is sweet and nourishing. It is both a yin and blood tonic, which makes it handy in reproductive dryness. It is well known for strengthening and maintaining vision. Again used for yin deficiency (good for low back pain, weak knees and legs, impotence, tinnitus, poor eye sight) and wasting diseases, since it replenishes Chi. This delicious sweet and almost salty dried fruit is one of my favorite snacks.
Chrysanthemum, ligustrum, saw palmetto are other great nourishing herbs.