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A tea when everything’s perfect

Why do I use herbs more when I am sick then when I am well? Perhaps because most of what I know about herbs came from reading about how to help the body in times of illness. At the point at or just prior to the start of a health imbalance, I reach out for more pointed botanical support and either restore vitality or get sick, convalesce and then restore vitality. Herbs help us regain a sense of wholeness, or offer something we are lacking.

Even the herbs I use preventativly to build reserves, like the nourishing, vitamin- and mineral-rich plants like nettle, raspberry leaf, alfalfa or even supportive roots such as dandelion, burdock and yellow dock to give me something. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the quest for support, well-being, and wholeness. It’s kinda part of the whole point of herbalism. Indeed, there is an inherent need to be engaged with consistently taking care of ourselves with food, rest, exercise and so on, just to make it through the day (otherwise we could end up like the guy from Super Size Me).

One of the first herbal medicine books I read (and thoroughly adored) was Rosemary Gladstars’ Herbal Healing for Women. I particularly enjoyed her “Joy Tea”, (with hawthorne berries, leaf and flower, hibiscus, cardamom and more) not only because it was delicious, but because she suggested to be drink it in times of joy, like celebrating the birth of a baby. I made a big batch and gave it to friends and family for he holidays.

What about sipping tea without any expectations? How would my favorite herbs change if I didn’t want some specific action in return?

I tried chamomile, figuring it is a good place to start since it is often a beverage tea. I tasted this perennial favorite herbs of mine in a new way, to my surprise it was bitter in a sour, even when it was still hot. Hmm…

I tried skullcap tea. Yes, I use dried skullcap even thought I have heard it is not nearly as effective as when it is fresh. In the past, it has ‘worked’ by making me sleepy  and quieting a million-thoughts-a-minuet mind. I waited to see if that would happen without needing it to (nothing happened).

I was feeling like tinkering around with my dried herbs and tried to make a licorice spice tea. The key word is “tried”; it tasted flat.

Then next day I got a great idea: how about a tea bag from a store bought tin! Perfect. I never expect them to do anything except be warm and tasty and easy. I picked rooibos, and it was good. I realized I was thirsty swallowed a pint of it in one drink. Damn, it was serving a purpose: hydration.

Finally I came to my senses. It’s full-on summer time, the garden in in full bloom, why not gather some fresh herbs for my ‘tea for when everything’s perfect’ tea. I gathered whatever looked good: heart’s ease pansy, catmint, thyme, mallow flowers, spearmint and bee balm, placed them in a jar, poured on some hot water, drank a while later. It spicy, minty and delicious.

Perfection is a relative term, and certainly not the rule. I don’t strive to be “perfect” or feel bad when I am not. To me, perfection is a more like contentment, a state when I don’t need anything and am reminded to simply appreciate things around me and offer gratitude for them being the just the way they are.


Reflections on Chinese Medicine, Resolved

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.


Upcoming Women’s Health and Botnaical Medicine Classes

I have three classes scheduled before I move from Duluth. This series of classes combines two subject very near and dear to my heart: women’s health and herbalism. I find that they support each other nicely, for many years I have seen these two topics as partners. It is my wish that mainstream women’s studies continues (or starts) to embrace empowering modalities that help us learn to care for ourselves.


Plant ID – Who are these?

I have two plants I cannot identify. I have looked online, to no avail. The lily-ish one looks very familiar, I know it is in a field guide (but I have packed all of my field guides, so I am flying blind here). Anyone know?

I love this purple one. It was a vine of some sort, growing close to the ground at one spot and up a shrub in another.


Herbal Aspirations

All this time away from the internet has created a lot of space for reflection. I am a constant question asker, and of course I ask myself questions related to herbalism. One such point of reflection is simply: what are my goals?

  • Attend more conferences. I love conferences. I have gone to a few and always learn a ton. Plus, it is great to be surrounded by all the plant people! I can only be a solitary learner so long before I start craving learning from an actually person, not a book. Here are a few I have my eye on:
  1. Medicines from the Earth. I am going this year and can hardly wait.
  2. Mid America Herb Symposium. Held in Winona, MN.
  3. Women’s Herb Conference. I got to go in 2007, and it was a such a blast! It was good for the soul to be around so many fabulous women herbalist.
  4. Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference. I have never been to the Southwest. Now I have even more of a reason to get down there; this conference sounds amazing!
  5. Years ago, I spied an international botanical medicine conference in India that seemed interesting. Of course now I can’t find it. Here is the International Herb Symposium that happens every other year in New England.

  • Finish Home Study Course. When I was an intern at Sage Mountain, I received a copy of Rosemary Gladstar’s home study course in herbalism. I read through it all when I was interning, but didn’t start the course work. That was almost 3 years ago, and I have barley started since. It is such a gift to have received it and I want to finish it! I love how it combines different aspect of herbalism; materia medica, body systems, action categories, food and nutrition, health philosophy, ect…
  • Learn about Western herbal history, from way back when to Greece to present day. I am fascinated by healing and medical theories, and want to learn more. Much of my interest was sparked by this comparison of the history of Chinese medicine and Western medicine By Roger Wicke, Ph.D.
  • Explore different types of herbalism. Who are the Eclectics, the phisomedicalists, Thompsonions? They all interest me. The little taste of Southern folk herbalism history I heard from Phylis Light was brand new and intriguing to me. And what’s going on in European herbalism? I majored in Anthropology and delight in exploring the cultural implications of different schools of thought. I would like to  delve deeper into plant spirit medicine, shamanism, and Native American herbal traditions, too.
  • Continue meeting plants. Plant identification is a journey that never ends. I have lost some of my taxonomy sharpness since I’ve been out of college, so I need to brush up on my plant families and the relations in between them. This year I have meet a few new plants and want to figure out who they are! Soon I’ll post some questionables.
  • Streamline classes. I have been teaching a couple basic herb classes for a while. Each time that I do, I find that I make them more simple and to the point. I have learned that information needs to be accessible and built on a solid foundation, I’d like to apply this to more classes.
  • Learn from other herbalists. One of the reasons I am moving from Duluth is that I need an educational community. I don’t have a lot of experience, so I thirst for the opportunity to learn from others’.  Which is one reason I love reading blogs and books!
  • Read intro books on Chinese medicine. I know I’ll be steeped in Chinese medical theory in school this fall, but I can’t wait.  This summer I want to read/reread these three books:
  1. Between Heaven and Earth. A Guide to Chinese Medicine. by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.
  2. Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life. by Gail Reichstein.
  3. The Web that Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. by Ted Kaptchuck.
  • Organize and downsize! My herb paper work is a disaster. My overzealous tincture making is bursting at the seams. Do I really need 20 ounces of bugelweed in brandy? Help!
  • Work as an herbalist. Yes, I’d like to be a practicing herbalist someday! I have seen a few clients, but I would like to see more. When I’m ready I’d love to embrace herbalism as my full-time job. This is a long-term goal.
  • Promote herbal teas. People ask me all the time where they can buy my teas, besides the web. I have them in one store (Rooted Folks Community Wellness), and I think I could find a couple others, too. I need to get over my fear of marketing and being in business. Yes, I admit it, it is challenging to me. But I’m working on it and realizing that being in a healing field doesn’ t mean that it’s a sin to charge for your services, and that promoting a product doesn’t mean your deceptive.

The Simplest Herbal Cleanse

Let’s say you are interested in doing some sort of cleanse and would like to add herbs for extra nourishment and support. Where should you start? Well, that is entirely up to you and your needs.

One thing I like to to is start general and easy. Simple means rather than specifically focusing on one body system (like the skin or urinary system) to base herbs around, start with alteratives, lymphatics or other herbal categories that are more supportive of the whole body. After a few weeks, perhaps the body systems that need more attention will present themselves (something I heard from Nicholas Schnell). By easy, I mean don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to keep up with taking a plethora of herbs! Why not choose some herbs that are local to your region? Depending on the season, harvest some tender tops of nettle or dandelion roots if you can to add the zest and vital nature of wild foods to your protocol. Easy also means it’s not too complicated to make, like good old-fashioned teas. Above all, herbs should be individualized. Here are my personal guidelines for a basic three-week herb-supported cleanse:

Week one:

  • Drink a quart (4 cups) of a decoction of one herb, an alterative, daily.
  • Drink a pint (2 cups) of an infusion on one herb, from an action category of your choosing that supports cleansing, daily.
  • Follow the dietary guidelines of your choosing.
  • Include any adjunct practices for body and mind, and make any other lifestyle changes.
  • Note: I often alternate a few different herbs for the infusion, but I keep them withing the same action category. For example, dandelion root on Mon., yellow dock on Tue., burdock on Wed., Oregon grape on Thu., dandelion on Fri. – Sun. I would not alternate red clover  (a lymphatic) and skullcap (a nervine), because I don’t see them as analogous remedies.

Week Two:

  • Continue the teas as in week one.
  • Step the diet, home spa practices and any other mental/emotional/spiritual work up a notch. For example, if you were doing a diet of whole foods, see if you can eat 10 servings of fruits and veggies a day rather than 5. Go for a walk every day instead of three times a week, meditate or journal for longer.
  • Take 30-40 drops of a personalized tincture, to support cleansing of the whole body, three times a day.

Week three:

  • Option one: continue as in week two.
  • Option two: change teas and tinctures to move from generally supporting the whole body to more specifically working with weak areas that have showed up.

Is that simple or what?! In truth I hardly want to call it a cleanse because there is nothing fancy to it. One more thing to add: simple can be effective! You don’t have to be taking 25 herbal capsules and drink 5 gallons of tea to feel better. Quality and intention are often more important than quantity.

How you feel at the end of a cleanse, whether physically, mentally or emotionally, will vary from person to person. The first time I did an intentional cleanse, I felt great during but was back to my lethargic self as soon as it ended because I didn’t make lasting dietary changes. The next time I cleansed was the opposite; I felt awful during the cleanse but wonderful afterward! A few years later, I tried it again with my husband and felt so depleted and weak I quite halfway through the cleanse to have a cheeseburger. No kidding. Yeah, it was bad timing for me; it was late fall and getting quite chilly, I was iron deficient and had just finished bleeding. Cleansing and restrictive diets when you are depleted in any way are not a good idea. Instead, I listened to my body and added nutrient-rich foods and blood-building herbs and took lots and lots of naps and felt better shortly thereafter.

A few weeks ago, I completed the herb-supported cleanse I outlined above. It is definitely the easiest and most basic cleanse I have ever done, yet still effective. I restricted my diet a little bit, mostly of things I consider “junk” food. Yes, even certified organic, locally grown with utmost love and care, gourmet food can be “junk” (like potato chips and chocolate truffles). My dietary goal was to avoid the aforementioned “junk”, wheat, fried foods, coffee and sweets, and add in more veggies, grains and legumes. Simple. Herbal teas included burdock, dandelion, yellow dock concoctions and red clover infusions. I also started a personalized tincture blend that included lympatics, alteratives, liver and endocrine support.

More important to me than the diet was actually a fast from particular behaviors that had been getting on my nerves. I also added in activities that my soul had been yearning for, like reading Rumi, watching spring begin, and getting in contact with family and friends. At the end of the cleanse, I felt much more grounded and healthy, as if I have replenished my supplies to prepare for the transitions to come.

Burdock in Flower - Arctium Lappa

Supplements & Recipes for Cleansing

Demulcent Tea Blend

I go back and forth about how I feel about supplements (which includes but is not limited to vitamins, fiber, herbal capsules, amino acids, essential fatty acids, ect…). There have been times where they have served my health extremely well, and other times where I felt it had little if any effect. But that’s just my experience.

Now I honor supplements almost the same way I do Western biomedicine; as a wonderful offering of modern day technology that we can intentionally choose or occasionally need to take to empower our health or correct a serious imbalance.

That being said, there are two supplements I have seen work well with cleansing. The first is a fiber and/or digestive demulcents. I say “and/or” because although they are often combined together and work well as one, considering they act on the same place (the gut) they don’ necessarily need to be. Fiber supplements can do more than simply add more dietary fiber to your diet.  The “bulking” or absorptive quality of fiber can bind to heavy metals, cellular waste products and other general “toxins” and remove them, as well as increasing healthy bacteria in the gut. Demulcent herbs often added to enhance the actions of fibers, but offer their own level of healing, soothing and support for gut as well.

Fiber + Herbs Powder

  • 3 parts Psyllium husks
  • 2 parts Apple pectin
  • 1 part Triphala – (harada (Terminalia chebula), amla (Emblica officinalis), behada  (Terminalia belerica))
  • 1 part other demulcent herbs blend – marshmallow, licorice, plantain, ginger, or slippery elm

Mix all the powdered ingredients by weight, take 1 teaspoon mixed (shake water and herbs vigorously in a jar to mix thoroughly) in a cup of water or juice one a day. I think it is best to take fiber on an empty stomach or between meals, but I haven’t hear the final word so use your own judgment. During a cleanse, take daily. Some cleanse kits offer a similar fiber supplement to take three times a day during a fast. Doing so works surprisingly well at keeping hunger at bay while providing enough bulk to stimulate digestion.

The next supplement is a mild herbal laxative. The only reason you may need a laxative during a cleanse is when you are fasting and thus not having regular (daily) bowel movements. During a cleanse in which you consume a normal amount of food (although it may be different food than normal!) you generally do not need a mild laxative.

You can find herbal “digestive simulators” on the market, but why not make your own? Making your own tea is cheaper and engages your senses, which is helpful when taking herbs like cascara sagrada and senna. Who knows? Maybe one sip is all you’ll need, and you can tell the moment it hits your tongue. Here’s a classic recipe from Rosemary Gladstar:

“Emergency Constipation Remedy”

  • 4 parts fennel
  • 3 parts licorice
  • 2 parts yellow dock
  • 1 part cascara sagrada
  • 1 part psyllium seed
  • 1 part senna

Prepare as a decoction. How much should you drink? That will be up to you. Start with one small cup a day, increase if needed. Not for long term use.

Another “supplement” comes to mind for cleansing, although it is more of an herbal formula, and that is a bitters tincture. Bitters! I love them. I love making them, because you can personalize the bitters to your needs.

Formula for Bitter Tincture:

  • 1 part artichoke leaf
  • 1 part dandelion root
  • 1 part wild yam
  • 1 part gentian root
  • 1 part fennel seed
  • 1/2 part orange peel
  • 1/2 part ginger
  • 1/2 part cardamon
  • 1/2 part angelica root

Prepare as a tincture. Take 45 drops (or a large dropperful) 30 mins. before each meal. Bitters assist digestion and assimilation, and are especially good for reliving bloating.

Garlic Lemonade/Broth

  • Chop 4-6 cloves raw garlic.
  • Bring to low a boil in 4 cups water for 30 minuets.
  • Cool a bit, add juice from 1 to 2 lemons.
  • Mix in honey or maple syrup to taste to taste.
  • If you would like a savory broth, add miso, bulion, ginger, scallions and grated veggies instead of the lemons and sweetener.

Here’s a time-tested recipe for a surprisingly tasty garlic drink. The first time I had it, a friend had cut me off – it was that good! It is pretty strong, so it might be a too stimulating to drink on a regular basis. 4 cups for a day or two in the spring, fall is the “dosage” I was told. This drink doesn’t have any particular reason to be affiliated with a cleanse, although the “stinking rose” is almost a household panacea with numerous health benefits.


Basic Congee Recipe

  • Add 1 cup white rice to about 8 cups water
  • Cook on medium for 2-4 hours. It takes a long time!
  • Add in your medicinal herbs, spices or veggies about half way through.
  • Eat and enjoy!

Congee is basically rice that has been cooked so much that it has fallen apart – it almost has the consistency of watery rice pudding. The congee is derives its flavor from the what you put it in. Actually, the rice in congee is simply a vehicle to deliver the herbs, spices of veggies you want. It makes a great meal during a cleanse because it is a gluten-free and easily digestible.

Don’t forget to add herbs! That’s one of the perks of congees – it blends easily with herbs. One of my favorite additions are Chinese herbs lotus berries, white mushrooms and black cumin seeds with a chopped fresh pear flavored with cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. Or I go for a fruity version: lycii (goji) berries, schizandra berries, elder berries and rose hips with a sliced blood orange and cinnamon.

The herbs that work good in congees are dried fruits, berries, roots, seeds, fungus, that sort of thing. Anything you would normally decoct for a tea would probably fly (although some really woody roots would not be fun to chew, so remove them before serving). I would not add leaves and flowers, like peppermint or calendula as they would not blend well in the congee.


Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal.


Gardening Roots

I’ve been wondering lately how I’ve got to where I am now. At times it seems like life throws random people, events or places at you with no regard to your plans or wishes. But upon closer inspection, I found that those “random” events that “happened to me” more closely resemble an orchestra finding its harmony than a lottery.

This is most apparent when I think about how got into gardening in the first place. At first thought, I began gardening in college my then boyfriend (now husband) and I started a garden in the back yard our the house we rented. We borrowed a tiller, dug up the lawn, and planted squash, beans, kohlrabi, mustard greens, beets, carrots, tomatoes and hot peppers. Occasionally we watered and weeded, but mostly it kind of grew on its own. It was actually one of our better gardens.

Each summer after that, our gardens evolved and grew. I wish I could say they got progressively better, too, but we had bad years and good years in no particular order. One year in was dedicated almost entirely to making sacrifices to the gardening gods and weeds.

In 2007, someone asked me how I got interested in plants and was not satisfied with the “I dunno, it just happened one day in college” answer. Here are the major contributions to my love of plants and gardening.

Grandparents – My maternal grandparents were role models and teachers about gardening. As a child, I would stay with my grandparents in the county during the summers. They had a huge garden, veggies, fruits and flowers. My grandpa would thread cucumber flowers into small-mouthed jars, and after they grew into full-sized cucs in the jar he would show me to my amazement. I was also amazed at the way potatoes grew under ground.

Grandma told me all the names of her annuals, like morning glory, bachelor’s buttons and petunias, and showed me how to collect and save marigold seeds for the next year. My favorite part of the garden was the lying under the aromatic dill and watching monarch caterpillars make their chrysalis. And eating the monster strawberries that they grew. In fact, I ate so many in one summer that I became allergic to them, and couldn’t eat them without breaking out into hives until I was 18 (thank god I grew out oh that one!).

Underneath the two story house (that had four porches, a front, side, back and sun porch) was a dug out cellar. The steps to the house could be lifted up and propped to revel the earth “steps” into the cellar. Down there it was always cool. Jars of pickles and other canned goods lined the small space on handmade shelves. Apples and potatoes were wrapped individually in newspaper and stored in cardboard boxes. I loved going down into the cellar. It was like stepping into the underworld – with lots of food.

Grandma and Grandpa were not farmers themselves, but they were surrounded by crops, as they rented out the adjacent land to farmers. We would go to Threshing Parties (Thrashing, they pronounced it) and look at old farm equipment and displays. There was the various antique farm equipment they had scattered around their property, including horse and human-drawn tillers and potato harvesters. One summer there we visited Grandpa’s friend who was a parsnip farmer. His massive field held lacy, emerald green tops up to your knee of  parsnips so sweet and aromatic you could smell them wafting in the air. We pulled some up and Grandma made incredibly delicious parsnip gratin for lunch.

Genes? – I owe a lot of my interests and skills to my father’s side of the family. I didn’t have a lot of contact with my father after my parents split when I was three. When I would see my dad in the summer, he would show me his incredible gardens of vegetable I had never heard of, like endive, arugula, Brussels sprouts, and a structure resembling a dog house that was teaming with shiitake mushrooms.

In the woods, he showed me a species of cactus he discovered (growing in Wisconsin!) and American ginseng he grew and sold. One of my aunts invited me over for lunch and I’ll never forget it. She served me some organic, crunchy granola, healthy type food (looking back it must’ve been something like quinoa, kale and tofu) that I despised at the time but now I love and appreciate (and grow) that sort of food now.

Growing up where I did – The beautiful river town where I grew up, St. Croix Falls, WI was a grand place to have a childhood. It was there that I gained an appreciated for the beauty and bounty of nature. My friends and I would spend summer afternoons roaming the streets and woods hitting up the blackberries, June berries and columbine and finish off with a dip in the river. We played doctor (innocent, I swear) in the woods with lance-like lily leaves to wrap our broken limbs and the collected dew inside to wash our wounds.

While I can’t say that I come from a long line of farmers, I bet my lineage contains people who lived close to the land. Most people (dare I say all?) of the past had to rely on the foods around them (whether gathered or harvested) for survival. Now is an exciting time because people are again electing to grow food of their own. I am excited to continue gardening, hopefully for my whole life!


Alteratives and Lymphatics for Cleansing

Tender springtime growth of common weeds and herbs have been used for centuries as cleansing “spring tonics”. A few examples are nettle, chickweed, cleavers, dandelion greens, burdock, purslane, lamb’s quarters and violets. Most spring tonics are have at least two things in common; they’re bitter and nourishing.

The bitter taste stimulates and often improves digestion, as it promotes bile secretion (an earlier post about bitters is here). As the years go on and my taste repertoire expands, I find myself appreciating and even craving the bitter taste, especially if I’ve had too much fried or heavy food. The nutrition from some spring tonic herbs makes sense in the scheme of cleansing, too. Cleansing becomes counterproductive if what you are cleansing with is nutrient-devoid and does not support the body. Even strict fasts include something your body needs -pure water.

Below are a few lymphatic and/or alterative herbs that can be helpful during a cleanse to address your individual needs. Years ago when I first started taking herbs, the herbs I used during a period of cleansing were very different than what I use now. Echinacea, red root, figwort, blue flag and wild indigo were key players for me then, as I needed “cleanse the blood” and address chronic sore throats, infections, skin problems and tender, swollen lymph nodes. Now I like a yellow dock, licorice, ginger and cardamon decoction as well as an infusion of red clover to support digestion, liver and lymph.

It seems that many alteratives and lymphatics support digestion, assimilation and elimination, by promoting liver and gallbladder function, which increases bile, the main lubricant and promoter of the bowels. They also assisit the kidneys and lymph system in removing. Many promote healthy skin, and are useful in mild (acne) to chronic (eczema) skin conditions.

I like taking general liver/alteratives/lymphatic herbs first in a cleanse, then hone on the body system that presents itself as needing further assistance. Many body systems tie back to digestion, blood and lymph anyways and can be indirectly strengthened by alteratives. Take hormones and the endocrine system, for example. Alteratives support digestion, which in turn supports nutrient absorption and bowel motility, which reduces re-absorption of waste-product hormones. They also support the liver, and the healthier the liver is, the healthier our blood is and the better it can process the hormones that pass through it.

  • Dandelion root – A bitter tonic, stimulates the liver and bile production making it useful for sluggish liver and digestion. Dandelion contains inulin and FOS, which stimulate the growth of beneficial bowel flora.
  • Burdock root – Burdock also has inulin and FOS. Indicated in swollen lymph nodes, cystic breast disease and skin conditions. Supports the kidneys as well as the liver. The seed is also quite useful, especially for chronic skin problems like eczema, though a little more difficult to harvest (unless you like to sift through burdock burrs!).
  • Yellow dock – Bitter and earthy yellow dock increases iron absorption and storage, often used as iron tonic. Use it similarly as dandelion and burdock: skin conditions (acne, eczema, ect…) and poor digestion (constipation, sluggish liver).
  • Oregon grape root – Good liver tonic and cholagogue. Oregon grape supports digestive symptoms of PMS, especially constipation. Soothes the genito-urinary mucus membranes, useful for UTI. Specific for acne on back and chest (Winston).
  • Sarsaparilla – Sarsaparilla is a noted anti-inflammatory and can be soothing to hot skin conditions like psoriasis, arthritis, inflammation of the connective tissue (Winston).
  • Figwort – A great lymph, blood and skin tonic. I like figwort for times my lymph feels particularly overburdened with chronic swollen glands, sore throat, stiff neck or acne.
  • Sillingia – A small dose (5-15 drops of tinctures) of stillingia alone or in a lymph formula has been used for assisting lymph, kidney, skin and liver.
  • Echinacea – Echinacea is known as an immune modulator but is also as an alterative, blood cleanser and lympatic. Especially useful for skin infections and conditions; boils,  hives, eczema, psoriasis and septicemia (Smith, 33).
  • Red Clover – Red clover is in my first line of support for singular swollen lymph nodes (rather than a bunch of little swollen lymph nodes, which, according to Matthew Wood, calls for calendula). Also useful for chronic coughs and postnasal drip.
  • Cleavers – Gentle but effective lymphatic and diuretic. Can be soothing to the nerves, too.
  • Chickweed – Chickweed can be used externally for inflammation and itching, but is also a mild diuretic, vulnerary and anti-inflammatory. Not the strongest acting herb, but it is very prolific and quite tasty as a salad green.
  • Calendula – A bit bitter, calendula is a liver tonic, anti-inflammatory and lymphatic. Externally, it is renowned for disinfecting and soothing cuts, rashes and infections.
  • Poke – Poke oil is externally stimulating and soothing to areas of lymph stagnation, especially breast tissue.
  • Red root – This herb is specific for the mucosa and lymphatic congestion.
  • Alder – Alterative and cholagogue called for in cases of skin conditions and infections and chronic constipation or sluggish digestion.

Finding herbs to use as part of a cleanse can seem complicated, especially when you consider the many “herbal detox” products that line the shelves at a health foods store. I suggest herbs be kept simple and individualized. “Treat the person, not the disease”.


Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.

Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.

Smith, Ed. Therapeutic Herb Manual.


Adjunct Practices for Cleansing

We are more than just our physical bodies.

Within each of us is an emotional body, the part of ourselves that interprets the meaning of our life events through feelings and emotions. We also have a spiritual body, which is reflected in our development to our sense of purpose of our lives and how we connect to our highest self. Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true”; a great adage to describes the essence of our spiritual side. Mental health is yet another aspect of our beings.

Before we get into the details of cleanses and how herbalism can be used to assist and support the body for that purpose, let’s take some time to think about simple, cheap (often free!) and time honored ways we can add to increase the depth of a cleanse.

Below are just a few ideas for you to try. Feel free to add your own practices and listen to the desires and needs of your body.

Mental health:

  • Relaxing, uplifting music.
  • Reflection and introspection, through journaling, reading poetry.
  • Guided meditations or relaxation.
  • Creative pursuits like drawing, painting, sculpture.
  • Spending a bit of each day in nature, even if it is a simple walk in your yard to notice what’s growing and living next to you.
  • Dream work.

Spiritual and Emotional body:

  • Clean, organize and rearrange your living spaces.
  • Connect with others, share your appreciation through letters, calls or thoughts.
  • Charting personal goals and aspirations – no matter how far fetched (note: this should be different that a to-do list).
  • Make a list of 25 things that make you happy and do one each day (a recommendation from Nicholas Schnell, a great Nebraska herbalist who has a fabulous book about cleansing).
  • Engaging in a spiritual practice.
  • Rituals of starting anew, letting go or anything in between.

Physical body

  • Saunas, steams, sea salt baths.
  • Massage, professionally or at home.
  • Skin brushing, salt scrubs.
  • Stretching, yoga, martial arts.
  • Exercise that is pleasing to you.
  • Slow walks (an amazing practice taken from Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage) or brisk walks.
  • Lots of sleep! Naps if you need them.

What is a Cleanse?

Spring is a supreme time to lighten from the heaviness that lingers from winter. Whether it is from our rich, comforting diet, the stagnant air of having the windows shut for months, or the weight of our upcoming plans we dreamed up during the long nights of winter, we often have the desire, or need, to gear up for the outward expression of summer. An excellent way to usher in a new phase is to do some form of intentional cleanse.

A cleanse is simply a way to support the body’s natural detoxification with a specified diet for a designated length of time. The specified diet is up to you and your goals, but here are few common cleansing diets:

  • Whole foods. A diet that emphasizes fruits, veggies (at least 5 servings), slow-cooked whole grains, legumes, small amounts of dairy and animal protein, if you partake, and lots of water and herbal teas. Fast food, fried foods, junk food, sweets, processed foods and drinks, stimulants and intoxicants are left out. Even if you are a pretty conscious eater, this can be a great cleansing diet to start with. I think this is what popular weight loss diets are striving for (real food!), but more than often miss the mark (by a long shot).
  • Restricted diet. This is taking the whole foods diet a step further, by either avoiding a particular food on purpose, like dairy, wheat or red meat, or including foods you want to eat as a mainstay of the cleanse, like soup, kichiree or congee.
  • Elimination diet. A process of systematically cutting out, and then adding back in, specific foods to see if there is physical evidence of a negative or allergic reaction. Marcell Pick has a good list to check out of foods to eliminate on different levels.
  • Fasting. Includes the popular “supreme cleanse” (1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/8 – 1/4 cups maple syrup, pinch of cayenne in a quart of water), water fast, colon cleanse (often with supplemented juice), with our without herbal support.

Nicholas Schnell highlighted something in a 2008 class about cleansing that has really stuck with me: you need to have a definite time frame. Anywhere from 3 days to 6 weeks is good. And don’t go crazy, there’s no need to start with a 40 day fast! Defining your boundaries is important, other wise you may get lost in the always-needing-to-cleanse zone. You plan a three week elimination diet, take a little excursion with a cookie or two (but they’re organic!), feel defeated and then start all over again. That is simply unsustainable and not really healthy, either.

Which brings me to another point I need to make about cleansing; be gentle with yourself! It is not about perfection. Who cares if you get it just right, or even about having a certain outcome. On this note, you may want to define your personal reasons for cleansing as well as your beliefs and expectations.

What is the purpose of a cleanse? Why are so many people intrigued by the idea? When I worked at a co-op in the health and body care section, it became apparent that some populations of people are obsessed about cleansing the body. I certainly agree that there are a plethora of man-made chemicals that are assaulting Earth and all her creatures, and I think that we must strive to find alternatives to environmental pollutants. However, I do not think that humans are innately “toxic” and need to be fasted and cleansed constantly to have a fighting chance at health (Susun Weed discusses this issue as she compares the scientific, heroic and wise way healing philosophies in Healing Wise). Our body is incredibly capable in detoxifying, and is constantly doing so. We can, however, take actions to not impede its efforts as well as help it along.

A cleanse should transform the whole body. Many people find that their thoughts, spirit, emotions, body, lifestyle and diet change during and after a cleanse. A cleanse usually includes a restricted diet so the digestive system can work on healing itself rather than digesting food. Adding medicinal herbs to a cleanse promotes both tissue repair and toxin secretion, which will be another topic…