September 4th, 2011 § § permalink
I don’t have any numbers, statistics, or reports, but I’d bet that chamomile is one of the most well-known herbs we use. It is sold in the most typical of grocery stores, served at restaurants and referenced in the media and literature. I remember reading about it as a child in Beatrix Potter stories.
How many people without an herbal background would recognize bupleurum, eleuthero, hyssop or damiana if they heard them? Not many. How many would recognize ‘chamomile’? Many more, even though they may not know how to pronounce it (cha-mole-y, anyone?).
Despite being commonly known, Chamomile is not just a benign little flower that tastes sweet in your cup, it packs a powerful medicinal punch. Chamomile should not be thought of in terms of what specific diseases it can be used for, because there are too many uses to list, nor is is helpful to only think of what herbs can ‘do’. After reading though my favorite herb books, I summarize the actions of chamomile as being:
- Relaxing nervine for states of tension
- Aromatic and bitter for regulating digestion
- Anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy
- Safe, tasty and suitable for everyone, including babies, children, pregnant women and the elderly
- Matthew Wood says that “The fresh preparations preserve the oils, so they are more relaxing, the dried preparations are bitter and promote secretions to the stomach, G.I. and liver.”
Here are some of the chemical constituents present in chamomile and their generalized actions (mostly from Wood, but also from Simon Mills, David Hoffmann and Chanchal Cabrerra)
- Flavanoids - cooling and relaxing
- Bitter sesquiterpene lactones – stimulate digestive juices
- Volatile oils - antipyretic, anti-spasmodic, can reduce histamine-induced inflammation
- Mucilage – soothing, nutritious and immuno-stimulating
- Amino acids, fatty acids and many more
Cabrerra describes volatile oils as being helpful in allergic situations. These volatile oils reduces histamine-induced reactions mostly because Mills says they inhibit contractions provoked by histamine, acetylcholine, and bradykinin. Some, if not most, volatile oils have a counter-irritant effect on the body and cause local vasodilation, bringing fresh oxygenated blood to the area, and thus stimulating a healthy healing response. This explanation of inflammation makes me view anti-inflammatory herbs are actually pro-inflammatory. Inflammation is our body’s healing response. If we value inflammation as a positive, helpful and intelligent response from the body, then we would want a pro-inflammation response.
Chamomile isn’t my go-to herb for cold and flu, but after reading more about it, I will remember to add it in to steams, baths and teas the next time I catch a cold. Who doesn’t need a relaxing, tension reducing, and GI soothing and regulating herb when your sick in bed? Not to mention that it is used for people who are acting like babies, which I, for one, admit to feeling when I am sick. The gastrointestinal tract starts with the teeth well before it reaches stomach and intestines. Chamomile has been used in Europe for centuries for treating child complaints including teething, pain, whining and fussiness. One of the main indications for homeopathic chamomile is teething.
“Chamomile can be used for all sorts of tension, it can be used for menstrual cramps or people with a low tolerance for pain”, including “‘babies of any age’, petulant, self-centered, intolerant of pain or not having their way, inclined to pick quarrels, yet adverse to being touched, soothed or spoken to”.
I wish I would’ve had some chamomile candy to disperse when I was working with kids, because I have seen its effectiveness against babyish behavior. I have taken it for cramps, and although it didn’t decrease their severity, I did notice that the mental loop of negative, complaining thoughts ceased.
Aromatherapists Kathy Kevill and Mindy Green describe chamomile as an antidepressant, especially in individuals who are oversensitive, stressed out, anxious, hysterical, insomniacs or suppress anger. I think chamomile is indicated for people with a history of eating disorders, especially when digestive issues or sensitivity linger years after recovery.
Chamomile is a yellow, sunny, light herb with a depth to it. Flowers tend to ascend and disperse, but the bitterness weighs it down. It is a flower that has an affinity to the solar plexus, the middle jiao, and it is both dispersing to food stagnation and promotes coordinated movement of the digestive system due to its aromatic nature. It has been shown to speed up the healing of peptic ulcers, (Mills). The carminative properties of chamomile, with its volatile oils, helps relax the gut; at the same time, it has bitter properties that promote healthy bile flow, so that the system is not only relaxed, but keeps moving as it should (Mills).
My purely opinionated guess it that from a Chinese medical perspective, it enters the Spleen, Stomach and Liver meridians, possibly the Intestines or Lung. The Spleen and Stomach are the Earth organs, and are associated with our solar plexus, transformation and transportation of food, worry/over-thinking and with the flesh and muscles of the body – quite in alignment with the calming, relaxing and digestive properties of this herb, no? I think the Liver is involved because the Liver’s job is to circulate Qi freely around the body. When this isn’t happening efficiently, as can easily be caused by emotional upsets (especially pent-up anger or frustration), one can very easily feel stuck, tense and irritated, but luckily chamomile can release states of tension. A close cousin to chamomile and another white/yellow flower, chrysanthemum, helps calm the Liver, too.
If you remember from my previous entry about chamomile, I mentioned that Matricaria D genus name for German chamomile came from the word matrix referring to mother. Considering this, it is no surprise that chamomile is a gentle remedy for problems of the female reproductive system. I suppose it can be used in all sorts of situations, but I like to use it the best for morning sickness and nausea during pregnancy, tension during menstruation, menstrual cramps, and problems in appetite or digestion related to nervousness, your debility, or premenstrual tension. Aviva Rome, a midwife and an herbalist, also uses chamomile to relieve heartburn.
To get the most out of a simple cup of chamomile tea, steep it strong. 1 heaping tablespoon of herb for every one cup boiled water. Cover the vessel while it steeps and wait 10 to 20 min. before straining. If you wait longer, for the chamomile too cool from hot to room temperature, the bitter principals will strongly present themselves in your cup of tea; sweet gentle chamomile no more! I have heard of people steeping one handful dried herb to 2 cups water, steeped covered for an hour or home.
Cabrera, Chanchal. Lecture notes, Medicines from the Earth. 2006.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Keville, Kathy and Mindy Green. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Romm, Aviva. The Natural Pregnancy Book.
Wood. Matthew. Earthwise Herbal: Old World Plants.
May 31st, 2009 § § permalink
The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence? I think not.
As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.
“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).
In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:
“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”
Burdock Arctium lappa
Burdock's purple-lined stems
There are many uses for this common, wide-spread biennial weed in the aster family. The tap root, either fresh (called gobo at the grocery store) or dried, is what I use the most, although the seeds and leaf are also used. The seeds are exceedingly useful in acute or chronic skin conditions, and I have witnessed cases of eczema and alopecia (used topically) lessen in severity after at least a month of use. To harvest burdock seeds, gather some burrs in the autumn, place in a grocery bag, and back over it with a car a few times to aid in the separation of burr and seed. In addition to being helpful in cases of heavy perspiration, inflammation and fever. The seeds are indicated for “dry, crusty, itchy, itchy, flaky skin conditions” (Winston, 68). Wood also says:
“…the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste product towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” (144)
Back to the roots. Like most roots, harvest the first year plant after the first frost. From there I either eat them, decoct them, cut and dry them, or make a fresh tincture in brandy. Slightly sweet and earthy in taste, this root makes it a lot of tinctures and teas around my house. Burdock is a classic “blood and liver cleaner”, thus it is helpful in skin conditions including acne, itchy or dry skin, eczema and psoriasis (143). It is also used for increasing kidney and bladder function, as it is a “non-irritating diuretic for cystitis and scalding urine” (Winston, 68).
Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia
Young echinacea with purple-red stems
Here in another member of the Asteraceae family, not as wide spread as burdock but certainly more popular by the masses as an “immune booster”. I cannot bear to dig up my echinaceas for the roots, so I make tinctures from the leaves and flowers.
The test for a high quality echinacea product, whether it be a home-made tincture, dried root or store-bough capsule is to hold it on your tongue and wait for the tingling (open dried capsules and puncture gel caps). This tingling sensation is a little numbing (drop the tincture down the back of the throat for easing the pain of a sore, raw throat) and means it is diffusive. The diffusives are all tingly on the tongue and act quickly through the nervous system, concentrating on certain areas. They include lobelia (muscles), prickly ash (nerves), bayberry (mucosa), cayenne (cardiovascular) (Wood, 247).
Echinacea diffusive action works on the blood and the lymphatics. Like burdock, echinacea assists skin conditions, septic fevers. Echinacea’s purple-redness on the stem is darker then the violet purple of burdock, which indicates it is for more infected, hot and inflamed states. For instance, echinacea may be used topically for boils, pimples, infected old bug bites, dark and swollen veins (248), when the blood seems to be infected or “toxic”.
Echinaceas in late summer
When I was a child my mother was bitten by a poisonous spider. Over the course of a few days, a vein running from the bite up the side of her torso, over the armpit, down the underside of the arm, wrapping around the hand and up the top of her arm swelled and turned purple-red. At this point she went into the hospital and had intravenous antibiotics, where she was informed that if the swelling of the vein would’ve reached her head she could’ve died. This story makes me think of echinacea and the its early reputation along the prairie as being a cure for snake bites. From Dr. Harvey Felter in 1927:
“Echinacea is a remedy for auto-infection, and where the bloodstream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination is imperfect, the body tissues become altered, and there is developed within the fluids and tissues septic action…” (244)
Wood also says that echinacea is indicated for prostrated, exhausted and tired people, with or without poor work habits like working too hard then being exhausted (249). This makes sense, especially when I think of all the people who work hard and play hard, get sick, and then reach for the echinacea bottle.
Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria
Purple-hued wild indigo flower buds
A member of the pea family, wild indigo contains immuno- stimulating polysaccharides like echinacea (Mills, 273). I had a difficult time finding info about this herb in my references. Years ago, I tried it out after reading about it in the Herb Pharm herbal book. It seemed to align with what I was dealing with (skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, sluggish digestion). There was a little disclaimer on the bottom of the page, something to the tune of, “use sparingly and gradually increase dose, as it can cause headaches due to its strong alterative properties.”
It did help with the congestion, and I did develop headaches until I combined it with other gentler alternatives (burdock and dandelion).
“Wild indigo has beautiful green leaves and pods, which on ripening or injury, turn completely black. This plant was used for necrosis, gangrene, typhoid, putrid deterioration.” (Wood, p 26).
Wild indigo has been mentioned as useful as other alteratives are, in abscess, auto-immune disease, glandular fever, mumps, pelvic inflammation, pleurisy, and tonsillitis (Mills).
Figwort Scrophularia nodosa
Emerging figwort leaves
Figwort is an distinctive smelling member of the snapdragon family with delicate little purple-tinged yellow flowers. The purple-red color is seen on the stem, newly emerged leaves, and leaf tips. I have found it growing tall and lush in a big stand by a dirt road in a damp ditch. I first met it at Sage Mountain in Vermont. I liked it so much that I brought seeds home to spread in the garden, and now I have my own ankle-high stand of about six plants.
It is not a widely used herb; in fact it is barely mentioned in any herbals that I have. Nicholas Shnerr spoke highly of it as an alterative in his herbs for cleansing lecture at the Mid-America Herb Symposium of 2008, used with buckthorn, alder and echinacea as lymphatics. It is in what is know as Scudder’s Alterative, along with corydalis, yellow dock, black alder, and mayapple. He asked us if any of us have used figwort. I raised my hand and blurted, “I do! It smells so yummy”. The whole class stated to laugh; it turns out most everyone hates the smell of figwort but me; it was liked to “rotting meat” and a “dead skunk”. Personally, I think it smells delicious like buffalo meatloaf, or some other tender, wild meat.
I took my liking the supposedly un-likable smell as a sign and started to take a few drops of the tincture morning at night. Nothing notable changed, except a slight improvement in my digestion. Perhaps I’ll try it again.
Sometimes we need to follow our senses. One of the tasks at the herb shop was stocking bulk herbs. I was new to herbalism and didn’t know a lot of the plants or their uses. When I opened the shepherd’s purse jar to top it off, I fell in love with the smell, sticking my nose and inhaling long and deep as if it were the most exquisite, heavenly perfume. The herbalist laughed and said, “looks like someone needs to take some shepherd’s purse”. At the time I was experiencing a bout of heavy bleeding and spotting, which disappeared after a cups of shepherd’s purse tea. Incidentally, now I despise the sour, cabbage-like smell and taste of shepherd’s purse.
Mills says figwort is useful in cold-dampness of digestion as a warming eliminiative herb. It also conains saponins that are anti-inflammatory. Like it’s cousin foxglove, it contains a cardiac glycoside, but unlike foxglove, it’s glycoside is not potenitally toxic (139). As an alterative, it is decongesting to the glands and used for liver diseases, skin problems espeically eruptions with heat, and lymphatic stagnation with heat like hemorrhoids (Tierra, 187, Winston, 77). Winston combines figwort with self heal and red root to use for lipomas; which I’d like to try since I’ve only used chickweed for this.
Yellow figwort flowers on a purple-red stem
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Scalzo, Richard and Michael Cronin. Traditional Medicines from the Earth.
Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
May 14th, 2009 § § permalink
I must reiterate my love affair with discovering action categories. Action categories “reflect traditional observations of outcomes” (Hoffmann, 483). I find they make Western herbalism more accessible in day to day herbalism and easier to remember because it organizes herbal information. Action categories answer the question that a beginning herbalist may ask often, “what action will this plant have on a body system?”.
Herbs are multifaceted. They are not just card-carrying member of one action category only. Again, knowing the different actions an herb possesses can be indispensable in finding the most applicable herbs. For example, say we are looking for a relaxing nervine to assist someone who is under a lot of stress. If this individual has a racing heart, then choose herbs with a calming action on the cardiovascular system like motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) or linden (Tilia platyphyllos). If the person experiences digestive discomfort along with stress like a “nervous” stomach, then carminative or bitter herbs like chamomile (Marticaria recutita) or lavender (Lavandula officinalis) may be a indicated.
- Adaptogen – increases the body’s ability to cope with non-specific stress
- Alterative – alters the body tissues back to it’s proper health
- Analgesic (anodyne) – reduce pain or the perception of pain
- Anthelmintic – expels worms
- Anticatarrhal – removes excess phlegm
- Anti-inflammatory – reduces inflammation
- Anti-lithic – reduces urinary stone formation
- Antimicrobial – aids the body against pathogens
- Anti-pyretic/febrifuge- reduces feverish states
- Antirheumatic – helps reduce rheumatic symptoms
- Antispasmodic – reduces muscle spasms and cramp
- Astringent – reduces excess secretions and tones tissues by precipitating excess proteins
- Bitter – stimulates digestive function
- Cardio-tonic – acts on the cardiovascular system
- Carminative – supports digestion and relives gas
- Cholagogue – stimulates bile production and works on digestion
- Demulcent – soothes irritated tissue
- Diaphoretic – stimulates perspiration and opens the pores
- Diuretic – stimulate urine production
- Emetic – promotes vomiting
- Emmenagogue – stimulate menstrual activity (some say enriches blood flow in general)
- Emollient – soothes and softens irritated external tissues
- Expectorant – removes phlegm from the respiratory system
- Galactogogue – increases flow of breast mil
- Hepatic – strengthen the liver and promotes bile production
- Hypnotic – promote deep sleep
- Hypotensive – promotes a normalization of blood pressure
- Laxative – stimulates the bowels
- Nervine - works on the nervous system
- Rubefacient – externally stimulates circulation, often used for reducing topical pain
- Stimulant – promotes a quickening of physiological fuctions
- Tonic – steadily strengthens the body or body systems over time
- Vulnerary – externally promotes the healing of wounds
Herbal actions are more broad than chemical constituents, which are specific active chemical components of plants and can be scientifically observed. It is interesting to learn about chemical constituents, especially if you are more scientifically minded. A little science can go a long way when it comes to herbs. Its best not to over-analyze and expect chemistry to explain all the wonders of plant medicine. Science can be handy when it comes to providing skeptics with something to chew on instead of herbalists putting up their dukes. Yes, handing over some chemical equations and studies is much more peaceful…
Usually when people ask me “where’s the scientific evidence?” , I reach for information about chemical constituents rather than double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. My personal thought it that herbs are not drugs and therefore are not best tested like drug. Pharmaceuticals are more one-size-fits-all while herbs treat the individual, not the disease. I remember a group of professional herbalists in a particularly heated discussion about a study about using turmeric for reducing inflammation. One person lamented, “turmeric may be too hot and stimulating for some people; it messed up the study”.
- Carbohydrates (monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, polysaccharides. glycoproteins, glycosides, gums and mucilage)
- Lipids (fatty acids)
- Terpenes (monoterpenes, iridoid, sespuiterpenes, sesquiterpenes lactones, diterpenes, triterpenes)
- Phenolics (tannins, lignans, isoflavonoids, flavanoids, anthraquinones, coumarins, phenylpropanoids, simple phenolics)
- Alkaloids (piperidines, tropanes, purines, isoquinolines, indoles, quinolizidines)
The link between the broad action categories and the specific chemical constituents is materia medica.
Action categories – observable ways that herbs work
Materia medica – individual herbs
Constituents - specific active chemical parts of an herb
Chemical reaction – how the constituents react in the body to cause an effect, which can be obseverd
in the action categories
Astringent - herbs that tone
Blackberry root – used for all sorts of loose stools
Polyphonol compound – gallic acid, a tannin
Precipitate proteins to tone tissues and check excessive secretions
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
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.