February 12th, 2011 § § permalink
Learning herbalism is one things; learning pathology is quite another. Just today I was struck yet again with the realization that I can study what herbs do until I am blue in the face, but what good is it if I don’t know when to apply them? It’s an ongoing process to be certain, but one thing is quite useful for this; learning energetic qualities.
Southern blood typology is interesting because it is an energetic system that is rooted in a physical phenomena, blood. Even though blood is quite tangible as a life-giving substance, here it is infused in energetic language and symbols. It makes me think of what I’ve learned about Yin (blood) and Yang (energetic) being both mutually dependent and ever transforming and flowing into each other. Speaking of Chinese medicine, many of the Southern blood classifications share similarities with TCM, like blood deficiency, heat in the blood, and so on. Again, I have to direct you to my list of references (Wood in particular, as this is mostly taken from him), because there is a decent amount of information out there about Southern herbalism.
There are a number of variations of Southern blood typology. A system currently in use by herbal practitioners in and out of the south contains the most adjectives and thus gives rise to more individualized diagnostic and treatment options. Basic blood classifications includes the locations (high or low), viscosity (thin or thick), an overall cleanliness (clean or dirty, synonymous with good or bad), and flavor (bitter or sweet). Other systems may also include temperature of the blood, (hot or cold), speed (slow or fast), or a combination of any of these qualities. For example, sweet blood may be included under high blood (Mathews, 888) and can be treated with bitter herbs to lower the blood from the head, neck and chest to the center of the body. The system illustrated below places sweet blood as cause of thick blood, as excessive amounts of sugar in the blood may contribute to high cholesterol (Wood, 24). Just as the sap flows unconstricted in the warmth of summer, thin, high, hot and fast blood as associated with summer, while cold, low, thick and slow blood are more likely to come up during winter.
Good or clean blood is the state of blood in healthy, strong and vibrant people. It is the state of blood resulting from a good constitution married with healthy lifestyle habits and choices. Herbal tonics are consumed daily and adjusted seasonally to keep the good state of blood stay where it is, like ‘seng (ginseng), sassafras and sarsaparilla.
Bad or dirty blood contains various chemicals (a modern concept), impurities or waste products. It is called “dirty” or “toxic” in popular natural commerce. Alterative herbs like burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, as well as lymphatic herbs like poke, red clover or echinacea can be used to clean the blood. The bitter flavor is also an important blood cleanser, as seen in the role of spring tonics and salad greens, especially important after the winter, a time of dirty, thick or slow blood easily accumulates toxins.
High blood is located high in the body, accumulating and causing pressure in the head, face or neck. It can also mean high blood pressure and refers to high volume of blood. It is not uncommon to hear people in the south refer to high blood pressure as “high blood”. In its past, Western medicine used blood letting to release high blood. Accounts from the turn of the last century of traditional herbs used for lowering the blood included sassafrass, wild cherry, onions and garlic (Cavender, 123), while modern herbalist use diaphoretics that release the surface and soothes capillaries, like yarrow, hawthorn, peach leaves, vervain, angelica and aspirin (Wood).
Anemia or malnutrition are clinical manifestations of low blood, which can be due to blood that is lacking vitality and is low in volume, low in the body or low in pressure. Fatigue and looking ‘peaked’ are symptoms of low blood, as is dizziness upon standing (Cavender, 124). Blood builders and things that raise the blood, stimulate circulation and tone the veins are used in modern practice. Traditional remedies include cooking on iron pans, adding iron nails to water pitchers, as was eating spring greens and taking a compound of molasses and sulfur (Cavender, 124).
Thin blood is somewhat related to low blood, but it is more watery and occurs in thin and cold people. Frequent bruising, clammy skin, frequent urination and having a blue or purple tinge to the skin are common manifestations of thin blood (Wood, 22). Warming angelica or feverfew can be helpful to increase the circulation, while astringents like raspberry leaf, red root, rose hips are herbs useful as they tone the tissues and stop the leakage of fluid.
Thick blood is sometimes called oily blood. It can be caused by excess fat, sugar and other metabolites in the blood or when waste products from bad blood accumulate and coagulate. Blood viscosity is reduced, leading to stroke, heart attack, high cholesterol and obesity (24-25). Treatments for thick blood are many and share treatments with other blood conditions (especially high blood). Often alteratives are used, along with blood thinners (a bioregional favorite is tulip poplar), cooling fruits like huckleberry and aromatic circulatory stimulants like yarrow, safflower, angelica and sassafras.
Fast blood is related to hot blood, with the most obvious symptom being a racing heart beat. Hyperthyroidism and chronic stress can be present with fast blood, along with nervous energy or anxiousness. Sedatives are used to calm the nervous system, like poplar bark, motherwort, or hops; stronger antiseptics like figwort, echinacea and baptisia have been traditionally used in chronic, stagnant cases or with throbbing infections or pain (27).
“Slow blood develops over a long time, due to chronic influences” (27), and is a more severe form of bad blood often with additional causative factors of cold, low or thick blood. Basically the vitality of the blood has been worn down, whether from constitutional weakness chronic or severe disease. Herbal treatments will vary according to the individual and the reason slow blood developed.
Hot blood can include fevers, infections or rashes, as well as a general hot constitution. Cold blood is similarly obvious in its’ meaning; it refers to states of coldness whether it be due to chills, spasms, arthritis or stiffness. Both hot blood and cold blood cross over a bit from their obvious naturalistic meanings of tending to excess heat and coldness respectively to the psychological realm. At the extremes, hot blooded people anger easily, have violent tendencies and live excessive lifestyles, while cold people are seen as tense, removed and are capable of premeditated crime (28-9).
Cavender, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia.
Light, Phyllis. “Southern herbalism: Southern Herbalism, My Story”. An article from: New Life Journal [eDoc/Amazon Short].
Light, Phyllis. Lecture notes: Southern Folk Herbalism. 2007.
Matthews, Holly F. “Rootwork: Description of Ethnomedical System in the South.” Southern Medical Journal, July 1987, Vol. 80, No. 7.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal
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.
February 10th, 2009 § § permalink
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) was one of the reasons I discovered herbalism. As a 19 year old pre-med student, I searched the universities Pub Med database in search for the best proven medication for the awful cold I was having. The doctors were sure it was either strep throat and mono, but both tests came back negative. So I searched for some magic cough syrup, or antibiotic from heaven, but every study that came up said that over-the-counter cough syrups were actually ineffective. I noticed page after page of studies in German that had Holunderbeere (German for elderberry) in the title. I refined my search and found out that Elderberry was an effective treatment for the flu and other winter ailments. I was still skeptical, but the seeds had been planted.
As if we needed any more reasons to drink our elderberry syrup, Matthew Wood adds that “[the berries] have a property not found in the other parts of the plant; they are used as a tonic to the build up the blood and combat anemia. For this purpose they may be combined with blackberries” (434). Dark berries = yum. Cancer-fighting anthocyanins, anybody?
I first saw elder’s creamy white flowers on the slopes of the Blue Mountains in North Carolina, and didn’t see it again until I was at Sage Mountain in Vermont. The last time I saw it was last June in southern Minnesota, on the sides of bluffs and hills outside Winona. Is that just a coincidence that all the places I have seen the black elder growing were either mountains or hillsides? Although I have seen elder growing in Northern Minnesota, it is not the right kind to harvest (it may be red elder). Typical of the elder of fairy tales and folk lore, whenever I find an elder tree in the woods up here, I can never find it again! For you Duluthians, there are a few in Hartley park, in the deer-proofed area.
I have come across many elderberry syrup recipes over the years. This recipe from Rosemary Gladstar is the one I like the most because 1) it is alcohol free, 2) it can be made with fresh or dried berries, and 3) storing it in the refrigerator reminds me to use it was a food and medicine. It is seriously delicious with baked garnet yams, waffles, or mixed with mineral water.
- 1 cup fresh or 1/2 cup dried elderberries
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup honey
1. Heat the berries and water to a boil, then reduce to simmer for 30-45 minuets.
2. Mash the berries, strain, and add 1 cup of honey. I add a half cup of the purple liquid to a measuring cup, then pour in honey until the total volume is 1 1/2 cups. Then stir to mix well, and add to the rest of the reserved liquid.
3. Bottle and store, refrigerated. for 2-3 months.
4. Enjoy a tablespoon daily to keep the immune system strong, use more often when afflicted with the flu.
Refereance: Gladstar, Rosemary. The Family Herbal.
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”