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)
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.
This year, I am growing chamomile in my garden for the first time. The growing season on the West coast is longer, with more rain and milder springs and falls, so I have tried growing things I never grew in Minnesota. Actually, I tried growing chamomile in MN from a transplant, but it never took off. This is an into to this lovely herb; next week I’ll post some medicinal uses and properties.
Botanical info: Matricaria recutita is German chamomiles botanical name, an annual in the Asteraceae or aster/composite family. ‘Chamomile’ means something like “earth/ground melon/fruit/apple”, which I am guessing refers to its aromatic, apply-fruity smell and its height (about a foot or so). Anthemis nobilis or Roman chamomile is grown and used as well, sometimes interchangeably. Chamomile is an native to Europe and Eastern Asia, but it was introduced to North America and grows in temperate areas as long as it is a mostly sunny locale with decently draining soils. The flowers are small, with yellow centers surrounded by white petals. It seems that not all flowers on chamomile have petals or they fall off at some point, some are just disc flowers.
I thought that Matricaria alluded to the mat forming tendency of chamomile, but an University website says that Matricaria is from the Latin word matrix, meaning “womb”, indicating its use for women’s health, recutita meaning cut around (although I have no idea to what that is referring to).
Growth: The first thing I noticed about the chamomile was its vigorous growth. It was the first seed to sprout by almost a week; it quickly grew to about 24″, budded, flowered in a matter of weeks. It bloomed and bloomed some more after a number of harvesting. Another noticeable thing is the light but sweet aroma radiating from the patch when a breeze came through.
Harvesting: Collecting your chamomile is laborious, no doubt. There has to be another a better method than snipping every individual flower. How do big herb farms do it?! I tried giving the crop a hair cut and catching the trimmings, but that requires cleaning the herb later. The stems are thin and soft enough that I could pinch the flower heads off, but placing each individual flower in the basket got old. I ended up leaning the herb over the basket, which collected the flowers after snipping them with a scissors.
As the chamomile dries, the sunny yellow color darkens and the smell sweetens and intensifies. It is important to note that the yellow color concentrates, but the white of the petals is still present. This contrast of colors is NOT seen in chamomile that I buy by the pound, which is mostly yellowish-brown. Weeks after the first harvests, the smell of chamomile is actually getting stronger in my study/herb room. It is almost intoxicating – interfering my studying by making me sleepy, perhaps?
Chamomile has long been a favorite herb of mine for both medicine and beverage, for body and mind. It was probably the first herbal medicine I ever experienced, as my mom would make me herbal tea when I was sick with a cold. In truth, I didn’t like chamomile tea (or any tea for that matter) back then, and now I know why: it was stale. We lived in a basement apartment, and had a mold infestation. Anything that could absorb excess humidity did, herbal tea bags were a prime target. Still, there is something nice about getting tea made for you when you are in bed with a cold or sore throat, especially when that tea contains a liberal dose of honey.
Who doesn’t love nervines? You know, that relaxing category of herbs, so effective at soothing the mind, emotions and body. Some herbs like lavender and chamomile invoke tranquility through their pleasing scents and flavor. Others like valerian, blue vervain or wood betony may not taste as good, but work well on releasing headaches or pent-up tension in the musculo-skeletal arena; or they may do the trick on liberating worrying thoughts and emotions from those worn to a frazzle, like skullcap, ashwaganda or holy basil.
As much as I love them, nervines are not the end-all-be-all for perfect health, but they can be a good place to start when you don’t know what else to do, or are too stressed to focus on figuring out what you need to do, but you know you have to do SOMEthing. Yes, that is where they come in for me more often than not (hello, chamomile!).
Botanicals are multi-dimensional; a nervine can be a digestive tonic, circulatory tonic, glactagouge, cardio tonic and more. Some are warming, cooling, drying, moistening, sweet, bitter, acrid – basically there’s one out there for everyone’s constitution and needs.
Here are a few quick notes about some of these wonderful nervines. As you can see, they all share the common thread of restoring proper tone (functional, healthy resting baseline) to a body system. Many times, the restoration needed leans in the direction of relaxing a tense state, but sometimes flaccid, lax, boggy or atonic tissue state needs some sort of increase of tone. See the sources below for more detailed information.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – Soothing diffusive, relaxing, stimulating nervine. Used with nervous irritation, atonic conditions, mental confusion. Use when both relaxing and stimulating effects are needed. Direct action on the smooth muscles, wonderfully anti-spasmodic.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – Stimulating and relaxing. Anxiety, restlessness, fear, hysteria. Bisobolol and chamaezulene are volatile oils that are spasmolytic to smooth muscles and nervous tissue. The bitterness is tonifying and stimulating. Nervous irritability and persistent low grade anxiety.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) – Anti—spasmodic, stimulating and cleansing in the nervous system. Aids relaxation, alertness, clarity from volatile oils. Convulsive disorders, as it regulates, balances, normalizes brain activity.
Melissa (Melissa officinalis) – Tonic and restorative for nervous function. A nerve remedy with a carminitive element. Depression, lethargy, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, headaches, hysteria, ADHD, nervous stomach. Inhalation of volatile oil very effective, sedative properties marked and rapid. Tincture more of a tonic and stimulating (with some bitters and resins). Paracelsus: “the elixir of life”. Culpepper: “…causeth the mind and the heart to become merry…and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind arising from melancholy”.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Tonic nervine. Both sedative volatile oils and stimulating bitters, thus balancing. Depression, insomnia, hysteria. Mental exhaustion, hallucinations or delusions. The oil steadies the emotions, balances introverted and extroverted.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) – Food for the nerves! Promotes myelin sheath integrity and growth. Wonderful for restoring the nerves. Amphoteric to the nervous system, as it is a stimulant (strengthening) and sedative. Nutritious. Epilepsy, nervous depression. Use to calm the mind without drowsiness.
Hops (Humulus lupus) – Hypnotic, permitting a deep sense of relaxation and tranquility, trophorestoritive to cerebrospinal fluid. Nervous digestive upsets, very bitter, strong anti-spasmodic effect on smooth muscle, presumably by mediating the nervous supply to the gut.
Scullcap – (Scutellaria laterifolia) – Calming and relaxing to the nervous system. Excellent nerve tonic where there is chronic anxiety. Nervous weakness, agitation, insomnia, nightmares, restless sleep, over-excitability, twitching.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia California) – Milder and non-addictive. Anxiety, nervous tension, insomnia, hyperactivity, fear, all sorts of pain. Well suited for children.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – Energizing effect on the brain. Overcoming stress, fatigue and mental confusion. Mineral rich. Enhances cognitive abilities and increases memory. Calming and adaptogenic, cleanses the blood, promotes healthy connective tissue repair – good for excess scar tissue.
St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – Depression, raises the spirit and lifts the mood. Amphoteric, tonic to the brain. reportedly as effective as SSRI’s.
Blue Vervain (Verbena officinalis) – Nervine and stomachic, as it is bitter and stimulates appetite, production of digestive enzymes, HCL and more. Blends well in formulas for women’s health. Epilepsy and convulsions. Very balancing.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) – Increases cerebral circulation, anti-oxidant rich. Affinity to blood vessels. Normalizes acetylcholine receptors in the hippocampus – the area most affected by Alzheimer’s.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) – Gentle, stimulating tonic for the brain. Hysteria, persistent unwanted thoughts, nervous debility, anxiety, chronic headaches, lack of energy, poor memory, dizziness, disordered thoughts. Bitter digestive tonic, adjusts the autonomic regulation of the digestive system. Anxiety with digestive upsets.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – Brain and adrenal tonic. Increases tolerance to emotional, chemical, and other stressors. Anti-depressant effect, libido lifter for exhausted states.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications
Wood, Matthew. Earth-Wise Herbal: New World Plants, and Old World Plants.
The spice rack is a wonderful place to explore the world of herbal medicine. Each has a story – some have made it into ancient mythology, other causing wars, yet more promoting travels to far away lands and cross-cultural trading.
Keep in mind that spices are medicinal herbs that have made it into the culinary pursuits of humans because of flavors, smells, and medicinal actions that improve digestion or some how benefit the body. Spices are simply plants that have captivated our taste buds and liven our diets.
Most, but not all spices are carminatives. I have written a post about carminatives, but they certainly warrant another mention. Carminatives could be generalized as herbs that act on easing uncomfortable digestion, especially gas and bloating. David Hoffmann describes:
“…the mode of action of carminative herbs appears to be related to the complex of volatile oils they contain. These terpene oils have local anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects upon the mucous lining and the muscle coats of the the alimentary canal.” (502).
As with action categories, an herb that is a carminative is not that and only that. They have most certainly have secondary actions on other parts of the body, due to their unique composition. Let’s take chamomile, for example. Matricaria recutita contains a number of volatile oils, some of which have “quite specific effects on other parts of the body”(503). Chamomile is also included in the following action categories: anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, bitter, nervine, tonic and vulnerary (503). Pay attention to action categories when learning about and using herbs; they are extremely helpful in finding a good herbal match for individual needs.
Here are three spices that caught my attention. Scattered around this blog are posts about other spices like mustard, thyme, mint, sage, dill, anise, fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, coriander and ginger.
Ferula is Latin for carrier, as a related plant was mentioned in Greek mythology as a plant that helped Prometheus carry stolen fire to the earth from the sun. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes might have indeed used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. Assa means resin, foetidus smelling, fetid.
It is in the Apiacea family, and looks a bit like fennel, dill, and cows parsnip to me. The powder that we use as a spice is the powdered resin from the root. Resins are quite antiseptic, which is why they make such good mouthwashes. Simon Mills says they “provoke a local release in white blood cell counts (leucocytosis). It is likely that a similar affect occurs further down the digestive tract at least as far as the stomach and duodenum”(305). Other oleo-gum resins include myrrh (Commiphora molmol) and frankincense (Boswellia spp.).
As a new employee in the Co-op kitchen, the other staff “initiated” me by making me smell and then taste the asafoetida. I had to prove myself so I tasted it; it was pretty rank. It was a mystery to me that it dishes it was cooked were actually edible, in fact they were good. Upon research, I read that asafoetida tastes much better when it is cooked, and smells much better when sautéed with ghee. It is used as an onion and garlic replacer among Brahmins who abstain from eating onions and garlic, which are considered too grounding for those of a spiritual disposition (among other reasons).
Asafoetida is of course, a digestive aid which reduces flatulence. It has been used as a folk remedy for childhood colds as it has antiseptic qualities. Other sources say it is useful for asthma and bronchitis and calming hysteria. Michael Tierra says it is “very helpful for damp cold spleen conditions associated with Candida albicans overgrowth”(216).
I do not use this spice often, only when making dal or cooking a big batch of beans. Here is a yummy recipe with asafoetida on Happy Burp. While you’re there, check some good info on her entry about asafoetida.
Lamb’s quarters – Epazote’s cousin
Actions: Antibacterial, antimalarial, vermifuge, insecticidal, (Rain tree Tropical Plant Database), antihelminthic, antispasmodic, abortifacient (US Pharmacopeia via Gernot Ketzer’s Spice pages) Contains: essential oils such as monoterpenes, asacaridole
Epazote is a a member of the Chenopodiacea family (beet, spinach, quinoa). I think it looks a lot like it’s relative that likes to grow in my garden, lamb’s quarters (or pig’s weed; are these the same thing?). This year I would like to get start some seeds of epazote, because it seems everyone loves it. Do plants ever remind you of a place? For some reason, epazote and Minneapolis are synonymous for me; I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Even when I was a kid I had a similar association of lamb’s quarters and and city, seeing it grow in empty lots, alleys, in cracks in the sidewalks. In 2006 a friend made some chilled epazote tea; it was so delicious on a very hot June evening. I commented that it tasted “culinary”, with hints of sage, oregano, tarragon,and licorice.
Epazote is native to the Americas, and used throughout Mexico and Central America. It is well known to be prepared with black and other beans, as it is carminative and reduces gas. traditional usage also includes it for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea and lessen the symptoms of malaria (Rain Tree). Try this recipe for Epazote Vegetable Pancakes with Black bean Tropical Fruit Sauce; all sounds delicious to me. Black PepperPiper nigrum
Pepper is native to the west coast of southern India but is now produced around the tropics in the old and new world alike. This common table spice was once more expensive than gold and the reason for expansive European sea exploration in the 1400′s. Pepper sure was one hot commodity, hehe… It looks like the word pepper is quite literal, simply coming from the word piper, latin for pepper. Again being quite literal, it represents the Piperaceae, or pepper family.
The use of peppercorns are vast; everyone uses it. What it does for food it does for the body, it warms it up! Yes, pepper is a wonderful stimulant for warming up cold, weak, sluggish digestion, coldness in general due to poor circulation, and it dries up mucus. It is part of a classic Ayurvedic formula Trikatu: pepper, pippli pepper and ginger ground then mixed with a bit of honey to form a paste. Three-fourths to 1 tablespoon of the mixture is taken with a bit of hot water three times a day to counteract cold, damp symptoms and to stimulate digestion and warmth. Tierra adds that it is said to “recirculate” nutrients, and is used when fasting to boost energy. It is a stimulant to gastric mucosa, use when a less irritating then cayenne is desired (242).