This is a post I shared a few months ago at my friend’s Suzie’s inspiring blog, Key & Bones. I want to share it because I am reaping the benefits of this extremely simple little remedy. Last week my ear started to feel a little funky/gunky, swollen, itchy. Each day it got a little worse until my left ear was entirely clogged for two days. Garlic oil, just a drop or two in the ear canal, every other day, relieved the irritation and opened it right up.
In the past I have made more of an ‘ear formula’, with another fabulous standby, mullein flowers. Now that I live in a city, my mullein flower harvesting has diminished. There are still plenty of mullein around, but not in my back yard garden like it was before (so spoiled I was, sigh…). Willow bark, cayenne, eyebright, St. John’s wort and calendula are some other options (among many) to add to your herbal ear oil.
I do have to say, however, that just plain good old garlic does the job quite nicely.
Garlic has been hailed as a super-food for millennia, and rightfully so. Every year it seems that the powers of garlic expand as the scientific community catches on to folk uses of of garlic. Recently, there has been investigation around garlic and weight loss, but it has long been know for other benefits. It is widely accepted as having anticancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol reducing, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and immune-stimulating effects, in addition to being a nutrient-dense food.
One common folk use of garlic is an oil used topically and in the ear for infections. A 1995 University of New Mexico study looked at garlic oil’s effect:
“Aqueous garlic extract (AGE) and concentrated garlic oil (CGO) along with various commercial garlic supplements and pharmaceutical prescriptions were used in an in-vitro study. AGE and especially CGO were found to have antifungal activity. These agents showed similar or better inhibitory effects than the pharmaceutical preparations…” [emphasis added].
Garlic oil for medicinal purposes is easy to make and easy to use. It is essentially just like making culinary garlic oil, except that extra care is taken to strain all the garlic particulate out of the garlic before bottling. It smells delicious (in that garlic-y sort of way), and of course can be used for cooking, salad dressing and bread-dipping. Just store it away from the stove, so it doesn’t get the chance to raise its temperature. If you are making a large batch, use a wide-mouthed jar and store it in the fridge. Olive oil, being an unsaturated plant fat, will solidify in the fridge, so you’ll have to scoop it with a spoon and melt it before using in the ears.
- Don’t waste any of that liquid gold, use a funnel.
Garlic Oil Recipe and Dosage:
- Peel a few heads of garlic, trim the bottoms, rinse and air dry (or pat with a clean towel).
- Lightly crush, chop well and let it chill out on your cutting board for a few minuets before adding it to the jar. Crushing the garlic opens the cells and allows health-benefiting alliinase enzymes (one of the multiple compounds in garlic) to become active. I don’t recommend using a garlic crusher, though, because it opens the cells too much, expressing a lot of the garlic’s water quickly. Introducing extra water to the oil to increase the likelihood of bacteria and mold growth, as well as promote oxidation and rancidity.
- Add to a small jar, cover with extra virgin olive oil until a half inch of oil is over the top of the garlic.
- Cover with a tight-fitting lid and let sit in a sunny window for 4-6 weeks, shaking every now and again (once a week or every-other day is good).
- Occasionally, open the jar to check for extra moisture beads condensing along the lid. If there is moisture, simply wipe it off with a clean towel.
- After steeping, strain the oil into a clean, dry bottle. This is the time to add other medicinal ingredients, if desired.
- Label and date, store in a cool, dry place. Use within 18 months.
- Use one drop for kids over 2 in each ear, and three to five drops for adults.
- Drop the oil in, one drop at a time, while side laying. Drape a towel under your head, and adjust your head position so that the ear canal feels vertical. Play around with moving your head around to distribute the oil, lingering at any sweet spots, or tug on the ear and massage the area. Kids and dogs love that part.
- Sit for a few minuets, maybe more if it feels good and you have the time. When you sit up, wipe the outside of your ear off with a clean towel. Yes, your ears will kind of smell like garlic. It should dissipate after an hour.
- Administer twice daily for acute infections, once daily or every other day for a week for lingering problems (recovering from a cold, itchy ears, ect.) or once a week for maintenance (this is the best dosage for prevention).
- A warm oil is a nice oil…
- Warm the bottle in a cup of hot (almost boiled) water for a minute or two before dropping in the ear, making sure to test the temperature before using. Warmth thins the oil, so it can penetrate the ear canal, and provides comforting relief for infections. A warm oil makes all the difference. If you are in a pinch, wave the dropper over a candle flame, being mindful not to spill the oil from the dropper as it thins. I loosely fix the label on the bottle so I can take it off when it is warming.
Now that you have your lovely garlic oil, what can you do with it? If you are like I was when I first heard of garlic oil, you will be asking, why would I want to put it in my ears? It just so happens that oil is very soluble in the ears because its normal environment is oily (well, waxy, but close).
Uses for garlic oil:
- To prevent swimmer’s ear, use a drop or two in each ear a few hours before swimming. Dry the ears extra well before swimming. Once swimmer’s ear has set in, it is best to avoid garlic oil.
- Fighting a cold. The ears are closely connected with the nose and the throat, areas that first come into contact with microbes causing the common cold or influenza. A little garlic oil in the ears at the first feelings of a scratchy throat, drippy nose, itchy ears can sometimes kick the cold out before it sets in.
- Excessive wax build-up, or gummy or closed ears. Use one drop daily in each ear.
- Eat on food for the medicinal effects mentioned above, a teaspoon or more per day.
- Good for four-legged friends, too.
Lett Appl Microbiol. 1995 Jan;20(1):14-8. Antifungal effects of Allium sativum (garlic) extract against the Aspergillus species involved in otomycosis. Pai, ST, Platt, MW. Department of Microbiology, University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, Albuquerque 87131
It seems that there are a lot of cooling herbs in comparison to warming herbs, at least regarding what we need to know of Chinese herbs for class. There are cool herbs to release toxicity, cool herbs to clear deficient heat, cool herbs to resolve damp-heat and phlegm, and of course, cool herbs to release the exterior.
Again, these are known diaphoretics and diuretics. And also again, they are working from a Chinese perspective to get some sort of invading pathogenic factor out of the body. We mostly think of pathogens as being microbes of some sort, in this case the common cold and influenza. But really, pathogenic factors can be all sorts of things – it just has to come from outside and make its way inside.
An example of this is seen in people who are sensitive to eating a lot a sugar or drinking alcohol. They may start off feeling a scratchy, sore throat, drippy nose, gummed up ears, low energy, and if they continue to eat sugar over the next few days or so, perhaps their lowered immune response will develop into a full-blown cold. I have seen this happen to people – something lowers their immunity, making them susceptible to a cold, rather than the cold making its way in by itself. This is also an example of a deficient condition rather than an excess one. In an excess condition, the individual will have strong, normal defenses, but the pathogen will be relatively stronger, as opposed to a deficient, run down individual whos wei qi will be weaker than simple run-of-the-mill illnesses.
Many of the cool herbs to release the exterior are acrid or bitter like the warm exterior-releasing herbs, which either lift and disperse, or collect and drain downwards. Some, like kudzu (ge gan), mulberry (sang ya), soy bean (dan dou zhi) and chrysanthemum (ju hua) are sweet. Kudzu and blue vervain help to release tension in the muscle layer to expel pathogens before they penetrate deeper, particularly in the upper back, shoulders and neck. Classic western diaporetics fit in here, yarrow and elderflower. Add mint to those last two herbs and you have the Gypsy Cold remedy.
Mints – lots of mints – are fitted to release the exterior, whether they are warm or cool in temperature. Catnip, lemon balm, peppermint (bo he) a few of the cooler ones. Catnip is excellent at releasing the exterior, it is quite gentle but effective for bringing on and releasing a fever. Again, like most mints, it is also a nervine sedative and a carminative, a perfect pair of action to add comfort and support during a cold or flu. Melissa is one of my favorite plants, it has so many actions, is easy to grow, and it tastes divine and combines well with other herbs. It is known to be anti-viral and vasodilating, and is an effective carminative and nervine as well. It differs from some of the Chinese herbs in this category because it is sour in flavor.
Bo he, Mentha haplocalix, is the Chinese mint we are learning. To me, it is fairly similar to both peppermint and spearmint, with a little wild, earthy mint undertone. It is indicated for attack of win-heat invasion (as all herbs in this category are), slow skin eruption, headache, sore eyes and sore throat (because it is light and dispersing, mint can ascend to and treat the head), and for liver qi stagnation manifesting in distention of the chest.
Burdock seed (Artica lappa, Nui bang zi) is used in Chinese medicine for treating a sore throat and skin problems caused by toxic heat (think measles, mumps, carbuncles, boils, eczema, acne, ect…). Being a seed, it also moistens the intestines. The lungs and large intestine are paired organs in Chinese medicine, so it is no surprise when an herb (or acupuncture point) acts on both organ systems. Sure enough, cooling and moistening burdock seed is used for cough with sticky, hard to expectorate phlegm. David Hoffmann quotes Priest and Priest on burdock (529):
“…General alterative: influences skin, kidneys, mucous and serous membranes, to remove accumulated waste products. It is specific for eruptions on the head, face and neck, and for acute irritable and inflammatory conditions.”
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and chrysanthemum (C. morifolium, Ju Hua) are closely related herbs that fit well into this category. Both are slightly cold, acrid and bitter and enter the Liver and the Lungs (Tierra, 83). Ju Hua is well-known in Chinese medicine and beyond as an excellent remedy for eye complaints like red, sore eyes or vision problems (often combined with Goji berries/lycii berries/go qi zi for this). It calms Liver yang, which can raise heat and excess activity to the head causing dizziness, vertigo, headache, sore eyes and hypertension. To paraphrase from Bensky, “All flowers lift and dissipate – only Ju Hua can contain, accept and drain downwards”. This is because it is bitter and sweet in addition to being acrid and aromatic.
Given the Chinese medicine understanding or Ju Hua, the common used feverfew makes a lot of sense even though it is a different herb from a different place and medical system. It has been used as a specific for migraines, and much research has been done to explore its chemical properties and action (which are many – good idea for another post!). Besides certain types of migraines, feverfew has been used for pain, especially joint pain, as an emmenogogue, bitter and diaphoretic.
One last note…
It is sometimes difficult to make connections between my Chinese herb class and what I know about Western herbs. I sometimes wish I could marry the energetic understanding of Chinese herbalism with the scientific world of chemical constituents and botany from the West. Attempts have been made, and really good ones at that. Chen, for one, included modern research, drug interactions and chemical constituents in his book on Chinese herbalism. But he has little information about the classic Chinese texts, comparisons between the herbs and notes on energetics (which is present in Bensky’s book).
Even with all the knowledge coming together, East and West, there is still the whole issue of context and clinical usage. It’s not just an issue of translating Liver Yang rising to migraines, and visa versa, it’s about understanding a particular plant in a multifaceted way.
Bensky, Dan. Materia Medica.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbology.
Tierra, Leslie. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
A native Minnesota variety of an astragalus relative.
Astragalus membranaceaus is a native to China and other areas of Asia and is a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family. It tastes sweet, starchy, slightly warm and moist. According to Lesley Tierra, astragalus has adaptogenic, diuretic, antiviral, cardiotonic, antioxidant and hepatoprotective properties. Astragalus has gotten a lot of press as an adapotgen and for helping people with cancer and rightfully so as it “…helps prevent immuosuppression caused by chemotherapy and has tumor-inhibiting activity”(Winston, 149). It is a personal favorite of mine for preventing and/or treating regular-old colds and related infections.
The Chinese name of this herb is huang qi, huang meaning yellow (the color of the root) and qi meaning leader, as it is considered a “leader” among the tonics in the Chinese pharmacopeia because it can be used by a wider range of people than other tonics like ginseng. Astragalus strengthens spleen qi to aid weak digestion, nausea and vomiting, bloating, assimilation and lack of appetite. It also bolsters wei qi (protective energy or immunity) and lung qi. Not surprisingly, astragalus has been adapted into Western herbalism because of its use in strengthening the immune system and aiding in defense of colds, flus and infections of the respiratory system.
Astragalus is usually sold in root slices or pieces. It is mostly prepared as a tea although it also comes n powdered and tinctured forms. To make astragalus tea at home, bring 4 cups of water to boil, add about 4 tablespoons of the root and simmer covered for 20 mins. Let cool slightly before pouring a cup or two and straining. It is quite palatable, and people don’t usually have a problem drinking 3 cups of it in a day. A little honey or a simmering a cinnamon stick along with the astragalus extenuates both the sweetness and the moistening quality.
I like to drink astragalus tea daily in the winter, often for a month or longer, when everyone around me is getting sick or when I feel on the verge of a getting a cold. Just recently my husband came down with a horrible cold. I knew I’d be next, so I loaded up on astragalus tea so when I got the cold myself it wasn’t that bad – just a runny nose without a cough or constricted chest. It also combines well with other immune enhancing herbs like shiitake, eleuthero, ginger and echincacea, and is safe for children, pregnant women and the elderly.