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.
September 18th, 2008 § § permalink
Meadowsweet, willow, cottonwood, black haw, cramp bark, birch, wintergreen, black coshosh and Indian pipe all have some derivatives of salicylic acid, though slightly different depending on the plant family. According to Chanchal Cabrera, salicylate-rich herbs are “…antiseptic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, anti-pyretic, anti-thrombotic, [and they] stimulate peripheral circulation and promote epithelial regeneration”(27). To reduce fever these herbs act on the hypothalamus (in charge of thermoregulation) which starts the diaphoretic action.
I often hear herb commerce and the media call meadowsweet and other salicylate-rich plants the “herbal aspirins”. Aspirin got its name, of course, from spirea (salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, is named after another rich source, Salix, or willow). While it is certainly true that plants share an ingredient of aspirin, it is not a one-for-one trade. Jill Stansbury states “[Botanical medicines] are more comprehensive tools than aspirin or acetaminophen. Furthermore, they are better tolerated, have fewer side effects, and are more readily excreted via the kidneys, liver, and intestines then are pharmaceutical[s]“(123).
For instance, aspirin and its chemical relatives are harmful to the stomach. Meadowsweet is healing to the stomach. The salicin found in these herbs is not nearly as strong as acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) and does not act the same way. In the 1960’s, researchers found that aspirin is a COX (cyclooxygenase, an enzyme) inhibitor, which means that it prevents COX from converting to pain- and inflammation- causing prostaglandins. Herbs can also act as COX inhibitors, but often they achieve this by correcting the imbalance that lead to an elevated incidence of prostaglandins. Essential fatty acids are often suggested for painful periods because of this mechanism. And lastly, meadowsweet and its salicin-containing cohorts are living, breathing entities while aspirin is man-made; an herbalist doesn’t recommend someone to simply “take two willow bark tablets and call me in the morning”. Care is taken to find which pain-relieving, fever-reducing, anti-inflammatory, blood-thinning herbs, lifestyle and dietary changes are suited to an individual constitution and condition.
Inflammation and is viewed by herbalists as a normal bodily response to injury and irritation. It is, essentially, the body’s way to heal itself. An increase of blood and lymph circulating to the injured tissue helps to remove the waste products and promotes healing. Simple as that. I do not support the use of cold packs on injured areas because it stops the inflammatory response, causing a longer healing time. One of the treatments for a badly sprained ankle last fall was a hot pack; in addition to blood-moving herbs (lots of yarrow and elder) I felt it actually soothed the pain and lessened the swelling. I have also found that carpal tunnel and plantar fasciitis respond extremely well to heat, cured even, as I experienced first hand. Chinese moxa sticks work exceedingly well in these cases.
Obviously, then, fever is also viewed as a normal bodily response. “Fevers accomplish much for the organism. It stimulates circulation of both blood and lymph that bring lymphocytes, immune globulins, and other infection-fighting agents to the site of need. Fever also enhances the removal of lysed, spent, and infected cells for processing by the liver, spleen and lymph nodes” (Stansbury, 118). If a fever is stopped prematurely the individual does not receive the benefits from this complex process, and in fact, may increase the duration of the illness. A fever should be around 102 degrees to be optimal, and definitely no higher than 106 degrees, which could cause seizures (118).
Many herbalists still call Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) by its former botanical name, spirea. According to Matthew Wood, it is a “true normalizer of a badly functioning stomach”, as it both “regulates acidity and rectifies alkalinity”. Meadowsweet can be used as an antacid replacer. It treats peptic ulcers as well as all stomach irritations, especially with fullness without appetite, and treat diarrhea in young children and the elderly. Drink cupfuls of the tea every hour for “fevers, flus, aches in joints, arthritic pain, headache with indigestion” (255). Even though it is high in methyl salicylate, meadowsweet has a great deal of mucilage and tannins that makes it useful as a “tonic to a battered stomach wall” (Mills, 281). Meadowsweet is a beautiful site to find in a field or by a lakeshore. Even the dried, dead, wintered leaves are soft and soothing.
Willow, (Salix spp.) has been used since antiquity for fever, joint pain, osteoarthritis, headaches and injuries as one would expect from a salicylate-rich plant, but because of the high amount of tannins, it is also used for “passive hemorrhages, atonic menstrual bleeding, loose stool” (Wood, 448). Some herbs are seductive to medical researchers; willow is definitely one. Here is a link to some interesting research on willow. After all, it was the plant that led to the synthesis of aspirin in the first place. Cottonwoods and poplars (Populus spp.) are resinous as well as containing salicin. Cottonwood, or balm of Gilead, is known as a stimulating expectorant for bronchitis, soothing to sore throats and laryngitis, as well as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and sore joints and muscles. Cottonwood oil made from the aromatic gooey buds is one of my favorite chest rubs during a bronchial infection when your chest aches to the touch. One of my favorite The Medicine Woman’s Roots posts on cottonwood.
Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and cramp bark (V. opulus) are botanical cousins that are used in similar ways for muscular tension, notably cramps. Both viburnums contain salicosides along with tannins and valerianic acids, making their individual blends of inflammation and pain relieving properties. For women’s health it is used for menstrual cramps, premature labor, and threatened miscarriages, but can be used any time a powerful relaxant is needed for muscular cramps. David Hoffmann uses black haw to treat high blood pressure since it relaxes the peripheral blood vessels as well as for asthma (181). Both viburnums, as typical of barks, contain tannins that make them useful in tonification; cramp bark has been used as an astringent for treating heavy periods or bleeding during menopause (Gladstar, 239; Hoffmann, 194). I seem to recall hearing that menstrual cramps that wrap around the pelvis to the sacrum and lower back call for cramp bark, while cramps that shoot down into the legs indicate black haw.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Herbal Healing for Women.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal Vol. I.
Cabrera, Chanchal. “Pain Management in Phytotherapy”. Medicines from the Earth Official Proceedings, 2005.
Stansbury, Jill. “Botanical Therapies for Fever”. Medicines from the Earth Official Proceedings, 2005.
December 12th, 2007 § § permalink
I’ve always been a fan of bitters; my taste-buds appreciate the wake-up call, my belly the appetite stimulation. I have taken them from time to time, and felt they were effective. Until this morning, I never gave them my undying support much thought…until I read in Simon Mills’ The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine that bitters may not be indicated in cold conditions or people. I am a cold person (just listen to my screaming boyfriend when I crawl into bed at night and lay my icy paws on his back), and here I have been using bitters the whole while! After some investigation, I have found that aromatic digestives (sometimes simply referred to as aromatics) are indicated for cold people and conditions like myself. Aromatics will be discussed in the next post.
Mills (226) states that bitters are indicated for hot conditions, such as liver conditions like jaundice and food/drug toxicity, gall-bladder disease, poor digestion, food intolerances, “chronic inflammatory diseases of the skin, joints, vascular system and bowel, migrainous headaches and fevers”, and blood-sugar regulation.
Bitters work quickly through stimulation of the taste buds that seconds later trigger gastrin secretion, which is why they are effective as in cooling hot conditions (430). Since bitters stimulate bile, and bile your body’s natural laxative, some bitters are gently stimulating laxatives. Here is Mills’ description of the bitter action (321):
“Comprised chemically of the most diverse array of molecular structures, the bitter principles have in common the ability to stimulate the bitter receptors inside the mouth, and thus evoke the taste of bitterness. Unlike other taste effects that of bitter stimulation seems to involve no electrical event on the surface of the cells: the conclusion is that each bitter molecule acts on cell membrane receptors to produce intercellular biochemical change. The immediate result is a rise in the concentration of calcium within the cell: this is likely to initiate the signal to the gustatory nerve.”
For the chemistry geeks out there, a group of terpenoids include most of the bitters. They are iridoids (gentian, dandelion, wild lettuce, valerian), sesquiterpenes (Artemisias, blessed thistle, gingko), diterpene (white horehound, Curcubitacea), and some alkaloids (coffee, goldenseal, quinine) (321-2).
Just a few bitters:
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a digestive and hepatic (liver) tonic. The leaves are nature’s perfect diuretic as it contains a large amount of potassium and well suited for edema but will not strain the heart, and the root is a mild laxative and detoxifier (434).
Gentian (Gentaina lutea) is an important bitter as it stimulates digestion and has an anti-inflammatory action. It is used “as a foundation for any prescription seeking to use the cooling, drying, and digestive stimulant effects” that may be present in inflammatory conditions (435).
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a bitter with a warm temperament. When I first purchased wormwood and brewed a cup on an chilly Minnesota spring day, I took two extremely bitter sips and felt a welcomed long-lasting warmth spread through my body and last the rest of the day. It is so bitter as well as astringent that its acrid constituents actually raises the temperature. As it name implies, it is useful for purging parasites, but let’s focus on wormwood as a bitter. Used for gastrointestinal infections, inadequate stomach acid, colic, and spasmodic dsymenarrhea, wormwood has been quite effective (438).
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of the most healing and astringent remedies to the gut wall and other irritated mucosal linings, and is a bitter digestive stimulant and cholagogue (liver stimulant) (440). “Dyspepsia with hepatic symptoms [is seen as] the main indication for using goldenseal”, as it is a strong bitter (441).
Anyone who has tried a tripled-hopped beer can attest to hops’ (Humulus luplus) bitterness…and also to its relaxing qualities. Hops has a relaxing effect on the nervous system similar to chamomile, as well as tension-related indigestion (it’s tannins lend their astringency quite nicely here) and headaches (Hoffmann, New Holistic Herbal 206). Hops can be useful in upper-digestive infections, irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn’s or diverticulitis, nervous coughs, palpitations, nervous dyspepsia or “whenever there are signs of visceral tension in the body” (460), so long as it is indicated. Would one use hops with watery loose, stools? I would say not.
A gentle and sometimes forgotten bitter is cold chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea. Another visceral relaxant with bitter properties. Chamomile is great for children–indeed some of it’s best uses are for anxiety, teething pain, colic, and sleeplessness. Chamomile beautifully and subtly combines its calming and bitter qualities; it both calms the gut wall (useful for nervous digestion) and stimulates digestion, bile flow and pancreatic action (454-5).
Rue (Ruta graveolens) combines anti-spasmodic and bitter properties like chamomile, but not so sweetly. Don’t get me wrong, rue is a very nice plant, it is just very bitter in the cup. Hoffmann suggests using it for relaxing smooth muscles “especially in the digestive system where it will ease griping and bowl tension” (229). It is known to bring on suppressed menstruation. I have no experience of using is as a woman herb…have any of you used it as such?
That is just the beginning to bitter herbs. Try them where indicated, enjoy the peace in the belly that may follow.