April 24th, 2011 § § permalink
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.
April 9th, 2011 § § permalink
The first groups of herbs students learn in Chinese herb classes are the warm and cool herbs to release the exterior. These herbs are active on the surface of the body and useful in externally-contracted conditions, like colds or the flu. Many are diaphoretic and open the pores to promote sweating, vent rashes, treat red, itchy eyes and sore throat in the case of a wind-cold or heat invasion, treat headache of carious causes, or drain dampness by being diuretic.
One thing I love, love, love, love, love about learning Chinese herbs is the emphasis on the energetics of taste/flavor. I already mentioned this in my last post, but I can’t help but (over)state it again, because it has been so helpful in learning the herbs, and providing a bit of theory to base the use of these herbs in.
Overall, the flavor and energy of these herbs goes up and out. Some are aromatic, most are acrid, a few are bitter or sweet. Most but not all of these herbs enter the Bladder and/or the Lungs, since these are the organs most closely related to the exterior (Lungs in the upper body, the Bladder in the lower body). Below I have taken a few herbs from the texts and added a few Western herbs from Micheal Tierra’s The Way of the Herbs, for comparison.
Warm herbs to release the exterior/surface:
Ephedra – Ephedra sinica, Ephedracae family. This herb is classified as warm, acrid, and slightly bitter, and is known as a one of the best diaphoretics when there is no sweating as it opens the pores when it is blocked by wind-cold. It is also used for asthma or cough, as well as edema since it is a diuretic. It is no accident that it is the first herb often taught; it exemplifies the entire category in many ways even though it is somewhat of a controversial herb and not used often in the states.
There are many representatives from the Apiacea or carrot family, but I want to look at an herb from the Chinese materia medica that has a close relative in Western herbalism, angelica. Angelica dahurica or bai zhi is warm, acrid and aromatic, which makes it useful for dispersing, unblocking, warming and drying. These qualities are useful draining skin infections like boils, treating leukorrhea, frontal headaches and toothaches due to an attack of external cold-wind, and nasal congestion.
Every herb has at least on of the twelve channels that it enters into, but a few herbs actually guide into the organ itself. Bai zhi guides into the Yang Ming organs, in particular the Stomach. This makes sense because the paired organs of Spleen and Stomach often accumulate dampness and affect the appitite, assim diegstion, and bai zhi is great at expelling dampness.
Angelica archangelica is also in this category. It is native to Europe has similar energetics to bai zhi, and is known as being carminative, emmenagogue and diaphoretic. Taken during the start of a cold or the flu, it can promote sweating and spread warmth through the body. To me it is especially useful in either damp conditions or damp environments, because it is so aromatic and lifting. I recall a teacher commenting that it is suited to England, where it is cold and damp. I started using it after spending a weekend in southern Minnesota where it was dew-covered and growing abundantly along the steep roadsides during a very hot and very humid June. I was drawn to use it because of its drying and carminative properties, and found it worked incredibly well in this regard.
magenta hedge-nettle variety on the Oregon coast
Many aromatic, warming and spicy mints show up in this category from the Chinese tradition as well as Western. Hyssop, sage, hedge nettle, basil, thyme, oregano, savory, monarda, perilla and fang feng are a few examples. When I thought of the Western herbs in the category, I realized that many herbs in surface-releasing category are anti-microbial. Chinese medicine theory doesn’t include germ theory, but it does consider that exogenous pathogenic factors can invade the body when either it’s defenses are down (a deficiency situation) or the pathogen is very strong (an excess condition).
Mints are among my favorite herbs to take at the start of a cold or flu, or even when in chronic conditions when it has moved into the chest (thyme being my standby here). They have the ability to float and vent a congested head, increase circulation, promote circulation and sweating, and even soothe an upset stomach and promote a good appetite, which is often lacking when you are coming down with a cold or flu. I mentioned this to my herb study group a few weeks ago and they were taken aback by my use of thyme for a cold, saying it was awfully hot and caustic. I countered with explaining that I am used to below zero winters so I needed a lot of warming, but that still didn’t win them over. Finally it came up that they thought I was using the essential oil of thyme which is very hot, concentrated and often caustic. But I am a whole herb for my steam sort of gal.
A few other herbs in this category include sassafrass, fresh ginger, cinnamon cassia and two ligusticums: L. sinense and L. porteri. One of my favorite Chinese herbs in the category is qiang huo, Notopterygium incisum. The root of this aromatic Apiaceae is warm, acrid and bitter so it can disperse and raise to discharge wind, cold and damp pathogens from the exterior. Qiang huo enters the Bladder channel, which combined with its lifting and dispersing flavors, can release sore muscles, chills and headache. In particular, it relieves achy joints and bones along the back, the muscles along the sides of the spine (erector spinae), along the scapula, up the back of the neck into the head and across the forehead to the eyes.
I wish would’ve had some qiang huo on hand when I was a preschool teacher and came down with the achy flu from hell 4 times in 3 months. My bones felt like they were in a vice and I was chilled to the bone. I used a lot of diapohretics and warm herbs, but came to rely on boneset for the pain in my hips and femurs. Boneset is so bitter and cold, which brought it down to the lower burner, but it didn’t totally relieve the aches in my shoulders, arms and back – what qiang huo does so well.
Asarum canadense growing abundently in a Minnesota state park
February 28th, 2011 § § permalink
I am in 2 of 12 terms in school. The pace at which we learn things is incredible. Study a subject for one week and bam! you are expected to know everything (yes, this is an overstatement) about the muscles of the thigh, the Spleen meridian, the integument system, and (as luck would have it) certain categories of herbs. Tomorrow is out first herb test, which will consist of answering questions about the 14 herbs we learned in the “Warm Herbs that Release the Exterior” category.
Starting in 2002, I regularly studied herbs in earnest. That meant that on most day of the week, I read about, tasted, looked at, sat with, thought of, gardened, identified and wildcrafted, and took notes about the herbs that I was studying. Since I was in a self-education situation, I tended to migrate towards herbs that myself or my friends and family needed. There is the time to sit and digest (literally and figuratively) all the information and subtleties about the plants.
With all the ways I studied herbs, I never though to add memorization to my ways of understanding herbs.
But now I have to.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t seek to be centered and connected to the plants I am learning about. We have samples of the herbs to gaze at, nibble, and smell. The texts that we have are amazing at describing the energetic nature of the herb, comparing and contrasting similar herbs, and using references from the classics. I do work study in the clinic’s herbal dispensary, where I fill bulk and granule formulas, so I get to further familiarize with the herbs as I see them in formulas, and I did some gardening in the herbal garden in the beginning of the year.
One thing I like to do that I don’t really have a chance to do is taste the herbs. I could find a way to get some, but the school won’t let you but herbs unless a faculty has signed off on a formula, like a prescription. Apparently it’s a liability issue. This is probably my biggest frustration: HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN ABOUT THE HERBS IF I CAN”T PREPARE AND USE THEM? There, I am done ranting.
Here is a sample of the information we need to know:
Jing Jie (Schizonepata tenuifolia, Lamiaceae)
- Slightly Warm
- Enters the Lung and Liver meridian
- Dose: 3-10g, short cook
- ~Relieve exterior syndrome by eliminating wind, promoting skin eruption, stop bleeding.
- Headache, fever, aversion to cold with no sweating, for either wind-cold or wind-heat.
- Itchy skin, urticaria, slow skin eruption in measles.
- Epitaxis, hemafecia, urinary bleeding due to various causes.
- Early stage of carbuncles or boils with exterior syndrome.
- Deficiency of exterior (wei qi, yin, or deficient heat).
- Opens sores.
- Absence of pathogenic wind.
- Fully erupted measles.
Jing Jie or Schizonepata is very aromatic. A classmate asked if it is related to lavender, because the spikes resemble lavender tops and also because of it’s smell. Indeed, they are in the same family! I think the dried herb smells like a cross between a wild mint that grew next to stream in Minnesota and sweet pennyroyal, but I bet there are similar species like that all over the world.
I find it odd that Jing Jie is said to be slightly warm, because as a minty-mint I expect it to be slightly cool, like spearmint (although I can see how peppermint is sometimes considered warm, cool and sometimes both). It is considered to be antipyretic, diaphoretic, antibiotic (the decoction is effective against staph, strep-B, salmonella, Bacillus tubercuili), hemostatic (according to Chen, charred Jing Jie speeds coagulation time by 77%, while regular Jing Jie does by 30%), analgesic, and a bronchiodialator that relieves spasm and wheezing. As you may of guessed, it is full of volatile oils, along with flavanoids, phenolic acids, and monoterpine glycosides.
Since it is slightly warm, it can be used for both heat and cold situations. It is relatively mild all-around, so it doesn’t damage yin, and is not as drying as the other herbs in this category, but it still is drying. According to the texts, the important factor for it’s effectiveness is that wind must be present. Wind is one of the six exogenous (outside) pathogenic factors and is characterized with sudden, acute situations (like colds and flu), aversion to wind, itching, convulsions, spasms, trembling,as well as stiffness or paralysis (where wind is internal and not moving).
It can be used with spasms in general, especially muscle spasms. The texts say it is useful for postpartum spasm and muscle cramps. It is featured in many topical formulas for itching or wind attacking the skin like with rashes or eczema.
I able to get an intern to sign off on a 10 gram order of this herb for me to try on my dog. She has been very itchy, with pretty bad eczema. I made a wrapped Jing Jie and calendula in a thin cotton towel, poured some boiling water over it, and let it steep, covered, for about 30 minuets. Isis (my dog) seemed to like it, but she pretty much always likes compresses. I did notice she was much less itchy for the rest of the night, and the inflammation decreased. I would combine it with comfrey next time, because it was more drying to her than the calendula alone (which is not a particularly demulcent plant itself). I think it might be a good herb to add into a dry, itchy skin salve… and it has been such a long time since I’ve made a salve…
One more thing about Jing Jie. The tea was quite tasty, very aromatic with sweet, warm mint undertones. I am actually surprised that it is not considered “sweet”, because it strikes me as very sweet in both smell and taste. The flavor has a touch of licorice or stevia sweetness to it. Now that I think about it, the flavor reminds me of many herbs, but anise hyssop, pennyroyal and wild mint come up the most in my mind. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. I did experience a little nervine effect, not as pronounced as lavender or lemon balm, more similar to that of spearmint.
Sigh, I suppose I should go back to studying now…