Teas tell a story, especially hand-harvested teas. Finding the penultimate Rose, camping with friends and harvesting fresh Skullcap as the last think to pack into the car, cutting Passionflower for a trailing bouquet with dahlias and sunflowers, magenta sunsets, petting kitties in the waning moonlight. » Read the rest of this entry «
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.
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.
Even herbalists can get into a rut. We don’t see little bottles of vinegar extractions lining shelves at health food/herb stores, so we generally don’t make them at home, either. Vinegar, being made from and still containing plant matter, naturally decomposes over time. Vinegar tinctures last about 2 years, while alcohol preparations last almost indefinitely. As James Green reiterates, when we are making herbs at home, we generally do so in small batches so there is no particular reason we should not employ vinegar tinctures on a more regular basis.
For years, vinegar was the official menstrum in mainstream pharmacy. Then in the early 1900′s it was replaced by ethyl alcohol. At that time, medicine was quite heroic, and using the strongest, biggest and baddest (because they were sometimes toxic) medicines and treatments was the norm. It was all but goodbye to food-based menstrums like vinegar, alcohol, honey and sugar, and oils as medical knowledge was becoming possessed by the “official” medical community.
Green reminds us that when herbal medicine experienced a resurgence in the 1960′s – 1970′s, the budding herbalists took on where the 1920′s pharmacopoeia left off; that is with using strong alcohol extractions rather than using food-based menstrums. Not to say that alcoholic tinctures are a bad thing; just that herbalists may have overlooked viable options.
More non-alcoholic medicine-making appeals to me on many levels, least of not for the fact that grain alcohol is not widely available (I have to drive to Wisconsin to get it, as it is not sold in Minnesota) and is more costly than even the most expensive bottle of apple cider vinegar. Many households have vinegar on hand anyways, so it’s truly medicine from the pantry.
Back to vinegar. Look on the bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, and you will find a paragraph of vinegars’ health benefits and history of use. It has been along for, well, as long as anyone can remember. It was used by Hippocrates, Galen, and steeped in uses by common people though the ages. Green sums up vinegar’s benefits (179):
- Pure vinegar is non-toxic and can be tolerated by everyone, young and old
- It is a digestive tonic, helps regulates the acid/alkaline balance
- High in minerals (dilute or add honey to make it go down smoother for daily use)
- Non-alcoholic, for those who want/need a break from traditional tinctures
Medicinally, vinegar is warming but still has an refridgerant effect as it evaporates off the skin, quells thirst and promotes saliva. Green says it has a quality that “alleviates restlessness”, as well as “promotes secretions of the kidneys and respiratory mucous membranes” (181). Topically, vinegar is antiseptic and astringent so use for deodorant, to relieve inflammation, itching, allergic rashes and sunburn. Rosemary Gladstar once joked that her grandfather said her grandmother smelled like a salad dressing from slathering olive oil on her skin and using vinegar hair rinses. Indeed, it is cleansing, toning and conditioning to the skin and hair.
Vinegar combines with other herbs that augment the medicinal attributes it already has. Add to it expectorant herbs, or astringents for internal or external use. A bit of cayenne makes vinegar a wonderful liniment for aches and pains. Where vinegar really shines as a menstrum is for extracting alkaloids, which water and alcohol do not do as well. When alkaloid-containing herbs (lobelia, goldenseal, bloodroot, black walnut are a few) are macerated in vinegar, the acetic acid from the vinegar causes an alkaloid salt to be formed, making it readily available (179).
Although I have tried oxymels, I figured it was high time to make one for my household. Oxymels are a mixture of vinegar and honey, combining sweet and sour to create an invigorating and balanced blend. The simplest type of oxymels is by stirring a tablespoon of vinegar in a tablespoon of honey, then diluted in a cup of warm water. This simple remedy is known to balance the acid-alkaline balance in the body and is employed as a daily tonic. Here is the oxymel that I made, from I recipe I wrote down from a 2006 lecture:
- 1 onion, chopped
- 16 0z apple cider vinegar
- 2 T thyme
- 2 T fennel seeds
- 2 T anise seeds
- 2 T oregano
- 2 cups honey
Bring all but the honey to a boil, then simmer covered for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, strain and press herbs, and add honey while it is still warm. When would one take this oxymel? You guessed it: cold and flu season, especially for chest colds of all kinds. I added the anise to assist the herbs in expectoration; it’s one of my favorites for thinning and bringing up congesting phlegm.
There are endless varieties of oxymels, so add in herbs that suit your individual needs. The above recipe could replace onions with garlic for extra anti-microbial action, or an addition of black peppercorns and mustard seeds for more warming actions (as vinegar is cooling, see ). James Green says that the basic ratio of vinegar to honey is roughly 1:3, or 1 cup vinegar to 3/4 pounds honey, although I have had some with equal parts honey to vinegar and they seemed to work just fine. Perhaps the larger amount of honey serves for added preservation.
Lobelia oxymel – from Dr. William Cook for dry, irritable coughs, lung congestion
- dried lobelia herb
- apple cider vinegar
Place lobelia (preferably dried) in a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar and steep for 2 weeks. Strain, mix with honey in the proportion of ¾ pound honey to 1 cup vinegar. Place in a water bath, until the mixture is like thin molasses, bottle and refrigerate (246). As you can see, there are no set measurements for materials, so adjust quantities to your needs. Dose as needed for coughs.
Jam’s Green’s Poison Oak Lotion
- 1 part mugwort
- 1 part horsetail
- apple cider vinegar
Make a strong decoction of 1 part mugwort and 1 part horsetail. To 2 parts of this liquid, add 1 part apple cider vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon salt per cup, bottle, label, and store in the fridge. Apply externally often (184).
Thyme’s (Thymus vulgaris) anti-microbial, anti-spasmodic, expectorant and astringent actions and it’s volatile oil content make it very useful for respiratory infections, sore throat, coughs including chronic bronchitis and whooping cough. Here’s a bit about thyme from “My Favorite Mints” post.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) syrup is a well-known, time-tested, effective and utterly delicious respiratory tract tonic. David Hoffmann summarizes the research of this small tree; “The extract was effective in vitro against 10 strains of influenza virus. It also reduced the duration of flu symptoms to 3 to 4 days in a double-blind, placebo controlled, randomized study”(580). The flowers are handy to have around as well, as they are part of the old gypsy cold remedy of equal parts of yarrow, peppermint, and elderflower drunk as a tea, steeped strong and served hot. I like to add a bit of boneset in the formula to address the chills and body aches that often come with a bad cold or the flu. The flowers are a wonderful diaphoretic to open the pores, and they relieve chest congestion through their anticatarrhal action. Elderflowers is called by Matthew Wood “the great infant remedy”, especially in babies and children with red, dry skin on the cheeks and blue coloring around the eyes (457).
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a classic New World (American) herb, used by Native Americans and quickly adopted by Eurpeans. It was and still is “…one of the best remedies for the relief of symptoms that accompany influenza” (Hoffmann, 549). Hoffmann also writes:
“High dilutions of various sequiterpene lactones isolated from E. perfoliatum demonstrated immunostimulant activity. In addition, polysaccharide fractions from E. perfoliatum showed immunostimulant actions in granulocyte, macrophage, and carbon clearance tests.”
Have you ever had aches that felt like your bones were being crushed or that they just simply hurt no matter what position you take? Pain like that calls for boneset. It is the first herb that I reach for aches and pains. After having tried it for the flu with great success at relieving aches, I decided to try it for aching bones at times other than the when one has the flu. I found it successful for deep thigh and pelvis aches accompanying menstrual cramps, but unsuccessful for aches after strenuous activity. It doesn’t surprise me that boneset did not relive the latter aches; they were more from a muscular origin than from “the bones”. King’s American Dispensatory recommends it for the “‘bone pains’ of syphilis” (549). I use a tincture, and take it every hour as needed. Boneset is also a well-known diaphoretic, another reason why it is useful for the flu. Like elecampane, it contains bitter properties and is slightly stimulating to the large intestine.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) tea is effective for sore throats, as mentioned in this older post.
There are many other respiratory herbs to pick from, based on your specific symptoms. I tend to alternate between wild cherry and elecampane, though I sometimes use mullein, pleurisy root, coltsfoot, horehound, and less often use lobelia, osha and hyssop. Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) has expectorant, astringent and antispasmodic actions. I have found it works well for those coughs that will not stop or are dry and ticklish with a sore upper chest (Tierra, Leslie). David Hoffmann writes, “because of its powerful sedative effect o the cough reflex, wild cherry bark finds its main use in treatment of irritating coughs” (575).
One of my favorite garden flowers, elecampane (Inula helenium) is indicated in cases with lots of mucus (often yellow or green) accompanying deep bronchial coughs. Elecampane is both effective on tough coughs and gentle enough for children. It is a tonic for the lungs, soothing to irritating tissues, a stimulating expectorant that actively works copious mucus out of the lungs, and an anti-microbial to help rid the body of the underlying infection. All in all, a pretty hand herb to have around! Use the root, either in tincture or dried and decocted as a tea. Hilltown Families has a good recipe for elecampane syrup; I can’t wait to try it! I find it interesting that elecampane has a marked effect of the large intestine, which is related to the lungs in Chinese medicine, as elecampane works on both.
Hofffmann, David. Medical Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine.
Tierra, Leslie. Healing with the Herbs of Life.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal Vol. I.