Archive for January, 2007

Winter flu care: pink ginger tea.

Pink Ginger Tea

My favorite herbs for flu care are diaphoretics, to stimulate sweating.*

I like diaphoretics because they support the body’s natural response rather than “fighting” the illness. (I’m not a big fan of the body-as-battleground theory of disease, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Some of my favorite diaphoretic herbs: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), elder flowers & berries (Sambucus nigra) and ginger (Zingiber officinale).

Elderberry and ginger make a delicious tea that you might want to drink all winter, whether you’re sick or not!

To make pink ginger tea:

Slice up 2-3 inches of fresh ginger.

Put the ginger in a pot and cover it with about a quart of water.

Add 2-3 tablespoons of elderberry (frozen, canned, juice, syrup or dried).

Simmer the mixture until it tastes strongly of ginger—usually at least 15 minutes. (The tea turns a muddy purple-brown as it simmers. Don’t worry, we’ll fix it.)

When it’s ready, remove the tea from the heat, let it sit a minute to cool, and add good quality raw honey** to taste. (Don’t boil raw honey. You’ll kill the enzymes.)

Now for the magic. Squeeze the juice from one small or half a large lemon. Add it to the tea. Watch the color change from muddy to clear pink!

Drink hot, preferably while wrapped in a blanket.

*The simple definition of diaphoretic: an agent that stimulates sweating. But as Samuel Potter points out in his 1902 Materia Medica, diaphoretic is derived from the Greek meaning “I carry through.” Diaphoretic herbs help carry heat and energy through the body, promoting excretion through the skin.

**You have to be careful with honey. Most US beekeepers use toxic miticides to keep their bees alive. Talk to your beekeeper, buy organic honey (expensive, if you can get it), or use a reliable supplier like Honey Gardens in Vermont.

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Trans fat-free industrial food is still bad food.

So partially hydrogenated “trans” fats are bad. Everyone knows they’re bad. Hell, they’re illegal now in restaurants in New York. There’s even a trans fat–free Crisco on the market.

But guess what? The food industry isn’t replacing this nasty industrial fat with some wholesome, expensive ingredient like, say, coconut oil. Yes, you guessed it, they’re replacing it with another nasty industrial fat! And the early research suggests this one might be even more poisonous than the last. (Not only does it lower “good” HDL cholesterol, it raises blood sugar. Just what we need.)

So watch for it on food labels: interesterified fat, also known as fully hydrogenated oil. And steer clear. (And just give up on the Crisco. How about organic lard from happy pigs on small farms instead?)

The bottom line: industrial food is industrial food is industrial food. And it’s bad.

Geek note: The study in question is Stearic acid-rich interesterified fat and trans-rich fat raise the LDL/HDL ratio and plasma glucose relative to palm olein in humans by
Kalyana Sundram, Tilakavati Karupaiah and Kc Hayes in Nutrition and Metabolism 2007, 4:3. And there’s a free full-text PDF!

Related post: Trans fat update: bureaucracy + marketing = bad food.

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Winter cold care: lymph love.

Now that we finally have a bit of winter here in Vermont, people are starting to get sick. The symptoms are familiar: a slight sniffle, rawness in the throat, pressure in the ears, swollen lymph nodes.

Here are my favorite ways to care for this kind of winter cold:

1. Topical tinctures. I like to drip lymphatic and tonic herbs directly onto the surface of the tonsils. (If you want to try this, hold the dropper right up against the back of the inside of your cheek, with your head tilted back. Do a few drops on each side.) Some herbs I use this way: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), red root (Ceanothus americanus), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). (Only use cultivated organic goldenseal, NEVER wildcrafted—this is an endangered plant.)

It’s best to experiment and see what feels right, since these herbs have really different personalities. Lemon balm is soothing and stimulating; red root is strongly astringent; ground ivy is astringent too, but gentler; goldenseal is an amazing all-around mucous membrane tonic, but be prepared for bitter if you use it this way.

2. Neck massage helps the lymph system drain (pay special attention to the area under the collarbones—this is where the lymphatic ducts empty into the bloodstream).

3. There’s nothing like a good whole-body stretch or a pleasant walk to get the lymph system moving.

4. Hot herbal face cloths feel really good, and they also encourage circulation and drainage. Just soak a washcloth in strong, hot herbal tea and press it to your face. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) are lovely, but you can use any aromatic herb.

5. And, of course, there’s always chicken soup.

P.S. I’m extra geeky about the lymphatic system lately. Check out this amazing drawing.

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Tasty tea for hangovers.

Hangover Tea

Speaking of comforting herbs, the boy had a nasty hangover Saturday morning, so I made him some tea. It tasted so good, we’ve been drinking it ever since.

To make the tea, mix together:

3 parts marshmallow leaf (Althaea officinalis) for the dried out tissues.
3 parts oatstraw (Avena sativa) for the jangled nerves.
2 parts lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia) for the muddled head.
2 parts rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) for the hardworking liver.

Use about a tablespoon per cup of hot water. Steep for at least ten minutes.
It’s very nice with honey.

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Insomnia is not insomnia is not insomnia.

Difficulty sleeping comes in many forms.

Trouble Falling Asleep can be associated with tension, excess nervous energy (“heat”) or a depleted nervous system (“cold”). My favorite herbs for falling asleep are kava (Piper methysticum) for tension, hops (Humulus lupulus) for heat and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Staying Asleep is usually associated with tension or excess nervous energy (heat), but it can sometimes be related to depletion (cold) as well. My favorite herbs for staying asleep are passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for tension, peach leaf (Prunus persica) for heat and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Waking Up (aka waking up with that run-over-by-a-truck feeling) is common in people whose bodies are sluggish or depleted overall. Lymphatic and liver-supporting herbs are the thing to use here. Some of my favorites are cleavers (Galium aparine) and all heal (Prunella vulgaris) for sluggishness and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and oats (Avena sativa) for depletion. (I haven’t posted detailed indications for these herbs yet. Some of them are in Matt Wood’s book, listed below.)

Basic sleep hygiene applies in every case of sleep trouble: Dark and quiet bedroom (no TV), no caffeine/stimulants in the afternoon (or at all), good exercise (but not in the evening), good relaxing and good food.

Important: It is always best to choose herbs carefully, based on an individual’s constitution. Don’t think “valerian is good for insomnia.” Ask “Is valerian good for this person?” There is no insomnia, only a person. (If you give valerian to someone who has a hot constitution, it can have a stimulant effect; if you give hops to someone with a cold constitution, it can be depressing.) I never like to recommend herbs for anyone without seeing them and talking to them first. Again: herbs are for people, not for conditions.

N.B.: Heat/Cold and Tension/Sluggishness are part of a system of “energetics” that many herbalists use to understand human bodies and match them with appropriate herbs. Someday I will blog about energetics, but in the meantime the best introductory discussion of western-style herbal energetics that I know of is in Matthew Wood’s book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism.

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Hop pillows are lovely.

Making hop pillows.

One of the most common questions people ask me as an herbalist is “What can I take to help me sleep?” Since the underlying cause of insomnia is usually stress, working with the appropriate calming and comforting herbs is a good place to start.

In my post on comforting herbs, I mentioned that hops can be taken as tea or tincture to help with stress and insomnia—but my favorite way to use hops to encourage sleep is with hop pillows. The aroma of good quality hops is a gentle, effective soporific (so effective that people who pick hops all day sometimes get sleepy on the job).

Here’s how to make a hop pillow:

Make or find a small cloth bag. I generally make mine out of two 3×5 inch pieces of quilting cotton, but a large muslin teabag works well.

Fill the bag with good quality hops. Good hops should be fresh, more green than brown, and very aromatic. If you have trouble finding good hops, try a brewing supply store. Most bulk dried hops you find in herb stores are old and sad. (Herb stores often don’t take very good care of their bulk dried herbs, but that’s a topic for another post.)

After you’ve filled the bag with hops, sew or fasten it closed—tight enough so that if you roll over on it at night, you won’t wake up to a bed full of hops.

Sleep with the pillow close enough to smell it. (I like to give mine a few good squeezes to release the aroma when I get in bed.)

Sweet dreams!

(N.B. Most herbalists consider hops to be contraindicated in cases of depression. I think this is less of an issue with hop pillows, but it’s definitely something to consider. Always pay close attention to your reactions to any herb—if your instinct says something isn’t good for you, don’t use it!)

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Comforting herbs.

Most of us are ready for some comfort right about now. Holiday chaos is behind us, we’ve more or less survived, and it’s time to get quiet and cozy and rebuild our reserves.

Here are indications or “symptom pictures” for some calming and comforting herbs. A symptom picture is a great way to get to know an herb better—it describes the characteristics of a person who fits a particular herb. All of these herbs could be considered nervines that are good for “stress,” but you get the best results with plants if you pay close attention to details.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa): Nervous stomach, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” someone who is passionate and intense but holding back. [Tincture or tea.]

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Agitation and insomnia with pain. [Tincture or tea.]

Catnip (Nepeta cataria): Stress stomachaches, cold headaches, overstimulation and colic in children. [Tincture or tea.]

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile): Irritability, petulance, complaining, impatience, “acting like a baby.” [Tea.]

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum and O. gratissimum): Tension with fear underneath, running on adrenaline, trying to control things. [Tincture or tea.]

Hops (Humulus lupulus): Anxiety, muscle twitching, muscle and digestive tension, insomnia. [Tincture or tea.]

Kava (Piper methysticum): Muscle pain and tension, worry, “wrapped up in knots.” [Tincture.]

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Nervous excitement, giddiness, headache. Culpeper says: “tremblings and passions of the heart.” [Tea.]

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Speedy feeling, racing heart, can’t calm down. [Tincture or tea.]

Linden (Tilia x europaea or T. americana): Heartache, sadness, palpitations, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tea.]

Milky Oats (Avena sativa): Run down and weak, drained nerves and body. Hildegard suggests oat water in a sauna for “a divided mind and crazy thoughts.” [Tincture or tea.]

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Heartbreak, grief, emotions feel out of control. [Tincture or tea.]

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): Raw, in need of soothing. Hildegard: “one whose heart is weak and sad.” [Tincture or tea.]

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Racing thoughts, tremors, irritation. Tommie Bass used it to restore peace in relationships where people get irritated with each other over little things. [Tincture or tea.]

Peach Leaf (Prunus persica): Sensitivity, overstimulation, overheated, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tincture or tea.]

Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): Fear, anger, nightmares, physical spasms. [Tincture or tea.]

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata): Anger, headache from heat. Hildegard: “a discontented mind.” [Tincture.]

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): Pale, cold, weak, spacy, agitated, can’t sleep, can’t catch breath. [Tincture.]

Vervain (Verbena officinalis and V. hastata): Driven, perfectionist, striving, tense neck muscles. [Tincture.]

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa and L. canadensis): Been through trauma, deadened, cold, feel numb, stiff muscles. [Tincture.]

If you’re interested in learning to relate to herbs in terms of symptom pictures, Matthew Wood’s books are a great place to start. But really it’s just a question of getting to know the plants personally.

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Homemade liqueurs.

Finished liqueurs.

Liqueur is very easy to make. For Christmas this year, I made five different flavors from citrus peel, herbs and spices. From left to right: Tangerine Spice (with nutmeg and cloves), Chocolate Orange, Orange Saffron, Mint Lime, and Meyer Lemon Cardamom.

This is how I made them:

First I grated each kind of citrus peel into its own mason jar and covered it with grain alcohol. I covered each jar and let them sit for a few days, until the color of the citrus peels had completely leached into the alcohol.

Then I strained the liquids, put them back in the mason jars and added the next ingredients (spices, cocoa, saffron, mint and cardamom, respectively). I let them sit for a few more days, and then added about 3 parts light simple syrup to the 1 part alcohol mixture in each jar.

Then I waited a few more days, strained the liqueurs, tasted them, adjusted for strength (I had to add more syrup to some that were too strong) and bottled them.

Really, it’s mostly a question of waiting. And they are worth the wait. The Meyer Lemon Cardamom is my favorite—I like to mix it with sparkling water and maybe a little vodka. The Mint Lime and Orange Saffron are great that way too. The Chocolate Orange is good with milk, and I’m going to try making hot bourbon toddies with the Tangerine Spice.

(That’s my stone grinder in the background of the photo. It’s one of my favorite kitchen things ever. I promise to blog about it soon.)

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We’re all sensitive.

More notes on allergies and sensitivities:

1. We’re all sensitive to the barrage of toxic crap we breathe, eat and drink.

2. Dealing with the barrage of toxic crap increases our sensitivity to potential allergens and irritants.

3. Allergy and sensitivity are directly related to overall health and stress levels.

Some people seem to think that immune reactions are as fundamental and unchanging as eye or skin color. Not so. Our bodies are much more interesting than that. Our immune reactions are often mediated by stress—psychological or physical.

It’s possible to be allergic to something only when you’re stressed out. I see this often in people who have been diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
They can eat a trigger food with no problem most of the time, but if they’re tired or stressed out, the food triggers an IBS attack. So the real trigger is the interaction between the food and the stress. Knowing this, people can learn their triggers and take care of their health much more easily. They can say “I’ve had a long day, and wheat is a stress-related trigger for me, so let’s have rice for dinner instead of pasta.”

It makes sense to me that our nervous systems and our immune systems are so closely connected. If we’re feeling threatened in one sphere, why shouldn’t all our systems be up in arms?

Here’s a funny, geeky bit about stress and immune reactions:

“Psychological stress may be conceptualized as a social pollutant that, when ‘breathed’ into the body, may disrupt biological systems related to inflammation through mechanisms potentially overlapping with those altered by physical pollutants and toxicants.” From The impact of stress on the development and expression of atopy. Current Opinion in Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 5(1):23-29, February 2005. Wright, Rosalind J a; Cohen, Robyn T b; Cohen, Sheldon c

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