Archive for Digestive system

Kitchen spices: cinnamon.

This month’s herbal blog party theme is “Kitchen Spices.” Our host is Dancing in a Field of Tansy.

These days, cinnamon is my favorite kitchen spice medicine.

Here are a few cinnamons from my spice shelf:

cinnamon

On the left, cassia or Chinese cinnamon. This is the most common cinnamon in the US—the one you can find in the grocery store, .

On the right, the “true” or Ceylon cinnamon, . It has a more subtle aroma than cassia, and it’s not so sharp.

The powder is Vietnamese / Saigon cinnamon, . It’s intensely sweet, very spicy, and much redder than the other two.

(Confused about the botanical names? Been reading old-time herbals? Here’s a clue: C. cassia = C. aromaticum; C. zeylanicum = C. verum.)

All the cinnamons have a lovely balance of warming and stimulating and soothing qualities — they’re wonderful for people with cold constitutions. The classic indication for cinnamon is a tendency to cold hands and feet, a reminder of cinnamon’s powerful stimulating effect on blood circulation.

Cinnamon strengthens the circulatory system and gets blood moving out to the surface of the body. (David Winston uses cinnamon for Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition in which circulation is severely restricted in the hands.) But cinnamon’s more than a circulatory stimulant. Remember this: cinnamon brings energy where energy has been drained. So while it’s classic for weak circulation with cold hands and feet, it’s also one of the most valuable old-time remedies for passive hemorrhage, including hemorrhage after childbirth.* Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends a cinnamon-spiced wine to give strength to women in labor. Cinnamon strengthens basic vitality.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the indication for cinnamon is “deficient kidney yang.” Some symptoms: fatigue, aversion to cold, low back pain, cold hands and feet, abdominal pain, diarrhea /constipation, pale urine, white-coated tongue. Guess what? Most of these are indications of “cold” in European and American style herbalism. (I’ve also found that this list can be a pretty clear picture of some people diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (IBS). And indeed, cinnamon is a classic remedy for digestive upset.)

Cinnamon is revitalizing for people who are cold and tired, drained of energy (think chronic fatigue). Now, don’t get any funny ideas: cinnamon is no substitute for rest. It is a supreme aid to convalescence, though: it’s capable of energizing tissue and getting tired or weak organs moving again. It’s also perfect for people who tend to “catch” every bug that comes along: increased vitality means increased immunity.

Cinnamon’s revitalizing power comes in handy these days, with so many people run down and drained by modern industrial “food.” Cinnamon helps the body use energy: it’s a specific for insulin resistance / metabolic syndrome. Consistent long-term use of cinnamon brings down blood sugar and triglycerides, those danger-signs of impending diabetes and heart disease.**

So, in case you didn’t get it yet, cinnamon revitalizes what is drained. It brings life to the pale, cold and weak. Not bad for your average kitchen spice, is it?

My favorite cinnamon tea (this week, anyway):

3 parts Cinnamon sticks

1 part Orange peel

1 part valerian, blackhaw or crampbark

1/2 part flaxseeds

Simmer as for flaxseed tea.

This tea is wonderful for increasing circulation, for “irritable bowel” and for menstrual cramps in people who tend to cold. (You can increase the valerian / blackhaw / crampbark for a stronger relaxing effect, but it won’t taste quite as good.)

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for cinnamon:

Parts used: dried bark or twigs.

Actions: stimulant, carminative, diaphoretic, hemostatic, antiseptic.

Affinities: circulation, digestion, metabolism, uterus.

Taste: sweet, spicy, aromatic.

Vitalist energetics: warming, slightly mucilaginous but also slightly drying. Hildegard said it best in 1150: “Cinnamon is very hot and its power is great. It holds a bit of moisture, but its heat is so strong that it suppresses that dampness” (trans. Throop 1998).

Michael Moore energetics: skin, CNS, upper GI, renal, reproductive stimulant; lower GI, mucosa sedative.

Tongue indications: pale, coated.

Specific indications: insulin resistance, bleeding ulcers (Michael Moore), passive uterine hemorrhage, menstrual cramps associated with heavy flow and a feeling of cold.

Homeopathic mental indications: “Sleepy. No desire for anything” (Boericke).

*King: “For post-partum and other uterine hemorrhages, it is one of the most prompt and efficient remedies in the Materia Medica.” Ellingwood: “Cinnamon . . . is a hemostatic of much power and is positively reliable in all passive hemorrhages.”

**In one study, researchers gave people with type II diabetes 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon per day. “After 40 days, all three levels of cinnamon reduced the mean fasting serum glucose (18–29%), triglyceride (23–30%), LDL cholesterol (7–27%), and total cholesterol (12–26%) levels; no significant changes were noted in the placebo groups. Changes in HDL cholesterol were not significant” (Diabetes Care 2003). And here’s a study for the extra-geeky.

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Soothing flax seed tea.

flaxtea.JPGThe boy was sick this past weekend, and I was reminded about the lovely soothing properties of flax seed tea (Linum usitatissimum).

Flax is a classic demulcent. The seeds are rich in mucilage, like marshmallow or slippery elm. But flax isn’t so cooling as marshmallow or threatened in the wild like slippery elm.

Flax seed tea is amazing for soothing irritated mucous membranes. Think raw: sore throat; esophagus irritated from vomiting; “irritable bowel syndrome”; lungs irritated from coughing; kidneys and bladder irritated from passing stones.

Its neutral “temperature” makes flax tea good for all sorts of people, including those with constitutions on the cool side. It tastes especially nice with a pinch of warming cinnamon.

The way I make it, it’s really a decoction rather than a tea. Here’s what I do:

Put flax seeds in a small pot with 1 cup of water per teaspoon of seeds.

Simmer gently until the liquid is reduced by half.

Drink hot. (If you let it cool, it will be the texture of raw egg white.)

You can add honey if you like, or warming spices if they’re indicated. But I like the mildly nutty taste of the plain tea.

Next: flax tea as a beauty aid. (They don’t call it usitatissimum for nothing!)

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Dandelion week: anatomy of the lion’s tooth.

dandelion tinctures

Dandelion tinctures, from left to right: root, leaf, flower.

So clearly dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion.

Dandelion Root

Taste: earthy-sweet-bitter.

Temperature: cool.

Affinity: liver, gallbladder, digestion.

Action: nourishing, tonic.

Dandelion Leaf

Taste: fresh-salty-bitter.

Temperature: cold.

Affinity: kidneys, bladder, blood.

Action: stimulating, draining.

Dandelion Flower

Taste: bright-honey-sweet.

Temperature: neutral or slightly cool.

Affinity: heart, mind.

Action: comforting, brightening.

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Dandelion week: the bite of the lion’s tooth.

Like I said yesterday, dandelion’s old common name is “pissabed.” So we know it’s had a long and intimate relationship with the human urinary tract. But dandelion is so much more than a simple diuretic.

Nicholas Culpeper was on the right track in his 1653 Herbal (1814 edition):

It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them . . . it opens the passages of the urine in both young and old; powerfully cleanses imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them.

So my favorite technical word for dandelion is not diuretic but “deobstruent”: Dandelion opens what is blocked.

Now, don’t go running around giving dandelion to everyone who feels sluggish, stuck, or constipated—a lot of those people are “cold” or depleted, and dandelion is for sluggishness associated with heat and excess (the Chinese say “fire poison”). Dandelion is especially good for heat associated with dampness or “bogginess”—think Mississippi Delta on an August evening.

So dandelion opens what is blocked, cools what is irritated, and drains what is soggy.

But don’t forget that dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion. Each part—root, leaf, and flower—works differently. (Hint: This is tomorrow’s topic.)

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Citrus season: candied grapefruit peel (and bitters too).

Candied Grapefruit PeelLast week someone gave me a lovely ripe grapefruit from a backyard tree in Florida. Quite a gift when there’s 3 feet of snow on the ground.

The peel was so aromatic I couldn’t bear to compost it, so I did what my great-grandmother used to do: I made candied grapefruit peel. And while I was at it I made a bitter liqueur from the cooking water.

Candied grapefruit peel was a Christmas tradition at Nanny’s house, but I think it’s wonderful any time of year. It tastes like essence of grapefruit—perfumed, and a little bit sharp. (I don’t remember Nanny ever making bitters from the cooking water, but I’m sure she would have loved the idea.)

To make the candied grapefruit peel:

Slice up some grapefruit peel and remove most of the white pith.

Put the slices of peel in a pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add a pinch of salt.

Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 15 minutes or so. Drain the peels and set aside the cooking water to make liqueur. Return the peels to the pot, add fresh water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for another 15 minutes. Drain again (don’t forget to reserve the cooking water).

Now return the peels to the pot with about 1/2 cup sugar per grapefruit. Stir and lift them gently with a fork over low-medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated. Be careful about sticking. (This should take maybe 20 minutes.)

Once the liquid has evaporated, spread the candied peels out on wax paper to dry. (Nanny used to roll them in more sugar, but I don’t think it’s necessary.)

You have candied grapefruit peel!

To make the bitter grapefruit liqueur:

This recipe depends on what kind of alcohol you have. It’s easiest if you have 190 proof grain alcohol, but you can also make it with vodka if you can’t get grain alcohol.

If you have 190 proof grain alcohol: Bring the reserved cooking water to a simmer with 1/2 cup sugar per cup of water. Let it cool and then add 1/3 cup alcohol per cup of liquid.

If you have 100 proof vodka: Bring the reserved cooking water to a boil and reduce it by about a third. Now add 2/3 cup sugar per cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Let it cool and then add 1 cup of vodka per cup of liquid.

Bitter liqueurs like this one are a great way to get your digestive system ready for a meal. Take a little bit mixed with water (or something more creative) about a half hour before you eat. A classic aperitif.

Related post: Citrus season: pickled lemons.

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