Archive for Health conditions

Lymph love: skin brushing.

With all the cold-weather bugs flying around the northern hemisphere these days, it’s nice to take care of our overworked lymphatic systems.

Since the circulating lymph doesn’t have its own pump like the blood does, we need to help it along by moving around and stretching our muscles (walking and dancing are great lymph-movers).

You can also help stagnant lymphatic fluid get moving by vigorously brushing your skin. Now, you may find all kinds of complicated instructions for skin brushing around the interwebs, but it’s really not that hard. Just take something rough but not too irritating — like a dry loofah, a natural-bristle brush, or a coarse washcloth — and rub your skin vigorously, in little circles, from the ends of your body toward your heart.

It only takes a couple of minutes, and it feels really great. (For me, it can make a huge difference in my energy level, especially on cold, sluggish mornings.)

One thing: do it before you shower or bathe, not after. (Skin is usually a little too sensitive for vigorous rubbing after contact with hot water.)

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We’re more sensitive to gluten than we used to be.

The New York Times’ Well Blog makes note of an interesting study today.

The study found that undiagnosed gluten sensitivity (celiac disease), as measured by a blood test, is four times more common than it was fifty years ago.

Fascinating.

The blog’s author (Tara Parker-Pope) speculates that the change “may be due to changes in the way wheat is grown and processed, or the ubiquity of gluten in medications and processed foods.”

I would add that our human ecosystems have seen some pretty serious changes as our food, medicine, and environment have changed. The relationship between gluten sensitivity and intestinal ecology isn’t understood, but I’d be willing to bet it’s significant.

I want to see the results of the Human Microbiome Project!

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Mexico, flu, antibiotics, and death.

Everyone seems to wonder why people are dying from the “swine flu” in Mexico, but not in other countries where the virus has been confirmed. (The one US death was a little boy visiting from Mexico with unidentified “underlying health issues.”)

I have a theory. Or an idea. Or a question.

It is common practice in Mexico to self-medicate with antibiotics at the first sign of illness. (Antibiotics are widely available there without a prescription.)

Antibiotics kill bacteria, including commensal bacteria. 

Commensal bacteria are an important component of the human immune system.

So, are people who self-prescribe antibiotics for a viral illness compromising their immune reponse to that illness?

Hm?

 

(If you’re interested in coverage of swine flu, especially as it relates to factory farming, check out The Ethicurean‘s Aporkalypse Now series.)

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Baby boom: pregnancy tips.

Perhaps it really is “Change you can conceive in,” as Newsweek put it.

In any case babies are popping up everywhere these days, and people have been asking me about herbs and healthy pregnancy.

This is what I tell them.

1. The “duh” list: Get enough rest, eat enough (good) food, and stay away from toxic stuff.

Rest: Your body will tell you how much you need. It’s best to listen.

Don’t freak out if you have trouble sleeping — drink a cup of chamomile tea, put a drop of peach leaf tincture on your wrist, or smell your hop pillow. And like I said, don’t freak out. (Remember, Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first novel when she had insomnia during her first pregnancy.)

Food: Don’t eat bad food. Do your best to avoid sketchy food. Do eat plenty of good-quality protein (including fish), all kinds of good fats, and lots of in-season vegetables. (Confused about fish? Check this out. And this.) Oh, and if you know you’re allergic or sensitive to something, just don’t eat it.

Toxic stuff: This is a hard one. There’s toxic stuff everywhere, and once you’ve determined how much you can practically avoid, it’s best not to freak out about it too much. (Sense a theme?) Stress isn’t good for babies. That said, here are some common sources of toxic stuff: cosmetics; cleaning products; plastic food and drink containers; paint and other new building materials; dust in old houses; dirt around old buildings. (The last two are due to lead contamination. And this is something to worry about. Read up on it.)

2. Pay close attention to your blood sugar.

Low blood sugar can cause morning sickness (or anytime sickness). High blood sugar can make your baby grow too big, or give it blood sugar problems later in life. (And you don’t even want to think about gestational diabetes.)

Avoid low blood sugar: Eat protein. Avoid refined carbohydrates (i.e., white flour, white sugar, white rice). Eat protein. Don’t eat carbohydrates by themselves (butter your bread; put cheese on your crackers). Eat protein. And eat fat, lots of good fat.

Avoid high blood sugar: See “avoid low blood sugar.”

3. Take care of your kidneys.

Your kidneys do a lot of extra work when you’re pregnant (they have to filter 50% more blood than usual). Be nice to them. Drink plenty of water. Use a good high-mineral salt in cooking (avoid cheap refined salt). And remember that nettles are your friends. Nettle tea is rich in minerals and also a lovely kidney restorative. Nettle seeds are a good choice too. (If your kidneys are unhappy, you’ll end up with puffy ankles and feet. You don’t want this.)

4. Take care of your nerves.

There’s a lot going on. Give yourself a break. Breathe a lot and stretch a lot and take time to be quiet. Also milky oats. And peach leaf if you’re highly sensitive and irritable. Mint tea is lovely for tired nerves, and so is bee balm tea, especially if those nerves are feeling frayed. Holy basil tea if you’re tense and worried. Rose if you’re sad and scared.

5. Take care of your veins.

Remember all that extra blood? It can be a lot for your veins to deal with, too. Eat lots of purple foods — blueberries, blackberries, beets. If you know you might be prone to varicose veins (did your mother get them? ask her!), you might take hawthorne berries or oak bark (small doses of oak) preemptively.

6. Take care of your belly.

To prevent nausea (especially in the morning), make sure you eat enough protein (especially at supper). Peach leaf and ginger are both great for nausea, but in opposite situations: peach is good for “hot” constitutions, and ginger for “cold” ones. If you don’t know, experiment. Take a little taste and see how you feel. Catnip and mint are also good if you’re feeling gassy and burpish.

As your baby grows, your guts might get a bit sluggish. Make sure you eat enough bulky and mucilaginous food to keep things in order. Flaxseed is great for this, and so are apples.

7. And of course, take care of your uterus.

Remember, the uterus is a muscle. For generations, midwives have reminded us that raspberry leaf tea makes it strong. This is a good thing. A cup of raspberry leaf tea everyday is pleasant, too.

(You’re right, I didn’t mention supplements. I’m not a big supplements person, and I don’t know a lot about them. But if you take a prenatal vitamin, make sure it’s good quality. And if you don’t eat fish, you might consider fish oil or cod liver oil.)

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Drink your lawn: blender juice.

blenderjuice.JPGThere was a nasty, hot, lung-drying bug going around these parts this spring. Turns out the perfect thing for it is one of your lawn’s best-kept secrets: blender juice.

Specifically, blender juice made of cooling, soothing, mucilaginous plants. Plantains (Plantago spp.), chickweed (Stellaria media), violets (Viola spp.), and mallows (Malva spp.) are especially nice.

(This combination is also wonderful for hot, irritated digestive systems — think ulcers, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” / IBS, and other inflammatory conditions.)

Making blender juice is a great way to get the fresh, green, cooling properties from just about any plant.

Here’s how to do it:

Pick your plants.

Rinse them off if you need to.

Toss them in the blender with a bit of water.

Blend.

I like to let them sit for a while to infuse, then blend a little more and strain. But you can just go ahead and strain after the first blending if you need to.

Drink.

(Hot tip: mallow/plantain/chickweed/violet blender juice is wonderful sponged on a sunburn.)

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Simmering: winter fun with stockpot and teapot.

This month’s herbal blog party is “Winter Recipes,” hosted by Dreamseeds.

Most of my winter herbal recipes involve long-simmering pots on the back of my woodstove. Tasty broths and teas that warm a person from the inside out, and make the house smell good too.

Winter is a time for concentrated, warm foods. Put away the leafy summer herbs, and get out the roots, seeds and spices. Valerian, licorice, sarsaparilla. Flaxseeds, cardamom, nutmeg. Cinnamon, ginger, cloves.

The best way to stay healthy in the winter is not to fight the fact that it’s winter. In winter, things move more slowly. We need to sleep more. We need richer, fattier foods. In winter, as mammals, we need to stay warm. (It’s quite common for people to forget to dress warmly enough for the season. It’s not unreasonable to wear a scarf indoors if you live in a drafty house.)

Good long-simmered bone broth is the best winter food I know. It’s rich in protein (gelatin) and minerals, and it warms you “to the bone.” Add some vegetables and call it soup. Use it to cook rice or beans. Or just drink it straight with a pinch of salt.

Here’s how to keep a stockpot:

1. Always save bones. (Yes, even bones that people have gnawed on. All that simmering will take care of any contamination.) Keep them in a jar or a bag in your freezer. You can separate them by animal if you like, or lump them all together for “mixed stock.”

2. When you’ve collected a good pile of bones, put them in a pot and cover them with cold water. (You can add a dash of vinegar if you like, to help draw minerals from the bones.) Put the pot over low heat. Let it come to a gentle simmer. If you’re using a gas or electric stove, turn the heat down as far as it will go. If you’ve got the stock on a woodstove, move it to a cool corner or put it up on a trivet. (I’m told you can make stock in a crockpot, too. But I’ve never used a crockpot, so I don’t know how that works.)

3. Leave the stock on gentle, low heat for 12-48 hours. (Yes, I know that’s a long time. It really does make the best stock, though.) Check on the stock every once in a while and add water if it needs it. If you’re using raw bones, there will likely be quite a bit of foamy scum that comes to the surface. Just skim it off — a little tea strainer works well for this. Try not to let the stock boil. Low heat is best for extracting gelatin. (Don’t kick yourself if it accidentally boils, though. Just turn it down. Your stock may be a little cloudy, but it will taste fine.)

4. When you can’t stand it any longer, strain out the bones. If there is a lot of fat on top, skim it off and save it for cooking (a little jar of fat in the fridge is a lovely thing). Now you have stock to play with! What will you make?

You can add warming winter spices to your stock if you like. But my favorite way to take warming spices is in tea. In winter, my “teas” are usually decoctions, simmered on the stove until they perfume the house.

Here are some of my favorite winter teas.

For people who get dry and cold in the winter: flaxseeds (Linum usitatissimum), cassia / cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).

For people who get a lot of sore throats and swollen lymph nodes in the winter: echinacea root (Echinacea angustifolia or Echinacea purpurea), red root (Ceanothus americanus), marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).

For people who feel drained in the winter: wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) (use only organic ginseng, “woods-grown” if possible).

For people who get cold hands and feet in the winter: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), wild ginger (Asarum canadense) (harvest wild ginger only if it’s locally abundant; “regular” ginger can be used instead).

Oh, yes, and for everyone, because it’s so tasty: pink ginger tea. (This is, of course, one of the best things to drink when you’re down with the flu.)

Happy simmering!

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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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Preserving the harvest: herbal honey.

thymehoney.JPGI swear I will never travel during harvest season again. I mean it. Really.

I’m off to teach at the second annual Northeast Community Herbal Convergence next weekend. I’m leaving for parts north tomorrow, and this morning it suddenly dawned on me that there might be frost before I get back. (It’s hard to remember these things when the weather is so warm.)

So I went into high harvest gear, doing things the quick-and-dirty way. I think I got most of what I wanted out of the garden and the weed patches around the farm. Now watch the frost come late this year. Fine. At least I’ll come home to a sweet smelling house—there are herbs drying all over the dining room.

And I was happy to have an excuse to play with some of my favorite substances: herbs and honey. Honey infused with aromatic herbs has got to be one of the most intensely wonderful things I have ever tasted. It’s good medicine too.

Herbal honey is radically easy to make:

Take a good bunch of your favorite aromatic herbs. (Thyme, lemon balm and bee balm are my favorites.)

Pack a layer of herb in a jar, cover it with a layer of honey,* and repeat. Finish with an extra layer of honey. It will be a sticky mess. No problem. Squish it with a spoon if there are big air pockets.

That’s all. (I said it was easy.)

Let it sit for a couple of weeks at least.

Taste it. Don’t eat it all at once.

That’s thyme and lemon thyme honeys in the picture. I’ll use them for sore throats and colds this winter. And I’ll eat them with a spoon when I feel like it.

*Make sure you get good quality honey. Talk to your beekeeper about how s/he deals with mites and other pests. Ask if s/he leaves honey for the bees to eat or feeds them sugar water. Don’t buy poisonous mass-produced grocery store honey if you can help it.

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The importance of recuperation: my own bad example.

I’m not a very good patient. That is, I’m not very patient.

When someone else is sick, I make them a nest in front of the fire, bring them chicken soup and tea, and make sure they have everything they need so they don’t have to get up or do anything.

When I’m sick, well, I get antsy. And it doesn’t do me any good.

So last week when I was getting over that last-gasp-of-winter virus, I should have been taking it easy. But Monday night I stayed up late doing research, and Tuesday morning I skipped breakfast and ran out the door to a meeting. As it happened my meeting was at a cafe that served nothing but awful, spongy muffins and “scones.” I didn’t eat any real food until maybe 2pm.

By that evening, I was already coming down with a second cold, worse than the first. So did I cancel my dinner plans on Wednesday so I could rest? Of course not. Was I even sicker on Thursday? You betcha.

Thursday I tried to take my own good advice: I drank tea all afternoon and went to bed early. Friday I felt so much better that I went to dinner at a friend’s house. Which turned out to be too much. This morning I felt awful.

And would you believe I almost didn’t cancel my trip to Montreal this weekend? Ridiculous.

So here I am, in front of the fire, drinking homemade lamb broth and remembering that most basic of old-fashioned cures: convalescence.

Our great-grandmothers knew the power of rest. So many of us these days just want to swallow our pills and get right back at it. But that’s not how the human ecosystem works. If we’re depleted by an illness (or some other stress) we need time to recuperate. And we need to be slow and careful as we “get back at it.”

On that note, I’m off to bed. Goodnight!

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