Archive for Herbal Therapeutics

Pokeweed: an herb for all things pokey.

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Now that I’m living on my home ground again, I’ve been feeling like writing about some real traditional Appalachian herbs. So for July’s berry-themed blog party, I chose a classic of Appalachian herbalism: pokeberry (Phytolacca americana).

A while back on the Herbwifery Forum, a few of us were reminiscing about growing up in West Virginia and North Carolina. From our informal survey, it seems like covering oneself in pokeberry juice and running around like a little demon is an essential part of an Appalachian childhood. And it’s no wonder. Pokeweed is everywhere in Southern Appalachia, and the ripe berries hang in shiny, inky purple-black clusters. Squish them in your hands, and they turn bright pink. What could be more fun?

Of course, we all knew that pokeberries were “poison,” so we didn’t eat them. (Unless someone said “I dare you,” that is. And even then we’d spit them right out again. I never knew anyone to get sick on them.)

The truth is, poke is strong stuff. It can be toxic even in moderate doses. Some herbalists stick to diluted homeopathic preparations of the plant, just to be on the safe side. But I prefer the old-fashioned way: drops of the tincture, spoonfuls of the decoction, sips of the wine, or a berry at a time. (Fresh plant only. Poke doesn’t take well to drying.)

So you might be asking, like my ten-year-old niece always does, “What’s it for?” Well, poke is for all things, um, pokey. Poke gets things moving in the body, especially the lymphatic system, the joints, and the metabolism. In other words, it’s an “alterative.” Used externally, it kills things (scabies, ringworm, etc.).

The most common indications for pokeberries in old-time Appalachian herbalism were “rheumatism” and “bad blood.” These days I’d call those “chronic joint pain” and “lymphatic sluggishness.” The usual prescription was to eat one berry a day for a week (without chewing the seeds), stop for a week, and repeat. Three berries, three times a week was another classic dose.

This tradition of on-and-off dosing is interesting. Perhaps poke inspires a reaction in the body—maybe in the immune system—that is triggered only by withdrawal of the dosage? Poke is often called an “immune stimulant,” but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. I often wonder about poke’s effects on autoimmune conditions, since many of the conditions associated with the symptoms of “rheumatism” turn out to have links to autoimmunity.

Modern herbalists sometimes use pokeberries to help stimulate an underactive thyroid, and old texts often mention goiter and obesity as important indications for the plant. It’s possible that poke acts directly on the thyroid, or indirectly on the metabolism through its general stimulation of “movement” in the body.

Poke’s movement-stimulating properties, combined with its affinities for the lymphatic system and “glands,” have led to its traditional use for many conditions involving hard, swollen masses in the body, including simple swollen lymph nodes, mumps, tonsillitis, adenitis, orchitis, mastitis, goiter, and cancer.

In my experience, poke root is one of the best things out there for inflammations of the breast, including mastitis. Fresh root poultices are traditional (though they can cause skin irritation), but tincture of the fresh root or a plaster of fresh berries will work, too, along with drop doses of the tincture internally. (Poke is contraindicated during pregnancy, but okay for nursing moms—in small doses, of course.)

One of poke’s many folk names is “cancer root,” and (like many other lymphatic herbs) it has a reputation as an old-time cancer remedy—especially for breast and skin cancers. It’s interesting that the old authors are split on its effectiveness. I’ve noticed that those who recommend poke for cancer support tend to emphasize using the fresh plant, rather than dried. This fits with what I’ve been taught. Always use fresh poke.

Whiskey tincture of the fresh root and fresh berry wine are the traditional Appalachian ways to preserve the plant for internal use. Traditional preparations of poke for external use often involved extraction in kerosene. This is one tradition I don’t follow. Poke-infused olive oil works just fine, thanks.

My favorite saying about poke comes from Tommie Bass. Talking about the old-time use of poke whiskey as a tonic, he said “It just straightened you out.”

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for poke:

Parts used: fresh root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).

Actions: alterative, lymphatic, antifungal, possible thyroid stimulant.

Affinities: lymph, breasts, testes, skin, joints.

Taste: acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter.

Vitalist energetics: root slightly cooling and drying; berries slightly warming.

Michael Moore energetics (highlights): lymphatic, immune, skin/mucosa, hepatic, parasympathetic stimulant; cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, CNS sedative; berries for thyroid depression, root for adrenalin stress.

Tongue indications: swollen, with a white coating; sometimes foamy saliva (Michael Moore).

Specific indications: Hard, swollen lymph nodes. “Hurts to stick out tongue” (Matthew Wood).

Homeopathic mental indications: “Loss of personal delicacy, disregard of surrounding objects. Indifferent to life” (Boericke).

Have fun “poking” around!

PS: I’m going to post this month’s blog party on August 2nd—mainly because that’s the day we get real internet access at our new house, but also because it gives busy-in-the-summer folks an extra day to make a blog party post!

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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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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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Cutting through computer-fog

No doubt the best way to prevent the dazed state that comes from staring at a monitor for hours is to get up every few minutes and remember you have a body. But for those of us who seem to have trouble remembering to do this, I’ve been experimenting with some herbal solutions.

First, the problem: computer monitors are a source of emitted (rather than reflected) light. Other sources of emitted light: television, lightbulbs, fires and stars (including the sun). Emitted light is mesmerizing. Think of sitting around a campfire in the dark. You can stare and stare and stare and forget where you are and what’s going on around you. Staring at emitted light for a long period of time can leave you spaced-out and disembodied.

So cutting through computer-fog means coming back to the physical world. The best “enlivening” remedy I know is prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) tincture. Two or three drops on my tongue wakes up my whole body. (Even a few drops will make your mouth tingle and start you salivating. Don’t worry, just swallow the spit. It’ll stop in a few minutes, and you won’t have to spend the rest of the day in a daze.) Bitter herbs are also a good option—a drop of hops (Humulus lupulus) tincture or a squirt of barberry (Berberis vulgaris) will bring you back to earth with a thump.

Really, though, getting up and stretching every few minutes is the best option. If only I could remember to do it.

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