Archive for Hops

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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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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