This has been a rough year for the flu. And although prevention is key (see my last blog article) sometimes we just get sick. Herbalists usually begin treating people with gentle remedies first but what's going around now is so strong that I recommend starting with some stronger remedies when you first start feeling a “big baddie” coming on. For more about this subject, I wrote an extensive article about general treatment for colds and flu back in March 2009, one of my first blogs (see “That Darn Cold!”).
Let's start with the basics. Many of us love Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) as general anti-virals and immune stimulants, but for best results you can really up the dosage on both of these. When I'm sick, I will go through a one ounce bottle of Echinacea tincture almost daily in the early stages of a cold, taking 3-4 droppers every couple hours. Elderberry is a gentle remedy and also requires larger doses, but it is tastier!
When you have swollen glands or a sore throat, Red root (Ceanothus americanus) also known as New Jersey Tea, is super useful. It combines well with Echinacea for this purpose. I've even seen it help with pharyngitis and symptomatically with strep throat (which should be treated with antibiotics unless you really really know what you're doing).
Circulatory stimulants are traditional across the world for the first stage of a cold. Which makes sense, to treat a “cold” with warmth – simple energetics. These warming herbs help stimulate our immune response in the same sense that fever stimulates immunity. My favorite herbs here are fresh Ginger root, and Prickly Ash, a tree that grows on the coastal plain.
You can also use a “sweat bath” to help break a fever. Taking “diaphoretic” herbs (sweat-inducing) like Yarrow, Peppermint, Boneset and Elder flower helps bring heat to the surface of the body. Make a hot cup of tea of some of these, then sit in a hot bath for 20 minutes or until you're hot and drowzy, then sleep it off. Nine times out of ten, the fever will be gone when you wake up. Just don't try this with a high fever.
Certain herbs help eliminate mucus. Osha (Ligusticum porterii), a plant in the carrot family native to the Rocky Mountains, is the one I use most often as both an anti-viral as well as to eliminate mucus. It is used for both head colds and chest colds, but I find it doesn't go deep enough into the lungs to work for bronchitis, when I might go more for Elecampane (Inula helenium), Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), or Angelica (Angelica archangelica). [See also the blogs about Expectorants on 12-19-10 and 1-06-11.]
These herbs are the basis for my “Cold and Flu” blend that has been selling like crazy this winter. This is made from equal parts fresh Echinacea root, fresh Elderberries, and fresh Osha root, with some Red Root to address the lymph glands, and a touch of Prickly Ash to warm up the formula. You can find it online here.
To quote one of my clients: “The Cold and Flu blend has been a vital one to stop mucous flow and move my lymphs, which have seemed clogged due to detoxing, lack of movement, and mucous mucous mucous.”
If things are going downhill and these herbs aren't cutting it, it might be time to use some of the heavy hitters. These herbs may be harder to find, and some taste bad or have minor side effects, so use with appropriate caution. But for a bad cold or flu, I might use Lomatium, Goldenseal, and Yerba Mansa.
Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) is my anti-viral I use when everything else has failed. Initially used by the Ute Indians and brought back to the herbal practice by Michael Moore, it is an herb in the carrot family, same family as Osha. It is a stronger anti-viral than Osha but not as strong at clearing phlegm, so choose which one you need the most.
Some people get a minor skin rash the first time they take Lomatium, which goes away as soon as the herb is stopped. Nothing to be alarmed about, once you know what's going on. This herb helped dramatically reduce mortality from the deadly 1919 Influenza epidemic among the Ute Indians, so we know it's strong stuff.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has a reputation as an herbal anti-biotic, but it is so much more than that. The active consituent berberine that has the anti-microbial effect is also found in much more common (and way less expensive) plants like Barberry, Oregon Grape Root, and the Chinese herb Coptis.
The real gift of Goldenseal is its tonic effect on the mucous membranes. I start thinking of this herb when a head cold goes into a sinus infection, or any infection starts lingering and has thick colored phlegm. Not so great for the initial stage of infection, but after a cold has turned thick, it helps restart the response of the lining of the nose and throat to push out pathogens again, while at the same time strongly stimulating the liver to process those toxins.
Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) is a fantastic herb from the American Southwest that might be hard to find in east coast herb stores or health food stores, but it is such a great herb I want to mention it anyway.
Many southwestern herbalists use Yerba Mansa as a substitute for Goldenseal for sinus infections, pharyngitis or urinary tract infections. It tastes a bit like Myrrh crossed with a pine tree due to its high resin content, and also has a drying quality that makes it very useful for mucusy conditions as well.
As my client above didn't get better within a week, she started taking some of these stronger herbs and said, “Lomatium and Yerba Manza seemed extremely helpful in the critical part of the cold, where I felt the worst. They seemed to really kick the illness' butt and help mine begin to feel better...these were really important.”
So now you have some tools, but always remember that prevention is easier than treatment. Eat lots of soup and broth, minimize foods that create mucus (dairy, wheat, and sugar are the tops), and get lots of rest. This is, after all, the time of year for it.
And most of all, Be Well.
'Tis the season.... for the flu! This holiday season there has been a lot of viral infections going around and a particularly nasty one is going around the Asheville area. That leads me to talk about two things – prevention and treatment. There's a lot to say about both, so I'm going to start out with a blog about prevention.
Each of us have our own health issues, strengths and weaknesses so the most important thing we can do is to be aware of our own body and what makes us stronger and what depletes us. Sounds easy enough, but sometimes that takes both greater awareness and also greater self-discipline. So start the journey now – pay attention to what foods benefit you at what time of day, and at what time of year. AND make extra effort when you are traveling and outside your normal environment and routine.
Since it takes a tenth as much effort to prevent an illness than to treat it. my 4-part winter health program is this:
- Lots of warming soups made from bone broth
- Dressing warm, including scarfs even when you don't feel like it
- Clean up and clean out – your body, your house, and your emotions
- Nourish your skin with oil weekly
All you need to do to get started is to keep a container in your freezer and put your vegetable and meat scraps in there. I set aside the tops and bottoms of root vegetables like carrots, beets, and turnips; stalks of mushrooms or mushrooms that are starting to dry up in the fridge (but not mold); and the skins of onions and garlic (awesome potassium!). I find that brassica vegetables like cabbage and broccoli can make too strong a smell, like overcooked brussel sprouts.
As for meat, make sure to get some bones in there and connective tissue. This can be the leftover carcass from a holiday turkey, bones from a rotisserie chicken, or you can buy stock bones at most butchers for not much money. Some butchers might even give you their leftover bones. Many traditions value Ox-tail soup as the most deeply nourishing soup. But of course chicken soup is widely known as “Jewish penicillin.”
Throw it all in a crock-pot and simmer for 12 – 48 hours. To get the minerals out of the bones, add a couple tablespoons of vinegar and cook towards the longer side. Then strain and keep refrigerated for 5 – 7 days, using it as a base for soups, sauces and gravies, or use to cook rice or other grains.
To make it extra medicinal, throw in some immune-enhancing herbs, like Astragalus, an herb used for millenia in the Chinese tradition that has been adopted by American herbalists as well. Or use medicinal mushrooms like Chaga, Shiitake, Maitake, or small amounts of Reishi – a great immune herb with a stronger flavor than the other mushrooms. I often add dried Nettle leaf as well to increase the nourishment factor.
Super-easy to digest both for prevention or during the treatment and recovery phases, broth rocks!!
It's also important to wear scarfs around this time of year. In Chinese medicine, it is considered vitally important to protect the back of the neck because that is where the wind gets into the body, bringing with it negative climactic influences. This time of year can be confusing with a 30-degree day followed by a 50-degree day, or at least down here in the South – apologies to my friends out in Montana!
The temptation is to under-dress on the warm days, but this can create a lot of vulnerability to illness as well. So be sure, even if you do get to wear a t-shirt in December that you also wear a fashionable scarf around your neck. And if you are feeling cold, make sure your belly and lower back is covered because when we keep the core of our body warm we feel warmer
And although we might think of spring-cleaning more often than fall cleaning, it is just as important. This is the time to cleave away what doesn't serve us as we enter the dark of winter, both in our home to get rid of all those things that would collect dust all winter, and in our bodies to cleanse and even eat more simply (against the temptation of the season).
I will leave the exact details up to you, and my fall cleansing is usually lighter than my spring cleanse because the natural tendency at this time of year is to build up in preparation for winter – think of our ancestors whose genes we still carry who would need to burn more fuel to keep their body warm at a time when the land was producing the least amount of food. So it is a hard time of year to do raw food or juice fasts; broth or mono-food diets work best.
Where the spring cleanse is more about the liver, the fall cleanse is focused often more on the large intestine. So colon cleansing foods like apples, kale and chia seeds are very helpful, as is the Ayurvedic herbal formula Triphala which is not laxative but helps improve the tone of the colon. Really, just focus on incorporating lots of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables.
The other factor that can be hard on the lungs and immune system is the dryness, both outside as cold air holds less moisture, and inside as we turn on our heaters and wood stoves. More than just drinking enough water, we can really help our bodies retain moisture by oleating, rubbing ourselves down with vegetable oil. My preferred oil for this time of year is raw sesame oil (NOT toasted sesame oil unless you plan to make a stir-fry).
Raw sesame oil is deeply nourishing for the skin and surprisingly calming for the mind, especially when rubbed on the face. You may be surprised how calming it feels to cover yourself in oil. Once you're done rubbing it on, sit around in your bathrobe for a half hour to let it absorb, and then you can either take a warm shower to wash the rest off or if you are daring, just rub off any residual with a towel and go to bed or get dressed.
The skin is our first line of defense against the elements, and oleating on a cold day will also create an extra layer of insulation and keep you warmer. A nice benefit!
All these ideas will help keep you healthy through the winter. Next week – what happens when you do get ill? What to do about all these pesky winter viruses?
But an abundant spring can also bring abundant pollen, and a lot of folks have gotten hit hard with allergies this season, so seems like a good time to talk about some of my favorite allergy remedies. More people experience allergies and asthma each year. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that the number of people experiencing allergies has doubled in the last 30 years, so before we even talk about treatment I think it is important to acknowledge the holistic perspective and recognize that we can't look at the individual human outside of the context of our environment.
Along with a rise in allergies in the past 30 years, we have had a significant rise in air pollution, which have a direct effect on allergies. So the best thing we can do to prevent allergies on a global scale is to drive less, use less electricity, and work to create more sustainable energy sources for human beings as a whole. What can you do to move our country away from coal and fossil fuels and towards solar and wind power?
On a more personal level, reducing allergens in the home is essential. We spend 90% of our time indoors, so what we create there is going to have the greatest influence. Ideas include fewer pets, getting your heating and A/C ducts cleaned annually, not smoking in the house, deep cleaning your carpets and rugs which can hold allergens for a long time, and using natural cleaners. I just bought a HEPA filter for my classroom and it has made a huge difference already, as has more frequent sweeping and mopping.
The other issue I find most helpful in treating chronic allergies is working on the digestive system, both in improving digestive health and also in eliminating food sensitivities. There is a saying in Chinese medicine, “The digestive system creates Dampness, and the Lungs store Dampness.” In this case, dampness can mean a runny nose, congestion, or any chronic excess mucous. Anyone with chronic congestion, and especially those with sinus or ear infections needs to look at digestion and food choices as a key to their healing.
This can take the form of using bitters before a meal, or even doing an elimination diet to test for possible food allergens. An elimination diet entails foregoing the most common food triggers for two weeks to see if symptoms improve, then reintroducing each food 2 days apart to see if there is a reaction. The most common triggers for respiratory allergies are dairy, wheat and sugar, and you can also test for soy, eggs and corn. What you do after the elimination diet is up to you, but at least you will know the common triggers. At the very least avoid or minimize these foods during the spring allergy season.
And of course – herbs! There are some great herbs to treat allergy symptoms, and my favorite for acute allergic reactions is a combination of Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) and Ragweed leaf (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) tinctures. Many herb students know about using Nettle leaf as a tea to prevent allergies before the season begins, but the tincture (alcohol extract) or the fresh freeze-dried capsules work immediately to help stop an allergic reaction in progress.
Ragweed pollen is one of the causes of seasonal allergies, but the leaves picked before flowering (so there is zero pollen in the tincture) and used as tea or tincture is also extremely effective for allergic symptoms, whether it is from the plant's pollen, or cat dander, or other allergens. I have even used the combination of Ragweed and Nettles to treat hives, an external skin rash caused by internal allergens.
For prevention, using local honey is a slow but time-tested method, as is using local bee pollen – but be careful with pollen if you have strong allergies because too much can cause a reaction! If you have pollen reactions, start with a ¼ teaspoon of pollen and slowly use more each day to get your body used to the pollen and “vaccinate” yourself.
A tea of goldenrod and nettle leaves is an excellent preventative, strengthening the lining of the respiratory mucosa, making it less vulnerable to allergens. For more congestion, I really like Bayberry (Myrica cerifera), a common plant of the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. because it both dries out mucous but is also a circulatory stimulant and helps move stagnant fluids out.
Since the liver is what detoxifies the body, making sure the liver is not backed up and is free to clean allergens out of the body is also useful. I often add liver stimulants like Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium) or Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) to a formula for someone with chronic allergies, though you could also use the common weeds and medicinal herbs Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) or Burdock root (Arctium lappa). This is another good reason not to use toxic chemicals around the house or bathroom – if the liver is busy detoxing chemicals, it won't have the ability to detox allergens.
So don't fear spring, make friends with the plants and create a clean household and clean body and you will be out playing in the sun in no time.
In treating muscle and joint pain I find it helpful to draw from Chinese medicine, which tells us that pain is caused by stagnation, and in the muscles this looks like muscles tightening and spasming shut. Circulation and thus relaxation can be achieved with anti-spasmodics to relax resistance to circulation, or by using circulatory stimulants to bring fresh blood in.
Herbs such as Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa), Kava Kava (Piper methysticum), and Wood Betony (Pedicularis spp.) work by relaxing muscular tension so that fewer pain signals are being sent to the brain. In Chinese medicine this is thought of as relaxing the resistance to the flow of Qi (“energy”) so that energy can flow more smoothly and cause less pain. And really, whatever you can do to relax the body around the pain will help relieve some of the pain. When we tense our bodies, we stimulate more nerve transmission of pain messages. So, breathe into it.
Now Black Cohosh you might think of as an herb for female problems, and it is one of the top ten selling herbs these days for just that reason. But 100 years ago it was a top ten herb for totally different reasons – because it is one of the best herbs for rheumatism, a catch-all word for joint pains. And it is one of the best.
Black Cohosh is special because it affects both the organ muscles like Wild Yam as well as the skeletal muscles like Wood Betony. So it can be used for both menstrual cramps and for whiplash and is an excellent herb for both. I use Black Cohosh to treat menstrual cramps, wry neck, whiplash, rheumatoid arthritis, and frontal headaches, including those from eyestrain. Just be aware that in larger doses it can actually cause headaches as well. It is a strong herb and so I use it in moderation, and should never be used by a pregnant woman without appropriate medical advice.
Wood Betony, on the other hand, works primarily to relax the skeletal muscle so it is a better herb for tight tense muscles that are over-worked or just plain sore. I use it for tension headaches with a tight neck, muscles that are sore and tight from over-use, or hiking a 50-pound backpack up a 10 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in the first hike of the spring when you're not warmed up yet and the “gentle incline” turns out to be as steep as a mountain goat trail.
There are several massage therapists I know who use Wood Betony for their clients before a session to get particularly tight and tense individuals a jump start on the relaxation process, and there is a chiropractor in Arizona who uses it to relax the back muscles so that an adjustment holds longer because the relaxed muscles take to it better.
When muscle tension is caused by anxiety and stress, I often prefer Kava kava (Piper methysticum), a root from the South Pacific (as if they really need stress relief on Bali). Because the constituents are more alcohol than water soluble, it is often used as a tincture, sometimes in large quantities late at night after an herb conference has wrapped up for the day.
Kava works on GABA receptors, a similar mechanism as Valium, and acts to relax muscles by reducing excess signaling from the brain and central nervous system, so it is one of my choice anti-anxiety agents as well as being excellent for headaches from stress and worry, tense shoulder muscles, or when your back feels like a slab of plywood after driving 12 hours and then hitting rush hour traffic on I-95 in Washington, D.C.
In all these instances, it is the tightness and tension causing the pain, so it is important to also look at other factors that make muscles tight. Folks who have chronic muscle pain can learn specific stretches or yoga poses that can often help, and working on posture can also be very helpful. Those with chronic low back pain often need to strengthen their abdominal muscles to help create balance between opposing muscles groups.
Next time: Circulatory herbs for pain – Arnica, Prickly Ash and Sassafrass
Let me say this up front - there is no one herb for all kinds of pain. They are not isolated chemicals like pharmaceutical medicines, they are a complex of hundreds of chemicals that can affect many parts of the body at once. They might not always work as strongly as pharmaceuticals, but the more specific you can get, the better the herbs will work. And of course the best idea is to figure out why someone is pain and treat the root cause at the same time.
There are some general categories that analgesic herbs fall into – nerve pain, muscle pain, injury and inflammation, headache, and serious pain. And these are the categories we’ll use for our discussion here.
The best way to begin is to ask enough questions to understand what’s going on. We may not be moving to a specific diagnosis, but at least to understand the character of the pain and get closer to what the client is actually feeling. Use your curiosity to ask good questions, and include the following:
When did this begin? How often does it happen?
Have you ever had anything like this happen before?
How bad is the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
What makes it better/worse?
What does it feel like? Where in the body? Can you show me where?
These questions help you assess what might be going on, and also to choose the best herb for the situation. Let's begin by looking at herbs for nerve and muscle pain.
Nerve pain tends to be shooting pain, or pain along a line. Symptoms might include numbness and tingling, those these can also be signs of poor circulation. This category includes sciatica, shingles, spinal pain, tooth pain, herpes, etc. When showing where it hurts, people will often use their finger to point to their pain; if they hold a part of their body with their whole hand, it is more likely muscle pain. Useful herbs for nerve pain include St. John’s Wort, Skullcap, and Motherwort.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is actually one of my favorites for nerve pain, especially spinal pain, for which I have used the infused oil rubbed on topically and the tincture taken internally. It can reduce pain enough to allow people to sleep and go see the chiropractor or doctor in the morning. I also use it for sciatica, and here I like to combine it with Skullcap and Willow bark tinctures.
This remedy has a longer historical use for wounds and bruises than as an anti-depressant as we use it now. I have seen great results using St. John's Wort topically for tingling and numbness following compression injuries, seeming to help soothe as well as help regenerate the nerves. This effect on nerve growth can be enhanced by combining it with Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) seed or root tincture applied topically.
Skullcap is one of my favorite herbs for the nervous system, perhaps because it can be used as a long-term tonic to build and nourish the nervous system as well as having an immediate affect that can be used for insomnia from circular thinking or, as is appropriate for this article, for nerve pain.
For the latter use, I often combine it with St. John's Wort, but I also combine it with Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) as the basis of a migraine headache formula. Skullcap has been used for tremors, trigeminal neuralgia and even epilepsy because of its ability to relax the muscles by dimming the amount of nerve signals being sent. In Chinese Medicine, it might be looked at as an herb for Qi Stagnation because of its ability to relax resistance to the flow of energy (qi) in the body.
And finally, Motherwort, an herb I have recommended primarily for PMS, menstrual pain, and anxiety that results in chest tightness, but I have also seen good results using it for muscle tightening around painful spots and it is a specific for shingles (herpes zoster), painful skin eruptions that are related to chicken pox.
To Be Continued: Next blog – Muscle pain.
Pain Spring allergic reactions allergies analgesics bronchitis cough expectorants herbal remedies herbs for allergies lungs nerve pain sinus infection sinus