The Lost Art of the “Depurative Cure” -
A Traditional View from Provence, France
The Lost Art of the “Depurative Cure” -
A Traditional View from Provence, France
The knifes and wicker baskets are lined-up on the table, along with a piece of bread with butter and lavender honey – my early breakfast. My grandma is ready too, wrapping a scarf around her head. She would not miss this outing for all the money in the world. She loves picking ceps (Boletus edulis).
My grandpa explains to me for the hundredth time : « you know how it goes with mushrooms. Once the sun is out, it’s almost too late to pick. The sun plays tricks on you. The shadows of the leaves create dark patches on the ground, and every patch will look like a cep to you. »
6:30 am. The car is parked at the bottom of the mountain chains of high Provence, near the village of Banon. We start the climb. We will walk for hours, at a very slow pace, on very steep hills of white and evergreen oaks.
My grandma expertly pokes around with her stick. How she knew where to probe under the leaves, I never knew. That stick mesmerized me. It had an intelligence of its own. She calls me. « Come over here, there is a bunch coming out! ». As usual, she gives me the privilege to pick the biggest ones, then she will clean-up behind me.
« Ah, that is what I was looking for! Look over here now. You see this plant ? C’est la marrube. Pick me a bunch will you? I will dry it for next April. » Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is reaching the end of its growing season, dried spiky seed buds, and sad looking leaves. It looks half-dead to me. « Why would you need that dead thing grandma?»
« Ah but la marrube, it is very good to cleanse the liver ».
« Why do you want to cleanse your liver grandma ? ». At age twelve, I am already influenced by the scientific skepticism of the 80’s. I love math and science. And I am not about to gobble-up everything at face value, even if it comes from my much beloved grandma.
« Well you see, during winter, people get lazy and they eat too much pork and sausage. They stay inside due to the cold weather. Too much going in, not enough going out. So the garbage accumulates around the liver, the liver gets big and dirty. Then the blood gets dirty. »
« The blood cannot get dirty grandma. Its inside our body. Dirt cannot get into our veins like that ».
She laughs. « Oh yes it can. If you have a tired liver, you get dirty blood. Now I cannot tell you why. I did not go to school and I don’t know much about how things work. But I know that spring calls for a clean liver and clean blood ».
How I regret not having picked her brain more, recorded her history, asked her about the plants she knew so well. The names still dance around in my head. Marrube, petit-chêne, scabieuse, immortelle.
But I know enough to revive that knowledge, to rebuild that history. This is why I moved back to Provence two years ago and restarted a clinic from scratch. To weave modern knowledge with the lost wisdom of my elders. To go back to my roots.
Dirty liver, dirty blood
As a clinical herbalist, I can finally explain why an overworked liver leads to dirty blood. Any doctor at that time, or even today, would dismiss that notion with a snort. But she knew better. We know better.
Old folks got dirty blood at the end of winter. Too much pork as she said, her way to express the overconsumption of preserved, salted meats. The under-consumption of locally grown fresh produce. The over-reliance on cereals and grains.
And then there was the “people staying inside” factor, something that only happened during winter months. In those hilly regions of Provence, there were still lots of shepherds, growers, lumberjacks, honey producers. And just like nature around them, they went through a slow and sleepy period in the colder months.
The spring awakening called for a cleansing. New energy could not be built on dirty foundations. The blood held the waste, the liver provided the spout into the outside world. Assuming that it got the appropriate stimulation to do so, the liver would open up that spout and evacuate as needed.
Around March or April, country folks would take a depurative plant for a duration of 2 to 3 weeks. All plants were taken as infusions or decoctions, two to three times a day. A batch of infusion was sometimes prepared in the morning for the whole day and the whole household.
I will not present to you the usual picks, because you know a lot about them already. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Burdock (Arctium minor) were much used and much beloved. Instead, I am going to talk about some lesser known plants, those that fell into oblivion.
The Provence folks were very practical. And quite busy. They did not go on long hikes to pick plants from remote places. They picked whatever they needed around two locations: around the house, and along the path leading from home to work.
Just like in many other places, the women held the plant knowledge. They were the family herbalists and nurses. The knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter. The men had little exposure to that knowledge.
My grandma took the time to pass bits and pieces onto me. But she did not attempt to transfer her whole experience onto the next generations. She felt that this was the end of a era, that the modern medical world was bringing promises of instant cures and miracle drugs.
The 1800’s and 1900’s were terrible periods for French herbalism. We did not have our “Eclectics”. Cazin left us one of the best herbals in 1850. Then nothing. Modern medical knowledge was taking over, and plants were discarded as folklorism without scientific background.
Maurice Mességué was a genius. He just knew what to use for what person. But his style was so intuitive that in my opinion, he did not leave a framework that can be taught. In the 20th century, the work of doctors Leclerc, Valnet and their MD students was admirable, but limited to plant-symptoms matching. Constitutional herbalism: no more.
In the age of information and connectivity, we can rebuild herbalism and propagate the knowledge back into the hands of French people. This is, at least, my humble intention.
Germander (Teucrium chamaedris)
Germander was one of the top depurative plants of Provence, particularly in the higher-altitude areas. It was used more than dandelion and burdock combined. The local name was “petit chêne”, in English “small oak”. If you look at the leaves, they indeed look like miniature versions of the white oak leaves growing in the region.
The plants growing here are very small and creeping. They are very easy to miss. If I take you for a hike through the hills, you will spot wild thyme and savory, helichrysum and rosemary, but you will probably step on germander. Once you start to see it though, you realize it is everywhere, tiny patches of dark green on the white rocky limestone slopes.
The wild plant is quite bitter. It reminds me of skullcap, bitter but with a green, nourishing undertaste, cooling to the nerves. It was used to adulterate skullcap after all. The aerial parts were cut during the fall, dried, and consumed at the end of winter for the required period of two to three weeks.
I was recently talking about this plant with the old shepherd living near my village. I buy sheep and horse manure from him for my garden.
“Do you know a plant called petit-chêne ?”
“Course I do”
“What do you use it for?”
“For joint pains and gout, for arthritis. It makes you piss.”
“Why would you need to piss if you have joint pain?” (me playing naïve)
“You want to piss out the dirt that gets stuck in your joints a’course”
He looks at me with the “duh!” look implying that younger folks ain’t learning anything anymore. Germander, as a diuretic, has a strong affinity for joint pain and swelling around the joints.
We do know today that Germander contains a non-negligible amount of the infamous P.A.s (Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, as are found in Comfrey – ed.). I have consumed the plant myself for my personal experimentation. But I do not recommend this plant in my practice, due to its levels of P.A.s. People have enough liver stress today without adding another source.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Horehound was a popular bitter-depurative plant. Not for digestive issues specifically. Outside of the occasional digestive upsets, old folks in my region were not digestion-deficient from a constitutional perspective. These were strong “red in the face” folks with strong appetites, performing tough physical jobs with a life spent mostly outside. They had predictable futures and a low level of stress overall. How things have changed…
Horehound’s bitterness and harsh taste may have provided too much of a digestive stimulation for some folks. And I speculate that things like over-acidity and a little stomach cramping during the cure were ignored or discarded as part of the cleansing process. Some skin break-outs were also encountered, and even expected as part of the depurative process. In those cases, the treatment was stopped for a few days, then restarted at a lower dose.
F.J. Cazin, French countryside doctor of the 19th century, writes in his famous 1850’s herbal that “marrubium shall be used in all atonic states of the mucous membranes, particularly of the digestive and pulmonary tract, for the weakened, the old, and the enfeebled by long term diseases”.
Further, he said, “its strong taste is a warning of its significant power, not to be used in any case of irritation or inflammation”.
I will add to that “not to be used in cases of mucous membrane excess” (from a gut perspective, over-production of digestive juices leading to true stomach acidity, as opposed to today’s hypo-acidity/deficiency leading to acid reflux).
Old folks did not seem to make a difference between bitter-digestive plants and depurative plants. Bitter-digestives, of course, do provide a nice stimulation to the liver-gallbladder organs. They enable us to “open up the spout” and evacuate liver waste through increased bile production.
But they also come with their own digestive energy that cannot be ignored. For certain people with good functioning guts, dandelion or burdock roots provide, in my opinion, a straighter liver stimulation without being irritating to the gut.
Scabiosa (Scabiosa columbaria)
Scabiosa, just like many annuals, starts with a very unnoticeable rosette. The plant can cover entire fields. And when you know those rosettes, you can already imagine the pink pompom flowers of later spring, mini cotton-candies on a stick, giving prairies and roadsides a light, fluffy appearance.
Scabiosa was used as a bitter depurative. But here is the interesting part to me:
- adults used a decoction of the roots
- an infusion of the flowers was given to children
Kids were helping adults in the field at a very young age. They were precious labor for the parents, and apprentices for the skilled masters. Parents gave them plants to ensure they also started the new season on a clean foundation.
Some plants were too strong for them. A horehound infusion would have made a lot of kids gag or even vomit. Scabiosa roots were considered too bitter. The flowers of scabiosa on the other hand were considered one of the gentlest of depuratives. They were used to get kids as young as 7 prepared for stronger-tasting plants later on in life.
The first time I drank a strong infusion of the flowers, I thought “wow, this is bitter!”. How could a kid drink that? But then you have put things back in context. Those kids were not living in an everything-sugary-sweet world. They were used to marked flavors. They could bite into a garlic clove without a blink. They were dewormed with artemisia infusions. So a scabiosa tea was probably palatable.
Good habits: light meals and sleep
During the depurative cure, folks ate lighter meals. They allowed their digestive tract to rest, and they let their liver focus on depuration and not digestion.
The liver gets two major inflows of blood. One from general circulation, one from the portal vein. Both mix before entering the liver lobules. The load from the portal vein, with its charge of unprocessed nutrients, takes lots of energy away from the blood-filtering function. Reducing the amount of food ingested during the depurative cure ensures that you give the liver most of its processing power to filter the blood.
The winter season was a period of rest and sleep, continuing into the early days of spring. The liver filters the blood best during “rest and repair” periods, the night being a significant one. Lots of sleep and an early light dinner means lots of opportunity for the liver to cleanse the blood.
This simple lifestyle advice is of course very much ignored today. Here in France, people eat dinner quite late, often around 8 or 9 pm. They go to bed late, and wake up early to go to work. They wake up toxic already, and they haven’t even started the day.
Every January and February, my dad, my uncle and I go dandelion picking at least twice a week. We pick bags of dandelion greens. Every evening, we eat a dandelion salad. This habit has been passed from generation to generation.
My grandma taught me this: you cut the whole rosette along with a tiny piece of the root. This enables you to (1) get the liver benefits from the roots and (2) allow the plant to regrow from the mostly intact root. I love it because it gives a nice crunchy feel to the salad.
Eating dandelion greens in the early months of the year is an integral part of the depurative cure. I personally crave it. But I am Pitta, always hot, always on the move. And definitely liver-hot, with my occasional outbursts and explosions. Dandelion, with its liver-cooling effect, is perfect for me. Just preparing the salad makes my mouth water. My wife, who has more of a Vata tendency, eats it in small quantities.
We know the leaves can be cold and drying. So how can we counter-balance that effect? Let us see the type of salad dressing Provence folks use for their dandelion greens:
- olive oil (warming)
- mustard (warming)
- several crushed garlic cloves (warming)
- lots of crushed anchovies
Olive oil, garlic, mustard - all interesting. But the most interesting part to me is the anchovies. They are very salty. And water follows salt. Anchovies create a water retention effect at the kidney level, countering the salt-leaching diuretic effect of dandelion.
No more peeing your brains out after the meal? Well, give it a try and let me know what you think.
Application in today’s world
These days, the body still goes through the rhythms of the seasons at a very deep animal level. But the body is also flogged into new patterns of abuse. It goes through “micro-seasons”, be it summer vacation with copious eating and drinking, periods of business travel, long-term chronic pathologies that create a tremendous recycling weight on the liver, or the regular toxic loads we ingest (food, pollution, cosmetics, perfume, etc).
So depurative cures are still very much needed. They just need to be tailored to the person, lifestyle and constitution. They can and, for certain individuals, should be used on a regular basis throughout the year, definitely more than once.
Old plants need to be revived, so that we have more than dandelion and burdock in our tool chests. During the cure, people have to reduce eating and increase rest. Who knows, maybe they will even start to enjoy that healthier way of living.
More and more kids can benefit from gentle depurative cures. They, too, get stuck into their own vicious and destructive circles: living in a sunless cave (bedroom with computer), eating dead food (cookies, chips and coke), and being sleep deprived. The liver gets hit hard. Asthma, eczema, allergies, pimples are all accepted as common children's conditions now.
On the other hand, depurative plants need to be used with care. In today’s world of mostly cold, dry and deficient people, a depurative cure may aggravate the deficiency. They sometimes need to be used in low doses, or be combined with the appropriate warming and moistening plants.
But informed reader, you probably know all of this already. My goal, through this article, was simply to share a bit of my history with you, and to remind you that old herbal wisdom should not be allowed die. Depurative cures have a bright future in front of them! They just need to be woven into new protocols that fit today’s complex world.
(This article first appeared in Plant Healer - www.PlantHealerMagazine.com)
We have gotten used to our modern lifestyle of getting food from the grocery store instead of the garden, so we are less in touch with how the seasons affect us. Remember that up the last century with the advent of refrigeration and long-distance trucking, winter has been a time of few resources, where survival was not a given. At the same time, people needed fat as insulation and had to burn more energy to stay warm.
This means we are naturally tuned to store up energy in the form of extra weight during fall and early winter to keep our reserves up. And at the end of winter as the green plants start coming up again, we automatically start cleansing and shedding some of that winter excess. The best thing we can do in spring is to help our body cleanse and prepare for the lightness of summer, otherwise all that stored energy we are cleansing will put extra stress on the liver and organs of elimination and we will end up with stuffy noses, allergies, or other types of problems.
This is the time of year to get outside and get our bodies moving, to get the circulation going again (disease = stagnation). And it also means eating less of the heavy foods that we crave during winter. In March and April, I will often cut out 90% of the wheat and dairy in my diet. These are the two main heavy/sticky foods in our diet, called “damp foods” in Chinese medicine since they gum up digestion when eaten in excess. Last year I also cut out processed sugars starting in mid-March.
You can also incorporate foods that help cleanse the liver, such as beets (try some borscht soup!!), lemons and citrus which helps cleanse through the tangy sour flavor and its high anti-oxidant content, and pungent roots like radishes and turnips. Also, pungent and bitter greens like spring mix salad greens, or cooked kale and collards will also help.
If you are going to do a more intensive cleanse, this is the best time of year to fast as we are naturally cleansing already. I'm not a big fan of heroic cleanses, but drinking just broth and/or juices for a few days can give the gut a needed rest and help cleanse out old gunk. It can also help break cravings. Only go as far as your body is able to go though, don't push it too much.
I'm not going to go into different cleanses here (there are plenty of good resources out there) but do remember this – how you eat the few days after you end your cleanse is just as important as what you eat during it. Imagine that you are taking layers of paint off a wall – whatever you put down first is what will be there the longest.
And remember to get out there and exercise, move your body! When we move, it not only circulates the blood, but the muscles pushing against our lymph vessels helps return lymph to the cleansing organs. All the blood moving herbs in the world aren't as good as a half hour brisk walk.
So get out there and enjoy the spring-time! See you when I get back from my honeymoon!!
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.
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