by CoreyPine Shane on December 17th, 2015

Blending Chinese Medicine philosophy
with American Herbalism

When I first started learning about American herbal medicine in the 1980s, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. There didn’t seem to be much philosophy behind it, no reason why we used one herb instead of another. It seemed an herb was chosen based on what symptom someone had as if it was a “dial-an-herb.” But I thought there must be a way of using herbs that isn’t just substituting herbs for drugs; there must be some underlying concept of when to use an herb.

I ended up finding Chinese medicine as a way to go beyond treating symptoms and to figure out the underlying problems, to treat the root cause. That has always been my goal and strongest desire. This is what guides all my treatments, all my teaching. And though American herbalism has come a long way since then, I still find the depth of Chinese medical philosophy ultimately fulfilling

But many people, maybe most of us, get intimidated at first –  “Chinese medicine is so big!” But here’s the thing – there is so much we can learn from Chinese medicine without needing to become Chinese herbalists or acupuncturists. I am clear with my students – I do not train them to be Chinese herbalists; instead we borrow from the lessons of Chinese medicine to better use our local herbs.

Many Chinese medicine practitioners would say it is all or nothing – if you are not a licensed acupuncturist then you shouldn’t say you are using Chinese medicine. Though I agree it is a complex system worthy of years of study, I also think that there are many lessons we can learn from Chinese medicine as a way of deepening our herbal practice.

My goal is to make it easy for you, break it down into bite sized chunks so it’s not so overwhelming. Even if you can pick up just one of the concepts below, it will deepen your use of herbal medicine.

Here are four things we can learn from Chinese practitioners, and I will go into more depth on some of these afterwards to help explain.
-       Look for patterns of imbalance. This will make our treatment plan more accurate than just treating symptoms as they arise because we are looking for the connections between different systems of the body.
-       Differentiate between Excess and Deficiency symptoms. “Deficiency” doesn’t refer to nutrient deficiencies necessarily, but to someone’s overall condition. When someone is deficient and lacking, they need to be built up and we use tonics. When someone is excessive we clear away.
-       Thinking about whether conditions are Hot or Cold, and Damp or Dry. And then thinking about herbs that way too. This is the heart of every traditional medicine whether Ayurveda, Mayan, or traditional European (Greek system)
-       There is no real difference between physical symptoms and mental or emotional manifestations of disease.

Because Chinese medicine is pre-scientific, the diagnostic tests used are observation, palpation (touch) and asking questions instead of  relying on reading lab values and using complicated and expensive electronic machinery. Which gives those of us who don’t have access to such tests a big advantage as well as saving our clients a lot of money.

Let me go into more depth about these principles.

1) Pattern Imbalances. To think about patterns, start to notice similarities throughout the body. For example, if someone is constipated and has dry skin, dry mouth, and chapped lips, maybe their instestines are also dry and that’s what’s causing the constipation. So that person needs herbs that help hydrate.

Whereas someone else experiencing constipation who also has tight shoulders, tight neck and a lot of stress, might be constipated because their colon is physically tight and they need relaxants. So, same symptom but two different patterns.

2) Excess and deficiency. This can be a little harder to get at first. To give you a feeling of what each feels like, imagine drinking too much coffee and getting anxious and jittery. This would be an excess type of anxiety. Now imagine getting anxious because your blood sugar is low and you need to eat – voila, deficiency anxiety!

Though it’s not always that simple, this does give you a visceral feeling for what to look for. I find it very useful when treating the nervous system for insomnia. Is the nervous system under-nourished and therefore more jumpy? Or is the nervous system over-stimulated?  I find that most people experiencing chronic insomnia don’t need sedatives as much as herbs to nourish their nervous system. Instead of using Valerian or Hops for them, what they need is Oat seed, Skullcap, and maybe some Magnesium.

3) Hot and Cold, Damp and Dry. Basically, herbs that stimulate circulation in some way are heating – think of ginger, cinnamon, or cayenne. Herbs that cool our body off are cooling – think of peppermint, lemons, and feverfew. But these are more obvious (maybe feverfew is less so, but remember it has a traditional use of lowering fevers) but how do we tell a new herb?

There is always the option of looking it up. More and more herbal books these days include the energetic information about an herb, including Sharol Tilgner’s books, Michael Tierra, and Matthew Wood. Or if it is traditionally used in Ayurveda (which includes most cooking herbs) or Chinese medicine, then we can look it up there. But we can also taste the herb and see how it makes us feel – more warm or more cool? 

Taste is an interesting measure too – Herbs that are more aromatic and spicey are more warming, whereas bitter and sour herbs tend to be cooling to the body (but sour is warming to digestion). And this could be the topic of our next blog.

4) Physical and Emotional. All traditions of medicine that I have looked at do not differentiate between physical and emotional symptoms. Or to be more specific, emotional manifestations of imbalance are treated with the same attention as physical symptoms. A liver imbalance, for example, can cause anger and anger can also reflect a liver imbalance. Someone who experiences anxiety with palpitations might take an herb for the heart even if the problem was not their physical heart.

And this gives us a physical way to treat non-physical manifestations of disease. The caution with treating spiritual and emotional issues in others is the tendency towards projecting our own issues onto others. By coming back to where someone’s physical symptoms manifest, we can treat someone’s emotional imbalance by treating their physical body.

These are four ways to get you started thinking about the connections, about how much we can learn and grow by studying Chinese medicine. There is much more out there and slowly each of us learn more. Chinese medicine is by no means the only way to treat disease but it has its strengths and we can all learn a lot from this ancient tradition.

by CoreyPine Shane on July 29th, 2015

Sleep isn’t always something that comes easily. Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms I see in my clients, even if it is not the problem they came in for. But there are many herbs that can help with sleep, and not just sedatives either.
There are many different “flavors” of insomnia and not every herb will work for every person. Some knowledge about the herbs helps narrow down the choices, and sometimes it takes some experimentation too. But creating good sleep habits are at least as important, if not more important, as herbs when working with chronic insomnia.
Some of my favorite herbs for sleep include Passionflower, Valerian, Skullcap, and Hops. This list could go on and on as there are many relaxing herbs, also known as “nervines.”
Taking small doses of relaxing herbs throughout the day can be more helpful for chronic insomnia than trying to blast the stress away with one big dose of herbs at bedtime.  And in this article we’ll focus on night-time herbs.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) (pictured at left) is a common plant of the American Southeast with such a magical flower that you’ll forget it’s a weed through much of the piedmont. Contrary to its name, it is actually a very relaxing herb that is sedative in large enough doses.
This herb is specific for an over-active mind, circular thinking and even muscular twitchiness. This is the herb I keep on my bedside table for when I drink coffee too late in the day, or just find myself too stressed out to be able to relax into sleep. For this purpose, I take 2-3 squirts of the fresh plant tincture.
Probably the most famous herbal sleep remedy is Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Valerian is a fairly strong sedative that relaxes both the mind and the body, and has a “heavy” energetic to it, meaning that it can slow us down and allow us to sleep by slowing us down, even making our limbs feel heavy. Taking too much can result in feeling foggy the next morning, but sometimes it’s worth it to have a good night’s sleep.
Also, be aware that 1 in 20 people get stimulated instead of sedated by Valerian, so be careful the first time you try it. It seems to have less of this effect when using the fresh root tincture, or when combined with other sedative herbs like the ones listed in this article.
Another strong sedative is Hops (Humulus lupus), the same flowers that are used to make beer. I think of Hops as a fairly strong sedative, and usually combine it with Passionflower or Skullcap to create a relaxing blend.
And finally we have Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), which is not a strong sedative but more of a “nerve tonic.” Skullcap helps quiet the mind, especially for anxiety or when we are caught in circular thinking. I think of it like its name – putting a “cap” on our thinking.
By itself it won’t help most people get to sleep but if it is excess thinking that is keeping us up, Skullcap can calm that thinking so we can get to sleep. Or it can be added to some of the other herbs to enhance their relaxing properties.
Skullcap can combine well with tincture of “milky” Oat seed (Avena sativa) as a day-time tonic to help us stay relaxed during the day so we’ll be less stress out at bedtime and be more ready for sleep.
One pattern that I see in chronic insomnia is people who are too exhausted to sleep. Thinking about this from a Chinese medicine perspective, we can think about this as  “deficiency insomnia” because it is almost as if we don’t have the energy to sleep.
For this type of person who is tired all day but can’t sleep at night, perhaps has some adrenal exhaustion or chronic stress, I find it more helpful to nourish the nervous system rather than sedate it. These people might find more effectiveness using herbs like Oat seed, or Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one of the most popular herbs in India, having a similar place to Ginseng in Chinese medicine. What makes it unique is its ability to both nourish and give us more energy, but at the same time to help us relax and sleep better. The best way to use it for sleep is to drink a milk infusion before bed. Take a teaspoon of the powder in almost simmering milk with a pinch of Cinnamon, let steep for 10 minutes, then drink the milk and avoid drinking the powder at the bottom of the cup.
Although not an herb, Magnesium can be very helpful for sleep, especially when someone has tight muscles or even restless leg syndrome. To help with sleep, I recommend taking a dose of powdered Magnesium (For example the Calm brand) in a glass of water a half hour before bed.
It is surprisingly effective to help relax muscles as well as to initiate sleep. Or perhaps not so surprising, as Epsom Salt baths have a long history of use for relaxing muscles, and that is just Magnesium sulfate. Magnesium can also function as a mild laxative, so if you take too much you may find yourself headed to the bathroom the first thing in the morning!

There is an amazing amount written about “Sleep Hygiene” so I will just include a few helpful notes here.
First off, establishing a routine is extremely helpful. If you go to bed at 11 pm every night, then your body knows at 10:30 to start winding down. Our natural circadian rhythms start to take over when we get into a habit of going to bed at the same time every night.
Also, most traditional medicines recommend going to sleep by 11 pm at the latest for best sleep. After that time, our “second wind” often kicks in and we can be up longer.
Other things that help include: not eating for two hours before bed, creating a truly dark bedroom to enhance melatonin production, and avoiding stimulating activities before bed including TV, movies, and mentally stimulating books.
One thing that I have found helpful is an app for computers called “f.lux” which changes the color of the computer screen from a general blue color to a peachy color after sunset, which is a more natural color that is less stimulating to the mind. So if you find yourself staying up late to check Facebook, then this could be a good app for you.
Hope you find this helpful, and here’s wishing you a good night’s sleep!

by CoreyPine Shane on May 1st, 2015

I just got back from the woods, where the apprentices and I harvested Wood Betony flowering herb (Pedicularis canadensis) and Witch Hazel twigs and leaves (Hamamelis virginiana). And so begins my 2015 wildcrafting season, and on May Day no less! (or Beltaine in Gaelic.) What a way to start the year, with two beautiful plants.
So maybe you are asking what can you harvest this time of year? Different plant parts are harvested at different times – roots are usually harvested in the fall but can be harvested in the spring if need be (I just harvested my Valerian and Echinacea earlier this week).  Many herbs where the leaves are used can be harvested when the plant is either in flower or just before, when the plant has just reached its tallest.  But it is also a great time of year for harvesting barks.
Between spring equinox (March 21) and summer solstice (June 21) is when the new bark is forming on the tree or “slipping” as they say in arborists’ terms. Think about when you count how old a tree was by counting the rings – those rings are forming right now and by mid-summer will be hardened onto the tree. Right now is the easiest time to separate bark from wood.
So – perfect time to harvest all our medicinal barks!! Think about Witch Hazel, Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) (pictured above), Black Willow (Salix nigra), Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) or down here in NC we have Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium). Even the common White Pine (Pinus strobus) makes a great warming expectorant.
When harvesting, never ever strip bark off of a live tree. I prefer to trim some limbs off, which leaves less of a scar for the tree to heal, and to act as if I am pruning a fruit tree in my yard. In other words, I trim branches that are crossing over each other and blocking each other’s light, or low branches that are getting shaded out and will die in a few years, or are poking into a path and will be trimmed back anyhow. That way we can leave the trees even healthier than when we found them instead of diminished by our harvest.
Most trees we use the inner bark, which contains the living (green) part of the wood. Unless you have a giant limb or are debarking a fallen tree, you don’t have to worry about removing the outer bark – its usually just a few millimeters anyhow. Just strip the whole bark off of the heartwood, which will be harder than the bark, either using a sharp knife pointed away from you, or if you get it at just the right time of year, just peel the bark off by hand.
And then I have my “rule of thumb” – if  the branch is thicker than my thumb then I will debark it. Otherwise, I just get out my pruners and chop it into a jar to be tinctured.

And with an herb like Witch Hazel (pictured at left), I find that the leaves and young twigs are the  strongest, so that’s what I harvested. This common woodlands shrub is one of my favorite astringents. It is a great herb applied topically for any kind of spider veins, varicose veins, or hemorrhoids, for which I typically use an alcohol extract. It can be also applied externally to burns, wounds, weepy eczema, and even poison ivy because it is very drying – the tannins bind proteins and so tighten tissues.
Willow bark (Salix nigra) is a common tree around creeks and rivers in the sun. When I drive around the countryside I can look across farm fields and see where there is running water because of the winding lines of willow.  White Willow is a European tree, but I find our native willow actually stronger. The Weeping Willow has very little medicine.
If you are curious how strong your willow is, chew on a branch and the more it tastes like chewable aspirin the better medicine it is. Salicylic acid, the active constituent of aspirin, was originally discovered in willow trees and the medicinal action is very similar. Willow has a long tradition of being used for pain and inflammation, including arthritis and headache pain. It is also a great anti-inflammatory, especially combined with Turmeric. Combined with Witch Hazel, it could be used topically for a sprained ankle.
Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a great herb to stop coughing, very useful for the dry irritable cough after an infection has ended. I harvest the bark and tincture it, but it also makes an excellent cough syrup. It is easy to find this time of year by the white “bottle-brush” flowers (see picture) but I usually harvest it after flowering so there is less prunasin, a glycoside that is toxic in large doses.
White Pine (Pinus strobus) has the opposite effect – the sticky resins in the bark will help stimulate coughing as well as break up thick mucous in the lungs. It is what we think of as a “stimulating expectorant” meaning that it helps move phlegm up and out through stimulating a cough response. If this is too pronounced, it can be tempered with a small amount of Wild Cherry (perhaps 3 to 1, pine to cherry) to make it not overly stimulating.
Cramp Bark and Black Haw are both great anti-spasmodic herbs that are often used for menstrual cramps and to lessen the pain of kidney stones. Though Cramp Bark is more popular, I think Black Haw is stronger and it is also incredibly abundant in the southern Appalachians where I live.
So those are a few barks to get you started, now get out there to the woods and explore! And Happy May Day!!

by CoreyPine Shane on April 4th, 2015

This is the best time of year for so many wild greens. My other favorite with Chickweed (see last blog) is Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica). The badass, leather jacket-wearing, don’t-mess-with-me weed of wet places across the U.S. The dark green of the leaves communicates the wealth of nutrients available for those brave enough to harvest them.
The sting of Nettles can be avoided by wearing gardening gloves and long sleeves, but I also like a sting or two when I am harvesting – it makes me feel awake and alive. If my mind drifts or I am not paying attention while harvesting, that is usually when I get stung, as if the plant is reminding me to be present.
So how is this possibly an edible? Once cooked, the leaves no longer sting. Even dry they don’t technically sting, but all those tiny stinging hairs (“trichomes”) can still create a lot of itchies. And they are a delicious cooked green, like spinach but much more nutritious. But you can also eat them raw and get more of that nutritional punch.
Just how much nutrition do they have? Nettles are 25% protein, some of the highest protein of any vegetable, plus very high amounts of magnesium, calcium, Zinc, Vitamin C, Iron, and Chromium amongst others (“Nutritional Herbology,” Pederson: 1998).
The easiest way to eat nettles raw is to put it in a pesto, for example the Nettles-Chickweed Pesto recipe from last blog. You can actually take almost any edible wild green and blend it into a paste with oil to make a simple wild-foods spread, whether you add the other traditional pesto ingredients or not.
Nettles can also be cooked like spinach, and is delicious in soup or as a cooked green. For a soup, strip the leaves from the stems (with gloves) and use them just as you would spinach, but plan a longer cooking time, as they are tougher. Karen and I often add the fresh leaves in season or the dried leaves in winter when making broth or stock to add some extra umph.
They are also delicious sautéed, but they do best when you add water or broth while cooking. If you just use oil they get crispy and dry and become “nettle chips.” Not very appetizing.
Nettles can also be dried for tea, though typically I harvest for tea when the plants are taller and I can get more leaf per plant, but before they flower. This is usually late April through early June, depending on where you live and how sunny the patch is.
When making the tea, throw a handful of the dried leaves in a canning jar, fill with boiling water and cover. Then let it sit for a few hours for a “long infusion” that is so rich it is broth-like. This long infusion is considered the best blood builder in western herbalism, good for pregnant and nursing mothers, or for anyone who is nutrient deficient, especially when combined with Oatstraw (Avena sativa). Just be aware that it can be a bit of a diuretic, so not so great for long car-trips!
Now when you get stung by a stray patch of nettles down by the river, instead of being annoyed you can get excited about all the wonderful food you can make for free! In a future blog, I’ll talk more about all the wonderful medicinal effects of the tea and tincture.

by CoreyPine Shane on April 1st, 2015

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here in WNC early spring has arrived! This warm, wet weather means the spring ephemerals like Toothwort, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Spring Beauty are coming soon, and the beautiful Bloodroot flowers are beginning to cover hillsides (picture on the right). The daffodils are tapering off as fruit trees, like the peach and cherry trees in my garden, come into bloom.
Even if you still have snow on the ground, it’s time to start thinking about harvesting from the wild! Fresh new greens are popping up – chickweed, nettles, the unrelated dead nettles, and young cleavers. If you live further south they’ve been up a while, and even in the cooler northern regions, you might see some of these beginning to unfurl their leaves. I have seen chickweed, green and lush, encircled by snow.
To me, Chickweed (Stellaria media) is the sign of spring, and the taste of spring, too. Abundant in cool wet places, this “weed” often takes over areas of a garden or a shady, grassy hillside. In the south, depending where you are, it flowers and then goes to seed by late April or May. As the stems grow long and stringy, it becomes much less tasty. Up north, you can find it in the middle of summer.

Chickweed has small opposite leaves that come to a slight point at the tip. It is smooth, unlike Speedwell (Veronica) that is slightly hairy and becomes more toothed as it grows. Speedwell is not toxic, but it is also not chickweed. Both crawl along the ground before arching up 6-10 inches.
I harvest chickweed by taking a knife and slicing it just above ground level. If you yank it up, you’ll still get plenty of good plant but you may also get more roots and dirt that need to get picked out. Either way, you do need to go through and garble out any unwanted parts before using it for food – it’s too easy to get other plants mixed in.
You can use chickweed in a salad, but my favorite way to eat it is as a pesto, often mixed with fresh nettles. See the recipe below.
My other favorite way to prepare it is as a juice. Buy a wheatgrass juicer (hand cranks start at $30) and bundle the plant as you slowly feed it in. Be careful not to feed it in too fast; I have seen chickweed explosions before!
I love to drink an ounce or two at a time – it is much tastier than wheatgrass and possibly even more energizing. When I drink it, I just feel bright and perky and ready for springtime. Next time I’ll talk about more spring greens including Stinging Nettles, one of my favorites for both food and medicine.

Nettles-Chickweed Pesto
  • Handful (about 1 cup) of packed Nettle leaves
  • Handful (about 1 cup) of Chickweed above ground parts, well garbled
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, as much as needed
  • Garlic, 1-2 cloves. Or tender field garlic tops
  • Nuts (optional) – I prefer pecans but whatever nuts you want. They are more digestible and less astringent if you soak them a few hours, then discard the water. 
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor (preferred) or a blender, and process until smooth. Add more olive oil as needed until you get the consistency you desire. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator or freezer and pour a little oil on top to prevent oxidation. Use within a week for best flavor. Can be used on pasta, to top bread, to flavor grains, on top of cooked meats or on sandwiches. Really, the possibilities are endless - Enjoy!!