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Just as Western consumers are increasingly turning to natural foods in their daily diets, so too are growing numbers incorporating herbal remedies into their health regimens. In recent decades, the practice of herbalism – largely abandoned in favor of allopathic medicine during the mid-twentieth century – has been undergoing a dramatic revival. Once vilified by allopathic physicians as the province of the uneducated and the eccentric, herbal medicine is now being employed by a broad cross section of the population.
Although herbalism has its origins in the healing practices of ancient cultures throughout the world, many traditional uses are now being validated by contemporary research. Therapeutic herbalism based on scientific principles is being taught in advanced educational programs and used in clinical settings. Data is being compiled and disseminated on how to use herbs safely and effectively both on their own and in conjunction with pharmaceuticals. As this body of knowledge grows, herbal medicine is becoming increasingly accepted by mainstream medicine, as well as by the public.
Today, herbal medicines are widely sold in a variety of forms – whole and fractionated products, liquid extracts and powders, combination formulas and single herbs. Traditional herbal medicines from China, India, Africa, South America, and across the United States are readily available at local stores or online. This abundance of medicinal plants and their associated bodies of knowledge can be almost overwhelming for the lay person who wants to support their body in healing or help their family maintain a healthy lifestyle. It is important to know when you can safely self-prescribe herbal remedies and when it may not be advisable to do so.
When dealing with any serious illness, it is best to work with a qualified health professional who can guide you in creating an integrated treatment plan in which all the parts work together for optimal healing. In addition to clinical herbalists, there are naturopaths and other healthcare professionals with herbal training who can develop a specific protocol for you. Herbal medicine is most effective when it is used to treat the patient, taking the totality of the diagnostic picture into consideration, rather than when it is used to simply target symptoms. A trained professional can create a synergistic herbal formula, monitor you for changes that may require adjustments in your formula, and research any potential herb-drug interactions that may either help or hinder your healing.
However, there are a wide variety of medicinal herbs that can be safely self-prescribed and easily used at home. With some basic knowledge, you can help yourself and your family boost immunity, correct imbalances, and overcome minor ailments. Among the many common uses of herbalism in the home are reducing stress, relieving digestive problems, healing and protecting the skin, and treating sore throats, coughs, and colds
Making Your Own Medicine
Some herbal medicines are best purchased ready-made from reputable sources, due to complexities in formulation or difficulty in obtaining raw materials. Others, however, can be easily made at home, benefitting both your pocketbook and your sense of self-reliance. A great deal of satisfaction can be gained from making your own remedies – and, even better, growing the plants yourself as well.
Home herbalists can easily make a variety of products, from teas, tinctures, and syrups to bath mixes, skin creams, and salves. Of course, it’s important to have some basic knowledge before preparing anything much more complex than peppermint tea. While the in-depth study of herbalism generally requires an experienced teacher and years of practice, there are many excellent books, videos, and online classes available for lay people and students at all levels. (See the recommended reading section at the end of this article for a few book suggestions.) And there are many simple yet effective traditional remedies, such as those discussed below, that can be easily prepared by anyone.
In herbal terminology, certain plants that can help you release stress and reduce tension are classified as nervine relaxants, meaning that they directly relax the nervous system. While there are many such herbs, each with its own properties and actions, a few gentle plants that have calming effects on the nervous system and are generally safe for the entire family are chamomile, lavender, and lemon balm. For internal use, these can be brewed into teas or taken as tinctures, and they blend well with each other. You can easily find commercial tea blends that include this combination, or you can save money, buy individual herbs in bulk, and blend your own. I often brew the three of these together at bedtime, and I find the combination helps me release the cares of the day and drift easily to sleep.
While reading the following brief summaries of some of the actions and uses of these herbs, please keep in mind that every medicinal plant has complex characteristics and multiple mechanisms of action. Remember, plants are not drugs – no plant has only one active constituent or does only one thing. Moreover, they work in concert with your unique physiology, so not everyone will react to the same herb in the same way.
One of the leading medicinal herbs in the Western world, the flowers of the German chamomile plant (Matricaria recutita) have been used to calm the nerves and gently promote sleep since antiquity. Chamomile can serve as a mild sedative for children, as well as adults, and can help relieve anxiety. For these purposes, it is often taken as a tea, made by steeping one teaspoon of dried flowers (or two teaspoons of fresh ones) in a cup of hot water. Chamomile baths can also be soothing and relaxing. One way to prepare an herbal bath is to put a cup of dried herbs into a linen or muslin bag and tie it to the faucet, and then run the hottest possible water directly through the bag for several minutes before adjusting the water temperature to a comfortable level and continuing to fill the tub.
Chamomile also has other uses, including as a digestive aid, an anti-inflammatory, and an antispasmodic. A related species, Roman, or English, chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), can be used for similar purposes, although some find its smell less desirable. Chamomile is in the Asteraceae family, so those with allergies to asters, daisies, chrysanthemums, or ragweed may cross react, although allergic reactions to chamomile are generally not severe.
Lavandula angustifolia, or English lavender, is well known for its medicinal, culinary, and cosmetic uses. Just inhaling its sweet smell can promote relaxation, release psychological stress, and lift your mood, and its essential oil is frequently used in aromatherapy. Lavender is used as a remedy in a variety of health conditions, including sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and headache, and may help reduce agitation in people with dementia. A cup of lavender tea (one teaspoon of lavender flowers infused in a cup of hot water) can aid insomnia, restlessness, and stomach upset. Soaking in a lavender-scented bath before bedtime or putting a lavender sachet under your pillow can help you get a good night’s sleep. Lavender oil, used topically, is effective in lifting the spirit and relaxing tight muscles. Due to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, it can also be helpful in treating skin conditions such as eczema, as well as minor infections. It’s easy to make an infused lavender oil for topical use as a massage oil or as an ingredient of homemade lotions or salves. (See directions for making infused oils, later in this article.)
It’s important to know that infused oils are not the same as essential oils. Infused oils are relatively gentle and can often be used full strength in topical applications. Essential oils, in contrast, are highly concentrated distillations and should generally be diluted with a carrier oil, such as sweet almond oil, before being used topically. (However, lavender oil is a relatively mild essential oil and can sometimes be used neat, or undiluted.) They should only be used internally with knowledge and care, preferably under the guidance of an herbalist or other healthcare practitioner, to avoid adverse reaction or toxicity.
Also known as melissa, due to its Latin name Melissa officinalis, lemon balm is a safe and simple sedative that calms the nerves. It can help reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, and ease discomfort from indigestion. It’s also a specific for symptoms of hyperactivity. Although it can be dried and taken in the form of tea, its effects are stronger when the plant is freshly picked, before its volatile oils evaporate and its lovely scent disperses.
If you are fortunate enough to grow it in your garden, you can make a cold infusion of lemon balm (protecting these delicate oils from heat) by simply immersing the freshly picked leaves in cold water, covering the jar, and letting it brew for several hours or, if you want it stronger, overnight. (A standard ratio for making cold infusions is one ounce of fresh herb to 32 ounces of water.) The effects will be relaxing and uplifting. If you don’t grow it – or don’t live in a climate where it grows year round – you may wish to keep a bottle of lemon balm tincture made from fresh plant material on hand. Even better, tincture it yourself using the directions found later in this article.
Lemon balm is also used in aromatherapy for its relaxing effects, but the pure essential oil can cost over $50 for one dram (roughly one-sixteenth of an ounce), due to the massive amount of plant material needed to make it. In addition, lemon balm has antiviral properties and can be used topically to relieve cold sores. Although generally a very safe herb, it can reduce thyroid activity slightly and is not recommended for those with hypothyroidism.
Medicinal plants can aid your digestive system in numerous ways, stimulating appetite, relieving cramps, reducing inflammation, aiding the absorption of nutrients, and much more. Herbs that help relieve gas and bloating are known as carminatives, and chamomile and lemon balm are among these. Carminative herbs soothe the gut wall, increase gastric emptying, and increase peristalsis, expelling gas from the bowel. They also function as antispasmodics. Other carminatives include the common household herbs ginger and peppermint.
One of the leading herbs for digestive health, the root of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) is widely used as both a spice and a folk medicine. Taken internally, it reduces inflammation, increases nutrient absorption, and can quell nausea and relieve motion sickness. It is also a warming and decongesting herb that can be very helpful for sore throats, colds, and flu. Ginger is used therapeutically in various forms, including in cooking, where it exemplifies the concept of “food as medicine.”
Commercial teas generally contain the powdered herb, but the best – and most delicious – ginger tea is made from the fresh root. Peel and slice an inch or two of the root into thin pieces, pour a cup of hot water over them, and leave the tea to steep for 10 minutes before straining. For a stronger brew, simmer the root for the same amount of time. Juicing raw ginger is another option, but be aware that the extracted juice is very strong. For the sake of palatability, blend it with another juice, such as carrot, apple, or orange, or dilute it in hot water with a bit of lemon juice and some raw honey.
Although ginger can be used to relieve the nausea of morning sickness, it is a mild emmenagogue (it can induce menstruation) and should not be used in excess by pregnant women. Ginger, like many other herbs, can act as a blood thinner, so don’t take it in therapeutic quantities (such as those found in ginger supplements) with anticoagulant drugs without the supervision of a healthcare professional. For that matter, if you take any prescription medication, it’s always a good idea to check for potential herb/drug interactions before introducing an herbal medicine into your regimen.
A popular herb, often brewed as tea due to its delicious flavor and relaxing effect, peppermint, or Mentha piperita, is actually one of the best carminatives available. It relaxes the visceral muscles and increases secretion of bile and digestive acid, making it a particularly good remedy for intestinal colic and flatulence. In addition, peppermint can relieve nausea, including that associated with pregnancy and travel, as its volatile oil has a slight anesthetic effect on the stomach wall. (It has the same anesthetic effect on the lower esophageal sphincter, though, so it isn’t recommended for those with gastroesophageal reflux disease.)
Brew it as a tea using a teaspoon of dried leaves or two teaspoons of crushed or torn fresh leaves in a cup of hot water. A cold infusion may be even better, as heat can denature some of the plant constituents. To make a quart, use one ounce of fresh peppermint leaves (or dampened dried leaves) in a jar containing 32 ounces of cold water, and let it sit, covered, overnight or even for a day or two. To aid circulation of the water through the tea while it brews, place the leaves in a muslin or cheesecloth bag and tie it to the jar lid, so that the bag is suspended in the upper part of the jar. When your tea is ready, squeeze the bag to express as much of the liquid as possible. Drink as needed, up to four or five cups per day.
Peppermint has other beneficial actions as well. Its decongestant properties make it useful for relieving symptoms of colds and flu. For congestion, drink the tea or try steam inhalation, placing a towel over your head and breathing in the steam from a few drops of the essential oil in a pot of hot water. (If you’ve never done steam inhalation before, look online for directions on how to do it safely, without burning yourself.) A drop or two of the essential oil, applied neat, can reduce the swelling and itch of insect bites.
There are an almost endless number of medicinal plants that can help boost the immune system, with different qualities and mechanisms of action. Many of these can be used for both the prevention and treatment of infectious illnesses, including colds and flu. Echinacea and elderberry are two such herbs that are commonly used in households across the US.
Also known as coneflower, echinacea is actually a genus of flowering plants encompassing several distinct species. The most commonly used for medicinal purposes are Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea, both of which have immune-boosting and antimicrobial properties and can help the body resist viral and bacterial attacks. Taken internally, echinacea is especially useful for bronchial and upper respiratory infections and sore throats, and it is most effective when taken at the onset of symptoms. It is also used topically against skin infections.
Despite some controversy as to its effectiveness in preventing or treating colds and flu, echinacea is one of the most popular herbs used in this country for that purpose, and many people, including practitioners, swear by it. When taken at the first sign of a cold or bout of flu, it may reduce both the severity and duration of the illness. Echinacea boosts the immune system in part by increasing white blood cell activity, so it is generally considered an immune stimulant, not a tonic to be taken on a long-term basis for general immune support.
Both the aerial (above ground) parts and the roots are medicinal, although they differ somewhat in their composition and are often found in combination in commercial products, including teas, tinctures, capsules, and tablets. To prepare echinacea at home, you can tincture the whole plant or the roots, brew a tea from the dried leaves and flowers, or make a root decoction.
A decoction is simply a water extract that has been simmered, as compared to a hot infusion, or tea, which is made by immersing the plant material in hot water. In general, leaves and flowers of medicinal herbs are brewed as infusions, while most roots and barks are decocted. To make an echinacea root decoction, put one tablespoon of dried root per cup of water in a pot made of a nonreactive material, such as glass or stainless steel (no aluminum). Let it sit for about a half hour, allowing the roots to absorb water, before heating. Then bring it slowly to a low boil, and simmer it (covered) for 25 minutes before straining. Drink three cups per day, from the onset of cold or flu symptoms, for up to ten days.
Some herbalists find E. angustifolia to be more effective than the less expensive E. purpurea, although the latter has been more extensively studied. When purchasing echinacea, please be aware that it has been overharvested in the wild and always choose reputable sources that state their product is cultivated. Note that echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae family, and use it with care if you are allergic to other plants in that family. Also, due to its immunostimulant properties, some people suggest that echinacea be avoided by those with autoimmune diseases.
Many people rely on black elderberry, or Sambucus nigra, to get them through cold and flu season. Both the flowers and berries are immune stimulating and antiviral. The flowers can be brewed as a tea to induce sweating during flu-induced fevers, and the berries contain compounds that can inhibit viruses from penetrating our cell membranes. Elderflower tea can be made by infusing one or two teaspoons of the blooms in a cup of hot water for 10 to 15 minutes. Drink up to three cups per day. Elderberry extract or syrup can drastically reduce the duration of colds and flu if you start to take it at the onset of symptoms, and many people love the flavor. Take a teaspoon of syrup twice daily for prevention, and take a tablespoon four times a day to hasten recovery time if you are symptomatic. You can easily make a delicious elderberry syrup at home, keeping in mind that it’s important to cook the berries and remove the seeds, which can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
There are many recipes for black elderberry syrup available in books and online. These instructions for making syrup from dried elderberries follow a recipe provided by Richo Cech in Making Plant Medicine. Place one cup of dried black elderberries in a bowl and add two cups of boiling water. Cover and let sit overnight. In the morning, pour into a blender and vortex into a mush. Pour into a fine sieve, pressing the berries through with your fingers to remove the seeds. You should now have two cups of liquid. Simmer on low heat with the lid slightly ajar for one to two hours, stirring frequently, until the liquid is reduced to one cup. Stir in one cup of honey or glycerine. Let it cool slightly (to avoid burning yourself) and then filter the syrup through four layers of cheesecloth, making sure to squeeze out as much of the liquid as you can, while excluding any solids. Pour into amber bottles or jars for storage. If the syrup was made with glycerine, store it in a cool, dark place, where it should keep for about a year. Syrup made with honey is best refrigerated and will keep for the same amount of time.
Making infused oils and tinctures
Herbal medicines can be made using a variety of menstruums, or solvents, depending on the plant and the purpose to which the medicine will be put. Herbs can be extracted into water, alcohol, glycerine, oil, honey, vinegar, and wine. The number of diverse products you can make in your kitchen is almost endless. Following are some basic directions for making two types of herbal medicine: infused oils and tinctures.
When making an infused oil, the oil you select is your menstruum. A variety of oils can be used, but make sure the one you choose is pure and preferably organic; any chemical residues or toxins in the oil will be absorbed through your skin when you use the finished product. Olive, jojoba, and sweet almond oils are popular choices; I also like to use coconut oil sometimes. Generally, oil infusions require some gentle heat in order to extract the plant compounds, but don’t get them too hot. You don’t want to cook the plant material or denature the oil. Also, you will want to minimize the amount of moisture you introduce into your oil, to reduce the likelihood of spoilage. If using fresh herbs, spread them out in a single layer and wilt them overnight to reduce the moisture content.
There are a number of methods for making infused oils, but the simplest is known as solar infusion. Chop, crush, or coarsely grind your dried or wilted plant material and place it in a clean jar. Cover it by at least an inch of olive oil (or your oil of choice), leaving about a half-inch of space at the top of the jar. Make sure all of your plant material remains submerged throughout the infusion process, adding more oil if necessary. Tightly close the jar and place it in a warm, sunny window. (If it’s wintertime, you can place it near – but not directly on – a woodstove.) Then simply shake the jar once or twice a day for two to six weeks until the oil takes on the color and aroma of the herb. If you are using fresh herbs, condensation may form inside the jar, near the top. If you notice this, open the jar and wipe off the moisture with a clean, dry cloth. When your oil is ready, strain it into a clean jar (preferably amber or another dark color), using a fine-mesh strainer or several layers of cheesecloth, and close tightly. Wait two or three days, if you used fresh plant material, to see if any water settles to the bottom of the jar; if it does, pour off the oil into another jar and discard the water. Store the oil in a cool, dark place (or in the refrigerator), and it should stay good for about a year.
If you don’t have time to wait two to six weeks for your oil to be ready, you can make it on the stovetop. I have often made lavender oil this way, although heating it on the stove does deplete the volatile oils and lessen its medicinal efficacy somewhat. Place your organic lavender buds or other plant material in the top of a double boiler and cover with the oil of your choice, such as olive or coconut oil. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with sufficient water – I don’t let the water reach the bottom of the top pot – and bring it to a boil. Then immediately turn down the heat to medium-low, leaving the pot uncovered, so that the rising steam gently heats the lavender and oil. Don’t let the oil reach the simmering point. Heat for about five minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Then remove the double boiler from the heat and cover it, allowing it to sit at room temperature. Repeat this process several times a day for a few days before straining out the plant material with a stainless steel strainer, lined with cheesecloth if necessary. If you need to make an infused oil in even less time, place your herbs in the top of the double boiler, cover with an inch or two of olive oil, slowly bring the oil to a very low simmer, so that it is just barely bubbling, and continue to simmer gently for 30 to 60 minutes, monitoring it so that it doesn’t get too hot. Strain it, let it cool, and bottle it – and don’t forget to put on a label.
Tinctures are generally made by extracting the plant constituents in alcohol or a water-and-alcohol mixture or, sometimes, in glycerine. Some plant compounds (such as tannins) extract well in water, while others (such as essential oils) require alcohol for efficient extraction. Formularies have been compiled that specify the optimal ratio of water to alcohol for specific plants and the optimal ratio of plant material (in grams) to menstruum (in ounces), as well as whether the plant is best used fresh or dried. An excellent source for this type of information is Michael Moore’s Herbal Materia Medica, 5th edition, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine (www.swsbm.com/ManualsMM/MatMed5.pdf).
The folk method of making tinctures, however, does not require such complex measurements and calculations. Basically, you just place your chopped or ground plant material in a wide-mouth jar and add an alcohol-based solvent to cover the herbs. When using dried herbs, which will absorb liquid and swell, fill your jar only halfway with plant material, and use a 50/50 mixture of high-proof alcohol – such as pure grain alcohol (190-proof Everclear is an example, although it’s only legal to sell in some states) or organic grape alcohol – and water. If you prefer, you can use undiluted vodka or brandy (80 proof or higher). Cover the herbs with the menstruum and stir well to make sure all of the plant material is wet, then add more menstruum if needed. When working with fresh herbs, which have a higher water content, lightly pack the plant material into the jar and cover completely with menstruum, preferably 190-proof alcohol.
Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid, label it with the plant name and the date, and place it in a dark cupboard to macerate. Shake it twice a day for two to six weeks, adding more alcohol, if necessary, to make sure all the plant material remains covered. (Note that if you are using fresh herbs and 190-proof alcohol, the jar doesn’t actually need to be shaken, as the alcohol will dehydrate the plant cells, drawing forth their constituents). After the menstruum takes on the color and a strong flavor of the plant, it is time to strain and press. One simple way to do this is to put a few layers of cheesecloth over the top of the jar and pour the crude tincture into a bowl. You will find that a lot of the tincture remains bound to the plant material, however, and you will want to extract as much of this as you can. For some herbs, you may be able to free a lot of it by simply folding the cheesecloth around the plant material and squeezing. I usually use a potato ricer, which gives me more pressing power. The most efficient way is with a tincture press, although these are usually quite expensive.
Pour the crude tincture into a clean jar, close the lid, and let it sit for a day or two, until the sediment settles out and you can see a clear demarcation between the liquid above and the sludge below. Then, without redispersing the sediment, filter the liquid again, using a few layers of cheesecloth, some nontoxic filter paper, or a fine screen. Using a small funnel, pour your finished tincture into an amber or other dark-colored bottle for storage. Don’t forget to label it with the plant name and the date. Close tightly and store in a cool place, out of the light, and it should last for years.
For most commonly used medicinal herbs, an adult dose of tincture generally ranges from 20 to 60 drops, diluted in a small amount of water, taken three times daily. However, dosages can vary depending on the plant and the reason it is being used. For example, you will likely need a higher or more frequent dose to combat an active infection than to boost immunity in times of good health. Moreover, various herbalists have different theories and opinions regarding dosing. Check with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner or use the books listed on the next page as good starting places for your personal research. It is particularly recommended to consult with a practitioner regarding safe dosages for children.
Regardless of how you prepare your medicinal herbs, the quality of your remedies will only be as good as that of the raw materials you started with. If you purchase bulk herbs, make sure you buy them from a reputable source that can assure you the herbs were grown in clean environments, harvested sustainably or cultivated organically, and stored properly, away from heat and direct sunlight. Purchasing from people you trust can help you avoid potential problems with contaminants, adulteration, and mislabeling. For maximum quality, buy your herbs from ethical local growers or wildcrafters who harvest and dry their herbs by hand. There are also some very well-respected companies that sell online; one of the best of these is Mountain Rose Herbs (mountainroseherbs.com) in Oregon.
It is best to store your dried herbs in glass jars with tight-fitting lids and as little air space as possible. Label them with both plant name and date of purchase and store them in a dark place, such as a cupboard, away from excessive heat and moisture. When properly stored, whole leaves and flowers will generally retain much of their potency for up to a year, while roots and barks will remain good for two to three years. Powdered herbs lose their potency faster than whole or cut-and-sifted ones. If your herbs lose their distinctive aroma and flavor, or if they start smelling moldy or “off,” it’s time to toss them out and replenish your supply.
Growing your own herbs can add an extra dimension to your medicine making. Not only does it give you the opportunity to work with fresh herbs, harvested at the peak of their potency, but it also allows you to develop a relationship with the herbs you grow. After all, it’s said that the plants are teachers in their own right. Even city dwellers often have the space to grow a few pots of herbs or plant a raised garden bed on the patio or balcony. Herb gardening can provide both relaxation and satisfaction, and making a tea or an infused oil from a plant you grew yourself can boost your health in more ways than one.
- The Complete Herbs Sourcebook: An A-Z Guide of Herbs to Cure Your Everyday Ailments, by David Hoffmann (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing; 2016)
- Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth, 2nd ed., by Sharol Marie Tilgner (Pleasant Hill, OR: Wise Acres Publishing; 2009)
- The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual, by James Green (New York, NY: Crossing Press; 2002)
- Making Plant Medicine, 4th ed., by Richo Cech (Williams, OR: Herbal Reads; 2016)
- Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, by Michael Moore, illustrated by Mimi Kamp (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press; 2011)
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, by Rosemary Gladstar (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing; 2012); available at price-pottenger.org/store
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roberta Louis is managing editor of the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing and a contributing editor at Well Being Journal. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in complementary and alternative healing methods, with an emphasis on herbal medicine. She may be contacted at: [email protected]
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Winter 2017 | Volume 40, Number 4
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