Category Archives: Herbs

Ashwagandha for Stress and Brain Health

If stress is at all a significant issue in your life, ashwagandha is an herb you should consider trying. We all know the negative effects stress can have on our lives. Not only do we feel stressed and tense, but long-term stress also contributes to the development of many common chronic diseases, such as depression, high blood pressure, cardiac diseases and metabolic disorders.

There are many herbs that help combat the negative consequences of stress, but ashwagandha stands out from the crowd because of its mood and memory benefits.

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By helping us combat stress, ashwagandha may:
• Reduce fatigue
• Improves learning, memory, and reaction time
• Reduces anxiety and depression
• Rejuvenate the brain
• Improve immune function
• Help prevent cancer
• Stabilizes blood sugar
• Protect the heart
• Improve thyroid function
• Reduce inflammation in the body

I have been taking ashwagandha for less than a month now and am already noticing its benefits. I still have a ton of work on my plate, especially since in the garden at this time of year, but I feel a little calmer and less overwhelmed by it all. Many people note a greater sense of well-being from taking ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha also stands out as a memory herb. Some people even categorize it as a nootropic herb, meaning it improves cognitive performance and memory. Part of this benefit is from stress reduction. Long-term stress actually causes shrinking of some of the memory centers of the brain, like the hippocampus. But clearly, ashwagandha is doing more that just preventing this damage because cognitive improvements were seen in as little as 2 weeks in one study. In a comparison study between ginseng and ashwagandha, the participants taking ashwagandha showed improvements in mental abilities while the ginseng group didn’t. So though ginseng might be another great herb for stress, it lacks ashwagandha’s full brain benefits.

Ashwagandha might also be one of our key herbs for preventing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. In studies done with mice, ashwagandha contributed to improvements in cognitive abilities and cellular markers in the brain. Ashwagandha is loaded with brain protecting antioxidants and may even help with the regeneration of nerve networks in the brain.

So try ashwagandha, and see if you feel it deserves its ancient reputation as a rejuvenating herb.

Brighten Your Day with Lemonbalm!

Meet lemonbalm. She could be your new best friend especially if you are dealing with a lot of stress. Many of us push ourselves so hard everyday, and this can contribute to mood issues. So we need an herbal best friend to bring a little sunshine to our days.

Lemonbalm

Lemonbalm is just such a friend. Her bright lemon taste sums up her personality. Lemonbalm can work to both lift low spirits and help calm us when the stress just gets to be too much. And then when you hear her scientific name, Melissa officinalis, you will definitely want to invite her over for a cup of tea (a cup of lemonbalm tea that is). Her name Melissa means honeybee because bees love lemonbalm so much, and I hope you will too.

Lemonbalm can help calm the nerves and is used for anxiety, nervousness, and irritability. Lemonbalm is wonderful for digestive problems and headaches, especially when they are caused by nervousness. Lemonbalm also mildly reduces blood pressure that is elevated due to stress. Some cases of mild insomnia respond well to lemonbalm. Lemonbalm is also a mild anti-depressive, making it a good choice for people who have a mixture of anxiety and depression. Lemonbalm is a nootropic herb meaning it can enhance memory and cognitive functioning. So, lemonbalm is for both brighter mind and brighter mood.

I feel that we can get more out of our herbs when we taste them. We learn more about their nature than if we are taking capsules of herbs. Try lemonbalm and you will see how the flavor really matches her uplifting nature. You can also taste and smell the essential oil in lemonbalm that help ease an upset stomach.

You can make a tea out of the dried or fresh leaves. I also like to add a few dropperfuls of lemonbalm tincture to a whole glass of water when I don’t have time to make tea. I prefer the brands like Herb Pharm that use both alcohol and glycerin to make their tinctures because this improves the taste significantly or you can add a few drops of stevia to sweeten it a little. Lemonbalm has such a delicious taste that is often used to improve the flavor of herbal blends.

Lemonbalm is a gentle herb that requires either large doses for acute issues or long-term use for optimal results. You can use it either way but since you have just found a new herbal best friend, I bet you are going to want to hang out everyday. Lemonbalm has no side effects except for possibly very rare cases of allergic reaction. Theoretically, lemonbalm could suppress the thyroid, but no cases have been reported of worsening symptoms with hypothyroidism.

So try a little lemonbalm, and make your brain and taste buds happy.

Astragalus: Traditional recipes for the immune system

When it comes to staying healthy during the winter, astragalus is my favorite herb to strengthen the immune system. Astragalus is an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I love this “wisdom” that some herbs offer us by cooperating with our bodies instead of forcing us in one direction like some medications do. Astragalus can be used long term, so it is a great choice to take all of cold and flu season. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.

Astragalus roots

Astragalus roots

In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus can help the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress has many negative effects on our bodies, particularly on our adrenal glands that help regulate our metabolism among other things. Our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Disrupted cortisol production can be associated with fatigue, insomnia, and even high blood sugar and blood pressure. By balancing adrenal output, astragalus can be a great part of the plan to help us recover from these types of issues. Because astragalus is high in antioxidants, it can also help protect the liver.

This winter I am enjoying my astragalus the traditional way by making astragalus soup and astragalus bone broth. I looked through several different recipes for astragalus soup, the traditional Chinese way of using this immune boosting herb. I was trying to decide how long the soup needed to simmer. Some recipes recommended adding astragalus root to any chicken soup and simmering for 10 minutes, but I didn’t think this was long enough. Then I found a traditional recipe. It called for 2/3 of an ounce of astragalus in 5 cups of liquid cooked over medium heat until only 2 cups of liquid was left. This was clearly a “real” recipe with its longer cooking time to extract the maximum benefits from the astragalus, so I decided to add astragalus root to my bone broth.

Here is my recipe for Astragalus Bone Broth:
Place chicken or other bones in a pot or crockpot
Cover the bones with water
Add about 2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar for every 8 cups of water
Add 1 ounce of dried astragalus root for every 8 cups of water or so
Cover with a tight fitting lid
Simmer very low on the stove or cook on low in the crockpot for 12-48 hours
Strain the broth and enjoy

I drink this broth as a hot beverage with a little bit of salt. The astragalus has a mild nearly smoky taste and the broth is quite delicious. If you want to try astragalus soup but aren’t ready to make a bone broth, try adding the astragalus roots to any soup you are making. Cook the soup with the astragalus roots for at least 20 minutes. Then remove the astragalus roots before you serve the soup just like you would with bay leaves. And of course, astragalus comes in capsules too so you can get these immune benefits no matter how busy your schedule is.

Beyond Thieves Oil for Wintertime Immunity

Yes, you can use herbs and essential oils to help kill bacteria and fight off wintertime infections. But you don’t have to just rely on the one product that a certain essential oil company sells. They make a blend of essential oils known as thieves oil, but it is probably not even be the original formula the thieves used during the plague. I am not saying that the eucalyptus, rosemary, cinnamon, lemon, and cloves blend sold under this name is ineffective. I saying there are way more options out there.

So how did this name thieves oil come about? In Europe during the plague known as the Black Death, a group of thieves made an herbal vinegar concoction to douse themselves in and successfully robbed houses and bodies without coming down with the plague. This vinegar concoction was thought to contain garlic and rosemary and a variety of other herbs that no one seems to agree upon. It possibly had thyme, sage and lavender, but there are so many herbs with antimicrobial properties that could have been used.

I am making a Four Thieves Vinegar. I will probably also use it for salad dressing.

I am making a Four Thieves Vinegar. I will probably also use it for salad dressing.

To protect yourself and your family from wintertime germs, there are still a lot of options to choices from. If you like to make stuff at home, there are great recipes out there for Four Thieves Vinegar, which can be used as a surface disinfectant or taken internally as an immune booster. You can also make your own thieves oil blend from common essential oils. For hand and surface sanitizers, I also like the Clean Well products that use thyme essential oil as their active ingredient. And you can support one of our local businesses by checking out Essential Arts Well Being oil. It is in a base of grapeseed oil so it ready to be rubbed into the soles of the feet or used as a chest rub for colds and coughs.
This just scratches the surface of all of the amazing way herbs and essential oils can be used to help us be healthy this winter. So remember you can stay well and smell great doing it (if you leave the garlic out).

Is Coffee Good for You?

I remember when I was growing up many people who were trying to live a “healthy” lifestyle avoid all caffeine, even that in chocolate. Of course, our idea of what is healthy changes over the years. It used to be that fat was the culprit to avoid. Now, it is carbohydrates. Next it will be….your guess is as good as mine.

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With coffee, there is actually some strong evidence that it is a healthy choice for most people. Many studies have shown coffee to be a brain protector that could help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. There are also studies indicating that coffee might decrease the risk of diabetes. And there are compounds in coffee besides caffeine that could be beneficial. For instance, chlorogenic acid is the active ingredient in the popular weight loss supplement Green Coffee Bean Extract.

For a small percentage of the population, these benefits might be outweighed by some potential health concerns. About 12% of us have a genetic variation in a caffeine-detoxifying enzyme, known as cytochrome p450 1A2, which leads to slower breakdown of caffeine. One study indicated an increased risk of heart attack among individuals with these genes who drank coffee. The risk increased with higher coffee intake. Likewise, coffee drinkers with these variations had higher risk of breast cancer in another study. The study seemed to indicate that if they didn’t drink coffee they had a slightly lower risk of breast cancer than the rest of the population.

So how do you know if you are in this 12%? Genetic testing is now a viable option since it has become inexpensive. Many people with this genetic variation can tell because caffeine will affect them longer or even cause strange symptoms. They might notice that a cup of coffee with supper or even lunch or breakfast keeps them awake at night.

For everyone else, some caffeine seems like a safe and possible protective part of the diet, but to quote one of my herbal medicine instructors, “the proper dose for this herbal medicine is 1-2 cups per day.” Over reliance on coffee to keep us energized might be masking underlying health issues to need to be addressed.

Natural Ebola Prevention Strategies

So far there are no new confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States, but there have been 5000 false alarms since Thomas Duncan’s diagnosis in Dallas. This tells you how worried people are. On one hand, the Ebola virus has a particularly high mortality rate. On the other hand, Ebola is not as easy to spread as other viruses. The chance that we really need to worry about this is the United States is low, but this seems like a good time to review immune support and antiviral basics since we will have our normal viral infections to cope with as the cold weather hits.

First practice basic hygiene. This is washing your hands before you touch your face, especially your eyes, nose, mouth, or open wounds. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids and it not spread through the air, though scientists are worried about Ebola mutating to this type of dispersal.

The key to preventing colds and flu and possibly to surviving an Ebola epidemic is having a strong immune system. Ebola weakens the immune system. Survivors of past Ebola outbreaks seemed to have stronger and faster immune responses compared to those who didn’t survive. As my Ayurvedic colleagues point out, “For an infection like Ebola, which has no apparent clinical cure, natural reinforcement of the immune system may represent an oasis of hope in the desert of fear and panic.” So start with the lifestyle basics: healthy diet, moderate exercise, proper hydration, and adequate sleep.

For basic wintertime immune support, I also add probiotics, vitamin D, and vitamin C to my daily routine. When it comes to fighting viruses, some of my favorite supplements are colloidal silver, oregano oil, elderberry, and medicinal mushrooms.

None of these have really been studied with Ebola so we have to extrapolate from what we know about other viruses and remember that not all viruses are the same. For instance, elderberries have been shown to slow the replication of influenza viruses, but this does not mean that it is going to work with all viruses. On the other hand, colloidal silver has shown benefit from a wide array of viruses.

Agarikon

Agarikon

Other agents that might be theoretically useful are turmeric and agarikon. Turmeric could be useful in two ways. As an inflammation modulator, it could calm excessive inflammation that contributes to tissue damage and depletes the immune system. Turmeric also activates an enzyme called heme oxygenase-1, which in test tubes has been shown to reduce Ebola replication. Agarikon is a medical mushroom available in some of my favorite immune supporting blends like MyCommunity and MycoShield from Host Defense. Agarikon, like colloidal silver, has the potential to be active against a wide array of viruses and the other mushrooms in the blends are great immune supporters.

Please remember that all of this information is speculative since this virus it too new for us to have the studies that we would want to make confident claims. But strengthen your body and immune system to help prevent the more likely threats of colds and flu and donate to some of the many funds providing aid to those suffering in Africa.

Stevia Beats Artificial Sweeteners For Blood Sugar

When I learned that artificial sweeteners are contributing to blood sugar problems, I decided that I needed to review the research on stevia to see how it compared. It turns out the news is good on stevia.

A recent and very thorough study on artificial sweeteners demonstrated that they are contributing to higher blood sugar levels after meals. The study showed that people consuming artificial sweeteners have different bacteria living in their gut. Then, healthy people who didn’t use artificial sweeteners were given saccharin for 6 days. Four out of the seven developed high blood sugar. The researchers used mice to determine that changes in gut bacteria were the cause. These new bacteria contributed to the absorption of some of the carbohydrates we don’t normally absorb. These new bacteria seem to make it as if we had eaten a higher carbohydrate meal. In studies on rats, saccharin, sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet) were all shown to have equal negative effects on gut bacteria and blood sugar. The researchers are suggesting that these artificial sweeteners are contributing to both diabetes and obesity.

Stevia

Stevia

So this left me with the question of whether stevia might do the same thing. Stevia is a plant from South America that is now popular as a natural non-caloric sugar alternative. But unlike the artificial sweeteners, stevia holds promise of helping people with blood sugar problems. Participants eating stevia-sweetened foods before a meal showed lower blood sugar and insulin levels after the meal compared to participants given aspartame or sugar-sweetened foods. The study also showed that eating stevia before a meal didn’t lead to increased calorie consumption during the meal. Many other studies are pointing to stevia as an agent that may help with insulin resistance, the issue responsible for most cases of diabetes.

Stevia is very sweet and can have an aftertaste somewhat similar to artificial sweeteners. I find it helpful to use a little bit less than I think I need so that my food is not overly sweet. This cuts down on the aftertaste too. I am also a big fan of the flavored stevia liquids, such as the cinnamon flavored on I like to put in my tea. To read more about stevia and xylitol, the other sugar alternative I use sometimes, here is a great article from LifeExtension.

How to Make New Herbal Friends

Herbal medicine is just one attribute of naturopathic medicine, but it is one of my favorites. In my mind, herbs are like friends with individual personalities. While two herbs might share some of the same activities, they can vary in their strength and their affinity for different areas of the body. I am a huge fan of both marshmallow root and slippery elm bark. Both are soothing herbs that can be used for irritated mucous membranes. Marshmallow would be the best choice for urinary irritation, while slippery elm support the digestive tract, partially because it helps feed our good bacteria. Of course, if I only had one of these two herbs, I would use the one that was handy for either issue.

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Marshmallow; Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Herbs are also usually very gentle friends that help me keep to the naturopathic principle  First Do No Harm. In fact herbs are so gentle, it can often be challenging to draw the line between medicinal herbs and food. Which of these is a medicinal herb and which a food: cinnamon, turmeric, myrrh?

Most of you realized that is a trick question. Depending on the culture and the use, all three could be either. In some cultures, myrrh is added to foods as a spice despite its strong flavor. It happens to also serve the medicinal benefit of lower cholesterol while being part of those dishes. (We would use its relative Guggul in a capsule instead to reduce cholesterol.). If you asked someone in that society why it is added to the dish, they would probably say that is the way they like it. This is probably how many of our culinary spices came into common use. They are all medicinal spices that we have grown to love and expect in our everyday cooking. We often start to love foods and herbs that are good for us.

When I learn a new herb, I like to understand its personality to help me remember it better. I do this by both studying and experiencing it.

Start with a few herbs or even just one. Experience it in as many ways as you can, with as many senses as you can. If you can find a living plant, spend a little time observing it. This might not tell you anything about the herb, but it gives you an image and the beginnings of a personality to connect with the other things you learn about the plant. If the plant doesn’t grow nearby, find a picture of it. Smell a crushed leaf from the plant. Taste a tea or tincture make from that medicinal herb. By engaging more of your senses, you are stimulating your memory on deeper levels. Sometimes the taste or smell or even appearance can help you make educated guesses about the activity of its medicinal components.

I also like the scientific side of things. I review studies when available to learn what conditions my herb treats. I will review the herbal medicine books to see what medicinal actions the plant has. Ideally, my herb has more than one of the activities I am looking. For instance, Echinacea stimulates the immune system while also having some antimicrobial benefits to help fight a particular illness on two fronts. The combination of these two activities can give you a much more rounded view of your chosen herb than if you just did an Internet search for “medicinal benefits of plantain” (hopefully my last blog will show up though). Take all that you have learned to create an idea of its personality. Is it a fierce herbal warrior like the antimicrobial yarrow or is it a calming nourisher like the heart-protecting hawthorn. These stories can help you remember when to choose a particular herbal ally.

I would love to hear about your experiences making new herbal friends.

 

You Can Heal Nearly Anything with Plantain

No, not this plantain.

plantains

I am talking about this common weed that grows in nearly every yard and roadside in the United States.

plantain

Plantain weed is a first aid miracle that is usually close at hand for summertime boo-boos. And if you want it even handier, local midwife Maria Chowdhury uses it as a key ingredient in her Birth Song Botanicals Healing Salve, where she combines it with other great skin healing herbs like comfrey, calendula, pau de arco, and Oregon grape root. She made it as a nipple salve for nursing mothers or a diaper rash ointment for uncomfortable babies, but it is has such versatile herbs it can be used for nearly any skin complaint.

Plantain is a common choice for insect bites and cuts and scrapes. It is well known for its ability to soothe itchy and irritated skin through its high mucilage content, which moistens and protects inflamed tissues. Plantain can also reduce inflammation and calm itchy rashes such contact dermatitis and hives. Plantain speeds the healing of skin as well as having antimicrobial properties, making it a very useful herb for cuts and minor wounds.

Internally, plantain can be used as a soothing herb in similar ways. It is helpful for inflamed and sore mucous membranes such as sore throats and irritated stomachs. Its other internal uses range from coughs to constipation, hence my statement that this handy herb can heal nearly anything.

The dried herb is not commonly available because a lot of these medicinal benefits are lost when it is dried. In the summertime, it can be used straight from the yard. A common application is a spit poultice where a few leaves are chewed up and then put directly on a bug bite or sting. In the wintertime when plantain is not so plentiful, reach for Birth Song Botanicals Healing Salve.

Birthsong

Shower Hokey Pokey: 1-minute a day to decrease your stress

I put my right leg in. I take my right leg out. I put my left leg in. And I think you can guess some of the next steps, but why am I doing this in the shower?

After my normal warm shower, I turn the temperature to cold and step aside. Then I put one limb at a time into the stream of cold water, usually with that silly children’s song going through my head. I have to confess I don’t usually do this in the wintertime, only summer.

The theory is that exposing yourself very briefly to cold water helps your body learn to adapt to stress. Cold is one of our most ancient stressors, and our body can use it to learn to respond to all stress better. We can’t necessarily do the same thing by exposing ourselves to terrible traffic or bad bosses in short doses.

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A small study showed that a 1-minute cold shower at the end of a regular shower increased immune function and decreased the number of colds among participants. Improved immune activity is just one of the benefits from improving one’s stress response. By balancing out our cortisol response to stress we can potentially increase our energy, mood, memory, and metabolism. Elevated stress levels can also contribute to cardiovascular disease and blood sugar issues. So this simple 1-minute activity has the potential to help our health in numerous and profound ways.

The exposure to cold water might also improve metabolism as the body warms itself back up. This could possibly help some of us achieve our weight loss goals.

In addition to doing the shower hokey pokey, I take adaptogenic herbs to further improve my stress response. These herbs can help with all of the issues I mentioned above. I notice that they particularly help my stamina so I can work long days at my job and than some more on our farm. One of my favorite blends of adaptogenic herbs is Gaia Adrenal Health. It contains Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. Other great adrenal herbs are Maca, Astragalus, and American Ginseng. Try a few to see if one works better for you.

Directions for the Shower Hokey Pokey

After your normal shower, turn the faucet to cold or at least cool and step away.

Put the back of your right leg in the cold stream. Take it out.

Put the back of your left leg in. Take it out.

Turn around and put the front of your right leg in. Take it out.

Then front of left leg.

Put the outside then inside of your right arm in.

Same with left arm.

Then put your chest and face into the cold water.

Turn around and get your back in briefly.

And that’s what it’s all about!