Tag Archives: digestive health

Save American Ginseng: Save Yourself

A new show on the History channel, Appalachian Outlaws, highlights the politics of one of this region’s most valuable herbs, American ginseng. Many of us here in the Ozarks also have a personal attachment to this medicinal plant. A good friend of mine had the ginseng patch he had nurtured for over 20 years decimated by poachers looking to make quick cash by illegally harvesting his ginseng out of season. On top of trespassing and stealing, poachers like these are endangering future ginseng harvests. There is a ginseng season, legally mandated by the state, to ensure the ginseng plants have mature seeds that can be planted in place of the roots that are harvested. My husband’s great uncle, Lloyd Brisco, taught my husband how to ethically hunt ginseng or as he called it “sang.” Since we use the roots of ginseng, the plant is killed during harvest so either the smaller roots need to be replanted or the seeds placed in the hole left by pulling the roots. Ethical wildcrafters also don’t take every single plant. Ideally, you only harvest 1 out of every 20 plants.

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt "sang"

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt “sang”

American ginseng is in such demand because it is one of the true longevity herbs. American and Korean ginseng are both known to compensate for the impact of stress on the body. They do this by modulating our cortisol levels. Ginseng can reduce elevated cortisol, which is implicated in many chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. By reducing the impact of stress, American ginseng can improve digestion and immune function. American ginseng can also help symptoms related to insufficient cortisol due to prolonged stress like fatigue and some types of depression. I find that it gives me more stamina and helps me work long days in the office and on the farm.  American ginseng is also a nootropic herb that helps enhances cognitive function and memory.

American ginseng is so monetarily valuable because it has these amazing medicinal benefits but takes a long time to grow and grows best in the wild. A lot of our American ginseng is exported to China and wholesale prices are on the rise, but people looking to make quick cash off the high demand for ginseng are putting this native treasure at risk. Local herb enthusiast, Madison Woods, has published a short book on Sustainable Ginseng available online as a paperback or ebook that can help people who want to grow wild-simulated ginseng on their own property. She also offers ginseng habit consultations where she personally helps you find the right wooded areas to plant ginseng for future harvest or preservation purposes. So let’s do what we can to protect this local jewel so we can continue to benefit from it for generations.

American Ginseng

American Ginseng

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Detoxification Support Part 3: Kidneys and Bowels

I work hard at reducing my exposure to toxic substances. I eat clean organic food, drink filtered water, and use all natural body care products and household cleaners. But I know that despite my efforts, toxins are so prevalent in the modern world that my body still has a toxin burden. This is why we need a plan to get toxins out of the body on a regular basis to keep them from interfering with our health. Many chronic conditions can be caused or made worse by toxic exposures. Even weight gain has been associated with certain toxins that are being categorized as obesogens, chemicals in the environment that are altering our metabolism. This doesn’t mean that detoxification by itself can cause weight loss of more than a few pounds, but it can remove a potential obstacle so that proper diet and exercise are more likely to work.

When beginning a detoxification plan, the most important step is to make sure the kidneys are bowels are working optimally. Adequate fiber is crucial for both bowel health and for binding toxins. Eating high fiber foods and taking additional supplemental fiber can reduce the absorption of both ingested toxins and those recently neutralized by the liver. Additionally, take probiotics because these friendly bacteria out compete bad bacteria, which are known to reactivate already neutralized toxins. Additionally, bowel-cleansing herbs are sometimes added to speed up elimination. These range from mildly laxative herbs like burdock to stronger laxatives like cascara sagrada.

To support kidney function, emphasizetaraxacum-officinale-14 water intake and use nourishing diuretic herbs like nettles and/or dandelion leaves. These are known as nourishing diuretics because they provide valuable minerals like potassium while gently stimulating increased urinary flow. In the past, a urinary cleanse was done by gradually eating more juniper berries over the course of the detoxification. Juniper berries are known as a stimulating diuretic because they cause the kidneys to produce more urine by irritating them. Because of this irritation, most people find that they cannot tolerate this type of kidney cleanse. Our kidneys are probably overtaxed by toxins and food additives and might be more easily irritated. So while I do sometimes include a stimulating diuretic like parsley or juniper, I will only eat one or two juniper berries instead of the 30 that were worked up to in the past.

Stayed tuned for next week’s blog where I will discuss liver support for detoxification.

Enhance Digestion and Absorption with Black Pepper

This ubiquitous spice on nearly every table in America is for more than just flavoring. Black pepper actually increases your ability to absorb nutrient. Black pepper stimulates the activity of the digestive tract by increasing the production of digestive enzymes and supporting normal gut motility. Black pepper also is a circulatory stimulant so it increases blood flow to the gut, which helps the digestive tract to work more efficiently and carries the nutrient to the rest of the body. Black pepper as a medicinal herb was traditionally used for sluggish digest and low stomach acid, but it can help nearly anyone get more out of their food and supplements. Its effects are intensified by heating so adding black pepper to your food as it cooks makes it a better digestive enhancer, but watch out too much black pepper cooked into a dish can get very spicy.

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Because of these digestive benefits, black pepper extracts are used in some supplements to enhance their absorption. Piperine, an active component of black pepper sold under the name BioPerine, has been shown to increase the absorption of various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This is especially important with harder to absorb supplements like curcumin from turmeric, a popular inflammation-modulating herb. Supplement companies choose many different strategies to help get curcumin into the bloodstream, but BioPerine is one of the most popular approaches. I also mix a little bit of ground black pepper into my jar of turmeric so I know I am getting more out of my turmeric every time I cook with it.

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Catnip: This Nerve Soothing Herb Is Not Just for Cats

My cats love it, but there are many great reasons for people to choose this nerve-toning herb too. While catnip is stimulating to cats, it is relaxing to us. Because of these benefits, catnip can be a good option for restlessness, insomnia, and nervous headaches. It also helps relax tense muscles and ease muscle spasms. For this reason, some women use catnip for menstrual cramps. Like its close cousin lemonbalm, catnip has a pleasant lemony taste that can make it a great choice for a soothing tea. It is also a popular addition to make herbal blends taste better.

Catnip

 

Catnip is a great herb for children too because of the good taste and gentle effect on the body. It can be used for insomnia or excitability in children. It is good for upset stomachs and other digestive complaints. Catnip has some antiviral activities and can help break a fever. It also helps ease coughs. These actions make it a good herb for children during cold and flu season.

I find catnip very easy to grow as long as my cats don’t destroy it when it is small. I bring the fresh leaves inside for my cats, but also see them in the garden eating it and rolling around in it. Catnip is reputed to be a nerve tonic for cats, so their brains actually benefit from the “buzz” they get. I also love catnip for its scientific name: Nepeta cataria. If fact, I used to have a cat by this name. Her nickname was Nip.

Nepeta hunting goldfish

Nepeta hunting goldfish

Spice Things Up: Warming Spices for Digestion

Now that we are getting some true fall weather, it is a good time of year to enjoy some of my favorite warming spices. I love hot beverages spiced with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger just to name a few. I usually choose a tea that has some of these spices, but for special occasions it is fun to make a mulled cider or wine for your guests.

For instance, here is a delicious mulled cider recipe.

2 quarts unfiltered apple juice (or 1 quart of apple juice and 1 bottle of red wine)

4 cinnamon sticks

1 orange, zested and juiced

8 whole cloves

15 whole allspice berries

½ teaspoon nutmeg, grated

7 cardamom pods

½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns (optional)

1 inch slice of ginger root (optional)

¼ cup honey (optional)

Combine all of the ingredients including the orange zest and juice, bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for 10-20 minutes. Strain and pour into mugs garnished with a cinnamon stick or strip of orange peel and serve.

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The spices used in these seasonal beverages tend to be called warming spices because they stimulate blood flow and help us feel cozy on cool fall days. They also increase blood flow to the digestive tract, helping it to work more efficiently. All of the spices in my mulled cider recipe are also medicinal herbs known as carminatives. These are herbs and spices that are rich in volatile oils that help ease digestive discomfort and reduce gas pain. Other examples of carminative herbs are anise, fennel, chamomile, peppermint and turmeric. Many of these spices also have antimicrobial properties so they may help prevent colds. Additionally, cinnamon is well known for helping improve blood sugar. Your guests can just enjoy themselves without even knowing how much you are benefiting their health.

Let me know if you have a favorite way of enjoying these spices.

Dandelion: Don’t overlook this friend in your yard

Fall is the time to start harvesting roots. Just like we will soon be digging our sweet potatoes out of the ground, it is also time to harvest the medicinal roots. As plants go dormant for the year, they store nutrients in their roots, making medicinal roots more potent in the fall. As far as the medicinal constituents are concerned, roots are often more potent than leaves, but depending on the plant, roots can have some different medicinal uses than the leaves. Dandelion is an example of this that is likely growing in your own yard. Many people use the leaves and roots interchangeably, but there are qualities that are unique to both forms.

Dandelion has earned a reputation for being a liver and gall bladder supporting herb. The leaves increase the production of bile by the liver. The roots help to move the bile out of the gall bladder, and then along with the bile, toxins that can be eliminated from the body through the feces. Therefore, the use of the roots and leaves together is important for the best liver benefits. Because it supports the liver, dandelion is traditionally used to help high cholesterol, abnormal blood sugar, menstrual and skin disorders, especially when there is a history of toxic exposures or sluggish liver.

Dandelion leaves have a much stronger diuretic action than the roots. Because of dandelion leaves’ diuretic action, they are used for conditions like edema, rheumatic complaints, and sometimes high blood pressure. Because the leaves are high in potassium, they replace any potassium that might be lost with increased urine flow. They also contain many other trace minerals and can be used as a food or tea by people who need to boost their mineral intake.

Dandelion also helps support digestion. The increased production and movement of bile can help improve digestion of fats. In the fall, the roots are high in inulin, a preferred food of the beneficial bacterial in the gut. Dandelion leaves also have a bitter taste, which can stimulate the digestive process. Thus, dandelion is also used for headaches associated with disordered digestion. The leaves are the most bitter in the spring, but I personally prefer to eat them straight out of my yard in the wintertime when they often stand out bright green even if most of the rest of the yard has faded.

Amazing American Ginseng

September is the beginning of American ginseng season here in Arkansas, or as the old-timers call it ‘sang. We are lucky to have such an amazingly beneficial plant growing nearby, but we need to make sure that we protect it. If you are lucky enough to know a ‘sang hunter or are one yourself, make sure the rules are followed about planting the red berries 1-2 inches deep when the root is harvested. American ginseng grows throughout the Eastern United States, but it tends to grow in small clusters and has a lot of harvesting pressure on it. Since it is monetarily valuable, unscrupulous hunters will over harvest an area. For instance, trespassers stole my friend’s ginseng patch that he had been cultivating for over 20 years. Efforts need to be made to insure that we will continue to have this jewel of a plant in our region, by buying American ginseng from organically grown or ethically wild harvested sources.

American ginseng is so invaluable because it helps relieve stress and soothes the digestion. Its actions on the digestive tract are partially through direct action, but many of ginseng’s effects are due to the stress reduction. When we are stressed out, our ability to digest food is diminished. By calming the impact of stress on the body, American ginseng may help many cases of indigestion. Use of American ginseng has also been shown to reduce the incidence of colds. Again, the immune system is suppressed by stress through excess production of cortisol, the stress hormone. American ginseng can also be useful for diabetes, because, you guessed it, stress contributes to insulin resistance. It is also a good herb for fatigue, especially tiredness due to over work. American ginseng probably also shares the ability of its close cousin Asian ginseng to help prevent cancer. In the regions where the most Asian ginseng is consumed, cancer rates are significantly lower.

Don’t expect these fabulous benefits overnight. American ginseng is used long term since it may take weeks or months for the full effect to be noticed. This is a very safe herb that most people can use, but it is a little bit stimulating and, in some people, could contribute to insomnia. Taken early in the day, most people have no issue with American ginseng, and it may even improve their sleep.

 

The Power of Probiotics

We have billions of microorganisms living in our guts and the balance of species of these organisms has a powerful effect on our overall health. Imbalances in gut flora are common due to antibiotics, disease, stress, or diets high in meat and saturated fats. The wrong population of bacteria in our guts can contribute to digestive distress, but they can also contribute to less obvious issues. An imbalance of gut bacteria can deactivate digestive enzymes, stimulate dysfunctional immune responses, activate carcinogens, and contribute to migraines. On the other hand, beneficial bacteria help optimize digestion, stimulate immune function, improve the intestinal barrier, and prevent colonization of the gut by pathogens. In addition, they can break down certain toxins and synthesize some of our vitamins like vitamin K. Beneficial bacteria may also help prevent colon cancer by lowering intestinal pH.

Recent research is suggesting additional benefits to having a healthy population of gut flora. A new analysis of the causes of diverticular disease of the colon shows that there is an inflammatory component to this condition. This inflammation in impacting the neuromuscular functioning of the gut in a way that contributes to the symptoms of this disease. One avenue being considered to help address this problem is the use of probiotic supplements to help reduce inflammation in the gut. Beneficial bacteria work to fight inflammation by enhancing immune function, producing compounds that nourish the cells lining the colon, and improving intestinal barrier function.

We are also increasingly becoming aware of the connection between the gut, brain, and our mood. In an initial study, women given a daily probiotic showed decreased emotional reactivity when presented with negative stimuli. Brain scan done in conjunction with this study revealed decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with fear and other strong emotions. Though this was just a preliminary study, it reminds us of the immense importance digestive health has on our overall wellbeing.

Warming Spices for Winter Health

It is the first day of winter, and though the weather has been slightly warmer than usual here, I am still having some trouble adjusting to the cold. It is no wonder that many of the traditional holiday treats involve warming spices to help us feel cozy. Some of my favorites are mulled apple juice with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger and hot teas that have similar spices in them. Warming spices can also stimulate our digestion to help us with heavy holiday meals. Cinnamon, cloves, or ginger can help ease discomfort associated with indigestion.

Cinnamon is a favorite herb of mine because of its diverse benefits. It is antimicrobial and breaks up mucus making it useful for colds, flus and cough. It is also astringent and can help slow down bleeding, such as with heavy menstrual periods. It can also help reduce blood sugar. Many people look for the true cinnamon that goes by the Latin name Cinnamomum zelanicum, but in this case the more common Cinnamomum cassia is a better choice, according to a study. Many cooks also prefer the cassia cinnamon for its more robust flavor. I have personally found cinnamon to be a little bit stimulating. Once I drank so much of a spicy tea that contained cinnamon that I had insomnia. When I backed off, my sleep normalized.

Ginger is another powerhouse herb that has many uses beyond making gingersnaps. It addition to the digestive benefits I already mentioned, ginger is a very popular herb for nausea and motion sickness. Ginger is also a great inflammation fighter that can be considered for nearly any inflammatory issue from colds to arthritis. Ginger has antimicrobial benefits that make it further useful as part of protocol for upper respiratory infections. Ginger is also one of the many foods that help reduce the formation of new blood vessels by cancerous tumors. Without increased blood supply from new blood vessels, cancers cannot grow as quickly. Finally, ginger can help protect blood vessels, kidneys, and the liver. I hope I have given you plenty of reasons to add these tasty herbs to your winter recipes or enjoy them as teas to help you stay warm and healthy.