Patient questions made me realize it was time to repost this blog. If you end up getting creative and designing your own blend, let me know what herbs you use!
Yes, you can use herbs and essential oils to help kill bacteria and fight off wintertime infections. Many companies make blends of essential oils known as thieves oil or its numerous other names . These are probably not the original formula the thieves used during the plague as that probably included garlic. I am would much rather smell like eucalyptus, rosemary, cinnamon, lemon, cloves, or any of the other antimicrobial essential oils.
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 depending on what was available to them for each batch.
To protect yourself and your family from wintertime germs, there are 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. 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 in the winter. So remember you can stay well and smell great doing it (if you leave the garlic out).
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.
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.
I believe that if we know the local herbs in any region well enough, we can rely on them nearly exclusively to treat most common complaints. This holds true for the Ozark region, where many classic American herbs grow and many introduced species also tend to flourish. In fact, the Ozarks are part of the native range for herbs in very high demand—like goldenseal and American ginseng.
Another well-known plant from this part of the country is black cohosh. This herb is found in nearly every blend for menopausal symptoms, but it is most effective for women that have a particular constellation of symptoms, such as hot flashes, depression, and achy muscles or joints. Studies are showing that black cohosh may reduce the hormone surges associated with hot flashes. Black cohosh might also have constituents that act similarly to the medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which could explain its possible mood benefits. Furthermore, black cohosh also has pain-relieving attributes that make it an ideal herb to choose for discomfort and complaints not related to menopause. It contains analgesic and inflammation modulating constituents that make it a promising consideration for joint and muscle pains. Women can use it to address menstrual cramps because it relaxes smooth muscles, such as those found in the uterus. Black cohosh is also an herbal option for men who have low back and knee pain, especially if they also have prostate issues or are under a lot of stress.
Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.
Japanese honeysuckle is a plant that is probably known to every Arkansan, but few know about its health benefits. Japanese honeysuckle isn’t native to the Ozarks. It was introduced and is now invasive, but one way to combat invasive plants is to harvest them for herbal medicine. The flowers of Japanese honeysuckle are antimicrobial, antiviral, inflammation modulating, and mildly detoxifying. The most common traditional use of honeysuckle flowers is as a component of Chinese herbal blends for colds and flu. A modern use of honeysuckle flowers is as an addition to pharmaceutical or herbal antimicrobial agents to increase their effectiveness. Additionally, Japanese honeysuckle flowers can help block the pumps that harmful bacteria use to disseminate the antimicrobial agents out of themselves. Apart from supplementation, Honeysuckle flowers are also mildly cooling and can make a refreshing summertime iced tea.
So we don’t necessarily have to search exotic lands for our medicinal herbs. Instead we can use our local plants provided by Mother Nature to help our environment and ourselves.
And you can check out my recent appearance on a local Harrison TV station talking about some other common herbs found here in the Ozarks.
Many people consider willow bark to be an herbal aspirin substitute. This is true for many of its actions, but there are some differences that are important to know about. The main commonality is that willow bark has analgesic and inflammation modulating effects that make it useful for pain. Willow bark is used for headaches and body pain. Studies have even shown it to be helpful for low back pain and osteoarthritis. Willow bark also can be a good choice when dealing with influenza. Willow bark shares aspirin’s ability to help reduce fevers. It can also reduce the body pain and headache associated with the flu.
Aspirin was not originally created from willow bark, but it could have been. Aspirin was derived from meadowsweet, a plant that contains salicylates just like willow bark does. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, and the addition of this acetyl group gives aspirin its blood thinning capacity. Unlike aspirin, willow bark does not reduce the stickiness of platelets or thin the blood. Otherwise, they are very similar in their actions, but willow bark is less likely to irritate the stomach compared to aspirin. The liver activates the compounds in willow bark after they have been absorbed into the blood stream, so they are not present in the gastrointestinal tract to cause irritation. Because of this activation step, willow bark doesn’t work as quickly as aspirin. But once converted to the active form, it can be effective for several hours.
P.S. There is a connection between the last 15 herbs I have blogged about recently (except the posting on Medicinal Kitchen Spices). Extra credit to anyone who can tell me what it is.
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.
Laurell Matthews, ND is a naturopathic doctor with a passion for helping people understand how to be healthier using dietary and lifestyle changes along with other natural medicine modalities like botanical medicine.