HERBAL MEDICINE AND YOU
A Modern Alternative
If you’re like most people, herbal medicine is on your radar, but not necessarily in the most positive light. Maybe you envision herbal medicine as being for survivalists living off the grid, the Earth Mother hippie crowd boycotting “The System,” or New Age healing circles shunning all things Western medicine. But even if it’s nothing nearly so fringe that makes you roll your eyes—perhaps it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s advocacy of herbal enemas?—there are still plenty of good reasons not to throw out the baby with the herbal bathwater.
Common issues we face every day—from acne, dry skin, or brittle hair to fatigue, mild depression, or stress—can be prevented, lessened, or treated through the targeted use of herb-infused lotions, shampoos, teas, and more. The good news is that you don’t need to spend $18 on a scented candle from Anthropologie to satisfy your lavender fix or hunker down in the eucalyptus steam room at a luxury spa for aromatherapy benefits.
You may have heard that herbal medicine doesn’t work, it’s not rooted in science, or it’s based on ancient principles that aren’t relevant in a modern world. Truth is, there’s a reason that herbs (and foods) have been used to heal, restore, and protect people from illness and injuries for centuries. Begin to understand this by exploring these common terms that are often tossed around like organic salad greens:
Essential oils are nutrient-dense volatile oils extracted from parts of a plant, like stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits, which give off a specific healing aroma.
Antioxidants are molecules found in plants, herbs, and food and they combat the harmful oxidizing agents that destroy cells. Antioxidants are necessary to repair or prevent cell damage and lessen your chance of disease.
Vitamins are substances your body gets from food in order to perform certain functions that it cannot perform on its own. Vitamins boost the immune system and are required for normal growth and development.
Essential oils, antioxidants, vitamins, and other healing compounds trigger our bodies to function efficiently, strengthen our immunity, and fight illness overall. Herbal preparations offer the vehicles for these healing agents to come into contact with our bodies. You’re probably aware that many of these substances are extracted and studied by scientists, reengineered in labs, and made available in pharmaceutical prescriptions. By reading this book and dabbling with the recipes, you can get closer to the source of things—the piece of the equation that comes before prescriptions and reengineering.
In these pages, you’ll get the straight talk about the most powerfully healing herbs (without the brand pushes, company affiliations, or philosophical agendas), plus why they work and how to incorporate them into a modern household. Specifically, you’ll get up to speed on the pros, cons, benefits, and suggested uses of a range of herbal preparations. By taking more of a complementary approach to health and beauty, it’s likely your doctor’s visits will start to be fewer and farther between.
WHAT IS HERBAL MEDICINE?
Put simply, herbal medicine involves the use of plants to prevent or treat illness. We know that the earliest civilizations used plant-based remedies. In fact, between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago humans recorded their use of many of the very same herbs we still use today for medicinal purposes. What might seem New Age to us in fact has deep historical roots.
Herbal Medicine Through the Ages—Briefly
Odds are you’ve heard of gingko biloba, even if you don’t know much—or anything—about it. This plant contains antioxidants known as flavonoids that are used to improve cognitive functions. But did you know that scientists found fossilized specimens of gingko biloba dating to pre-dinosaur age (roughly 270 million years ago)? In Western herbalism, there are also documented records of ancient Egyptians using garlic to prevent and treat illness, as well as to enhance strength; and juniper oil for managing kidney and bladder diseases. These findings date back to 1700 BCE.
By 100 BCE the Greeks created a detailed methodology that connected different herbs to seasons, as well as to the elements of fire, air, earth, and water. In 77 CE, a Greek surgeon named Pedanios Dioscorides catalogued more than 600 plants and their uses in healing. The Romans later added to the Greek philosophies and a cataloguing system that is still used in medicine today. One example of this is the Roman concentration on prevention rather than cures.
Herbal treatments are also seen in early Eastern medicine traditions such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda. South America, Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific all have roots in herbal medicine. Australian aborigines, for example, discovered tea tree oil, a powerful antiseptic. Many healing herbs have been discovered in South American rain forests and mountains.
ESSENTIAL OILS, ANTIOXIDANTS, VITAMINS AND OTHER HEALING COMPOUNDS TRIGGER OUR BODIES TO FUNCTION EFFICIENTLY
Ancient civilizations also used herbs for cosmetic purposes. In 1500 BCE, Egyptians documented the use of various herbs. Fenugreek, they noted, smoothed wrinkles; myrrh freshened the breath. Ancient Greeks used rose oils and waters to cleanse and hydrate skin. The same types of treatments are still quite popular today. You want shinier hair or a dandruff-free scalp? A nettle-based tonic will do the trick. No nettles? No problem. Parsley and rosemary work, too. Want more radiant, youthful-looking skin? Drink ginseng tea to brighten dullness, increase circulation, and combat dark circles.
Put a few drops of oregano oil in your moisturizer to kill surface bacteria and boost blood flow. Or, incorporate sage into your regimen. It regulates oil production so it’s the ultimate acne fighter plus its calming effects work wonders for women going through menopause.
You may be thinking, “Sure, ancient civilizations used plants because that’s all they had. Modern medicine is more targeted and sophisticated.” However, plant-based compounds are used in many modern pharmaceuticals. Simply put, plants are natural healers. That fact hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. It’s only evolved across generations as it’s merged with modern delivery systems and scientific tools.
TEST YOUR HERBAL IQ
Answer these 10 questions to check your smarts
1. ___% of the world’s population uses herbal medicine.
2. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that ____ number of plants are used around the world for medicinal purposes.
3. Medicinal herbs come from which part of the plant:
F. all of the above
4. The global market for herbs and supplements will hit $ ______ by 2017.
A. 150 billion
B. 107 billion
C. 50 billion
D. 90 billion
5. True or False: Aromatherapy is based on scent alone.
6. The WHO reports that ___ percent of the drugs used in the United States are derived from plants.
7. ___ percent of medical schools offer alternative medicine courses or degrees.
8. ____ percent of Fortune 500 companies include alternative medicine in their health care plans.
9. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) invests $___ million annually in research on complementary and alternative medicine.
10. ___ percent of Americans use alternative or complementary medicine.
1. B. 80
2. C. 7,000
3. F. All of the above
4. B. $107 billion
6. A. 25
7. B. 60
8. D. 19
9. B. 40
10. B 40
Herbal Medicine Today
Today, more than three-quarters of the planet uses herbal medicine. Western researchers have proven in studies what generations have passed down for centuries: Plants grown and used at home are effective at treating non-life-threatening diseases, and injuries or ailments such as bumps, bruises, headaches, fever, stress, depression, fatigue, and more.
It makes sense. Consider all the plants you eat on a regular basis (yep, the same ones you pull from your garden or the produce section of your favorite grocer): parsley, cilantro, sage, thyme, garlic, basil, ginger, mint. You might toss them in a garden salad because they add kicks of flavor, but those same herbs, spices and, in some cases, vegetables, do double-duty once inside your body. They carry antioxidants and nutrients that bolster the immune system to fight disease before it starts. In modern doctor’s circles, they call that “preventive” medicine. So why wouldn’t those same herbs be used just as successfully for healing after you’ve gotten sick? St. John’s Wort looks beautiful in a vase, but it’s also fantastic for lowering stress. Chamomile makes a lovely after-dinner tea or you can use it to relieve indigestion, alleviate muscle spasms, reduce inflammation or cure infections. Talk about getting two (or more) for one.
FOR HEAD, SHOULDERS, KNEES, AND TOES (AND NOSE)
The Skinny on Essential Oils & Aromatherapy
You don’t need to be a market researcher to see that aromatherapy products are exploding in popularity. But wait a minute. Let’s all take a deep breath, inhale the fragrances that surround us, and understand what the term means.
Aromatherapy involves the use of fragrant (aromatic) plant extracts, typically found in the essential oils of plants, with the intent to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being. You can’t enter a health food store, lifestyle store, clothes boutique, or home goods shop without finding an aisle of essential oil-based candles, incense, potpourri, soaps, lotions, or cleaners. And while you can light a scented candle to make your living room smell better, what makes an aromatherapy product truly, well, therapeutic, is when its use is not merely to please passively but to heal or help actively.
Aromatherapy practice is not limited to inhaling essential oils for their stimulating brain and mood effects, though that’s a popular method. It also includes applying them topically so their healing molecules go to work in the bloodstream. What makes this practice so versatile (and cool) is that it’s noninvasive so it can work solo or complementarily, alongside other alternative or mainstream remedies, or therapies, like a booster shot.
The Super Fuel Behind Aromatherapy
So what, exactly, are essential oils? Truly the super fuel behind aromatherapy, essential oils are highly concentrated, nutrient-dense compounds that are expelled, pressed, or extracted from plants. Think of them like the immune system of a plant, keeping it safe from pollutants, insects, and other toxins. Essential oils work the same way in your body. In the case of aromatherapy, they work via smell or absorption to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Unlike drugs that mask symptoms, essential oils work on the root causes of your issue so you deal with problems head on and quickly rather than simply soothe their side effects.
In medical circles, these powerhouses are called adaptogens, which are substances that work in a variety of ways to balance your body’s systems, fight stress, and beat fatigue so you ward off disease and stay healthy. Studies show that adaptogens can do everything from speed healing to suppress infections without the side effects or downtime of some pharmaceuticals.
Some essential oils also do double duty as analgesics, which mean they have the ability to reduce pain. Clove, birch, peppermint, and thyme are particularly effective analgesics. For instance, thyme essential oil has been shown in studies to alleviate menstrual pain better than ibuprofen as well as inhibit COX-2, the enzyme that when overproduced in the body creates chronic inflammation and pain.
See chapters 8 and 9 for smelling salt recipes that rely on aromatherapy for mental and physical relief and well-being.
Knowing the Good From the Bad
Unfortunately, not all essential oils are created equal. And like most industries where business is booming, you’ll find brands that don’t live up to their hype.
Keep in mind that there’s no authoritative body for essential oils that ensures quality, verifies ingredients, or regulates labeling terminology. On labels, you’ll find all sorts of claims from “pure” and “therapeutic grade” to “all-natural” and “organic.” While those sorts of marketing terms are essentially meaningless, there are ways to get the quality you need when prepping for DIY handcrafting. Look for labels that note “100 percent pure” oils, which are unadulterated and contain the optimal ratio of therapeutic compounds. Those that aren’t labeled 100 percent pure may be blends of other oils in order to market the product more expensively. It’s like an “extra-virgin olive oil” that you discover is actually a blend of canola and olive oil when you read the ingredients. This distinction is important. These healing remedies are effective due to their complete botanical profile that works in unison both within the plant and later in your body to create healing results. When tampered or diluted, the benefits may be lessened or eliminated altogether.
Check out the Resources (here) for a list of reliable brands. For more on shopping for the right essential oils, see Chapter 2.
THE BENEFITS OF USING HERBAL MEDICINE
Nothing is more empowering than taking charge of your own health. Thanks to the power of herbal medicine, combined with your knowledge about the best ways to use it and the science of modern delivery systems, you’re able to fully experience its benefits with safe, do-it-yourself methods in your own home. If you need more convincing, here are five compelling reasons to test-drive herbs yourself:
They’re safe. For centuries, herbal medicine has used nontoxic herbs that are ingredients found in food, medicine, and beauty products. There’s no guesswork about whether they’re harmful. They’re not. (Toxic herbs aren’t for sale commercially.) If you experience any effects you didn’t anticipate from using an herb, it’s likely due to the amount taken—you’ve overindulged. Any discomfort is short term, the time it takes for the compounds to leave your system. One rule of thumb: If you’re allergic to a plant, herb, or spice, you’re allergic to its essential oils, too.
They’re chemical-free. To be clear, not all herbal medicines are organic. However, most of the herbal remedies and essential oils in this book can be purchased organically, or if you’re growing at home, you control the purity, quality, and care methods.
They’re cheap. Hands down, homegrown herbs are more affordable than prescription meds, even with a copay! This benefit also applies to commercially sold herbal products which can get pricey depending on the herb or where you shop (ahem, Whole Foods). Lavender essential oil, for instance, helps you fall asleep for pennies per snooze, which is far cheaper than comparable over-the-counter or prescription options.
HIGH-QUALITY LABELS AND A SHARPIE
No matter how photographic your memory, the bigger your herbal medicine cabinet becomes, the harder it is to track its contents, especially when it all starts looking the same. Each label should include the name, ingredients, dosage, and date prepared.
They’re readily available. The Internet, along with large grocery store and health food chains, have made even the hardest-to-source herbs, essential oils, and seeds accessible for purchase. And, even if you don’t have a garden or farm, your windowsill makes the perfect platform for growing potted herbs you can play with in the kitchen.
They’re easy to work with. You don’t need to be a botanist, herbalist, scientist, or any other “ist” for successful DIY herbal medicine. You don’t even need to have a green thumb. Most plants that fall into the category of “medicinal” are also considered “weedy.” Weeds by nature are almost impossible to get rid of. They’re sturdy, hardy survivalists. That’s why they’re easy to grow, they thrive in harsh conditions, and their “never say die” constitution works just as hard in your body.
You’ll see from reading this book that there aren’t many treatments or remedies more versatile than herbal medicine. While you might pop a prescription Ambien when you need to sleep, you won’t rub it on a wound to make it heal faster. Or, you might suck on a lozenge to ease throat pain but it won’t do much for a back spasm. The opposite’s true of plant-based compounds. They’re extremely versatile and thanks to a variety of delivery systems—tinctures, teas, lotions, shampoos, massage oils, candles, and more—they’re used to prevent or treat more than one issue, especially when used in combination with other herbs. For instance, your everyday garlic bulb can be pickled and eaten to fight colds and flu, combined with olive oil to heal ear infections, or mixed with an herb blend and oil to ease digestion. Aloe vera is another great example. It can be added to lotion for anti-aging, combined with herbs and oils to heal burns, or rubbed over arthritic areas to ease inflammation and pain.
Throughout this book, we’ll cover the top herbs and their multitude of uses in a variety of areas: body (for cosmetic, wellness, and healing purposes); mental health (for stress, anxiety, depression, and more); nontoxic home care products (everything from candles to cleaners); and morning afters (to help you face those physically or emotionally challenging mornings following the morning after a move, a bar crawl, the loss of a pet, a Netflix marathon, and more).
HERBAL MEDICINE GOES MAINSTREAM
Herbal medicine still thrives throughout the world as researchers prove it’s both effective and safe as alternative and complementary solutions to costly prescriptions and expensive treatments. Forecasters expect the global market for supplements and herbs to top $107 billion by 2017.
YOU DON’T NEED TO BE A BOTANIST, HERBALIST, SCIENTIST, OR ANY OTHER “IST” TO MAKE DIY HERBAL MEDICINE.
Herbalists are no longer only gardeners, farmers, or botanists. You’ll find herb experts around the world working in a variety of practices. They’re Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, medical doctors, naturopaths, osteopaths, acupuncturists, chiropractors, pharmacists, compounding pharmacists, registered dieticians, estheticians, and more. And, thanks to modern transportation and packaging systems, you’re no longer reliant on what’s seasonal or local in your at-home healing practice. Herbs grown natively in Thailand, Peru, India, or New Zealand are readily available online, in your local health food store or, yes, even grown on your own windowsill.
JUST LIKE US
THE HERBS: coconut oil and essential oils of black pepper, clary sage, bergamot, tea tree, and grapefruit
THE USES: Body scrub and deodorant
WHETHER YOU LOVED HER as Veronica Mars, or your daughter idolizes her as the spirited Princess Anna from the movie Frozen, Kristen has been capturing our attention for years with her beauty, wit, humor, and singing chops. When it comes to her skin, you’d imagine that Kristen could purchase any product she desires. Instead, she makes her own simple body scrub from brown sugar, honey, and coconut oil. And to help stay fresh through long days on set, her go-to deodorant is an aluminum-free cream ($12) from the herbal body care company Fat and the Moon. Essential oils make up five of the cream’s nine ingredients, ensuring a potent, fragrant, and health-conscious alternative for women everywhere.
Naturopathy Meets Western Medicine
Naturopaths—those who make use of natural herbs and remedies in their medicinal approaches—have been practicing herbal medicine formally for a range of conditions since the turn of the twentieth century. While this might seem “alternative” in the United States, other parts of the world have a more integrated philosophy of medicine. An article published by the University of Maryland Medical Center estimates that, in Germany, 70 percent of physicians prescribe nearly 700 plant-based medicines in their practices.
But the United States is catching up. Greater numbers of medical doctors than ever before are working in conjunction with naturopathic doctors and herbalists to put together treatment plans that incorporate herbs into medical protocols. According to Gabrielle Francis, a naturopathic physician, chiropractor, and licensed acupuncturist based in New York City, the best example of the complementary use of herbs and Western medicine is currently happening at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Many herbal remedies are administered to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation during the treatments, such as nausea, ulcers, and wasting syndrome. In the weeks after chemotherapy and radiation ends, herbal remedies help to detox the medications out of the body. As reported in theWall Street Journal, a study partially funded by the National Cancer Institute confirms that huang qin tang—an herb that practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have used for centuries—does reduce the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as enhances colon cancer treatment. Researchers have isolated 62 individual active ingredients in the single herb that work together to treat the disease.
At the Yale University School of Medicine, Dr. Yung Chi Cheng has carved out a name for himself by publishing and speaking on the significant contributions of herbal medicine to pharmacological research. His studies of Chinese herbs in combination with Western medicine have led to innovative therapies for hard-to-treat diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B.
Yale isn’t the only hotbed of integrative medical research. Kathi Kemper, MD, is director for the Center for Integrative Health and Wellness at Ohio State University, and has been integrating mind-body therapies with Western medicine since 1981. She offers a formal curriculum to teach doctors-in-training alternative practices such as hypnosis, guided imagery, and meditation to enhance their personal lives, their practice, and their patients’ outcomes. In addition, she’s conducted numerous studies and interviews supporting the use of herbal medicine in treating ailments like ADD (attention deficit disorder)/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), allergies, colds, depression, and headaches.
In her naturopathic practice, Dr. Francis reports that she has seen great results in treating the following conditions with their corresponding herbal preparations:
•Leaky gut syndrome: aloe vera, licorice, marshmallow, and slippery elm
•Parasites and candida: peppermint, oregano, thyme, goldenseal, wormwood, black walnut, and berberine
•Adrenal fatigue: licorice, Siberian ginseng, and rhodiola
Dr. Francis notes that, while certain preparations are best for specific conditions, it’s important to remember that at the very least, herbs can be used as nutritional support in the same way that food is medicine. “Herbs provide vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and other food-like compounds that have a building effect in the body,” she says. On days when you feel more like cooking than making a salve, herbs can still work their magic through teas, stews, salads, and other everyday kitchen creations.