PLANTS ARE COOL, I: FENNEL
May 5, 2018
As I compile information on healing plants for this website, I’m impressed and surprised again and again by what comes up in the process, and I’ve decided to share some of these surprises occasionally on this blog. (Reference links to research articles can be found elsewhere on this site, with the “bulk herbs” listings.)
The activity of plants on our bodies spans such a wide spectrum. There are very toxic ones that can be quite useful in tiny doses, for very specific problems; others that are fairly safe, where benefits clearly outweigh risks, if they are used with a bit of caution; and there are also many very safe food and flavor plants that are often still quite powerful, with many more benefits than I’d expected to discover. “Ordinary, everyday spices” often convey remarkable benefits.
For example, I was surprised by what I discovered about Fennel! Of course, I knew the seed as a sweet spice to flavor sausage and chai, soothing for the tummy. The stalk of the plant makes a nice vegetable to roast or add to salad or kraut. But I hadn’t expected to find so much more.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is believed to have originated on the shores of the Mediterranean but has become naturalized in many parts of the world, including temperate North America, northern Europe, Asia, and Australia. It’s found especially on dry soils in coastal areas, in pastures and open places, and along roadsides and rivers.
The licorice-like flavor of Fennel Seed, related to the presence of anethole (also found in Anise and Star Anise) and estragole, makes it a popular ingredient in cooking—the bulbous root and leaves are also used in many dishes—and a welcome addition to many herbal tea blends. The seeds are often provided at the counter of Indian restaurants as a digestive aid and breath freshener.
Fennel Seed has a very long history, and a very notable current role, as both spice and healing herb. In fact, a 2014 review article in BioMed Research International states that “Foeniculum vulgare remains… the most widely used herbal plant. It has been used for more than forty types of disorders.”
The authors note its demonstrated “pharmacological properties such as antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, antinociceptive [pain-relieving], antipyretic [fever-reducing], antispasmodic, antithrombotic, apoptotic [regulating the death of damaged cells], cardiovascular, chemomodulatory, antitumor, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic, hypolipidemic, and memory enhancing…” [emphasis added]
• It is well known as an herb that benefits digestion, relieving bloating and flatulence, easing spasms, reflux, constipation, and colic, and stimulating appetite.
• Its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties can help to calm coughs, bronchitis, and asthma.
• Fennel Seed tea appears to be useful in weight loss programs, possibly related to its enhancement of melatonin production and better sleep.
• Fennel Seed tea can be gargled for sore throat, gum disease, or loose teeth.
• It is a traditional remedy for weak vision, and is used as an ingredient in eyewashes for inflamed or swollen eyes.
• Fennel is used in many cultures to enhance the flow of breast milk, has been prescribed to promote menstruation, and has a phytoestrogenic action. It is thus helpful for menopausal symptoms, menstrual cramps, and premenstrual breast pain. Medicinal doses of Fennel should be avoided during pregnancy.
Fennel contains volatile oils, flavonoids, coumarins, sterols, and is a rich source of protein, fiber, B vitamins and several minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, and manganese.
I like to make a bedtime tea with Fennel Seed, Chamomile, and Rose Petals.
SEASONAL ALLERGIES AND YOU
March 28, 2018
Spring is upon us! The increasing daylight, warming temperatures, and the reappearance of leaves and flowers are so very welcome, especially for those of us in the northern latitudes. However, as trees begin to bloom, and later as grasses start to flower, hay fever is the unwelcome guest accompanying the change of season for ten to thirty percent of people in Western countries, especially among those twenty to forty years old.
In respiratory allergies the body’s immune system reacts against inhaled plant pollens and molds, causing symptoms including sneezing, coughing, runny nose, itchy eyes, nose, and throat. While many people experience seasonal allergies in the springtime, often beginning with the onset of tree pollens, other times of year such as early summer or autumn can be troublesome for others.
Allergies, and other conditions where the immune system functions inappropriately, have become much more common in recent times. An interesting perspective that has attracted much study of late is known as the hygiene hypothesis.
The human immune system evolved in conditions where dirt and microbial life associated with dirt—bacteria and parasites typically present in mud, water, and on plants. When we are born and grow up in conditions where cleaning and sanitation practices have greatly reduced our exposure to these organisms, it seems that our gut bacteria and immune systems often develop without some of the data that is apparently needed for properly regulating immune responses.
This situation, although it has reduced the incidence of many acute infections, has also led to a higher incidence of allergies and asthma, and also of autoimmune illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and type I diabetes.
Natural childbirth, sustained breast feeding, physical interaction between siblings, and encouraging children to spend more time in “uncleaned” outdoor environments and to care for pets and other animals, have all been proposed as possible ways to reduce the impact of overly antiseptic hygiene practices. Probiotics and fermented or cultured foods are also plausible (although so far unproven) ways to improve the balance of gut bacteria that are increasingly seen as likely factors in a wide array of inflammatory conditions, including arteriosclerosis and depression.
Emotional stress and hormonal influences are also known to affect immune function, and both can play a role in the occurrence and intensity of allergy episodes.
Standard medications for allergies—antihistamines, nasal sprays, and decongestants—sometimes produce unwelcome side effects like drowsiness, cognitive impairment, reduced libido, and depression; increased appetite and weight gain; altered taste and smell; heart palpitations, insomnia, and anxiety.
Fortunately, herbs can often help to control allergy symptoms naturally, without these accompanying issues. Em’s Herbals offers Aller-Geez! Herbal Tea as an all-organic aid for allergy sufferers, combining five gentle yet powerful anti-inflammatory herbs with multiple actions against hay fever symptoms.
- Nettles (Urtica dioica) help to quell the histamine response to allergic triggers, acting on receptors and enzymes that cause seasonal allergy attacks. Interest in this use of nettles was revived in the last decades of the 20th century, but it’s hardly a new idea: the famous 16th century herbalist Culpeper suggested boiled or juiced nettle roots or leaves for wheezing, shortness of breath, and throat inflammations.
- Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), as its name implies, has long been associated with relief for inflammations affecting the eyes, and it is known as a soothing astringent for the entire respiratory tract.
- Sage (Salvia officinalis) is another traditional herb with astringent and anti-inflammatory activity, especially for the mouth, throat, and tonsils.
- Chickweed (Stellaria media) contains saponins that act on the mucous membranes, cooling itchy sensations, soothing the bronchial tubes, and helping to expel phlegm from the lungs.
- Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) benefits immune regulation and hormone balance, and reduces coughing, swelling, and mucous accumulation.
Happy customers (see “reviews” on this page) find that Aller-Geez Tea can help take the dreaded discomforts out of springtime, or any season when allergies erupt.
Other useful natural approaches for allergies may feature certain adaptogenic herbs (the topic of an upcoming post here) such as Reishi mushrooms or Eleutherococcus.
As Emily says—Plants are cool!
HOLIDAY READING: 1493: UNCOVERING THE NEW WORLD COLUMBUS CREATED
January 21, 2018
Why share a book report
…about Charles Mann’s 2011 volume about the massive global changes that followed the European venture to the Western Hemisphere… with blog readers interested in herbs?
Two sources of herbal knowledge
The “Western herbalism” that we grew up with clearly reflects the coming together, beginning in 1493, of two great streams of healing plant lore. I’d always been curious about how that came to be.
Cultivated European medicinal plants, and naturalized Eurasian weeds with medicinal uses, are widespread in North America.
Many Native American botanicals have played important roles for centuries in Anglo-European herbal medicine.
Gradually over the past few decades, herbs from China, India, Africa, and Amazonia have gained increasing recognition within Western herbal circles. Yet most of the “major players” until now are still plants from Europe and native North American plants.
While Mann’s book has little to say directly about medicinal herbs (tobacco and coffee don’t really count), his description of the globalization process that started in 1493 is tremendously useful in establishing the context for this meeting of medicines. The intermixing we see in the realm of plant medicines went hand in hand with the global diffusion of food crops.
Ecology as history
Many of us who are drawn to the study and use of herbal remedies are also interested in the ecological perspective as a framework for understanding how the world works, and how human systems are embedded in natural systems. And generally, the fact that we’re looking toward natural options for healthier living means that we’re curious, and open to other ways to make sense of things.
History is often presented as a series of events in which people—mainly Great Men of European ancestry—make discoveries, fight battles, attain high positions, complete amazing projects, and so on. 1493 offers a very different picture, where human intentions are often thwarted, plans often go awry, chaos often intervenes, and unexpected results are more the rule than the exception. (Nature bats last, as someone smart pointed out.)
Epidemics and conquest
Earlier in 2017 I’d read Mann’s book 1491, which outlined the situations of peoples in the two hemispheres shortly before and just after contact was established. The European conquest of North and South America was largely facilitated by shattering disease epidemics among Native Americans, including smallpox, measles, malaria, and influenza, that led to the death of 90+ percent of the inhabitants, and massive disruption of the farming civilizations that had thrived in the Western Hemisphere for millennia.
Epidemics and slavery
1493 investigates many interrelated topics, including the critical role assumed by malaria and yellow fever in pulling “New World” agriculture into a then-new form of organization—plantation slavery. Africans had developed significant immunity to these mosquito-borne infections. Because of their much greater resilience, the early enterprises that Europeans undertook in the Western Hemisphere, growing quantities of tobacco and sugar as cash crops for export in zones where so many European immigrants were killed or laid low by the infections, quickly came to rely on forced African labor.
The effect on immigrant demographics was striking, according to Mann: until the late nineteenth-century surge in European immigration, the majority of post-Indigenous Western Hemisphere populations, the folks who came over in the greatest numbers and did most of the work, were black.
Malaria and plant medicines
My own background includes a long involvement with homeopathy, and the key discovery—the mythic “Aha!” moment—at the start of homeopathy was identifying the similarity of the effects of (“New World”) Peruvian Bark, Cinchona, to the symptoms of (“Old World”) malaria, the disease that quinine-rich Peruvian Bark was essential for treating.
Old-time and current herbal literature suggests a variety of botanical remedies for malaria (including Boneset, Fenugreek, Cinnamon, and Oregano essential oil), which was rampant in many parts of Europe and North America until well into the last century, and currently remains a serious barrier to development in many other regions of the world.
To this day, the major antimalarial pharmaceuticals are based on plant medicines: quinine derivatives (to which many malaria strains have become resistant) and artemisinin, from Artemisia annua (Sweet Wormwood).
Ecology and climate change
The disruption of Native agriculture, and the halt to the widespread managed fires that Indians had long used to selectively clear huge areas of land and optimize the terrain for farming and hunting, led to sudden, dense forestation of much of the hemisphere. The resulting shifts in reflected heat and the atmospheric oxygen/carbon dioxide balance may have been a factor influencing the onset of so-called Little Ice Age, which had catastrophic effects on global climate and food production for nearly three hundred years, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
The magnitude, duration, and probable cause of this episode was one more among many items in 1493 that drastically shifted my sense of how the world we know has come to be. Human-caused climate change is a big deal—not only in today’s news, but in relatively recent history.
New crops and global upheaval
The inclusion of valuable Native American herbs in the global pharmacopeia was just one part of the tremendous impact of “New World” plants on people’s lives everywhere. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn were quickly introduced to Europe, Asia, and Africa, and led to greatly increased human populations all over the place. 1493 opens with a visit to the author’s New England garden, where all the very familiar food plants he’s growing for his family originate in locations very far way, in Mexico, Peru, Eurasia, and so on.
There are so many surprises in this book: about honeybees and earthworms, rubber trees and tobacco, galleons and guano… Altogether, though I often found it difficult to join with Mann in avoiding judgments about many of the choices that human actors made in this story, the facts he marshals are compelling and well-presented, and I found 1493 quite rewarding as a fresh take on the last five centuries of life’s complicated journey on Earth.
COLDS AND FLUS, HERBS AND COMMON SENSE
November 24, 2017
The onset of cooler weather in October coincides with the beginning of the notorious cold and flu season. The common “winter illnesses” cause mild to significant discomfort for a great many people, and millions of days lost from normal work and school activities. (Less commonly, they can also result in some serious complications and—rarely—death. In recent years, flu-related deaths in the US were estimated at 12,000 in 2011-12, on the lower end, and a high-end figure of 56,000 in 2012-13.) Preventing colds and flus, and helping people recover from them sooner, is clearly a high priority.
Colds and flus are related to viral infections. Identifying specific viruses is a research procedure, not part of typical medical care. (The image below isn’t a Christmas ornament—it’s a simulation of the common cold virus.) Conventional antiviral medications remain prescription drugs, recommended only for people who are considered to be at very high risk for serious flu complications. While they reduce the risk of such complications, they only shorten the duration of symptoms by a day or two.
Standard medical advice currently includes the following ideas:
• Hand washing and surface disinfectants are crucial for preventing viral infections.
• Neither getting chilled outdoors nor dry indoor air are risk factors for winter illness.
• Lowered immune function in generally healthy people does not result in colds and flus.
• Drinking plenty of fluids is a good idea, but what you eat when you’re sick makes no difference.
Common sense, however, suggests that:
• Staying warm, and maintaining comfortable humidity in centrally heated environments, are both reasonable measures.
• If, as medical authorities say, people whose immunity is seriously impaired face a greater risk of coming down with and experiencing more serious symptoms from colds and flus, generally healthy people are also well-advised to take steps to keep their natural immunity at peak levels.
• Quicker recovery from winter illness is more likely with a simple, nourishing diet.
• Herbs with a strong history of traditional use for winter illness can play a useful role in avoiding or getting over colds and flus.
Staying home from work or school for a few days when you’re sick is generally best for everyone concerned. Rather than trying to keep going as usual (perhaps suppressing symptoms with decongestants or similar products), a regimen of bed rest, fluids—possibly including a well-selected herbal tea—may be the best way to get back to full functioning sooner. Staying home for at least 24 hours after fever has subsided in flu is recommended.
Here are a few points to consider.
Microorganisms are simply all over our bodies and our world! We tend to think about them only as sources of infectious illness. We tend to consider our immune system only when it is obviously either under- or overactive. In fact, our health depends—not on an absence of bacteria and viruses (never a real possibility anyway)—but on a relatively healthy balance of mostly benign micro-life on the outer and inner parts of our bodies, in concert with the constant functioning of our immune systems, responding to all those tiny “critters” appropriately and adequately.
Research at Yale University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, has demonstrated that lower temperatures tend to impair the immune response to the most common cold virus, the rhinovirus—which is constantly present in around 20% of normal subjects in the study, even when symptoms of illness aren’t apparent—and also allow the virus to replicate more effectively. These findings strongly suggest that the “old wives’ tale” about keeping warm to avoid “catching cold” is actually well-founded. (Covering the nose—where the rhinovirus lives and replicates— when venturing into cold weather, may be especially helpful.)
Since the digestive tract is clearly the most abundant zone for micro-life in our bodies, it is also a critical area for our immune activity. Common sense certainly suggests that keeping a favorable microbial balance there with a prudent diet is a basic part of staying healthy and recovering from infection. A 2017 study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has shown a specific effect of flavonoid compounds on bacteria in the gut that produce interferon to reduce lung damage from flu infections. Flavonoids are found in a number of foods and beverages, and are also abundant in many medicinal herbs.
A bit of research on herbs turns up so many that are renowned for treating colds and flus! Em’s Winter Defense Tea combines several herbs with a strong records for enhancing immune response, reducing inflammation, and controlling symptoms. Echinacea root is quite well known, and has been investigated extensively, with much of the research originating in Germany. Another plant widely used and studied for treating upper respiratory infections, especially flu, is Elder Berry. Demulcent herbs such as Marshmallow and Licorice, with a soothing action on the throat and lungs, can help quiet inflammation. Wild Cherry Bark has been used for centuries to soothe coughs.
Another herb to consider is Catnip, especially well indicated for children’s colds, and for easing spasmodic coughs and sleeplessness. Less well known currently, Boneset was one of the first Native American plant remedies to be adopted by European settlers in North America, and remains highly regarded by herbalists for its immune boosting effects, preventing winter illness, and also alleviating symptoms after sickness becomes apparent.
Avoiding sickness, when we can, is always better than than treating it! Winter’s darkness is an especially good time to heed the mounting evidence for getting adequate sleep as an essential key to staying healthy. Exercise routines may be easy to neglect in the face of work and school demands, seasonal social events and family gatherings, but maintaining your workout provides the kind of beneficial short-term stress that actually enhances your resistance to illness. Meditation, prayer, and other practices that evoke the relaxation response have also shown positive effects on immunity.
Take care, and stay well!
4 Great Reasons to BREW Em’s Herbal Teas
November 1, 2017
Healing herbs are marketed in many forms, including capsules and tablets, alcohol-based tinctures and other concentrated liquid extracts, as well tea bags and loose herbs, sold singly or as blends. Em’s Herbals keeps a special focus on loose single herbs and tea blends featuring just a handful of ingredients.
Concentrated herbal products offer convenience: swallowing pills is quick, and familiar to most of us from experience taking standard over the counter and prescription medicines.
Squeezing a dropper from a bottle of tincture or fluid extract, into a little water or directly into the mouth, is also fast and easy. And brewing tea with a tea bag involves a bit less effort than brewing and straining loose herbs.
So why bother with making tea, using loose herbs?
1. Know what you’re taking.
You can see, smell, and taste the herb, and get a clear sense of what it is, and its quality and freshness. A fancy way of saying that is that herbs delivered in this form provide a unique opportunity to perform a neuroleptic assay—to use your senses to evaluate the product. That means that you don’t have to simply take it on faith that the product contains what the label says, and whether the plant material is still fresh and potent!
In this way you can check the appearance, fragrance, and taste of healing herbs through direct experience. (Unfortunately, many packaged botanical and nutritional products have been tested and shown to contain little or none of the ingredients shown on their labels. “Let the buyer beware” is a useful caution in this industry.)
Pills can be most deceiving, of course, since they are rarely tasted at all, and their appearance is seldom distinctive. The taste of alcohol is often the dominant flavor note in tinctures, and extracts of the same herb may vary considerably in their potency between different producers, and even between different batches from the same source. Tea bags are handy to use, and at least you can taste what you’re ingesting, but the actual plant matter is hidden from view.
With loose herbal tea, there’s nowhere to hide! What you see, smell, and taste, is exactly what you’re getting. Certified organic herbs, in a form you can identify: that’s the kind of transparency that empowers you, as an informed consumer.
And if you want to take your self-care to another level by extracting and preserving high quality dried organic herbs in the form of your own tinctures, oils, liniments, salves, or other products, the Em’s Herbals line offers you the perfect starting materials for those projects! We work with suppliers and growers—mostly in our own local region, the Pacific Northwest—to obtain some of the very best available herbs for you and your family.
2. Increase your intake of liquids.
A great many health conditions that users want to address with healing herbs will be directly improved by drinking more water at the same time!
Obvious examples of concerns that may respond to increased water intake include
• colds, coughs, flus, and hay fever symptoms
• urinary tract infections (UTIs) or other inflammations
• digestive upsets, especially when fluids are lost through vomiting or diarrhea
• headaches and other pain issues
• simple fatigue
Healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding definitely require optimal hydration, and a mineral-rich, sugar-free herbal tea, like Em’s Herbals Mommy to Be, is an ideal aid for these crucial phases of mother-and-baby’s life.
Combining appropriate herbs with additional water, in the form of tea, can be an excellent and practical way to reduce or alleviate symptoms and promote health.
3. Keep it simple!
Some herbal products that combine a dozen or more herbs in their formulas, so the activity of each ingredient may be very diluted, and the combined action of a complicated combination may be very hard to evaluate. On the other hand, Emily has designed each of our herbal blends to focus on just a few botanicals, each with a strong history of use for a particular concern or body system (sometimes adding one mostly to enhance the flavor and drinkability of the tea!).
4. Take a few minutes for yourself.
Whether you’re coping with an acute episode, hoping for help with a chronic issue, or just up against the daily grind, taking a moment for the simple ritual of brewing, steeping, straining, and drinking herbal tea can be a refreshing way to claim a bit of time out in your busy day.
The rushing around, the urgent tasks, the constantly shifting focus on various everyday business or family matters, can take up so much of our lives these days. All that often plays a huge role in creating the stress that makes us far more vulnerable to feeling sick, run down, or hurting.
Slow down! Step away from the screen.
Put the kettle on.
Pour the steaming water into your teapot.
Pause, and enjoy the fragrance of the herbs as they steep.
Pour and strain the tea into your cup.
Sip. Breathe. Things are going to get better…
The Calendula is Blooming!
October 26, 2017
As autumn advances here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, many leaves turn bright colors, but very little other color is visible. Our sunflowers have fallen over, the last of our golden tomatoes have been harvested, pumpkins are out on porches. Still, the bright orange and yellow calendula flowers—volunteers in our garden, this year—remain vibrant! In fact, the name Calendula is said to refer to the perpetual flowering of this hardy plant throughout all the months of the calendar in many regions, where it is perennial. In more temperate areas, it’s grown as an annual, flowering from June until killed by frost.
Calendula is known to kitchen gardeners as an edible flower, adding its bright color to salads and many other dishes. Historically, the pot marigold has been used in Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, and Indian culture as a medicine, food, and dye.
The many names by which it bas been called testify to its ancient and widespread presence in the world: Pot Marigold, Summer’s Bride, Husbandman’s Dial, Holigold, Marybud, Marygold, Bride of the Sun, Spousa Solis, Golds, bull flower; butterwort, care, cowbloom, drunkard, golden flower of Mary, gouls, goulans, kingcups, holygold, sun’s bride, water dragon, yolk of egg, poet’s marygold, publican and sinner, ruddles, Scotch marigold, shining herb, solsequia, Gold; Ringelblume, Studentenblume, Totenblume, Goldblume (German); souci (French); calendula (Italian); Nagietek lekarski (Polish); goedsbloem- wratten-kruid (Dutch); calendula gialla, fiorrancio, calenzola (Italian); calendula, flamenquilla, maravilla, flor de muerto (Spanish); maravilhas, marianas (Portuguese); ringblomma (Swedish); nogotki, lekarstvennye (Russian); chin-chan-hua (Chinese); janvah, azariyunah, azarboya (Arabic).
Early medical writings note its use for digestive tract ailments including colitis and peptic ulcers, detoxifying the liver and gall bladder, and for relieving muscle spasms, in addition to topical applications as an antiseptic, antihemorrhagic, and astringent.
Calendula extracts have been used to treat headaches, toothaches, gingivitis, eye inflammations, consumption, tumors, menstrual irregularities and other gynecological issues (it has a mildly estrogenic action), and scorpion bites. The rich color of “the poor man’s saffron” has lent its golden hues to butter, cheeses, and hair dyes.
Calendula officinialis flowers are best known as a remarkable vulnerary, gently disinfecting, reducing inflammation, and aiding the healing of cuts, scrapes, and wounds. Its antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and immune promoting properties are widely recognized.
Active ingredients found in calendula flowers include phenolic compounds (such as flavonoids and coumarins), steroids, terpenoids, carbohydrates, lipids, tocopherols, quinones, carotenes, essential oils, fatty acids, and minerals.
Em’s Herbals provides beautiful whole organic Pacific Northwest grown Calendula blossoms, perfect for creating your own poultices, tinctures, and cosmetic blends. We also offer a premium Calendula Oil, organic jojoba oil infused with calendula, excellent for diaper rashes, eczema, and other skin irritations, as well pure Calendula Salve, a rich, buttery product that combines the infused oil with fair trade organic virgin unrefined Shea Butter, virgin unrefined organic coconut oil, and organic beeswax, a remarkable application for cuts. scratches, abrasions, and other inflamed skin surfaces.