A HERBALIST’S FAVOURITE HOME REMEDIESMichael Vertolli, RH April 29, 2015
Most people who use herbs and other natural remedies have certain favourites that they rely on when needed. However, one place often overlooked as a source of healing remedies is the kitchen cupboard. It’s good to know what healing tools we have available to us because we never know when we are going to need them; home remedies can help us to begin some kinds of treatment quickly. Often, beginning a treatment 12 to 24 hours sooner can mean the difference between a short and mild illness versus a longer, more debilitating, illness.
This is a very broad topic and I could easily write a whole book about it, so I am going to limit my discussion to acute conditions. The issue of the prevention and treatment of chronic conditions is too complex to cover here.
Explore Your Spice Rack
When looking for home remedies, the first place to explore is the spice rack. Most people stock a variety of spices for cooking. Although we might be familiar with their benefits for enhancing the flavour of foods, culinary spices also work as medicinal herbs that typically have many healing properties. While the spices used in different cultural cuisines are valued for their flavours, another big reason that these cultures adopted the use of culinary spices was their medicinal properties.
At the very least, all spices improve appetite and digestion. Many of them also include antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that help prevent food from spoiling. Some spices are strongly antimicrobial and help to prevent infection, both directly as a result of their inherent properties and indirectly through their action on the digestive tract, because digestive enzymes and stomach acid play a very important role in killing many kinds of potentially pathogenic microorganisms. This is why the cuisines of warmer countries tend to be more spicy – a hot climate tends to reduce appetite and digestive capacity, and there is a greater potential for food spoilage and infection from parasites in the Tropics.
Healing Infections of the Mouth and Throat
Let’s begin by looking at infections of the mouth and throat. This can include gingivitis, sore throats, laryngitis, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and related conditions. The basic approach uses herbs that are antimicrobial, healing to the tissues, and mucilaginous (to create a soothing coating on the affected tissues). There are many common spices that have one or more of these properties.
Firstly, a whole group of herbs from the Mint family can help to eliminate infection and inflammation, and are healing to the tissues that they come in contact with. Some of the better ones include marjoram herb (Origanum majorana), oregano herb (Origanum vulgare), rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage herb (Salvia officinalis) and thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris).Although it is less healing (and not from the Mint family), clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum) is also worth considering – it is another good antimicrobial and also has a local anesthetic action that can help reduce pain. All of these herbs can be used interchangeably. It’s a good idea to combine two or three of them because they work better in combination than they do individually.
The last herb that needs to be considered here is cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum). Like the other herbs I mentioned it is antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, but it is also mucilaginous and will put a soothing coating on irritated tissues.
Using the aforementioned herbs, you can make a simple tea that will help with mouth and throat infections. Use a tablespoon of cut and sifted, or rubbed, herb consisting of equal parts of two or three from the first group of spices I listed above. Also add about 1/2 teaspoon of finely ground cinnamon. Put the herbs in a cup of boiled water in a mug, small teapot or some other container. Make sure it has some kind of lid on it and steep it for 10-15 minutes. Strain the herbs with a course strainer. Much of the cinnamon will not be strained out, which is good because the cinnamon powder will coat the tissues of your mouth and throat. To get more cinnamon in your tea, add it after you strain out the other herbs.
I also recommend adding a small amount of honey before drinking the tea. This will increase the emollient component of the tea and round out the flavour. Honey also has some mild antimicrobial properties of its own. Raw honey contains the maximum complement of healing constituents; next best is unpasteurized honey, which is only slightly heated. The least beneficial is pasteurized honey which has had many of its healing constituents destroyed by the heating process. Don’t add the honey until the tea is cool enough to drink. Drink it fairly warm but not too hot.
Sip the tea slowly and make sure it comes in contact with the areas affected, when applicable. You can also use this tea for dental issues, such as an abscessed tooth. (This is one situation where it’s a good idea to include clove if it is painful. Anyone with an abscess should see their dentist, but this will help control it in the interim. Similarly, those who’ve had dental work can use this tea to help heal the gums and prevent infection.) When treating a localized area like this, each time you take a sip of tea it’s a good idea to hold it over the affected area for a minute or so before you swallow it. Drink a cup of your spice tea formulation 4 to 8 times per day depending on the severity of your symptoms. For children from 1-7 years old, use 1/2 cup doses (made with half the amount of herb as well). For infants (up to 12 months) it is necessary to give them doses by the tablespoon, one spoon per dose up to six months, two spoons from 6-12 months. It will also be necessary to use good tasting herbs and none that are bitter.
Home Remedies for Colds and Influenza
Cold or flu? No problem! You can use a similar tea. All of the spices that I mentioned are also antiviral, and those from the first group of Mint family spices all help to reduce fever, dry out and decongest the sinuses, and aid expectoration. If your lungs are particularly affected, thyme and oregano are the most effective for coughs and other lung conditions. Adding peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita) into the mix is also helpful. Clove is not as useful in these situations and cinnamon is only necessary if you also have a sore throat.
All of these spices are very safe, but I don’t recommend rosemary and sage for infants. Anyone who has a history of epilepsy or any kind of seizures also should not use rosemary or sage unless they are under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.
Gas, Bloating, and Indigestion
If you’ve got acute gas, bloating or indigestion from eating too much or eating something that didn’t agree with you, all of the spices that I mentioned above are helpful except clove. There are other herbs and spices that can be used for these symptoms as well, such as:
• allspice fruit (Pimenta dioica)
• anise seed (Pimpinella anisum)
• caraway seed (Carum carvi)
• cardamom seed (Elettaria cardamomum)
• celery seed (Apium graveolens)
• coriander seed (Coriandrum sativum)
• cumin seed (Cuminum cyminum)
• fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare)
• German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita)
• ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale)
• nutmeg seed (Myristica fragrans)
• spearmint herb (Mentha spicata)
• star anise seed (Illicium verum) and
• turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa)
Basically, any spice that is aromatic and/or bitter will do. There are others that may be helpful, but I am less familiar with those because I haven’t used them myself. You can use whatever flavours you like. The key here is that the tea is very aromatic and slightly bitter. Drink one or more cups until your digestive system settles down.
It’s important to keep in mind that oregano, cinnamon and ginger are fairly pungent (hot), and marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme, clove, allspice, cardamom and turmeric are mildly so. When combining these spices we don’t want our tea to be too pungent. It’s best to use only one of the three hottest herbs, and for the remainder use both mildly warming and non-warming herbs.
Nerve Tonics for Clearing Stress and Tension
Many of the herbs that I have mentioned can also be used for stress and tension. From this perspective they can be divided into two groups: 1) marjoram, thyme and German chamomile are calming; 2) rosemary, sage, peppermint and spearmint are amphoteric, which means that they are both calming and somewhat stimulating to the brain.
If you are feeling anxious or over-stimulated, you’ll want to use more herbs from the first group. On the other hand, if you are feeling physically or mentally fatigued, or somewhat depressed, it is better to use more herbs from the second group. I recommend using three or four herbs including herbs from both categories. Which group will dominate depends on how you are feeling.
If you really need to chill, use 3 to 4 calming herbs and 0 to 1 amphoteric herbs. If you are particularly fatigued or depressed, use 1-2 calming and 2-3 amphoteric. The latter can also be used as a general pick-me-up as an alternative to caffeine-containing beverages. Or you can get a bit more of a kick while reducing your caffeine intake by using green or black tea as an alternative to one of the amphoteric herbs. The one exception is that you should only use herbs from the calming group before bed, since herbs from the amphoteric group could over-stimulate your mind and make it more difficult to fall asleep. These nerve tonic tea formulations can also be helpful for headaches. For a pleasant relaxing experience a litre or two of strong tea (1 cup of herbs per litre) made from a mixture of the more calming herbs can be put into bath water and you can relax in it for awhile.
Bruises, Strains, and Sprains
Now let’s go off in a different direction and talk about injuries. When dealing with localized injuries such as bruises, strains or sprains, many of our spicy friends can be of service once more. In this type of situation you can make a poultice by putting herbs directly on the injured area, a compress by applying a cloth that has been soaked in tea, or a bath if the area can easily be put into a basin filled with tea. For whole body aches and pains, such as overworked muscles, a herb tea bath (as described above) can be helpful.
Of the spices mentioned above, the best ones for bruises, strains, or sprains are marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme, clove, peppermint and ginger. Turmeric is also great if you don’t mind staining your skin orange! You can also add a pinch of cayenne (Capsicum annuum) to increase the heat, if necessary.
When applying a compress or a poultice, it is important that the area be wrapped in plastic to prevent the affected area of your skin from breathing. This facilitates the absorption of the herbal constituents into your skin. It is also important to keep the area warm. For a compress, keep your tea warm and re-soak your cloth in it whenever it cools down. For a poultice, add just enough boiled water to your herbs so that they are moist but not runny. You can keep the poultice warm by applying a hot water bottle over it. It is also best if a poultice contains lots of mucilaginous constituents that help hold it together and improve penetration of the constituents. For this purpose the best thing to use is whole flax seeds when you have them. They should make up about 25% of your herb mixture.
Poultices are more potent than compresses, but are a lot more work and mess. For that reason we usually only use them for more severe injuries. Whichever you use, they need to be applied for at least 20 minutes, 2-3 times per day.
Storing Your Spices
Before I leave this topic, lets look at spice storage. Three things are detrimental to the potency, quality and flavour of spices: heat, light and moisture. So the traditional spice rack with clear glass jars sitting out exposed to light in a kitchen is a bad idea. It’s even worse if it’s near a source of moisture such as a sink or stove. Bulk spices in plastic bags are equally subject to loss of quality, including those that come in thicker re-sealable plastic pouches. And even though foil pouches provide better protection from light, they are also bad news because they have an inner plastic coating that contains bisphenol A (BPA, a known hormone disruptor). Also, don’t be fooled by products that contain a so-called ‘BPA Free’ plastic lining because they contain bisphenol S, which is just as bad. Containers made of polyethylene or polypropylene (plastic #s 1, 2, 4 and 5) are sometimes marketed as ‘BPA Free’, but these never had BPA or other known hormone disruptors such as phthalates to begin with.
The best way to store spices is in amber glass bottles with a good lid that screws on tight. Keep them in a dark cupboard. If you can’t find amber bottles, the next best is other colours of glass, followed by clear glass. Regardless of the kind of bottle, always store them in the dark.
Now to go in a different directions, let’s say you have a rash from coming in contact with some kind of irritant. Although the herbs I’ve discussed can be useful for this, they can also sometimes cause a rash to become temporarily more inflamed by drawing blood to the area. As a result, the less warming herbs tend to work better for this and probably the best one is German chamomile. However, if it is possible to soak the area, there are other options. A dilute solution of sea salt, baking soda or vinegar can be helpful. This will reduce inflammation and help draw irritants or toxins out of your skin, if present. They also have mild antimicrobial properties. Soaking the area in one of these for 20-30 minutes can soothe the area and reduce inflammation. Of course, vinegar will sting and is not recommended if there are open sores or the area is highly irritated. Also, use warm spring or filtered water as the chlorine in unfiltered tap water is not a good idea either.
Honey is also soothing, drawing and antimicrobial and can be spread on a rash. For a dry, itchy rash where toxicity is not an issue, raw, cold-pressed flax seed and/or coconut oil can will help reduce inflammation and soothe and moisturize your skin.
Don’t forget that all rashes are not the same. If you try one of these and it seems to make your rash worse, discontinue it immediately. In general, if you try any of these remedies and have an unusual reaction or your symptoms get worse, discontinue them right away. Your situation may be more complicated and it is best to consult with a qualified herbalist or other health practitioner who is familiar with what you are using. It is also better to consult with a practitioner if you are taking any medications
These are just a few examples of the spices and other natural substances commonly found in our homes that can be very useful healing allies. It’s amazing what discoveries can be found right under our noses…or on our plates!
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. More information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/