CLEAVERSMichael Vertolli, RH March 1, 2004
March is an important time of transition in Ontario. Winter is finally beginning to wind down and spring is just around the corner. Most of us have long forgotten that it was quite warm until just before Christmas. Winter seems like it has been around too long and we’re ready for a change.
As the weather warms up, our lifestyle tends to change accordingly. We spend more time outside and become more active. Walking, biking and other outdoor activities start to take the place of sitting around inside watching TV or DVDs. In the winter, our metabolism tends to speed up to help us adapt to lower temperatures and our body naturally craves more fatty and calorie dense foods in order to meet our metabolic needs. This, combined with a reduction in physical activity, tends to result in a general build up of fat in our body which serves as a convenient storage area for toxicity from various sources.
With the arrival of spring, our body naturally craves a lighter diet, one that is rich in young green vegetables that are the first fresh foods available in our region. As spring turns to summer, numerous berries and eventually other fruits and vegetables become available as well. These dietary changes, coupled with an increase in activity, help our body to throw off some of that excess fatty tissue as well as much of the toxicity accumulated.
This process is part of the natural cycle of the seasons. The more we honour it, the more we will be living in harmony with nature as it manifests in our climactic region.
When our body goes through this natural cleansing cycle every spring, it puts a greater amount of stress on the eliminatory organs and systems responsible for removing waste products and toxins from the body. Much has been written about the importance of the liver as an organ of detoxification. However, our liver does not work alone.
One of the most important eliminatory organ systems is our lymphatic system. This system is responsible for collecting excess fluid that accumulates in our tissues along with a host of toxins and waste products dissolved in this fluid. Once absorbed into the lymphatic vessels, this fluid is called lymphatic fluid or simply “lymph”. The lymphatic system is responsible for returning the lymph back to our blood so that the various toxins and waste products it contains can be delivered to the organs that will break them down and/or eliminate them from our body. However, before lymph is returned to the blood, it must pass through a series of lymph nodes where micro-organisms, abnormal cells, cellular debris and many toxins are filtered out and destroyed by millions of immune cells that are concentrated in these organs. If our lymphatic system is not functioning properly, the capacity of our body to remove toxins and waste products from our tissues and ultimately from our body can become significantly impaired.
TIPS FOR ACCELERATING LYMPHATIC DRAINAGE
To maintain the health of our lymphatic system it is essential to eat a good, natural diet, preferably organic as much as possible. Of particular importance are fresh fruits and vegetables. These are rich in flavonoids and other antioxidant plant pigments important for the health of our lymphatic (and blood) vessels. On the other hand, eating excessive amounts of fatty, mucus-forming and heavily processed foods tends to interfere with the normal functioning of this system.
It is impossible to ensure adequate lymphatic drainage without sufficient exercise. This should include both regular aerobic exercise and lots of gentle exercise such as walking.
A healthy lymphatic system also requires that we eliminate sources of toxicity from our diet and lifestyle as much as possible. Toxins not only increase the work load on this system, they can also damage lymphatic vessels and tissues.
There are many herbs traditionally recognized as lymphatic tonics. Herbal liver tonics are often recommended for spring cleansing, but lymphatic herbs are sometimes neglected. I say sometimes because the effectiveness of many of the detoxifying herbs recommended as liver tonics is often partly due to their influence on the lymphatic system as well. This is true of many of our common cleansing herbs such as dandelion, burdock, yellow dock and red clover.
Many important cleansing herbs are effective due to their influence on the lymphatic system. One of my favourite of these is cleavers (Galium aparine). Cleavers is a member of a group of herbs from the genus Galium that are more commonly known as bedstraw because they were once used to stuff pillows and mattresses. Although most or all of the bedstraws are believed to be lymphatic to some degree, cleavers is considered to be one of the most effective members of this genus and is probably the most popular as well. Some of the other important members of this genus include fragrant bedstraw (G. triflorum), yellow bedstraw (G. verum) and sweet woodruff (G. odoratum). Fragrant bedstraw is a native species that grows in open woodlands. Yellow bedstraw is a European species that has become naturalized in Ontario. It grows in open fields and transition areas. Sweet woodruff is also a European species sometimes used as a ground cover in shady areas. It is occasionally found as a garden escape. All three of these species are used medicinally similar to cleavers.
HABITAT AND HARVESTING OF CLEAVERS
Cleavers is a native circumboreal species that grows throughout the temperate regions of North America and Eurasia. It grows in open woodlands and transition areas where it gets shade most of the day and the soil is relatively moist. It grows from two to four feet high and has leaves that grow in whorls (growing in a circular pattern from a common point on the stem) of eight and tiny white or greenish white flowers. Unlike the other perennial Galium species mentioned above, cleavers is an annual with a very short life cycle. In our region it tends to sprout in late April, flower for a couple of weeks in late May or early June, and by late June or early July it has produced seeds and died back.
With such a short life cycle, it doesn’t give the plant time to develop much of a root system, certainly not one that can support a plant that grows up to four feet tall. As a result, cleavers has developed some interesting adaptions. Rather than waste energy growing an extensive root system or a strong stem that can hold it up, cleavers has a weak stem and many tiny bristles on its stem and leaves that allow it to cling to other plants that grow around it. If we walk through a patch of cleavers, it readily sticks to our clothing. This is how it got its name. Its root system is so shallow that when it sticks to a person or animal passing through, it will usually rip the whole plant out of the ground. These adaptations allow the plant to grow very quickly while utilizing a minimum amount of energy, and to transport its seeds on unsuspecting animals and people.
Harvesting cleavers can be somewhat difficult. Although the kinds of habitats that this herb prefers are common, it’s difficult to predict where it will grow in sufficient quantities to harvest. Sometimes it will grow in profusion in an area for several years and then the next year there will be very little or none at all. It may be many years before it comes back again.
Another difficulty is that cleavers must be harvested from the beginning to the middle of its flowering period. With such a short life cycle, this means that it can only be harvested for about a week. To complicate matters, the timing of the flowering period can vary by as much as three weeks from year to year. It tends to flower earlier in a dryer or hotter spring, and later when the weather is cooler or wetter. It is therefore necessary to find potential harvesting areas as early as possible and watch them very carefully so that we are ready to harvest the herb at the right time. There have been many occasions when I have arrived a week or two early or late. If we miss it, we have to wait a year before we can harvest it again.
When harvesting cleavers, it is important to pick all of the plant that is green, usually about 75%. The bottom portion will tend to be yellow and is of little medicinal value. Normally we do not harvest this much of an herb, but cleavers has such a short life cycle that harvesting a more typical amount (e.g. 25 to 40% of the aerial parts of the plant) will not allow it time to produce additional flowers and reproduce itself. Therefore, for ecological reasons, we harvest as much of the plant as possible so that we don’t need to harvest as many plants.
HERBAL PREPARATIONS AND DOSAGES
Cleavers is significantly less potent if it is used as a preparation made from the dried herb. It is therefore important to use fresh herb preparations as much as possible, in the form of tinctures made from the fresh herb. However, it is also used as a fresh juice. Since the plant can only be juiced for about one week per year, the juice can be stored by freezing it in ice cube trays and then popping out the cubes and storing them in the freezer in plastic bags. In this way it is used similar to wheat grass juice, but cleavers juice is considerably more detoxifying.
Cleavers is one of our best detoxifying lymphatics. It is not only a great addition to a general cleansing formulation such as one that we might use for a spring cleanse, it is an excellent herb for the treatment of chronic toxicity-related inflammatory conditions such as acne, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis and gout. It has even been used as part of a broader treatment for certain types of cancer, especially lymphatic cancers.
Part of the reason that cleavers is such an excellent detoxifying herb is because it supports other channels of elimination as well. Cleavers is an excellent herb for the urinary system. Although it is not a strong diuretic, it does increase the amount of toxicity eliminated by the kidneys in urine. Cleavers also mildly stimulates the liver.
In addition to chronic lymphatic conditions, cleavers is also effective for the treatment of acute inflammation of the lymph nodes. The role of the lymphatic system extends beyond detoxification. It is also a component of the immune system. It is therefore important to include lymphatic herbs in immune stimulating formulations and in formulations for any kind of infectious condition. Immune stimulating herbs are more effective when combined with lymphatics. Cleavers is an excellent herb in these kinds of applications.
The effectiveness of cleavers as a urinary herb makes it suitable for inclusion in formulations for inflammation of the urinary tract (including the prostate), incontinence, urinary tract infections (combined with antimicrobial herbs), and even urinary stones when combined with herbs used specifically for stones such as Joe-Pye root (Eupatorium maculatum or E. purpureum), Queen Ann’s lace herb or root (Daucus carota) and marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).
Cleavers is also beneficial for the health of the blood vessels. It can be used both topically and internally for the treatment of bruises, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and may even be helpful in the treatment of more serious vascular conditions. However, although cleavers is effective in these cases, specifically for this use I have found fragrant bedstraw and especially yellow bedstraw to be more effective.
Cleavers is a very safe herb and can easily be taken over a period of several months without any reason for concern. However, like all detoxifying herbs, cleavers is not recommended during pregnancy. Pregnancy is not an appropriate time for a detox. This can lead to a release of toxins stored in a woman’s tissues into her blood which could potentially have a negative influence on the health of her developing child.
Compared to other more showy species, cleavers is relatively plain and inconspicuous. Most people would never notice it unless they got some stuck to their clothing. Nevertheless, this is clearly a case where looks can be deceiving. What may go unnoticed to some can be a very powerful healing tool for those of us willing to take the time to look and learn.
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/