Summer First Aid: Herbal Essentials for Outdoor LivingMichael Vertolli, RH May 1, 2007
Now that the warm weather is here most of us will be spending more time outdoors, playing, working or just hanging around. All of this outdoor activity is not without its perils. Cuts and scrapes, bites and stings, bruises and strains, sunburn; you name it, it’s bound to happen at some point. This month I will focus on some of the herbal essentials that everyone who enjoys the great outdoors should have on hand.
When it comes to first aid, it is important to be prepared. Healing will occur much more quickly if we begin treatment immediately. The longer we wait, the less effective the treatment. As a result, I recommend that everyone keep most of the following remedies on hand.
Wound Healing – There are many different brands of natural creams and ointments available in retail stores. It is best to use those for which the proportion of herbs is high. Many commercially available products are quite dilute. This is almost always the case with creams as consumers have come to expect a nice creamy white colour. They would be quite brown if they had a high herb content. Ointments are generally better. If they are sufficiently potent they will be relatively dark in colour and have a strong ‘herby’ odour. The better ointments will have a very simple base as well, usually some kind of vegetable oil, beeswax and a natural preservative such as vitamin E or benzoin.
It is preferable to use ointments made primarily from whole herbs rather than essential oils. Some of the better herbs that are readily available in ointment form include yarrow (Achillea officinalis), pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), plantain (Plantago spp.), heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and common comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Ointments that contain comfrey should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, or children under three years of age.
It is best to allow a wound to dry out before applying an ointment, otherwise it will be washed away by blood or lymphatic fluid. Apply the ointment two to six times per day depending on the severity of the injury, less often as it heals.
Most of the above herbs grow locally. If we know how to recognize them we can use them on the spot when injuries occur. This can be really helpful when we are out hiking in the woods and don’t have any first aid products available. The best way to do this is to pick a bunch of leaves and chew them until they are well masticated. Don’t mix them with lots of saliva because they will be too runny. When they are sufficiently chewed, plaster them on the wound so that it is well covered. If it is an open wound it should be cleaned off first. If you don’t have bottled water, water from a creek or lake will do if it’s not too polluted. The general rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t swim in it (assuming it was deep enough), don’t use it. If you don’t have water use saliva, preferably from the person who is injured. After cleaning the wound, wipe it off with some dry clothing. Then apply the herbs. When herbs are applied this way it is not necessary to wait until the wound dries up. Of course, don’t attempt this unless you are 100% positive that you have accurately identified the herb.
Bruises, strains, sprains and rheumatic conditions – In these cases, it is preferable to use ointments or liniments containing essential oils. This is because essential oils contain small, highly lipid soluble constituents that are better able to penetrate deep into our tissues. There are many excellent liniments available. It is also easy to make our own. To make a liniment we need an oil base. I usually use sweet almond oil or a 50/50 mixture of almond and olive oils because these oils are relatively stable. I also recommend adding vitamin E as a preservative. Use the contents of one 400 IU capsule for every 50 ml of carrier oil. We add our essential oils to the carrier oil at a ratio of one drop of essential oil for every milliliter of carrier oil. Therefore we will need 50 drops of all of our essential oils in total if we want to make 50 ml of liniment (not 50 drops of each essential oil).
One combination that I like to use is lavender, marjoram (Origanum majorana), black spruce (Picea mariana) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) in a ratio of 3:2:2:1. It works best if the essential oils are added to a carrier oil that is infused with leopards bane (Arnica spp.) and/or St. Johnswort. I will sometimes add other essential oils for specific purposes. Black spruce is a bit difficult to find. You can use other spruce species, fir (Abies spp.) or pine (Pinus spp.) as a substitute. Other essential oils that can be used for this purpose aside from fir and pine include frankincense (Boswellia carteri), Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), lemon (Citrus limon), blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), German chamomile and peppermint (Mentha x piperita).
There are also a number of homeopathic and other ‘energetic’ remedies that are useful for wounds and injuries. Homeopathic Ledum (Labrador tea) is helpful for any puncture wounds, including stings. Apis (honey bee venom) is also good for stings. Arnica is recommended for the first day or two after any traumatic injury. If the injury stiffens up and feels worse when we rest it, but better when it limbers up from moving around, it will respond better to Rhus (poison oak). Poison ivy will also respond to this remedy. All of these can be taken in a 6x, 12x, 6c or 30c potency, three to twelve times per day depending on the severity of the symptoms. Three to four doses per day is typical for minor complaints.
There are also some excellent complex remedies that are very versatile. Traumeel is an excellent complex homeopathic remedy beneficial for both traumatic injuries and infections. There is a combination of Bach flower remedies, marketed as Rescue Remedy or Tromos, which is also beneficial for traumatic injuries as well as for acute stress and anxiety. Traumica contains the Bach flowers from Rescue Remedy along with Arnica. This makes it more effective in some situations.
Burns – are a bit different than other wounds. As I mentioned above, they should not be treated with oil-based preparations. There are two readily available remedies excellent for burns, including sunburn. Probably the most effective is lavender essential oil. If applied immediately (i.e. within a minute of getting burned), it will usually prevent blistering altogether. Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be applied neat (undiluted) and this is how it should be applied for treating burns.
The second most important remedy for burns is aloe gel. It is significantly more effective when fresh. This means we have to grow it ourselves. I recommend growing Barbados aloe (Aloe vera) as Cape aloe (Aloe ferox) is much more prickly and harder to work with. The aloe plants that are sold almost everywhere are Barbados aloe.
When applying aloe gel to a burn, it must be rubbed on fairly thick and allowed to dry on your skin. If fresh aloe is not available, the next best choice is the food grade aloe gel. This is a bit more difficult to work with because it is a lot more watery. The only other option that I recommend is to use the organically grown stabilized 99% aloe gel. As with lavender essential oil, the sooner you apply it the better. Within seconds is best.
There are other important uses of lavender essential oil and aloe gel. Lavender essential oil can be used on its own or in liniments for wounds and injuries as indicated above. We can massage it into our temples, neat or in a carrier oil, for headaches. It can be infused through the air to help reduce stress and anxiety. For those particularly stressful days, add some to bath water and relax in a nice hot bath. Aloe vera gel also makes a great aftershave. Simply spread a thin layer over your skin and let it dry.
Bug Repellants – The warmer months of the year always come with their fair share of biting insects. Commercial bug repellents are extremely toxic to us and the environment. Natural alternatives are readily available, but we must accept that they don’t work quite as well as products that contain DEET and must be applied more often. Natural bug repellents usually come in either an oil or oil/alcohol base, or an alcohol and/or glycerin with water base. Even though the effect of the former usually lasts a bit longer, I don’t recommend these products because putting oil on our skin (unless it contains a sunscreen) can increase the likelihood of sunburn. It also stains our clothes. The active ingredients in natural insect repellents are essential oils. They can’t be added to pure water because they are not water soluble.
You can make your own insect repellent by adding essential oils to a base of two to three parts water to one part vodka. I have found the following to be an effective combination. It consists of four parts.
The first part is a lemony fragrance such as lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), citronella (Cymbopogon nardus), lemon or lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).
The second part is an evergreen such as fir, spruce or pine. For the third part choose one of cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), blue gum, hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), lavender, peppermint or spearmint (Mentha spicata). Finally, for the fourth part, if your intended pest is black flies use French basil (Ocimum basilicum), if it is mosquitoes or other biting flies use catnip (Nepeta cataria).
Combine these four parts equally using an overall proportion of one drop of essential oil for each millilitre of base (e.g. 50 drops of all essential oils combined in 50 ml of base). Put it in a pump spray bottle. The best way to apply it is spray it on your hands and rub it on your skin. Make sure you spread it everywhere, the bugs are great at finding the spots you missed. As I mentioned above, your repellent will need to be applied regularly, usually every 30-60 minutes.
Keep in mind that natural repellents work partly by disguising our smell. Since everybody’s skin smells different, it may be necessary to experiment a bit in order to find a blend that works for you.
Natural Sunscreen – The last thing you will need to equip yourself with for the outdoors is a good natural sunscreen. In general, it is best to use low SPF sunscreens that contain zinc or titanium compounds that reflect sunlight rather than substances that absorb sunlight, as the latter are probably more dangerous than the sunlight itself. The better products will have other ingredients that benefit our skin such as lavender essential oil, aloe gel, vitamin C, vitamin D, etc.
Because of our thinning ozone, it is still best to minimize exposure of our skin to direct sunlight between 11 am and 3 pm. We should use sunscreen if we are outside for any significant period of time during that part of the day. It is also a good idea to get some sun exposure without sunscreen before 10 am and after 4 pm to allow our body to utilize its own natural sun protection methods: producing vitamin D and melanin, our natural skin pigment.
There you have it, a summary of the basics of natural summer first aid. Remember that it is best to be prepared. Stock up now so you don’t regret it later. And don’t forget that one of the most important prescriptions for healing is having fun!
Michael Vertolli, RH
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. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/