From Greek and Roman mythology to German Rosicrucians, St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) was believed to be a sacred herb of the sun. Its botanical name, Hypericum, comes from the Greek god Hyperion, father of the sun god Helios. In Rome, Hypericumwas burned at the Festival of Fires, the summer solstice ritual. On Midsummer Eve, Romans danced and sang around bonfires, offering St. John's Wort garlands to the flames and bidding Helios to continue blessing the earth with sunlight. In colonial America, Rosicrucians fleeing persecution continued this ceremony. The Pennsylvania Dutch also believed in the herb's power to "discipline the Devil on Midsummer's Eve" (Haughton, 351).
As the Christian Church became interested in controlling pagan rituals, summer solstice was deemed St. John the Baptist's birthday. Thus, the Feast of Fires became St. John's Feast, and Hypericum adopted St. John's name as well.
It is no wonder that St. John's Wort has been associated with the sun. Its bright yellow flowers bloom in early summer, and the plant prefers full sun exposure. When Hypericumleaves and flowers are held up to the light, one can see small translucent circles that look like small suns. When one has found the Hypericum species most commonly used for medicine-- Hypericum perforatum-- some of these tiny circles are filled with a dark red medicinal oil. (Observe the tiny dots on the petals above). When a leaf or flower is crushed and rolled between the fingers, red or purple oil streaks are left on the skin. Check out this site for more info about identifying St. John's Wort.
Hypericum perforatum is a common wild plant in New York State. As an abundant non-native species, my conscience feels at ease about harvesting-- especially since removing leaves and flowers does not kill the plant.
While St. John's Wort's uses are numerous, the herb is most popularly used internally as an antidepressant. In Germany, St. John's Wort is prescribed twenty times more frequently than pharmaceuticals for depression. This is due to its effectiveness and relatively fewer side effects (Duke and Foster). It is a gentle sedative and antispasmodic, helping some to ease insomnia and anxiety.
St. John's Wort has notable pain-relieving and healing properties, particularly for the nervous system. It is used to support neuralgia, sciatica, and healing after nerve damage. Externally, the leaves and flowers are infused into oil for healing wounds, bruises, and burns-- even sunburn. Interestingly, St. John's Wort may also cause sun sensitivity in some. This photosensitizing property has been used in cancer treatment: cancer cells are exposed to hypericin oil, and then exposed to sunlight to induce cancer cell death.
Finally, St. John's Wort has been studied extensively for its antiviral properties. In vitro, St. John's Wort's constituents have shown antiviral activity against strains of the flu, Herpes simplex 1 and 2, and many more. It is used internally and topically during Herpes outbreaks, including cold sores.
Though some companies extract and sell one St. John's Wort constituent-- hypericin oil-- studies indicate that other chemicals in the herb are also medicinal. This is one of many examples of what we lose when we isolate one plant constituent for simplicity and ease, rather than working with plants in their whole form.
St. John's Wort may be herbal medicine's biggest culprit for herb-drug and herb-herb interactions. Its effect on the liver may change the rate of drug metabolism, among other effects. Medscape is one online source offering a list of drug interactions. I recommend consulting a practitioner before combining St. John's Wort with pharmaceuticals or other herbs. Most US doctors do not learn about medicinal plants in their training. An herbalist can provide more detailed information to share with your doctor about St. John's Wort.
Bone, Kerry and Simon Mills. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. 2nd edition. 2013.
Duke, James and Steven Foster. Peterson's Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. 2014.
Haughton, Claire Shaver. Green Immigrants. 1978.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003.
Herbal Writing & Recipes
For educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
A little history
Before Europeans came to North America, the dandelion we know so well- Taraxacum officinalis- was non-existent here. (There is a rare dandelion native to California,Taraxacum californicum). Common dandelion is likely native to Asia, where it is still an important remedy in Chinese Medicine. Dandelions had spread throughout Europe before written history began. The entire plant is edible, and there are records of its use as food and medicine by the Greeks, Romans, and Anglo-Saxon tribes.The Celts may have been the first to ferment the blossoms, making dandelion wine. In Japan, over 200 dandelion cultivars are used as ornamental plants. Japanese florists use white, orange, black, and copper varieties of the flower in their arrangements.
Dandelion's common name derives from the leaves' jagged appearance. The Normans called it dent de lion, or "lion's tooth." English speakers twisted the name into what we know today. The plant's botanical name, however, reflects its long history of medicinal use. The genus name comes from the Greek taraxos for "disorder"—and akos for "remedy." The species name, officinale, refers to its widely accepted use in medicine.
Indeed, dandelion was an important plant for the Puritans migrating to New England. So why wasn't it included in colonial accounts of horticulture in the 1600s? According to Claire S. Haughton's Green Immigrants, "The dandelion was not an economic plant, but a common green for the stewpot, a 'dosing herb.' And so its seeds were among those each woman was expected to take with her for the family's garden plot." Though much of written history documents trade and financial dealings, dandelion serves as a reminder that a plant's (or person's!) value does not necessarily depend on their monetary contribution to society.
After forests were cut, little dandelion fruits traveled like Mary Poppins via fuzz umbrellas to newly cleared areas. Garden space was no longer devoted to this wild, readily available plant.
Dandelion leaf is bitter-- more so as the season progresses. Bitterness has been called a lost flavor in American culture. As herbal medicine teacher CoreyPine Shane points out, "Beer and coffee are our last remaining bitters. And when you add cream and sugar to coffee, you lose the bitterness." In fact, we are losing more than flavor when we exclude bitterness. Tasting bitterness stimulates salivation, gastric secretions, and intestinal peristalsis. Bitterness can also stimulate secretion of bile for proper digestion of fats. Healthy digestion improves nutrient absorption, and has even been shown to improve immunity and mood (Romm).
Dandelion leaf is also used to remove excess fluids from the body. According to David Winston's Medical Herbalism, "Dandelion leaf is a powerful diuretic, with an action comparable to that of the drug furosemide. The usual effect of a drug that stimulates kidney function is loss of vital potassium from the body, which can aggravate a cardiovascular problem... Dandelion leaf, however, is not only an effective diuretic, but also one of the best natural sources of potassium. It is thus an ideally balanced remedy."
If you aren't looking for this diuretic effect, no problem. Skip the large doses of tincture (alcohol extract) and use it like the highly nutritious food that it is. Add some fresh dandelion leaves to your salad or stew, mixed with other veggies.
The root of dandelion is sweeter and richer than the leaf. Just like burdock root, dandelion root is an excellent source of inulin, a prebiotic. Prebiotics are complex, fibrous carbohydrates that pass to our intestines only partially digested. Our beneficial gut flora are nourished as they finish the job.
Dandelion root is a lovely liver supporter. A happy liver can promote effective digestion, hormone balancing and healthy skin. Herbalists have also used the root to ease arthritis symptoms. It may help by reducing pressure in the joints by removing excess fluid, increasing nutrient absorption, and/or modulating inflammation (de la Foret).
Dandelion root makes a tasty, caffeine-free "coffee substitute." During the Civil War, southerners used herbs like dandelion and yaupon holly while coffee and other imports were cut off. For simple instructions for roasting and simmering your dandelion root beverage, visit this LearningHerbs webpage.
Before using dandelion medicinally, talk with a practitioner if you are taking a medication or other herbs. Be sure to harvest in chemical-free lawns and fields.
Lawns, Gardens, and Farming
Though not native, dandelions offer benefits for gardens and agriculture. Haughton writes, "[Dandelion's] long taproot is nature's way of aerating the ground for the short grass roots, thereby encouraging greener lawns and greater beauty. It also brings up from the depths elements that are not available to shorter-rooting plants." Interestingly, dandelion flowers also exude ethylene gas at sunset-- the same gas given off by ripening fruit. Dandelions have been used in orchards to increase the rate of ripening.
Finally, herbalist Rosalee de la Foret makes an excellent point in her new book,The Alchemy of Herbs: "Because this is such a delicious and medicinal plant, it completely confounds me that so many people despise it. Instead of rushing out with their harvesting tools to enjoy this free food and medicine, they spray harmful chemicals to kill them. Many of those herbicides are known to promote cancer, poison our soils and waters, and kill countless birds and bees." If we are going to rid our lawns of dandelions, may we consume every last one!
de la Foret, Rosalee. The Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
Romm, Aviva. Herbs for Digestion: The Bitters. Natural MD Radio.
Winston, David. Medical Herbalism. 588-89.
In hunting for the origin of witch hazel's name, I expected a juicy story about a witch named Hazel. Instead, the name comes from a traditional practice called "dowsing." Dowsing was a method of locating good sources of groundwater using Y-shaped branches. The name is believed to have come from wych, an old Anglo-Saxon word for "bend," and the Middle English wicke for "lively." Indeed, the dowsing stick is said to point downward towards the groundwater below, as though having a mind of its own. The Mohegans may have been the first to show English settlers to dowse.
It seems fitting that witch hazel is commonly found along the banks of running water. In western New York, it is rare to hike along a creek without spotting this shrub. Witch hazel's abundance in the northeastern US surely led to American Distilling's location in East Hampton, Connecticut. They are the world's largest witch hazel producer, with products like Dickinson’s. Today, they are still supplied by local wild harvesters.
Witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants approved by the FDA as an ingredient in non-prescription medications. This is not because witch hazel is safer or more effective than other medicinal plants (FDA approvals are heavily influenced by money and politics, often at the expense of long-term wellness and public health). But, it certainly is an effective astringent.
What exactly is an astringent? Astringent plants often contain tannins. If you have ever tasted strong black tea or an unripe apple, you are familiar with the dry "pucker" sensation of astringency. Tannins bind proteins, tightening and toning tissue. When astringents come into contact with a cut on our skin, it can help to bind the broken tissue back together, and reduce inflammation. I use astringents more gentle than witch hazel for inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, or to tone other body systems. They may be gargled to reduce inflammation in the mouth and throat.
Astringents are also drawing. They can pull wooden slivers or poison ivy's urishiol oil away from the skin-- though I would wash a poison ivy-affected area with strong soap as soon as possible. Those with acne-prone skin that is oily may apply witch hazel to reduce inflammation. (Remember-- diet and lifestyle will do more for acne than anything applied topically.) The Osage people used witch hazel bark to treat skin sores. The Potawatomi steamed witch hazel over rocks in sweat lodges to ease sore muscles. The Hadenosawnee (Iroquois) brewed a tea to treat coughs and dysentery. Witch hazel has been applied to bruises, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids as well.
Drinking witch hazel bark tea has generally fallen out of favor. The tannin content-- while medicinal when used properly-- can be irritating to the stomach. In rare cases, internal use may cause liver damage. Exernally, witch hazel is widely considered safe.
The beauty of making our own witch hazel bark extract is that we can avoid making a noticeable impact on the plants. Though I am impressed by how much wild-harvesting information American Distilling offers on their website, industrial witch hazel is made by cutting down whole trunks. Instead, we can snip just a few twigs from each plant. We can think like a farmer, and prune. Which twigs are being shaded out? These are the least useful to the plant, and can be snipped first.
Click here for a Wild Crafted Witch Hazel recipe.
Mandriote, John-Manuel. The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. The Atlantic. Nov 2012.
Tilgner, Sharol. Herbal Medicine: From the Heart of the Earth. 2009.
"Tulasi is a gentle female energy, a sweet little goddess, and should be treated like the queen she is – the queen of medicinal plants. For she is also a plant of power, a powerful lady, a friend, a physician and an ally." -Swami Vibhooti Saraswati
Tulsi, or Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum/sanctum) is an herb to consider for your garden or stoop containers this spring. Tulsi is a secret weapon of sorts for many herbalists and tea companies. I admit that the taste of some herbs is less wonderful than their properties. However, the intoxicatingly sweet fragrance of holy basil is enough to convert any herb skeptic.
Tulsi is native to India, and is cultivated widely throughout the middle east and southeast Asia. Hindus believe Tulsi is the goddess Lakshmi manifested as a plant, possessing great spiritual power. Many Hindu tales are told about tulsi. According to one story, "No amount of gold could outweigh Krishna's power, but a single Tulsi leaf placed on the pan in loving devotion tilted the scale" (Organic India). Today, Indian families still grow tulsi in a clay pot in their home or garden. Many use its leaves to make tea, while others simply honor its sacredness and grow it for protection.
Holy basil is closely related to the sweet basil many Americans know and love (Ocimum basilicum). However, tulsi possesses unique properties that sweet basil does not. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi is a rasayana-- an herb that supports longevity and excellent health. In western lingo, studies confirm that tulsi is indeed an adaptogen, supporting energy levels and moderating the body's stress response. Studies have demonstrated its ability to slow the release of corticosterone levels. Keeping these stress hormones at bay helps our body stay out of chronic "fight or flight" mode. This can help to normalize circulation, digestion, weight, immunity, and more.
Due to their support and nourishment of many body systems, adaptogens are commonly paired with chemotherapy and radiation cancer treatments. Adaptogens can offset side-effects of treatment, such as nausea and immune suppression. Tulsi offers the added benefit of radiation protection for the liver, as demonstrated by research. Check out my related article on Fu Zheng Pei Ben here. Talk to your doctor and an herbalist before using adaptogens with cancer treatments.
Like many mint family plants, tulsi's volatile oils support both digestion and mental clarity/relaxation. Studies demonstrate its neuroprotective properties, and many herbalists use tulsi to improve memory and depression. It can also used as an antimicrobial expectorant for bronchial congestion, colds and more.
Lucky for us, holy basil is as easy to grow as other basils. Western NYers will find tulsi seedlings at Lockwood's Greenhouse for the first time this year! Seeds can also be found at Lockwoods, or online for those who live far away.
Holy basil is a highly safe herb. Enjoy its flavor casually in summer beverages and cocktails, or use the tincture, tea, infused honey, etc. daily for the benefits described above.
According to several publications, tulsi's liver-supportive properties may speed up CYP-450 activity. This would also speed the excretion of medications processed via this pathway. If you are taking a medication, talk to your doctor before using tulsi medicinally. Using a few leaves or flowers to occasionally flavor your beverage is safe.
There's rosemary; that's for remembrance. Pray you love, remember.'
-Ophelia, Shakespeare's Hamlet
I confess-- I am not a nurturing houseplant owner. I bring a handful of potted herbs indoors each fall in hopes of cooking with them throughout the chilly months. My intention is to bring them back outside in the spring, alive. Right now, my catnip, thyme and ashwagandha are languishing from lack of water, sun, and/or nutrients. (I just got up and watered them. Relax.) However, the rosemary plant (Rosmarinus officinalis) looks as perfect now as the day it came inside. I regularly rub the leaves for the intoxicating scent, and have been using it in pizza crust and stew.
Rosemary's genus name, Rosmarinus, is latin for "dew of the sea." This may refer to its pale blue or purple flowers. It may also point to rosemary's preference for the sandy soils and hot sun near the Mediterranean, where it is native. Its species name, officinalis, is given to plants widely recognized for their medicinal value. Though we generally think of cooking with rosemary for its flavor, there is deeper wisdom in the tradition of adding it to savory meat dishes. Due to its essential oil profile, rosemary is one of the more potent antioxidant and antimicrobial herbs. It is an excellent natural preservative. Into the 1900s, it was customary to burn rosemary in French hospitals to prevent the spread of infection (Grieve).
As with many aromatic mint family plants, rosemary is a fine supporter of both the digestive and nervous systems. Its oils have a stimulating effect on the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, helping to move waste and gas through. Rosemary also supports digestion by stimulating the secretion of bile from the gallbladder. This helps to ensure proper digestion of fats (Smith).
Indeed, stimulating may be the most common descriptor for rosemary in herbal medicine. It is a circulatory stimulant, and may reduce capillary fragility (Winston, 380). Rosemary's inclusion in winter stews is a wise choice for its support of peripheral circulation. Its stimulating effect on the nervous system and cerebral circulation helps to explain rosemary's ability to lift mood and improve memory (Winston, 380). Click here for a study on rosemary's volatile oils and their effects on cognitive performance and mood.
Rosemary's reputation for enhancing memory may explain its time-honored role in commemorating life's milestones. Rosemary has traditionally been added to bridal bouquets. Wedding guests have been given sprigs as a keepsake. Rosemary has been added to couples' wine as a symbol of keeping their vows. Across cultures, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance of those who have died. Ancient Egyptians laid sprigs of rosemary on tombs and coffins. Shakespeare's Juliette was gifted rosemary upon her passing. During Australia's Anzac Day celebrating ancestors, it is still common to wear rosemary sprigs (Grieve; Monterrey).
Rosemary's antispasmodic and circulation-enhancing nature explain its topical use for relief of muscle, joint, and nerve pain. In Europe, it has also been used to ease headaches. Click here for a rosemary-infused oil recipe.
The notable antioxidant activity in rosemary may explain research demonstrating its anticancer properties. In a study of laboratory animals, adding rosemary to the diet "reduced the incidence of experimentally caused mammary tumors by 47%." Skin cancers were also inhibited using a topical application (Winston, 380). In Herbal Therapy and Supplements, Winston and Kuhn recommend applying rosemary topically as a skin cancer preventative (380). Though this is no replacement for proper sun protection, perhaps rosemary oil can be used alongside aloe vera after we've spent time outdoors.
Rosemary's stimulating nature makes it an excellent supporter of menstrual discomfort. However, medicinal doses may be unsafe during pregnancy. Enjoy whole rosemary leaves in food when pregnant, in moderation.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/r/rosema17.html
Materia Medica Resource. "Rosemary." https://materiamedicaresource.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/rosemary-2/
Monterrey Spice Company. www.herbco.com/t-rosemary-article.aspx
Smith, Ed. Therapeutic Herb Manual. Williams: 2011. pp. 61-62.
Winston, David and Merrily Kuhn. Herbal Therapy and Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach. pp. 380-381.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a common weed throughout much of the US. Its slightly fuzzy, elephant ear-like leaves distinguish this plant throughout most of its two-year lifespan. However, both its common and botanical names focus on its unique fruit and seed pods. The genus name Arctium comes from the Greek arktos, or "bear." Its species name, lappa, comes from the latin lappare or "to seize." Indeed, the rough, hairy fruit (bur) looks like a fuzzy bear, and will cling to anything passing by to spread its seed. Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral credited burdock's stubborn adherence to his socks as the inspiration for his renowned invention: Velcro.
There are numerous culinary uses of burdock. The Japanese call it gobo, and use the slightly-sweet taproot fresh or cooked, as one might use carrots. Growing up in western NY, older Sicilian men called the stems gardooni. Hunting gardooni each spring is an event, and folks are careful not to share their harvesting spots. My grandpa took his bagful to grandma, who stripped the "skin" off the stems, boiled them, and fried them in a flour and egg batter. They may be eaten raw or cooked. Some say they taste like asparagus.
Medicinally, burdock is one my favorite gentle, nourishing tonics. According to David Hoffman's Medical Herbalism, "In general, burdock will move the body to a state of integration and health, improving indicators of system imbalance such as skin problems and dandruff" (528). Its stimulation of the liver is likely involved in its skin-supportive nature. Dr. Sharol Tilgner notes that burdock gently "stimulates the liver, the gallbladder, the kidneys, the skin, digestion and the lymphatic system" (56).
According to Hoffman, burdock root is composed of 45-50% inulin. Inulin is a valuable prebiotic-- a complex sugar that does not get completely digested in the stomach or small intestine. Therefore, it serves as food for beneficial gut flora. Because inulin is slow to break down, inulin-containing foods are generally considered a fine choice for supporting healthy blood glucose levels. Stay tuned for a longer article about inulin.
Burdock makes a delicious tea, tincture, infused honey, syrup or vinegar. Harvest the root in the fall of the first year (now is a fine time!), or the spring of the second year. At both of these times, the plant will have only basal leaves-- not a tall flowering stalk. The taproot can be a challenge to dig; I find that a spade feels nicer than a trowel, but use what you have. Be sure to harvest in locations that have not been treated with lawn chemicals.
Burdock is highly safe for most people when used casually. Those taking medications should talk to their doctor before using burdock regularly (medicinally).
Mountain Rose Herbs. www.mountainroseherbs.com/products/burdock-root/profile
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003. pp. 528-529.
Tilgner, Dr. Sharol. Herbal Medicine: From the Heart of the Earth. 2009. second edition. pg. 56.
As a Spanish language student, I assumed that Goldenrod's botanical name (Solidago spp.) had something to do with the root sol-- the Spanish word for sun. If you live in a climate that's anything like western NY, you have enjoyed the yellow autumn blossoms of this genus along roadsides and other "edge" places. Quite sunny, indeed. However, the word actually comes from the latin soldago or soldare which means “to strengthen or make whole." This name kindly nudges us towards the plants' medicinal properties.
Perhaps those yellow blossoms can help us remember a body system goldenrod brilliantly supports: the urinary tract. (Well, now you'll never forget.) According to David Hoffman's Medical Herbalism, "As an anti-inflammatory urinary tract antiseptic, goldenrod may be helpful with cystitis, urethritis, and similar conditions affecting this system" (585). The plant is commonly used in Europe to treat bladder and lower urinary tract infections, and to prevent or treat kidney stones. These uses have been studied and approved by the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytomedicine (Braun, 489).
According to one study, patients utilizing a catheter were 40% less likely to experience an infection if taking an herbal blend including goldenrod, cranberry, birch, and Orthosiphon. A second study examined patients who were already experiencing infection. Those who took this herbal blend in tandem with antibiotics were 2.5 times less likely to experience a recurrent infection (Braun, 489).
Like dandelion, goldenrod is an effective diuretic without significantly disrupting electrolyte levels in the body. Due to this remarkable property, many practitioners consider these herbs safer than pharmaceutical diuretics (Braun, 488).
Goldenrod has less "sunny" uses as well. According to Hoffman, "Goldenrod is perhaps the first to consider in upper respiratory [congestion and inflammation], whether acute or chronic. This plant may also be used in combination with other herbs to treat influenza" (585). This is partly due to the plant's astringent, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anticatarrhal (mucus-busting) properties. Lab studies demonstrate inhibitory effects on human fungal pathogens, including Candida and Cryptococcus spp. It has been shown to have "moderate" antibacterial effects as well (Braun, 489).
Though a tea can be made from the fresh flowers and leaves of any goldenrod species, many opt for a tincture due to the plant's bitterness. Make your own tincture using these instructions. The general adult dosage for goldenrod is the same as the example herb in this recipe (boneset). But, you may wish to consult an herbalist near you for a person-appropriate dosage. Talk to your doctor before combining goldenrod with any diuretic or blood pressure medication.
1.) Braun, Lesley and Marc Cohen. Herbs and Natural Supplements, Vol. 2: An Evidence-Based Guide. Elsevier: 2015. pp. 488-491.
2.) Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. Rochester, 2003. pg. 585.
I spent the first half of the summer with my eyes peeled for motherwort-- a lovely, upright mint family plant. Motherwort hails from central Eurasia, but has spread throughout the temperate world as a garden plant and escaped weed. This photo was taken in the beautiful garden of Peggy Fitzgibbon in Chautauqua County, who bravely cultivated this prickly species for its medicine.
Motherwort’s botanical name—Leonurus cardiaca, or ‘lion-hearted’—gives a clue about its most common medicinal uses. In his textbook Clinical Herbalism, David Hoffman writes that “Motherwort is an excellent heart tonic, strengthening without straining… It may be used in all heart conditions associated with anxiety and tension.” Motherwort is hypotensive, gently lowering blood pressure as a diuretic. Its antispasmodic properties are specific to the cardiovascular system, and are used to support tachycardia and other heart conditions. Chinese studies have also found motherwort to decrease clotting and support healthy cholesterol levels. Unlike many conventional heart medications, its support is more gentle and long-term. One must use it for at least several months to reap its benefits, and it is safe to use for much longer.
In the US, Cherokees used motherwort for nervous system relaxation. According to research performed in China, motherwort’s alkaloids (and most likely its volatile oils) do indeed have nervine properties. Some add motherwort to bed-time formulas to help ease into sleep.
While in school at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine, I encountered a fascinating link between the physical and emotional heart. Many scientifically-backed cardiovascular herbs have traditionally been used to support grief, heartache, relational strain, and life transitions. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is said that “if the Heart is strong, than the mind will be clear, the emotions positive and calm, and the spirit strong.” There are many factors that may contribute to this connection. The non-profit HeartMath Institute shares:
'Most of us have been taught that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not as commonly known that the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function—influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving…
'HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern may be erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions… The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes—actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.
'In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect—it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform."
Motherwort is certainly an herb that affects this heart-mind process.
Motherwort’s bitterness is a bonus for those requiring a digestive kick start. However, it doesn’t make for the tastiest tea. I prefer to make a tincture (alcohol extract) or infused vinegar out of the fresh leaves and flowers, when the plant is flowering. Questions about making your own? Get in touch! Motherwort doesn’t grow abundantly near you? Check out Strictly Medicinals to purchase the easy-to-grow seeds.
Before using motherwort, talk to your doctor if you are currently on medication. For information about how motherwort can support women at various life stages, check out this article from the Redroot Mountain School of Botanical Medicine.
- Eich, Kathy. “Motherwort: Healing the Anxious Heart and Mind.” Redroot School of Botanical Medicine. 2009. www.redrootmountain.com.
- HeartMath Institute. www.heartmath.org
- Hobbs, Christopher, PhD. “Herbs for the Heart.” 1998. www.christopherhobbs.com.
- Hoffman, David. Clinical Herbalism. Rochester: 2003. pg 562.
- University of Michigan Health.”Motherwort.” uofmhealth.org
- Weed, Susun. “Motherwort.”Herbalpedia. 2000. www.susunweed.com
Normally, I prefer writing about medicinal plants that are regionally abundant where I live, in the eastern US. However, when I read about Fu Zheng Pei Ben, it felt like a concept worth sharing. There are herbs to support all phases of an individual’s experience with cancer—including mid-treatment. In my herbal medicine practice, I often ask myself, “How can I support and nourish this individual without interfering with existing medications or therapies?”
China’s medical system offers an excellent model for supporting those receiving cancer treatments. As in the US, many forms of cancer are treated with radiation and chemotherapy. In China, it is considered good practice to curb side effects and nourish the body while administering such strong treatment. Out of this belief came a therapy approach called fu zheng pei ben, which translates to ‘support the normal qi and strengthen resistance.’
Fu zheng pei ben uses many adaptogen herbs. Adaptogens are a category of herbs that enhance the body’s response to physical, mental, and emotional stressors. Most are supportive of a range of body systems, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, and digestive systems. Adaptogens are non-toxic, stamina-boosting, and safe for long-term use. Each of the herbs below contains constituents shown to be chemoprotective and radioprotective, antioxidant, and immune-boosting. Adaptogens are used to mitigate side-effects of cancer treatments, including including nausea, fatigue, low red blood cell count, immune suppression and decreased white blood cell count. Notably, herbs used in Fu zheng pei ben not only ease symptoms, but can actually increase the effectiveness of cancer treatments.
Below are three of my favorite fu-zheng herbs, plus two herbs from India that fill a similar niche. Their gentleness also makes them appropriate during mildly stressful times of life—anytime, really. They are most effective when taken daily over a longer period of time (4-6 months, or longer).
Astragalus root has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine. Studies demonstrate its ability to increase low red blood cell formation, increase white blood cell count, and stimulate a range of immune functions. It is frequently used in combination with medications to reduce side effects and toxicity. One study demonstrates astragalus’ ability to prevent liver damage induced by stilbenemide, a common anticancer drug.
In a clinical study, eleuthero root was shown to reverse bone marrow suppression and leukopenia—common conditions among patients receiving radiation and chemotherapy. Eleuthero is liver-protective, immune-boosting, and may improve digestion and nutrient absorption. In vitro, this herb demonstrated antitumor activity against ovarian, mouth, stomach, and breast cancers.
Studies demonstrate Reishi mushroom’s ability to enhance immunity, as well as reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. This herb is also used to support the “shen”—one’s emotional and mental balance. Anxiety, insomnia, and mild depression may all be supported by Reishi. Its polysaccharides have been shown to increase certain “cancer-fighters” in the body by five to twenty-nine orders of magnitude; these include tumor-necrosis factor, Th1 T lymphocytes, and interleukins 1 and 6. Reishi has also been shown to suppress the growth of colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
Ashwagandha root is used to mitigate the depletion of white blood cells that can occur during cancer treatments. Like Reishi, it is often used for its calming effects on the nervous system. Ashwagandha is also rich in iron, and may be helpful for those with iron-deficient anemia.
Holy Basil (Tulsi): Drinking a delicious tea like Tulsi can be as uplifting as the properties it contains. Fragrant holy basil is revered and heavily-used in India. A holy basil alcohol extract was shown to have a “significant antistress” effect in mice. It may help protect against damage induced by chemotherapy and radiation. It has a reputation for improving digestion and mental clarity.
Due to their food-like nature, adaptogens can be fun to take! This adaptoballs recipe has a nut butter and honey base. It can be tweaked to include whichever herb powders you, your doctor, and an herbalist agree are the right fit. Be sure to store powders in the freezer to maintain their potency. Adaptogens are frequently taken as tinctures (alcohol extracts) as well. A local herbalist may offer a much lower cost than store bought tinctures.
Talk with your doctor before adding adaptogens to your treatment plan. Keep in mind that most US medical schools no longer require herbal medicine training. Be prepared to present studies and articles about your herb(s) of choice to your doctor. An herbalist should be consulted in choosing the best herbs for you.
1.) Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism, Rochester: 2003. pp. 532, 545.
2.) Ming Li, Pan. “Cancer Treatment with Fu Zheng Pei Ben Principle.” Fujian Science and Technology Press, 1992.
3.) Winston, David and Stven Maimes. Adaptogens. Rochester: 2007. pp. 95-98, 140, 159, 169.
I'm amazed by what I have learned about the quirky antimicrobial nature of garlic (Allium sativum). Its organosulfuric constituents are largely responsible for its antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral nature. Garlic has been used topically on wounds and fungal conditions like ringworm since the Middle Ages or earlier. In 1858, Louis Pasteur observed that bacteria died when it came into contact with this pungent allium.
An exciting trait of herbs like garlic is their ability to kill gastrointestinal pathogens while preserving—or even enhancing!—beneficial gut flora. Given the measures one should take when using prescription antibiotics, such as eating fermented foods and/or probiotic capsules to help mitigate damage to gastrointestinal flora, this fact is notable. Furthermore, garlic is digestion-stimulating and a cholagogue, prompting the flow of bile from the gallbladder and aiding in the digestion of fats.
But how effective is garlic as an antimicrobial, really?
Researchers at Washington State found the diallyl sulfide in garlic was as effective as 100 times the amount of the antibiotics erythromycin and ciprofloxacin. Garlic also tends to work more rapidly. Research published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology and Analytical Chemistry demonstrated that diallyl sulfide and other organosulfur compounds effectively kill Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7—prevalent food-borne pathogens.
When I had a cold last winter, I experienced significant pressure in my ears that hinted at an ear infection. I read in Dawn Combs’ Healing Local that using prescription antibiotics can instigate chronic ear infections in children, and may not be the best treatment. I asked a friend in medical school why this might be. She explained that antibiotics destroy the easy-to-kill bacteria at the surface of an infection, but often do not touch bacteria protected by slimy “biofilm.” According to Washington State researchers, bacteria found in biofilms are 1000 times more resistant to antibiotics than freewheeling bacterial cells. These scientists found that the diallyl sulfide in garlic can “easily penetrate the protective biofilm and kill bacterial cells.” When this compound combines with a sulfur-containing enzyme in pathogens, the enzyme’s activity is altered and cell metabolism shuts down. So, the garlic oil I hesitantly dropped into my ears may have been the best choice. I noticed relief and a release of pressure surprisingly quickly—within an hour.
Like thyme, the antimicrobial volatile oils in garlic are largely excreted through lungs. This makes it a desirable companion when experiencing recurrent colds, chronic bronchitis, and the flu.
Garlic is also a preventative ally for the cardiovascular system. One clove a day is enough to
lower serum cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure over time, while raising “good” HDL cholesterol. Its antioxidant constituents can also help to prevent heart disease by preventing peroxidation of fats.
Using it: Garlic is most effective when eaten fresh. Active component allicin is only formed when the clove is crushed or chopped; it is recommended to do so and wait 10 minutes before eating. Allicin can be destroyed by heat, so I add garlic to my dish after cooking is complete.
*Note garlic's strong anticoagulant nature. Tell your doctor if you've had garlic before an emergency situation, or if you are taking blood thinners. Avoid garlic before surgery.
RECIPE: Speaking of alliums, check out this tasty recipe for wild onion (aka wild chive) vinegar.
Combs, Dawn. Heal Local. 2015.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003.
Tilgner, Dr. Sharol. 2009.