Mar 282012
 

Spring tonics…? It’s so common in the herbal world to come across the term ‘spring tonic’ in reference to what an herb is or does. But for such a common term it is rather uncommonly defined. Ask any herbalist what a spring tonic is and, much like its loosely defined close relatives the alterative and lymphatic, you will get as many different answers as herbalists you ask.

The actual term ‘spring tonic’ most likely originated in Appalachian folk medicine where the qualities of ‘blood’ are assessed and herbal prescriptions made based on those findings. However, tonics have been used the world over in various different cultures in various different settings. While the terminology is surely different, it is well known that both TCM and Ayurveda, two ancient systems of medicine that have survived to this day both have their share of ‘tonic’ herbs. In the modern world of herbalism tonics are often said to restore function and/or balance the functioning of a system. While the general concept of that seems true, I feel it is important to point out where the word tonic comes from and how it has developed into how we use it today. So what is a tonic? In the most basic sense a tonic is simply something that tones. The word itself comes from ‘tonify’ defined by Merriam-Webster as “to give tone to”. Tonics as used by the eclectics were used for tissues that were atonic, or lacking tone. This would be tissues that are leaky, drippy, atrophied, damp, etc. Often I hear various ‘spring tonics’ being offered to just about everyone in a very cavalier way: “take this herb, it’s a spring tonic! It’s good for you”. The upside to this approach is that, in general, most ‘spring tonic’ herbs are very safe and aren’t going to hurt a person. The downside, however is that this approach leaves out the person’s individuality, their body and mind and most importantly it leaves the practitioner with a very limited understanding of a potentially useful category of herbs.

In Chinese medicine Spring is associated with the element of Wood, which has a rising and growing energy. Its flavor is sour and it is associated with the Chinese concept of liver.  In TCM the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of both blood and qi. The liver is most prone to deficiency and stagnation causing symptoms of restlessness, anger, irritability and frustration. Here we can equate this to the more western concept of ‘thick’ blood. Stagnation comes in many forms, some more recognizable and others less so. The most easily recognizable form of physical stagnation manifests itself as constipation while the most obvious mental form manifests itself as stuck depression.

 

Before globalization and importation existed as it does today (imagine that) seasonal eating was not only a good-for-the-planet-earth-connecting activity but a necessity. In Winter, a time characterized by heaviness, quiet and contemplation, richer meals were used to fortify the body against the invading cold. As Autumn’s last harvest was preserved for the cold months ahead we prepared, both physically and mentally, to fill our bodies with the deeper, heavier nourishing foods that would sustain us for the coming cold. Vegetables were what could be kept in the cellar and greens were scarce if available at all. In a time before electricity our bodies were attuned with the natural cycles of light, often rising with the sun and going to bed with its setting. Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis Winter is a time of weaker sun and fewer sunlight hours, often leading to less activity and productivity and more time for rest. In contrast to the high energy and productivity of Summer, Winter was a time to give preference to resting and rebuilding. In Winter it was said that blood would often become either deficient, stagnant or both, largely due to the heavier diet, longer hours of sleep and general underactivity. In a class I took recently we talked about how we as a society like to live perpetually bouncing back and forth between Summer and Spring which for me calls into question the use of spring tonics. Perhaps, rather than using spring tonics we should be teaching people to live in the letting go season of Autumn and the recuperation and contemplation season of Winter. Just a thought.

We’ve made it through the harshness of a cold Winter and Spring has arrived. With her arrival she has brought new growth, new ideas and new energy. Just as the sap of trees begins to rise in response to her arrival so too does our ‘blood’ begin to rise. As the ‘blood’ rises, new energy is sent to our muscles and our minds allowing for productivity, creativity and energy. When blood is stagnant or deficient, it can not rise and consequently we remain in winters clutches: stuck, stagnant and fatigued.

But fortunately we have herbs! In a broad sense, any spring pot herb (edible greens) can be spring tonics.  As we talked about already, Spring’s flavor is sour and indeed, many spring greens have varying amounts of flavonoids and/or plant acids which provide a little sour-green bite to them. These can include nettles, dock leaves, speedwell flowers and greens, purple dead nettle, etc. I like to encourage people to make these a regular part of their diet in the spring and early summer. I liken them to an oil change; regular use keeps the car running smooth. However sometimes we need a more hefty tune-up. When ‘toxins’ build up and blood becomes too thick or stagnant we might need to look for more specific remedies. This could manifest as excess uric acid causing symptoms of gout or a bout of constipation from an underfunctioning liver. This is where traditional spring tonics come into play but first let’s define them a little more clearly.

Spring tonics are almost invariably alteratives and lymphatics. Like ‘spring tonics’ alteratives are often a hard to define clearly word. The following is a loosely reworded definition taken from Jim McDonald: alteratives are essentially herbs that increase and support various metabolic systems and/or organs by increasing their ability to eliminate wastes. They often affect some or all of the following organs: liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs, skin and lymph. Without going into too much physiology the job of these organs is to remove waste, foreign material and infection and in some cases to screen for and protect against invading pathogens. Lymphatics are ‘alteratives’ with a specific affinity for the lymph system. So essentially a spring tonic is an alterative herb used at an appropriate time of year to capitalize on spring’s energy of growth and movement and used to help us transition from quiet Winter to energetic Spring. As mentioned above, most herbs categorized as ‘spring tonics’ are safe and widely applicable. That said knowing some of their nuances and organ affinities as well as their energetics can help better match herb to person and provide deeper and more lasting results. Below is a list of some of my favorite ‘spring tonics’. By no means is it meant to be a complete list, rather it is a list of herbs I have used and feel most comfortable with. Enjoy!

Burdock- Energetics: Cooling, sweet, bitter, slightly oily

Burdock is a nourishing, building tonic. Its liver and kidney stimulating action coupled with its diuretic nature make it useful for removing toxic build up such as uric acid, calcium deposits, etc. It is nourishing to ‘blood’ and can improve its quality. Historically used for syphilis, gout and skin eruptions it is still a valuable tried and true alterative. It is still used for gout as well as kidney stones and eczema/psoriasis. It is specifically indicated with accompanying tissue dryness from lack of oil. Its high levels of inulin make it a valuable tonic for improving overall immunity and gut health. Consider using Burdock when clients present with typical burdock conditions (such as gout, eczema, etc.) and accompanying signs of digestive and/or immune weakness. A good tonic for Vata.

Dandelion- Energetics: Root: Cool-cold, bitter, dry. Leaf: Cool, bitter, salty, dry

Root: Dandelion root is a great mildly bitter spring tonic. Like burdock it is useful for ‘toxic’ accumulations, moderately stimulating the kidneys and lymph while cooling a heated, overfunctioning liver. Its bitter nature makes it draining and resolving to dampness. It is one of the first herbs I choose when treating constipation, especially when accompanied by tissue fullness and edema. It is also a good choice in sluggish digestion resulting in symptoms of bloating, gas, etc. Its bitter taste stimulates gastric secretions and can be useful in improving fat absorption. Its better for a ‘hot’ liver (hot liver folks look cold, they are slow—because their hot liver makes mostly building material and little fuel) A good tonic for kapha.

Leaf: Taraxacum leaf is a mineral rich moderate-strong bitter diuretic. It is useful for clearing out metabolic wastes while simultaneously increasing minerals. Unlike conventional diuretics which leach potassium and other minerals from the body, Dandelion replaces lost minerals with its naturally high content of potassium, magnesium and calcium. The salty taste indicates that it is tissue building and resolving to lymph swelling. As part of a formula or on its own, it can be useful for clearing out remnants of recent illness.

 

Sassafras- Energetics: Root: sweet, spicy, cool/warm, stimulating, dry

Sassafras is a warming, stimulating circulatory tonic. In the past used to treat such sever conditions as syphilis and gonorrhea, it is still useful as an alterative to underfunctioning tissues. Being both warming stimulating and mildly astringent, Sassafras is best suited to tissues that are cold, depressed and lack tone. It is believe to ‘thin the blood’ and is useful for stimulating stagnant, cold and congealed blood. It was employed by natives as a stimulating diaphoretic, another way to remove metabolic wastes and is still used in this way today. Matthew Wood says that, like Elder and Yarrow, it draws blood up from the core to the periphery and is useful for cleaning out arthritic deposits. Conversely, its ‘blood thinning’ properties make it cooling. Best used in early spring to wake up, invigorate, thin and move blood and break up stagnant congealed blood. Look for dark complexion around veins, heavy dragging thick pulses and bruising.

Oregon Grape- Energetics: bitter, cold, stimulating and dry.

Oregon Grape is a great tonic alterative that clears heat and infection. Unlike Dandelion which cools an overactive liver, Oregon grape stimulates an underfunctioning liver. It is best suited to hot, excited tissue states and constitutions with symptoms such as bright red tongues, yellow coating, indigestion with poor protein metabolism and a penchant for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­‘yinny’ foods like carbs/sugar. Though it is drying, Michael Moore says it is suited to persons with thin, dry tissues. This is because the thin, dry tissues are a result of faulty anabolism and catabolism mechanisms. Essentially the liver and gallbladder are undersecreting and underfunctioning; the liver attempts to build (anabolism) but is unable to maintain it, resulting in breakdown of tissue (catabolism) and consequently ending with thin, dry and atrophic tissues.  Look for symptoms such as lack of appetite, constipation due to lack of secretion, dry scaly and irritated skin and thinness. Good for Pittas.

Cleavers- Energetics: salty, sweet, cool, neutral humidity.

Cleavers is a nourishing and gentle lymphatic alterative. It has an affinity for the muscles, kidneys and lymph and has the ability to move and break up calcifications and fibrous tissues. It is a good remedy for swollen glands, cysts and fibrous breast tissue where there is accompanying mild inflammation and subjective feelings of warmth. It is mildly diuretic and combines well with other herbs for removing urinary and kidney gravel. It is suited to irritated and atrophic tissues and is a great tonic for Vatas.

Calendula- Energetics: Sweet, Bitter, resinous, warm, sl. moistening

Like Cleavers, Calendula has a strong affinity for the lymphatic system as well as for the digestive system. It is a tonic for swollen lymph with signs of hypo-immunity and cold. The corona is resinous astringent and drying, offering a nice combination of antimicrobial and vulnerary effects while the petals are slightly mucilaginous and sweet offering further vulnerary and soothing qualities to affected tissues. Calendula is one of my favorites for people who just can’t seem to shake the winter blues or who are holding onto anger and need something to boost their moods and shake things up. In keeping with its ability to move and transform that which is being held on to, Calendula also has a place in helping the body be rid of old, lingering infections.

Nettle- Energetics: Salty, cool, dry

Nettle is a nourishing, building tonic rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. As opposed to Dandelion, it lacks a bitter taste making it less useful for draining dampness and more nourishing overall. It has an affinity for the adrenals and kidneys and through a mild but noticeable diuretic action increases the elimination of wastes while building and fortifying the body. It is useful for removing hardness, swellings and toxic accumulation, especially when accompanied by atrophied tissue. Tonic use can build up muscles, bones and adrenal function resulting in more and better quality energy—without depending on caffeine. Nettles is one of my favorites because it is usable by most anyone and so nourishing and grounding. If (like me) you find nettles to be too drying (as in you are running to urinate constantly) add a bit of mallow leaves, roots or elm bark.

Birch- Energetics: Warm, aromatic, bitter, dry

Birch is a warming, aromatic tonic for ‘thinning blood’ and increasing vitality in spring. Often, blood stagnation leads to pain in muscles, tendons and joints. Birch’s aromatics help to break up and move the stagnation while its high concentration of methyl salicylates are useful in reducing the pain and inflammation associated with stagnation. It is best for those who are made better with heat. It has an affinity with the musckuloskeletal system and kidneys and has a mild stimulating and diuretic effect. It can be used, like most spring tonics, to remove wastes and build up of ‘toxins’.

Willow- Cool-cold, bitter, dry

Willow is similar in use to birch, but better suited to those made better by cold. Not a traditional spring tonic but I want to compare and contrast with Birch, which is.

Poke- Energetics: Pungent, dry, bitter, burning

The young leaves were often consumed as a spring tonic. Considered to cleanse, rejuvenate and bring vitality they are still eaten to this day. It is recommended that they be boiled and cooked in three separate changes of water, although I find that just cooking them once suits me. As a gentle spring tonic the leaves work well, however, more serious issues such as severe stagnation, resulting in purple/red discolorations, severe lymph stagnation, mastitis, etc. respond better to both berries and root. I find the berries a bit more gentle and as such are my preferred remedy. It is best suited to thick, bulky and larger persons. It is a good remedy for Kapha.

Feb 232012
 

Mmmm the warm smell of nourishing bone broth fills my home with its rich scent and heady perfume. The combination of roasted bones and aromatic vegetables mingle for hours, and I mean hours, slowly extracting every last bit of yummy goodness. Can mere writing extol the virtues of something so primal, so deeply nourishing and satisfying? I don’t know, but I feel bone broth is such an important thing to share that I’m going to attempt it. Here we go!

Introduction to broth

Bone broth has been made for thousands and thousands of years, transcending cultural bounds and is found amongst nearly all traditional cultures the world over. Strictly speaking bone broth can be defined by a combination of simple ingredients, boiled together with water for anywhere from an hour to days at a time. While some may associate beef with bone broth, and indeed it is common, bone broth can be made from chicken bones, wild animal bones and even fish bones! Most often bone broths have some element of vegetable which not only enhances flavor but adds even more crucial minerals. Every culture will have their way of making bone broth, largely influenced by the animals and vegetables available to them and every modern cook will have their own way as well. That said following a few simple guidelines can enhance both the taste and nutritional content of your broth. In general it is recommended to add a splash of vinegar to bone broths, aiding the water to pull out minerals from the hard and dense bones (do not despair; you won’t taste it in the end!). Bones other than chicken and fish do well by browning them in an oven before making stock. While not necessary for nutrition, this action caramelizes some of the sugars and will go a long way in enhancing the final taste of your stock. As mentioned above, the addition of some vegetables and/or scraps will further enhance both flavor and nutrition. These can include carrots, onions and their skins, celery and other aromatic or root vegetables. Aromatic herbs can also make a delicious addition to stocks and can include thyme, sage or more exotic flavored herbs like monarda or wild thyme.

Benefits

Ok so we’ve espoused the flavors of bone broth and talked a bit about how to enhance the flavor even more but what about the health benefits? Bone broth is a nutritional powerhouse full of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and trace minerals. While calcium, magnesium and other minerals may be obtained from other dietary sources (and should be) bone broth provides them for your body in a very easily digestible and absorbable form. Minerals are especially important to our health as they are responsible for not only structural formations, maintenance and repair of our bodies but are also crucial elements to many enzymatic reactions. Broth is also a rich source of collagen, a necessary component for the development and maintenance of various tissues including bones, ligaments, tendons, skin and cartilage. Collagen, known as gelatin in its food form, is a rich source of chondroitin sulfate. Yes, chondroitin sulfate, that overly priced and well-touted supplement that you are purchasing from the store. Chondroitin sulfate is a structural component of cartilage and has been shown to help with arthritis, degenerative joint disease, inflammatory bowel disease and lowered immune function. My opinion…ditch the supplement and drink more broth. Gelatin is rich in the amino acids proline and glycine which are integral to many functions of our body. Glycine supports proper digestion by enhancing gastric secretion, supports the liver’s natural detoxifying abilities and acts as a precursor to glutathione, the body’s number one endogenous antioxidant. Proline is an essential part of the structure of collagen and therefore enhances the health and nutrition of our bones, skins, tendons and joints.

See that spoon practically standing up? Beautiful gelatin!

Adequate nutrition is vital to our health. Unfortunately, subclinical deficiencies left untreated often fail to express themselves as pathologies until it is too late. In the US, true clinical nutritional deficiencies are rare. Syndromes such as rickets and scurvy have largely been eliminated due to the fortification of foods and better nutritional intake. However, while many people will survive and live “healthy” lives without developing pathologies or clinical disease many of the subclinical illnesses such as poor digestion can later morph into more serious problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Ensuring adequate nutrition early on in life and maintaining it throughout can go a long way in preventing these diseases and drinking bone broth daily or weekly is a great way to get these vital nutrients and components into your body. Of course, should these diseases develop bone broth can be a vital (and tasty) part of their treatment.

Bone broth is also extremely economical and can be made for mere cents. I buy them 15 lbs at a time for about 15 dollars. That boils down to about $1 a quart, a savings of over 80% if bought at a store (not to mention the nutritional inferiority of store bought broth). If that’s not incentive, what is?

 

The Sticks

Being an herbalist I have to mention a bit about herbs or sticks (right?). Sticks, here referring to rooty herbs and mushrooms can be a wonderful and healing addition to broths. Occasionally I find I want a little extra punch in my broth, so to speak. Adding roots and mushrooms can be a great way to tailor broths for more specific needs. For example, to enhance the immune boosting effects of bone broth add a bit of astragalus. Or, to enhance the gut healing action add some licorice or for a more neutral flavor, hemp seeds. Many mushrooms have wonderful immune enhancing effects and are also tasty. Try maitake or shiitake for flavor. More bold mushrooms like Reishi have strong immune regulating effects but also an accompanying strong flavor. Keep in mind many herbs come with strong flavors and thus will affect the final flavor of your broth. I encourage experimentation, in small batches.

The broth

Every cook will have their own special recipe and way of making broth and I encourage you to develop your own. Instead of a specific recipe, I want to share with you a loose guide that I hope you will adapt and make your own. General rules of thumb: fish, due to their small frames and strong flavor need only 1-2 hours to make good broth. Chicken, beef and game benefit from a longer cooking period, sometimes as long as 24 hours. Beef and game should be roasted at 425 degrees for 15-25 minutes or until browned.

5lbs bones (roasted or unroasted)

A good handful of vegetable scraps- onion skins, carrot peels, celery ends etc.

5 quarts of water

A splash of vinegar

Salt to taste

Herbs if using-half a handful

Roots and mushrooms if using- to taste or as desired for medicinal effect.

Place all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. During the first half an hour impurities will rise to the surface, referred to as scum in cooking terminology. Using a spoon, skim off the scum until it stops forming. Turn heat to low and cover, simmer for hours. Enjoy the smell as it fills your home with its yummy goodness.

Once done, you can let it cool and refrigerate it. Remove the fat layer from the top and save it if desired. Put the broth into jars or other containers and either refrigerate or freeze.

Boiling broth. On the left side of the photo is 'scum'

 

Broth after refrigeration. Note the (beautiful) layer of hardened fat on top. This can be skimmed off and saved for cooking or discarded.

 

 

 

Dec 122011
 

 

It’s Winter and with that comes scintillating snow, scarves and, well, colds.

Both colds and flus are common viruses that affect our health. A brief differentiation between the two: colds tend to come on slower and are often shorter lived. They don’t tend to cause systemic reactions such as fevers or aching muscles, rather they are more superficial affecting only the upper respiratory tract. Flus or influenza virus tends to hit hard and fast and have the added loveliness of lasting longer. They are more likely to cause that aching feeling in muscles and are often accompanied by high fevers. Conventional medical treatment is OTC decongestants and antibiotics. Antibiotics are given not for the actual infection (antibiotics don’t treat viruses) but to prevent secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia. While antibiotics do sometimes have a place this laissez-faire attitude seems largely unnecessary.

Colds and flus have long been associated with the cold weather season. In fact, colds and flus are around all year long but it is my (and others) hypothesis that the shifting in temperature from outside to inside during winter months makes us more prone to getting sick. Regardless, people do seem more prone to illness this time of year. So what can you do?

For starters it should be remembered that getting sick is a natural part of life and that it is often beneficial for us, building up our long term immunity and serving as a gentle (or not so gentle) reminder that we need to slow down. That said, there is a lot that can be done to boost one’s immunity, especially if you are prone to being sick every other week. First things first eating healthy, nutrient dense foods are chief in the prevention category. Bone broths with lots of garlic and aromatic herbs are a great way to boost ones immunity. Tonics are a wonderful category of herbs that serve to boost whatever body system they have an affinity for. In regards to immunity, one of the most commonly thought of herbs is astragalus, a member of the pea family or Fabaceae. Slightly warm and moist in energy, Astragalus is a wonderful building tonic for those who find themselves always tired, constantly depleted and catching every single bug that comes their way. Try decocting a teaspoon in 10 oz of water. Astragalus often comes in tongue-depressor shaped cuts, these can be decocted, just a few to a cup or two of water, simmered 20 minutes or alternatively may be added to soups and stews. It has a slightly sweet and neutral taste, adding just a touch of flavor and a whole lot of immunity to winter bone broths.

So you did what you needed to and you got sick anyway, what now? There are as many cold/flu remedies as there are herbalists, if not more, so the following are just a few of my favorites. To start, at the first sign of a cold/flu you can often sweat it out by making really strong ginger tea (simmer a good amount of fresh root for 10-20 minutes), get into a really hot bath and sip the tea until you are sweating profusely. Then get out of the bath, wrap yourself up in a big robe or towel and get into bed with as many blankets as you can. Go to sleep. If you don’t have a bathtub simply skip that step and get wrapped up in bed. You will often wake up feeling like a million bucks with no trace of sickness. Some people use Elder berry at the first sign of sickness and I have seen this work numerous times, try 1-2 dropperfulls of tincture every couple of hours. Most famous is probably Echinacea, well known to boost the immune system. Take 2-3 dropperfulls every couple of hours.

You eat well, took the herbs and your still sick, what now? It happens. But there are still things you can do to alleviate some of the symptoms. Since you are already sick, the goal here is to boost your natural defenses, such as the fever response. The use of diaphoretics (herbs that induce sweating) is often useful here as can be immune stimulants like Osha, Lomatium and Echinacea. For general congestion I have found herbal steams to be of particular use. Boil a pot of water and add a handful of any highly aromatic herb. I like Bee Balm but more common Thyme or even Basil can help. Throw a towel over your head and bend over the pot, breathe the steam in deeply for ten-15 minutes. The aromatic oils from the plants will be carried by the steam into your nasal and respiratory passage way, clearing out the stuck mucous and helping you to breathe, at least for a while. This can be repeated as often as necessary and don’t forget to drink the tea too for added benefit.

Everybody reacts to colds and flus differently and consequently will have different symptoms that are best addressed by different herbs. Below is a small list of herbs I use most frequently and who they would fit best based on energetic and constitution.

Marshmallow-(Althea/Mallow sp.)-Given for signs of dryness: dry hot fevers without perspiration; dry throats; difficult to expectorate mucous; dry inflamed nasal/sinus passages. I use powdered roots stirred into water or a cold infusion of the leaves. Equally useful but somewhat less cooling is Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva)

Boneset-(Eupatorium perfoliatum)-When muscles ache and there is fever alternating with chills, Boneset is my herb of choice. Frighteningly bitter this herb can stimulate immunity, help a fever along and alleviate some of the restlessness often associated with flus.

Osha-(Ligusticum porter)-While I continue my life-long search for something comparable on the East, this Western plant is fantastically useful. Warm to hot and dry it can help loosen stuck mucous (combine with Marshmallow or Slippery Elm) or can help dry out boggy, mucous filled lungs. I use Osha mostly when the infection has moved from nose and pharynx down to the lungs.

Yarrow-(Achillea millefolium)- Yarrow is an eccentric and versatile herb useful as an antiseptic agent as well as a fairly effective diaphoretic. Yarrow is rich in microbe killing volatile oils and its influence over blood can move heat from the inside out, helping along a natural fever. For diaphoresis it is best drunk as hot as possible while in a hot bath or wrapped up tight under a warm wool blanket. It combines well with Elder flowers, Peppermint and Spearmint and for further stimulation with more warming aromatic mints such as Thyme and Monarda.

Oregon Grape/Barberry-(Mahonia/Berberis sp.)- I am still working out the differences between Western and Eastern Berberis but there is no doubt in my mind that both make a wonderfully antimicrobial tincture and decoction. I use more tincture, chiefly because I have yet to convince anyone to drink that golden yellow potion known as Barberry decoction. Containing one of the same infamous components of the often over-used Goldenseal, Barberry is an especially useful herb when flus present with signs of heat. Think thick, yellow-green mucous; hot fevers and subjective sensations of heat. Try half a squirt of tincture every few hours.

Bayberry-(Myrica cerifera)- Bayberry is one of my favorite plants for congestion. Warming and stimulating it seems to have a special affinity for the sinus cavity. When mucous is just stuck and the pressure behind the eyes and in the ears is threatening to make you explode, try a bit of bayberry. Also a warming lymphatic, Bayberry can be useful after an illness when the lymph nodes seem a bit clogged and refuse to go back down to a normal size.

Wild Cherry-(Prunus serotina)- Wild cherry is a member of the Rose family and like most of the plants in this family is cooling and mildly sedating. A cold infusion of the bark or a couple of drops of tincture can help quiet an overactive but underproductive cough. Unlike the modern medical approach, herbalists (including myself) often discourage the suppression of coughs, at least initially. Coughing is a natural reflex to remove bacteria, irritants and dead cells from our lungs and body. That said, sometimes coughing is unproductive and can keep us up all night. When your lungs feel as though they are burning, your chest is tight and you just want to stop for five minutes, try some Cherry. It has an added benefit of tasting pretty good and combining well with honey (though really, what doesn’t?).

 

 

Nov 032011
 

Nourishing infusions have got to be one of my favorite ways to ingest plants.

Nettle about to be infused overnight (photo by Andrea Salzman)

They are often loaded with vitamins and minerals and are a rich source of phytochemicals. So what is a nourishing infusion you ask? First let’s define what an infusion is. An infusion is basically any plant matter that is covered with boiling water and steeped for anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. A nourishing infusion tends to be an infusion that is made from gentle, nourishing, mineral rich plants and are steeped for several hours or even overnight. This allows for maximum diffusion of the various chemicals from the plant to flow into the water.

I particularly like nourishing infusions because not only do they pack a nutritional punch, they are also easy to make and relatively convenient. I have found the best way to do them is prepare them just before turning in for the night. In this way, I can go to sleep and wake up with a lovely, deep and nourishing drink that I can carry with me throughout the day. In the morning you can strain off the herbs and then either drink it as is or reheat it. Typically I drink them room temperature in the spring and summer and heat them in the fall and winter. Most of these infusions are going to be tonics (read as slow acting) and should be used over a long period of time for best results.

The process: It’s simple. Get a clean quart jar and fill it with anywhere from a ¼ cup to a full cup of plant material and fill the jar with boiling water. Screw on a lid and let it sit. Done. The greatest thing about these, perhaps, is their versatility. Feel free to experiment: try them with honey, herbal honeys, mix and match and have fun. Below are listed some of my favorite plants for these overnight infusions and a little blurb on what they may help with.

Catnip Oatstraw infusion ready to be strained (Photo by Andrea Salzman)

Nettles-(Urtica dioica)- Often hailed as the king of mineral rich plants, nettles are indeed a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. They are a great tonic to worn out adrenals and can help build up nutritionally deficient constitutions. Here’s a little tidbit I picked up from herbalist and friend Kiva Rose, if you find that drinking nettles is causing you to need to visit the bathroom more than usual (and believe me, I do) try adding a bit of Marshmallow (althea/malva spp.) leaves and/or roots or a bit of licorice. Their moistening nature can counteract some of nettles dryness.

Hawthorn-(Crataegus spp.)- Well known for being a functional heart tonic, Hawthorn also has a place in the emotional realm. For functional heart problems (mild CHF, arrhythmia, palpitations, etc.), Hawthorn needs to be drunk regularly and in large quantities and a nourishing infusion is a great way to get in all that flavonoid-rich goodness. Emotionally, I have found hawthorn to act quicker and find it cheers me up when I’ve had a long, stressful and emotion filled day. It is used to ease heartbreak and can have a place in treating emotional trauma.

Oats-(Avena Sativa)- If Nettles is the King of mineral rich plants than Oats is his Queen. Oats are also a rich source of vitamins and minerals (and yes, it is the same plant you get your oatmeal from). Oats are useful for building up energy and stamina to a depleted nervous system. They are also useful as tonics to those of us who don’t get enough vitamins/minerals in our diets (you know who you are). Oats are also useful in building up energy after being sick. Combine them with nettles to kick things up a bit.

Tulsi-(Ocimum tenuiflorum)- Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, is a sacred herb in India with a long history of use. It is aromatic and warming and just all around wonderful; I like to call it a hug in a mug. One of its constituents (eugenol) is the same chemical responsible for giving cloves their earthy warm taste which, unlike regular basil (Ocimum basilicum), places it on the more warm end of the spectrum making it an ideal fall beverage.Often cited as helping to lower elevated cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) Ocimum is wonderful for calming an overexcited nervous system. Conversely, its aromatic nature also gives it a place in treating stagnant depression by helping to move things along. I like it combined with nettle or on its own.

Chamomile-(Matricaria recutita)- Chamomile. It’s an herb that almost everyone knows, even those that don’t ascribe to herbal medicine will often be heard telling people to drink chamomile. Chamomile is probably the archetypal remedy for all things involving digestion and indeed it is quite useful. It’s bitter and aromatic and can help ease gas, chronic digestive upset and symptoms of GERD. It is also useful for mild anxiety and stress, particularly when they involve GI upset. An herbalist friend who uses chamomile for insomnia says it works best with a bit of honey added. Try it and let me know.

Catnip-(Nepeta cataria)- Catnip is an underrated and underused herb in my opinion. I have to admit I’ve always thought of it as, well, weak. However during a period of intense anxiety I found a strong cup of catnip to calm me down so well I could hardly believe it. When I combined it with a little Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) it nearly knocked me out! It is great for digestive trouble that moves up (i.e. vomiting, burping, gas) and like chamomile, great for anxiety that causes GI symptoms (though I find Nepeta a bit stronger). It definitely works acutely but it is still mild enough that it can be taken long term for more chronic issues.

Raspberry-(Rubus spp.)- Like both Nettles and Oats, Raspberry leaves are a rich source of vitamins and minerals. They tend to have an affinity for the female reproductive system and make a wonderful, nourishing tonic for female-bodied folks to drink on the regular. They are slightly astringent and can help tone loose, lax tissues (as in excess bleeding, etc.) and consumed regularly and as part of a larger protocol may help many functional female disorders. Like Nettles, they are a rich source of Iron and are especially beneficial when drunk during menses.

Meadowsweet-(Filipendula ulmaria)- Meadowsweet is best known as a gut anti-inflammatory. Like a few other plants, it contains salicylates (specifically methylsalicylates) which are in part responsible for its anti-inflammatory action. Methylsalicylates is the taste of Wintergreen and at one time was a part of what gave root beer it’s creamy, aromatic flavor. Meadowsweet is a great nourishing infusion when you have chronic GI problems from simple gastritis to more complex Crohn’s. It won’t solve everything but it’s a great start and it tastes good. What could be better?

There are many more herbs that can be made into nourishing infusions, these are just a few of my favorites. When thinking of herbs to use remember to keep it simple, safe and nourishing and it will make a great nourishing infusion.