Monthly Archives: September 2009

A Controversy

I got into a “discussion” on a forum recently on the use of Comfrey Symphytum officinale.  One woman whom I do not know nor know her qualifications, stated that the “scare” over the use of comfrey is another attempt by Big Pharma to malign the use of herbs in a medicinal context.

You will rarely hear me defend Big Pharma but this time they’re not the culprit.  The “scare” is somewhat justified.  While comfrey has been used for centuries to heal sprains, strains and broken bones (one of its common names is “Knitbone”) and for some lung problems, studies conducted since the 1980’s have shown that comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) – some of which can be toxic to the liver or cause cancer.

As Henriette says, in many, if not most cases you don’t know you have liver damage until it’s too late. Yes, comfrey has been used for ages but we don’t know what folks died of – no autopsies were done to tell if their death was caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

I don’t have access to all the research papers mentioned in PubMed to tell whether the trials were done with a tea made from the leaf or root, or other preparation; what dosage was used; and how long the trials continued but I DO know that products containing herbs that have PAs, such as comfrey, are banned in Canada and very closely regulated in Germany (where herbal medicine is quite accepted).

A problem here in the US is that the commercial products sold containing comfrey don’t tell you which comfrey you’re getting – common S. officinale or Russian S. x uplandicum.  Russian comfrey contains more PAs than common comfrey.

Comfrey root contains up to 29% mucilage, making it good for treating lung problems, such as bronchitis or whooping cough.  Both the root and the leaves contain a goodly amount of allantoin, which speeds up the replacement of body cells.  This explains why it helps heal sprains and broken bones.

I like my liver healthy, thank you, so I prefer to err on the side of caution.  If there’s another herb that will work as well as comfrey, I’ll use it.  The one time I got a bad case of bronchitis, I didn’t have any marshmallow root in stock, so I made a tea from dried comfrey root (from my garden so I know which comfrey it is) and took it for one week only.  Because I’m a klutz, I keep the dried leaf on hand.  This I use to make a poultice for the occasional strain or sprain (or <fingers crossed, knock on wood> a broken bone) and I only use it externally and never on broken skin.  The PA’s can be absorbed into your system through an open wound. Not to mention that, just like Calendula, it heals wounds so quickly that the skin could heal over an infection, creating even more problems.

I do keep the dried root on hand for other things … it’s great in spells for travel and money.  Whenever I fly, I tuck a piece of root in my suitcase.  The airlines haven’t lost my luggage, yet. 🙂

Honey

I was doing some meditating on one of my totems, the bear, and got to thinking about his/her stereotypical favorite food – honey (or as Winnie the Pooh would say, “hunny”).   OK, I’ll admit.  Honey isn’t exactly herbal.  But it’s a great natural food that has many more benefits than just as a sugar substitute.

First, it’s nutritious.  Unlike processed white sugar (which has virtually no nutritional value), honey contains complex sugars, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants.  Yes, it contains more calories than white sugar but it’s better absorbed by the body and with moderate consumption, won’t cause you to gain weight.  It’s also better for people with diabetes as it won’t cause the blood sugar to spike (although I still like Stevia better for diabetics).

“Antioxidant” is a major buzz-word these days.  Antioxidants slow down aging by neutralizing free radicals.  A study done in 2004 found that honey contains as many antioxidants as spinach, apples, oranges or strawberries.

I’ve long known about honey as a wound healer. It’s a natural antibiotic, antimicrobial, antifungal and antiseptic. It numbs pain and activates the body’s immune response to speed up healing.  In a 2007 study, Dr. Shona Blair of the University of Sydney recommended that honey be a wound dressing of first resort  – not last.

Because of its antibiotic properties, honey is also great to dab on pimples.  Acne is generally caused by bacteria, not allergies or dirt.  To put an old phrase into a different context, “a little dab’ll do ya”!

It’s rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids, so it nourishes the skin.  It’s a humectant, which means that it holds in water, keeping the skin hydrated. This makes it a wonderful beauty product all by itself or mixed with other things (like chocolate ;)) to make a mask. It’s being touted nowadays to smooth out wrinkles.

My favorite “application” for honey is as a throat soother.  Whether my throat is sore from a cold or the flu, or if I’ve been talking too much (a frequent occurrence), a cup of hot tea with a half teaspoon of honey does wonders.

So, honey’s honey, right?  Umm, no.  To get all the health benefits, you really need to get dark honey, preferably organic. (The stuff in the cute squeeze bear has been processed and pasteurized and is rather bland, not only in flavor but nutrition-wise.)  The darker the honey, the more antioxidants it has, so look for the words ‘buckwheat’, ‘sage’ or ‘tupelo’ on the label.  Better yet, find an apiary near you (beekeepers) and buy the honey direct from them. As always, the closer to your personal environment the product is grown in, the easier it will interact with your body.

A caution: because of the presence of natural botulinum, honey should not be given to children under one year of age.  Their digestive systems aren’t developed enough to handle these endospores. Older children and adults can handle them easily.

BTW, honey is great in spells if you’re trying to “sweeten” someone’s disposition. Works wonders on the office grouch.

SWEET!

Chocolate

Sunday is a day near and dear to my heart – International Chocolate Day.  Chocolate (being one of the four major food groups in our household) really does have some health benefits.  As a matter of fact, dark chocolate is one of Dr. Oz’s favorite foods as well (http://slideshows.health.com/slide_shows/10648/slides/12958). 

The reason we like dark chocolate so much is that it’s rich in antioxidants as well as vitamins A and E, which is good for blood circulation and the skin.  Studies have shown that eating up to three ounces of dark chocolate (more than 60% cacao) a day can lower blood pressure by as much as 10%.

I shared this recipe a few years ago but it’s so good, it bears repeating.  From the November/December 2006 issue of Herb Quarterly comes a facial mask.  Their recipe calls it “Orange Truffle Facial Mask” but since I’m addicted to Girl Scouts Thin Mint cookies, I substitute peppermint oil for the orange.

1 tsp cocoa powder (the same stuff you buy in the baking aisle at the grocery store)
1 tsp honey
1 drop orange essential oil

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir thoroughly (adjust ingredient amounts as necessary for desired consistency).  Apply to freshly washed skin, leave on for 20 minutes and wipe off with a warm, damp washcloth. (Use a dark washcloth – the cocoa will stain light-colored fabric.) Refrigerate the unused portion (if any) and use within a week.

It smells heavenly and leaves my skin very smooth and soft.  Relaxing for 20 minutes doesn’t hurt, either!

Oatmeal Day

Last Friday was Oatmeal Day.  (And since Saturday was “Be Late for Something Day”, I’m following suggestions.)

Call me weird, but I grew up eating oatmeal in the winter and still like it.  Hot, a little brown sugar & milk, mmm.  Wintertime comfort food which is not only warming but nutritious.

While there are a lot of “instant” products on the market today, the most healthful benefits are found in the whole, rolled oats.  It takes longer to cook but you get more nutrients and fiber.  Studies have found that eating two to three servings of whole oats per day can reduce both total and LDL cholesterol 2-3% over a low-fat diet alone.

Herbalists don’t usually use the oatmeal – we use the “straw” instead.  This is simply the dried plant.  The most widely-known benefit of oats is as a skin soother.  Oats are found as an ingredient in bath and beauty products generally marketed for dry or irritated skin.  You can make a very soothing bath on your own by cooking about a pound of oatstraw in two quarts water for about a half hour.  Strain this mixture and then add the liquid to a warm bath.  (If you try this with oatmeal you will end up with a gelatinous goo which is impossible to strain. Trust me on this.)

Oats are also used orally to treat depression and stress.  A cup of oatstraw “tea” or 3-5 mL of the tincture is taken three times a day in addition to other therapies. 

So, if you’re feeling a wee bit stressed nowadays (and who isn’t?), try a cup of oatstraw tea or get even more healthful benefits by eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.  Oats are known magically to bring prosperity so who knows? Your morning oatmeal may get you that perfect job or a rise in pay!

Failed Experiment

One of the things that I keep harping on is that you must experiment with herbs to see what works for you.  Case in point:

I have dark circles under my eyes.  It’s not that I have an underlying physical condition or that I’m not well-rested.  I am just darker complected than the average Caucasian and since the skin under the eyes is thinner than the rest of the face, the pigment shows more readily. I dislike looking tired when I’m not so started searching for a solution to my problem that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. 

I came across a recipe that called for a paste of milk and powdered fenugreek seeds to be applied to the affected area nightly, and then washed off in the morning.  After about a month, I did notice a difference – the skin under my eyes was lighter than the rest of my face.  But it didn’t do a darned thing for the circles!  However, I’m going to file this recipe away … perhaps it will work on the age spots people get on their hands as they get older.

As you can see, what worked for someone else didn’t work for me.  So, it’s back to the drawing board or, in this case, the workbench.  (Total cost of the experiment: less than 50¢.)

BTW, with the holidays coming up before you know it, everyone wants to look their best at the company party.  After a long day at work, the area under the eyes tends to get a bit puffy.  Before you climb into the shower, take two black tea bags, wet them thoroughly and put them in the refrigerator.  After you get out of the shower, lie down with the tea bags over your eyes for about 10 minutes.  The tannins in the tea will tighten up the skin and reduce the puffiness.

Herbal Tip of the Month – September 2009

I can’t turn my television onto any channel these days without hearing about the H1N1 virus pandemic (the so-called “swine flu”). A lot of people I know are all twitterpated about this and I gotta tell you, it’s getting on my nerves.

First, let’s define what a pandemic is. All that means is that people are getting sick from this particular strain over a wide geographic area, and it’s affecting more of the population than normal. It doesn’t mean that this strain is worse than the seasonal flu. As a matter of fact, it’s actually milder. The mortality rate is considerably lower than it is with the seasonal flu. What has the medical community all up in arms is that this strain is a new one from the regular seasonal flu and their usual vaccines don’t work against it.  (Although they’re working on a vaccine against this particular strain, it won’t be available until the flu season is in full swing.)

The other problem is that it’s coming smack dab in the middle of allergy season. Most people don’t know they have the flu rather than seasonal allergies until they have a fever. By then you’re already contagious. If you’ve never had seasonal allergies and you start sniffling, coughing and feeling a little achy, chances are you’ve contracted some form of the flu.

So, what should you do? To protect yourself, you should do the same things you should always do to protect yourself from the flu – H1N1 or not. Keep your immune system healthy, wash your hands frequently, sneeze or cough into your sleeve or a tissue rather than your hands, don’t touch your hands to your face, and for goodness’ sake, stay home from work or school if you’re sick.

One of the mistakes a lot of people make is using antibacterial cleaners all over their home, thinking it’s going to protect them from the flu. Folks, antibacterials only work on bacteria and the flu is a virus. You need to use antivirals. Some good antiviral herbs are:

Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Myrrh Commiphora molmol
Juniper Juniperus communis
German Chamomile Matricaria recutita
Peppermint Mentha x piperita

You can add these to your cleaning solutions, diffuse the essential oils throughout your home and/or office with an oil diffuser or oil warmer, or drink teas.

If you do start feeling like you’ve got the flu, the normal treatment for otherwise healthy people is to stay in bed until your fever breaks. (A low-grade fever is a good thing. It means your body is fighting the infection.) You can treat the symptoms like runny nose, coughs, fever, etc., as you normally would for a cold or the flu. You should start feeling better in a few days. 

If you are a member of the at-risk population (compromised immune system, young, elderly, chronic respiratory illness, etc.) or your symptoms worsen, then seeing your doctor for one of the anti-viral medications like Tamiflu or Relenza is a good thing to do.

I think the most important advice is not to panic. If you practice the preventive measures, chances are you’re not going to get it or if you do, it’ll be a very mild case. 

 

Slàinte maith, h-uile latha, na chi ‘snach fhaic!
(Good health, every day, whether I see you or not!)