Many folks don't think of basil as a tea herb, but I have been savouring its rich low-note flavour this winter, and I've also been enjoying the way it makes me feel.
Basil provides a soothing balm for nerves and the belly, it has a clarifying influence on the brain and ignites a bit of a spark in the spirit. It is known as an amphoteric herb for the nervous system, meaning that it works as both a stimulant and a relaxant. It can help to uplift and energize low moods, while it can also ease the stresses of the day, readying the body for restful sleep. Herbs that can both stimulate and relax are particularly suited to these current times. Many are finding struggle in carrying not only responsibilities in the outside world that need to be addressed, but also ongoing undercurrents of mental/emotional stress. Mental health has posed an increasing challenge in the modern world, as many of us well know, with depression and anxiety levels at all time highs. Of course there are numerous reasons for this, and many ways to address it, but sometimes amidst the complexity, the tried-and-true effectiveness of simple, age-old garden herbs (or pantry herbs) can be easily overlooked.
Any herb that has a flavour and aroma will have a relaxing effect on the smooth muscles of the gut, reducing cramping, indigestion and inflammation. This is part of the reason that humans have included aromatic spices in cooking for millennia. They actually help us to digest our food. Drinking aromatic tea after a meal will do the same. As we are discovering more and more, the brain and mental health are quite reliant on gut health, and there are important connections between the nervous system and the digestive system. As basil tea helps to ease indigestion and inflammation in the digestive tract, the body can more easily uptake some of its soothing gut-brain neurotransmitters, like the well-known serotonin which brings feelings of happiness and peace.
Basil tends to bring more mindfulness and awareness. Many are familiar with its Ayurvedic cousin, Holy Basil (Occimum sanctum). This is a much revered herb that has a slightly sweeter flavour than the culinary basil of the west (Occimun basilicum). Holy basil makes a delicious tea, long touted as a supportive herb for the brain, bringing more mindfulness and presence in meditative states. Holy basil is also classified by herbalists as an adaptogen---which means that it helps the body and mind to adapt to various stressors, maintaining a state of equilibrium and equanimity both physically and mentally. It has been shown to help support the body and mind through overcoming various addictions (cannabis and coffee are two examples), helping to clear out any toxic build-up, while providing the clarity, stamina and positive outlook needed to move out of old patterns.
In fact, the European basil (Occimum basilicum) has many similar properties and also a long tradition of use. Basil has been shown to help stimulate and support adrenal function---which helps with stress management in general. It has shown to be helpful in clearing out heavy metals and toxic residues that are stored in fat cells in the body. It has a beneficial influence on womens' health, supporting breast milk production and flow for nursing mothers, and helping the body to regulate in the wake of menopausal shifts, and/or post hysterectomy. Basil is also a fairly potent anti-microbial herb that can help the body to fight bacterial infections of various types. It has significantly high levels of both vitamin C and vitamin A as well.
I find that basil's deep, pungent flavour speaks to the depth of reach that it has on the system. It is known to combine well with lemon balm in tea to help ease depression. I like to blend it with lemon peel and cinnamon to accentuate its unique flavour, and also to further support digestion, bring a warming effect (cinnamon) and an increased boost of vitamin C (lemon peel). The bright, deep and spicy flavour of this blend has been keeping me cozy, mellow and perhaps a little more deeply attuned to my body and mind on these chilly winter evenings.
Here is a simple recipe for this tasty, feel-good tea:
1 heaping teaspoon dried basil (or a small handful of fresh basil)
1/2 teaspoon broken cinnamon bark pieces (or 1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon)
1/2 teaspoon organic dried lemon peel (or 1 teaspoon fresh), peeled & chopped into little pieces or grated, with as little of the white pith on as possible (Note: lemon should be organic)
2 cups of freshly boiled water
Put herbs into a teapot and pour hot water over them. Put a lid on the pot (this helps to keep the aromatic medicine from evaporating out, and yields a more potent infusion).Allow tea to steep for at least 15-20 minutes. Strain, drink and share as desired.
Here is a recipe for a winter elixir. This is a concept that can be played with, and the recipe can be adjusted based on the ingredients you have available, as well as your particular needs and wants.
The idea of an elixir is essentially a preparation that is healing in nature, often nutritious with some medicinal characteristics but it is mild and safe enough for pretty much anyone to take.
Elixirs are thicker than tinctures. Although, like tinctures they may be based in alcohol, they will often have a sweet, pleasing flavour as well. Honey or some kind of syrup are often included in an elixir to achieve this effect. Of course, honey itself has many healing, immune supportive properties. If a syrup is used instead, it may be an herb-infused syrup such as elderberry syrup or ginger syrup in order to bring in the healing properties of those herbs. To prepare an herbal syrup, one could follow a recipe for a simple syrup, but instead of water, use tea infused with the herb of choice.
For this elixir, I have chosen a blend of herbs that are often found on a kitchen shelf, along with a few herbs that are easily found locally in the wild, or can be grown in gardens (these herbs can also be purchased fairly easily and affordably from an herb supplier).
This is a winter elixir, so the herbs involved are warming, immune stimulating, anti-microbial and Vitamin C rich. It can be taken to give the system a boost when you feel a cold coming on.
From the kitchen shelf, I've included ginger, which can be added fresh or dried, and peppercorns. Note that dried ginger is much stronger and more warming than fresh, so less of it should be used. Other possible additions from the kitchen might be flavourful, antimicrobial herbs like cinnamon, corriander, fennel or thyme.
From the wild harvest and from the garden, I've included Norway spruce needles and twigs. Any variety of spruce or pine could be included in this blend. I like to harvest from freshly fallen branches so as not to take directly from the tree. Also included are rosehips, goldenrod flowers, yarrow flowers and calendula flowers. Spruce and rosehips are markedly potent sources of vitamin C. Spruce is also warming, immune stimulating and antimicrobial. Goldenrod, yarrow and calendula are all aster family plants that stimulate the immune response in different ways. Goldenrod and calendula are good lymphatic clearing herbs, and in addition to being strongly anti-bacterial they are also anti-fungal, helping the body to manage many types of microbial overgrowth and imbalance in the system. Yarrow is also powerfully antimicrobial, and it is a diaphoretic herb. This means that it sends heat throughout the circulation to the periphery, where it helps the body to open the pores and release what is no longer needed through the sweat glands. Gently heating and promoting a bit of a sweat is an age-old approach to fighting off impending illness. Ginger is diaphoretic as well, so these two herbs works together nicely in this blend.
The herbs are infused in brandy, with honey added. For those who prefer, the honey can be left out, or the herbs could be infused just in the honey and the brandy could be left out.
Elixirs can be fun, creative ways to work with herbs and make tasty, health-supportive concoctions that the whole family will likely enjoy. They can be taken by the teaspoon-full or by the shot glass-full, depending on the size, and preference of the taker.
makes approximately 500 ml
Brandy 350-400 ml
Honey (preferably raw) 50 ml
Ginger fresh, 1 Tablespoon finely chopped; dried, 1/2 teaspoon
Black Peppercorns 1 teaspoon
Fresh or dried spruce needles and twigs 1 handful
Rosehips, chopped 1 Tablespoon
Calendula petals 1 Tablespoon dried, or 1 handful fresh
Goldenrod flowers 2 teaspoons dried, or 1 handful fresh
Yarrow flowers 2 teaspoons dried, or a small handful fresh
Place all herbs in a 500 ml jar. Pour brandy over the herbs to cover them and fill the jar (the amount of brandy needed for this will vary depending on how finely the herbs are chopped up and the amounts of herbs included). Add honey. Stir, or place a lid on the jar and shake the blend so that all is nicely combined, and the honey is dispersed throughout. Let the jar sit in a dark place (like a cupboard) for 2-4 weeks. After this, the herbs can either be strained or left in the elixir, but the elixir will be ready to drink. Take, or give to loved ones when a cold or flu is coming on, or they just need a warming, stimulating boost. Dosage can vary between 1/2 teaspoon to a shot glass, depending on the taker 😉
Wishing you a thriving, healthy winter!
This article is a continuation of a previous article titled Garlic Mustard: Plant Ally of the Moment
One thing I have found to be true in the time that I have spent observing and interacting with the natural world is that very often the plants that we need most for medicine are growing in abundance nearby. Whenever I notice a proliferation of a particular plant, I’m inclined to ask “what role are you playing in this environment?” And “how might you provide healing in this place and time?”
With garlic mustard these days, the answers seem rather clear.
Its virtues were well known by the people in its native lands. Garlic mustard was originally brought to North America in the mid 19th century by the English settlers who made regular use of it as an edible and medicinal plant. I imagine they viewed it as a suitable plant to cultivate here due to its ability to thrive in colder climates. It was desirable also because of its high vitamin C content. It was known as an antiscorbutic (scurvy preventative) agent. In order to have access to garlic mustard throughout the year, the plant was commonly preserved in vinegar to have on hand as a nutritive and antiseptic agent.
What the settlers did not realize of course, was how eagerly it would grow here. When it moves into an area, garlic mustard easily and quickly seeds itself, spreading and replacing many native species. As part of the takeover, it emits chemical compounds in the soil that destroy the mycorrhizal fungi. These soil microbes are a key aspect of the health and immunity of many woodland plants and trees. Without them, it is that much more difficult for other plant life to compete against the garlic mustard, and the garlic mustard often wins.
Ironically, these chemical compounds are the same sulphur compounds I discussed in my previous post on garlic mustard. Known as glucosinolates (and their derivatives), they support our immunity while helping to ward off bacterial and fungal growth in our bodies. What we’re seeing therefore, is that the very compounds from this plant that pose a threat to our native flora can meanwhile help to support our wellness in the face of infection.
While it is clear to see why garlic mustard’s aggressive growth habits are much maligned by concerned naturalists wanting to protect native ecosystems, the most sensible response to this situation seems to be for us to harvest the plant, and make use of the medicine it provides. Some plant medicines are endangered, and their harvest is outlawed or strongly discouraged. We’re watching the endangerment of more and more wild plants and animals as the biodiversity of our planet diminishes. Other plant medicines however are newly emerging in places they have not grown before. Their harvest not only poses no risk to their survival, but it may significantly help to protect the damaged ecosystems where they thrive.
The ability of an invasive species to take over an ecosystem is contingent on the resilience of that ecosystem. Many of the word’s ecosystems have been weakened already by other disturbances like chemical runoff, deforestation, excavation and nearby development. Weakness creates an opening for opportunistic species. These days, there are few habitats on earth that have not been so disturbed, and we now find ourselves faced with the infiltration of invasives en masse. In a sense, we could say that the immunity of many ecosystems is not strong enough to withstand invasion.
We see this same encroachment happening on macro and microcosmic levels throughout our world. Much like the ecosystems of the earth, human immunity and resilience have also been weakened by chemical and electromagnetic pollutants in our field. These, combined with nutrient deficiencies from a food supply grown on depleted soil, make us open to invasion by opportunistic super bugs that threaten to take down the very fabric of our societies…..And here we are in the spring of 2020.
Fortunately, natural processes tend to be cyclical. While garlic mustard is currently enjoying a population boom, the compounds it emits have been shown to peak and decline within a 25-30 year period. Following that, the soil mycorrhiza tend to return, along with other plant species to replace the excess garlic mustard. Even while it’s booming, it is also not solely problematic. Its warming sulphur compounds seem to speed up leaf breakdown and metabolism in the soil, making nutrients more quickly available to the flora of the area, and ultimately feeding the soil for future plant life. As for the infiltration of viruses, humanity has endured many and our species has not only survived, but our immune intelligence has strengthened and wizened through the experience of meeting them.
So when I look to a patch of garlic mustard on a forest edge, and ask “what role are you playing in this environment?”, what seems to be true to me is that it is resiliently holding a place for plant life within a climate that is increasingly challenging to the survival of many plants. And in response to the question “how might you provide healing in this place and time?”, I see it on a long term path towards restoring the land, while on a short term path towards contributing to human health and resilience.
CLICK HERE for Part I: Garlic Mustard, Plant Ally of the Moment
Scott, Timothy Lee; Invasive Plant Medicine; Healing Arts Press; Rochester Vermont; 2010
Evans, Lankau, Davis, Raghu, Landis; “Soil mediated eco-evolutionary feedbacks in the invasive plant Alliaria petiolatata”; Functional Ecology Vol. 30 Issue no. 7; British Ecological Society; May 2016
Rodgers, Wolfe, Werden et al; “The Invasive Species Alliaria pertiolata (Garlic Mustard) Increases Soil Nutrient Availalbility in Northern Hardwood-conifer Forests”; Oecologia 157. no. 3: September 15 2008
Part II of this blog post, titled Garlic Mustard as an Invasive Plant Medicine can be read HERE
During this period of uncertainty and transformation, I would like to shine some light on one of our local wild plants. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a nutritious early spring green, and a remarkable healing agent whose leaves are currently emerging. Its nutritional and medicinal benefits are particularly indicated for many of us at this time, as they contribute to immune integrity and respiratory health.
Garlic mustard can be found around our region in such great abundance that it is regarded by conservation bodies as an invasive plant.
Here I would like to illustrate the ways in which this plant can serve our resilience at this time, in the hopes that more of us will take advantage of the opportunity that it brings. Since it is an area of particular interest to me, I've also created a second post (part II) where I share some of my ideas around the plant's "invasive" tendencies, and what they seem to teach us about resilience and the nature of invasion.
HEALING & NUTRITION
In the face of COVID19, we're hearing from numerous sources about the importance of vitamin C as well as vitamin A intake. In addition to their well-known ability to stimulate and strengthen the immune system, vitamins C and A support the structure and integrity of the membranes that protect our respiratory and digestive tracts as well as our blood vessels. The damage caused to these membranes with virus' entrance into our cells seems to lead to a cascading immune response that brings an overwhelming flood of mucus and inflammatory agents to the area of infiltration. The blockages that result pose significant challenges to breathing, metabolism, and removal of wastes from the system--some of the major (sometimes life threatening) symptoms we're now seeing. Vitamins A and C not only help to prevent the virus' entry into our cells by strengthening the membranes, and not only do they help to fortify immune cell production and immune response in the case of entry, but they also support the blood vessel walls and the mucus membranes that line our respiratory and digestive tracts so that if the virus does enter, the damage it can cause is significantly reduced, and more quickly repaired.
Garlic mustard is known for its impressive vitamin A levels, and it has been shown to contain 3-4 times as much vitamin C as oranges.
Not only does it strengthen immunity and support tissue integrity, garlic mustard is a potent antimicrobial agent as well. This is due in part, to its many sulphur compounds. These can be detected in the sulphury smell that we find in most Mustard (or Cabbage) family plants. Their presence creates a less-than-hospitable environment for bacterial and fungal growth (see more on this in part II of this article), while also stimulating immune function in a number of ways. One of those ways is by gently increasing heat in the body. This makes the immune cells work, and reproduce more quickly. Generally speaking, maintaining a higher temperature will increase the body's immune capacity (which is why we may develop a fever when we get an infection). In the early days of spring, when the damp & cold weather can easily permeate us, garlic mustard's contribution of warmth helps to protect the body (and particularly the lungs) from infection.
Many descriptions of COVID19 in the lungs characterize it as having a profoundly "cold" effect. The respiratory passages are stuck, not only because of a buildup of mucus and fluids, but also because there is not enough heat to move things through, so the fluids congeal. Hot drinks are encouraged, as well as warming herbs like ginger, onions, garlic and thyme. Once again, the warming action of garlic mustard fits this indication to a tee.
Like all Mustard family plants, garlic mustard is known to encourage the clearance of phlegm build up in the lungs. We can feel this when we taste the spicy leaves, roots and seeds, which tend to "cut" mucus and move it out of the system. When I work with clients who tend towards lots of mucus build up, I encourage them to eat radishes, turnips, horseradish and mustard greens regularly. (While on the subject of clearing mucus, I will mention that avoiding dairy and other creamy/fatty foods will often significantly help to reduce build up as well)
In addition to its spiciness, garlic mustard also has a slightly bitter flavour. The mild bitterness is helpful because it gently but effectively stimulates all aspects of the digestive function. Improved digestion means improved absorption of many the nutrients provided by the plant, as well as those we take in from all the other foods & supplements we ingest.
The bitter flavour also supports the liver in its clearance of wastes and toxic elements from the system. Liver clearance is a crucial aspect of fighting off pathogens. A system overburdened with wastes and toxicity is an immuno-compromised system. Also, when the body is fighting infection, lots of waste is continually generated by the immune system, and this can cause further damage and invite in more infection if the liver fails to clear it out fast enough.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS OF GARLIC MUSTARD'S OFFERINGS
So how do we work with this abundant plant to make use of its offerings?
With relative ease. The entire plant is edible, from root all the way up to seed. It is safe to consume in abundance (although I would recommend that folks with low thyroid function eat it cooked more often than raw---and the same goes for all foods in this family). It can be easily dug up, and either consumed fresh, dried for future use or preserved in vinegar (or in vodka if you want to make an herbal tincture).
We love to include it in our meals as a fresh spring green vegetable. The young leaves, stalks and roots can be added to stir fries, pastas or blended into pesto. They're also delicious pan cooked on their own with lemon juice and soy sauce. They do have a garlicky flavour as the name suggests, and their mild bitterness resembles that of rapini. In fact, when the stems grow tall and immature buds develop, the bitterness is slightly reduced, and the plant is almost identical to rapini. Fresh leaves can be added to raw salads, and they blend nicely in potato salads where a mustard dressing might enhance the flavour nicely. More recently I've experimented with adding the roots to some home-made kimchi and saurkraut. The enzymes and beneficial bacteria on these fermented foods should help to make the nutrients in the roots that much more accessible. A spicy condiment similar to horseradish can also be made from the roots.
One of my favourite ways to preserve the healing properties of garlic mustard is steeped in vinegar. Its spicy garlicky flavour comes through, along with the plant's myriad trace minerals. I use apple cider vinegar for its numerous health benefits. The method is simple. I fill a jar half full with the chopped up plant, and then pour cider vinegar in, filling it to the top. The plant infuses in the vinegar, out of direct light, for 3-4 weeks. I then add this vinegar to my salad dressings regularly, and take it by the teaspoonful if I need an immune boost.
To use it as an expectorant to help clear phlegm from the lungs, I would also take a teaspoon of this infused vinegar, or make a tea using a handful of fresh leaves and roots per cup (if it's too bitter, the tea could be blended with mint, or honey could be added). It would also be effective just eat the the fresh leaves and roots as they are.
HOW TO FIND IT
Garlic mustard can be found growing in woodlands, tree lines and other shaded or partly shaded areas including lawns and gardens. It has heart shaped leaves with prominent veins, and serrated edges. The leaves have smooth stems which come up in a basal rosette from a single white tap root. The plants tend to grow in clusters, and they may have a slight purple-green colour in colder weather. When the leaves are crushed, they give off a garlic smell. This is a key identifying feature of the plant. In its second year of growth, garlic mustard sends up flowering stalks in late May-June. At this stage they resemble broccolini or rapini florets until they open into small, four-petaled white flowers. After flowering, they produce long seed pods around early-mid July, and these are edible as well (though significantly spicier than the rest of the plant). In fall, newly seeded growth returns and the plant is at a similar stage to that of early spring.
The plant seeds itself with vigour, so harvesting before seeds are mature is a way to help keep its invasive tendencies in check. When harvesting garlic mustard, I encourage digging it out from the root whenever possible. As with all harvests, before taking the plant I encourage taking a moment to be mindful of the plant, and of the environment we're in. With this mindfulness, I encourage clarifying our intentions for how we would like to make use of the plant's benefits. And finally, I ask that we harvest with respect, acknowledging with gratitude this gift of the earth.
For a discussion on the plant's invasive tendencies, and how we might view these too as a vehicle for healing CLICK HERE to read Part II: Garlic Mustard as an Invasive Plant Medicine
Scott, Timothy Lee; Invasive Plant Medicine; Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont, 2010
Thayer, Samuel, Nautre's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants; Foragers' Harvest; Birchwood WI, 2010
The word “thrive” has a sense of wildness to it. An idea of energized wellness, well adapted to changing environments and outside influences, responding to life’s encounters with strength, agility, creativity and timeliness. We tend to yearn for this type of well being. This ease of adaptability. Ease of unity with others, balanced with strong enough boundaries to keep ourselves safe and healthy.
To me, wild wellness speaks of relying on our innate intelligence and intuitive knowing to make the best decisions in all aspects of our lives, like what to eat and when, how to move our bodies, where to focus our awareness, when we are safe and when there is danger, when to seek support and when we’ve “got this” on our own.
We can learn a lot about wild wellness by paying attention to wild ecosystems of any size and in any place, from woodlands to beaches to backyards to urban alleyways…
We know that ecosystems thrive on the dynamic changes that continually occur on various levels, taking cues from and responding to all sorts of influences, like the ever changing habitation and visitation of insects, birds and animals, and the longer term life cycles of plants, trees, fungi and lichen that offer opportunities for growth and decay in different ways at different times.
Where there is disturbed or impoverished soil, trees may not be growing, as the land is in the process of gathering nutrients and moisture to make the site suitable for them to live there again one day. The earth will then use her wild intelligence to support that land with certain plants and their root systems along with the bacteria and mycorrhizae that surround them, all helping to bring more nourishment to the soil, while restoring and retaining moisture at the same time. A good example of this type of plant is mullein (Verbascum thaspus) which thrives on poor, dry rocky or sandy sites for a few years following some sort of disturbance, followed afterwards by other plants that are able to grow in the soil that the mullein has prepared for them. Mullein is also an important plant medicine for humans, helping to restore healthy tissue growth at sites of injury and irritation, bringing more fluids and nutrients to the tissues, and in turn, more soothing and healing.
Nowadays, as we well know, many ecosystems on the planet are working to adapt themselves to toxic loads. As chemicals and heavy metals from ever-growing industry and ever increasing waste build up in the soil daily, they are carried from place to place in the hard-to-predict movements of water and air, affecting ecosystems that may even be some distance from the original source of the pollution. Sadly, this means that sometimes even seemingly healthy forests and wild lands where balance and relative purity has been maintained throughout our lives are now taking up toxicity, weakening their native plants and trees, and bringing more potential for illness. As trees are felled for industrial and/or large scale agricultural growth, and their vast root systems, so crucial for supporting nutrient sharing and immunity are depleted, ecosystem resilience seems to suffer all the more.
What we can observe however is that challenged ecosystems still employ the strength of the earth’s ancient wild intelligence to help them restore balance, clear away toxicity, rebuild nutrients and provide food and shelter for other life forms–in other words, to continue to thrive despite the challenges. Fortunately for us as inhabitants of the earth, there are plants with enough intense resilience and strength to grow in disturbed and toxic ecosystems. Plants that continue to oxygenate our air, while rendering benign organic matter out of harmful chemicals throughout their growth cycle, and at the same time, providing food and medicine for the earth and its surrounding life forms.
More and more we are seeing this as “invasive plants” show up at sites of toxic spills and industrial accidents, thriving when other species can’t. The idea of allowing the growth of “invasive” plants in toxic areas so that the earth’s natural phytoremediation process can occur is being taken more seriously as we increasingly recognize and integrate the idea that the earth’s intelligence is incomparably more sophisticated than that of humans at this point. And not only are we finding this support for ecosystems from these plants, it turns out that many of our “invasive” wild plants are proving to be important medicines for a growing number of health challenges that have been linked to exposure to environmental toxicity. We find in many of them medicinal properties that address health issues such as systemic infections from new super bugs, various auto-immune issues and cancers.
Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago about one of these important plant medicines, Japanese knotweed.
…And this one, by Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald that expounds on the medicinal and phytoremedial benefits of another “invasive” healing plant, Purple Loosestrife.
This study examined the wild plants that grew and thrived while taking up numerous heavy metals and arsenic following a toxic mine spill near Seville, Spain.
…And here, a Boston University study on the ability of our fiercely invasive (and very nutritious) Garlic Mustard to speed up nutrient recycling in forest leaf litter, allowing trees and plants to take up nutrition at a faster rate, and thus helping to restore the overall health of the forest over time.
As our environment changes, wild ecosystems shift, becoming habitable spaces for new species, and sometimes less habitable for those who have been living there. While these changes seem disturbing, especially as we watch them happening at such an alarming rate, I believe it is important at this time to trust in the earth’s dynamic wild intelligence which is never static but relies on continual change and adaptation in order to thrive.
There is potential for much more research in the area of phytoremediation and invasive plant medicine. I would wholeheartedly encourage this type of study. Even if lab research is not being widely supported enough at this time however, we can make our own observations, collect our own empirical data, do our own research, and share our findings with others. I believe that doing this grassroots level work will prove to be invaluable for many of us as we come to rely increasingly on the resources directly around us to support our needs for health, and otherwise.
I have been focusing on this area, and intend to continue doing so as I watch these “invaders” enter our landscape while we encounter perplexing new illnesses whose treatment approaches are still uncertain.
As we come to recognize that our innate intelligence is not separate from that of the earth, I believe we will ignite our potential to thrive in ways we may not yet have imagined.
Scott, Timothy Lee. Invasive Plant Medicine. Rochester Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2010
In my previous post, I talked about ways to boost the immune system to prevent infection. Since sometimes it gets its way in, even despite the best of our efforts, I’ve created this follow up post to talk about the three main things I like to do to fight a cold or flu in its very early stages, as soon as I feel that tickle in the throat…
That feeling in the throat comes from a conglomeration of bacteria and immune cells, creating inflammation and subsequent irritation on the membranes between your nose and chest (where the bacteria are generally looking to invade). At this stage of infection, your immune cells are just beginning to respond to live invading bacteria. Your body is very vulnerable at this stage, and your infection is very contagious to others. However, if you can respond quickly enough, and with sufficient potency, you can stop the invasion here, before you experience any more symptoms.
The three things necessary to do this are:
killing off the invading bacteria
clearing the debris out of the body
restoring and strengthening the immune system before and after the battle
One safe, easily accessible herb that addresses all three of these necessities is garlic. I like to take garlic immediately when I feel a cold coming on. A good way to take it is to chop it up or mince it, put it on a spoon and swallow it down in small amounts with water. You don’t have to chew it, just swallow it like a pill. This way you hardly taste it, and it hardly affects your breath but goes directly to your digestive tract where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. You want to take at least three tablespoons of minced garlic, or about 5 or 6 cloves minced. You need the garlic to be fresh and raw in order to be most effective. Garlic kills off bacteria and reduces inflammation while supporting immune cell production and action. It is also cleansing to the body, helping to clear out wastes (from killed off bacteria and their waste products) so that there is less chance of infection taking hold. One way that garlic helps to clear out wastes is via the sweat glands. Garlic is known as a diaphoretic herb, meaning that it induces sweating.
Sweating is a relatively quick and easy method of clearing out wastes when fighting infection. It is another thing that I try to do when I feel like I’m getting sick. Building up body heat through saunas, baths, perhaps exercising and/or wearing lots of warm clothing will help to induce a cleansing sweat. We have other diaphoretic herbs in additions to garlic that can help to encourage sweating. Some of my favourites are ginger, elder flowers and yarrow. I like to make a tea with chopped up ginger, elder flowers and/or yarrow flowers and steep it with a lid on for at least 10 minutes. I will often pour a hot bath while the tea steeps, and then strain the tea and drink it in the bath. This raises the body temperature (which activates immune cells) and triggers sweating which helps to clear out bacteria and infective toxins through the pores of the skin. I like to use fresh ginger generously for this, but if all I have is dried powdered ginger, I will put a pinch of that into my cup of tea. Powdered ginger is stronger than fresh, so a little goes a long way. Elder flowers grow wild in our area, and I harvest them from the elder trees (Sambucas spp.) in June. I then dry them to be stored and used in tea throughout the year. Yarrow (Achillea millefollium) also grows wild in our area, found in fields, lawns and trail sides. I harvest the flowering heads in early July, dry them like the elder flowers and store them for future use as well. (Both elder and yarrow are tremendously healing plants with many uses–this is but one of them).
Another quick and easy method of clearing out waste products from fighting infection is through the urinary tract. The kidneys and bladder will quickly and easily clear out wastes as long as there is enough fluid in the body to create urine. This means, we need to drink lots of water! If the throat is irritated, you might find that drinking warm or hot water is nicer than cold water, and this is fine. The yarrow and elderflower are also good diuretic herbs, so drinking tea with them will encourage urination. However, in order to be sure you’re clearing out all the wastes you no longer need, you want to have lots of fluid moving through your system. And the best, cleanest most beneficial fluid is water. Nature’s gift to us. So I make sure I am drinking way more than I normally would whenever I’m feeling the throat tickle.
The final necessary piece in all of this is to ensure that the body is supported with proper restoration while your immune system fights the good battle. The most important thing to do is very little! Resting and better yet, sleeping will allow all of your healthy cells to regenerate, healing the damage caused by the invading pathogens, so that any remaining infection is easily fought off, and any bacteria hanging around looking for an opportunity to invade will not find one in you! Staying home, putting extra blankets on the bed, wearing extra warm pajamas and avoiding anything that demands a lot of energy (both physical and mental) will all help to prevent the onset of illness or at least encourage a quick recovery. Drinking tea without caffeine, but with chamomile, lemon balm, hops, passion flower or other soothing, tranquilizing herbs can help you to have a long, much needed restorative sleep.
Of course there are many tips to fighting off a cold or flu, and I’ve only touched on a few here. I’m sure you have some of your own. If you feel like sharing any of them in the comments here, I’d love to hear about them. I hope the general concepts and suggestions I am offering here are of some value to you, however. And I wish you warmth and vibrant health this winter!
Good immunity is good health, I dare say.
Not only does it help to keep the winter cold and flu bugs away. A healthy immune system can mean prevention of devastating illness. As we are surrounded by cases of Lyme disease, cancer, and various antibiotic resistant infections, strong immunity is always crucial. If we become wounded or undergo surgery, our immune system must be prepared to ensure that no harmful bacteria or viruses can take hold while the body, in its vulnerable state works to restore itself.
Building immunity is a simple holistic process. To illustrate this, I'm presenting here six simple ways to support immune health over the long term.
The first three suggestions are not herbs, but other basic approaches that can go a long way with a little commitment. In the final three picks, I offer some favourite local wild plant foods/medicines that can safely help to build and strengthen immunity.
So here they are. Simple, clear and helpful. Starting with the most important one...
1) GET ENOUGH REST
ALLOW FOR DAILY RESTORATION
A tired body is like an open invitation for invading microbes. Long term exhaustion leads to long term illness. All the cells and tissues of the body (including immune cells) regenerate and strengthen when the body is at rest. The benefits of using sleep for preventative health can not be overstated. Not only will you feel better and resist illness more easily, but you'll make clearer, wiser decisions throughout the day.
There are many herbs that can help to support sleep for those who have a hard time getting there. I've written about two of them in a previous blog which you can read HERE.
If healthy sleep habits are challenging, even conscious efforts towards relaxation and releasing tension, stress, fear, anger and other such challenging emotions built up during the day is significantly beneficial to immune health. Stress eats up many of the nutrients that feed the immune system. And fear exhausts immunity. Anything we do to relax these patterns of thought and the holds they have on the body will be helpful. Restorative yoga, qi gong, tai chi or mindfulness exercises are good practices towards this end.
2) AVOID REFINED SUGAR
BE ON YOUR OWN TEAM
Cancer cells, candida cells and in fact all harmful microbes thrive on sugar. They use it for a quick source of energy, just as we do. Sugar helps them to invade and reproduce more quickly, and at the same time it dampens down our immune response so that our immune cells are less aware of the invading organisms and more sluggish in response to them. For many folks, giving up sugar can be a difficult process, but even making conscious attempts at reducing it bit by bit can be monumental for your general health, and your immunity.
I like to use dates, maple syrup and apple butter or apple sauce in baking and as snacks to fulfill my sweet cravings. Fruits of any kind, fresh, cooked or dried are also good nourishing sweets that will often provide vitamin C as well as numerous other nutrients that build immunity.
3) FEED THE GOOD GUYS
Pro-biotic foods and supplements give our immune systems a boost by increasing the number of healthful bacteria in our systems (mainly in the gut) which can then join the army of immune cells helping to fight off harmful bacteria that can cause illness. A strong immune system has thriving gut flora.
Fresh, organic uncooked vegetables and fruits are good pro-biotic foods because their live enzymes are still present and vibrant when we consume them. If they are preserved through lacto-fermentation (or unpasteurized pickling), these enzymes remain and blend with new helpful bacteria that grow through the fermentation process. This becomes an even more potent pro-biotic.
Unpasteurized or fermented foods that we can buy will always be found in the refrigerators of grocery stores. These include miso, saurkraut, kefir, yogurt and kombucha. Fermented foods can also be made at home, but if you're looking to purchase some excellent fermented foods and you're in Ontario, I would recommend Tradition Miso and Pyramid Ferments.
4) BURDOCK Arctium lappa
MORE FOOD FOR THE GOOD GUYS
Burdock is the plant that makes the burrs that stick to us and our pets as we walk through fields and along forest edges. This plant has a deep tap root that harnesses numerous trace minerals from down in the soil. It is a nutritious and tasty vegetable that can be cooked into soups and stir fries or grated raw into salads. I like to chop it up and infuse it in apple cider vinegar, where its nutty flavour is taken up, and trace minerals like iron are extracted, making them more bio-available.
When harvested in the fall, burdock root is rich in the starch, inulin. Inulin is a key source of food for our gut flora, or our "good bacteria". While pro-biotic foods and supplements give us more gut flora, we can encourage the reproduction of our already-existing gut flora with nutrients that feed it, like inulin. Food for our gut flora is known as pre-biotics. Burdock root is thus an excellent pre-biotic, and in turn it provides much support for our immune health. Winter soups with burdock root added to them are a good way to support immunity using a food that is also an herbal medicine.
PRIMING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
This is a broad category. We certainly have some mushrooms that are used more as medicine and others used more as food; however what I want to emphasize here is that pretty much any mushroom that is safe for us to ingest is also beneficial for the immune system. Shitake, portabello, oyster, chanterelle, reishi or turkey tail are all mushrooms available in the wild, at farms or grocery stores. All contain complex starches or polysaccharides which not only serve as pre-biotics like the burdock mentioned above, but they also strengthen the immune response in a way that is similar to exercising a muscle.
As these polysaccharides break down, they surround healthy cells, making the cells feel as though they are being attacked by an invading organism. This triggers an immune response as immune cells are called into action. Part of this process involves the production of new immune cells as the body prepares for a potential ongoing attack. Since there is no real offending organism to fight off, as a result of this process, our bodies produce a larger store of immune cells that can be used in the future. The immune system also gets a bit of a workout through a sort of "false alarm". In this way, the entire army is primed and prepared should a genuine offender enter the scene.
Water is the best solvent in which to extract the polysaccharrides from mushrooms. Therefore, a good idea to build your immunity is eating mushroom soup. It actually goes very well with chopped up burdock root, especially with a generous amount of onions, miso and/or soy sauce added.
6) SPRUCE, PINE & OTHER CONIFERS (Picea spp)
VITAMIN C FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH
The immune support offered by our hearty conifer trees is manifold. They are a tremendous source of vitamin C, which as most of us know is a key component of immune health. Drinking spruce or pine tea regularly over the winter will help to ensure a good intake of vitamin C from a tree who knows winter well (instead of taking it from a citrus fruit which is a lot less adapted to winter conditions and thus has less support to offer us from that vantage point). Conifers are also deeply warming to the body, helping it to adapt to the cold weather and keep the metabolism and immune function active and vital. Meanwhile conifers are quite strongly antibacterial. Taking conifer tea at the onset of cold or flu symptoms can help allay the symptoms and fight off the bugs before they take hold.
All species of spruce and pine that we find in our region can be used as medicine. The needles can be harvested at any time of year, and at times freshly fallen branches make themselves easily available for collection and use. The needles can be steeped while covered for at least 10 minutes, and drank as tea with honey and/or lemon juice if desired to enhance their flavour.
...and there we have it. 6 tips. All fairly simple and easily accessible. All in support of excellent long term immune health.
I would like to speak more about ways we might approach infections when they do come on and our immune systems must deal with them. That however, is for another post and another day.
For now, we can focus on hibernating, cooking nourishing foods and bringing some of our wild plant food/medicines into the mix...
Last week my 14-year-old nephew Zev came to visit and help out in the gardens here at the farm. He arrived amidst a major heat wave, but was eager to get to work soon after he settled in. Because of the intense heat, I did not argue with him when he objected to my suggestion that he wear closed shoes and socks while preparing a new bed for planting. He said he would be fine in his sandals. We both learned our lesson there…
After about two hours of work in the hot sun, he had an accident involving a pitch fork and his foot. He hobbled to the house, slightly in shock, with a wound between his big toe and second toe. It was hardly bleeding (there is less blood circulation in the foot compared to other parts of the body) but he was in great pain, his foot was beginning to swell and he could not put weight on it.
I immediately gave him some homeopathic Arnica to help deal with the shock and pain of the injury. Meanwhile, I cleaned and assessed the wound. It didn’t seem deep enough to need stitches, and I hoped we could treat it without having to go to the hospital. We bathed the foot in a salt bath that had a strong tea of some of my favourite wound herbs added to it: yarrow, St John’s wort, plantain and self heal. The bath seemed to soothe the pain, and helped to pull out debris from the wound.
However, by the next day, the swelling and pain continued, and we decided it would be worthwhile to get an x-ray and a medical opinion. Off to the ER we went. The x-rays showed no fracture, so this was good news. The concern however, was of infection, indicated by the swelling and redness. The types of infections that could occur from a wound like that were worrisome. The doctor suggested an intravenous antibiotic. While we were hoping to avoid this (as antibiotics can interfere with immune system’s own attempts at healing, using the body’s healthy bacteria for defense), we decided that in this instance, with a potentially powerful and fast moving infection, it seemed we may be foolish not to try the antibiotics. And so we did.
Talking to the doctor however, we realized that he was concerned that even the antibiotics might not be enough to clear the infection. This was the scariest part for us. Such a strong shot of antibiotics still might not work? The reality of antibiotic-resistant bacteria was hitting home for me. I recall a number of instances in my youth when antibiotics were given to me, and any infection I had would clear up fairly quickly. Nowadays of course, this is no longer the case as bacteria are developing their own defenses against broad spectrum antibiotics that had once wiped them out cleanly.
I realized that it would be up to us to do whatever we could to help fight off infection.
With the help of a wonderful resource, Stephen Harrod Buhner’s “Herbal Antibiotics”, I put together a tincture formula of immune-boosting, antimicrobial herbs.
It consisted of 1 part:
Echinacea angustifolia (root and flower), Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), Plantain (Plantago spp)
along with 1/2 part:
Oregon Grape Root (Berberis aquifolium)
I gave him a 1/2 teaspoon dose of this tincture, every 1-2 hours throughout the day. We also bathed the foot daily in salt water with herbal tea added. The herbal tea consisted of the same herbs I had used in the initial foot bath (yarrow, st john’s wort, plantain and self heal).
I had him take a full bulb of garlic, minced, by swallowing it with water (like taking a pill) in order to really boost the immune system. I also added lots of fresh garlic to the meals I was serving him.
And finally, we made daily poultices on the wound using fresh plantain leaf.
This part seemed by far to be the most effective thing we did.
Every Tuesday, when my work day is finished, I head to our local town hall where a group of people gather to dance. With an eclectic play list of music, we dance barefoot, free form, following our own rhythms and allowing our bodies to move however they feel. We dance like no one is watching and it is immensely freeing. It feels like one of the healthiest things I do for myself on a regular basis, and I’m continually grateful for the opportunity, week after week. Recently, on one of these Tuesdays, as my body was letting itself go into movement, my mind reflected on the idea of movement and rhythm and the role it plays in our lives. There is an ebb and flow, an inward and outward, expansive and contractive movement that creates and maintains life. Rhythm, I understood, is a basic underlying element of life. Rhythm is life force.
We find this ebb and flow in the microcosms and macrocosms of everything we know. From the rhythm of our breath, our heartbeat, the flapping of wings in flight, the ocean tides, the waxing and waning of the moon to the expansive wave and contracted particle formations of energy frequencies, the inward/outward flow prevails.
We see it also in the growth patterns of plants. The contracted seed, closed to protect itself and store its nourishment eventually softens and expands, becoming a cotyledon. As the cotyledon develops, consuming the seed’s stored nourishment, it soon gathers energy back inward, concentrating in the stem where it forms leaf axils. Once there is enough “fuel” in the leaf axils, new leaves expand outwards from the stem. Then the plant contracts to nourish the growth of future leaves. As new leaves and stems keep growing, the plant prepares itself for flowering. Eventually flower buds will emerge in tight contracted bundles. Then later they’ll expand outward into flowers. The pollinated flowers then eventually contract again, forming denser seeds. These later fly off or fall off the plant in a final outward expression. The fallen seeds remain in their contracted seed state until conditions allow expanion outwards again into new cotyledons.
And so we see how the inward/outward rhythms guide and carry life along its course.
Our bodies and minds move through these same rhythms, along with the seasons of the earth. Now we are in spring, and we emerge from the contracted, inward focused days of winter. We leave our dwellings, spending more time outdoors rather than staying in, safe from the weather.
Seedlings and leaves begin to sprout, exposing themselves to the elements and using whatever stores of energy they have to withstand the forces of nature and to grow stronger. There is a sense of motivation here, and of expending of energy towards the goal of new life.
As our systems adjust to the various inward and outward rhythms of life, we can sometimes rely on the support of plant medicines and foods to help us find balance.
When we remain too long in an inward, contracted state, our systems become more sluggish and we tend get a buildup of un-metabolized food and other substances in the body. This buildup can lead to toxicity, weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, hormone imbalances and a whole host of other ailments. You can read more ideas on this state of buildup in my former post Clearing the Pipes.
Too much time spent in an outward, expansive state can use up our energy stores, depleting us of nutrients and leading to an overburdened nervous system, adrenal fatigue, high or low blood pressure and an eventual run-down condition.
To nourish the inward, contracted rhythm, we could consider the use of seeds and roots–both being denser in nature, and serving the purpose of storing food for growth. Oat seeds come to mind here. Green (not fully developed) oat seeds, known as “milky oat seeds” act as a food for the nervous system, helping to restore the effects of over-stimulation which can come from too much exposure to the outside world and not enough “down time”. Mature oat seeds (what we know of as oat groats or oatmeal) serve this purpose as well, when used as a daily food. Green nettle (Urtica dioica) seeds also fit this role, helping to nourish the kidneys and adrenal glands in cases of adrenal fatigue. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds help to calm spasms and cramping in the digestive tract, relaxing the gut and helping to restore the body’s proper reception of nourishment from food. Roots can be appropriate cool weather herbs or foods that provide deep nourishment. Burdock root (Artcium lappa), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) and jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosis) are mineral rich herbs that serve this purpose. In the fall, these root develop the starch, inulin–a bitter substance that when consumed, contributes to efficient and effective digestion balancing proper nutrient absorption with detoxification.
Herbs that nourish the expansive rhythm are often flowers and leaves. They can work well to quickly fight infections, reduce inflammations and stimulate various organs into proper functioning. Some good examples of early spring herbs that fit this rhythm are nettle leaf, dandelion leaf and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). These greens help to stimulate the liver, allowing any stored or stagnant material remaining from the slower winter months to be sloughed off and released from the system. By doing this, they give the body more energy and motivation, and often a more positive outlook. Ideas we may have had over the winter can now manifest into reality, as we “come out of our shells”. I’ve written more about the qualities of dandelion leaf as an aid towards motivation and mobilization in my post Dandelion, Clarity & Direction.
The more we look into these patterns of rhythm the more we find them on every level of existence. The wisdom found in this perception helps us gain insight into our own state of health at any given moment.
An inspiring way to tune into this wisdom each day is by watching the plants in their continual dance as they grow through the changing rhythms of life.