Herbs


Happy thing: tomorrow morning I’m flying to San Francisco, and since it’s for work I’m staying in a fancy-ish hotel (as opposed to couch-surfing) and my meals are covered (yay, no shoe-leather soup or cardboard sandwiches!).

Sad thing: My husband has given me the flu. Oh, and my flight is at 5:30 am. Which means that I have approximately 12 hours to completely recuperate. Otherwise I’ll be that horrible person on the flight that everyone gives dagger eyes.

I’ve been doing the following, and can recommend any of these to others to treat a viral infection. Incidentally, the flu is a virus, and treating it with antibiotics is not only not the correct approach, but it’s harmful to one’s body: a single antibiotic treatment kills off nearly all of the bacterial flora we have going on in our guts, and we need those little guys. Friends don’t let friends kill bacterial flora.

1. Taking tinctures of echinacea/goldenseal  for immunity, yerba santa/plantain for sinuses, and ground ivy for sinuses. I’m particularly fond of the yerba santa, as I can immediately feel it working.

2. Lots of teas with reishi mushrooms and astragalus for immunity, anti-viral sumac, marshmallow and slippery elm for my throat, licorice for the adrenals, comfrey for sinuses, and ginger to warm me up.

3. Eating weird but powerfully anti-viral dehydrated sumac and taking an amazing elderberry syrup.

I’m not better yet, but I’d like to think that this herbal regimen is helping me get better faster, and preventing me from getting much, much sicker. And hopefully, with a little luck and a lot more sumac, I’m going to beat this thing before heading to the airport…

I recently completed my apprenticeship with the Boston School of Herbal Studies, which culminated with the exchange of all the various herbal products that students had been making throughout the year. I had made a variety of tinctures (in a nutshell: by soaking herbs in a menstruum, typically vodka or apple cider vinegar, for an extended period) and I received a variety in return, as well as teas, salves, soaps, and even a mugwort, lavender, and flax seed eye pillow, which I am never very far from in bed.

One of my favorite gifts so far has been a tincture of Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, a strange little plant that grows in the woods in the Northeast. It lacks chlorophyll so the entire plant is a ghostly white, and instead of growing to face the sun the flowers bend over towards the earth. We learned in class that it is used for pain and especially intense pain, but it can also be used to induce or support meditative and strange, but not unpleasant states. The tincture is an unusual violet shade, and the flavor reminds me of sweet dark soil. It’s also taken medicinally as a nervine, antispasmodic, febrifuge, and likely other things as well. The roots are used, and the flowers are notoriously delicate; they essentially disintegrate upon handling.

Indian Pipe in Massachusetts

I went for a walk in the woods a few months ago and kept spotting Indian Pipe. Herbalists believe that if one is drawn to a particular plant, then there’s something there worth exploring. Indian Pipe is hard to find if you don’t know what to look for, but my eyes kept falling on it. At one point I sat down with the plant quietly and just listened. There’s an idea in Islam that all plants and animals and even inanimate objects are engaged in the worship of God, that they are naturally in a state of pure submission (and various prophets and saints were acclaimed to have been able to tune into the speech and states of other created things), and that’s what I bring to these quiet little chats with plants. Believing that we are all here with a purpose, I asked the plant what it had to teach. The impression I got was one of black earth, the worms crawling inside, the secretive movements of life beyond what we could see and where we choose to look, and of connections between life and death. When I had the opportunity to try Indian Pipe as a tincture in class, I had a similar sense of the plant. I also had the feeling that my perception just sort of sat like a bird on my shoulder, and then went to the corner of the room and took in the space and conversations inside.

After weeks of constant work, I finally had a quiet few hours last night for prayers and zikr. I wanted to see what Indian Pipe could bring to this. In prayer, in ruku’, I kept thinking of these little plants bent over. It occurred to me that they are constantly in this state of ruku’, of acknowledging their smallness before the divine. This is the part of prayer where the words suhbhanna rabb al-adheem are recited, glorified is the Lord, The Greatest, and I thought of them whispering this. I also felt that I was surrounded by these plants, praying in congregation with them. It was a lovely vision. Throughout, I felt relaxed and clear and engaged.

It’s not something that I would want to use regularly, but I’m happy to have it on my shelf and in my life.

In my last post I wrote about the book Women’s Medicine: A Cross-Cultural Study of Indigenous Fertility Regulation, and specifically, what traditional approaches Afghan women take to enhance fertility. The chapter on Afghan medicine by Pamela E. Hunte also looks at contraception and abortion, which women may seek to limit their family size, in situations of poverty, and to preserve mothers’ health.

I mentioned last time that traditional Afghan medicine, which draws primarily from Greek but also from Ayurvedic medicine, is based on humoral qualities; that heat and cool are basic bodily states which influence what the body can and cannot do. “Heat” is believed to be necessary for pregnancy, with more heat for a male child and less for a female. Conversely, “coolness” is believed to prevent pregnancy. Women take herbs, eat foods, and practice techniques to cool the body down and take the reproductive organs “out of alignment.” Cooling foods include buttermilk and yoghurt, and sometimes after a birth a woman will drink large quantities of cold water. Hunte writes “The comparison is made with the overwatering of a field: when it receives too much water, it will not become green for a long time” (62).

Plantain

One of the main herbs used in contraception is plantain (plantago major), which grows abundantly throughout Massachusetts.  I used plantain in a tincture just this morning to keep a sinus infection at bay after suffering from recent allergies, and plantain is one of the best herbs for skin irritations such as bites, stings, and poison ivy (just chew it up and smear it on!). I haven’t yet found a reference to plantain as a woman’s herb, but Shakespeare did enigmatically leave us with this line from act III scene ii of Troilus and Cressida, “As true as steel, as Plantage (plantain) to the moon…” Moon herbs typically refer to women’s herbs, so, who knows? Locally referred to as zub or bartang, plantain is dried and ground, then boiled and consumed as a tea, either during lactation, during menstruation, or right after birth. Other herbs used are the mallows (Malva rotundifolia), a family of herbs including marshmallow. Again, not an herb I’ve seen associated with fertility, but it’s fascinating to see how plants are used in similar and different ways by different cultures. Marshmallow is mucilaginous and great for teas in the winter when one has a cough or cold. Afghan women insert the herb intravaginally, or apply cooked leaves to the abdomen to “make the womb cold.” One last herb used is acacia (Acacia nilotica) and this one is readily used by other cultures (including our own). While Afghan women use the seeds and blossoms, ancient Egyptians used to insert acacia tips, or ground acacia mixed with dates, as pessaries (vaginal suppositories). Body heat ferments the acacia, breaking the gum Arabic down into lactic lactic, which is used today in spermicides.

Another technique practiced by dais, traditional birth attendants, is the “turning of the navel.” During this procedure the dai firmly massages a woman’s abdomen, then applies a drinking glass or something similar to the area, rotating it with  pressure. This is believed to set the reproductive organs out of alignment and thereby prevent conception.

Traditional Afghan abortifacients include the intravaginal insertion of copper sulphate, hashish, and quinine, and use of herbs such as catnip, wormwood, mints and mallows, which are the same herbs mentioned for use as fertility enhancers, though dose, timing, and the condition of the individual can produce different effects. Also, the author notes that attempted abortion, depending on the method and the dai’s level of skill, often results in death.

Now that I’ve found this book I’ve caught the ethnobotany bug, and I’m going to be looking for more indigenous fertility regulation practices from around the world and will share them here.

There’s a bookstore in my neighborhood that recently went out of business that specializes in used academic texts, and I thought I’d stop by yesterday and see what goodies could be swept up before they disappeared. I was delighted to find a book that I had never heard of but am totally into called Women’s Medicine: A Cross-Cultural Study of Indigenous Fertility Regulation. It’s an edited volume with articles on fertility regulation in Malaysia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Columbia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and among the Aguaruna tribe of Peru. I flipped through it before bed last night and found the chapters to be quite fascinating.

As a budding herbalist and doula, I always like to see what cultures used and still use to regulate fertility prior to the introduction of modern medicine. First of all, I’m not a particularly huge fan of “modern medicine,” and I’m happy that it does some awesome life-saving things and newborn heart surgeries and so on, but for the most part, I think that what medicines are prescribed for us have more to do with giant pharmaceutical companies and greed than actually improving our health. It makes more sense to me to address underlying causes of health issues in our lifestyles and diets than to just keep on suppressing symptoms until we, well, expire. That said, not all traditional medicine makes sense either, and there are still a lot of ideas around the world that reflect poor and incomplete understandings of the way fertility works.  For example, a lot of people still believe that they’re most fertile during their periods. This idea has been around for a very, very long time, held firmly by both Hippocrates and the Greek gynecologist Soranus in the 2nd century AD. Greek or “Unani” medicine (Arabic for “Greek”) was introduced into Afghanistan by Alexander the Great, and still informs much popular understanding of health and human systems along with Ayuverdic medicine. But just because traditional Afghan medicine thinks that ovulation and menstruation are concurrent events doesn’t mean that the medicines they use don’t influence fertility, and so I like to keep an open mind, see what techniques and plants are being utilized, compare it to what I know and learn something new.

A "Hakim" Preparing Medicine

As of 1995, when the book was published, Afghan women mostly wanted to enhance their fertility. There are a number of techniques that they used to do so, the first being diet. In line with most traditional medicinal principles, Afghans understand the body as being either too hot, too cold, or balanced. Women are “colder,” an idea similar to how women are more “Yin” in traditional Chinese medicine, while men are “hotter,” similar to “Yang.” “Heat” is necessary for a woman to become pregnant, and so women consume food and herbs that are believed to increase bodily heat. These include clarified butter, fish, eggs, dates, walnuts, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon. Cold foods, such as yoghurt, buttermilk, and pickled and sour foods are to be avoided. Second, women intake certain warming herbs like catnip, rue (Ruta graveolens), mint, wormwood (the source of absinthe), hashish, and opium. Specific herbs are thought to encourage female children and others for male. If a woman has only delivered daughters she is believed to be “too cold,” and eats herbs like fennel and opium. If she’s only had sons, she is “too hot” and should eat cooling herbs.

Third, hot substances are applied to warm the body. The technique called post-poshidan (the “wearing of skins”) is a practice indigenous to Central Asia, and involves wrapping a freshly slain sheepskin, yucky-side down, around a woman for two days. She may also wrap the skin of a freshly killed chicken around her abdomen with certain herbs applied first such as cloves, turmeric, and cinnamon, and then she eats the chicken meat cooked with ginger.

Fourth, another technique is to vaginally insert certain types of ground mineral substances into the vagina. For a son, she would use red alum and for a daughter white alum. The author notes that though this may seem counterintuitive, the minerals may actually help in clearing up cervical infections that prevent a successful pregnancy.

Finally, women use body alignment techniques to position the uterus. One technique is called Noff-geriftan (“taking of the navel”) in which the dai (a traditional birth attendant) forcefully massages what is described as “a layer of skin” back in place. In another technique, the dai spreads clarified butter and raw dough across a woman’s abdomen and then, using a small clay pot in which a small fire has been lit, creates suction over the dough, gently lifting the dough and the skin beneath, which is believed to straighten out the reproductive organs. The author notes that these techniques are similar to what some Western medical practitioners use to enhance fertility, which is pretty cool.

I’m enjoying this book and will be sharing more tidbits as I go through it. I’ll follow up tomorrow with a second post on how Afghan women prevent pregnancy.

I’ve been AWOL lately, losing myself in California. It’s been a lovely two weeks between San Francisco and Chico, visiting farms and animal sanctuaries and putting a lot of energy into a project I’m working on with my husband called Beyond Halal. We’re both passionate about food and ethical meat sourcing and hope to generate conversations within the Muslim community, and so we’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about the food industry. We visited a gorgeous orchard and goat farm up in Oroville, CA, and a little kid goat fell asleep in my arms. On the other side of the spectrum, we visited a poultry slaughterhouse this morning, which was interesting, to say the least. But that’s not what this blog is about. Here I talk about birth, and health, and so on.

A few cool things have happened. First, I completely randomly ran into one of the country’s few Muslim midwives while visiting Nevada City, a tiny and gorgeous old mining town in Northern California. We ended up having tea with her and her beautiful family that afternoon, and I really relished the experience. I also had the opportunity to  spend the post-poultry part of today with Shannon, another really cool midwife here in the Bay Area who has a beautiful blog called Hakima Midwifery. I accompanied her on two prenatal exams for upcoming homebirth clients. I was really struck by the grace and ease of her midwifery. We visited her clients in their homes, chatted with them generally about their health, but also touched on their families, their lives, and their interests. The women were comfortable and entirely at ease. I compare that to what a recent client of mine noted about her OB, that she hadn’t smiled at her until a visit two weeks before her birth. Sure, I can’t say that all midwives are great, but there is something special about many midwives and I think that so much of that has to do not only with the way that midwives’ lives and schedules are set up (especially compared to obstetricians, who are busy with all sorts of competing obligations), but the way that midwives view birth. Shannon has such a deep respect for mothers, and it’s such a pleasure to see her in action.

Milk Thistle

In other news I managed to harvest some milk thistle while on this trip, and, wow, ouch! The dried flower-heads are covered in intense spikes, and it takes some efforts to dig through the fluff to find the pretty dark brown seeds. Milk thistle is great for the liver, and I’ve been taking it in capsule form over the winter. My plan for the seeds is to grind and add them to smoothies. It was nice getting to meet the plant in person, I felt like it was an old friend. Also, it turns out that you can eat the young shoots and, if you trim off the sharp bits, you can eat the leaves as well. It’s too late in the season for foraging milk thistle, but high time to harvest. If we’d had more time we might have made a nice calming tincture of wild California poppy, but that will have to be the next trip…

I’m becoming more and more of an urban forager these days, and with so many edibles growing abundantly it seems that everywhere I look there’s something to eat. I carry a plastic bag around with me just in case I’m passing by the spot where I get my dandelions and garlic mustard. Yes, I’m that person, and though I haven’t noticed anyone staring (yet), I suspect that they do.

Garlic mustard, considered to be a pesky invasive, is a wonderful and easy green to cook with. So far I’ve eaten it in a salad, stir-fried, and as a pesto. It has a mild garlicky flavor that lends well to a pesto. Before I get into the recipe, I have to say that I think there’s something a little funny about the way we treat ‘weeds’ and ‘invasives.’ Weeds like dandelion and chicory are great to eat and extremely nutritious and healthy, especially for the liver, and garlic mustard is an easy and versatile green. As a country we use so many lawn treatments, pesticides, and other harmful products to control the growth of these foods and at the same time we have such poor diets. I say we control these “weeds” by putting them in our bellies.

Garlic Mustard in Whitefish Bay, WI

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Ingredients:

  • A whole mess of garlic mustard leaves (optional: add other greens like basil, dill, parsley, etc.)
  • Quality organic olive oil
  • Pine nuts or walnuts
  • Salt and pepper

Blend and serve on bread, pasta, or as a topping on just about anything else.

This past weekend I began the first in a series of herbal intensives through the Boston School of Herbal Studies apprenticeship program. Since our plant walk on Sunday (the first day it hit the 70′s here in Boston!), I can’t stop looking at the ground. What was once a weedy lot is now populated by all kinds of healing plants. Here there’s plantain, which, when chewed and applied as a poultice, can soothe a bee sting or mosquito bite or pull out a splinter. There I see burdock, which I’m drinking a ton of these days as a spring liver-tonic. And of course, everywhere, there are dandelions. Dandelion is another excellent liver herb, and as a bitter, stimulates the production of saliva, digestive enzymes, and hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thereby strongly supporting digestive functions. It’s also full of easily assimilatable vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamins A and C, and antioxidants.

I happen to know that Harvard uses organic landscaping around campus, and so I asked the head of landscaping whether they weed the dandelions, and if so, whether they’d mind if I came along and took some for myself. I’m sure he must have thought I was crazy, as did the dozen or so people today who watched me stroll along with fistfuls of greens, the white, dirt-covered roots dangling.

Later today I’ll take home my greens and sautee them with garlic and olive oil for dinner. I’m hoping to tincture the roots in apple cider vinegar, which is a great tincturing medium for mineral-rich herbs. That way, I can enjoy the health benefits of dandelions throughout the year.

Now is a great time to harvest. Pick leaves in areas where you know for sure they aren’t being sprayed with pesticides, ideally on plants that have yet to send up flowers. The longer you wait, the more bitter the plant. For a salad, pick the tiny and tender leaves, but if you’re going to cook them go for larger, tougher leaves.

Here are a couple of dandelion recipes from Mother Earth News.

Herbalist Susun Weed, one of my favorite herbal specialists on women’s health and well being, is offering a course on herbal infusions through her online study program for free. Very exciting! “Nourishing Herbal Infusions – Drink Your Way to Health” will cover how to prepare herbal infusions (which are not the same as teas) and herbal vinegars, benefits of particular herbs and how to build relationships with them, simple steps to improve health and wellness, and other useful information. Her students also receive a 10% discount on orders through Mountain Rose Herbs. Here’s one of the videos from the course:

Also, there’s a new school of herbalism in Boston called the Commonwealth School of Herbal Medicine. They offer a variety of courses, including a series of intensive daylong seminars on women’s health.

I pulled this from the Wise Woman Herbal E-Zine, sent out monthly by herbalist Susun Weed. This recipe was provided by Mary Lane, author of Divine Nourishment: A Woman’s Sacred Journey With Food, and sounds really amazing.

Several years ago I was told that coffee trashes my kidneys. Knowing that they support the amount of sexual energy, (Qi) I have, I knew immediate action was required. That was one thing I wasn’t willing to compromise. I found a basic recipe for an herbal coffee substitute, played around with some roots from my yard, added a little local honey and dark chocolate, and just like magic came up with a decoction that is a powerful tonic for the liver, kidneys and heart while building the blood and Qi. Add a little cream and you have a delicious latte. How’s that for a little magic? I hope you enjoy it!

Herbal Espresso Blend
1 cup dried chicory root
¼ cup dried dandelion root
¼ cup barley
*1/8 cup ginseng, or spikenard root
Sometimes I will add a little nettle root, yellow dock root, and, or comfrey root for extra flavor and medicinal qualities

Directions:
To make the herb blend roast chicory, dandelion, barley and ginseng in a 200 degree preheated oven for 2 hours. Or roast in a large heavy skillet for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Grind in a coffee grinder until fine. Store in a glass container with a lid.

Espresso

1-2 cups water
3-5 tsp herbal espresso blend
1-2 tsp molasses, honey or maple syrup
pinch ground cinnamon
pinch organic dark chocolate powder

Directions:
To make the espresso, simmer the roots blend in water for about 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon and chocolate powder. Steep with the lid on for another few minutes. Sweeten with molasses, honey or maple syrup.

* Ginseng is not recommended for pregnant women or individuals with high blood pressure. It may also have estrogenic activity, which aggravates fibrocystic breast disease in women. If these conditions are present simply eliminate ginseng form mixture.

I’m in love with nettles. Nettle, Urtica dioica, from the Latin uro, “I burn.” Like love, nettle stings. Like love, nettle nourishes. I’ve begun to eye the things I eat and drink differently. My morning cup of green tea is an opportunity to not just have a nice little zen wake-up, it’s a chance to gently feed myself the vitamins and minerals that nettle so richly packs into its long, dark leaves. I make a women’s tea with nettle and raspberry, oatstraw, and peppermint. If I had some alfalfa I’d add that, too. I throw some rose petals into the mix just because. I add nettle to soup broths. If I had fresh nettle, I’d steam it like spinach. We were watching Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood a few nights ago. At one point, bemoaning the lack of seed grain, Cate Blanchett as Lady Marian cries “another year of nettle soup!” Maybe the nettle soup is what made Marian so lovely. Nettle is good for the hair and skin, as an energizer, for wounds and burns, for asthma, diarrhea and dysentery, and among many other things, as a woman’s tonic. Steve Brill writes here:

Many of the benefits are due to the plant’s very high levels of minerals, especially, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. They also provide chlorophyll and tannin, and they’re a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and B complex vitamins. Nettles also have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids. They’re ten percent protein, more than any other vegetable.

A pound of nettle costs only $8.50 at Mountain Rose Herbs. But where to begin? Here’s one idea. Try making make a nettle hair rinse, for shinier, thicker hair (also good for treating itchy scalps). Place 3-4 Tbsp Dried Nettle in a nice big jar, and steep in 3 cups of boiling water for half an hour. Add 1 Tbsp of apple cider vinegar, optionally. After shampooing, pour a bit of the rinse over your hair. It doesn’t need to be washed out. Store the extra rinse in the fridge or freezer.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers