We talked about the differences between herbs and spices and their obvious value in Part 1 of this series and now I would like to introduce you to my 4 favourite herbs to grow and/or use for medicinal and first-aid purposes.
Herbs as Medicinal Plants
There are over 2000 plants that can be used in herbal medicine in the Western world (even more world wide!). And these plants, in their various forms, have been used since our beginning. Even now, the World Health Organization has estimated that perhaps 80% of the world's population relies on traditional therapies such as botanical medicines (the use of plants as medicine). It is unfortunate that in the US and Canada we know very little about the tremendous value of herbs as medicine.
Plants play a large role in our modern pharmaceutical industry and many modern drugs were initially derived from plants.
So what happened? Why did we stray so far from our roots - pun intended?
Uses of Herbs as medicine
Herbs can be used to strengthen and tone organs and systems and work well as preventative measures. They are also great in the first aid cabinet for minor wounds!
Herbs have many actions – some are antimicrobial or anti-inflammatory. Some have astringent, diuretic (increases the secretion and elimination of urine) properties. Some aid the liver (hepatics) while some tone and strengthen the nervous system (nervines). Some act as expectorants (the removal of excess mucus from the respiratory system) and some are adaptogens - they gradually produce a beneficial change in bodily functions. They can improve detoxification of the body by improving digestion and elimination...Just to name a few!
Herbs can be used in many different forms
Infusions - this is probably the most common and easy method of taking in herbs - if you know how to make tea, you know how to make an infusion. You can use fresh or dried herbs (1 tsp. of dried herbs = 3 tsp. fresh herbs); typically the leaves, flowers or stems of the plant. Add 1 tsp. dried herbs to 1 cup of boiling water and let steep for 10-15 minutes. You can sweeten with licorice root or honey.
If using the roots, bark, seeds or resin you will need to dry them out and crush them into a powder to break down the cell walls and/or help release the volatile oils (eg. with fennel or anise seeds).
Tinctures - these are often alcohol preparations (sometimes vinegar or glycerin can be used) and are most often professionally prepared.
Capsules/pills/lozenges - Dry preparations (Capsules/pills/lozenges) are good if you do not want to taste the herb in its entirety (the woody material may still be present) and they are incredibly convenient. However, the dry herbs are usually not processed (cell walls not broken down etc.) and the plant constituents are not easily available and absorbable. Another drawback is that you don't taste the herb - now this was mentioned as an advantage - but sometimes the effectiveness of the herb lies in its bitter taste and if you can't taste it, well, then, it is not as effective.
External Remedies (Ointments/compresses/poultices/baths/suppositories) - these are very effective and easy to use as the body can absorb herbal compounds through the skin.
Some great first aid herbs - good to have in ointment form:
Arnica - product
Essential Oils - Essential oils are known as “volatile oils” in herbalism. They represent one, highly concentrated compound of the plant (while tinctures use all parts of the plant), making them super potent. Because of this, they should always be diluted properly in an appropriate carrier oil and all precautions and dosing recommendations should be followed.
Herbs can be highly effective when used individually but some work really well in conjunction with other herbs. For example, if using yarrow to help the body deal with fever, it may combine well with Elderberry flower or Peppermint. Or, if using Red Clover for skin issues, it may combine well with Yellow Dock and Nettles. Often professional preparations use beneficial herbal combinations to give you the best outcome.
My 4 Favourite Herbs to use Medicinally
Herb #1 - Calendula/Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula is one of the best herbs for treating local skin problems. It acts as an anti-inflammatory, astringent and anti-fungal. It can be used whenever there is inflammation of the skin whether due to an infection or physical damage. Whenever my kids have a cut or a sore we break out the calendula cream.
I love, love, love this homeopathic cream and use it on the regular! It is water soluble, doesn't sting and can be used safely on kids and even pets. When my pup has irritation in his ears and has sores from scratching, the calendula cream seems to provide him with some relief. We still need to get to the root of the itching issue, but it definitely helps relieve the itch and helps heal up the wound.
Calendula is a great first-aid remedy for cuts, bruises, external bleeding, burns or scalds and can be very effective for slow healing wounds.
It can be used internally (as an infusion or a tincture) for digestive inflammation and ulcers and can help with indigestion.
It also has a reputation of helping to normalize the menstruation process.
Herb #2 - Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)
I think everyone has heard of and has probably used echinacea for its effectiveness fighting both bacterial and viral attacks. In fact, in conjunction with other herbs, it can be used for an infection anywhere in the body.
There are many products sold on the market with echinacea in them - teas, herbal tinctures and other multi herbal formulas.
When I feel a cold or a sore throat coming on, I like to start sipping Organic Echinacea Plus tea from Traditional Medicinals (a brand found at most supermarkets). This tea also has Elderberry in it - Elderberry almost made my list for its use against colds and influenza too, which makes this tea even better.
I also like this homeopathic product to help kick the bug in the butt.
Echinacea, when dosed appropriately can be used with children over 2 - but ALWAYS make sure to read the product labels about warnings and age dosages!
Herb #3 Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Is it a flower, a weed an herb? People have a definite love/hate relationship with this plant. And there seem to be 2 very distinctive camps:
1. We hate them: Get rid of all of those ugly, nuisance weeds at whatever cost
2. We love them: Keep all the dandelions as they are the first, beautiful food for our pollinators.
Dandelion is a very powerful diuretic. Most diuretic drugs also cause a detrimental loss of vital potassium from the body, but dandelion is one of the best natural sources of potassium, making it an ideally balanced diuretic that may be use safely when such action is required.
It also acts as a cholagogue - a very effective liver tonic - useful with congested liver and gallbladder issues.
There is also some research around its effects with cancer and tumor shrinking (not saying it does, just saying that there is some research to support this theory. More research needs to be done). Anyway, when my mom was diagnosed with Cancer, we wanted to do something, anything. So, after reading about dandelion and its uses with cancer, we started collecting and drying the roots, grinding them up into a powder and making it into a tea.
I will always be in camp #2 - much love and respect for the dandelions.
Herb #4 Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
Marshmallow is an herb? Yes! But don't think that taking it in the form of a smore will be of benefit:)
This is the plant that is processed to make the gooey marshmallows of weird desserts and campfire treats, but it is also a plant that has been used in herbal medicine for centuries.
It is the root and the leaves of the plant that are commonly used for herbal preparations to treat coughs, skin irritations and digestive problems like inflammation of the mouth, gastritis, peptic ulcers, enteritis and colitis. Marshmallow leaf is very soothing for any mucous membrane irritations - anywhere.
Externally, the root can be used (as a compress) with varicose veins, ulcers, abscesses and boils.
How and Where to Grow Herbs Yourself
If you are interested in the medicinal uses of herbs, there are many courses run online or in your community (libraries, community centres, local colleges). Maybe even look for ones that take you out to forage for the herbs in the forest and then teach you how to make different kinds of preparations from what you collect. If this is beyond what you can do, you can always find dried herbs at health food stores or online retailers. Or you could learn to grow some easy to use ones in your backyard!
You don't need a farm or an acreage to grow herbs; a sunny container, a raised garden box or a window box will get you started.
You can even try growing some year round, inside, with indoor greenhouses, light boxes or UV lights!
How does you garden grow?
See what is growing wild in your garden, yard or neighborhood. You would be surprised what you might think is a weed is actually a beneficial herb.
Not sure what is growing? Use a plant id app to find out! That is what I did. I had a large weed growing under one of my Maple trees and it kept coming back year after year. It was getting really big this Spring and before I went to dig it up, I checked a free plant ID app to see what it was. It is Motherwort! Motherwort is an excellent tonic for the heart as well as a relaxing tonic for aiding in Menopausal changes and for stimulating delayed or suppressed menstruation. I think I will keep it:)
There are many ways to use herbs as home remedies. They can:
Treat everyday ailments
Help to strengthen the immune system, organs and glands to fight invading bacteria, fungi and viruses
Lower your stress levels
Tone, relax and strengthen your muscles.
Easy ways to use herbs at home are to add to baths (fresh or in oil form), or to infuse in teas (roots, flowers or leaves). You can use different essential oils to make hair and skin treatments, disinfectant sprays, bug repellents and so much more. There are so many great recipes out there for home remedies!
Here is a sinus tea (from the Essential Natural Health Bible) to help relieve symptoms:
1 part sage
1 part elder flower
1 part marshmallow leaf
1 part peppermint
Mix the dried herbs in a small, labeled jar. Add 1 tsp. of the blend to 1 Cup of boiling water. Cover and steep for five minutes. Drink 1 to 3 times per day.
Always use good quality pure essential oils. Take careful note of the precautions that come with some herbs and preparations like essential oils as well as the dosing. For example many herbs, especially in essential oil form, should not be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding or should not be used with babies/kids or pets. Always check with your doctor about possible contraindications if you are taking medications.
If you are using herbs to help more serious complaints, it is always good to speak with a holistic practitioner, herbalist or family doctor for guidance.
The Bottom Line
Herbs have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes - and still are used regularly today in many parts of the world. They are incredibly effective, easy to find (or grow) and don't have the list of side-effects that most pharmaceutical drugs do.
Start small - try some herbal teas from your local supermarket or health food store or find some professionally made herbal formulas for common ailments for first aid treatment - see how you like using them!
If you want to include more medicinal herbs in your life - seek out local herbalists for advice and resources, take a course on how to make basic preparations or forage for wild herbs locally with a botanical group.