Research into herbal remedies and why they work is a topic close to my heart. Some people believe that the fact that most of the herbs we take have been used traditionally for hundreds of years means that we don’t need to know why or how they affect the body. However, scientists are constantly discovering new things about herbs and their actions in the body. This can lead to new potential uses for herbs, or better ways to take them. For example, research into the way that Vitex agnus castus affects hormone release in the body and the differences caused by high and low doses can help herbalists make better decisions about when and in what dose to prescribe it.Who does it?
Humans are by nature curious and that is what fuels the pursuit of knowledge about the world we live in. I’m not happy with accepting that herbs work by magic and, while for some people the healing process is more effective through belief in supernatural events, I’m a logical person who is interested in why. This is the reason I am currently studying for a Masters degree in medicinal natural products and phytochemistry at UCL. One of the many interesting things I have learnt while doing the course is that lots of people are interested in the healing power of plants without studying to become a herbalist. There are people dedicating their lives to figuring out how and why plants affect our bodies and health just for the advancement of knowledge, which is an inspiring thought; particularly since the numbers of people who are able to afford to study a degree in medical herbalism is dwindling in the UK.Homegrown herbal research
A problem that worries me is that the scientists doing research aren’t communicating with the herbalists prescribing the plants. Yes, there are scientists carrying out ethnobotanical research into the way tribes from far off lands utilise plants, but not many of them are analysing the place plants have in Western societies. Only a small proportion of research papers address the use of herbs in the UK, despite the use of herbal medicine being common. There is a fascination with the exotic, but research into the potential of common weeds growing in our gardens isn’t very exciting. However, the most sustainable medicines are those that grow faster than we can weed them out! One of the problems with drug discovery from natural products is the issue of making medicines from unsustainable sources. Therefore, using rare, slow-growing or hard-to-source plants doesn’t make sense, while using weeds has the potential for truly sustainable medicine.Weeds as food
Not so long ago, it would have been common for us to pick salad to go with dinner on the way home, with plants such as sheeps sorrel, chickweed, wild garlic and dandelion leaf. The rampant Japanese knotweed, which is considered such a pest plant that its presence brings down house prices, actually makes a tasty addition to a meal. The young tender shoots apparently taste a little like rhubarb and are high in beneficial nutrients such as resveratrol and vitamin C. It may be that the loss of some of the diversity in our diets from foraged foods like these has diminished the number of beneficial plant chemicals and increased the risk of chronic health problems.
There may be many more benefits to our local UK plants than just a good addition to a health diet, but we’ll never get to the bottom of it unless more people are inspired to study the plants around us.
I love this time of year, with the warmer temperatures and the signs of new life appearing all round us. I’ve just moved to a new house and have the excitement of not knowing what plants will be appearing in the garden as the seasons change. The first surprise this Spring has been a beautiful carpet of violets (Viola odorata) in one corner of the lawn.
These pretty little purple flowers and their leaves can be used as a cough remedy, to treat upper respiratory catarrh and in skin conditions like eczema. The flowers and leaves can be dried or used fresh and added to boiling water and drunk as an infusion three times daily. In inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, adding a little chickweed (Stellaria media) for reducing inflammation and goosegrass (Galium aparine) for aiding lymphatic clearance can help. Both of these common herbs are available year round and can be found in most parks and gardens (including mine!).
On further inspection, I found yarrow (see this post for info on yarrow) and dandelion in my garden, which are also very common. Plants such as chickweed and dandelion were once foraged for and eaten most of the year round, perhaps contributing to the lower levels of chronic illness. Many of these herbs are good for helping to support your body when you are trying to improve general health. With all these nourishing and cleansing herbs available now, it is a much better time of year to do a ‘detox’ or cleanse of your body than in January when your body and nature are still in hibernation mode (see this post for info on a healthy detox).
For some unknown reason, serendipity maybe, specific herbs feature in my practice at certain times. At the moment, the herb of the hour for me is Calendula officinalis, the bright and cheerful marigold. The flowers are already out, adding some colour to gardens. I have been using it on my family and patients for various different reasons.
Topically (i.e. on the surface of the skin) it acts as an anti-inflammatory and vulnerary, healing the skin and reducing redness and swelling. It has also been found to increase the growth of new skin in wounds and leg ulcers, helping them to heal up faster. To add to this, Calendula is also antimicrobial, and was found to be more effective than methylparaben at inhibiting a range of bacteria and yeasts, indicating that it could be used in cosmetics to prevent bacterial or yeast growth. I use Calendula in all sorts of creams and oils to help heal up the skin, particularly on my accident-prone toddler!
Quite a few trials have focussed on the use of Calendula in mouthwashes for both mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth) and to prevent gingivitis (gum disease) and dental plaque. Both its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties will be useful here. I have found the tincture made with 90% alcohol and mixed with myrrh has great results on bleeding gums and mouth ulcers.
It can also be used on burns to help reduce the inflammation and speed up healing, and one study found that healing from burns was improved even when the Calendula was taken internally. This was thought to be due to promotion of new skin regrowth, and improved antioxidant defence mechanisms. This antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity when Calendula is taken internally may explain some of its traditional uses, such as the treatment of inflamed or enlarged lymph glands, painful menstruation and inflammation of the gall bladder.
As Calendula is anti-inflammatory and healing to the skin of the body and mouth, it also has the same effect on skin of the digestive tract, so can be helpful when there is gastritis or damage due to acid reflux. My son recently had a nasty stomach bug and a tea with Calendula along with some other soothing herbs such as marshmallow, liquorice and chamomile was very effective at reducing the pain and stopping him from vomiting.
So pick yourself some beautiful orange Calendula flowers and experiment with them in teas and on your skin.
If you are unsure whether Calendula is suitable for you and your skin, then check with a medical herbalist first. Some people do have allergies to plants that are members of the daisy family, which Calendula is, and if you are you should not use these plants internally or topically.
Chandran PK, Kuttan R: Effect of Calendula officinalis flower extract on acute phase proteins, antioxidant defense mechanism and granuloma formation during thermal burns. Clin Biochem Nutr 2008; 43(2): 58–64
Khairnar MS, Pawar B, Marawar PP, Mani A: Evaluation of Calendula officinalis as an anti-plaque and anti-gingivitis agent. 2013 17(6):741-7.
Shivasharan BD, Nagakannan P, Thippeswamy BS, Veerapur VP: Protective effect of Calendula officinalis L. flowers against monosodium glutamate induced oxidative stress and excitotoxic brain damage in rats. Indian J Clin Biochem 2013 28(3):292-8.
Herman A, Herman AP, Domagalska BW, Młynarczyk A:Essential oils and herbal extracts as antimicrobial agents in cosmetic emulsion. Indian J Microbiol 2013 53(2):232-7.
Arora D, Rani A, Sharma A: A review on phytochemistry and ethnopharmacological aspects of genus Calendula. Pharmacogn Rev 2013 7(14):179-187.
Mekinić IG1, Burcul F, Blazević I, Skroza D, Kerum D, Katalinić V: Antioxidative/acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity of some Asteraceae plants. Nat Prod Commun 2013 8(4):471-4.
Babaee N, Moslemi D, Khalilpour M, Vejdani F, Moghadamnia Y, Bijani A, Baradaran M, Kazemi MT, Khalilpour A, Pouramir M,Moghadamnia AA: Antioxidant capacity of calendula officinalis flowers extract and prevention of radiation induced oropharyngeal mucositis in patients with head and neck cancers: A randomized controlled clinical study. Daru. 2013 21(1):18.
Tanideh N, Tavakoli P, Saghiri MA, Garcia-Godoy F, Amanat D, Tadbir AA, Samani SM, Tamadon A: Healing acceleration in hamsters of oral mucositis induced by 5-fluorouracil with topical Calendula officinalis. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol Oral Radiol 2013 115(3):332-8.
Rose has been associated with love and romance for centuries. It looks, smells and tastes great, and is a beautiful remedy for a range of problems. The Greek poet Sapho named rose “the queen of flowers”, but herbalists know it as “a hug in a bottle” for its ability to uplift the soul.
It was used traditionally to strengthen the heart, for digestive and menstrual problems, for coughs, inflammation and to relieve grief, depression and nervous tension. Modern studies have found that rose tincture and essential oil between them have sedative, anti-anxiety, pain relieving, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and bronchodilatory effects.
Rose can be used in many different forms, as an infusion, tincture, aromatic water, essential oil or syrup. Roman women used to dust themselves with powdered rose petals to keep themselves looking beautiful. The aromatic water is particularly good to add to a beauty regime, as it is astringent and antibacterial, so is good for toning the skin and preventing spots and blemishes. The tincture or infusion can be taken internally for the anti-depressant, anxiolytic, sedative, pain relieving, antioxidant and anti-diabetic effects, while the syrup makes a lovely cough mixture and is also used in cooking for its fragrant taste. The essential oil can be used in cosmetics or oil burners for its uplifting effect on the spirit and great smell.
I use rose and geranium essential oils in my rose face cream and body lotion as I love the smell and they are great for spot-prone skin. It lets you capture the smell of a summer day in a rose garden when it’s cold and raining outside.
Boskabady MH, Shafei MN, Saberi Z, Amini S. Pharmacological effects of Rosa Damascena. Iran J Basic Med Sci 2011 14(4):295-307.
Predictably, lots of people I know are using a quiet January as a chance to detox. They are mainly just abstaining from alcohol, but some are also steering clear of sugar and fatty treats too. At the other end of the spectrum, there are detox diets that involve days of fasting then only drinking juices and water. But the question is, is it worth it?What is a detox and who needs to do it?
Detox, or detoxification, essentially means the removal of toxins from the system. Our bodies are built to do this themselves via the digestive system, liver, kidneys, and the skin. The more “toxins” that are ingested, the harder these organs have to work to get rid of them to prevent them doing damage. So if you have been eating a reasonable diet and drinking alcohol responsibly, and you generally feel well, it is likely that your organs are doing ok by themselves. However, if you have been over-indulging for a long period of time, you feel sluggish, tired and unwell, and/or your digestion is slow and not functioning very well, it is likely that your body could do with a bit of a break and some looking after.Why it might help
Fatty foods and alcohol put extra strain on your liver, as it has to produce more bile and enzymes, to emulsify all the fats and break down alcohol in your blood. Cutting out or significantly cutting down fried foods and alcohol will, a) give your liver a bit of a break and b) allow your tolerance to alcohol to decrease a bit. The problem with having a high tolerance to alcohol is that you end up drinking more to feel an effect, which causes more damage in your body. It’s also more expensive!
In more extreme detox diets, almost all fats and proteins are cut out and all your energy comes from fruit and vegetables. Cutting down protein will spare your stomach and pancreas from having to produce the chemicals necessary to break it down, and will lessen work carried out by the kidneys to remove any excess amino acids (protein building blocks) from the blood. However, protein is essential for growth and repair of the body, so restricting intake for a long period of time can lead to health problems. While reducing fat will spare the liver, it is essential for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and fat is needed for the production of hormones and healthy cells, so again, that isn’t sustainable for any length of time. The other problem with very low-fat and -protein diets is that you will be eating high levels of carbohydrates (which are essentially complex sugars), which have to be broken down by enzymes from the pancreas, and will lead to lots of sugars in the blood and greater demand for insulin to store it all away.
Comparisons of different diets usually come to the conclusion that a Mediterranean diet leads to greatest health, lots of fruit and vegetables, but also plenty of healthy poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats and protein from seafood, beans, nuts, seeds and pulses. So, ultimately, you are better off sticking to a healthy diet and cutting out unhealthy, high-sugar, deep fried food, than going the whole hog and subsisting on juices for a month.Herbs to help you along the way
If you have decided to cut out/down the alcohol and unhealthy foods for a while, you can help the whole detox process by adding some herbs in the form of teas or added to your food when cooking. There are lots of herbs that are used to help support different bodily organs and systems, which can aid detoxification. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is particularly great, as the leaves can be used to help support the kidneys (and act as a diuretic) and the roots promote liver activity. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and milk thistle (Carduus marianum) both help to boost phase II biotransformation in the liver (this is a step in the detoxification process that prevents build up of toxic chemicals). Milk thistle has also been found to have a protective effect on liver cells and improved liver function tests have been demonstrated in many clinical trials. Cleavers, or goose grass (Galium aparine), is known traditionally as a “blood cleanser”, which helps to boost elimination of toxins by supporting the lymphatic system. It has also been found to be high in antioxidant compounds. Finally, nettles are great to add into your detox support mix, as they help cleanse the body of uric acid, act as a mild diuretic, and are really high in vitamins and minerals.
My husband is currently studying permaculture, which means that every aspect of our lives is currently being assessed for how sustainable it is. The term permaculture comes from the words permanent and culture and it is a philosophy and design process that is inspired by natural ecosystems, which are more sustainable than the systems that modern life has been built on. The desired end point being a system that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and works efficiently with the minimum amount of maintenance work necessary.
As a herbalist, I have found it really interesting to think about how sustainable it is to use herbs for healthcare. While modern medicine is completely dependent on fossil fuels for the production and transportation of pharmaceutical drugs, herbal medicines can be wild-harvested, or grown in private or community gardens. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Many of us herbalists in the West have appropriated particularly useful herbs from the East, and while some can be cultivated here, it is hard or impossible to grow others and these are shipped in from abroad. I’d like to spend more time trying to find local herbs that can fill the shoes (or roots!) of some I depend on from China or India, but can’t grow here. It is more rewarding to grow herbs yourself rather than buying them from a wholesale company, it enables you to get to know the plants much better and encourages you out into nature, which is good for the soul.
Another aspect of herbal medicine that contributes to its sustainability and lives up to permaculture principles is its holistic approach to health – permaculture takes in every aspect of a system, and herbalism addresses the person as a whole. All aspects of a person’s life and wellbeing are assessed, including emotional wellbeing, lifestyle and diet. As many of these factors can contribute to good or ill health, addressing them is essential to achieving wellness. The herbs help to gently coax the body into better balance, while easing symptoms and supporting people as they work out how to live their life in the best way for them.
Many herbalists are interested in sustainability and permaculture and I can see why, there’s a natural connection.
Calendula (marigold)-based healing cream
Calendula promotes new tissue growth and is antimicrobial. You can use a Calendula-based cream or just directly apply Calendula tincture or infusion to affected areas. Add extra essential oils, such as tea tree, lavender and myrrh for fighting bacteria.
Aloe vera gel
For cooling burns, reducing inflammation, promoting skin healing, preventing infection and soothing irritated skin and rashes.
Comfrey- and/or arnica-based ointment/cream
For sprains, swellings, joint pain and over-used muscles. Add chilli oil and/or stimulating essential oils such as rosemary to boost circulation to the area. *Note – arnica should not be used on broken skin.*
Tea tree essential oil
This is antibacterial and antifungal and can be used neat in small areas on adults (dilute in sweet almond oil for use on larger areas or children). Dab onto spots, cuts, grazes, athletes foot and other fungal infections. It can be added to shampoo bases to discourage head lice.
Lavender essential oil
As well as being antibacterial and soothing on burns and insect bites, lavender is great for promoting sleep and relaxing the nervous system. Apply the essential oil neat to affected areas or put a few drops in a bath or on your pillow.
Slippery elm powder
For acid reflux, indigestion and gastritis. This nutritive powdered bark can be mixed with water and drunk to heal digestive membranes, quickly limit the pain from acid reflux and create an environment in the gut conducive to “good bacteria”. It can also be added to water to make a paste that will help to draw out splinters from the skin.
Elderberry syrup or tincture
To help speed up recovery from coughs and colds. Elderberry has been found to be effective against bacteria and viruses (including the H5N1 ‘flu virus).
The advice provided here is for general information and to help you treat minor illnesses and to promote health generally, if you have any doubt about the seriousness of your symptoms please consult a qualified medical herbalist or your GP.
People are always surprised to find out how effective some very familiar herbs can be. It’s a bit like finding out an old friend has actually been training for the olympics behind your back. Thyme is definitely one of those familiar friends who can surprise us by just how amazing they really are. → Read more
You can always tell a well-used plant by an abundance of common names and folklore stories about it. The herb yarrow (or Achillea millefolium) definitely falls into this category. It has been suggested that it got its Latin name from Achilles of Greek mythology using it to stop the bleeding of his soldiers, → Read more