Nov 30, 2012

Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum)

      The familiar hot chile pepper, cayenne has a host of medicinal uses. Although usually considered a circulatory and digestive stimulant, cayenne has respiratory benefits as well. In addition to having a tonic and warming effect on the entire body, cayenne has expectorant properties and helps relieve winter colds, congestion and inflammation.

      Because it combines well with other herbs, cayenne makes an effective catalyst that enhances its companions' medicinal properties. The most comfortable way to take cayenne pepper is in capsules. For best results, take cayenne capsules with plenty of food and water. The first few times you do so, you may experience a burning sensation in the chest or stomach. To avoid this, take peppermint tea at the same time, eat an apple, drink apple juice or simply take cayenne pepper more often.
     The cayenne capsules sold in health food stores are of low to medium heat strength, so they are safe for most people to take several times daily. Adventurous herbalists experiment with their own blends of Scotch bonnets, Thai chiles, African birdseye and other really hot peppers in capsules. For an excellent and entertaining book about the adventures of one man who credits cayenne pepper with saving his life, read Left for Dead by Dick Quinn.

Nov 29, 2012

Calamus Root or Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus)

       An aromatic bitter, demulcent and antispasmodic, sweet flag or calamus root is widely used in Europe for indigestion, but it is also an important herb for those who want to quit smoking. Chewing the dried root stimulates saliva and has a calming effect on the respiratory tract. In her encyclopedic Modern Herbal, Mrs. M. Grieves wrote, "The rhizome is largely used in native Oriental medicines for dyspepsia and bronchitis and chewed as a cough lozenge." Calamus root is recommended for smokers because it stimulates salivation while having a tonic effect on the mucous membrane lining of the mouth and throat.

      Calamus root was featured on the FDA's List of Unsafe Herbs, which was discontinued years ago because of its inaccuracies, and it is still listed in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations as prohibited from direct addition to or use in human food. The controversy over calamus root stems from its asarone, a compound found to be carcinogenic in laboratory rats when taken in large quantities. Dr. Rudolf Weiss, the German authority on herbal medicine, wrote that calamus root has been popular from antiquity and is still widely used in Europe today without any reports of it causing cancer or any other problems.

       In The New Age Herbalist, Richard Mabey wrote that rhizomes from Europe have low concentrations of asarone compared with those from India, and no cases of malignancy have been reported in mill and mine workers who chew the rhizome daily. A conservative approach is to verify the source of calamus root and use this highly effective herb for short periods when needed. The volatile oils in calamus root are so fragile that Maria Treben recommended brewing calamus tea with cold water. Those same volatile oils, when released by steam, can be a pleasant, soothing, aromatic therapy for upper respiratory congestion. Pour boiling water over calamus root and inhale its sweet, spicy vapors. Because few health food stores carry calamus root, it may have to be ordered from an herb company. The rhizome has many aromatherapy uses and can be used as a sachet to scent sheets, pillowcases and clothing. It is also a popular ingredient in potpourris.

Nov 28, 2012

The Herbal Pharmacy

      BLOODROOT (Sanguinaria canadensis).

      Few Americans recognize its name, but millions start their day with it, for Sanguinaria extract is the active ingredient in Viadent toothpaste and mouthwash. A native American plant, bloodroot is a powerful expectorant that relaxes bronchial muscles. Because it helps clear chronic congestion of the lungs, it is a specific for bronchitis and emphysema; in addition, it supports the treatment of laryngitis, asthma and croup. Bloodroot is an ingredient in some herbal blends designed to treat these illnesses, and the dried rhizome can be purchased separately as a tea or tincture.

     Bloodroot's potential toxicity is its only drawback. Although no cases of poisoning have been reported, even small doses have resulted in headaches, nausea and vomiting. James Duke, Ph.D., the widely respected and recently retired botanical expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nibbled a small piece and experienced tunnel vision. David Hoffmann recommends a maximum of 3 cups of tea daily, made as a decoction from 1 teaspoon dried rhizome, or no more than 1/4 teaspoon tincture 3 times a day. As with any herb, Page 62 discontinue use if you experience discomfort. Consult an herbalist or healthcare professional before giving bloodroot preparations to children.

Nov 27, 2012


    Most of the herbs recommended for respiratory conditions are safe to take in teas, tinctures, syrups, capsules, tablets or lozenges several times daily for several days or weeks at a time. Note the safety issues raised about bloodroot, coltsfoot, comfrey, lobelia and calamus root and the potential side effects of Ma huang and licorice root, all of which are discussed in the following section.

    The tincture doses that appear on the labels of dropper bottles sold in health food stores, usually measured in drops, are insufficient for most acute conditions in adult humans. Also, many commercially prepared tinctures are weaker and less concentrated than those you can make at home, either because the proportion of alcohol to herbs is higher, creating a more dilute solution; because the tinctures are made quickly, allowing insufficient time for complete extraction; or because the quality of the raw materials is inferior. Because concentration and quality vary among tinctures, just as the people who take them vary in size, weight and physical condition, it is impossible to specify a single dosage for best results.
      If you don't notice improvement after taking a tincture as directed, you probably need more. As noted earlier, herbalists such as Rosemary Gladstar recommend teaspoon-sized doses of tinctures, not 7 to 15 drops at a time as many labels suggest. Of course, a one-ounce bottle won't last long if you take it a teaspoon at a time, which is why it makes sense to make your own.

Nov 26, 2012

Oil Infusions

    To make an oil infusion, such as an oil for treating ear infections or an aromatic rub to relieve chest congestion, you can use the stove, an oven or the sun (solar infusion). Fresh chopped garlic and fresh or dried mullein blossoms are traditional ingredients in ear oils. Use either or any combination of both. For an aromatic chest rub oil, use any combination of fresh or dried wintergreen, eucalyptus, peppermint, whole cayenne pepper pods, whole mustard seed, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves or cracked whole nutmegs.

     Cover the plant material with olive oil and heat it gently in the top of a double boiler above simmering water or in a closed glass jar set on a rack in a pan of simmering water for one to two hours or longer. If using dry herbs, additional oil may be needed as the plant matter absorbs it. Use enough oil to cover the herbs well but not so much that your result is weak and ineffective. Start with 2 cups oil to 1 cup dried herbs and adjust the proportions as desired.

     Fresh herbs will absorb less liquid, so simply cover them with oil. To make a solar infusion, which is my favorite method, let fresh plant material wilt slightly to reduce water content, use a clean jar, loosely pack the jar with fresh herbs (fill the jar half full if using dried herbs), then fill it to the top with oil, clean the top of the jar well so that no oil or plant material interferes with a tight seal when you put the lid on and leave the jar outside in the sun for several weeks or months.

     When ready to use, strain through cheesecloth and add a few drops of tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract as a disinfecting preservative. If you're making an aromatic chest rub, add a few drops of decongesting eucalyptus oil as well. Store in amber glass bottles (use an eye dropper bottle for ear oil) away from heat and light. Label with ingredients and date of preparation. Stored correctly, oils can last for years, though most herbalists prefer to make them annually for maximum freshness. Note that these oils are for external use only. Discard any oil that becomes rancid.

Nov 23, 2012

Compresses and Fomentations

      A compress is an application of cold herbal tea on a saturated towel, diaper or thick cloth. Use medicinal strength infusions or decoctions for this purpose. To treat a fever, chill a strong peppermint tea, then soak the cloth and wring it just until it stops dripping.
     The compress should be wet enough to stay cold for several minutes. When it warms to body temperature, soak it again, adding ice as needed to keep the tea cold. Repeat until the treatment has lasted 15 to 20 minutes. Dry the skin gently. Chamomile tea bags are an example of cold compresses. For sore or swollen eyes, brew strong chamomile tea using two or more teabags and just enough boiling water to cover them. Let stand, covered, until cool; add ice or store in the freezer or refrigerator until cold. Then lie down, relax and place a saturated tea bag over each eye. Alternatively, brew strong chamomile tea, strain it through cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter, chill it, then saturate cotton makeup-removal pads, cotton balls, a washcloth, cheesecloth or other fabric and apply the compress. Repeat as desired to relieve the itchy swelling of eyes during hay fever, colds or allergies.

     A fomentation is a hot compress. Fomentations increase circulation and help clear respiratory congestion. Wearing rubber gloves, saturate a thick cloth with strong, hot, strained tea; wring it gently, then unfold it to let it cool slightly. You don't want it to burn or scald, but for best results it must be as hot as possible. Test the temperature against your inner arm. When it's hot but not too hot, apply it to the desired area and cover with a thick folded towel to retain heat. Re peat after 5 or 10 minutes. For best results, reapply for 15 to 30 minutes. Obviously, this and any other treatment should be discontinued if the person becomes uncomfortable or if the skin becomes irritated.

   A strong decoction of fresh grated ginger can be applied to the sinus area to clear congestion. For extra benefit, try adding a pinch of powdered mustard or a few drops of eucalyptus, wintergreen or tea tree oil.

Nov 22, 2012

Poultices and Plasters

      A poultice is a wet herbal pack applied directly to an inflamed, irritated, swollen, infected or injured part of the body. While poultices are often made of fresh mashed herbs, they can also be made of the residue left after brewing tea.
     Poultices are usually applied cool rather than hot. Some herbalists recommend spreading a thin layer of olive oil or castor oil before applying the plant material. Use whatever will hold the poultice in place for several hours: bandages, plastic wrap, cheesecloth, muslin, etc. An elastic elbow brace or knee bandage can hold a poultice in place on arms and lower legs. A layer of plastic over the poultice helps prevent fabric stains.
    A plaster is a dry poultice made by spreading dry powdered herbs, or a thick paste made by adding a small amount of water over cotton or muslin fabric. Additional fabric is spread over the skin to protect it, as most of the herbs used for plasters can be irritating to the skin, such as mustard or cayenne. The plaster is held in place for several minutes, then lifted so the skin can be checked, and replaced if the skin isn't irritated. Plasters increase circulation and help clear congestion.

Nov 21, 2012


       Herbal capsules are widely sold and, if you need a special blend of herbs into capsules, some of the mail order herb companies blend and encapsulate custom orders for a nominal fee. Or you can put your own herbs in capsules. For best results, leave dried herbs whole or in large pieces until needed, to preserve their essential oils and medicinal properties.

     Herbs should be stored away from heat and light in well-sealed glass containers for maximum shelf life. When ready to use, grind them in a blender or spice grinder until they are powdered. To reduce exposure to herb dust, which can irritate nasal passages, wear a pollen mask. Two-part gelatin capsules, including vegetable gelatin capsules for vegetarians, are widely sold in health food stores and herb catalogs in sizes ranging from 0 (largest) to 00 and 000 (smallest).
      Many herbal companies sell mechanical capping devices that hold several capsules in place for faster and easier filling.

Nov 20, 2012


       To make a tincture, which is a concentrated alcohol extract, fill a glass jar 1/3 to 1/2 full with fresh or dried herbs that you have cut or shredded into small pieces. Cover the herbs with 80-proof or higher proof vodka, rum, brandy or grain alcohol, with a few inches of alcohol above the plant matter. Cover tightly and place in a warm location.

      Check the jar every day or two, shaking it as you do so. As dried herbs absorb the liquid, add more alcohol. (Some recipes call for 1 part plant matter to 4 parts alcohol, but using less alcohol or more plant material results in a more concentrated, medicinal tincture.) Let the tincture stand for three or four weeks before filtering. Some herbalists recommend straining and bottling tinctures at the full moon. There is no specific deadline; a tincture left for two months will be more potent than one left for two weeks.

      Strain the tincture through cheesecloth or muslin, pressing out as much liquid as possible before discarding the spent plant material.
     Alcohol tinctures have an indefinite shelf life. Stored in amber glass jars away from heat and light, they last for decades. For an even more concentated tincture, pour your filtered tincture into a jar containing new plant material and repeat the process. Small quantities of this ''double-strength'' tincture will have a powerful medicinal effect. There is much confusion about tincture dosage, a misunderstanding that herbalist Rosemary Gladstar attributes to the caution of small companies marketing tinctures in the 1960s. "The only similar products were homeopathic preparations," she explains, "and their doses are measured in drops.

      Herbal tinctures are entirely different, and they should be taken by the half-teaspoon, teaspoon or tablespoon, not by the drop." Anyone buying, making or taking herbal tinctures should know that disappointing results may not be caused by a tincture's herbal ingredients but rather by doses that are entirely too small. A few herbs should be taken in small doses, but most of the tinctures mentioned here are safe and effective in larger doses.

    Tinctures can be taken straight or diluted in tea, water or fruit juice. If you prefer not to use alcohol in tincture making, vegetable glycerine can be substituted, or you can mix glycerine with alcohol.

    Glycerine does not dissolve all of the medicinal constituents that alcohol extracts, but it is widely used in tinctures, especially for children. Glycerine adds a sweet taste and syrupy texture to tinctures. Cider vinegar can be used to make alcohol-free tinctures, though their shelf life is shorter than glycerine or alcohol tinctures and vinegar does not dissolve as many substances within the herbs.

Nov 12, 2012


      To brew a tea of fresh or dried leaves or blossoms, use 1 to 2 teaspoons dry herb or 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh herb per cup of water.

    Bring the water to a boil, pour it over the herbs, cover the teapot or container with a lid and let it stand undisturbed for 10 minutes.

    This type of tea is called an infusion. Some plants are so delicate that herbalists recommend using cold instead of hot water, a brewing process that requires several hours. To make a cold-water infusion, shred or chop the plant material before placing it in a small but roomy muslin bag or folded cotton handkerchief. Tie the fabric with string so that the herbs don't escape, but leave enough space inside for water to circulate.

     Dampen the herbs with cold water as you fill a quart jar, and when you close the jar, suspend the bag near the top. Leave the jar undisturbed overnight. As plant material is extracted by the water, solids fall to the bottom of the jar, creating a rising current that moves through the herbs. This is the most effective type of cold infusion you can make.

       Alternatively, simply mix plant material with cold water in any container and let it stand overnight. In the morning, strain the tea and heat it slightly, just enough to warm it, before serving. To brew a decotion (boiled tea) from roots, bark or other hard, woody material, use the quantities given above and place the herbs and cold water in a stainless steel pan, cover and heat to the boiling point. Lower the heat, simmer the tea for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand another 5 minutes before straining and serving.

     Medicinal herbs can be sweetened with honey to improve their taste, or you can add flavors such as black cherry concentrate or fresh ginger or a pinch of stevia, the sweet herb widely used as a sugar substitute. Most herbalists recommend taking medicinal teas straight, with no added flavors or sweeteners. Add a pinch of unrefined, unprocessed sea salt to herbal teas when treating sinus or chest congestion or a sore throat.

Nov 9, 2012

Herbs for the Pulmonary System

     There are many ways to classify herbs, which is why the vocabulary of herbalists is so rich with descriptive terms like expectorant, demulcent, stimulant and nervine. Here are the categories that deal with respiratory conditions. Anticatarrhal herbs heal the chronic inflammation of respiratory mucous membranes. They prevent the buildup of excess mucus. Examples include cayenne pepper, sage, goldenseal, mullein, ginger, echinacea and garlic.

      Antispasmodic herbs relax cramping muscles.

      Pulmonary antispasmodics have a special affinity for the respiratory system and are most helpful in treating asthma. Lobelia and wild cherry bark are examples. Demulcent herbs are by definition soothing. They coat irritated, inflamed tissue with mucilage and reduce coughing by relaxing bronchial tension. Examples include Iceland moss, lungwort, plantain and pleurisy root. Expectorant herbs stimulate the removal of mucus from the lungs, and they often have a tonic effect on the whole respiratory system. Some expectorants work by irritating the bronchioles, speeding the ejection of mucoid material; others work by relaxing or soothing bronchial passages, reducing spasms and relieving dry, irritating coughs.

       Stimulating expectorants include horehound and elecampane; relaxing expectorants include coltsfoot, lobelia and mullein. Nervines are relaxing herbs that strengthen and nourish the nervous system. They are useful in treating asthma and hay fever, and they help anyone suffering from a respiratory problem that prevents rest and sleep. Hyssop, motherwort and lobelia are respiratory nervines. Tonic herbs nurture the system and help the body correct whatever is out of balance. Pulmonary tonics offer special benefits to the lungs and respiratory system; examples include elecampane and mullein. A specific for a particular condition is an herb known for its beneficial effects, such as mullein or lobelia for asthma or Ma huang (ephedra) for hay fever. Specifics can be used alone or combined with other herbs, in which case they act as the blend's active ingredient.

Nov 8, 2012

Herbal Preparations

There are many ways to take herbs: in teas, capsules, tablets, syrups, lozenges and tinctures, not to mention all their external applications, like compresses, poultices, washes and steam inhalations. For best results, use herbs that were grown organically or wildcrafted, then dried at low temperature to maintain their flavor, color, essential oils and other properties. See the appendix for a list of herbal tea companies that specialize in high quality medicinal herbs. If you are new to herbal medicine, remember that the recipes given here and in herbal reference books are flexible and forgiving. If you can't obtain an ingredient, find an appropriate substitute. Quantities are flexible, too. As you gain experience, you will be able to develop your own recipes. As you do so, be sure to refer to two or three different herbal references for information about each plant so that you have a clear understanding of its benefits, potential side effects and special requirements.

Nov 7, 2012

Sore Throat

       The pain of a sore throat makes any illness worse. One traditional treatment is to gargle with salt water or a strong herbal tea several times a day, spitting the gargle solution out without swallowing. Add a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water or warm tea for this purpose. If you can sing and gargle at the same time, the soothing liquid will contact more throat surface. Licorice root tea soothes throat soreness and reduces pain. Simmer 1 tablespoon licorice root in 3 cups water, covered, for 10-15 minutes.

     Drink one cup three times daily unless you have high blood pressure or edema (fluid retention). Gargling with licorice root tea does not cause side effects. Hot sage tea is a popular European remedy for sore throats. Steep 1 or 2 teaspoons dried sage leaves or 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh sage in 1 cup boiling water, covered, for 10 minutes. Sip slowly or add salt and gargle. Horseradish mixed with honey, water and ground cloves is an old Russian remedy for sore throat. Mix 1 tablespoon grated fresh horseradish, 1 teaspoon honey and 1 teaspoon ground cloves in a glass of warm water until blended. Stir often and sip slowly or use as a gargle.
       Capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne peppers, is so effective at preventing pain that it is used to treat the mouth sores of people taking chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancers of the head and neck. Researchers at Yale University developed a chile pepper taffy for patients with mouth lesions resulting from orthodox cancer treatments and it works as well for throat pain brought on by colds or flu.

      The following recipe was published in the May 1996 issue of Chile Pepper magazine. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup light corn syrup, 2/3 cup water, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 2 tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon salt.

      Cook over medium heat to the hard ball stage (265 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer, or until a small amount dropped into very cold water forms a hard ball). Remove from heat, stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon powdered cayenne pepper and pour into a buttered pan. When it's cool enough to handle (this part is easier with two people), lightly butter your hands and pull the taffy until it is satiny, light in color and stiff. Pull it into long strips 1/2-inch wide and cut the strips into 1-inch pieces. Wrap pieces individually in waxed paper and store them in an airtight container. This recipe makes about a pound of taffy. Of course, you can adapt the recipe, substituting 2/3 cup strong herbal tea for the water, using any throat-friendly herb.

Nov 6, 2012

Sinus Congestion

       A symptom of hay fever allergies and colds or flu, sinus congestion makes breathing difficult. Chronic sinusitis sometimes follows these illnesses, causing a dull ache around the eyes and face.

     To relieve sinus congestion, rinse the nasal passages with a solution of warm water and unrefined sea salt. Swimming in the ocean is one way to relieve congestion; another is to create the same effect while standing over the bathroom sink.
     Hand-held ceramic containers with long spouts have become popular for this purpose; see the Neti Pot in the appendix. Similar designs are available in some health food stores and catalogs. If you can't find a Neti Pot, ask your pharmacist for a nasal douche apparatus or simply hold salt water in your hand and sniff it up one nostril while you hold the other closed.

     The more salt water that irrigates sinus passages, the greater the relief. Use enough so that the water drains out through your mouth, washing away debris as it does. To disinfect as you rinse, add a few drops of grapefruit seed or citrus seed extract to the salt solution. Grapefruit seed extract kills bacteria, viruses, yeasts, molds, parasites, fungi and other pathogens on contact.

     Another therapy recommended by naturopaths is to rinse the nasal passages with goldenseal tea. Be sure the tea is warm, not hot, and add a pinch of salt to make the rinsing more comfortable and effective. Alternatively, add a pinch of salt to warm sage or thyme tea.

     Facial steam baths help clear sinus passages and allow free breathing. This therapy can be as simple as holding your head over a steaming bowl of chicken soup when you have a cold. If you have a facial sauna, sold in beauty supply shops and some pharmacies, plug it in and inhale.
     For an aromatherapy treatment, pour boiling water into a bowl to which you have added a few drops of congestion-relieving essential oils, such as eucalyptus, sage, rosemary, ginger or tea tree oil, or use chamomile tea. Make a tent of a large towel to cover your head and the bowl, then breathe the medicated steam for several minutes. Keep your head well above the bowl to prevent scalding, and come out for air as necessary.

Nov 5, 2012


        An inflammation of the larynx or vocal cords, larynigitis causes hoarseness and, in serious cases, loss of voice.

       The best treatments for laryngitis are silence (don't even try to talk) and the passage of time. Steam treatments like those used for sinusitis are recommended. In addition, gargle with sage tea or salt water. The relaxing nervines, especially lobelia, oatstraw and chamomile, soothe frazzled nerves as well as inflamed tissue.

Nov 2, 2012


       Now known officially as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, emphysema often accompanies chronic bronchitis. It is caused by a lack of elasticity in the lungs, usually due to constant coughing. When the lungs cannot expand and contract with ease, it is difficult breathe. Emphysema often brings a distinctive deep wheezing that interrupts conversation and physical movement. It is so debilitating that it ranks third among the diseases for which Social Security gives disability benefits. Patients often have a history of heavy smoking or live in areas of high air pollution.

      The herbal treatments for emphysema are similar to those for asthma, with an added emphasis on nutritional support for the immune system. See the suggestions for asthma therapy. Some physicians prescribe a low-carbohydrate diet because sweets, simple carbohydrates and sugar tend to worsen emphysema symptoms.

       In 1992 British researchers published a double-blind, randomized crossover study to test the effects of fats and carbohydrates on emphysema. They found that small dietary changes in the balance of carbohydrates to fats affected exercise tolerance and breathlessness significantly.

      The more carbohydrates the patients consumed, the worse their symptoms. Vitamins C and E, magnesium and bioflavonids are important supplements for those with emphysema and so are omega-3 fish oils. In 1994, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a study of nearly 9,000 smokers and former smokers that showed the more fish they ate, the less chance they had of developing emphysema. Smoking is a major cause of emphysema.

     The relaxing expectorant herbs lobelia and coltsfoot can be helpful in treating emphysema, as can bloodroot and elecampane. For example, a tea made of equal parts coltsfoot, lobelia and the soothing demulcent herbs mullein and Irish moss may help reduce coughing and shortness of breath. Add an equal amount of licorice root if high blood pressure and fluid retention are not a problem. Use 1 to 2 teaspoons tea per cup of boiling water; brew 4 cups at a time in a quart jar for convenience, reheat as desired and sip throughout the day.

Nov 1, 2012


     Aching ears aren't really a respiratory condition, but earaches often accompany colds, hay fever or allergy attacks and sinus infections. They are especially common in small children, and children treated with antibiotics usually suffer recurring infections.

    If treated at the onset of symptoms such as rubbing the ears, irritability, fussiness or complaints of ear pain, infections can be avoided. Buy or make an ear oil using olive oil, garlic and/or mullein flowers. Warm the oil to a comfortable temperature and drop a few drops down each ear 6 to 10 times daily. Warm oil is the most widely recommended therapy for ear pain. Because diet is so often implicated in ear infections, Rosemary Gladstar recommends that all congestion-causing foods be avoided (her list includes eggs, dairy, wheat and sugar in all forms) by infected children and their nursing mothers.

     Any relaxing tea, such as chamomile or oatstraw, will be helpful, as are teas containing infection-fighting herbs such as echinacea and goldenseal.